What can Trump hope to gain by contesting the result of an election he won? The answer could lie in 2018
Lawrence Douglas/The Guardian – Thursday 26 January 2017 07.09 EST
During the third presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked Donald Trump whether he would “absolutely accept the result of the election” should he lose. What Wallace neglected to ask was whether Trump would accept the result if he won.
Now we know the answer.
In his first reception with congressional leaders as president, Trump repeated the claim that millions of unauthorized immigrants robbed him of a popular vote majority. At the very least, his response to his victory makes clear how he would have handled defeat. Clearly, the same immigrants who allegedly cost him the popular vote would have been blamed for cheating him out of an electoral victory. It is all too easy to imagine the tumult that Trump would have worked to unleash had things gone the other way.
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Yet win he did. So what does the president hope to gain by contesting the result of an election he won?
Given the welter of exaggerations and prevarications that emanate from Trump on a virtual daily basis, there is a temptation to treat this as “Donald being Donald”– as nothing more than another display of the boundless narcissism and ego that can only accept the highest ratings, the biggest crowds, the greatest victories.
It is equally tempting to see a Shakespearean drama playing itself out, as the president, convinced that others are working to undermine his legitimacy, imagines himself pursued by the very dark forces that he has unleashed on to the world.
The impulse to heap all of Trump’s lies together or to puzzle over his unusual psychology threatens, however, to deflect our attention from the politics of this particular claim, which contains two separate falsehoods: first, that immigrants robbed him of the popular vote; and second, that the media has conspired to suppress the story. Together these falsehoods can be enlisted to serve three distinctly toxic political goals.
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First, they work to undergird Trump’s anti-immigrant narrative. Sweeping together undocumented immigrants with unregistered voters, the myth paints them as a double threat – infecting the fabric of society with drugs and crime while also corrupting the very processes of American democracy. As a threat to both our society and our democracy, these “illegals” need to be removed.
Secondly, the myth of the stolen popular vote delivers a powerful argument for an ever more aggressive policing of the polls. In the name of cracking down on voter “fraud”, Trump may work to erect barriers to discourage or effectively bar millions of Americans from exercising their franchise rights.
Finally, and most ominously, Trump has already drafted a script that could be used in two years’ time to impeach the midterm elections should they result in Republican reversals. That same script could be called upon four years from now should Trump lose a re-election bid. Whatever damage candidate Trump could have done to American democracy had he lost in November would pale in comparison to the damage wrought by a sitting president rejecting his defeat.
This is not to say that Trump would try to turn America into Gambia. But confidence in the results of elections is the ultimate benchmark of a democracy’s legitimacy. This confidence is based on the transparency of processes, and on the existence of a free and independent press able to expose any irregularities. In propagating the myth of his stolen popular vote, Trump has attacked both.