Following Donald Trump’s claims about “rigging” of the electoral process during the final presidential debate, many commentators noted that this marked an “unprecedented” moment in American politics. Hillary Clinton called his comments “horrifying,” and people from across the political spectrum agreed Trump’s claims could prove a threat to American democracy.
The morning after the debate, at a rally in Delaware, Ohio, Trump stated that his refusal to concede to the results of the election beforehand conforms to “centuries of legal precedent designed to protect the voters.” He stated at the rally that “America is a constitutional republic with a system of laws. These laws are triggered in the case of fraud or in the event of a recount where it’s needed. Of course I would accept a clear election result, but I would also reserve my right to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of a questionable result.”
Trump began by stating that he would “accept the results of this [election] if I win.”
The “Gore” precedent?
The Trump campaign quickly likened the candidate’s position to one supposedly adopted by the Gore campaign during the 2000 presidential race. In that election, George W. Bush won Florida by a margin of less than a thousand votes. This came amidst rumors that irregularities plagued a large number of ballots and Gore sued for a recount. The case went to the Supreme Court and in its infamous Bush v. Gore decision, the Court declared Bush President.
Trump appears to argue that had Gore conceded to the results of the election beforehand, Gore might not have had legal recourse to challenge the results of that historically close election. Trump, the self-styled “law and order candidate,” in refusing to concede preemptively, claims to be simply adhering to that “legal precedent.”
Trump’s recourse to the 2000 election does not stand up to even a superficial scrutiny. Most important, prior to Election Day, Gore never expressed preemptive suspicion about the results of the election; for that matter, no major party presidential candidate ever has.
Not until the results came back from Florida did Gore raise any sort of legal challenge. Moreover, in that tight general election, where Florida stood to determine the winner of the Electoral College, Gore raised an issue after reports of voter irregularities. Finally, Gore’s challenge targeted specific localities, in a razor-thin election.
A more apt precedent for the Trump position is the election of 1860. The winning candidate did not appear on the ballots in ten of the states that seceded from the U.S. in the months between election day and inauguration. The electorate, albeit composed exclusively of white men, came out in record numbers, with a then-unprecedented voter turnout rate of approximately 81.2 percent. Still, the slave-holding racists of the Southern aristocracy, in so many words, called the victory “rigged” and used it as a tool to rally their partisans to secede. The winner of that “rigged” election? Abraham Lincoln.
Following the Civil War, some of the same people who had damned the 1860 election as fraudulent helped establish the KKK and practiced terrorism against black voters. Furthermore, their descendants were responsible for almost a century of Jim Crowism.
Trump’s calls for “poll watchers” and “second amendment people” to “do” something about voter fraud and political corruption frankly reek of the terrorism practiced by the KKK across the South during Reconstruction and later. Trump’s so-called “silent majority” harkens back to the terrorism of the “invisible empire.” That these exhortations have not predicated a more massive and deliberate outcry proves disheartening and troubling.
The year is not 1860, yet fears and rumors of what the powerful forces behind Trump may or may not do following election day persist. Given the veracity of democratic institutions in this country, and the specific strategy Trump appears to be employing (if one can grace his undisciplined antics with the qualification as a ”strategy”), his ploys do not seem to represent an immediate mortal threat to American democracy. Frightening enough, though, that the closest historic analogues to Trump’s political modus operandi harken back to the racist, terrorist violence of the 19th century South.
There is no evidence to suggest Trump seriously believes the elections will be “rigged.” Recall, he said the Republican primaries were “rigged” until he won. Trump cultivates an expectation of victory (“Get out the vote, rigged media isn’t reporting we’re actually going to win!”) and softens the impact of his defeat with the ready-made excuse of massive, coordinated “voter fraud” (read: minorities and immigrants “stealing” election).
The question remains, though: supposing one indulges Trump’s racist conspiratorial thinking as much as some of his supporters appear to, where does this all end? What happens when this mode of political thinking takes on a critical mass?
The antidote to any claim of election fraud that Trump might make is an overwhelming, incontrovertible Clinton victory over Trump. Trump supporters losing in massive numbers will prove the strongest force to blunt his message’s resonance among voters.