Since 2017, so many events in U.S. politics that were previously unthinkable have come to pass. Don’t believe me? A few days ago, the president of the United States baselessly accused a cable television host of murder and it barely made a blip in the news cycle. The shocking has become unsurprising — almost routine — under Donald Trump’s unhinged presidency.

We don’t know whether Trump will be reelected. But, as we head toward November, you have to ask yourself: If he loses, would it be more surprising if Trump graciously accepts defeat and congratulates his opponent or if he claimed to be the victim of a rigged election and a “deep state” plot?

The answer seems clear.

I’ve studied genuinely rigged elections across the globe. The tactics, context and strategies vary enormously from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. But one trait they have in common is this: The winner doesn’t claim they were rigged.

Not so with Trump. In 2016, when he narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton despite losing the popular vote by a historic margin, he claimed that 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally. That is a lie. But it raised an obvious question: If Trump claimed that an election he won was rigged, what will he do with an election he loses?

Already, he has insinuated that Democratic victories are the result of rigged elections. It’s part of a deliberate strategy to discredit the legitimacy of his political opponents, but it also endangers the peaceful transfer of power, which is a cornerstone of democratic government.

It’s worth reiterating that Trump’s claims are lies. The evidence is clear. Voter fraud is a minuscule problem in the United States. One comprehensive study found 31 cases of voter fraud out of more than 1 billion ballots cast from 2000 to 2014, a rate of 0.0000031 percent of all votes. And lest you think that study was somehow biased against Republican claims, George W. Bush’s Justice Department went looking for voter fraud and basically came up empty. Indeed, as Lorraine Minnite, a political science professor at Rutgers University has noted, in 2005, more people were charged with violating migratory-bird statutes than voter fraud. And that was while Bush’s administration was actively seeking fraud cases to prosecute.

Democratic Party strategist and lawyer Marc Elias says that flaws in ballot design are often overlooked but have huge repercussions on elections. (The Washington Post)

Even the logic is absurd. Trump falsely claims that fraud is largely carried out by undocumented immigrants in California. To believe that, you have to believe that undocumented immigrants (who generally go to extreme lengths to avoid interaction with a government that could deport them) eagerly waltz into polling locations. You have to also believe that they eagerly risk going to jail or being deported to cast a ballot for a candidate that they already know will carry the state by a wide margin. As Minnite put it: “It’s like committing a felony at the police station, with virtually no chance of affecting the election outcome.”

With any president, an attempt to delegitimize elections that your side loses can be destabilizing. But with Trump, it’s dangerous. For years, Trump has pumped out a Twitter stream of endless victimhood complexes, bogus accusations against a mythical “deep state” lurking in the shadows and the mainstreaming of lunatic conspiracy theories. Those messages are aimed at a group of people that is also disproportionately armed.

Consider his now-infamous “liberate” tweets, in which he called on his supporters to rise up against state governments that were following the official public health guidance given by the White House. In one tweet, he twinned that message with a message about the Second Amendment. Was that an accident? Or was it a not-so-coded signal to pair displays of weaponry with MAGA-driven political intimidation? The photos of heavily armed militias who heeded his call — including one man who took a break from protesting to order a Subway sandwich while carrying an antitank rocket launcher — provide the answer.

What will happen if Trump loses and then takes to Twitter to say he actually won? It’s not hard to see how deadly that could become, particularly given that Fox News personalities are already absurdly throwing around the word “coup” to describe lawful investigations and oversight of the president’s conduct. When people in positions of authority and influence invoke the language of political violence and then lose power, violence often ensues. It would be a mistake to assume the United States is somehow immune from that possibility.

Republicans who care about the republic must act now: They need to call out the president when he spreads lies and stokes fears about voter fraud that are rooted only in conservative mythology. Otherwise, we can pretend to be shocked, but nobody should be surprised if Trump tries to discredit the 2020 election — no matter the consequences — if he loses.

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