Donald Trump and the search for virtue in defeat

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump shakes hands with Fox News anchor and moderator Chris Wallace after the third U.S. presidential debate in Las Vegas last week. Mark Ralston-Pool/Getty Images

Chris Wallace: “Do you make the …commitment that you will absolutely — sir, that you will absolutely accept the result of this election?”

Donald Trump: “I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now.”

Chris Wallace: “One of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power… Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?”

Donald Trump: “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. Okay?”

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There is no virtue in losing, in and of itself. With the exception of the Chicago Cubs, we don’t write epic poetry in praise of defeat.

Losing is a painful, humiliating experience. If you are a politician who has spent the better part of two years in front of adoring crowds, defeat – even the prospect of it – is a punch in the gut.

But perhaps we have forgotten that virtue can be found in how a person responds to a thrashing, or the prospect of it. Which seems strange to say in the South, given that Robert E. Lee became a cult figure in large part for his courtly decorum at Appomattox Court House.

It may be that Mr. Trump brings out the quarrelsome New Yorker in us all.

When he began the above exchange during Wednesday’s presidential debate in Las Vegas, Chris Wallace of Fox News was making the larger point established by George Washington and others at the outset of this democratic republic. Our status as an exceptional nation is based on the willingness of those who would be our leaders to bow to the people who rule them. And to leave the scene, voluntarily and with a minimum of fuss, when the verdict dictates.

This is not a liberal tradition or a conservative one. It is simply the tradition that makes us who we are. There was only one correct answer to Wallace’s question, and Trump didn’t offer it.

The Republican nominee’s supporters argue that their candidate merely wanted to pump up interest in the Nov. 8 outcome, as any reality TV star might. But hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops abroad, armadas in several oceans, and thousands of nuclear missiles at the ready say this is no topic that requires more suspense.

Wallace had been aiming at Trump’s many assertions that this election is “rigged,” and the GOP nominee’s accompanying statements that “I alone can fix it.”

Men who claim to have magic wrenches and wizard-approved screwdrivers often see nothing but a deep black hole beyond their own defeat — and require us to see the same abyss. But there can be life, even goodness, after losing. In fact, we have a monument to the virtue of defeat here in Atlanta.

When President Jimmy Carter lost his re-election to Ronald Reagan in 1980, even his own state soured on him. He had disappointed the home folks. But I can almost pinpoint the day we revised our opinion, when we began to see the value that could be weaved out of defeat.

In 1990, President Daniel Ortega Saavedra had agreed to allow free elections in Nicaragua. He had been part of the leftist junta that had overthrown the country’s U.S.-backed dictator years earlier.

That February, Carter led a delegation of election-watchers. The returns began to flow in, and it quickly became clear that Ortega would lose. This was no small thing. Guns were still plentiful on all sides. From a report written several months later and lodged at the Carter Center:

“Carter urged President Ortega to make a statement before the morning news programs and to take credit for the democratic election and the achievements of the revolution, while also acknowledging that he was losing and reaffirming his respect for the results.”

As I recall, in his conversations with Ortega, Carter cited his own loss as an example of how a democracy should work. Ortega took the advice, bloodshed was avoided, and a precedent was set – albeit in a far-from-perfect democracy. Ortega was re-elected president in 2007 and 2011.

I was interested in more detail, but most of us can’t simply pick up the phone and call up Jimmy Carter. So I punched up the cell phone of his grandson, Jason, the ex-state senator and former Democratic candidate for governor.

“You’ll never guess where I am,” the younger Carter said.

I couldn’t, so he told me. Jason Carter was in South Africa, in the village of Lochiel, where he had once been a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer. Carter now chairs the board of trustees for the Carter Center, and was there on business.

Specifically, he was there for a conference sponsored by the Institute for Sustaining Democracy in Africa. “One of the most important things we have been doing here is emphasizing how important it is to accept the results of elections,” Jason Carter said.

The Las Vegas debate had occurred at 3 a.m. South African time. “It was an embarrassing experience to be an American here after last night’s debate,” Carter admitted.

Nigerians at the conference had been particularly sharp in their teasing. One of the attendees was Goodluck Jonathan, the former president of Nigeria, who lost an election last year. Jonathan conceded defeat, and thus became the first sitting Nigerian president to do so. A hero, in fact.

“Nigerians have been saying they have better politicians than Americans,” Carter said.

We talked some about his grandfather, Ortega and Nicaragua. “It helps to be able to sit beside someone and say, ‘I’ve had to make that call,’” he said.

Jason Carter, of course, can say the same thing at conferences intended to grow democracies. He lost to Republican incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal in 2014.

That call was probably difficult, I theorized. “Not really,” the younger Carter said. “It’s so different. Deal was someone who cared about our state.”

In other words, a belief in the good intentions of the opposition matters. Finding virtue in defeat can be easier when one acknowledges the virtue on the other side.


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