Joe Biden’s Bitter Harvest

Where might Trump voters have got the idea that a president was illegitimate?

By William McGurn   November 10, 2020

“Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end.” So spoke Joe Biden Saturday night in a speech that was as much a call for unity as a celebration of victory.

If Mr. Biden means it, he will need to show it. He might start by stating that there’s no place in his administration for anyone who joins in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a de facto blacklist of Trump supporters. This might upset some of Mr. Biden’s supporters, but that’s leadership. It’s essential even if Mr. Trump and some of his supporters make it no easier by insisting, after the litigation is exhausted and the results certified, that Mr. Biden hasn’t been legitimately elected.

Wherever would Mr. Trump and his supporters get such an idea? Maybe from those who spent the past four years undermining the legitimacy of the Trump presidency.

Here’s Hillary Clinton from September 2019, nearly three years after her defeat: “He knows he’s an illegitimate president. I believe he understands that the many varying tactics they used, from voter suppression and voter purging to hacking to the false stories, he knows that there were just a bunch of different reasons why the election turned out like it did.”

Or Jimmy Carter in June 2019. “There’s no doubt that the Russians did interfere in the election. And I think the interference, although not yet quantified, if fully investigated would show that Trump didn’t actually win the election in 2016. He lost the election and he was put into office because the Russians interfered on his behalf.” Asked if that meant he regarded Mr. Trump as an “illegitimate president,” Mr. Carter said yes.

In January 2017, Rep. Jerrold Nadler said he was boycotting Mr. Trump’s inauguration (along with one-third of his fellow House Democrats) because, though the president was “legally elected,” he wasn’t “legitimate.” During impeachment, another effort to reject the 2016 election, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House had no choice but to act because Mr. Trump was “trying to corrupt, once again, the election for his benefit.” Not to mention the ridiculous attempts to paint a candidate who attracted more minority votes than any Republican in recent history as a champion of white supremacy.

Mr. Biden piled on with the rest of them. In the first debate he called Mr. Trump a “racist,” building on his earlier claim that Mr. Trump was America’s first racist president. During a May 2019 campaign stop in New Hampshire, a woman came up to Mr. Biden and said Mr. Trump was “an illegitimate president in my mind.” Mr. Biden’s response? “I absolutely agree.”

These aren’t MSNBC hosts or activists. They are Democratic Party leaders. Frankly, it would be difficult to find a prominent Democrat who didn’t accuse Mr. Trump of being an illegitimately elected president. It’s no coincidence the president’s critics styled themselves “the resistance.”

Those Trump supporters who are sure this election has been stolen—are they any different from the 33% of Hillary Clinton voters who, according to a poll taken immediately after Election Day 2016, said they didn’t believe Mr. Trump was legitimately elected? And might Trump voters be a little skeptical about demands for evidence from the same people who spent years accusing Mr. Trump of being a Russian agent without any evidence whatsoever?


Right now the president is demanding recounts and holding off conceding until the litigation has concluded and the results certified, which is his right. But if the result still goes against him and he responds by boycotting Mr. Biden’s inauguration or insisting he was cheated, it won’t go well for him. One look at Hillary Clinton, still sadly refusing to concede she lost in 2016, should tell him that.

But what fate has in store for Mr. Trump is less important for America’s future than what it holds for his voters. More Americans cast their votes for Mr. Trump than for any presidential candidate in American history—except Mr. Biden. Over the past four years, this half of America has been treated as the deplorables that Mrs. Clinton called them, with MAGA hats regarded as the 21st-century equivalent of white hoods.

It isn’t over, either. At the same moment Mr. Biden is being applauded for his Lincolnesque call to come together, Michelle Obama, in her own congratulatory message, reminded Mr. Biden that millions of Trump voters chose to support “lies, hate, chaos, and division.” Mrs. Obama appears not to have got the memo about not demonizing people on the other side.

Mr. Biden’s words on Saturday were exactly what the country needed to hear. But if the 71 million Americans who voted for Mr. Trump are to be reconciled, they will need to be persuaded. And for this to happen, Mr. Biden will at some point need to acknowledge the seeds he and his supporters sowed to help bring us to this bitter harvest.

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Appeared in the November 10, 2020, print edition.




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