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Trump’s “rigged election”

When Donald Trump makes accusations of the vote being rigged, he’s playing a very dangerous game.

No country has a perfect election system, there are always issues. In the American elections, you might look at the amount of money which pours into campaigns via Super PACs and other instruments. You might examine gerrymandered districts which mean so many seats are almost completely ‘safe’ for both major parties. The fact that ‘winner take all’ systems tend to produce two party states may be considered a problem by many. The purpose of making these kind of arguments is not to destroy democracy, but to strengthen it, if these problems can be fixed, the argument goes, democracy would be more representative.

Trump’s problems with US elections are of a very different kind. First he spent years arguing that Barack Obama was not a legitimate president, alleging that he was in fact born in Kenya. Now he claims that this election will be rigged in favour of Hillary Clinton. Let’s get rid of the first problem with this, it’s not true. Obama is a natural born citizen and there is no evidence of any more than a tiny number of in person electoral frauds of the type Trump is alleging. Any fraud is bad, but it’s safe to say voter fraud did not have any effect on Obama being elected, and it will not have any effect on this election either.

What they will have an effect on, is Trump supporters views of the legitimacy of the electoral process. Trump is telling his supporters that the whole system is illegitimate, that the Republican party has lost, and will continue to lose elections because they are being fixed by… well someone, it’s not really clear who. Although Trump’s comments about things ‘going on’ in certain parts of Philadelphia, is almost certainly a reference to the fact that in certain majority black districts in Philadelphia, Mitt Romney received zero votes in the 2012 presidential election. This is taken by some right wing conspiracy theorists as evidence that voter fraud was happening. Many others have pointed out that with small districts which are both racially and politically segregated, and therefore, in this case, both heavily democratic and black, that support for Obama would be massive, and in some cases lead to him getting all the votes, there’s nothing particularly unusual about it. You may notice the common theme in Trump’s accusations is black people, but as Trump has told us he “has a great relationship with the blacks” that is surely just coincidence.

These kinds of views have always been around of course, but it’s fair to say that once a major party candidate for President is espousing them, they can no longer safely be dismissed as ‘fringe’, one survey showed that 51% of self identified Trump supporters believed that President Obama was not born in the United States, and that is a deeply worrying statistic. Although it makes little difference to the outcome, it is worth considering whether Trump actually believes these things. There is no question that he is a racist, the public record on this is clear, but does he really think these conspiracies are real? If he does, then he’s a racist conspiracy theorist, if he doesn’t, he’s simply a regular racist who is willing to say and do anything, no matter the consequences, in order to win an election, or as seems more likely now, explain a defeat.

But make no mistake, there will be consequences, even should Trump lose heavily in the election. He has continued to legitimise a view of American democracy as corrupt beyond repair, should he lose, there will be a sizable portion of his support who will believe that the election was stolen from them, as will be all future elections. Their votes don’t matter and will never matter, they cannot ‘take their country back’ through the ballot box. They know who is to blame, the blacks, the Muslims, the media, the Democrats, even the Republican establishment. There is talk that should Trump lose, he will create some kind of media empire with his friends at the right wing outlet Breitbart. Should this happen we can imagine what the network might be like, as a well known fan of right-wing websites such as Breitbart and the Drudge report, along with Alex Jones’ crazed conspiracy site Info Wars, which apparently already gets close to 7 million visitors a day, we should expect more of the same, attacks on the fundamental legitimacy of the democratically elected government, but with the increased audience Trump would bring.

Democracy by its nature relies on the consent of citizens, that even if they hate the government, they broadly accept that the system is legitimate. They can campaign against things they don’t like, advocate for policy changes, or for new leaders, they can even challenge actions they believe to be illegal in the courts, but they accept the right of the government to govern. If enough people reject that basic idea, that they no longer recognise that they live in a democracy, you have a real problem.

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