With Election Day rapidly approaching and polls moving decisively in Hillary Clinton's favor, the Republican nominee for president refuses to acknowledge that his impending defeat will be legitimate. Instead, he's begun pushing a theory - without evidence - that the democratic process has become laced with conspiracy and fraud. In Donald Trump's words, a globalist conspiracy of political, financial and media elites has shown its hand and is now working in coordination to elect his opponent. I need not remind thoughtful citizens that these claims are total nonsense, but we should not ignore them. The reality is that, for better or worse, many Americans take the words of a presidential nominee seriously and will act upon these claims. Long the tool of despots and sore losers, such dangerous conspiracy theories threaten to undermine the democratic process and could result in violence on November 8 and beyond.
This election is being rigged by the media pushing false and unsubstantiated charges, and outright lies, in order to elect Crooked Hillary!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 15, 2016
Unfortunately, the Republican Party has trafficked in minor conspiracies for years in order to suppress likely Democratic (read: non-white) voters, and to boost the enthusiasm of their far-right base. With demographic trends threatening Republican majorities across the country, the GOP has resorted to passing discriminatory voter identification laws in the name of "safe-guarding" a democratic process that is not under threat. Privately, Republican operatives acknowledge that voter identification laws are a scheme to prevent Democrats from voting.
As despicable as the GOP's voter identification scheme may be, Donald Trump is suggesting something far more sinister and potentially dangerous. In recent elections, Republican nominees (at least at the presidential level) have urged their supporters to accept the outcome. Donald Trump is following the exact opposite strategy. As his defeat inches ever closer, Trump has escalated his claims and made his rhetoric even darker and unhinged. Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the fact that serious GOP leaders have suggested to their voters for years that elections are rigged against them. Trump has taken that premise and advanced it to its most conspiratorial conclusion.
From Donald Trump's perspective, every challenge or inconvenience to his campaign is now evidence of a plot against him. He spent weeks suggesting a media conspiracy because his microphone at the first presidential debate cut in and out for a few minutes in the hall. Tens of millions of television viewers could hear him just fine, however, and still declared Hillary Clinton the winner. Trump rejected the real audience polls and has instead promoted (or, in some cases, made up) non-scientific polls that were literally rigged by his supporters. To the casual observer, the distinction between a real and fake poll is understandably unclear. Make no mistake: Donald Trump knows this and is exploiting the nuances of polling as a deliberate tactic to deceive his supporters into believing that victory is inevitable, no matter the evidence to the contrary.
Now, the Republican nominee is alleging a more sinister conspiracy in the wake of a sex scandal entirely of his own making. After a video from 2005 emerged in which Donald Trump bragged about using his notoriety to commit sexual assault, over a dozen women have come forward with allegations that are strikingly similar to the behavior Trump himself described on video. The nominee's reaction is now to blame Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim for using his status as a shareholder of The New York Times (which published two victims' accounts) to orchestrate a smear campaign against him. This is clearly nonsense (the victims' approached the Times independently and offered corroborating sources), but with trust in the media at an all-time low, Trump knows that simply making such an allegation will cause many of his voters to believe him.
This kind of rhetoric from the Republican nominee is no longer just political spin. Trump is now alleging the wholesale corruption of America's democracy as a tenuous defense against his own indefensible actions. On Thursday, he hammered away at an outrageous claim that a shadowy group of global elites and financiers are planning to "plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty." In Trump's words, even fellow Republicans in Congress have joined this effort to elect Clinton. This is concerning for two reasons: First, this claim undoubtedly echoes historic anti-Semitic conspiracies that fueled the rise of fascism in twentieth century Europe. Second, to those Trump supporters less susceptible to alt-right dog whistles, these remarks nonetheless suggest that the election of their political opponent would mean the end of democracy and of the United States as a sovereign nation. Either reason should be sufficient for Republican leaders to make clear that these are not their views, and that they will accept the results of November's election peacefully.
It is hard to imagine a scenario in which some subset of Donald Trump's core supporters do not meet Trump's claims with actual violence, which has long been a feature of his rallies. The GOP nominee reportedly enjoys the violence, saying it makes the events more exciting. Given that Trump has a history of instigating violence, why should we expect that he won't do so in the wake of the public humiliation that would follow electoral defeat? Trump has already called on his supporters to monitor polling places "in certain areas" for voter fraud, which many are citing as a license to intimidate minorities on Election Day.
At a rally on Friday, The Boston Globe interviewed a number of Trump supporters who openly called for an armed insurrection against the government if Hillary Clinton declares victory. Here's what one man said:
“If she’s 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, said of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. “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.”
Another man promised to harass minorities at polling places:
“I’ll look for . . . well, it’s called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American,” he said. “I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally. I want to see if they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal. I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.”
It is past time that Republican Party leaders denounce such claims, both forcefully and specifically, even if it means an electoral disadvantage. Al Gore showed such courage when he called on Democrats to accept the outcome of Bush vs. Gore, which handed the presidency to his opponent. Former GOP nominee John McCain similarly had the courage to silence his supporters' dismissal of Barack Obama as an "Arab" who would destroy the country.
We should not pretend that the United States is immune from the kinds of electoral violence that have caused chaos and loss of life in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. When a political leader calls the results of an election into question, it is natural that their supporters will come to their defense. This is why leadership matters, and why leaders of a democracy must balance their power with a sense of responsibility. Unfortunately, Donald Trump has repeatedly proven himself to be an irresponsible man, so we should not take it for granted that he will concede on November 8 if current predictions hold and Hillary Clinton wins the election (as of this writing, FiveThirtyEight places Clinton's odds of victory at over 85%).
It has become abundantly clear that Donald Trump is laying the groundwork to stoke chaos in the wake of his likely defeat at the polls. It is now time for Republicans, and indeed all serious political leaders, to begin laying the groundwork for how to respond. Failure to do so could mean violence, and could throw our political system into the very constitutional crisis that Donald Trump is seeking to provoke.