As expected, Donald Trump’s supporters and campaign officials tried Thursday to walk back their candidate’s dangerous proclamation that he would not commit to honoring the results of the 2016 presidential election.
But there can be no softening this: The Republican nominee for president told Americans Wednesday night that they should not trust the democratic process – the very foundation of our country.
“That’s horrifying,” his opponent, Hillary Clinton, said.
But it’s not surprising.
For weeks, Trump has been alleging that the fix is in with the 2016 election. At Wednesday’s presidential debate, he refused to back down, claiming falsely that “millions of people” were illegally registered to participate in the election who did not have the right to vote.
Now his campaign and supporters say Trump is merely waiting to see if any fraud happens on Election Day. But that, too, feeds a cynical and destructive narrative.
Here’s the reality: The election is not rigged. Voter fraud, according to study upon study, is minuscule. The biggest danger to the electoral process? It’s a presidential candidate giving Americans permission to doubt its legitimacy.
Trump supporters say their candidate is exercising the same kind of skepticism that Democrat Al Gore did in the 2000 election. Gore, however, didn’t claim he was the victim of fraud. He pursued a recount that the law allowed after a too-close-to-call result in Florida, then traded lawsuits with Republican George W. Bush over how that recount would be conducted.
Most importantly: When the U.S. Supreme Court eventually sided with Bush, Gore bowed to the decision for the best of the country.
A more apt historical comparison to Trump is 1860, when the Southern wing of the Democratic party said it would not accept the results of the election if Republican Abraham Lincoln won. Insurrection soon followed.
History also provides a warning of what can happen when citizens decide they have been called to protect the legitimacy of elections. In the 1800s, black voters were intimidated and beaten on election day by whites who thought at least some blacks were voting illegally. Those election vigilantes were encouraged by white elected officials.
Now it’s Trump who’s encouraging his supporters to go to precincts on Election Day and be the arbiters of what’s legitimate. If even a few followers go too far in their vigilance, violence is a very real possibility.
At least some of this lies at the feet of Republicans who’ve long peddled the fiction that stricter voting laws were necessary to protect elections from rampant fraud. Those Republicans stoked a false fear to pass bills designed to suppress the vote of their opponents. Now Trump is using that same unfounded concern for his unsettling purpose – to delegitimize a result that doesn’t go his way.
We’ve been encouraged that both Republicans and Democrats have stood after Wednesday’s debate to affirm their faith in the 2016 election results. All of our leaders should be prepared to do so, from now until the election results come in, to counter the damage that one man’s ego and delusion might do.