There is perhaps no more defining feature of the Trump administration than the never-ending struggle for the public to keep up with his unending attacks on America’s democratic principles and norms. Just this week alone, President Trump described a May incident when a journalist was shot with a rubber bullet by Minneapolis police as the “most beautiful thing.” He also said that this opponent Joe Biden is “the dumbest of all candidates" and that he “maybe” should sign an executive order preventing Biden from becoming president. And on the week when the death toll from COVID-19 hit 200,000 (by far the highest in the world), he claimed the virus “affects virtually nobody” and took credit for the fact that the death toll wasn’t 2.5 million people.
This comes mere weeks after we discovered the fact that Trump was caught on tape saying he lied about COVID-19 and called Americans killed in war “losers” and “suckers.”
All these stories have corroded our political discourse and the seemingly fleeting bonds of national unity.
However, there is one place to start: a free and fair presidential election that removes Trump from power. But in what may be the most pernicious example of Trump’s increasingly dangerous rhetoric he is making it increasingly clear that he has every intention of trying to cheat in the 2020 presidential election and will not accept any outcome other than a Trump victory.
The most obvious example is Trump’s rhetorical war on mail-in voting. For months, Trump has claimed that such balloting is rife with fraud and is part of a plot engineered by Democrats to rig the election in their favor. These are blatant lies.
But it’s a lie that is traveling awfully far and very quickly — pushed along by a president who clearly knows he is likely to lose reelection and is searching for any means possible to reverse his fortunes.
Over the past few weeks, Trump has regularly rallied his supporters with unsubstantiated statements like “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged"; and that Democrats can only win by “doing very bad things.”
His increasingly fantastical claims have now infected every piece of governing. His newest justification for pushing through a new Supreme Court justice before the election is that the court needs a full retinue of justices because the alleged “scam” on ballots being pulled by Democrats will come before the court and a ninth judge would be needed break a tie to decide the the presidency.
And on Wednesday came the most odious norm violation of his presidency. When asked at a news conference if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election, he refused to say yes, instead calling once again for mail-in ballots to be thrown out.
As awful as Trump’s language has become, a grain of salt is required. Trump can rail against mail-in ballots all he wants, but it’s hard to find any legal rationale for not counting mail-in ballots en masse.
For all his bluster, few Republicans outside his administration have endorsed Trump’s arguments against mail-in ballots. In fact, Republicans in battleground states are largely ignoring them and instead encouraging their voters to vote by mail. For all the increasingly hysterical fears that Republican legislators in battleground states will appoint their own pro-Trump electors to the Electoral College if Trump is leading on Election Night — and declares victory — this is a scheme that would depend on an extraordinary and unlikely confluence of events to occur, like dominoes lined up and falling in precise order.
But that doesn’t mean this isn’t damaging. As Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, pointed out to me recently, "If electoral results are not respected and losers do not concede power, democracies cannot function. If voters lack faith in election processes, it can delegitimize policy and political outcomes and, in extreme cases, lead to civil unrest.”
While predictions of violence are a bit overstated, the more likely outcome is that Trump’s bogus rhetoric about a rigged election risks creating a permanent air of illegitimacy for a Biden presidency — at least among Trump’s supporters. Trump and his enablers will not only have fundamentally coarsened America’s political discourse, they will have sharpened the nation’s political divide to a razor’s edge. The legacy of Trump time in office will likely not be an electoral coup, but rather a cementing of the nation’s already intense political polarization.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.