In 2016, Donald Trump won the electoral college vote to win the presidency, but lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots. It made him the sorest winner in the land, and sent him on a years-long search for excuses.
Today, New Hampshire — where he lost to Hillary Clinton by only 2,736 votes — bears the brunt of his wounded ego. As he heads into the 2020 election cycle, Trump is reviving false claims that he lost in 2016 only because of voting fraud in that state.
The president’s conduct is worse than just petulant. He’s stoking the kind of conspiracy theories that sabotage faith in democracy, deepen political polarization, and lead to unrest or worse.
“There’s just no telling what people will do when they’re incited. We’ve never been in a situation like this, where there’s so much dry kindling across the landscape and we’ve got someone all too willing to light the match,” Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire GOP chairman and Trump critic, told The Washington Post.
Sound far-fetched? Earlier this year, the FBI said “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” constituted a security threat. It’s pretty easy to imagine that people wrongly led by the president to believe that elections are being rigged could be prone to extreme acts.
There are also fears that undermining confidence in the New Hampshire vote could threaten the Granite State’s standing as the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, the Post reported. A tacit agreement by both parties keeps New Hampshire first in line.
But if Republicans lose faith in the integrity of the vote in New Hampshire — or, under partisan pressure to comply with Trump’s alternate facts, pretend to — it could weaken support for the state’s privileged status.
The controversy stems from a figment of Trump’s imagination: his notion that thousands of Massachusetts residents boarded buses and crossed the state line to cast illegal votes in New Hampshire. Following up on his accusation, PolitiFact New Hampshire — a fact-checking enterprise working in partnership with the Concord Monitor and PolitiFact.com, a Pulitzer Prize-winning website of the Tampa Bay Times — debunked it as a “reckless claim with zero evidence” and rated it “Pants on Fire.”
After subsequent state-led investigations, that debunking holds. Responding to Trump’s words during an Aug. 15 Manchester rally, the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office said there was no evidence of “widespread, organized efforts” to carry out voter fraud in the state. While deputy secretary of state David Scanlan acknowledged some isolated, individual circumstances, he said there was “nothing on the scale of illegal voters on buses coming into New Hampshire.”
State Republicans, including Governor Chris Sununu, have gently distanced themselves from the president’s claims. But he and his party ought to be speaking up for New Hampshire a lot louder than they have. The state has taken pride for decades in the special nature of politics in the state, where retail campaigning is the rule.
The president’s groundless, ego-driven attacks on the state’s integrity will only breed cynicism and distrust, and it’s up to the state and its leaders to defend the institutions of democracy that have made it famous.