In the most jaw-dropping moment of Wednesday night’s debate, Donald Trump departed from the norms of American democracy, refusing to say he’d accept the result if he loses. In Trump’s universe, Trump is always the winner, and “loser’’ is the ultimate slur. But now that he’s trailing in the polls, it’s no surprise the silver-spoon tycoon — who lives in an echo chamber of Yes Men and Women and whose eponymous brand is built on his overweening self-regard and grandiosity — would see fraud as the only explanation for his defeat. (He lost the Emmys only because they were “dishonest,” and Iowa was a “scam”). With the biggest prize of all slipping from his reach now, he’s giving a master class in Covering Your Assets before the votes are even cast and counted.
All this is music to the ears of America’s detractors worldwide, none more so than those in Beijing and Moscow gleefully repeating his scurrilous accusations as “evidence” that authoritarianism trumps democracy. When I was the Globe’s China correspondent, state media seized on the hanging chads of 2000 and mismatch between the popular vote and Electoral College winners as proof of concept: democracy as failed experiment. Now the state-run China Daily has fresh fodder for its canon aimed at the “dysfunction of democracy.” An editorial in the People’s Daily lectured the United States to reconsider “its arrogant democracy and flawed politics.” Its sister paper, the Global Times, warned the United States “better watch itself . . . more than pointing fingers at other countries for their so-called nationalism and tyranny.”
In Russia — where state-allied hackers are accused by US intelligence agencies of exposing e-mails from the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign to help Trump — an op-ed in RT (formerly known as Russia Today) claimed “the powers-that-be (Wall Street, media, Pentagon, Washington, etc.) are audaciously intervening in this election cycle to disenfranchise the voting population.” Huh?
Don’t get me wrong: Politics ain’t beanbag, and both major US parties are playing for keeps. Democratic Party e-mails exposed collusion to support Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. But a major candidate delegitimizing an election before it’s happened crosses a new line. Trump asserted in the debate that “millions of people” are registered to vote who shouldn’t be, yet the Pew study he cited never claimed any of the phantoms actually voted. An exhaustive study of US elections from 2000 to 2014 found only 31 cases of voter impersonation in 1 billion votes cast. In fact, voter ID laws imposed in Kansas, North Carolina, North Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin — ostensibly to stop fraud — were recently struck down by courts, because they were preventing minorities from casting legitimate ballots.
Trump didn’t start the myth of rampant voter fraud, but his feverish conspiracies are sowing doubt at home as well as abroad. A Politico/Morning Consult poll this week found 73 percent of Republicans believe the election could be stolen. A new SurveyMonkey Election Tracking poll found 40 percent of respondents “have lost faith in American democracy,” and 69 percent wouldn’t pledge to accept the outcome — which is pretty much the textbook definition of distrusting elections.
So the next time the US government condemns actual voter fraud in Iran, Zimbabwe, or Congo, how credible will it sound? Our global soft power rests on America’s aspirational brand: Other nations want the freedoms, prosperity, and democracy we enjoy. If Donald Trump destroys our brand to save his own, we’re all losers. As the man himself would say: “Sad.”
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.