By Sarah Ouyang
Chivalry is dead, the old lady in the subway laments when a stout man steals the last seat in the car. Chivalry is dead, the gentleman complains when a woman rushes by, ignoring him as he holds the café door open for her. And as you turn on the news, preparing yourself for another round of grim Election 2020 headlines, you silently agree: Chivalry is dead.
For the weeks following this year’s presidential elections, incumbent President Donald Trump has remained steadfast in his conviction not to concede to President-elect Joe Biden. If the pattern continues, he will not be allowing Biden his inauguration, much less congratulating him for it. This has greater consequences than inconvenience and confusion for the White House staff as they prepare for the transition. A century-old tradition will be placed in peril.
In 1896, two days after election results were unveiled, Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan sent a telegram to Republican victor William McKinley, expressing his congratulations. Thus began the gallant, unspoken convention that has culminated in what is now known as the presidential concession speech. Even before Bryan’s public declaration, the defeated candidate sent private letters to the newly elected president, offering well wishes and congratulations. Just four years ago, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton delivered her concession speech the day after losing the 2016 presidential election to Trump, exhibiting expected disappointment but courteous congratulations as well.
The tradition has not been broken in over a century, but Donald Trump is nothing if not unpredictable.
Trump has, instead, decided to throw himself into an onslaught of issues arising from the pandemic, the suffering economy, and the national state of social unrest. He surprised members of both parties on Tuesday, December 22nd, when he delivered a brutal criticism of the newly Senate-approved second stimulus package, which promises direct payments of $600. In his message, Trump called the package a “disgrace” and demanded that each direct payment be raised to $2000. Surprising, of course, but not entirely unwelcome for Democrats, who eagerly and unanimously accepted the proposed amendments.
Republicans in the Senate, however, were not pleased with this turn of events. This disagreement has two serious implications for the government: a shutdown may occur if Trump does not sign the bill, and the Senate race in Georgia could be majorly disrupted by the stimulus package battle.
What does this mean for Joe Biden? He may very well be handed a government, or even a nation, in chaos and conflict. Even as some rummage for hope in Trump’s new seemingly Democrat-favored policies, it appears his decision could have drastic consequences for what should have been a peaceful transfer of executive power. This conflict will exacerbate the problem that began with the question of a concession speech from Trump — or rather, a lack thereof.
A concession speech may be purely allegorical and contain no legal importance, but it has had dramatic impacts on American presidential transitions. Ron Elving, a Senior Editor and Correspondent at NPR News, explains the benefits of a concession speech: “It ends the suspense. It mellows the mood. And it means the country can begin moving on.”
The absence of a concession speech could thus be especially detrimental this year. While public focus has been widely drawn to COVID-19 or election news, there can be no surprise in referring to the other, more socially-geared issues of 2020. The frenzy of the Black Lives Matter movement seemed to die down after the summer as people shifted their attention to other current events, but their goals and fighters remain strong and unhappy with the country. During this period of political polarization and social unrest, a stubborn silence from the incumbent president will be widely heard.
In the 2020 movie The Trial of the Chicago 7, Abbie Hoffman (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) sits at the stand with a poignant smile on his lips as Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) asks him: “So how do you overthrow or dismember, as you say, your government peacefully?” Without missing a beat, Hoffman replies, “In this country, we do it every four years.”
Let’s hope that is still true.