As Donald Trump prepares his exit from the White House, the discord, confusion and arrogance that has punctuated his tenure continues unabated. It is likely that his exit will rival his entrance onto the political stage: pomp with little regard for circumstances. History will likely characterize his performance as an exercise in bucking precedent, defying norms and flirting with constitutional crisis. Hence, it is little surprise that the remaining weeks of the Trump era will sorely test what many scholars have characterized as the hallmark of the nation’s democracy: namely, the peaceful transfer of power.
Historians trace this extraordinary practice to the election of 1800. The race for president that year was a particularly contentious battle that pitted the Federalists, represented by John Adams who was running for re-election, against the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson. The perennial battle between the two factions over the role of government in society continues to this day. Democratic-Republicans were portrayed as dangerous radicals while the Federalists were accused of supporting the re-establishment of a monarchy. But for a young nation experimenting with democracy, the true test of transition from one party to the other would chart the course for its potential survivability.
Despite the humiliation that accompanied Adams’ defeat, he decided to leave Washington, DC, quietly and under cover of darkness on the morning of March 4, 1801, the day Jefferson was inaugurated. In the interceding years, other transition precedents have been established: most presidents have attended the inauguration of their successors, and many incoming and outgoing presidents rode together to the capitol and back to the White House. There have been pranks along the way, such as the magical disappearance of w’s on executive branch office keyboards greeting new arrivals under President George W. Bush, but largely, transitions have been professional and serious.
As the nation grew in power and prestige through the 20th century, transitions have taken on a powerful function, particularly in the areas of foreign affairs, national security and basic continuity of governance functions to cope with the intricacies of diplomacy and an expanding bureaucratic structure to contend with a developing federalism that included federal, state and local governmental responsibilities, and the economic and military responsibilities of a superpower.
In the modern world, the importance of ensuring a seamless and smooth transfer of authority transcends political or party considerations. The stakes that accompany confusion, miscalculation or nefarious sabotage of a peaceful transition are incalculable and affect not only our nation but our relationships with allies and adversaries alike. Respect for the office of the president, the Constitution, and the nation’s leadership in both international and domestic affairs should far outweigh the disappointment of defeat. Yet the current transition has, as of this date, been problematic and potentially destructive in light of the seriousness of the pandemic.
Recent reports have indicated a change in the attitude of the Trump administration with respect to cooperation with the incoming Biden administration. Let us hope that the public perception of the president as a sore loser, unwilling to accept the duties and responsibilities of a defeated contestant who still carries the mantle of leadership of the nation through the next two months, is dispelled quickly. The lives of too many people rest on the shoulders of a wounded egotist.
The pandemic proceeds apace with absolutely no regard for geographical, political or ideological predispositions. The world is still a dangerous place. Troops are strategically placed to help monitor and/or temper potentially explosive developments around the world. The Middle East remains a powder keg. Climate change continues to ravage the planet. Immigrants are still being persecuted at our southern border. The economy is precariously perched on the edge of collapse. And both international and domestic confidence in our leaders and institutions reflect the confusion, both legitimate and contrived, that split populations here and abroad.
This is a time where partisan bickering and strategic political considerations need to be shelved for the betterment of the nation and the world. Citizens must put aside their frustrations and anger, whether borne of conspiracy, deceitful manipulation, calculated disinformation campaigns, ignorance, mental laxity or other contrivance that breeds violence over compromise and consider what is best for the world we are leaving to future generations.
The peaceful transfer of power represents the very best example of how we as a nation can resolve differences without resorting to self-defeating impulses that may feel good for the moment but sow further discord in the long term, which is exactly what our enemies desire.
Now is the time to pull together. I am as competitive as the next individual and learned as an athlete, sometimes the hard way, that at the end of a hard-fought competition you reach out and congratulate your opponent. So, let’s get to work, together.