On August 7, 1974, and on September 15, 1998, the Chicago Tribune editorial board did something that I am still waiting for it to do in 2020: It published an editorial demanding the immediate resignation of the President of the United States.
I dearly want the Tribune to do that now, any day. If we’re lucky, the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board will do so too, as will any number of ed boards around the country, just as scores of papers did in 1974 with President Nixon, and in 1998 with President Clinton.
President Trump’s actions in office this year alone have been far worse than anything Nixon or Clinton did (even Trump agreed with the latter), and yet to my knowledge, only one newspaper in the country has published an editorial in 2020 demanding his resignation. That was the Portland Press Herald in Maine, which wrote on June 5 that Trump — just the third president in U.S. history to be impeached — “lacks the character, maturity and judgment to lead the country in a perilous time.”
That paper cited Trump’s failure in three areas: containing COVID-19, rebuilding the economy during the recession and bringing peace to the protests over the police murder of George Floyd.
The pandemic has only gotten worse. Tomorrow, many Americans will spend Thanksgiving without their full family celebrations so as not to spread or contract the virus, while far too many other Americans will flout medical advice and see family anyhow. I have trouble placing too much blame at the feet of the Americans who get together with family, since many will be following the advice of the president, who one study showed was “likely the largest driver of … COVID-19 misinformation” in the country.
The president’s attack on our elections
The president’s COVID-19 lies became even more dangerous when he mixed them with the election. While the president spent the summer and fall raging against masks, he also raged against mail-in ballots, seemingly hoping that the people who listened to him on one would be the same people who would listen to him on the other.
Those Americans more inclined to vote for his challenger would also be the ones less inclined to vote in person, and since mail-in ballots would be counted after in-person ballots, Trump would, the thinking went, simply declare victory on election night even when votes were still being counted.
He would do this with preemptive legal action, he said on Nov. 2, the day before the election: “I think it’s a terrible thing when ballots can be collected after an election. … I think a lot of fraud and misuse can take place … and we’re going to go in the night of, as soon as that election’s over, we’re going in with our lawyers.”
This is, of course, exactly what happened. And this is where the president committed an offense against Americans that is the second worst thing he’s done in 2020, after the nearly 260,000 COVID deaths on his watch: He didn’t simply take baseless legal action or claim that he believed he was going to win — he claimed on election night that he “already (had) won.”
“We were getting ready to win this election,” Trump said in a press conference while millions of votes were still being counted in an election he would end up losing in a historic defeat for an incumbent. “And frankly, we did win this election.”
He baselessly claimed that the election was a “major fraud on our nation” and said he would take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We will win this,” he said, “and as far as I’m concerned, we already have won.”
Fast forward three weeks, and still no newspaper that I’ve seen besides the Press Herald has published an editorial demanding the president’s resignation. I would imagine that editorial boards feel that with Joe Biden winning the election, such an editorial would be pointless.
Why it matters that the president won’t concede
Yet we now have another problem that demands our journalism leaders: Trump won’t concede.
Donald Trump’s governing principle is simple: Donald Trump is the lone source of truth and anything that objects is fake. The press is fake, negative news stories about him are fake, photos of his sparse inauguration crowd are fake, COVID-19 is fake — and now, the election is fake.
None of this is funny. The president has attacked our elections ever since he won in 2016, back when he lied and said that he only lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton because of three to five million illegal votes cast solely for her. He launched a commission to investigate voter fraud, and disbanded it a year later when it came up empty. He boomed repeatedly and with no evidence about impending voter fraud in the 2020 election, and now, since election day, his barrage of legal action has strictly targeted states he lost — six of them in all — with repeated attempts to disenfranchise Americans simply because they likely voted against him.
He is losing in court. Badly. Even now as I write this, with Emily Murphy, the administrator of the General Services Administration, approving the formal transition process, Trump is still fighting against the extraordinarily normal act of concession.
The closest he has come to a concession was two days ago, when he tweeted that, “I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same.”
Yet even yesterday, he again claimed that the election was “stolen” from him, a drum he seemingly will beat long into his twilight years, summed up best in an infamous tweet on Nov. 15 in which he wrote in all capital letters, “I WON THE ELECTION!”
When journalism fails, democracy does too
It would be easy to dismiss all of this as the desperate, innocuous ramblings of a man who one way or another will be out of the White House on January 20. I can see editorial boards discarding the notion of an editorial calling for his concession out of the assumption that his departure is a foregone conclusion.
But the effects of his refusal to abide by this previously rote, American norm are proving deadly for both our democracy and our electorate. I’ve heard plenty of people, including friends and family, say that none of these efforts are “working,” citing his court losses as proof of his failure. This depends on one’s definition of “working.” I look at the number of GOP elected officials who, today, still refuse to acknowledge President-elect Joe Biden, and I see a win for Trump. I look at pro-Trump polling and I see a win for Trump.
Last week, a Reuters / Ipsos poll found that 52% of Republican respondents believed that the president had “rightfully won” the 2020 election. This week, according to a CNBC/Change Research poll, that number is even higher, as 73% of all polled Trump voters believe that Trump is the “legitimate winner” of this election.
The longer that the president holds this office and continues claiming that he won an election that he lost, the longer his followers will continue to believe that the American system is rigged against him.
