The rest of the political world has spent the past several days dissecting a devastating report from the New York Times about Donald Trump’s 1995 tax returns. Trump has spent it, at least in part, warning his followers that Hillary Clinton is about to steal the election.
In two rallies over the weekend, Trump told his followers that Clinton is planning massive voter fraud in "certain areas" (and asked them to serve as vigilante election monitors on his behalf). It’s so clear that a Clinton victory is only possible if the vote is rigged in her favor, in fact, that Trump told the New York Times on Friday he may not concede after all.
This kind of thing has happened once too often to be a coincidence: Whenever things are looking especially dire for Trump’s hopes of winning the presidency, he starts telling his supporters that victory is about to be stolen from underneath their feet.
That a vote for Trump is the last chance his supporters will have to save the republic before Hillary Clinton distorts it into something absolutely unrecognizable.
That it may already be too late.
This is the darkest, most conspiratorial, and most potentially dangerous theme in Trump’s rhetoric. Over the weekend, after a terrible week for the Trump campaign ended with the New York Times’s revelations that Trump had lost more than $900 million in a single year, that theme came roaring back.
Of course, it’s no coincidence that Trump is encouraging paranoia in this atmosphere: Circumstances certainly seem to be conspiring against him (even if the government isn’t).
No matter his ultimate motivation for questioning a Clinton victory — whether he really believes that’s what will happen, or because he thinks it’s a good marketing strategy for securing fans' loyalty — he is (once again) idly jackhammering at the bedrock of democracy: the willingness to accept when your opponent has won.
"You will never ever have this chance again"
When the Times published pages from Trump’s 1995 tax returns on Saturday night, the candidate was delivering a speech at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania.
The campaign attempted to have Trump respond to the Times onstage at the rally by reading a short statement. Instead, they unleashed a torrent of Trumpian ad lib (captured by Jenna Johnson for the Washington Post) — culminating in a bit of hyperbole that would embarrass most self-respecting used car salesmen:
"You have 38 days to make every dream you ever dreamed for your country come true," Trump said. "Do not let this opportunity slip away or be wasted. You will never ever have this chance again. Not going to happen again. … You have one magnificent chance."
It sounds ridiculous and downright absurd.
It’s the sort of promise that most politicians are far too cautious and responsible to make. If voters write it off as an exaggeration, that’s bad, because it means the politician isn’t trusted.
If voters believe it, that’s arguably worse — because what if he’s asked to keep his word? Politicians have been driven from office for breaking promises much smaller than "every dream you ever dreamed of for your country [will] come true."
It’s not clear which of these reactions — cynicism or dangerous, manic hope — Trump intends to inspire. But at least some of his followers are feeling the latter: They’re convinced that Donald Trump is the last best chance to destroy the irredeemably corrupt status quo before it can be set in stone.
They may not believe that Trump can make all their dreams come true. But they are daring to hope he will instantiate at least some of them. And they certainly agree with him about the alternative: Elect Hillary Clinton, and the United States may never have another fair election — or any election at all — ever again.
Trump is opening the door to anti-Clinton resistance, whether he knows it or not
With the stakes so high, it’s not surprising that Trump supporters would be eager to ensure his victory. Given where he sits in the polls, though, they might not be so bold as to expect it.
Except that’s what Trump is telling them to do. He’s reanimating the idea (last floated during Clinton’s last period of polling dominance, after the Democratic National Convention) that a Clinton win would be proof the election was "rigged."
Trump quietly abandoned the "rigged election" theory when it began to look feasible that he might actually win. But over the weekend — after the first presidential debate and Trump’s post-debate meltdown — it’s cropping up in stump speeches again. On Friday and on Saturday, Trump urged followers to get together in groups and go "monitor" polling places in "certain areas" to make sure that no voter fraud was occurring.
"Go to your place and vote," he said Saturday, "and then go pick some other place, and go sit there with your friends and make sure it's on the up and up."
But if what Trump is telling his followers is bad, what he’s telling the press is arguably worse.
On Monday, during the debate, moderator Lester Holt asked point blank if Trump would accept a Clinton victory on Election Day; Trump said he would. By Friday, he was telling the New York Times that maybe he wouldn’t accept a defeat as legitimate after all:
[Trump] even indicated that he was rethinking his statement at their last debate that he would "absolutely" support her if she won in November, saying: "We’re going to have to see. We’re going to see what happens. We’re going to have to see."
The Times characterizes this as an attempt "to unnerve Ms. Clinton." But when one candidate in a presidential election is openly teasing that he might not concede if he loses, everybody should be extremely unnerved.
You don’t have to assume that Trump himself believes everything he’s saying in order to understand how dangerous this is.
Yes, it’s possible that the candidate whose most common campaign activity is watching and critiquing cable news genuinely does believe Hillary Clinton is training fraudulent voter squadrons in cities around the United States, and that she might win the election by means so obviously illegitimate that it’ll be his patriotic duty not to concede to her.
It’s also possible that he thinks he’s playing a cute PR game. Maybe he knows that when he doesn’t answer a question, people keep asking, so he’s un-answering the question about conceding to Clinton so that reporters will stay interested in his thoughts on the topic.
Maybe he sees his attempts to recruit amateur election monitors as some sort of brand-building exercise (he’s already used it to get people to sign up for his email list). Maybe he sees this whole thing as a way to secure a loyal base of fans and consumers for whatever he does next.
Whichever it is, though, the fact remains the same: Donald Trump, in the service of his own ego, is encouraging millions of Americans to preemptively reject the legitimate outcome of a presidential election just because the wrong person won. And he’s encouraging them to get some experience physically showing up to represent their side in confrontations with their opponents.
It is entirely too easy to see how this could go badly on November 8 and after. Maybe that’s not what Donald Trump wants, but it’s what he’s setting himself and America up to get. If Clinton wins peaceably and without incident, it will be despite her opponent, not because of him.
CORRECTION: This article originally misidentified Jenna Johnson of the Washington Post. We apologize for the error.