Two months ago – in a piece I submitted to this website, but which was not published – I wrote:
As the coming months unfold, [Donald] Trump is likely to do or say something that will push him beyond a hitherto unforeseen event horizon that will almost completely break his candidacy.
And, when the post-election analyses are written, it’s looking very likely that “grab them by the pussy” will be marked as that event horizon: the point at which public (and, particularly, Republican) support moved away from him to a point of no return.
Although, as a result, many political observers around the world now seem almost certain to breathe a sigh of relief on November 8, that sense of relief might also be premature.
‘The election is going to be rigged…’
Donald Trump was never going to be a magnanimous loser. Big egos almost never enjoy a soft landing when they fall.
It’s hard to imagine a man who once disputed the outcome of the Emmy Awards would suddenly become more gracious when the stakes were raised, and when running against a female opponent.
As far back as August he was buying insurance for a potential electoral loss by telling his supporters:
I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest.
In recent days, now faced with an almost certain landslide loss, he has massively ramped-up that rhetoric.
When pressed during Wednesday’s third presidental debate by moderator Chris Wallace as to whether he would accept the election outcome, Trump said he’d “keep [us] in suspense”.
That may be a non-answer, but it is still an unprecedented move by a major political candidate in the US.
Why we need faith in the system
It is quite normal for people to lack faith in their political representatives or to disagree with them, even vehemently, on ideological grounds.
It is also common for politicians to claim that they have been represented unfairly. Conservative politicians, for instance, have long railed against the so-called “liberal” media. Indeed, Trump is claiming that negative coverage of his campaign is one part of big conspiracy to have Clinton elected (who, ironically, also once complained about conspiracies herself):
It is, however, quite another thing entirely for people to feel that officials have been elevated illegally to their positions, or that the electoral apparatus itself is corrupt. For them to get that feeling from the presidential nominee of a major political party is very dangerous indeed.
Democracy rests heavily on the idea that, though we may not like those who govern, they gained that power by fair means, and there will be another opportunity to remove them from power via the same mechanism in the near future.
In order for the political system to work, we require broadly shared faith that it does work: a somewhat circuitous idea academics have called “system legitimacy”.
In healthy democracies, the vanquished play a crucial part in this by performing a display of respect for the will of the people, often in the form of a gracious concession speech. In some cases they can display extraordinary goodwill to their former rivals.
That is why Trump’s attempt to paint himself (and his supporters) as the victim of a corrupt system may be uniquely damaging, and may permanently reshape the political landscape. Because this is unprecedented, we have no idea what the long-term effects of this strategy might be.
Suggesting that the election is “rigged” creates doubt among some citizens as to whether they should even bother voting in the first place. It can intimidate those who do choose to vote, and lead some fringe groups to believe that politicians should be removed by force.
In a country that loves guns – and their open carriage – as deeply as America, it’s a potentially deadly combination.
Governing after Trump
Trump prides himself on being a political “outsider” who – unlike the “career politicians” he disparages – has not devoted his life to the political system. So, assuming he is defeated in less than three weeks, he has no investment in the ongoing stability of American democracy.
It would be my guess, therefore, that he will be content to keep his supporters in a state of permanent anger for as long as possible.
In fact, observers have suspected for some time that his ultimate goal might be to leverage that support to create his own news media outlet, which might explain why he currently has Stephen Bannon (formerly of Breitbart) and Roger Ailes (the disgraced former CEO of Fox News) working for his campaign.
A news outlet of this sort would presumably contribute even further to what I have called “a collapse of factual consensus” in recent years, in which it’s becoming almost impossible to find societal (let alone political) agreement on reality.
At the same time, existing partisan divides are getting wider and wider.
Even John McCain, the man who once built a political movement around rejecting extreme partisanship, now says that the Republican Party won’t hold hearings for any of Hillary Clinton’s Supreme Court nominations. This too, as Ed Kilgore points out, is unprecedented.
Hillary Clinton will go where no woman has gone before when she becomes the president of the United States. But, if this instability and obstructionism continues, she will face challenges that no president before her has faced either.
Rupert Murdoch once called Australia “ungovernable”. But, thanks in large part to Trump’s destructive efforts, Clinton may soon find out what a truly “ungovernable” nation really looks like.