Should he actually take his campaign all the way up to voting day, and not just abruptly drop out some time between now and November 8th as some senior Republicans seriously fear, Donald Trump has in place a contingency plan in case he isn’t elected the next president of the United States. At this point, polls are still fluctuating too often for anyone to definitively say Trump won’t ultimately go on to take the White House (providing he actually accepts the position of POTUS, which he’s previously suggested he might not). But just to be sure, last week, with his poll numbers dropping, Trump took out an insurance policy on his own campaign, suggesting live on television and at his rallies that the upcoming election would be rigged against him.
Well sure, you might think, Donald Trump has said a lot of crazy things this election cycle; does any of it even still register with anyone? But in this post-truth world, many an average Trump supporter — told for years by the right-wing media not to trust liberal voices, the mainstream press or politicians in general — now looks to Donald Trump as the voice of reason. Trump has succeeded thus far by speaking the language of the already conspiracy-fed, establishment-skeptic American right. He knows he can tell this core base anything (remember those innocent days of “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”, when that was still the craziest thing Trump had said?) and they’ll continue to follow. Now, Trump is reinforcing their belief that a Democrat-biased system is conspiring against them. Already, they’re responding in agreement to his suggestion that the election will be a fix.
Politicians taking advantage of the post-truth climate by publicly questioning the legitimacy of modern democracy is nothing new. It’s a method of approach that allows particularly unscrupulous politicians to claim that, should a result not go their way, victory was unfairly denied to them by the powers-that-be. This keeps their supporters disillusioned and on-side, their anger ready to be tapped into whenever voting comes around again. Only recently, Britain’s Nigel Farage and Austria’s Norbert Hofer both chose to take this very tack.
Farage prior to the UK’s EU referendum expressed concern about potential vote fixing and called for a further referendum if his side didn’t win, promising his followers that a vote to Remain wouldn’t be the end of the matter. (Luckily for Farage his team, Vote Leave, won anyway.) Meanwhile when Norbert Hofer, leader of the Nazi-founded Freedom Party, lost Austria’s presidential election by a hair back in May, he immediately suggested the vote was fixed. He later backtracked, but many of his backers still refused to believe the result was genuine. A second vote was called, is due to take place this fall, and now polls suggest Hofer is on track to become Europe’s first far-right head of state since the end of the Second World War.
Donald Trump may not be spinning yarns about election fraud for the same reasons as Farage and Hofer. Those two tapped into a feeling because they wanted a backup plan, one that increased their chances of eventually getting what they wanted. The Donald’s tactic of distorting truth to pass failure off as success, however, is classic Trump; it’s what he’s been doing all his life to uphold his brand. To Trump, bolstering his image as a successful, self-made man is the part that matters. Everything we’ve seen so far in this election cycle suggests Trump is only in the race to win, not to actually be president (“I’ll let you know how I feel after it happens,” he replied when asked if he’d actually take the job upon winning).
For Trump, peddling this vote rigging conspiracy may just be his way of saving face among his followers should he ultimately lose. Trump loves to win — he swears to us constantly that he’s a winner — and this new tactic ensures he’s already set for a win-win situation. If he’s awarded the most electoral votes in November, Trump becomes the biggest winner of them all by being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, but if he loses, he’ll insist to trusting supporters that the game was fixed all along, that he merely had victory snatched from him by the establishment.
If Donald Trump loses in November, it will be tempting — after more than a year of xenophobia, racism, sexism and endless self-promotion — to at long last breathe a sigh of relief. There shouldn’t be much concern about Trump, like career politicians Farage or Hofer, picking up with his supporters where he left off at any future elections. (By 2020 Trump will be 74, and it’s hard to imagine this flip-flopping Demopubtarian has viewed entering the vaunted world of politics as much more than an opportunity to boost his profile.) But though Trump may no longer be a threat after that point, his hardcore supporters — still disenfranchised and desirous of a change that disrupts the present order — will be. Those voters aren’t going anywhere, and by feeding them this vote rigging myth, Trump will have made said voters more angry and paranoid than ever.
According to political scientist Geoffrey Skelley, Trump is currently setting America up for “instability,” the kind that’s “bad for the country and bad for the legitimacy of the next government.” Indeed, Republican strategist and Trump confidante Roger Stone has publicly said the aim is to pick holes in a Clinton victory so it results in a constitutional crisis and mass protests: “The government will be shut down if they attempt to steal this and swear Hillary in. No, we will not stand for it.” Trump was always going to say anything so a loss in November didn’t look like one to his supporters. But the side-effect of Trump wanting to look like the big man even in defeat could leave America bitterly divided.