Editor’s Note: David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents of both parties and is a senior political analyst at CNN. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-founded its Center for Public Leadership. Caroline Cohen is David Gergen’s research assistant at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is a recent honors graduate of Harvard College and won the Thomas T. Hoopes prize for her senior thesis. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.
In the weeks since the general election, President Donald Trump and his team have failed to successfully challenge the final results in our courts of law. However, in the court of public opinion, they have made startling progress — progress that could threaten President-elect Joe Biden’s capacity to govern and even our democracy itself.
At first, Trump was convinced that he could reverse the election outcome through a flurry of lawsuits. And it’s no surprise. The President relishes lawsuits as a form of combat. Over his lifetime, he has been party to no less than 4,000 of them. In this instance, however, he badly misjudged the terrain and, with the exception of one small win, he has come up short, losing or dropping over 25 cases to date.
If he had any class, Trump would have long since conceded, passed the baton and offered support to his successor – traditions stretching back over two centuries. But perhaps he is playing for time, waiting to see how a second battle front develops.
Candidly, it is starting to look more promising for him. Just consider a Monmouth University poll, released Wednesday, finding that 32% of Americans think Biden won as a result of voter fraud. At a more granular level, 77% of Trump supporters thought the same thing.
These damaging findings are further supported by Reuters reporters who interviewed 50 different Trump voters across the country. According to their findings, “all said they believed the election was rigged or in some way illegitimate… Most repeated debunked conspiracy theories…” Strikingly, some said they were now boycotting Fox News and switching over to emerging right-wing media like Newsmax and One American News Network, both of which have been propping up Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud.
This is a big deal in our national life. As the Reuters reporters wrote, the widespread rejection of the election results among Republicans “reflects a new and dangerous dynamic in American politics.”
We should always remember that while over 79 million Americans voted for Biden, more than 73 million Americans voted for Trump. Based on the polling we have so far, let’s assume that about three-quarters of them think Biden is becoming president through fraud and deception. Doing the math, that means on the day Biden takes the oath of office, over 50 million Americans will believe he is an illegitimate president. Collectively, they could be a powerful political force for years to come. Though opposing parties have questioned the legitimacy of elections in the past, never before have such beliefs been grounded in a calculated campaign of misinformation.
The even more challenging part? We do not have a lot of historical precedent for how to handle this situation. For decades, from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt through Ronald Reagan, new presidents were granted a honeymoon period by voters, the opposition and even the press. Those honeymoons rarely extended beyond the August recess of their first year, but in those opening, precious moments, new presidents could get big things done. During his first 100 days, Franklin Roosevelt passed 76 bills into law and began to roll out the New Deal. Meanwhile, Harry Truman, who followed, passed 55 bills during this same period.
In more recent times, from President Bill Clinton through Barack Obama, our politics have become more polarized – and new presidents have been denied those grace periods. Yet, even as they faced greater scrutiny in their early days, these presidents have been given the opportunity to rightfully govern from Day 1.
Never before has the opposition undermined the legitimacy of a new president before he has even taken office to anything like this degree or in this fashion.
It’s important to remember that this hasn’t happened by accident. It is increasingly clear that for months, Trump and his campaign surrogates have engaged in a systematic effort to kneecap Biden and his presidency. In the lead-up to the election, Trump repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of mail-in ballots and suggested he wouldn’t accept the results of the election if he lost. In short, this has been a deliberate campaign of sabotage, undertaken with scant regard for how much damage it may inflict upon our democracy.
From his early embrace of birtherism (which he later recanted) to the thousands of falsehoods he has spread on Twitter, at rallies and during press conferences, Trump has built a political empire one lie at a time. But he has no intention of leaving the public stage. He expects to gain political influence from the millions of people who believe in him more fervently than they do in our democratic traditions.
So, can Trump be stopped from spreading more lies and endangering democracy? Perhaps. But it will take far more than the efforts of our new president, as healing as he may be. Realists in Trump’s inner circle believe he most fears the legal investigators and bank creditors who are awaiting him outside the gates of the White House. We shall see.
But the rest of us should take greater responsibility, too. The Biden team needs to be tougher on Trump. Those of us in “the chattering classes” should stop covering his day-to-day antics when he leaves office, letting him recede from the spotlight. Those leaders in the Republican Party who have been his enablers must at last rediscover their backbones and begin the long road back. Most of all, those of us who proclaim our love for country need to step up, reaching out to others who don’t think like us, don’t look like us and don’t like our politics. America belongs to all of us, including the millions of our neighbors who voted for Trump.