The 2016 presidential election has become something of a spectator sport for Canadians. We have watched with a mix of horror and schadenfreude as Donald Trump rallies a sizeable base using little more than overt racism, scare tactics, and his (not so tremendous) business record. Watching the democratic process run its course this election has been harrowing. Thankfully, it looks like we can finally breathe a collective sigh of relief as most polls are forecasting a Clinton win on November 8th. Barring any late-breaking calamities for the Clinton campaign, it appears that the US will avoid a Donald Trump presidency.
Trump seems intent on doing as much damage to American democracy as he can before his time in the spotlight ends.
While it’s comforting that America’s next commander in chief will not be an orange-hued lunatic who brags about sexual assault, it doesn’t mean that we can afford to turn away from electoral proceedings just yet. In fact, Trump seems intent on doing as much damage to American democracy as he can before his time in the spotlight ends. Over the past few weeks, he has been steeling himself for a loss by using a puzzling and dangerous new narrative. According to Trump, the election is rigged against him.
Trump’s new strategy
Alleging widespread corruption and election rigging seems to have become the Trump campaign’s central strategy. During the third presidential debate, Trump was asked whether he would accept the result of the election and continue America’s long held tradition of the peaceful transition of power. His response? He plans to ‘keep us in suspense’ until he determines whether large scale voter fraud has distorted the outcome of the election. He has doubled down on this sentiment on Twitter, saying:
Trump continued to stoke fears among his base by expressing concern that the current voter identification system is too lax, allowing people to vote multiple times or to vote on behalf of the deceased. Trump has since expanded his conspiracy theory to point the finger at the media, alleging that journalists have purposely painted a glowing portrait of Hillary Clinton while unfairly criticizing him. On October 16th he tweeted:
If Trump is to be believed, then we have a massive conspiracy on our hands. This conspiracy would require collusion between the Democratic Party and the media. It would also require a nefarious and coordinated effort by thousands of voters scattered across the expanse of the United States. A more likely story is that much like a child losing a game of tag, Trump has realized that in the face of a sure loss, his only move is to scream ‘unfair!’
We can easily dismiss Trump’s ‘rigged’ narrative by pointing to the fact that cases of voter fraud have proven to be rare to the point of statistical insignificance. We may also be tempted to simply chalk it up to his inability to gracefully accept defeat. But those watching the election closely can see that though Trump’s conspiratorial narrative is not based in fact, it resonates for some—and it is extremely damaging for democracy.
The damage for democracy
Trump has encouraged his supporters to monitor poll booths on Election Day. At best, he has created a vigilante force that is entirely unequipped to address actual cases of voter fraud. At worst, he has encouraged members of his base to intimidate minority voters or to attempt to sway the Ken Bones of the world to vote Trump. The latter outcome seems more likely given that his rallying cry for this task force was, “They’re letting people pour into the country so they can go and vote.” Obviously, a democracy in which people feel intimidated or harassed while exercising their fundamental right to vote is not a healthy one.
If even a small portion of America believes that their leader “stole” the presidency, it will be a significant blow to trust in political institutions.
If Trump is able to successfully socialize his conspiracy narrative with his base, a Hillary Clinton presidency could be seen as illegitimate in the eyes of the public. If even a small portion of America believes that their leader “stole” the presidency, it will be a significant blow to trust in political institutions. For Trump to propagate this narrative at a time when political divisions run deeper than ever is incredibly irresponsible. Trump’s sore loser tendencies may also give Republican senators and members of Congress license to stall the policy-making process. They may face pressure from their constituents to block legislation proposed by their Democratic counterparts in the hopes of providing a check on a supposedly corrupt, imbalanced system.
Trump’s talk of a ‘rigged’ election is simply the latest iteration of the toxic narrative that rallied his base in the first place: you are being cheated at every turn. He will likely spend the last days of his campaign weaving this tale of collusion, conspiracy and fraud. Because of this, the margin of victory in this election matters a great deal. If Clinton wins with a generous lead, which it appears she will, it will be easier to put Trump’s claims to rest. Still, something tells me that die-hard Trump supporters will not be easily placated. Even as Trump continues his tailspin towards defeat on November 8th, he leaves destruction in his wake that America must grapple with.
Madeline Rowland is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts in International Development and Political Economy from the University of Guelph. Her main areas of academic interest include government transformation, social policy, urban issues, and international affairs. When she is not in the library, she can be found incessantly reading the news, watching Seinfeld reruns or eating donuts.