The thing you need to know about Donald Trump is that he never loses. Never. Whether it’s in business or politics, Trump either wins outright or he was going to win until victory was stolen from him, usually through a crooked conspiracy of his enemies.
That’s why his assorted bankruptcies and collapses were never his fault, why even his multimillion-dollar failures were actually successes. It’s why, when his TV show, The Apprentice, failed to win an Emmy, it was proof not that the programme was lacking but that the Emmys themselves were unfair, “all politics” and “horrendous”.
Trump signalled that he would apply this same approach to his bid for the White House at the earliest opportunity. In February, Iowa held its caucuses, marking the traditional start to the primary process whereby each party chooses its candidate for president. Trump came second, losing to the Texas senator Ted Cruz. No one was very surprised. Cruz is a Christian conservative, and Iowa’s Republicans often pick Christian conservatives. Trump was a thrice-married New Yorker more familiar with mammon than with God. But to Trump there could be only one explanation.
“Ted Cruz didn’t win Iowa, he stole it,” Trump tweeted. “That is why all of the polls were so wrong and why he got far more votes than anticipated. Bad!” Forty-five minutes later, Trump tweeted again: “Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa Caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified.”
The basis of this claim was a release by the Cruz campaign falsely notifying Iowans that rival conservative candidate Ben Carson had dropped out of the race and urging Carson supporters to back Cruz instead. It might have been an innocent mistake or perhaps a dirty trick, typical of primary season. Either way, it was enough to allow Trump to claim he was robbed – and to give the US a glimpse of Trump’s modus operandi. When he loses, he claims immediately that the game is rigged.
He’s doing it again now. His current stump speech alternates between claiming that the women accusing him of sexual assault were too unattractive for him to abuse and warning his supporters that the Democrats and the press are colluding to steal the presidency from him. As he tweeted on Sunday: “The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary – but also at many polling places – SAD.”
Some Democrats take a kind of perverse comfort in the fact that Trump is banging this drum again. It’s a sure sign he thinks he’s losing. (The last time he talked of ballot rigging was in August, when Hillary Clinton opened up a big lead.) It seems to be his way of getting his excuses in early, ensuring that no one brands him a loser on 9 November.
Trump might also be laying the ground for a post-election career in which he sets himself up as the champion of a diehard Trumpian rump within the Republican party or perhaps as the head of a new media empire – Trump News Network – that will outflank Fox News on the hard right. Either way, he understands that there is no more potent variety of political rocketfuel than a righteous sense of grievance. Trump is priming those who are now crying “Lock her up!” to bellow “We was robbed!”
But this comes at a cost that has made plenty of Americans – Republicans among them – anxious. Central to the self-image of the US is its status as a self-governing democracy. Election fraud is meant to be something that happens in other countries, with the US casting itself as monitor or even referee, determining which overseas ballots are free, fair and legitimate. Trump’s claims, pre-emptively challenging the integrity of a presidential election, seek to upend that notion, challenging the legitimacy of America’s own system. And they seem to be striking a chord: one survey released on Monday found that 41% of Americans believe the election could be stolen from Trump.
Despite the US’s view of itself, this is not uncharted terrain. Claims of rigged contests have surfaced before. In 1824, a narrow race was settled when the House of Representatives made John Quincy Adams president; partisans suspected behind-the-scenes dealmaking. In 1876, a similar dead heat left supporters of Samuel J Tilden furious when he won the popular vote but was denied the presidency thanks to the arcane mechanics of the electoral college. Amid allegations of multiple voting and shredded ballots, the incumbent president Ulysses Grant warned – in words that resonate today – that “either party can afford to be disappointed by the result, but the country cannot afford to have the result tainted by suspicion of illegal or false returns”.
More recently, some Republicans remained convinced that John F Kennedy was helped to his narrow victory over Richard Nixon in 1960 by ballot-tampering involving the mafia in Chicago, which helped him win the crucial state of Illinois. But what makes Trump’s challenge different is that he is contesting the election before it has happened. This has made many fearful that the fury Trump is stoking could get out of control. They worry that, should the reality TV star lose, things could get violent. They point to the tweet posted on Saturday by David Clarke Jr, a vocal Trump supporter and the sheriff of Milwaukee county in Wisconsin. Alongside a picture of an angry mob wielding weapons, Clarke wrote: “It’s incredible that our institutions of gov, WH, Congress, DOJ [Department of Justice], and big media are corrupt & all we do is bitch. Pitchforks and torches time.” In this climate, what if one crucial state is particularly close? Few have forgotten the photo-finish in Florida in 2000. How would such deadlock play out in this atmosphere?
Because this is the US, no talk of election rigging can be separated from race. When Trump tells mainly white crowds to spend election day monitoring voting in areas other than their own “because of you know what I’m talking about”, he is repeating, in the thinnest code, his accusation that Democrats will bulk up their vote by fraudulently inflating the numbers in African-American or other minority communities.
