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It wasn’t just the Proud Boys: Trump refused to dissuade supporters from a violent response to the election

President Trump at Tuesday's debate in Cleveland. (Morry Gash/AP)

President Trump’s effort to flood the first presidential debate with aggression and bluster largely served its apparently intended purpose of muting substantive conversation. But there was one moment in which Trump made an important and unsettling point, revealing his disdain for accepting the results of the election should he lose — and encouraging his supporters to take a similar approach.

Fox News’s Chris Wallace — who had spent most of the debate with the demeanor of someone unexpectedly pulled from the audience to ride a bronco at a rodeo — pushed Trump on his recent reluctance to say that he would ensure a smooth transition should he lose.

“Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period, not to engage in any civil unrest?” Wallace asked. “And will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified?”

Trump did neither.

“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen,” Trump said. “I am urging them to do it. As you know, today, there was a big problem in Philadelphia. They went in to watch. They were called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things.”

This is false in a few ways. Poll watchers were prevented from observing voting in Philadelphia not because of some anti-Trump conspiracy but because, much as the president hates to admit it, the country is in the grip of a deadly viral pandemic. The poll watchers were asked to leave because there are rules about people congregating in small areas.

His “bad things happen in Philadelphia” line, meanwhile, is an old one. In 2016, he similarly disparaged voting as subject to fraud, though then his focus was more on in-person than mail-in ballots. He insinuated that there had been rampant fraud in Philadelphia in the 2012 contest, which is not true. Then, as now, he asked his supporters to go keep an eye on things.

That, by itself, is alarming. There is a utility to having poll watchers in place, people trained to track voter turnout or, for those with particular expertise, to assist those who might need help casting a ballot. What Trump is obviously encouraging is to poll watching what armed militias are to police: self-appointed experts whose priority is less keeping order than confronting perceived enemies. It wasn’t the first time that Trump had similarly called on his supporters to serve in that capacity, but it was probably the call that had the largest audience.

It came, it's important to note, shortly after he'd responded to a request to condemn white supremacy by telling the neo-fascist group Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”

During the first presidential debate Sept. 29, President Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Here’s why they are defined as a hate group. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I hope it's going to be a fair election,” Trump continued. “If it's a fair election — I am 100 percent on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated? I can't go along with that.”

Wallace asked what he meant by that.

“I’ll tell you what means: It means you have a fraudulent election,” Trump said.

As he had earlier in the debate, Trump riffed in shorthand about various perceived offenses against a fair electoral process. One of his tics is that his anecdotes get worn down to core summaries through repeated use, meaning that he'll drop references to “what happened in Manhattan” and “what happened in New Jersey” and expect his audience to know what he meant. (In this case, that the winner of a congressional election in New York was declared only after an extended count and that a local race in Paterson may have been marred by fraudulent ballots.)

“You’re sending out 80 million ballots — they’re not equipped to — these people aren’t equipped to handle it, number one. Number two, they cheat. They cheat,” Trump said. “Hey, they found ballots in a wastepaper basket three days ago, and they had the name — military ballots. There were military. They all had the name Trump on them. You think that’s good?”

That “wastepaper basket” story was a reference to an odd incident last week in which Trump announced information about a Department of Justice investigation after being briefed on it by Attorney General William P. Barr. In total, nine ballots appear to have been improperly discarded, perhaps intentionally. Seven were for Trump, something first reported in a Justice Department news release — not necessarily a surprise in a county that Trump won by 20 points.

To Trump, this is a sign of Democrats “cheating.” His bar in that regard is low; earlier, he had suggested that Democratic states were changing the rules to hurt him.

“It's a rigged election,” he said.

This is a remarkable claim from a sitting president. Voting is a local act, which the president can’t directly affect (which is probably for the best). But it is still the case that if Trump sincerely thought that the election were being rigged, he could use the levers of power at his disposal to root out bad actors and criminal acts. But, in fact, the director of the FBI sees no such pattern — understandably, as there’s no evidence of historic or current voter fraud efforts at any significant scale.

Notice the throughline here. Trump declines to call on his supporters to peaceably wait for votes to be counted, instead saying that he himself will accept only an untainted result — and that the result will necessarily be tainted. Trump’s line about the Proud Boys “standing by” will be excused as a misinterpretation of his intent, something Trump’s son Donald Jr. has already argued. The president’s demand that his supporters police polling places and that they consider results necessarily suspect is far less murky, a much broader and potentially more problematic position. The Proud Boys probably number in the hundreds. His most fervent base of support numbers in the millions.

It may be the case that Trump simply wants to be able, for the rest of his life, to say that he lost in 2020 only because of fraud that was never proved. This is the rhetoric he uses about having lost the popular vote in 2016, after all. But even if that is the case, even if he’s only trying to undermine confidence in the election to protect his own confidence in himself, the damage could be significant. It may manifest in declining trust in American democracy itself or, more acutely, in precisely the sorts of violence and unrest that Wallace wanted Trump to pre-condemn.

The president of the United States has whipped up an elaborate and thoroughly false description of how the election is unfolding that is being treated as a sincere assessment of a real threat by a large group of people. He had the chance Tuesday to lower the temperature. Instead, he pulled out a blowtorch.