Donald Trump and the search for virtue in defeat

Chris Wallace: “Do you make the …commitment that you will absolutely — sir, that you will absolutely accept the result of this election?”

Donald Trump: “I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now.”

Chris Wallace: “One of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power… Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?”

Donald Trump: “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. Okay?”

***

There is no virtue in losing, in and of itself. With the exception of the Chicago Cubs, we don’t write epic poetry in praise of defeat.

Losing is a painful, humiliating experience. If you are a politician who has spent the better part of two years in front of adoring crowds, defeat – even the prospect of it – is a punch in the gut.

But perhaps we have forgotten that virtue can be found in how a person responds to a thrashing, or the prospect of it. Which seems strange to say in the South, given that Robert E. Lee became a cult figure in large part for his courtly decorum at Appomattox Court House.

It may be that Mr. Trump brings out the quarrelsome New Yorker in us all.

When he began the above exchange during Wednesday’s presidential debate in Las Vegas, Chris Wallace of Fox News was making the larger point established by George Washington and others at the outset of this democratic republic. Our status as an exceptional nation is based on the willingness of those who would be our leaders to bow to the people who rule them. And to leave the scene, voluntarily and with a minimum of fuss, when the verdict dictates.

This is not a liberal tradition or a conservative one. It is simply the tradition that makes us who we are. There was only one correct answer to Wallace’s question, and Trump didn’t offer it.

The Republican nominee’s supporters argue that their candidate merely wanted to pump up interest in the Nov. 8 outcome, as any reality TV star might. But hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops abroad, armadas in several oceans, and thousands of nuclear missiles at the ready say this is no topic that requires more suspense.

Wallace had been aiming at Trump’s many assertions that this election is “rigged,” and the GOP nominee’s accompanying statements that “I alone can fix it.”

Men who claim to have magic wrenches and wizard-approved screwdrivers often see nothing but a deep black hole beyond their own defeat — and require us to see the same abyss. But there can be life, even goodness, after losing. In fact, we have a monument to the virtue of defeat here in Atlanta.

When President Jimmy Carter lost his re-election to Ronald Reagan in 1980, even his own state soured on him. He had disappointed the home folks. But I can almost pinpoint the day we revised our opinion, when we began to see the value that could be weaved out of defeat.

In 1990, President Daniel Ortega Saavedra had agreed to allow free elections in Nicaragua. He had been part of the leftist junta that had overthrown the country’s U.S.-backed dictator years earlier.

That February, Carter led a delegation of election-watchers. The returns began to flow in, and it quickly became clear that Ortega would lose. This was no small thing. Guns were still plentiful on all sides. From a report written several months later and lodged at the Carter Center:

“Carter urged President Ortega to make a statement before the morning news programs and to take credit for the democratic election and the achievements of the revolution, while also acknowledging that he was losing and reaffirming his respect for the results.”

As I recall, in his conversations with Ortega, Carter cited his own loss as an example of how a democracy should work. Ortega took the advice, bloodshed was avoided, and a precedent was set – albeit in a far-from-perfect democracy. Ortega was re-elected president in 2007 and 2011.

I was interested in more detail, but most of us can’t simply pick up the phone and call up Jimmy Carter. So I punched up the cell phone of his grandson, Jason, the ex-state senator and former Democratic candidate for governor.

“You’ll never guess where I am,” the younger Carter said.

I couldn’t, so he told me. Jason Carter was in South Africa, in the village of Lochiel, where he had once been a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer. Carter now chairs the board of trustees for the Carter Center, and was there on business.

Specifically, he was there for a conference sponsored by the Institute for Sustaining Democracy in Africa. “One of the most important things we have been doing here is emphasizing how important it is to accept the results of elections,” Jason Carter said.

The Las Vegas debate had occurred at 3 a.m. South African time. “It was an embarrassing experience to be an American here after last night’s debate,” Carter admitted.

Nigerians at the conference had been particularly sharp in their teasing. One of the attendees was Goodluck Jonathan, the former president of Nigeria, who lost an election last year. Jonathan conceded defeat, and thus became the first sitting Nigerian president to do so. A hero, in fact.

“Nigerians have been saying they have better politicians than Americans,” Carter said.

We talked some about his grandfather, Ortega and Nicaragua. “It helps to be able to sit beside someone and say, ‘I’ve had to make that call,’” he said.

Jason Carter, of course, can say the same thing at conferences intended to grow democracies. He lost to Republican incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal in 2014.

That call was probably difficult, I theorized. “Not really,” the younger Carter said. “It’s so different. Deal was someone who cared about our state.”

In other words, a belief in the good intentions of the opposition matters. Finding virtue in defeat can be easier when one acknowledges the virtue on the other side.

Reader Comments 0

15 comments
David K Wilson
David K Wilson

Harping on a dead horse much? Your bias is showing again.

Ted Jones
Ted Jones

Hillary lost 22 states against a little dried up munchkin, and the prof that the primary was still rigged. Hillary also won a primary on a coin toss. And Trump went head to head with 16 other people. And you think Hillary Clinton is going to win. REALLY.

Liz Bracey
Liz Bracey

Honey, you need to take a reality check. Even today Rove said publicly he doesn't see a win happening. Check 538. I'm just trying ot soften the devastating blow you have coming. heh

Ted Jones
Ted Jones

I will be glad to buy you some TUCKS MEDICATED PAD FOR YOU BOTH WHEN IT'S ALL OVER.

Marty Middleton
Marty Middleton

Why cheating isn't the right thing to do! Al Gore wasn't very graceful so stop with this cwap!

Marty Middleton
Marty Middleton

Jenn Gardner he took it to the Supreme Court! Just saying the holier than thou defense doesn't work here!

Jenn Gardner
Jenn Gardner

Lol the "Al Gore did it first!" defense. The media prematurely called the election for Bush. 4 counties in Florida had not fully tallied their ballots yet. On election night, Gore conceded to Bush. After that, the electoral said the race was too close to call, especially in Dade County. Results within a certain margin require a manual hand recount. Gore rescinded his concession and for six weeks a manual recount took place. Bush sued to have it halted. The Supreme Court decided to certify the election results in favor of Bush and Gore conceded once again.

Neal Wilson
Neal Wilson

Trump is doing the right thing about not giving a yes answer.

Sandra Dale Sikes
Sandra Dale Sikes

So what do you think about the lawsuit Al Gore filed when he lost? Or what about Hillary the Hun's indignation in 2000 when she said Bush was "appointed" ... oh, wait, Gore and Clinton are Democrats, so their response was okay......and now Hillary the Hun has be me even more corrupt with more federal agencies engaging in corruption, actively protecting the most corrupt, treasonous, lying hypocrite ever to run for office.....

Michael Ferrari
Michael Ferrari

Sorry but in this case where there is an obvious criminal running any concession would not be warranted...graceful or graceless. The witch should be in prison already..

weetamoe
weetamoe

Hillary sees no virtue in the other side. She has declared maledicti the very souls of voters who oppose her candidacy. It will be impossible for her to govern justly having condemned a significant number of Americans as beyond redemption.