Why Donald Trump Has Always Mattered

Donald Trump has always mattered.  I was often made fun of during the 2016 campaign (not that I'm bitter) for assigning him too much agency or for being a little alarmist; for making too much of his erratic behavior.  I genuinely believed (and still do) that Trump had little or no agenda beyond publicity and little or no grasp of the office for which he was running.  I also believed (and still do) 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. Senator 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 his own 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 to some, but was clear that I thought 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.  Trump's words mattered then as they matter now.

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."

Put aside for a moment all the ways that Trump's contentions at the time were utter horseshit, and all the evidence of his own campaigns fraudulent (if not illegal) tactics, and the ways that Trump's own candidacy made Moore's possible, and all the ways he helped Moore's 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 for himself a year ago, Trump gave Moore that permission.

Roy Moore will not be the last Republican to refuse concession (seeking office in this upcoming midterm are – 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.  The permission structure he establishes with his blatant disdain for crucial norms can (and likely will) do enormous harm to the integrity of our democracy.  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.