After a week in which Donald Trump insulted babies and their mothers and war heroes and their families, and threw in fire marshals for good measure, the scariest thing to come out of his team of thugs and political mercenaries is this: the suggestion that civil unrest could follow if he’s denied the presidency.
When the Supreme Court handed George W. Bush the White House in 2000 even though he lost the popular vote, Al Gore graciously conceded and faded away. When Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama four years ago although his internal polls showed a Republican triumph, he congratulated the winner and went off to rediscover his many grandchildren.
Despite party-machine manipulation and considerable voting of the dead, the American institution that produces a peaceful transfer of power has survived.
But this year, facing a likely trouncing in November, Trump has signaled that he will try to bring down our democracy with him. His overlooked comment — “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged” — is the opening move in a scheme to delegitimize the outcome.
To understand what Trump is up to, listen to his doppelganger, the veteran political operative Roger Stone. He will say things that even Trump will not say, usually as a way to allow Trump to later repeat some variant of them.
It was Stone who called a CNN commentator a “stupid Negro” and accused the Gold Star parents of Capt. Humayun Khan of being Muslim Brotherhood agents. And it was Stone who threatened to give out the hotel room numbers of unsupportive Republicans at the party convention, the better for the Trumpian mob to find them.
Picking up on Trump’s rigged-election meme, Stone told a right-wing news outlet that the electoral fix was already in: “The government will be shut down if they attempt to steal this and swear Hillary in.” The outcome is fair only if Trump wins.
“If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election of the winner will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience,” he said.
Let’s talk about the basis for this sore loser uprising — the gaming of the system. Trump’s casinos were rigged, as are all gambling parlors, in favor of the house. Italian soccer is rigged. But there is virtually no evidence of modern American elections being fixed.
Studying national elections from 2000 to 2014, and looking at 834 million ballots cast, Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School found a total of 31 instances of credible voter fraud. Yes, 31. The Bush administration, after a five-year investigation concluding in 2007, found no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections. A federal judge in Wisconsin found that “virtually no voter impersonation occurs.”
Trump’s evidence? “I just hear things and I just feel it.” Yeah, he hears things. “The voter ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development,” he said last week. “We may have people vote 10 times.”
He’s right about the unfairness of voter identification, but not in the way he means it. As a slew of recent court rulings have shown, Republican-led efforts to deny the vote to millions of citizens have rigged the system against the poor, the disabled, ethnic minorities. A voter- suppression law in North Carolina targeted blacks “with almost surgical precision,” an appeals court ruled.
Trump has gone down this road before. After the 2012 contest, which Romney lost by nearly 5 million votes, Trump said: “This election is a total sham and travesty. We are not a democracy.” The last statement, judging by the groundwork he’s doing for this November, looks more like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Timothy Egan, based in the Pacific Northwest, writes a column for the New York Times.