President Donald Trump continues to wage war against the results of the 2020 presidential election. Though it’s been nearly two weeks since every major news organization declared former Vice President Joe Biden the clear winner of the race, Trump’s democracy-degrading attack on that outcome has prevented his successor from officially beginning the transition to power.
While Biden has expressed concerns that Trump’s delays will hamper his administration’s ability to efficiently distribute coming COVID-19 vaccines, Trump’s defenders have excused his decisions on the basis that it’s not actually out of the ordinary for candidates to exhaust every last legal option before acknowledging losses.
In one sense, Trump’s supporters are correct: Recounts are a common occurrence in U.S. politics. Races for House and Senate regularly undergo recounts, sometimes automatically and other times at the request of a campaign. At the presidential level, this has happened a couple times as well. Then-Vice President Al Gore pushed for a recount in the decisive state of Florida in 2000, only to lose the state -- and presidency -- by 537 votes. In 2016, Green Party candidate Jill Stein filed for recounts in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania; only Wisconsin was actually completed.
But neither example proves particularly useful to Trump, as his campaign called the 2016 recounts a “scam” and the 2000 race was much, much closer than this year’s. Additionally, the 9/11 Commission Report found that the delayed presidential transition following the 2000 election slowed President George W. Bush’s ability to get his national security team in place, which may have hampered the response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, making it a poor example for Trump’s supporters to cite.
With examples pulled from modern presidential history failing to provide solid justification for Trump’s fight, pro-Trump media have started pointing to a different politician: Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia.
Comparisons to Abrams don’t hold up to scrutiny, but that isn’t stopping conservative media from making them.
“President Trump seems to be taking a page from the Democrat’s playbook, but he doesn’t have the mainstream media on his side,” wrote Fox News’ Brian Flood. “Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams was praised by the mainstream media for refusing to concede after her 2018 loss to Republican Brian Kemp, while accusing the GOP of stealing the election.”
Flood is either mistaken about the circumstances of Abrams’ 2018 loss or he’s being disingenuous in his criticism. Either way, it’s worth examining how these situations are different.
Abrams lost in 2018 to then-Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp by 54,723 votes. Abrams ended her bid for governor on November 16, 10 days after the election, and she wasn’t too happy about it. In a speech, Abrams acknowledged that Kemp would be the next governor of Georgia while criticizing his role in purging around 670,000 names from the state’s voter rolls in 2017 and roughly 53,000 a month ahead of the election. She said:
So, to be clear, this is not a speech of concession.
Concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede. But my assessment is that the law currently allows no further viable remedy.
Now, I could certainly bring a new case to keep this one contest alive, but I don’t want to hold public office if I need to scheme my way into the post. Because the title of Governor isn’t nearly as important as our shared title. Voters.
Sure, she said she wasn’t conceding, but her words weren’t as clear-cut as critics like Flood make them out to be. She specifically said while she could continue to make her case in court, she ended her challenge that evening. She didn’t think it was a fair fight, and maybe it wasn’t. Even so, she called an end to that fight and began preparing for the future. This isn’t apparent from the way conservative media discuss Abrams to excuse Trump's refusal to concede the election.
National Review writer Dan McLaughlin wrote that Abrams “became a Democratic folk hero by refusing to concede that she had lost an election for governor of Georgia in 2018, even when none of her complaints about the election could possibly account for the margin of her defeat.”
“The Democrats want Donald Trump to concede. They want Donald Trump to go away. They want him to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory. OK, let’s do Stacey Abrams,” said Erick Erickson during a recent episode of his radio show.
“Abrams is a failed gubernatorial candidate who to this day has not conceded the race she lost in 2018. Like Trump, she's bleated about an illegitimate process, offering dubious claims to bolster her alternative history,” wrote Guy Benson at Townhall in an article defending CNN contributor Mary Katherine Ham’s on-air comparison between Trump and Abrams.
Each of these criticisms — as well as additional grievances levied by others on the right — fails to mention that while Abrams has continued to assert that the election wasn’t fair, she didn’t file frivolous lawsuits meant to prevent Kemp from taking office. She accepted that the race was over, and that’s what people are asking of Trump.
Nobody paying attention to politics in recent years has any reasonable expectation that Trump will publicly congratulate Biden on his victory and call on his supporters to treat the president-elect with “an open mind and the chance to lead,” as 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton did after losing to Trump. It would be odd and out of character if he did that, even. What reasonable people can hope for when it comes to Trump is for him to do exactly what Abrams did in acknowledging defeat even if it doesn’t feel fair.
It’s a myth that Abrams was lionized for refusing to concede her race. She was given credit for what she did next.
After the 2018 gubernatorial race, Abrams started Fair Fight, a political action committee centered on voting rights. The organization pushes to end “use it or lose it” voter roll purges that force people who haven’t voted in recent elections to go through the process of re-registering; to require use of hand-marked paper ballots in elections; and to streamline confusing sets of voting rules across the state of Georgia. The organization called out the University of Georgia in September after the school blocked an on-campus early voting location. In April, after it became apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic could have an effect on the safety of in-person voting, Fair Fight was one of the organizations that unsuccessfully called on Congress to expand vote by mail.
When Abrams lost her race in 2018, she put her energy into fixing a problem that people of all political beliefs should be able to rally behind. It shouldn’t be partisan to make sure that every eligible voter can cast a ballot with relative ease. When she has referred to the term “voter suppression” in the past, this is exactly what she was talking about.
Abrams occasionally says she “won,” which has served as the basis of some of the right-wing criticism directed her way. In an April 2019 interview for The New York Times Magazine, she explained exactly what she means by that:
There are three things: No. 1, I legally acknowledge that Brian Kemp secured a sufficient number of votes under our existing system to become the governor of Georgia. I do not concede that the process was proper, nor do I condone that process. No. 2, I believe we won in that we transformed the electorate and achieved a dramatic increase in turnout. It was a systemic and, I think, sustainable change in the composition of the electorate and in the transformation of the narrative about Georgia and Georgia politics. Three, I have no empirical evidence that I would have achieved a higher number of votes. However, I have sufficient and I think legally sufficient doubt about the process to say that it was not a fair election.
If Trump wants to claim a similar “victory,” he can do that. Contrary to right-wing media, staying in the race isn’t what makes him similar to Abrams; it’s what makes him different.