What Happens If Trump Supporters Believe His ‘Rigged Election’ Hype?

Seeing red. Photo: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Donald Trump’s increasingly nuclear campaign plumbed the depths yet again on Saturday morning when the candidate worked to discredit the country’s democratic process in a series of tweets. Trump thus repeated his accusation that the election is rigged against him and that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, is a criminal, while also insisting that the media is complicit in his campaign’s meltdown following numerous new allegations of sexual harassment and assault against him.

Unfortunately, according to a new Boston Globe report, some of Trump’s supporters are taking the candidate’s paranoid and potentially dangerous rhetoric to heart, and that dynamic may lead to an ugly outcome on Election Day and beyond. The Globe spoke with Trump supporters at his rally in Cincinnati on Thursday and found that, unsurprisingly, “anger and hostility were the most overwhelming sentiments” among the crowd, where many had “an us-versus-them mentality, and a belief that they are part of an unstoppable and underestimated movement” that was being deliberately targeted by sinister outside forces. What’s more frightening, however, is what these supporters said they would be willing to do in response to what they now believe will be a “rigged” election, as Trump has repeatedly assured them. Explains the Globe:

His supporters here said they plan to go to their local precincts to look for illegal immigrants who may attempt to vote. They are worried that Democrats will load up buses of minorities and take them to vote several times in different areas of the city. They’ve heard rumors that boxes of Clinton votes are already waiting somewhere.

And if Trump doesn’t win, some are even openly talking about violent rebellion and assassination, as fantastical and unhinged as that may seem.

“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.”

Conspiracy theories, which now make up a large percentage of Trump’s remarks at rallies, were rampant among this group of supporters as well, with some insisting that they had seen videos of Clinton allies ripping up voter registrations, or that President Obama has been fast-tracking citizenship for undocumented immigrants in order to gain more Democratic votes, or that some states don’t even require voter registration in the first place. There is no credible evidence for these allegations, of course, but the report indicates that among Trump’s die-hard base desperation and paranoia seem to overwhelm reason — especially at a time when Trump is, in the eyes of most observers, imploding. To these supporters, Trump simply cannot lose unless the election is rigged.

Furthermore, some Trump supporters who spoke with the Globe indicated that they would indeed answer Trump’s repeated calls for them to become amateur poll watchers on Election Day; though, what one supporter described wanting to do was actually voter intimidation, plain and simple:

“Trump said to watch you precincts. I’m going to go, for sure,” said Steve Webb, a 61-year-old carpenter from Fairfield, Ohio.

“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.”

Some Trump supporters say that if he doesn’t win, they figure the United States government will be no better than dictatorships where elections cannot be trusted.

As Jamelle Bouie argued earlier this month at Slate, comments like these are the direct result of Trump’s often racially charged “rhetorical time bombs” about how the only way he can lose the election is if his opponents cheat — a prediction Trump has resorted to more and more as his campaign loses ground:

[T]he idea that [Trump] would respect the results of the election, full stop, ignores the hatred that’s come to characterize Trump’s campaign, the violence he’s condoned against protesters and other vocal opponents, the virulent prejudice he’s brought to mainstream politics, and the apocalypticism of his message, where he stands as the final hope for an embattled minority of resentful whites. These rhetorical time bombs, in other words, could be the catalyst for actual intimidation and violence, before and after Election Day. And if that violence and intimidation strikes, it will be against the chief targets of Trump’s campaign: people of color.

Bouie goes on to detail how racially motivated voter intimidation, and even Election Day violence, are definitely not without precedent in the U.S., but what is without precedent is for a major-party presidential candidate to lead that charge. As Fergus Cullen, a former chair of the New Hampshire GOP, explained to the Globe:

In this country, we’ve always had recriminations after one side loses. But we haven’t had riots. We haven’t had mobs that act out with violence against supporters of the other side. There’s no telling what his supporters would be willing to do at the slightest encouragement from their candidate.

But the sentiment of pro-Trump voters may also reflect a more widespread historical shift, according to data published in the Washington Post on Friday. Law professor Nathaniel Persily and SurveyMonkey’s Jon Cohen explain that, according to their research, “the values that support American democracy are deteriorating,” and that in a survey of 3,000 registered U.S. voters, some 40 percent said they had lost faith in America’s democratic system, a total which included most Trump supporters:

One of the hallmarks of faith in democracy is a willingness of the defeated to accept the results of elections. Democracy, after all, is not about the selection of particular leaders, but the notion that citizens have the power to select them at all. It relies on the assumption that today’s electoral losers will live to fight another day, so that their faith in the system of democratic selection weathers temporary setbacks. But in this election, we find that a surprising share of the electorate is unwilling to accept the legitimacy of the election of their non-preferred candidate.

When asked in this SurveyMonkey Election Tracking poll if they would accept the result should their candidate lose in November, just 31 percent say they definitely would see the outcome as legitimate. Nearly as many (28 percent) say it is either “unlikely” that they would accept the result or that they definitely would not. Again, Trump’s supporters were more apt to say they would question the legitimacy of a Clinton victory than vice versa, but sizable shares on both sides, representing tens of millions of Americans, indicate they would not accept the legitimacy of the next president of the United States.

Trump will almost certainly continue to escalate his questioning of that legitimacy himself in the coming weeks, particularly if his campaign continues to falter. And if Clinton wins, she has already acknowledged that defeating Trump is unlikely to counteract the influence his candidacy has had on the country. Speaking in Seattle on Friday, Clinton remarked that:

This election is incredibly painful. I take absolutely no satisfaction in what is happening on the other side, with my opponent. I am not at all happy about that because it hurts our country, it hurts our democracy, it sends terrible messages to so many people here at home and around the world. Damage is being done that we’re going to have to repair. Divisions are being deepened that we’re going to have to try and heal.

And no matter what, the ugliness of this election seems unlikely to end on Election Day.

What If Trump Supporters Believe the ‘Rigged Election’ Hype?