The latest polls, which suggest that Hillary Clinton has a commanding lead over Donald Trump in many critical swing states, give progressives a reason to take a breath of relief. The data suggests that Trump is such a poor candidate, he’s even at risk in traditional Republican strongholds like Arizona and Georgia.
But even if Trump and all he represents is soundly beaten in November, there’s reason to fear for American democracy. His transgressive rhetoric and campaign style has normalized the abnormal, and that’s not going to go away overnight, even if he gets the electoral drubbing he richly deserves.
At first, it was only from those who supported Trump, the resentful white voters who felt they finally had a candidate who gave them permission to express their darkest urges. “Lock her up!” was a popular chant for the crowds at the RNC. It shouldn’t need to be said that this is disturbing and abnormal. Running on a platform of jailing your political opponents is something usually found in banana republics, not stable democracies like the U.S.
But it didn’t stop there. Hate is a drug, and like other drugs, addicts need escalating doses to get their fix. It wasn’t long before Trump supporters were no longer satisfied to merely call for imprisoning members of the other party and started calling for bloodshed. Reporters at his rallies have witnessed open calls for violence from the crowd, like “Hang the bitch!” and “Kill her!” At those same events, it’s also increasingly common to hear screamed epithets and racial slurs against black people, immigrants, women, Muslims, and pretty much everyone else.
Every candidate has fringe supporters, of course. But Trump and his surrogates, if they were responsible politicians, could try to tamp down the violent rhetoric and conspiracy fantasia. Instead, they’ve encouraged it. New Hampshire state representative Al Baldasaro said that Hillary Clinton should be “shot for treason“, and rather than cut ties with him, the campaign said they were “grateful for his support”.
As violent language has become pervasive in and around the Trump campaign, it was perhaps inevitable that it would percolate through to the nominee himself. And last week, it did, with Trump’s instantly infamous remarks about “Second Amendment people”:
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Mr. Trump said, as the crowd began to boo. He quickly added: “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.” (source)
In context, there’s no way to read this other than as saying that, if Hillary Clinton is elected president, gun owners could stop her from enacting her agenda by assassinating her. Whether it was meant seriously, or as a clumsy joke, or – most likely – it was something Trump tossed off without thought to whether he personally believed it, it doesn’t matter. It’s all too easy to imagine that there are some violent and disturbed people in his mobs who might treat this as permission to commit vigilante violence (this is the theory of “stochastic terrorism” that’s long been common among religious fundamentalists and the anti-choice right).What makes it even worse is that this suggestion, as bad as it was, wasn’t a one-off. The pattern of Trump’s campaign is that, once he takes one step over the line of a moral norm, it eases the way for the next. And as he falls further behind in the polls, his rhetoric is getting more violent and inflammatory. This past week, Trump and his surrogates suggested that if he loses the election, it will be because of fraud:
Trump asked Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) to say a few words at the event. In brief remarks, Shuster warned of foul play in the state’s most populous city.
“The people in western and central Pennsylvania have to overcome what goes on down in Philadelphia,” said Shuster. “The cheating, what they do – we’ve got to make sure we’re doing the job here in central Pennsylvania.” (source)
The candidate himself endorsed this view at multiple campaign stops:
Last week, as he started to slip in the polls, he warned of election fraud on Fox News, telling Sean Hannity that Republicans should “watch very closely.” At a rally in North Carolina earlier this week, he claimed voters will cast their ballots “15 times” for Mrs. Clinton without voter ID laws. (source)
Donald Trump held a rally in Altoona, Pa., on Friday night, during which he told the audience that the only way Hillary Clinton could win the state was if “in certain sections of the state they cheat.” (source)
It’s a slightly cheering thought that Trump is saying this because he sees the writing on the wall. He knows he’s headed for a loss, and he wants an excuse to save face after the election. But even if he gives up on politics and dwindles into the historical footnote he deserves to be, the frothing mobs he’s stirred up are unlikely to go away so quietly. Their past two losses have already made them distrustful of democracy, and a third straight could tip them over the edge into a frenzy.
For democracy to function, everyone has to accept the outcome of elections. If the response of the losers is to engage in total war against the winners, civic institutions will disintegrate and the country will be ungovernable. We’ve already had a taste of this over the last eight years, where Republican legislators made total obstruction the goal even when President Obama was championing policies they themselves previously supported. But even by these standards, Trump’s abnormal campaign stands out. His incitation raises the specter that, if they lose yet another election, their violent resistance may no longer be metaphorical – and they may be a threat we’ll be dealing with for years to come.