It is difficult to turn on the news, let alone a speech or tweet by Mr. Trump, that does not use one specific word: rigged.
Indeed, just today Mr. Trump went on yet another tweetstorm, with several tweets highlighting conspiracy theories that the media is rigging things in favor of his opponent Secretary Clinton. Mr. Trump has repeatedly made the claim that if he loses Pennsylvania, it will be because the election was rigged, despite the fact that Pennsylvania has voted for Democrats from 1992 onward. Even in August, 69% of Trump supporters in North Carolina believed that if Clinton wins, the election will have been rigged against him, with only 16% viewing it as being because she legitimately won more votes.
This is dangerous and frightening for a few reasons.
To begin with, voter fraud is all but nonexistent, with a comprehensive investigation finding only 31 legitimate cases of voter fraud out of a billion votes cast.
And it is not surprising, when thinking like the Downesian rational voter: the probability of being a pivotal voter is virtually zero, with a much higher probability of being penalized due to the illegality of that action.
Yet despite the essentially inconsequential nature of voter fraud, it continues to be used as a justification for Mr. Trump to call upon his supporters to “watch” polls in “certain” areas, suggesting that they intimidate minorities in their precincts, which of course are far more predominantly Democratic. And distressingly, his supporters are answering Mr. Trump’s call to action, both pledging to “watch” minorities and immigrants, and discussing outright revolution and bloodshed in the event of a Clinton win. And as Nate Persily and Jon Cohen note, the lack of faith of democracy is driven in part by partisan identification, with only 52% of voters expressing continued faith in American democracy, but 6 in 10 Democratic voters still having faith in Democracy but only 4 in 10 Republican voters saying the same. Protection of democracy should not be a partisan matter. Rather, it is a system through which Democrats win sometimes and Republicans win sometimes, and that is healthy. Sadly, this issue no longer transcends party identification. It has gone from being about left versus right to being about Trump versus facts.
That the Republican Party would be engaged in voter suppression efforts is, sadly, not new. One reality is that the Democratic Party typically thrives with higher turnout. Another is that the Democratic Party thrives especially with higher turnout among minorities, and that demographic changes (along with shifts toward a more socially tolerant worldview amid generational replacement) make outreach to new swaths of voters difficult for the Republican Party absent some changes to its social policy agenda. When looking to win an election, you can broaden your base, or you can maximize your existing base. Absent the confidence that a base strategy can garner an election victory, some sadly turn to restricting the opponent’s turnout, whether legislatively through voter ID legislation, or illegally through intimidation at polling places and the spread of misinformation. Trump himself recognizes this, tweeting on the 2012 election night that "more votes equals a loss." This is common knowledge but not expressed as blatantly in the public sphere.
It is not new, but it is dangerous in that it attacks the very core of our democratic process, which depends on our accepting election outcomes as valid whether or not we were the victor, whether or not we are pleased. Absent a view that our votes count or that our election is legitimate, we lose also the faith in the legitimacy of the leaders to whom we look in the White House and in Congress (as sadly exemplified by Mr. Trump’s perpetuation of the birther movement and his recent reference to the Obama presidency in air quotes, thus giving ammunition to those seeking to challenge the legitimacy of the policies of his administration). It is dangerous and frightening. And more than that, it is un-American. And it is un-patriotic.
Mr. Trump has a history of not accepting election outcomes that he finds displeasing. Indeed, right after President Obama won reelection by a commanding margin, he tweeted, “This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!” Yet Governor Romney was, as should be accepted of any adult in the public sphere, a gracious loser, and in a recent speech in Nevada with Joe Heck did his part to reinstate that approach: he said that he was out-organized (“I wanted to run in the worst way possible and that’s what I did, I lost”) and encouraged Republicans to turn out better this time around. It was a “better luck next time” approach that is sadly missing from this year’s Republican nominee and the supporters who have eaten up his conspiracy theories and propaganda as to the legitimacy of an election in which he might not be the victor.
Of course the most notorious contemporary example is Vice President Al Gore's concession of the hotly contested 2000 presidential election, the resolution of which controversially reached the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore and culminated in his concession, "While I strongly disagree with the Court's decision, I accept it. For the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession I also accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together." (Ironically, Republicans should be very sensitive to the need to preserve institutional legitimacy given the challenges raised regarding the legitimacy of the Bush presidency in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's widely-criticized holding that determined the outcome).
Indeed, by all accounts Mr. Trump defied the system. By all accounts, the nomination should have gone to Marco Rubio, who likely would be tied or ahead in the current polls. Trump beat the odds. That he has proceeded to dig his own grave is a reflection on him, not on the media or our democratic institutions. Moreover, his conspiracy theories regard collusion between the Clinton campaign and the media have the additional adverse impact of leaving Americans unwilling to trust journalistic integrity. A free and independent media is a hallmark of democracy, and faith in that process likewise is essential.
In our democratic process, sometimes our candidate wins. Sometimes our candidate loses. We pick ourselves up, we dust ourselves off, and we hope for success the next election cycle. We need political figures who serve as exemplars of respect for the democracy that we hold dear, and who respect our democratic institutions enough to abide by them. The spread of conspiracy theories, misinformation, and propaganda is no path toward America’s greatness, but rather its demise.