As Trump’s campaign for president has splintered under the weight of his own behavior, the Republican nominee has ever more loudly insisted that nefarious forces are conspiring to steal the election from him. It’s a variation on a theme he trotted out during the primaries, too, when he would complain that the Republican establishment was working to deny him the nomination.
Trump has been undermining the foundations of American democracy for years, at least since jumping on the birther bandwagon in 2011 to promote the racist idea that Barack Obama was ineligible to serve as president. More recently, Trump has run a presidential campaign fueled by rank bigotry, combined with what must be willful ignorance of the Constitutional underpinnings of American democracy and outlandish declarations that run counter to them. He has advocated banning all Muslims from entering the country, suggested that “Second Amendment people” assassinate Hillary Clinton, walked back his promise in the first debate to support her if she wins and threatened in the second debate to imprison her if she doesn’t. His most insidious act, though, has been his repeated suggestion that a Clinton victory will mean the vote was rigged, underscored by his refusal at the third debate to promise that he would accept the results of the election if he lost. “I’ll look at it at the time,” he said.
A major-party candidate proclaiming that any outcome other than his own victory is somehow illegitimate is a dangerous idea unprecedented in the United States. Most people recognize that it represents the narcissistic fever dream of a man who, in Clinton’s words, “lives in an alternate reality.” The trouble is that Trump doesn’t live there alone.
“Whether Trump wins, loses, or loses big, he has empowered fascists, racists, and bigots, wrote The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill after the second presidential debate. “He did not create them, but he has legitimized them by becoming the nominee and openly expressing their heinous, hateful beliefs.”
Fueled by conspiracy theories and a deep-set belief that they’re getting a raw deal, that constituency is already well primed to believe that Clinton and the Democrats are stealing the election in pursuit of some collectivist totalitarian dystopia, and that establishment Republicans are rolling over so they can do it. The irony is that it’s the Republicans who have spent decades working to rig the system.
GOP efforts to tilt the playing field in their favor date back at least to Richard Nixon stoking the fears of racist whites with his “southern strategy.” Since then, rather than woo voters on the strength of the party’s ideas, Republicans have sought to disenfranchise segments of the electorate who are likely to vote against them. They’ve raised the specter of voter fraud (so rare that it’s practically non-existent) to enact strict voter-ID laws that have instead made it harder for people of color, college students and the poor to register and vote. They’ve carefully redrawn Congressional districts nationwide to create unassailable GOP strongholds, making it nearly impossible for Democrats to win the House of Representatives until after the next round of redistricting, in 2020. (Republicans didn’t invent gerrymandering, of course, but they’ve raised it to an art form, as shown in Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, by my former Hartford Courant colleague David Daley.)
Lest a watchful press fully stymie their efforts, the right has spent so long railing against the “liberal media” that they’ve come to believe their own propaganda, a perspective reinforced through the shaded reality offered by right-wing outlets like Fox News, The Drudge Report and a network of conservative talk-radio hosts. They’ve been so successful that a sizable portion of the country has come to thoroughly distrust the so-called mainstream media. The effects are particularly deleterious this election cycle, when fact-checking and debunking of Trump’s lies, exaggerations and outright demagoguery are dismissed by the candidate and his hardcore partisans as collusion between Clinton, a candidate derided by the right as a corrupt criminal, and a biased media doing her bidding.
“We now have an audience that is conditioned to say, ‘Well, you know, that’s the mainstream media, that is the liberal media, I’m not going to take that seriously,’” Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio host, told The New York Times in August. He continued, “You begin to realize you’ve basically cut down all of these guideposts to be able to say, ‘Look this is what is reliable, this is what is not reliable.’ ”
So when Trump calls the presidential election “one big fix,” or tweets things like, “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day,” or says that a vengeful media is inventing the recent allegations that he has sexually assaulted at least 10 women, he’s catering to the suspicions of an audience that’s eager to believe. Some among them have started to respond with unsettling rhetoric about “pitchforks and torches,” or starting a coup in the increasingly likely event that Clinton wins.
This is usually where the hardcore apologists interject, “But the Democrats!” That is a false equivalence, especially this year. The Democratic Party has plenty of its own issues, but no dirty tricks it has ever pulled matches the craven cynicism on display this election cycle as down-ballot Republicans, instead of rejecting outright the misogyny and racism of the Trump campaign, calculate just how far they can distance themselves from Trump and still win.
Anyone with even a scant amount of common sense should know better, but suddenly knowing better isn’t enough. For all the hypothesizing on what a Trump presidency might mean for America, or focusing on the expanding list of reasons why he’s not fit to serve, there’s been too little discussion of the considerable damage that Trump will have done to the republic even in losing—especially if he refuses to acknowledge that he was defeated in a fair election. In the long run, the evolving demographics of America are against him and the paranoiac movement that he has come to front, but it’s neither feasible nor desirable to put off repairing American democracy until the don’t-tread-on-me crowd ages into extinction and irrelevance.
Never mind geopolitics or the economy, perhaps the toughest and most pressing job facing the next president is the need to find unity at home—a task made all the more difficult by the fact that Trump has been preaching to a choir that’s going to keep singing, whether he’s in the pulpit or not. His candidacy is the logical extension of all the years Republicans have spent trying to game the system while playing to the party’s fringe. Their efforts have left us with a system that’s more than rigged—it’s booby-trapped.