Many Americans watched last week’s Republican convention with horror and trepidation. Rudy Giuliani’s quadrennial temper tantrum was even more animated than during previous conventions. Ben Carson gave a speech that married his own bizarre brand of evangelical Christianity with reasoning that one might expect on a child’s playground to imply that Hillary Clinton was a worshipper of Lucifer. The candidate himself painted a frightening, if based in fantasy, picture of an America under siege by roving bands of cop-killing criminals and Isis operatives. Perhaps most disturbingly of all, the Quicken Loans Arena echoed with calls to lock Hillary Clinton up and, even more appallingly, some supporters of the Republican candidate have suggested executing her for treason. This was not Ronald Reagan’s morning in America, George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism or even Mitt Romney’s “We built it.” Rather, this was a convention that presented a level of vitriol, hatred, intolerance and division that we have not seen in a long time.
It was very difficult to watch that convention and conclude that in the likely event of a Clinton victory in November, the people in that arena and the millions of Americans they represent, will accept defeat easily. Americans have always been proud of our ability to accept political defeat and move to fight another day. There is, however, real reason to think that will not happen this time if Clinton wins. The people in that room do not see the coming election as a hard fought campaign between two loyal Americans, but as a battle between a crooked, dishonest, criminal who should not be allowed to live freely, let alone serve as President of the United States, and a heroic figure who is the only person able to save the country. This is a dynamic that threatens the very core of our democracy.
Simply put, people who call for their opponents to be arrested or killed, while imbuing their own candidate with messianic powers, do not accept political defeat easily. Moreover, the alleged more mature voices within the Republican Party who have stood by and said nothing while this all occurred are clearly unwilling or unable to moderate what could charitably be described as the angry, unhinged mob formerly known as the Republican base.
It has been evident for many months now, and was made more apparent last week in Cleveland, that a Trump presidency would damage the already weak social fabric of American democracy. His enthusiasm for divisive and hateful rhetoric, tenuous understanding of key principles of American democracy such as, for example, the First Amendment, and deep-seeded megalomania are all reason that a Trump presidency would threaten our democracy and what is left of our national cohesion. However, it is now increasingly likely that a Trump defeat, even by a resounding margin, would not be met with acceptance from Trump and his supporters.
The possibility that Trump would encourage his supporters not to accept this defeat, perhaps by claiming that the vote was rigged or that undocumented workers voted in droves in key southwestern states, must be gravely considered at this point. This conclusion is not simply the product of progressive paranoia, but it is a reaction to what we have seen and heard from Trump and his supporters for the last year, but even more so during the last week.
Speculating about what a candidate might do if he loses is a strange exercise, and one that should have no place in a consolidated and stable democracy, if flawed, democracy like ours. However, it is something that based on the behavior of Trump and his supporters, must be considered. Throughout this long campaign we have seen Trump encourage and even advocate violent behavior, stand by while his Democratic opponent is accused of treason and murder, and evince little understanding of democratic processes or mores. The question of what this man will do if, as is still likely, he loses on November 8th, cannot be ignored given this context.
Trump, should he be defeated, could easily eschew the traditional gracious concession, mobilize his supporters to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the outcome and their disbelief in his Democratic vanquisher’s victory. Ultimately, however, it would be very difficult for him to stop Clinton from becoming President. Trump controls no security forces, has little institutional support and has few concrete resources other than his Twitter account, but he clearly has the enthusiastic support of enough people to create problems in the immediate aftermath of his possible defeat. Those people could easily protest for a few weeks and continue a lower level campaign of failing to recognize Clinton’s presidency for years.
It should also be remembered that Trump a man with a loyal following of angry citizens with an extraordinarily exaggerated sense of their own victimhood and suffering, and that he has the temperament of an acutely narcissistic middle school student. He also has built a presidential campaign heavily around overreacting, often viciously and with prejudice towards almost all, to every real, or more frequently, imagined, insult or slight he has experienced. This is not the temperament of somebody who will accept an electoral defeat move on and urge his followers to do the same. In a very real way, while seeing this man elected President of the United States should, and does, strike fear in the hearts of millions, even his defeat could create enduring problems for American democracy.