Why Donald Trump Has Always Mattered

Donald Trump has always mattered.  I was often made fun of during the 2016 campaign for making too much of him or for being a little alarmist; for making too much of his erratic behavior.  I genuinely did (and still do) believe that Trump had little or no agenda beyond publicity and little or no knowledge of the role for which he was vying.  I also believed (and still do believe) whole-heartedly that there was no contradiction in thinking him both vapid and incredibly dangerous at the same time.

The days following the election of Doug Jones as U.S. Senate for Alabama represent perfectly the hazard inherent in even the most off-the-cuff and loose-lipped of his public ruminations.

In the weeks preceding election night, Trump repeatedly suggested that he may not concede if he lost when the votes were tallied.  Shortly after he began making those statements, I wrote:

"... perhaps more importantly, never in the modern era has a presidential candidate from a major party refused to concede defeat or suggested to his supporters that their votes were not counted or that his opponent ascended to the office by fraudulent means, let alone said as much prior to the election [...] It is not necessary that they ignore problems when they occur but only that they work to solve problems and maintain the process's legitimacy rather than intentionally undermine it.  The first step to consolidating power and abandoning democratic processes is to convince constituents that those processes are illegitimate in the first place.  Donald Trump is no longer a hypothetical authoritarian who may or may not act on those tendencies.  Regardless of his motives, he is following through."

I acknowledged at the time that this might sound like hyperbole, but it most certainly wasn't.  Perhaps the most important power a president – or a candidate for president  – has is a voice.  The "bully pulpit" is an enormously powerful means of influencing policy outcomes and driving changes in social norms.

In the four days since Roy Moore lost the special election to Jones for the contested Senate seat, he has mirrored Trump's obstinacy.  Under the headline "Trump Urges Moore to Concede Alabama Senate Race," Reuters notes:

"Moore, whose controversial candidacy was beset by allegations that he sexually assaulted or pursued teenage girls while in his 30s, has so far refused to admit defeat in Tuesday’s election that saw Jones win by 1.5 percentage points with 99 percent of the ballots counted.  The embattled Republican has made two statements since his loss, but has not conceded even as Trump and others have reached out to congratulate Jones, a former prosecutor, on his win.  'I would certainly say he should,' Trump, who endorsed Moore in the final stage of the campaign, told reporters at the White House."

Putting aside all the ways that Trump's own candidacy made Moore's possible and helped his enablers rationalize their support for him, it's hard to imagine a Senator refusing to concede after such a stunning loss without Trump's implied permission to do so.  By floating the idea a year ago, Trump gave him that permission.

Roy Moore will not be the last Republican to refuse concession (this upcoming midterm will see – among others – Michael Grimm, Kelli Ward, Marsha Blackburn, Erik Prince, and Danny Tarkanian), nor will this particular norm be the last one to which we find Trump has done lasting damage.  His tweets matter.  The things he says and does at his rallies and in his public statements matter.  He may not have any notion of their consequence but we should.