One memorable, portentous moment has quickly come to define Wednesday’s third presidential debateu: Donald Trump’s refusal to say that he will respect the results of the election.
Pressed on the issue by moderator Chris Wallace, Trump said “I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. OK?”
But Trump’s answer wasn’t exactly a surprise. At rallies, in interviews, and on Twitter, Trump has been complaining that the election is rigged. Doubly rigged, actually. First, by a biased media. Second, by a voting system plagued by fraud. And what's more, his supporters seem to be buying it. An overwhelming 81 percent believe the election could be “stolen” through fraud.
This bodes ill for a smooth post-election transition. If Trump loses, and his supporters think it rigged, they may not accept the legitimacy of the outcome, which could mean months of contestation — possibly even violence.
Trump against voter fraud
Trump insists “there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day,” and he’s called for supporters to keep watch at polling places. But every major study of voter fraud in the United States turns up the same results: nothing, or next to nothing.
In-person voter fraud is so vanishingly rare it’s hard to take seriously as a threat to democracy. One study from Loyola Law School found just 31 instances of voter impersonation between 2000 and 2014 — out of more than a billion ballots.
To be sure, there are real vulnerabilities in our voting system. Absentee ballots carry a much higher risk of fraud than in-person ballots, and many states still use purely-digital voting machines that can be invisibly hacked.
Next to these, in-person fraud is a distant concern. But calling for vigilance plays well with Trump’s base, because the consistent implication is that the people engaged in voter fraud are illegal immigrants and Democrats. Trump doesn’t say that explicitly, he refers to “certain areas,” but campaign surrogates Rudolph Giuliani and Newt Gingrich spent the weekend talking about vote-stealing in inner cities.
Trump against the media
Coverage of Trump really does seem to have grown more negative in recent weeks, including a barrage of stories about Trump’s lackluster debate performances, allegations of sexual assault, sinking poll numbers, and increasingly histrionic rhetoric.
However, it’s tricky for journalists to assess Trump’s charge of media bias — because we’re all implicated. To refute Trump is to leave yourself open to an obvious counter-attack: “you’re a member of the media, of course you’d say the media isn’t biased.”
But what then? Who else is positioned to assess this claim? What other institution is fit to measure, discuss, and debate the validity of Trump’s argument that the media is in Hillary Clinton’s pocket?
And this charge really does need careful adjudication. It’s not so weak as to be waved away with appeals to Trump’s unprecedented unpreparedness. If his unfitness were so obvious, there’d be no debate to begin with, no supporters who find mainstream coverage unjust.
When Trump talks about media bias, he seems to mean something rather crude — like editors and journalists conspiring to promote a pro-Hillary agenda. But there’s a more penetrating charge ready at hand.
Breitbart aside, few in the media see or experience the world the way his supporters do. The biggest papers are headquartered in cities, which makes their journalists more urban, more comfortable with cosmopolitan diversity. Journalists also tend to be more educated than the average American, and so more trusting of expert opinion.
All of this creates bias, which could well manifest itself in media coverage.
Even if the media has a bias, there is still a glaring problem with Trump’s complaints. Throughout this campaign, he has garnered enormous amounts of free coverage and wide-eyed media attention. One analysis found that he’s been getting twice as much coverage as Clinton — and that at least until October, it wasn’t any more negative in tone.
To top if off, there’s his media ally Vladimir Putin. The great irony of Trump’s attack on the global cabal set against him is that if anyone is benefitting from an international conspiracy, it’s Trump himself.
United States intelligence agencies have found that Russian hackers are behind the theft of embarrassing documents about Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. By feeding that sensitive information to Wikileaks, Russia seems to be trying to steer the election towards Trump. And major media outlets in the United States have had little choice but to play along, because while the leaks may be propaganda they’re also genuinely newsworthy.
From that perspective, it seems that the media has done Trump more than its share of favors — whatever the biases.
Trump against democracy
There’s something deeply risky about Trump’s rhetoric; democracies only work when second-place finishers accept defeat. Otherwise every election creates an opening for violence, with the aggrieved loser mobilizing his impassioned followers to mount their claim against an unjust system.
Even the most justly bitter candidates in American history have found the mettle not just to concede, but to accept the legitimacy of their rival’s victory. Al Gore did it in 2000. Richard Nixon did it in 1960, despite credible claims of voting irregularities in key states. Barry Goldwater did it after his firebrand campaign in 1964, writing to President Johnson: “I will help you in any way that I can toward achieving a growing and better America.”
Trump’s campaign still insists that their candidate will respect the will of voters. But every use of the word “rigged” undermines that promise.
Increasingly, the big question in this election isn’t what will happen on November 8 — with Trump now a miracle’s distance from victory — but on the 9th.
If Trump graciously concedes, perhaps his supporters will realize that all his talk of a rigged election was campaign bluster. But with a different reaction, Trump could sap Clinton’s legitimacy from day one, undermining the tradition of peaceful transition so essential to the workings of American democracy.