At a rally in Delaware, Ohio, on Thursday, Donald Trump continued to undermine the legitimacy of the presidential election 19 days away — by saying he would absolutely accept the results of the election “if I win.”
“[I] pledge to all of my voters and supporters, and to all of the people of the United States, that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election if I win.”
This comes on the heels of Trump’s refusal, during the third presidential debate, to commit to accepting the results of the presidential election regardless of the outcome — saying that he’d “look at it at the time” and “I’ll keep you in suspense.”
Other Republicans, including the chair of the Republican National Committee, have tried to dismiss Trump’s debate comments, assuring the public that he will in fact concede if he loses to Hillary Clinton.
But many, like Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, are offering caveats, saying he will concede only if the election is proven to be legitimate. Trump confirmed that on Thursday, telling the Ohio crowd, "I would reserve my right to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of a questionable result."
Since Trump has been saying for weeks that there will be “millions” of fraudulent votes cast in this election, and other Republicans were raising the specter of voter fraud to pass voter ID laws for years before that, it seems entirely plausible that the 2016 election might meet whatever standard for "questionable result" is being set.
Trump is trolling the press. But at least some supporters are taking him seriously.
Trump’s “if I win” line is probably not intended as a declaration that he won’t accept the results of the election if he loses. He’s probably not taking it that seriously.
It’s probably a troll — a play for continued attention as he sinks deeper and deeper in the polls. Trump has learned that the media is extremely sensitive to any hint that Trump won’t submit to democratic order, and he’s learned how to turn that to his advantage. Having squandered a crucial opportunity to create drama during the first debate, when he boringly promised to accept whatever result the voters returned, he’s now stringing the press along — dancing ever closer to an explicit declaration that he’ll fight the election result, without saying it outright.
For all we know, Trump has every intention of accepting an election loss — but on a certain level, it doesn’t matter.
What Trump is doing now is dangerous regardless of what he does on election night. It is dangerous even if he concedes, immediately and graciously. It is dangerous not as a hint about what Trump himself might or might not do, but as a signal to supporters about what they should do.
Donald Trump may well not understand that the things he says for attention are being taken dead seriously by some of his supporters. Many of them really do believe Hillary Clinton’s presidency would be inherently illegitimate. Some of them have told reporters that they do believe a Clinton win would be proof of widespread fraud, and are mobilizing (with the encouragement of Trump’s campaign) to “monitor” against it. Some have even said it would be time for a coup.
The more that Trump signals that the legitimacy of the United States presidential election is contingent on his winning it, the more convinced his followers will be that they are living in desperate times, and desperate measures need to be taken. The more convinced they are of that, the more likely they are to resort to violence to fight an illegitimate social order.
This is bigger than Trump, and he doesn’t seem to realize that. Trump is doing this because he knows how to control the media. But he doesn’t know how to control his people — and he’s never even really tried.