It's getting harder to maintain any serious suspense about who will win the presidential election, so the focus has started shifting to the day after Election Day. Trump, trailing badly, has taken to preemptively declaring that if he loses, it will be because the game was rigged against him. A new Politico poll shows 41 percent of the voters, and 73 percent of Republicans, saying he may be right. So now the airwaves are full of fears about what could happen if Americans take those charges to heart. Here's CNN, for instance: "His accusations alone, experts say, could inflict long-standing damage on the US political system itself by eroding trust in the probity of the electoral process."
The biggest problem with this argument is that we already live in a country where a lot of people don't trust the electoral process. George W. Bush was dogged throughout his presidency by accusations of stealing elections—not just after the messy ending of the 2000 campaign, but after 2004 too, when figures as influential as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and publications as prominent as Vanity Fair and Harper's questioned the count in Ohio. In 2008, John McCain himself warned in the third presidential debate that we might be headed toward "one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." After Obama won that year, a Public Policy Polling survey showed 52 percent of GOP voters believing that ACORN had stolen the election for him. Four years later, the same firm found 49 percent of Republican voters saying the same thing. You can dispute those particular numbers (it's a good idea to take PPP's polls with several grains of salt), but it's hard to deny that the idea was taken seriously on the right. (Here's a Townhall.com headline from November 2012: "Obama Likely Won Re-Election Through Election Fraud.") Meanwhile, the whole point of the "birther" story was that Obama was constitutionally ineligible to be president even if he did get the most votes.
My point isn't to suggest that all those stories are equivalent. They aren't. My point is that we've spent the entire 21st century in a country where a significant segment of whichever party is out of power thinks the president holds office illegitimately. The "probity of the electoral process" has been distrusted for years.
Now, obviously it's unusual for the candidate himself to be leading the charge. You occasionally had moments like McCain's comment in 2008 or, more recently, Hillary Clinton's warning that Russia has "maybe" hacked into "some state election systems." But Trump is beating the drum hard in a way that really is unprecedented in recent U.S. history. This has led some pundits to fear that he will keep beating that drum after Election Day, with apocalyptic results. It's one thing for most of the GOP to think they've had the election stolen from them; it's another for the defeated nominee to be egging them on. What happens if we have a rerun of Trump's little meltdown after the Iowa caucuses, when the Donald demanded a do-over rather than accept that Ted Cruz had beaten him?
It's an open question. But Trump's ultimate aim after Iowa wasn't really to relitigate the vote; it was to make excuses for a public failure. My impression is that that's what he's up to now: not laying the groundwork for a post-election fight, but finding a way to salve his legendarily fragile ego. Trump certainly isn't acting like a guy who's trying to build a serious argument about electoral irregularities. He's acting like a guy who lashes out at anything in his way, to the point where even a Saturday Night Live sketch is supposed to be evidence that dark forces are rigging the election for Hillary:
Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me.Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2016
Trump's fan base may find this compelling, but to everyone else he looks like Captain Queeg. If this is how he presses his case, he may end up doing more to discredit the idea of widespread electoral fraud than to promote it.
But the idea will persist either way, because the idea is an established part of U.S. culture. Denying that requires an almost willful amnesia.