It has been clear for years that Donald Trump looks up to authoritarian governments and political leaders, and in particular that he respects them specifically for their use of force and violence, and their rejection of the central tenets of the democratic process.
In 1989, for example, Trump told Playboy that although the Chinese government's massacre of student protesters at Tianamen Square was "vicious," it was also a show of force used to put down a "riot." For Trump, the incident provided a useful contrast between the way China handles dissent and the way the United States responds to critics. "They put it down with strength," Trump said. "That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak." China, according to Trump, is strong because it puts down critics with violence, which not only crushes dissent but serves as a demonstration of its power. The United States does not, and is therefore weak.
Trump has praised numerous authoritarian leaders using similar language.
Last year, he lauded Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying, "I've always felt fine about Putin. He's a strong leader, he's a powerful leader," while defending Putin against charges that the Russian government has been involved in the killing of critical journalists.
In January, Trump expressed admiration for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, after labeling him a "maniac," for the strong and violent hand he employed when taking power. "You gotta give him credit. How many young guys — he was, like, 26 or 25 when his father died — take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden … he goes in, he takes over, and he's the boss," Trump said. "It's incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn't play games." Kim Jong Un had the husband of his father's sister executed following a special military tribunal four days after his arrest.
On the campaign trail earlier this year, Trump praised former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein for killing terrorists "immediately" and not worrying about legal niceties. "He would kill them immediately. He didn't do it politically correct; he found a terrorist, and they were gone within five seconds, okay. With us, we find a terrorist, it's going to be 25 years and a trial," he said on the campaign trail earlier this year. The idea of a trial and due process seems to offend him. Trump has also made statements suggesting a similar sort of respect for the brutal effectiveness of authoritarian leaders like Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and Syria's Bashar al-Assad.
The most obvious conclusion from these remarks is that Trump has an abiding reverence for authoritarian leaders and their actions, which he believes to be both effective in narrow terms and more broadly useful as illustrative shows of force. A corollary is that he has little if any respect for many of the components essential to a functioning democracy: the acceptance of internal dissent, the peaceful handoff of power, the balanced and methodical application of justice.
So it is hardly surprising to see that Trump, who increasingly looks to be starting the post-convention presidential race at a significant disadvantage, has already begun to question the legitimacy of the election itself.
Over the weekend, he suggested that the presidential debates were scheduled in such a way as to give Democratic rival Hillary Clinton an advantage. (The debate dates were chosen last year, by an independent commission.) And yesterday, Trump he declared that he was "afraid the election's gonna be rigged, I have to be honest."
One prominent Trump surrogate has gone even further than the candidate. In an interview posted late last week, longtime Trump adviser and supporter Roger Stone warned that voter fraud is "widespread" and that there could be serious consequences if the upcoming vote is marred by fraud. "If there's voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate," he told Breitbart, "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."
Now, in one sense, it is obviously true that rampant, outcome-changing voter fraud would represent a serious crisis for the government. But virtually all the evidence suggests that voter fraud is so rare that it can be practically said that it never happens in the U.S. One study, for example, found just 31 cases of identifiable voter fraud out of more than a billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014.
However, it is a mistake to treat these sorts of statements by Trump and his surrogates strictly as narrow concerns about voter fraud. Instead, they are better understood as attempts to delegitimize the orderly and peaceful democratic process of electing a president.
Although it is common for ardent supporters of a candidate to believe that a lost election was rigged, it is unusual for candidates themselves to stoke that belief—and in particular for them to preview it months before the election is held. But that is exactly what Trump is doing.
In addition to expressing his personal admiration for authoritarians, Trump has also displayed his own authoritarian tendencies, hinting that he will use the power of the federal government to attack rivals and critics, promising numerous actions that would violate Americans' civil liberties, and repeatedly rejecting concerns about the constitutionality of his ideas. He lies constantly and flagrantly, because truth and trustworthiness, which are crucial to the maintainence of a functioning liberal society, are not things he values.
This is just more of the same. Trump is selling skepticism about the democratic process because he does not believe in it himself.