Yet Trump’s refusal to concede could nonetheless plant seeds of a future in which such processes of transitions are far from inevitable. If he begins to travel the country over the coming weeks, holding rallies during which he spreads the lie of a stolen election to cheering throngs of supporters, that could do even greater damage. That’s because words matter in democratic politics. By casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Nov. 3 election, Trump conveys the message to his most devoted followers that the political system of the United States is fundamentally rigged against them. And by implying that Philadelphia, with its large Black population, is the primary source of the fraud that will deny them their rightful political power, he interweaves a story of injustice and grievance with outright racism.

When people become convinced that they have no viable path to political power, that the cards are systematically stacked against them, they become tempted to go outside the system — either through political violence against those they believe illegitimately hoard power for themselves, or by throwing their support behind their own tribune’s bid to stay in power beyond the limits allowed by law.

The primary reason why the processes of presidential transition in the United States up through the present unfold with a kind of necessity and are not ultimately dependent on the concession of the losing candidate is that the people who inhabit the institutions responsible for the transfer of power trust the legitimacy of the electoral process, regardless of which candidate or party prevails. But there is no guarantee that they always will. If Trump can pump enough poison into the political culture, the number of people who are willing to facilitate the smooth transition of power will shrink. When that happens, the process will cease to be automatic.