This is a deep problem for our elections moving forward; mild rebukes from journalists help legitimize this bogus notion that every vote not cast for a given candidate is suspect, and that no election is finished until it has been baselessly dragged into court.
A more immediate problem is in our attempt to at long last contain and defeat the virus. Those who believe Trump “rightfully won” an election he lost are unlikely to follow any safety measures imposed by the rightful president whom they deem a usurper.
Trump is going to be Trump. We all know that. But he did not take this office, and keep it, by virtue of his own lies alone. He had many accomplices along the way, including a range of journalists — local and national, in print and on the air — who too often did not hold him accountable.
Why we need strong newspaper editorials
This is where newspaper editorials come in. No one who has watched this president even a day in the past four years believes he will resign (at least not without some kind of personal benefit) and it certainly does not seem believable that he will ever do anything as noble and humble as concede.
But the purpose of an editorial is not necessarily to lasso a desired outcome. It’s to use your credibility, status and influence to draw a line of acceptable behavior. An editorial demanding that Trump concede and resign, with a splashy headline to share the world round, creates a new environment around the president and his actions. Were the Tribune, Sun-Times or any other major American newspaper to demand his concession and/or his resignation, that action gives cover to other papers to do the same. It gives cover to GOP politicians to do the same. It gives cover to business leaders to do the same.
I might expect less from our hometown papers had they endorsed him, but neither did in either 2016 or 2020. Both papers endorsed Joe Biden this year, while also arguing against Trump’s re-election. The Tribune did so rather meekly in my opinion — (“There is value in electing a president who does not insult, mock or demean. Our country can and must do better.”) — but the Sun-Times came out guns blazing, writing:
“It would be enough for us to argue here for a vote against Donald Trump. Our country can’t take any more of him. If the Democratic alternative were a sock puppet, we’d urge a vote for the sock puppet.”
Both boards have at least published editorials noting Biden’s victory, and the damage that Trump is creating in denying that. The Sun-Times went first, on Nov. 13, with a piece titled, “Every day Trump won’t get out of the way he puts our country in danger.” That was pretty close to a demand for him to concede, with the board writing, “President Donald Trump is throwing up every obstacle to a smooth transition to a Biden administration, in keeping with his refusal to accept that Biden won the Nov. 3 election, and the consequences of his petulance are more than politically unfortunate.”
Three days later, the Tribune board published one titled, “Trump’s baseless claims won’t change reality. He lost the election.” That editorial’s boldest statement is simply that the president lost, and that while he “doesn’t have to like the result … that won’t change the reality.”
These are clear words, but not strong ones. They are certainly not direct and potent enough to combat the president’s assault on our elections, an assault happening at this very moment in Wisconsin, our neighbor to the north, where a conservative group has filed a lawsuit in hopes that Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature might defy the will of the people and instead cast the state’s 10 electoral votes in favor of President Trump.
With this kind of outrageous battery against voters, neither the Sun-Times’ nor the Tribune’s editorials pack the blunt force of a headline reading, “Trump must concede and resign now.”
A plea to the editorial boards of the Tribune and Sun-Times
We once had that type of strength from our papers of record.
On August 7, 1974, the Tribune concluded its editorial about President Nixon (titled “The case is complete…”) with the following:
“Surely wiser heads in the White House will continue to urge Mr. Nixon to resign. … Getting the matter over with as quickly as possible must now be the first order of business — in the interest of the country and of Mr. Nixon himself.”
Nixon announced his resignation the next day, effective at noon on August 9.
On September 15, 1998, that board was even more direct about the not-yet-impeached President Clinton. Titled “The president’s last chance at honor,” this editorial was published four days after the release of the Starr Report, with the board admonishing him in clear, concise language.
“For now, however, the question before the nation is what to do about Bill Clinton, liar under oath, obstructor of justice — and president. Congress, uncharacteristically sober, is moving toward a decision on whether to conduct an impeachment inquiry.
“Clinton could make all that moot by electing to do the right thing, the honorable thing: Resign.”
Since the middle of the year, I have pushed the Tribune and Sun-Times — and their editorial board editors Kristen McQueary and Tom McNamee, respectively — to publish editorials demanding that Trump resign, and now, concede. I’ve done so via Twitter, email, and with McQueary, a voicemail to the Tribune office, with no response. Incredibly, the conservative Washington Examiner, once squarely in Trump’s corner (and he in its), beat both the Tribune and the Sun-Times to the “concede now” editorial punch.
I don’t believe that McQueary and McNamee, and the boards they lead, have any more or less responsibility to publish these editorials than any other major paper. I merely focus on them because they’re my hometown papers. My family subscribed to both growing up. I’ve been published by both as an adult. Even this very blog you are reading now is part of Tribune Publishing Company.
So my focus is here, with these two papers, in hopes that America can start a wave that will roll back the anti-Constitutional, anti-American insanity of a president claiming victory in an election he’s lost and pushing his supporters to believe that their franchise has been stolen from them, all while presiding over a pandemic he refuses to acknowledge as real even as it kills hundreds of thousands of his constituents.
I want to see these editorials published by my papers, and no, I don’t care that he has less than two months remaining in office. Even at this late hour, I still want our mightiest institutions to hold Donald Trump to the standard of the presidency, rather than holding the presidency to the standard of Donald Trump.
Jack Silverstein is a Chicago journalist and historian. Here is his ongoing, two-year thread on this presidency.