Last week, his campaign foundering, a sputtering Donald Trump warned his supporters that the election was rigged in Hillary Clinton’s favor, thereby threatening the peaceful transition of power that has been a democratic tradition both mythologized and actual since John Adams turned the office over to Thomas Jefferson. “It’s one big fix,” Trump at a campaign event in Greensboro, N.C., on Friday. “This whole election is being rigged.” He continued: “The media is indeed sick, and it’s making our country sick, and we’re going to stop it.”
As with so much else about the Trump campaign, mainstream politicians—including President Obama, who today told Trump to “stop whining”—and commentators have rushed to condemn his remarks and behavior as utterly deviant. “I haven’t seen it since 1860, this threat of delegitimizing the federal government, and Trump is trying to say our entire government is corrupt and the whole system is rigged,” Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University, told the New York Times. “And that’s a secessionist, revolutionary motif. That’s someone trying to topple the apple cart entirely.”
Despite all this, and the fact that claims about election rigging are demonstrably false, Trump’s message was well received by his supporters. “If [Clinton is] in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot. That’s how I feel about it,” Dan Bowman, a 50-year-old contractor, told the Boston Globe. “We’re going to have a revolution and take them out of office if that’s what it takes. There’s going to be a lot of bloodshed. But that’s what it’s going to take...I would do whatever I can for my country.”
“We’re going to have a lot of election fraud,” said Jeannine Bell Smith, 65-year-old longtime teacher in a red Trump shirt with a bucket of popcorn under her arm. “They are having illegals vote. In some states, you don’t need voter registration to vote.”
After a prayer is said and the national anthem sung, she leans in.
“We can’t have that lying bitch in the White House,” she said.
“If Hillary wins, it’s rigged,” said Judy Wright, who is from Illinois but took off work recently to come volunteer for Trump in Ohio.
Wright sighs at what seems to her an unfathomable outcome.
“All I know is our country is not going to be a country anymore,” she added. “I’ve heard people talk about a revolution. I’ve heard people talk about separation of states. I don’t even like to think about it. But I don’t think this movement is going away. We don’t have a voice anymore, and Donald Trump is giving us a voice.”
Trump has been laying the groundwork to lose the general election—and to decry those results as fraudulent—since at least early August. “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest,” he said at a campaign event in Ohio. “November 8th, we’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged,” he told Sean Hannity later that day. “And I hope the Republicans are watching closely or it’s going to be taken away from us.” (Even earlier, after losing a slew of primaries to Ted Cruz in April, Trump sounded the same note: “Our Republican system is absolutely rigged. It’s a phony deal,” he said. “They wanted to keep people out. This is a dirty trick.”)
In this, he appears to have been following the advice of longtime ally Roger Stone, who told Breitbart News all the way back in July that he wanted Trump to begin questioning the validity of the electoral process. “I think we have widespread voter fraud, but the first thing that Trump needs to do is begin talking about it constantly,” Stone said. “He needs to say for example, today would be a perfect example: ‘I am leading in Florida. The polls all show it. If I lose Florida, we will know that there’s voter fraud. 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, and the government will no longer be the government.’”
“If you can’t have an honest election, nothing else counts,” Stone continued. “I think he’s gotta put them on notice that their inauguration will be a rhetorical, and when I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath. The government will be shut down if they attempt to steal this and swear Hillary in. No, we will not stand for it. We will not stand for it.” In response to a question at the New Yorker Festival earlier this month about whether Trump would accept the outcome of the election in the (likely) event that he loses, Stone was ambivalent. “As long as there is no irrefutable evidence of fraud, yes,” he said. “He should—unless there is any refutable evidence to the contrary.”
This is well-trod territory for Trump. After Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, the burgeoning politician rejected the notion that the president had won fairly. “He lost the popular vote by a lot and won the election,” Trump wrote in one subsequently deleted tweet. “We should have a revolution in this country!”
That was the election in which the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, enthusiastically accepted Trump’s endorsement. Romney either knew or should have known that much of Trump’s political capital came from his embrace of the racist conspiracy theory that Obama was not a natural-born citizen of the United States. “More power to him!” Sarah Palin remarked in 2011, as Trump aligned himself with the Birther movement. “I appreciate that Donald wants to spend his resources in getting to the bottom of something that so interests him and many Americans,” she said. “He’s not just throwing stones from the sidelines, he’s digging in [to it], he’s paying for researchers.”
But Birtherism is not just the sublimated expression of bigoted Americans’ barely-repressed racism, targeting the country’s first black president—it is also a sweeping rejection of the electoral processes that installed that president to begin with. It is, essentially, a repudiation of the difficult work of democracy. It is a fundamentally cowardly position to take—an abdication of responsibility.
Trump isn’t alone in his cowardice: Eight years of Congressional Republican obstructionism were inaugurated the same night that Obama was, according to Robert Draper, the author of Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives, when just over 15 top GOP lawmakers and strategists gathered at an upscale Washington, D.C., steakhouse to plot out how to best undermine the president’s legislative agenda. Those in the room included Reps. Eric Cantor (Va.), Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Paul Ryan (Wis.), Pete Sessions (Texas), Jeb Hensarling (Texas), Pete Hoekstra (Mich.) and Dan Lungren (Calif.), along with Republican Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), John Ensign (Nev.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.), as well as Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz.
Now, almost a decade later, the Republican party has chosen as its presidential nominee a conspiracy-theorist reality-television star whose solipsism is so entrenched and whose self-belief is so ingrained that the merest hint of reality’s not conforming to his idea of what it should look like triggers a near existential meltdown for him. Republican voters, having been sold out by their party (and finding in Trump an authority figure who not only validates their frustration but mimics its expression), now whip themselves into a frenzy, at rallies and on Facebook and in email chains that constitute the right-wing perpetual-motion propaganda machine.
“This is a giant criminal enterprise disguised as a foundation and disguised as a campaign,” Gingrich said on Fox News recently, discussing the Clinton campaign. “This is a level of corruption that permeates the federal government. This is a level of corruption that you find in the Veterans [Health] Administration, you find in the FBI now. [James] Comey has become a director who is corrupting the system and you can just tell.”
The GOP has been stirring a noxious brew of racism, misogyny, and American mythology for the better part of the past 50 years, and never more vigorously than in the past eight. Its constituents, animated by the fumes, plod to the polls, only to be disappointed, again and again, because the truth of the matter is that the election is rigged, though it is not so as a result of voter fraud on Election Day itself but rather the systemic and systematic effort—in Congress, on the Supreme Court, but most importantly in state legislatures across the country—to disenfranchise people of color, women, and the poor, and to render a world absent obstacles to the wealthiest and most powerful, whose search for new and innovative and ever more efficient ways to drain the planet and its people of value goes on and on and on without end.
Little wonder that some would begin stockpiling weapons, high on the notion that the government is coming to take them away, that hordes of wild-eyed Mexican rapists and Syrian jihadis and other violent brown people are pouring over the borders, and that lurking behind every bathroom stall is a man disguised as a woman, lying in wait to molest women and girls.
It is an apocalyptic landscape that Republicans have conjured. Clearly they didn’t anticipate needing to actually live in it.