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PAUL DeMARCO: Losing well is critical to democracy

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After losing the Republican primary on June 14, Tom Rice posted the following on Facebook:

“My friends, Russell Fry and Donald Trump soundly whooped me tonight. I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for the privilege of serving you for the last nine years. I truly love the Grand Strand and Pee Dee! The best part of the job is all of the wonderful people I’ve met. I am so very proud of how far we’ve come. I wish you freedom, prosperity, and happiness. God‘s blessings to you.”

None of us like to lose. But Americans still expect that losers will be gracious. A losing coach who walks off the field without acknowledging the winner will receive a viral upbraiding. We are careful to ensure that our T-ballers and soccer mites line up and shake hands at the end of every game.

Sports would likely survive, albeit in an uglier and less healthy form, if we dispensed with such pleasantries. The same is not true of democracy, which depends on good losers.

American political campaigns are often bare-knuckle affairs. Slander, defamation, misrepresentation, and all manner of other underhanded tactics are commonplace. The voters do their best to winnow the wheat from the chaff. But once the campaigning is over, the tone changes. A good-natured concession is made (see above). The triumphant gloat. The defeated vow to rise again. Occasionally there are allegations of fraud which slowly wind their way through election commissions or courts. But elections, like sporting events, have a distinct conclusion, after which the focus is on the next season or the next election cycle.

Donald Trump has upended this virtuous rhythm. He started calling our electoral process “rigged” during the 2016 campaign, leading to a significant decline in Republican voters’ faith in the reliability of the results. The seeds of doubt he planted during his successful bid for the presidency have produced a bumper crop of distrust after his failure to win a second term.

Every president in my lifetime has conceded gracefully because he understood the consequences of not doing so. Trump understands them as well but has chosen personal vengeance over patriotism. He knows he lost the election. If he had conceded, the country would have been spared the January 6 attack and all the rancor his election lie has generated.

Imagine if our first president had had Trump’s disposition. I suspect America would have long since balkanized itself. Washington, who was as wise as Trump is narcissistic, understood the vulnerabilities of the political infrastructure he helped design. In 1796, as he was preparing to return to Mount Vernon, he published a “Farewell Address.” Two-hundred twenty-six years later, it remains remarkably relevant. He knew that our co-equal branches of government were strong but not impenetrable. He was wary of political parties and the kind of leaders they might create. He warned that the party framework could allow “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men” to “subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards” democracy itself.

Let that sink in for a moment. Two centuries ago, Washington foresaw Donald Trump’s attempt to invalidate the 2020 election. He knew that a president would not only have to do what was legal, but also what was in the country’s best interest, for America to survive. Washington could have had a third term, but stepped down after his second to emphasize the distinction between the presidency and the English monarchy.

In contrast, Trump mused in the 2020 campaign about winning a second term and then negotiating for a third. Having failed in that effort, Trump continues his assault on democracy by holding rallies and railing against his loss. It is a purely personal enterprise meant to salve his wounded feelings, prop up his ego, drum up donations, and sell merchandise. Trump does not care that by eroding trust in American elections he is jackhammering the foundations of the republic.

Parties have a place in American politics, but as Washington predicted they have become a malignant force. In the “Farewell Address” he predicted accurately that political parties would “gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction… (would turn) this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”

Because we have aligned with our political parties so strongly, candidates like Fry are elected. If Fry goes to Congress, he will be in Trump’s pocket. The knowledge that Trump could turn on him will pervade his every move. This relationship blurs the separation of powers. If Trump were to run and win in 2024, Russell Fry would not occupy a separate branch of government. He would functionally remain part of the Executive Branch.

When he came to Florence in February, Trump, of course, repeated his lie that the election was stolen. And he castigated Rice, ending one of his salvos with “Now, Tom Rice looks like a total fool.” Let’s let a few years go by and see how well Trump’s words age. Poorly, I suspect. Historians will judge Rice as a courageous man who lost his seat trying to protect his country and uphold the Constitution.

Paul DeMarco is a physician who resides in Marion, SC. Reach him at pvdemarco@bellsouth.net.

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