I though I’d never say this, back in January, but I have had enough of this election. What started out as the most interesting contest in recent memory retains its powers of fascination, but now it fascinates like the video from your colonoscopy. The end is predictable; we’re just looking closely at the shit. But what if the conclusion, while forgone, is not the conclusion at all? What if losing the general election is just another step in Donald Trump’s march toward Washington? It’s a farfetched idea, but Trump laid the groundwork for it this weekend, when he stepped up his insistence that the election is “rigged.”
What he means by “rigged” is confusing, because he initially used the word to complain about media bias. For example:
Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me.Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2016
Trump seems to be saying the media is unfairly influencing voters against him but not interfering with the actual casting and counting of ballots. That’s not a rigged election. It is, at worst, a rigged society—one fiendishly designed to thwart the progress of pussy-grabbing billionaires, but not one that falsifies votes. Yet Trump keeps using the word “rigged” prominently and deliberately. Over the last few days, he has released a series of tweets and public statements that conflate perceived media bias with actual election fraud. For example:
Voter fraud! Crooked Hillary Clinton even got the questions to a debate, and nobody says a word. Can you imagine if I got the questions?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2016
That’s not what voter fraud is. Yet Trump continues to insist, without evidence, that voter fraud is happening, and so do his surrogates. Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” program Sunday, former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani used his sucking mouth parts to claim he would “have to be a moron” to say the elections in Philadelphia and Chicago would be fair. He offered no evidence for this assertion, beyond the racially charged remark that Democrats control “the inner cities.”
Note the headline CNN put over that story, “Giuliani on rigged election: ‘Dead people generally vote for Democrats.'” Let us not endorse this concept by using “rigged election” in headlines the way we might use “baseball playoffs” or “2005 recording.” It doesn’t exist. But Trump and his surrogates seem to be trying to make “rigged election” a commonplace that people just have differing opinions about, like death panels or Obama’s missing birth certificate.
That’s dangerous. Trump is deliberately undermining Americans’ confidence in democracy. Again, he has no evidence, and the idea of a rigged election is nonsense. But how many nonsense ideas has he convinced millions to believe, simply by repeating them long enough? He has found success with this strategy before. So why, three weeks before election day, is he trying to convince voters the vote is invalid?
If he thought he could win, this tactic would work against his objective. You don’t tell your own supporters their votes won’t matter; it depresses turnout. By investing the last weeks of his campaign in casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election, Trump is preparing to claim that he is the rightful president after Clinton wins.
There are two reasons he might do this. The first is that he is trying to protect his brand and his sense of self. To lose the presidency as spectacularly as he has—that is, as stupidly—would be a massive blow to his image, in the market and in the mirror. It seems most likely that Trump is trying to tell us the election is rigged so that he can more convincingly tell himself.
The second possibility is less likely but more frightening. What if Trump is attacking the legitimacy of this election because he hopes to gain control the United States government with 40% of the vote?
That’s not enough to win. But it might be enough for a putsch—particularly if the real winner inspired only tepid support, while your supporters were fervently committed and resistant to outside information. I hesitate to broach this idea, because it seems crazy. It also seems crazy that the Republican candidate for president would systematically undermine faith in elections, but here we are. Let’s not imagine we will be transported somewhere else on November ninth.