The Dangerous Asymmetry of Election Denialism

Republicans have spent the last two years denying the outcome of the 2020 election. Now, months before a single vote is cast, they are already preparing to contest the outcome in 2024.

In the last few weeks, a parade of prominent Republicans has refused to commit to accepting the results of this year’s elections. This includes not only Trump sycophants like J.D. Vance and Kristi Noem, but so-called moderates as well. Marco Rubio, who in 2020 voted to certify the election, is the latest to succumb to full-on MAGA election denialism.

Worse still, a recent Arizona poll showed that nearly half of all Republican voters believe that the election should be contested if Joe Biden wins.

It was not long ago that election contests were exceedingly rare.

Al Gore sought a partial recount in 2000 when a few hundred votes separated the two candidates, but he never sued to contest the outcome. After the Supreme Court halted the recount, he conceded and pledged to help George Bush in the transition.

Four years later, Democrats lost another painfully close election, this one hinging on the single state of Ohio. Over the objections of some, John Kerry conceded the morning following Election Day, insisting that “the outcome should be decided by voters, not a protracted legal process.”

In 2016, Hillary Clinton conceded to Donald Trump by phone on election night and then in a televised speech the next day in which she told her supporters that “we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power, and we don’t just respect that, we cherish it.”

That commitment to the peaceful transfer of power is a powerful through line of American history. It connects George Washington in 1796 to Samuel Tilden in 1876, Richard Nixon in 1960 to Hillary Clinton in 2016. The peaceful transfer of power is what distinguished America from so many other countries that could sustain democracy in times of national consensus, but not when the public was divided.

All of this changed, of course, in 2020 when Trump lost a relative landslide election in which now-President Joe Biden received 7 million more votes and won 306 electoral votes. There was not one single state that determined the outcome, and no state was particularly close. Yet, Trump engaged in a ludicrous effort to undo losses in the tens of thousands of votes in six different states.

  • Arizona: 10,457 votes
  • Georgia: 11,779 votes
  • Michigan: 154,188 votes
  • Nevada: 33,596 votes
  • Pennsylvania: 81,660 votes
  • Wisconsin: 20,682 votes

His failed effort included three statewide recounts — two in Georgia and one in Wisconsin — which made no difference to the outcome. He and his allies filed 65 lawsuits and lost 64 of them. These included formal election contests in states like Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Wisconsin and outlandish litigation theories involving dead Venezuelan leaders and mythological sea creatures.

When those failed, Trump endorsed a final legal effort to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the election results in four states — Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

We cannot survive as a democracy if only one party is willing to accept defeat.

With the courts no longer a viable option, Trump incited a violent insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, for which he, his closest aides and attorneys, as well as hundreds and his supporters, have been indicted in state and federal court.

When Biden was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2021, Trump refused to attend. Not since Andrew Johnson refused to attend the post-Civil War inaugural of Ulysses Grant had an outgoing president refused to attend his successor’s inauguration.

Republicans are quick to distort statements made by Clinton and others calling Trump’s win in 2016 “illegitimate.” Those claims, however, were about the disgraceful rhetoric and tactics Trump used to win, not about the accuracy of the vote count itself. Clinton was correct that Trump’s campaign tactics were odious. Indeed, Trump is currently on trial in New York for election interference related to the 2016 election.


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Trump’s attack on 2020 isn’t that Biden campaigned unfairly or even illegally. Instead, he falsely claims that hundreds of thousands of illegal votes were intentionally added (or subtracted) from the tallies in at least six states to deny him a victory. That is the lie the Republican Party has adopted as an article of faith.

And it is getting worse. Trump recently insisted that he won Minnesota in 2020. Not a single Republican official spoke out to say that, in fact, Biden won the state by more than 7%.

For the last two years, no Republican hoping for a future in politics will say clearly that Trump lost any of the battleground states in 2020 — and certainly not that he lost all of them. Now they will have to add Minnesota to that list.

There is no end point to Trump’s narcissism and no acceptable place for Republicans to say “enough.” At a recent rally, Trump said, “We’re going to win the state of New Jersey.” Earlier this year, he insisted that he has “a good chance of winning in New York.”

By the time we get to Election Day, Trump will assert that he is leading, and will win, all 50 states. And his Republican enablers will agree.

We cannot survive as a democracy if only one party is willing to accept defeat. We will not keep our constitutional republic if half of the country will subvert election results to empower one man.

We have entered a dangerous period of asymmetrical election denialism. Unless we find a way out, the peaceful transfer of power may soon be out of reach.