The hint is certainly not lost on his supporters. Witness the words of one Trump enthusiast, a 61-year-old carpenter in the crucial battleground state of Ohio by the name of Steve Webb. “Trump said to watch your precincts. I’m going to go, for sure,” he told the Boston Globe this weekend. “I’ll look for … well, it’s called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American … 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 will comes as little surprise to those who have paid even the slightest attention to the post-truth campaign of Donald Trump that these claims of voter fraud and ballot rigging are almost entirely fact-free and lacking in evidence. One legal scholar dedicated years to studying the issue and could find only 31 cases of voter fraud out of more than a billion votes cast. As the ThinkProgress thinktank has noted: “Iowa’s Republican secretary of state uncovered zero cases of voter impersonation at the polls during a two-year investigation.” Even the hard right Breitbart website – so close to Trump that its boss, Steve Bannon, is the chief executive of the Trump campaign – had to admit that, “given the sheer variety of jurisdictions that run a typical presidential election, the nationwide effect of voter fraud may be much harder to measure, and probably small”.
Conceding that point, Breitbart then attempted to redefine “rigged” away from the mechanics of ballot-stuffing and the like and on to the terrain of media bias. If the election is being stolen from Trump, runs the argument, it’s because the press is, in effect, acting as an ally of Clinton by being so hostile to the Republican nominee. Just look at the chorus of women assembled by the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Palm Beach Post and People magazine last week, all of whom alleged that had Trump sexually assaulted them. Surely that represents a coordinated attack, weeks before election day, designed to damage Trump and help Clinton?
But it’s a perilously thin argument, for the media all but created the Donald Trump candidacy. During the primary campaign, they lavished attention and airtime on him in a way that squeezed out all his rivals. He only had to pick up the phone to be on the air with Fox or MSNBC, a privilege not extended to Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. His rallies were carried live and at length; theirs were lucky to get a 10-second clip. One study showed that while Bush spent tens of millions on TV ads, Trump got $2bn-worth of airtime absolutely free.
But it was more than just quantity. The media allowed Trump to get away with lies they would have stamped on had Clinton been the culprit. For example, in recent weeks, Trump has been challenged on his wholly false claim to have opposed the invasion of Iraq. (At the time, he told shockjock Howard Stern on the record that he approved of it.) But, for many months, the supposedly liberal media, especially television, allowed him to get away with that fiction. If Trump wants to claim media bias in this election, he could make a strong case that the bias has been in his favour.
The other limb of the “rigged” argument is that the forces of Hillary have already fixed one contest this election season, corruptly engineering the Democratic primary race to defeat Bernie Sanders. There’s no doubt that the rules – and the power given to party officials as “superdelegates” – favoured Clinton, nor that Clinton had much of the party machine on her side. That’s why Sanders, who wasn’t even a Democrat a year before he sought the nomination – he sits in the Senate as an independent – was always the underdog. But even the most diligent hacking of Democrats’ emails – undertaken, the FBI believes, by Russian intelligence and released in recent days by WikiLeaks – has not produced evidence that Sanders was defrauded of the nomination, rather than simply being outmuscled.
Indeed, you could make a decent case that an attempt to rig the 2016 election is underway – one designed to hurt Clinton and help Trump. WikiLeaks would be a key exhibit in that case. Julian Assange has been consistent in leaking documents that embarrass the Democratic nominee, yet strangely reluctant to publish any paperwork that might discomfort Trump. You would have thought WikiLeaks might have been able to produce the elusive Trump tax returns, for example, but no luck.
You would put the media in the dock, too, replaying all the softball interviews Trump has been granted – glossing over his multiple lies, his bankruptcies and his overt bigotries – while Clinton was grilled again and again over her use of a private email server. But your argument would not need to end there. You would also look at what’s actually set to happen – and already happening – at the heart of the matter: the ballot itself.
There is a mountain of evidence, going back years, of voter suppression: the deliberate exclusion of large groups of voters from the electoral rolls. Rolling Stone magazine has reported on a programme designed to purge rolls of voters wrongly eligible to vote in more than one state. It sounds technical, but it just so happens that the programme “disproportionately threatens solid Democratic constituencies: young, black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters – with some of the biggest possible purges underway in Ohio and North Carolina, two crucial swing states with tight Senate races.”
Few have been more vigilant on this subject than Ari Berman, the author of Give us the Ballot: the Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Every week, he brings word of another scheme by Republican authorities at state level – and, remember, Republicans are in charge in most of the 50 states – to suppress voting among those likely to vote Democratic. Recently, he reported on Wisconsin’s failure to issue voter-identification documents to people who needed them, a failure that disproportionately affects black voters. Some of his revelations are jaw-dropping, among them the story of an Indian-American woman, a US citizen since she was eight years old, who was told she had to spend $345 on naturalisation papers just to be able to exercise her right to vote.
Every four years there are incidents like this, such as polling places in African-American areas with too few voting machines, causing long lines. Were that not enough of a deterrent to voting, this year – thanks to Trump’s call for groups of vigilante polling monitors to take up their positions in urban areas – plenty of minority voters might well feel intimidated as well as simply put off.
So, Democrats could cry foul if they wanted to. They have the recent memory of Florida 2000, when Republican state officials stood in the way of a thorough recount, ensuring that George W Bush held on to a razor-thin lead. They could also point to Ohio 2004, where questions linger over Bush’s defeat of John Kerry.
But most who cherish US democracy choose not to go there. They prefer to defend the integrity of the system. They know the peril that could befall the republic if nearly half the country believe the person occupying the White House is there fraudulently. Yet that is precisely the chaos Trump is seeking to create. He is proving that Donald Trump represents a threat to the stability of the US even if he loses. But we should remember: he never loses.