When I started drafting this post yesterday I didn’t think things could get worse. And then, in Wednesday night’s debate, Donald Trump refused to say that he would accept the outcome of the election should he lose.
What I’m saying now is I will tell you at the time. I will keep you in suspense, okay?
There is no precedent for this in American democracy. None. Never in our history has a major party candidate, when asked directly, refused to honor the peaceful transfer of political power.
And no, Trump’s stand is not the same as what Al Gore did in 2000. Gore had in fact conceded the election to Bush. Then, when informed that under Florida election law a recount was mandatory, he rescinded that concession to allow the process to play out as required under the law. And when the Supreme Court ended the recount before it was completed, ensuring Bush’s election, Gore accepted that outcome, and did so graciously.
In fact, Trump’s position is sinister. As Peter Beinart put it at The Atlantic:
For months now, Hillary Clinton has been arguing that Trump represents a threat to American democracy. Tonight he made her point more effectively than she could ever have dreamed.
Frankly, I’ve lost track of all of the things that have alternately mystified, infuriated, and terrified me about this election cycle. But this one is different. Consider me legitimately terrified.
For some time now Donald Trump has been claiming that the presidential election is rigged against him. Warning that the election might be stolen, Trump has called on his supporters to turn out on Election Day not just to vote, but to watch the polls for signs of vote fraud or cheating.
As Vox points out, there is some actual history behind Trump’s charge. American elections have, in the past, really been rigged. But:
They’re incredibly rare, and in fact near impossible, in 2016, which makes bringing up fears of a “rigged election” this year a boogeyman at best and dangerous at worst. But at times in America, they’ve been quite common.
But the people who’ve most often rigged elections aren’t liberal elites acting in cahoots with nonwhite shock troops — they’re white supremacists trying to maintain white power in the face of a diverse electorate.
Trump has been weaving this dangerous narrative for months, which has left election workers across the country on edge:
Poll workers across the country are on high alert after the recent firebombing of a Republican Party headquarters in North Carolina and reports that two armed men lingered for hours outside a Democratic campaign office in Virginia. Some feel that Donald Trump’s claim that the election is rigged, and his suggestion that supporters and their friends go to polling places to “watch,” are rhetorical time bombs.
Over at the Washington Post, though, fellow academic and noted blogger Dan Drezner has taken comfort in the fact that there’s little evidence that anyone’s rushing to heed Trump’s call to arms. Of course this was before Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
Others, however, have been far less convinced. Count me among them.
Because this is how democracies fall. Trump’s refusal to accept the outcome of the election is legitimately horrifying. It opens the door to serious post-election violence by his most radicalized supporters.
Make no mistake, those supporters are out there. In an analysis of Trump’s Facebook posts about election rigging, data scientist Jonathan Morgan found hundreds of individuals involved in armed anti-government militia groups across the country who engaged with the candidate’s message. Morgan writes:
A closer look at militia activity across Facebook reveals that, while many restrict their activity to closed, private communities, over 240 militia groups keep active, public Facebook pages.
It’s on these public pages that supporters who have commented or reacted to Trump’s Facebook posts about rigged elections discuss how they view the upcoming election, the US government, and rebellion. …
Back in June, before he was the Republican nominee, I wrote about how Trump has been embraced by European far-right political parties and movements and endorsed by America’s racist white-nationalist fringe. Given his rejection of the most basic principles and norms of democracy, is it any wonder?