For months, the Republican nominee for president has decried the election system as “rigged.” Donald Trump said that former DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz “worked very, very hard to rig the system.” He lashed out at the “rigged, disgusting, dirty” Republican primary system – the same system that helped him win the nomination. He has even attacked the fall debate schedule – which was finalized in September 2015.
And then last week at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, Mr. Trump escalated this rhetoric significantly: “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest.” Appearing on Fox News later that night, Trump elaborated in his typical fact-free manner: “Nov. 8, we’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged. And I hope the Republicans are watching closely or it’s going to be taken away from us.”
This is not a new argument from Mr. Trump. He made similar statements in 2012, tweeting after the networks called the election for President Obama that that Obama “lost the popular vote by a lot and won the election” and calling for “a revolution in this country!” Over the next half hour, Mr. Trump continued: he called the Electoral College “phony” and a “disaster”; he said that America is “not a democracy” and that the result was “a total sham and a travesty”; and reiterated his call to “march on Washington” and “fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice! The world is laughing at us.”
Those statements were roundly mocked, but largely ignored. In 2012, you see, Mr. Trump was an eccentric billionaire and laughingstock who made beating the Birther Drum the central premise of his presidential campaign. He was not the nominee of a major political party.
But he is now, and his comments cannot be discounted or ignored. Mr. Trump’s latest allegation is, in the words of the usually staid Associated Press, an “unprecedented assertion by a modern presidential candidate,” one that could “threaten the tradition of peacefully contested elections and challenge the very essence of a fair and democratic process.”
Trump has, in other words, gleefully taken a sledgehammer to one of the biggest, most important norms of American political campaigns: after all the votes have been counted and the winner declared, you accept the outcome and move on.
Contrast Mr. Trump’s pre-emptive statements to what occurred in 2000.
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court made the decision to enter the political fray. To many, the case of Bush v. Gore embodies a fundamental worry with judicial intervention into the electoral realm: outcome-drive, partisan judicial decision-making.
Some critics have argued that the Court had no business taking the case in the first place and that it should have remained in the Florida courts – this was central to Justice Ginsburg’s passionate dissent. Others have argued that the court was correct to intervene, but that the resulting decision was flawed and inconsistent, with adverse effects on the judiciary.
Much of this criticism is correct. Regardless of your politics, Bush v. Gore should go down in history as one of the court’s most ill-conceived judgments. But one big misconception about the case is that it ended the fight. It did not. What – or, more appropriately, who – did?
Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.
Mr. Gore could have taken the fight further. He could have renewed the Florida recount through additional proceedings in Florida courts. He could have pushed the fight all the way to Congress, as Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tildan had over the 1876 election. That would have been a real test to the Electoral Count Act of 1887, with unpredictable consequences.
But Mr. Gore didn’t. Instead, on December 13, he chose to concede.
“Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”
The speech was graceful and statesmanlike. And, as Bob Woodward noted, Mr. Gore’s decision to “totally put himself behind Bush” was “almost prescient,” in that it rebutted the suggestion that “there is weakness in American democracy.” “In a sense, not only did the Supreme Court make Bush President, Al Gore did,” Woodward said.
The norm in American politics that our elections are legitimate and that when you lose, you admit it and concede, only exists because it has been validated by politicians themselves. As Mr. Gore did in 2000. But what if he continued to press the issue? What would have happened if Mr. Gore, rather than acknowledging defeat, delegitimized Mr. Bush in front of the American people? And in doing so, challenging the legitimacy of American democracy itself?
Those arguments may not have gone over well in 2000. But in 2016, Americans appear increasingly receptive to these types of suggestions. Even before Mr. Trump began laying the groundwork to delegitimize a Clinton win in November, the American people have been primed to believe that if their side doesn’t win an election, it’s because the other side cheated. That applies to dissident Democrats and dissident Republicans alike.
Despite current polling, there is no guarantee that Mr. Trump will lose in November. But what happens if he does? Will he go gracefully into the night? Or will he renew his call for a “march on Washington”? Will he summon his supporters to “fight like hell”? And what will other top Republicans say? So far, they have been silent. Perhaps that because, as Brian Beutler noted in New Republic, the “‘rigged election’ argument comes straight from the GOP playbook.”
These are not questions that we should have to ask. They certainly are not questions that we need to ask about Mrs. Clinton. That we even have to ask these questions underscores the unique threat that Donald Trump poses. Mr. Trump’s erratic, undisciplined behavior and rhetoric has already strained the bonds between fellow Americans.
And now he threatens the very legitimacy of the American democratic experiment.
Featured Image Credit: Donkey Hotey on Flickr