Never in modern history has the loser of a presidential election challenged the legitimacy of our national elections. Even in these times of unprecedented partisan rancor, candidates have put partisanship aside in the interest of patriotism and national unity. What has separated the United States from third-world nations is our fundamental faith in our institutions and the belief that our laws supersede political strife.
This week, Donald Trump changed all that. Even before the first vote has been cast, he informed Sean Hannity that our electoral process was fundamentally illegitimate, that our democracy was as subject to political whims as that of Putin’s Russia or Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
“I’m telling you, November 8th, we’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged,” Trump told Hannity. “And I hope the Republicans are watching closely or it’s going to be taken away from us.”
Trump then proceeded to cite his own primary election as being “rigged” against him, without providing any evidence. This, of course, is part and parcel of a larger talking point of pervasive voter fraud where the dead vote and untold numbers of people impersonate others in order to cast fraudulent ballots. In reality, voter fraud is virtually non-existent, according to a non-partisan study that examined voter impersonation at the polls.
In pushing the discredited notion that the election will somehow be stolen from him, Trump does our country a massive disservice.
First, he will have delegitimized the office of the president of the United States and the commander in chief of our armed forces in the eyes of his supporters.
Second, he will have convinced many of his supporters that the United States is no better than the dictatorships for which his chief strategist, Paul Manafort, has worked for many decades.
Third, he has armed America’s enemies with a talking point that will be used against us whenever we decry rigged elections abroad: even the leader of one of our two major political parties believes that the American electoral system is no better than that of despotic regimes the world over.
Despite being urged by many of his supporters to keep fighting during the Florida recount in 2000, Vice President Al Gore conceded the election to Governor George W. Bush in the interest of national unity, stating that, “[T]onight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”
George W. Bush’s election was certified by a Republican secretary of state in Florida, where his brother was then governor.
In a 5-4 vote, a manual recount was halted by Supreme Court justices, several of whom were appointed by an administration that his father had either led or in which he had served as vice-president. There was evidence that a confusing ballot in Palm Beach County had forced voters to cast a ballot mistakenly for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore.
Yet, in his concession speech, Gore never delegitimized the outcome of the 2000 election.
“I know that many of my supporters are disappointed,” Gore said. “I am too. But our disappointment must be overcome by our love of country. And I say to our fellow members of the world community, let no one see this contest as a sign of American weakness. The strength of American democracy is shown most clearly through the difficulties it can overcome. Some have expressed concern that the unusual nature of this election might hamper the next president in the conduct of his office. I do not believe it need be so. President-elect Bush inherits a nation whose citizens will be ready to assist him in the conduct of his large responsibilities. I, personally, will be at his disposal, and I call on all Americans -- I particularly urge all who stood with us -- to unite behind our next president.”
Sixteen years later, Trump has demonstrated that he lacks the patriotism to put his country and its institutions ahead of his own ego. In his world-view, Donald Trump does not lose; therefore, any loss must be illegitimate.
Trump has boasted that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and not lose votes.
In casting doubt upon the integrity of our national institutions and egging on his supporters to do the same, he is testing that proposition. In the event of a loss, he has already lit the match and tossed it onto the pyre. What happens next is no concern of his.
Julie Roginsky has extensive experience in government, politics and public relations on both the federal and state levels. She is the president of Comprehensive Communications Group, a public relations and crisis communications firm that counts Fortune 500 corporations, elected officials and non-profit organizations among its clients. Follow her on Twitter @JulieRoginsky.