The Trump-Biden transition is unique — but it wasn’t the first to spiral into conflict

Richard Nixon’s close political allies alleged voting fraud and demanded recounts after his loss to John F. Kennedy in 1960, including in New Jersey. Unlike President Donald Trump, Nixon publicly accepted the loss, though he privately said he’d been robbed.

Herbert Hoover attempted to undermine Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s proposed New Deal after Hoover lost the 1932 presidential election, setting the stage for political divisions that still exist.

Andrew Jackson’s followers blamed a so-called “corrupt bargain” in Congress for costing him the presidency in 1824. He won four years later, supported by people who believed he was their champion against Washington elites.

History experts say that the transition following the 2020 election is certainly unique, taking place amid a presidential impeachment, widely-believed but debunked claims of voter fraud, and threats of violence by groups fueled by bizarre conspiracy theories. But, while peaceful presidential handoffs following even the most contentious elections are a hallmark of American politics, they are not always smooth.

The Civil War, of course, is by far the worst outcome of a presidential election. But while it was triggered by Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, it was the result of deep divisions over slavery, not over who won the election. James Buchanan, unlike Trump, accepted defeat and quietly left office.

“You have a different kind of secession going on” this year — “a secession of people into separate universes of facts, the bottomless pit of conspiracy theories,” said Peter Woolley, director of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s School of Public and Global Affairs. “The analogy is when you refuse to accept the legitimacy of the government, you’re putting the country in danger.”.

Some experts say the conflicts are likely to continue after Joe Biden’s inauguration. He could be the first president to take office without a single confirmed cabinet member and amid ongoing hearings related to his predecessor’s impeachment. And, against all evidence and dozens of court decisions, millions of people still believe he did not win the presidency, as Trump refuses to concede.

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That’s quite a contrast to 2000, when Al Gore conceded that George W. Bush won the presidency after weeks of legal wrangling over a recount in Florida that was ended by the Supreme Court.

“One of the foundational principals of American democracy is if you lose, you walk away,” said Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Rowan University Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship.

But the three-month transition period between presidential elections and inaugurations can provide a stage to amplify political conflicts, and in some cases have defined political divisions that lasted for years — or even generations.

“The long transition is just an opportunity for catastrophe,” said Eric Rauchway, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis who has written about the Hoover-Roosevelt transition. “It serves no purpose other than to make trouble.”.

Adams-Jefferson, 1800

After an election campaign marked by personal attacks, John Adams “rode out of town on a horse” following his 1800 loss to Thomas Jefferson, declining to attend the inauguration of a man he had come to detest, said Woolley, the FDU professor.

Adams and Jefferson disagreed on political principles — Adams favored a strong central government while Jefferson opposed it. But the bitterness of the 1800 election may have stemmed from Jefferson supporters accusing Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character” while Adams supporters called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow,” according to history.Com.

The two men didn’t speak for several years after the election. They later renewed their friendship, writing letters to one another until they died on the same day, July 4, 1826.

“It turned out there was a deep kindred between Adams and Jefferson,” Woolley said. “I don’t think we’re going to discover that with Trump or anybody else.”.

Adams-Jackson, 1824 &1828

John Quincy Adams, like his father John Adams, did not attend the inauguration of the man who defeated him. Like Trump’s 2016 victory, Andrew Jackson’s ascension to the presidency in 1828 was considered an enormous triumph by followers who believed it represented a repudiation of the elite class that controlled the country. Thousands of people poured into the White House after the inauguration.

“There was this rowdy exultation — but they weren’t there to undermine democracy,” said David Greenberg, a professor of history, journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. “They were there to celebrate it.”.

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The mob caused damage but was lured outside when bowls containing an alcoholic punch were set on the White House lawn, Greenberg said.

The inaugural celebration in 1829 and the bitterness of the election can be traced to four years earlier — when Congress gave the presidency to John Quincy Adams over Jackson and other candidates. There are some similarities to the 2020 election and its aftermath. But unlike Trump, who lost the election, Jackson led in popular votes and in the electoral college, though he did not have enough electoral votes to win.

“Jackson spent the next four years calling it a corrupt bargain and undermining Adams’ presidency,” Woolley said.

Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House of Representatives who had been among the presidential candidates in 1824, fashioned a coalition in Congress that gave the White House to Adams. Clay then became Adams’ Secretary of State.

“Jackson followers felt left behind, outsiders looked down upon by the elite, and that their frontier freedoms were going to be reined in,” Wooley said, adding that the 1828 victory was “their revenge.”.

Hoover-Roosevelt, 1932

Even as banks were failing, Hoover believed an economic turnaround was just around the corner — but was being undermined by Roosevelt’s victory, leading to a loss in confidence in the economy, according to Rauchway, the University of California professor. He wrote about the transition in his book, “Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt and the First Clash Over the New Deal.”.

Hoover attempted to get Roosevelt to sign on to his economic policies, including signing off on a commission to consider forgiveness of international debt. Roosevelt refused, believing Hoover’s policies would undermine his proposed New Deal, a massive public works program that helped bring the country out of the Great Depression. Meanwhile, Rauchway said Roosevelt tried to get Congress to pass New Deal legislation before he took office, an effort that Hoover short-circuited with threats of a veto.

“It was a highly ideological campaign and Roosevelt won in a landslide,” Rauchway said, adding that the American people “expected a dramatic change in dealing with the Depression and a long-term change to how the federal government would relate to ordinary Americans.”.

Rauchway said the result was to “sort out the parties” as progressive Republicans and Black people began to move to the Democratic Party. Hoover, who complained that the New Deal was socialistic, solidified the Republican Party’s conservative ideology.

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That set the stage for decades of political conflicts as Roosevelt signed into law such measures as Social Security and Unemployment Insurance. In the 1960s, Lyndon B. Johnson, who considered Roosevelt a mentor, continued that pattern by signing into law Medicare and civil rights reforms that political experts have said helped lead to Democrats losing control of the South.

Nixon-Kennedy, 1960

Richard Nixon’s allies alleged voting fraud in Chicago and Texas, filing lawsuits and pushing for recounts in multiple states, including in New Jersey, an echo of Trump’s claims following November’s election. But there was a difference: Nixon publicly distanced himself from those attempts, even though he apparently agreed with them.

“He wanted the points for publicly being statesmanlike even though that’s not who he was,” said Greenberg, the Rutgers professor. Greenberg wrote a book about Nixon — “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image” — and has written about the 1960 transition for several publications.

He said Nixon told people at a Christmas party that he’d been robbed and falsely said that President Dwight Eisenhower supported the recount efforts. The allegations that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley helped tip the election to John F. Kennedy are still believed by some people despite a lack of evidence, Greenberg said.

But there wasn’t a widespread movement in support of Nixon, as there has been for Trump. Greenberg said that Nixon, because he wasn’t the incumbent president, didn’t have the same kind of power Trump has had to call the Georgia secretary of state or fly in Michigan state legislators. Nixon also didn’t have the same kind of following and didn’t try to rally the public to support claims of fraud.

“It didn’t take hold as a cause or a rallying cry for millions of voters as we saw this winter,” Greenberg said.

But Nixon’s close allies brought multiple lawsuits, just as Trump did. They resulted in several recounts that affirmed the election results, with one exception. Greenberg said that Democrats asked for a recount in Hawaii that flipped the state — from Nixon to Kennedy.

Abbott Koloff is an investigative reporter for NorthJersey.Com. To get unlimited access to his watchdog work that safeguards our communities and democracy, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: [email protected].

Twitter: @abbottkoloff.