With only 20 days until the election, and millions of early votes already cast, the third and final presidential debate, on Wednesday night, is unlikely to change the trajectory of the race. But it could nonetheless be the most consequential for the nation’s future if Donald Trump uses his platform in Las Vegas to double down on his destructive, baseless attacks on the legitimacy of the political system. If he does, the remaining Republicans on his side must make clear that their allegiance to their nominee ends Nov. 8.
Trump’s claims that the election is “rigged” against him have no basis in fact. Election fraud in the United States is so rare as to be nearly nonexistent. All 50 states and countless local boards control their own elections, and rigging the vote on a nationwide basis would be nearly impossible. The actual counting of votes is closely watched by observers from both parties. Early voting is underway across the nation, and no credible allegations of fraud have emerged.
Yet Trump continues to call into question the integrity of the election, in Twitter blasts and intemperate speeches. Conspiracy theorists have always camped out on the fringes of American political life, but for a major-party nominee to validate them crosses a line. Such talk is “cancerous to a republic,” said Representative Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican, since it diminishes confidence in election results and the peaceful transfer of power. And it comes with clear racial undertones, since Trump insinuates that fraud is likely to take place in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago.
At the debate, Trump must either present actual evidence to back up his fraud claims or publicly retract them. It would certainly be in his interest to cool his rhetoric if he actually wants to win the election. First, whining about nonexistent fraud hardly helps Trump motivate his voters — if the fix is already in, why bother voting? Additionally, many undecided voters rightly doubt whether Trump is fit to hold the office. The debate might be his last chance to change that impression by behaving in a manner that reminds voters of a president, not a talk-radio crackpot.
But nothing about the conduct of Trump’s campaign so far suggests he cares about the damage he may inflict on the country. He is fomenting unrest and whipping up his followers to believe they are being cheated by a vast conspiracy. But his fellow Republicans do not need to follow him down that dark road. The Republicans who have stuck by their candidate will have a lot to answer for after the election, but the least they can do is draw a line in the sand now. If Trump loses and fails to concede the election, for the good of the nation his party will need to step in and concede it for him.