As his presidential candidacy careens toward what increasingly looks like a bitter end on Election Day, Donald Trump is lashing out — at his Democratic opponent, at Republican congressional leaders who belatedly have distanced themselves from him, at the women who have come forward to accuse him of forcing himself on them, and, of course, at the “dishonest and distorted media.”
But Trump also is targeting the very political system in which he is competing for the presidency. He is claiming that this election is “rigged” — in the literal sense that the machinery of the electoral process will be manipulated to his disadvantage and that the results will be tainted by fraud.
This is dangerous demagoguery, even for Trump.
On Sunday the Republican nominee tweeted: “The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary — but also at many polling places — SAD.” This contradicted the spin offered by his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who as part of his endless exercise in damage control had previously explained that Trump’s allegations of “rigging” were actually a reference to media bias. In the same “Meet the Press” interview, Pence had said: “We will absolutely accept the results of the election.” But Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway later dialed that back, saying “of course” Trump would accept the will of the voters, “absent evidence of wrongdoing, of irregularities and voter fraud.”
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There is no need to attach such qualifications, because Trump’s claim of large-scale voter fraud is preposterous. Trump is casually undermining — and with no evidence — the presumption that elections are fair and that their outcome must be respected by losers and their supporters. That assumption in turn makes possible the peaceful transition of power and respect for the rule of law on which this country long has prided itself.
That respect is the cornerstone not only of a stable democracy, but also a functional one. If people question the legitimacy of an election just because it’s won by someone they disagree with, there’s little hope of bridging ideological differences and striking the compromises that are an essential part of governing a divided country.
Ignoring such considerations, Trump doubled down in another tweet on Monday: “Of course there is large-scale voter fraud happening on and before Election Day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naive!”
This was an echo of Trump’s longstanding call for call for supporters to serve as election “observers” to (as his website puts it) “stop Crooked Hillary from rigging this election!” despite offering no proof that such “rigging” is actually occurring. Instead, he’s just recycling the fearmongering about virtually non-existent election fraud that Republican state officials and lawmakers have increasingly used as a pretext to make it harder for their constituents to cast ballots. The courts have blocked a number of those efforts, saying they appeared designed to help Republicans.
But it gets worse. In campaign appearances in Pennsylvania, a state in which polls show him badly trailing Clinton, Trump has overlaid his absurd allegations of voter fraud with racial insinuations. He has called for particular vigilance in Philadelphia, alluding to the myth that votes for Mitt Romney weren’t counted four years ago in black precincts there. That black voters might overwhelmingly have wanted to re-elect the first African-American president seems not to have occurred to the conspiracy theorists.
“The real threat to the integrity of elections in Philadelphia isn’t voter fraud, though it does rarely occur,” Al Schmidt, the Republican vice chairman of board that oversees elections in that city said on Monday. “And it isn’t even Russian hackers, though they may certainly exist. The real threat to the integrity of elections is irresponsible accusations that undermine confidence in the electoral process.”
Some damage may already have been done. A Politico/Morning Consult poll published Monday found that 73 percent of respondents who’d voted for Romney agreed that this year’s election could be “stolen” from Trump because of widespread voter fraud.
If Trump makes that claim on election night, and a significant number of his supporters believe him, a body blow will have been struck to a foundational principle of democracy: Respect for the outcome of elections even if your candidate isn’t the winner.