Understandably, questions about Donald Trump’s tax status have dominated recent campaign coverage, but as a result, what may have been the most extraordinary moment in the first presidential debate has gone all but unremarked upon.
At the end of Hillary Clinton’s confrontation with the failed casino operator turned pseudo-populist demagogue, moderator Lester Holt asked the candidates a question that would have been unimaginable in any previous presidential debate: Would the candidates accept the results of the election, whichever way it goes? Clinton, of course, immediately said she would. Then Holt put the same question to Trump: “Will you accept the outcome as the will of the voters?”
TRUMP responded: “I want to make America great again. We are a nation that is seriously troubled. We’re losing our jobs, people are pouring into our country. The other day we were deporting 800 people. And perhaps they passed the wrong button, they pressed the wrong button, or perhaps worse than that, it was corruption. But these people that we were going to deport for good reason ended up becoming citizens. Ended up becoming citizens. And it was 800 and now it turns out it might be 1,800 and they don’t even know.”
HOLT: “Will you accept the outcome of the election?”
TRUMP: “Look, here’s the story. I want to make America great again. I’m going to be able to do it. I don’t believe Hillary will. The answer is, if she wins, I will absolutely support her.”
Fair enough—as far as that characterization can be applied to any example of Trump Speak.
But within a matter of days, Trump backed away from that guarantee, telling the New York Times, he was rethinking his statement at their last debate that he would “absolutely’”support her if she won in November. “We’re going to have to see,” Trump said. “We’re going to see what happens. We’re going to have to see.”
The rationale for Holt’s unprecedented question is not hard to find. For months, Trump and his surrogates have been alleging that the electoral process is “rigged” against him and that, if he loses in key states like Pennsylvania, Ohio or Florida it only can be the result of “cheating.”
In one widely quoted assertion, Trump told a Columbus, Ohio rally, “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest.” In a subsequent appearance on Fox News, Trump darkly speculated that Barack Obama’s reelection was fraudulent, and that the same could be expected this year. “I’m telling you, November 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.”
As recently as last Friday, Trump told a Michigan rally that voter fraud is “a big, big problem in this country” but “nobody has the guts to talk about it.”
Roger Stone, one of Trump’s major media surrogates, went even further, telling Alternative Right site Breitbart: “I think we have widespread voter fraud, but the first thing that Trump needs to do is begin talking about it constantly. 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.’”
Stone added. “I think he’s got to put them on notice that their inauguration will be a rhetorical [one], 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.”
All this would be little more than Internet conspiracy babble, if it weren’t having an impact—and it is, a serious one.
According to a recent Associated Press poll, “Only about one-third of Republicans say they have a great deal or quite a bit of confidence that votes on Election Day will be counted fairly. . .Half the people who have a favorable opinion of the Republican nominee say they have little to no confidence in the integrity of the vote count.”
This is but another example of how Trump and his followers—and that seems an increasingly more apt noun than “supporters”—are linked by assertions rather than logical argument, innuendo rather than actual events and fearful prejudice rather than facts. Particularly since the 2000 election’s Florida debacle went to the Supreme Court, the question of American electoral practices has been intensely studied—and come through with flying colors.
Fears of voter fraud of the sort Trump and Stone promote are especially unfounded. There is absolutely no evidence it is a problem in any of the 50 states. One Loyola Law School study found that out of 1 billion votes cast in all American elections between 2000 and 2014, there were only 31 known cases of impersonation fraud.
Facts, however, don’t reduce the opportunity for self-interested mischief. Imagine what might have occurred had Al Gore refused to accept the Supreme Court’s decision in 2000 or, if Richard Nixon, who for all his lawless faults at least had bedrock acceptance of Constitutionalism, chosen to pursue allegations of electoral irregularities in Illinois in 1960.
We have had examples of powerful people who at least toyed with the notion of rendering presidential elections illegitimate. Through widely dismissed at the time, it now seems true that a cabal of wealthy industrialists and bankers—many of them admirers and financiers of Benito Mussolini’s Italian fascism—made a more than tentative effort to organize a paramilitary putsch to unseat Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. The plan was to organize and arm 500,000 American Legion veterans and have them immolate the Italian dictator’s march on Rome, installing a caretaker fascist-style regime.
Their mistake was in picking their putative military leader, retired Marine Corps Major Gen. Smedley Bulmer, who was immensely popular with veterans and the Corps’ only two-time Congressional Medal of Honor winner. The problem was he was a genuine patriot and, though a life-long Republican, had voted for Roosevelt because he’d come to resent the use of the Marines in Central America as “racketeers for capitalism.” Bulmer promptly went to a Congressional committee and laid out the plotters’ whole approach to him. Historian Arthur Schlesinger later would dismiss it as a “cocktail coup.”
Still, can we be sure we’ll be that lucky if Trump decides he’s been “cheated” of victory?
Many of his most sinister backers in the so-called Alternative Right and among the “immigration patriots” obsessed with the “national question” believe that our democracy is hopelessly corrupt. Many, in fact, go further and argue that the notion that “all men are created equal” is a categorical philosophical mistake. These adherents of the so-called “dark enlightenment,” which draws not only on recent neo-fascist critiques of democratic systems, but also on the original movement of that name attempting to justify the South’s secession reject conventional conservatism as strongly as they do every other part of American politics.
If you think this is argument for effect, consider the Alt Right’s admiration for the notoriously racist vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens. Commentators on the movement’s websites are fond of quoting his infamous speech that “the cornerstone of the Confederacy was the great truth that the negro is not the equal of the white man.” Many Alt-Right polemicists go on to argue that “the key point that Stephens was making was that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had been based on an erroneous Enlightenment philosophy. Thomas Jefferson and his generation had gotten it wrong. All men were not created equal, but had instead evolved in disparate environments across the globe under radically different selection pressures.”
So here we are, back with Calhoun’s philosophical racism.
Can we really doubt that people who hold these views and a candidate happy to accept their enthusiastic support would have the slightest scruple about calling the integrity of a presidential election?
The opportunities for mischief and outright subversion are legion in the weeks that follow Election Day and the formal certification of its results. “I can imagine a scenario where Trump protests not for a matter of days but for months and months and months,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak to Politico. “You can’t have a third of the electorate believe the election results were illegitimate.”
And, yet, that’s exactly what we may have, though the only prospect more chilling would be an outright Trump victory.