“Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser,” Vince Lombardi, a New Yorker (coaching at Fordham and with the Giants) before he went on to Green Bay and immortality, once said. Though the American form of good sportsmanship was almost invented in this city—the peerless Christy Mathewson of the early-twentieth-century baseball Giants was so honest that umpires were said to have consulted him on close plays—we can’t deny our own special traditions of sore losers. Leo (“Nice guys finish last”) Durocher was before Donald Trump’s time, but George Steinbrenner’s outrages and absurdities as the owner of the Yankees, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, presented Trump with a model for taking over an American institution and trashing it at the same time. Steinbrenner, whom Trump called “a great friend,” routinely pioneered new frontiers in poor sportsmanship, even berating his own best players. He sneered at his Hall of Fame outfielder Dave Winfield—“I got rid of Mr. October and got Mr. May”—though Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson, hardly had a pacific relationship with him, either. Steinbrenner’s quintessential sore-loser moment came in 1981 when, after the Dodgers beat the Yankees for a third straight game in the World Series, he claimed to have injured his hand beating up two much younger Dodger fans who had taunted him in an elevator—something that basically no one believed, assuming, instead, that he had punched a wall in a rage and hurt himself. (The Yankees went on to lose the Series, in New York.) That’s pretty much the working model for what Trump has done this month: lose, have a tantrum, and blame the opposition for his bruises. The difference is that New York sportswriters were skeptical of Steinbrenner’s stories, but Republican leaders are not, or pretend not to be, skeptical of Trump’s lies.
So sore losing is a subject unto itself, to be placed alongside the gracious kind. It is no accident, after all, that the ideal of good sportsmanship—unknown to the ancient Greeks—arose in the nineteenth century. Good sportsmanship grew up with parliamentary democracy, as a kind of mimic liberal institution; learning to lose graciously is part of living in an equal-opportunity political world. Good sportsmanship implies the enduring legitimacy of the other side and the natural oscillation of winning and losing as something normal—not something fatal, to be feared. The idea of shaking hands with the other side after a loss is so fundamental to our democratic morality that, at the height of the pandemic lockdown, when that Michael Jordan documentary was everywhere, we were still upbraiding Isiah Thomas, of the Pistons, for failing to congratulate the Bulls after the Pistons lost a series all the way back in 1991. A handshake is expected because it demonstrates your commitment to the rules of the game.
And so, the columns and pixels this week have been filled with examples, meant to be tutelary, or shaming—but there’s no shaming Trump—of concession speeches past by gracious Presidential losers. John McCain’s concession, from 2008, is rightly replayed again and again, as a speech not merely grudgingly correct but actively admirable in its lasering in on the historic magnificence of the moment and its “special significance” for African-Americans. (“Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on earth.”)
And, just from recent vintages, one can add to McCain’s speech gracious concessions from Jimmy Carter (“I urge all of you to join in with me in a sincere and fruitful effort to support my successor when he undertakes this great responsibility as President”), George H. W. Bush (“There is important work to be done, and America must always come first. So we will get behind this new President and wish him well”), and, yes, Al Gore (“Now the political struggle is over, and we turn again to the unending struggle for the common good of all Americans and for those multitudes around the world who look to us for leadership in the cause of freedom”).
But there is also an American tradition of sore Presidential-ticket losers; one need only look at McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, standing silent by his side as he conceded but obviously rarin’ to speak, to recall that she had to be prevented from saying the wrong thing. And then there is what, until this week, had been seen as the lowest moment in American political bad sportsmanship: Richard Nixon’s press conference after he lost the race for the California governorship, in 1962. His famous statement—“You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore”—still resonates and reminds us that right-wing fantasies about every rejection being the result of a hostile media did not begin this year.
Digging further back into history, there is also the fascinatingly ambivalent concession speech of one of the few American Presidential losers who had at least some right to be sore. That’s Samuel Tilden, Democrat of New York, who, after the notorious election of 1876, got shafted. He won the popular vote but then lost the electoral vote at the hands of a supposedly bipartisan “electoral commission,” which—in ways that make one uneasy about any potential contemporary appeal to the Supreme Court—ended up voting on straight partisan lines. Tilden, speaking in this city, when the election was finally settled, in 1877, said, “In the world’s history, changes in the succession of governments have usually been the result of fraud or force. It has been our faith and our pride that we had established a mode of peaceful change to be worked out by the agency of the ballot box. The question now is whether our elective system, in its substance as well as its form, is to be maintained.” But he ended on a surprisingly positive note: “If my voice could reach throughout our country and be heard in its remotest hamlet, I would say, ‘Be of good cheer. The Republic will live. The institutions of our fathers are not to expire in shame. The sovereignty of the people shall be rescued from this peril and be reëstablished.’ ” (The sovereignty of some of the people, anyway: Tilden was also a tacit party to the Compromise of 1877, the understanding by which Republicans agreed, as a sop to the Democrats for losing the Presidency, to remove federal troops from the South and abandon the Black population there to its persecutors for most of the next century—the most fateful, and fatal, outcome of that election.)
What all these concessions remind us is that being a good loser, in sports and politics alike, is not merely an ornamental curlicue on the surface of things. What was wrong with Steinbrenner’s bad grace was not just that he made a fool of himself but that he made a fool of the game of baseball, whose pleasure depends on the whole idea of a contest with an unknown outcome. We can’t take pleasure in a Yankee victory if only Yankee victories are regarded as acceptable outcomes. Graciously accepting the outcome, however painful, is not a norm of baseball; it is a premise of baseball—without it, the point of playing becomes lost.
We hear again and again that Trump is “violating norms”—which gives the impression that they are mere standards of behavior or decorum. In truth, rules that are not written down are often the most essential. It does not say, on the rules on the back of the Monopoly box, that you cannot use a machine gun to force the banker to sell you Boardwalk. But anyone who came to a Monopoly game armed with a machine gun would not be playing Monopoly. What Trump is doing is not violating norms but assaulting premises—the very premises that make democracy possible, which comes down to a higher form of sportsmanship, all turning on accepting the legitimacy of the other side.
It is not a norm of Presidential elections to concede when you have lost. It is a premise of having Presidential elections that you concede when you have lost. Joe Biden’s campaign is obviously proceeding on the assumption that the dumbest thing you can do with Trump is take the bait; blithely rising above his bad faith seems like the shrewd play. But don’t underestimate the final existential threat in this ongoing four-year emergency. It is real and scary. Being a good loser isn’t a norm or a nicety of democracy. It’s a premise and a principle. People who ignore the handshake are usually also the same people who go on to try and fix the game. Bad sportsmanship is a warning of worse.