At the end of the first presidential debate, moderator Lester Holt asked a surprising final question. Some journalists that were tweeting about the debate chastised him for it, but it was actually the most consequential moment of the night. Holt disguised a crucial question about the fate of our constitutional republic as a throwaway last line. “One of you will not win this election,” he said, “so my final question to you tonight: are you willing to accept the outcome as the will of the voters?”
Clinton answered first: “Well, I support our democracy. And sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But I certainly will support the outcome of this election.” That’s the kind of response one would expect from any candidate at this level of politics—accurate, coherent, utterly unremarkable.
The audience then awaited Trump’s answer, his last words of a long night, with bated breath and weary eyes. After Trump rambled about jobs and deportation for a bit, Holt restated the question. Trump finally responded: “Look, here’s the story. I want to make America great again. I’m going to be able to do it. I don’t believe Hillary will. The answer is, if she wins, I will absolutely support her.”
Holt’s question would have been out of place in any other debate setting in America. We don’t typically ask candidates if they’ll accept election results because in contemporary America we presume that peaceful, democratic transfers of power are better than violent insurrections or civil war.
Trump’s media surrogate Breitbart tried today to describe this line of questioning as “jarring,” “odd,” and “silly.” But Trump himself invited the question over the past few weeks, when he began to wonder aloud—seemingly his only manner of thinking—whether the election would be “rigged.” Having mistaken his campaign rallies for an accurate picture of the electorate, Trump mused that only foul play could keep him out of the Oval Office.
His speculations have affected his supporters, a large majority of whom believe that, if he loses, the election results are not valid. His sprinkling of doubt about our democracy’s validity forecasts a frightening storm of unfocused rage if Trump loses, especially if the margin is close. Recall too that Trump and his supporters already doubt the validity of the current president, since they believe he was never eligible in the first place.
Trump’s answer was so important because every aspect of our country’s safety and prosperity depends on trust in democratic processes and peaceful transfers of power. The hit musical Hamilton helps even children to see how crucial and wondrous this is. One section of the show features Washington’s decision to step down from the presidency, Hamilton’s incredulity at the move, and the sarcastic response from King George (pictured below). The king sings: “They say / George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away / Is that true? / I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do / I’m perplexed / Are they going to keep on replacing whoever’s in charge?” It’s a great bit of comic relief that also reveals just how novel the idea was a few hundred years ago.
We should never be blind to the miracle of an American inauguration day, when the most powerful person in the world tranquilly hands the largest economy, the strongest military, and world-destructive explosives to another person who is unrelated by blood and often opposed in ideology. To undermine our democracy’s civic miracle with skepticism would be to endanger our very future. During the 2000 election crisis, Florida’s infamous hanging chads and a candidate’s fraternal bond with its governor brought us to the brink of questioning the miracle. But we walked back from that precipice, having stared into the abyss of chaos (and perhaps martial law) on the other side.
Trump’s answer was the last word of the debate on stage, but I misspoke above when calling it his last words of the night. Immediately after the debate, The Donald himself waded into the spin room waters, amid a feeding frenzy of reporters starved for a scoop. NBC’s off-camera reporter asked him to confirm one more time, “Will you accept the outcome of this election?”
“Oh yes, absolutely I will," he answered. It’s the kind of response one would expect from any candidate at this level of politics, and that’s exactly why—for Donald Trump—it’s so remarkable.