United States Presidential legacies are often framed in reference to their influence or consequence. Abraham Lincoln is remembered for his moral authority, Franklin D. Roosevelt for his economic management and John F. Kennedy for his skills in public persuasion. At the close of 2020, the legacy of Donald Trump’s Presidency is still in formation and likely will be for years to come. Twelve months ago, in last year's Young Diplomats Society’s Special Edition, I wrote that trials of impeachment and the economic repercussions of the US-China trade war would define Trump’s Presidency and would become the defining issues of the 2020 election. Yet by early 2020, impeachment was viewed as a distraction by the Democratic presidential nominees and the US-China trade war felt like a distant memory, despite its lasting ramifications.
Perhaps Trump's true legacy will be the magnitudinal shift in political norms he has left in his wake. This has been exemplified most potently in 2020 by the President’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his refusal to accept defeat against Joe Biden in the November 2020 election. This piece will focus on the latter and show how, by disregarding presidential norms, Trump’s legacy as a bombastic political agitator will be enshrined.
Prior to World War II, presidential transitions were relatively informal. The president-elect usually remained in their old role until mere days before their inauguration and were not expected to enter office with a legislative agenda. Meanwhile, the incumbent ‘lame duck’ Presidents (as all were before the introduction of a two four-year term limit in 1947) would continue to govern and generally accomplish little. However, two presidential transitions in the 20th century give us an insight, and perhaps a warning, into the contentious transition playing out today.
President Herbert Hoover’s landslide loss to Roosevelt in 1932 was the first. Taking place during the height of the Great Depression, the ‘lame duck’ Hoover tried repeatedly to persuade Roosevelt to abandon the New Deal, insisting that economic recovery was already underway. Animosity grew until inauguration day with Hoover refusing to support the early implementation of Roosevelt’s agenda and talks between both men repeatedly breaking down.
Forty-five years on, Jimmy Carter’s transition in 1977 would set the precedent for decades to come. As the demands on the executive branch increased throughout the 20th century, the once informal transition became a behemoth of administrative work involving thousands of civil servants and political professionals. The incoming Carter administration began its work early, recruiting key administrative personnel and selecting cabinet members. At the end of Carter’s single term presidency, Ronald Reagan’s administration was afforded the same benefits of early access to information and an obliging incumbent despite Reagan's clear intentions to reverse the ideological direction of the federal government.
A New Direction?
The situation in 2020 echo’s the past in many respects. In the midst of both the dual public health and economic crises resulting from the pandemic and like Roosevelt, President-Elect Biden cannot afford to wait until his inauguration to begin dealing with these issues. He must open a dialogue with the outgoing administration. Similarly, Biden does not have the luxury of Presidents past to assume office without a legislative agenda and like Carter, is assuming control of an immense executive branch and has already announced key cabinet picks and White House staff.
At the time of writing, President Trump has refused to concede to Biden but permitted his team to begin working with the incoming administration. While enough states have certified their results to secure Biden’s election win, Trump still has legal avenues to pursue. However 26 of Trump's 38 legal bids to overturn or alter the result of the election have been denied, dismissed, settled or withdrawn.
Protracted legal stouches are not entirely unknown in the US General Election and losing presidential candidates have not always been forthcoming with their concessions. Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes took two weeks to congratulate incumbent Woodrow Wilson after a close race in 1916. More recently in 2000, Democrat Al Gore conceded to George W. Bush on election night before retracting his concession once the race tightened.
Trump stands on the brink of history. No presidential candidate in US history has refused to concede defeat once all the votes and legal challenges have been resolved. In a move one step closer to concession, Trump announced on November 27 that if the electoral college result was certified for Biden he would leave office, stating: “certainly I will”, whilst adding, “and you know that if they do, they’ve made a mistake.” Pressed on the issue of Trump not leaving, the Biden campaign said: “the United States Government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House”.
Trump has already sown the seed of doubt amongst his supporters despite no evidence of fraud. A Politico poll conducted in November 2020 reported that 70 per cent of Republicans say the election wasn’t ‘free and fair’. Perhaps that is all he needs. Just as was the case with his portrayal of Hillary Clinton, his impeachment trial and his messaging around coronavirus, Trump is incredibly persuasive to his base. Ultimately, the Trump Presidency has shown that through politics, personality and persuasion the truth can be easily obscured long enough and well enough to distract from the real issues.
Trump may well intend to concede this election and remain politically active, either through the rumoured launch of his own TV station or another Presidential run in 2024, or both. By breaking with presidential precedent one last time during this transition period, Trump has rallied his base, divided the nation and damped his own downfall as he always does. The question that remains is whether Trump’s legacy will be an isolated presidential phenomenon or an example other presidential candidates will aspire to in pursuit of the White House.
This article was originally published in YDS' end of year Special Edition, '2020'. The Special Edition can be accessed here.
Declan Curtin is the North American Regional Correspondent for YDS. He is currently studying the Juris Doctor at Melbourne University and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in international politics and history. He has a keen interest in public law and its role in international relations.