Bernie Sanders saw his march toward the Democratic nomination severely impeded on Super Tuesday, with Joe Biden asserting a delegate lead and looking like the new front-runner. And the whole thing has reunited some Sanders supporters and President Trump behind a familiar argument: This is being rigged.

The hashtags #RiggedDNC and #RiggedPrimary were trending Wednesday morning on Twitter, and President Trump on Wednesday morning re-upped his increasingly frequent argument that Sanders is somehow getting a raw deal.

Trump added on Monday, “It’s being rigged against — it’s sad, it’s being rigged against crazy Bernie.” He said at another point, “I think it’s rigged against Bernie. You see what’s happening with — [Amy] Klobuchar just, I heard — just, something happened there.” And for good measure, he said it a third time. “But, no, it’s rigged against Bernie. There’s no question about it. Sounds like it’s a little bit unfair.”

We can say two things. One is that the argument is severely overcooked. And the second is that this is exactly the kind of thing that Russia wants — and has actively encouraged.

The argument that this primary is being rigged right now is even thinner than it was in 2016. At least back then, there were legitimate arguments that Democratic National Committee officials did problematic things, even if it wasn’t clear that those things had any significant impact. There was the sharing of debate questions with Hillary Clinton. There was deriding Sanders and strategizing in pro-Clinton ways. It happened when Clinton was the presumptive nominee, but the primary wasn’t technically over.

In this case, the rigging of the primary is allegedly being done by getting candidates such as Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and now Mike Bloomberg out of the race so that the party can coalesce behind Biden to beat Sanders. There has not been any indication the DNC has played a role in that, mind you, and those candidates had their own reasons for getting out. All of them had no real path to the nomination after disappointing finishes, and candidates in those types of spots often drop out. What’s more, they are all more ideologically similar to Biden. This is how politics works.

Sanders endorser Marianne Williamson also leaned into the idea that there was something amiss with the rallying to Biden, calling it a “coup” before deleting the tweet.

There was also the debate in South Carolina, where the audience was vocally supportive of Bloomberg and often booed Sanders. More than a few people speculated that the crowd had been stacked, but there is no evidence that it was, and the DNC has said ticketing was handled as it almost always is, with each candidate getting an equal allotment.

This is the evidence for the process being “rigged,” such as it exists. And it’s extremely thin gruel.

The bigger point, though, is about how dangerous this rhetoric is and how much it plays into the hands of those who seek to undermine our democracy. Making such accusations is serious business because it could lead to a crisis of confidence in the results and could lead people to simply sit out the process.

Which, as it happens, is precisely what Russia has aimed to do.

As multiple government and academic reports have shown, a big part of Russia’s attempts to interfere in U.S. elections revolved around calling into question the results of the 2016 Democratic primary. The revelations about the DNC mentioned above came from the batches of emails that were hacked by Russia. And WikiLeaks, which disseminated the emails, made a point to highlight the ones that suggested DNC malfeasance. This was perhaps the biggest takeaway from the hacked emails, which were dropped about a month before a significant number of Sanders’s supporters went on to back Trump in the general election.

There was also a swarm of Russian activity around the release of those emails, as the Senate Intelligence Committee detailed in its report on Russian interference:

A particular spike in [Internet Research Agency] activity on October 6, 2016, stands out as an anomaly deserving further scrutiny. … According to the researchers, on October 6 and 7, IRA Twitter accounts-particularly those accounts emulating ideologically left-leaning personas-significantly increased the volume of their content posting, with 93 of the “Left Troll” accounts posting content that could have directly reached other Twitter accounts 20 million times on those two days. While no clear connection between the spike in IRA Twitter activity and WikiLeaks’ release of the emails has been established, the Clemson researchers speculate that the timing was not coincidental: “We think that they [the IRA] were trying to activate and energize the left wing of the Democratic Party, the Bernie wing basically, before the WikiLeaks release that implicated Hillary in stealing the Democratic primary.”

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s February 2018 indictments involving the Internet Research Agency also referenced efforts aimed to stoking uncertainty about Clinton’s wins, including by pointing to alleged voter fraud:

• On or about August 4, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators began purchasing advertisements that promoted a post on the ORGANIZATION-controlled Facebook account “Stop A.I.” The post alleged that “Hillary Clinton has already committed voter fraud during the Democrat Iowa Caucus.”
• On or about August 11, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators posted that allegations of voter fraud were being investigated in North Carolina on the ORGANIZATION-controlled Twitter account @TEN_GOP.
• On or about November 2, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the same account to post allegations of “#VoterFraud by counting tens of thousands of ineligible mail in Hillary votes being reported in Broward County, Florida.”

What’s more, researchers have indicated Russia is trying this again, right now.

Jessica Brandt is the head of policy and research at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan organization that studies Russian interference and disinformation. She told Wired recently that Russia is already promoting that idea that early issues in the Democratic primary — particularly the problems with counting votes from the Iowa caucuses — are being exploited to undermine confidence in the process.

“We saw Russia amplifying conspiracy theories suggesting that delays in reporting returns were part of an effort to deny Sen. Sanders a clear win,” Brandt said. “We also saw them highlighting theories purporting murky ties between other candidates and the company that created the caucus app.”

There were legitimate questions about the DNC’s activity in 2016, but ultimately this was a narrative that Russia played a major role in fomenting and arguably got exactly what it wanted for its efforts. Now in 2020, the seed it planted has taken root and is growing.

It’s doing so with some high-profile domestic help. It’s a thoroughly convenient and attractive argument for Trump, who wants to divide the Democrats again, and for Sanders supporters, who are disappointed by Super Tuesday. But it should really only be deployed when there is evidence, because the impact of rumor and innuendo can be so serious — as we saw in 2016.