The presidency of Donald Trump has reached its most critical hour. Trump sees himself as the vaunted protagonist against the ropes in a seemingly losing battle pitted against his antagonist. Just as with many of the movies we watch or the stories we read, we want the protagonist to give up, as he manages to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The antagonist is defeated and the credits roll, with the hero frozen in a victory pose for all to see and cheer. That is at least part of the perception Trump wants to create in the eyes of the American public.
Trump sees the world through the eyes of professional wrestling, a staged ballet with clear winners and losers. In wrestling, the results are predetermined and the event primarily functions as entertainment for the masses. The battle is about how well you sell yourself to the crowd, not about the truth of the match. Information that interferes with your narrative is, by default, fake news, regardless of its veracity.
But in reality, it is much more.
Trump is engaged in a fight for his political legacy. Success hinges upon how effectively he can invalidate the legitimacy of votes for his opponent. The totals matter less than the perception of the results.
In his mind, all votes in his favor are genuine and his opponents are fabricated — and he has to give the performance of his life to sell the crowd his story. He wants to play both the confident protagonist and aggrieved victim simultaneously. All votes against him are rigged while any in his favor are legitimate.
American democracy should not rest upon the belief that those who are the loudest or behaved the angriest are the most correct. Voting is not a performance. It is an exercise of one of our citizenry’s most fundamental rights. In American elections, we shake the hands of the winners and console the defeated.
When John Adams lost reelection to Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election, he gave us the road map for presidential behavior. Presidents peaceably surrender power because our democracy is more important than any one man. Whether Trump ultimately wins or loses, his actions now will be his lasting legacy. Government is not theater, and people need a leader who will always move us forward and not simply revel in the roar of the crowd.
Ballot counting is also not a nefarious scheme. People who work for our government do not do it for money or fame. They dedicate their professional lives toward helping it operate in a predictable and fair way. These people are our neighbors, the people who play piano at our religious services, and the people who volunteer at the library on weekends. They are not mustache-twirling villains engaged in an overly complicated plot. These people are average citizens doing an extremely stressful job often for long hours with little pay. They do it because they want it fair and right. They want democracy to work for all of us, and not just for some of us.
We must, as a nation, keep in mind that every presidential election really exists as 50 separate state elections conducted on the same day. The hallmark of a democracy is a free and fair election. Every state has its own rules and regulations.
Disappointment is not fraud. This election has shown us our strength and our weaknesses, and both parties have a lot of work ahead of them for the public. The voters have spoken through the ballot box, and it is up to our elected officials to pay careful attention to their voices.
Shannon Bow O’Brien is an assistant professor of instruction in the Department of Government at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News, Austin American-Statesman and the Abilene Reporter News.