Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump seems to be preparing to be a sore loser, unsettling the prospects for any post-election peace.
Three months before Election Day, the 70-year-old New York businessman is reciting electoral grievances that range from the “rigged” presidential debate schedule to dire warnings of voter fraud. Trump’s preemptive declarations, in turn, could muddy the waters for Democrat Hillary Clinton, if she wins.
“I think he’s setting the stage to come up with an excuse for losing,” said Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. “And he’s de-legitimizing her. I think it’s dangerous to make these (rigged) claims.”
At the least, persistent challenges to the legitimacy of an election could distract the winner, embolden the loser, congest the airwaves and poison whatever presidential honeymoon period still exists in today’s hyper-partisan times. More dramatically, it could incite serious upheaval.
“If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election winner will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will be no longer the government,” Trump ally Roger Stone said last week on “The Milo Yiannopolous Show.”
What makes the system work is the loser recognizing the legitimacy of the winner.
Michael Waldman, Brennan Center for Justice
Stone, who formerly served as Trump’s political adviser, added that “the government will be shut down if they attempt to steal this and swear Hillary in. No, we will not stand for it. We will not stand for it.”
Past presidential losers, by contrast, seemed to accept their loss and, consequently, the legitimacy of the one who vanquished them.
Another of Stone’s former bosses, Republican Richard Nixon, famously declined to challenge the 1960 election outcome in which he trailed Democrat John F. Kennedy by less than 1 percent of the popular vote nationwide, though other Republicans did raise a fuss.
Forty years later, Democrat Al Gore endured his 2000 loss to Republican George W. Bush following a Supreme Court decision, despite having won the popular vote.
“Let there be no doubt,” Gore said in his concession speech. “While I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome.”
Trump showed his contrary instincts even before starting his presidential campaign last year, by floating doubts about President Barack Obama’s status as a U.S.-born citizen. Some congressional Republicans implicitly echoed this challenge to Obama’s legitimacy, with 12 House members backing a 2009 bill by Rep. Bill Posey, R-Florida, to require presidential candidates to make public their birth certificates.
As recently as this week, Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, repeated on CNN the de-legitimizing suggestions about Obama’s birth status when discussing the president’s college years.
“The question was, did he get in as a U.S. citizen or was he brought into Harvard University as a citizen who wasn’t from this country?” Lewandowski asked.
While often dismissed as “birther” sentiments, these and similar Trump-driven questions have sown doubt about Obama’s legitimacy and thereby, potentially, undermined the authority of the nation’s first African-American president. Twelve percent of American’s surveyed in 2008 believed, incorrectly, that Obama is a practicing Muslim.
Trump, meanwhile, is becoming even more vehement in his denunciations of a political system that’s built around the presumption of a civil transition from one officeholder to another.
He has blasted the Republican primary system in which he emerged as the party’s nominee and the rival Democratic National Committee, which he and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders alleged was tilted toward Hillary Clinton. He has attacked the presidential debate set-up, arranged by a bipartisan body 10 months ago.
The “rigged” storyline has, moreover, seemingly accelerated this week.
“I’m telling you, November 8th, we’d better be careful because that election is going to be rigged,” Trump told the Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity on Monday. “And I hope the Republicans are watching closely or it’s going to be taken away from us.”
“I mean, people are going to walk in, they are going to vote 10 times maybe,” Trump said in an interview on “The O’Reilly Factor” on the Fox News Channel. “I am very concerned and I hope the Republicans are going to be very watchful, and I hope the authorities are going to be very watchful.”
In its 83-page ruling in the North Carolina case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit wrote that “although the new provisions target African-Americans with almost surgical precision, they constitute inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist.”
Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said Wednesday that Trump’s “idea that judges protecting voting rights is rigging the system is offensive,” adding that the repeated but unproven charges could harm public confidence.
“It’s a dangerous thing,” Waldman said. “We’ve had close elections and what makes the system work is the loser recognizing the legitimacy of the winner.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday that Trump’s assertion about a rigged system is “often a claim made by people who don’t end up winning elections.”
Obama, Earnest added, “has confidence in the integrity of our electoral process, and everybody else should, too.”
Lesley Clark contributed to this story.