The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump just repeated his ugliest claim about the election. Why isn’t it bigger news?


Appearing on “Fox & Friends” on Tuesday morning, President Trump again told his supporters to believe that if the election doesn’t deliver the result they want, the outcome is inherently illegitimate — that there are no democratically legitimate circumstances under which he and his supporters can lose in a fair election.

By my count, this is the third time he has stated this explicitly in recent weeks. Trump will generally say both that the election is likely to be rigged and fraudulent — say, due to vote-by-mail — and that he can lose only if that happens. Yet the political press usually responds by fact-checking only the first half of this, by debunking his claims about fraud.

But the political media seem to largely tolerate or avert their eyes from the second underlying idea — that the political system cannot deliver a legitimate outcome in which he loses. He and his top advisers almost never face any tough questioning about that second series of claims.

That can’t be okay. In so doing, we’re letting the entire deception campaign directed at his supporters to fake-justify his efforts to corrupt the election and so much more go largely unexamined.

On “Fox & Friends,” Trump defended his indoor rally in Nevada by blaming Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) for nixing numerous outdoor sites. Trump then claimed that “this is the same guy that’s gonna be in charge of the ballots.”

“I’m winning that state easily but the one thing we can’t beat, if they cheat on the ballots,” Trump then said. “Now he will cheat on the ballots, I have no doubt about it.”

Trump is actually trailing in Nevada by more than five points in the polling averages. He could ultimately win the state, but there is no way that will happen “easily.”

What’s relevant here is the declaration that he can’t lose unless Democrats rig the balloting. This is the third time we’ve heard this: At the Nevada rally, Trump railed that Democrats are rigging the election, “because it’s the only way they’re gonna win.”

And Trump recently told supporters in Wisconsin that “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”

Trump and his top advisers only occasionally face follow-up questions about this. When Fox’s Chris Wallace pressed Trump recently on whether he “might not accept the results of the election,” Trump replied: “No. I have to see.”

And White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany recently refused to say under questioning whether Trump believes there are any circumstances under which he can fairly lose.

Historian Carol Anderson traces the evolution of voter suppression tactics — from poll taxes to poll closures — and argues they are all rooted in White rage. (Video: The Washington Post)

What Trump is telling supporters

Should we care about this? One might argue that it doesn’t matter what Trump says about it — that Trump’s declaration of intent not to accept a loss will be irrelevant to who actually wins the electoral college.

But that misses a key aspect of what makes all this so pernicious: Trump is telling untold numbers of supporters that they shouldn’t accept a losing outcome as legitimate.

And the larger context here is important: This comes even as Trump has also suggested to his supporters in every which way that they should prepare to resist such an outcome as well.

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For instance, Trump and his advisers have repeatedly insisted that the winner must be declared on election night or soon after. When you take that along with his frequent insistence that late-counted mail ballots will be automatically rigged against him, that amounts to an exhortation to supporters to be on guard against an effort to steal the election from them via mail votes.

That’s the key context for understanding Trump’s claim that no losing outcome can be legitimate. It creates a framework within which Trump supporters are supposed to see it as entirely justified if and when he seeks to declare untold numbers of ballots cast against him illegitimate.

Yes, it might not matter to the actual outcome what he tells them to think. But it certainly makes political violence or other deep civic damage more likely.

If the opposition is illegitimate, anything goes

More broadly, this sort of thing is morphing into the justification for Trump’s many other efforts to corrupt the election. The president recently delivered a big speech declaring open war on the left. His attorney general gave one casting much of the political opposition as illegitimate, an idea that is fundamental to both men’s worldviews.

Once this is established, then anything goes in response — whether it’s twisting intelligence to support Trump’s campaign agitprop, denying Congress information about Russian interference or falsely discrediting vote-by-mail. Trump’s declarations that he can’t legitimately lose continue building on this baseline rationale.

In an important Twitter thread, Dave Karpf noted that traditional political reporting is incapable of reckoning adequately with the deep imbalance on display here. The constant discussion of typical campaign tactics creates the impression of normalcy even as it fails to adequately convey to voters that one side “will also be attempting to invalidate the votes of huge swaths of the electorate.”

Getting this right could be hugely consequential. As Rick Hasen and other elections experts have urged, the political media needs to prepare right now for the challenge of conveying to voters that an uncertain outcome may reign for days or weeks after Election Day, and that this is fine and legitimate.

Informing the public of this will be urgent, what with Trump and his propagandists gearing up for a major effort to persuade voters otherwise. To that end, one thing we could do more of right now is scrutinize and expose the ugly underlying claim Trump keeps making to justify this coming scheme.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: A Trump official’s insane rant should reflect back on Trump himself

Greg Sargent: 7 ways Trump and his cabal are using government to corrupt the election

Jennifer Rubin: All we have to fear is Trump himself

Katrina vanden Heuvel: It’s going to be a long November. Here’s a game plan for every election outcome.

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