A video of former President Donald Trump is played as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, June 28, 2022. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

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Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, but he reacted completely differently than the 10 previous presidents who had also failed in their bids to remain in office.

Ronald Reagan, in his   1981 inauguration speech, declared, “The orderly transfer of authority … is nothing less than a miracle.” Jimmy Carter, the president he defeated, sat beside him.

For Trump, Reagan’s “miracle” was merely a mirage. Instead of turning the White House over to his successor and assisting in an orderly transfer as Carter had, Trump attacked the election itself.

Now, the House of Representatives is holding hearings on Trump’s efforts to keep the presidency, winding up with the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol.

The American tradition of an orderly transfer originated in 1800, after the fourth presidential election when President John Adams lost to Thomas Jefferson. Adams became the first incumbent to be denied re-election. Like Trump, he had been soundly defeated and strongly disliked his opponent, seeing him as a danger to the young republic.

But Adams accepted the result. Jefferson did not destroy America, and the two rivals eventually became friends. They died on the same day, the Fourth of July marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

The other sitting presidents before Trump who lost were John Quincy Adams (John’s son, in 1828), Martin Van Buren (1840), Grover Cleveland (1888), Benjamin Harrison (1892), William H. Taft (1912), Herbert Hoover (1932), Gerald Ford (1976), Jimmy Carter (1980), and George H.W. Bush (1992).

In 1888, Cleveland won a popular majority but lost the electoral vote to Benjamin Harrison. Both sides claimed there had been open vote buying. Cleveland accepted his loss and in the next election again won the presidency. Trump, who lost the popular vote both times he ran, now dreams of pulling off the same comeback.

Two presidential elections that raised doubts about the result involved two incumbent vice presidents: Richard Nixon in 1960 and Al Gore in 2000.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy won thanks to carrying Illinois and Texas by narrow margins. The Republican Party claimed fraud in both states, but lacked sufficient evidence. Nixon promptly accepted his loss.

In 2000, the election was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court voting 5-4 to halt the contested Florida ballot count, thus handing the election to George W. Bush. Gore, after a few legal skirmishes, graciously conceded and the country moved on.

Both Nixon and Gore presided in Congress over the official vote counts of their own defeats.   Nixon spoke, praising the peaceful turnover. Gore rejected a formal challenge to the Florida result. In 2021, Vice President Mike Pence would carry out the same constitutional duty.

It seemed logical to Trump and his supporters that he had won, because he received more   popular votes than anybody who had ever run for president – except for Joe Biden. Biden must have cheated, Trump charged. But he could not produce any evidence, relying instead on unsupported claims and outright fantasies conjured up by some of his backers.

Trump’s campaign obtained independent vote counts that did not change the result. It brought scores of legal challenges, but consistently lost in court. Though his claims were completely disproved, he kept pushing them. False claims became real lies.

Ignoring the   conclusions of the attorney general he had appointed, he unsuccessfully pressed the Justice Department to aid his claims. He brought continuous public pressure on Pence to violate the law and throw out election results.  

As each step failed, Trump moved closer to his final, desperate move – sending his   backers to the Capitol to threaten Pence’s life and reverse his defeat by force.

Unlike any other president, Trump had used the prestige of his office to press state and federal officials to support his claims. But they refused, becoming the unlikely heroes of the House hearings. Most are members of his party, though he often labels them RINOs – Republicans In Name Only.

Trump broke with the traditional limits on how far a presidential loser should reasonably go before accepting his defeat. Did his rejection of the American political tradition mean that Trump is an American In Name Only?

The system allowed Trump to challenge the result. That he used every lawful opportunity did not make him less American. Lacking real evidence, he exhausted all legal methods to prove his case. But he will not concede. Instead, he persists in misleading millions of his supporters, deepening political conflict.

Trump’s knowingly false claims of fraud and his instigation of insurrection go beyond the safeguards of the American political tradition.

Committees and courts may assign responsibility. But “we, the people” must ultimately decide if partisan or personal victory is ever again worth a mortal threat to America’s time-tested political tradition.

Happy Fourth.

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Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.