Plenty of attention is being given to the damage that a Trump presidency would do to America – deservedly, given the rolling horrorshow which his candidacy has become. But, on this side of the Atlantic at least, less consideration has been made of the damage he is already doing to his nation.
What kind of negative tactics are normal in an election race? Picking out problems in your opponent’s record, routinely. Talking down their character, often. Making an issue of the behaviour of their close family, less often but still common enough. Trump has pursued all of these – pointing respectively to Clinton’s role in the Obama years, highlighting her private email server and saying a variety of increasingly lurid things about the behaviour of her husband. So far, so predictable.
Far more rare is the more recent addition to his lines: attacking the integrity of the ballot.
It’s now standard practice for the Trump campaign to predict that the election will be ‘rigged’, ‘fixed’ or ‘stolen’, a hugely dangerous step to take. These aren’t normal (and reasonable) questions over voter fraud, or justifiable discussion of the need for voter identification; these are outright attacks on the integrity of American democracy – the bedrock of the Republic itself. Regardless of whether you like his views or not, this ought to be unacceptable.
What emanates from Trump’s Twitter account and his campaign’s press office is filtering through to his supporters, too. A growing trust gap has opened, according to polling by the Associated Press/NORC:
‘…among people overall, only 4 in 10 have a lot of confidence in votes being counted accurately, though an additional 3 in 10 say they’re at least moderately confident. Fifty-nine percent of those who have a favorable opinion of Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, have quite a bit or a great deal of confidence, compared with just 29 percent of those who have a favorable opinion of Trump.’
That loss of trust is clearly something the Republican candidate intends to whip up. It’s part of a continuous message apparently aimed at deligitimising American democracy. He has urged his supporters to go to polling stations in “certain areas” and watch to see if fraud is underway – which some are evidently intending to do, including a now infamous activist who will be watching for “Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American.” That intimidatory tactic will be familiar to British observers as something pursued in the corrupt Tower Hamlets election.
Trump recently refused to pledge that he would respect the result, and his claim that “this will be the last election that the Republicans can win” fuels the perception that, after polling day, anything goes.
This is America, of course, where “anything” can include automatic weapons. Trump himself strayed troublingly close to implying violence in September, when he declared ““If she gets to pick her judges ― nothing you can do, folks…Although, the Second Amendment people. Maybe there is. I don’t know.” Some of his supporters have drawn a rather clearer conclusion: for example, a Milwaukee sheriff tweeted yesterday that it’s “pitchforks and torches time”, an extraordinary comment from an elected officer of the law. Even once the election has passed, the legacy of distrust and conspiracy looks likely to live on.
The most obvious reasons why Trump would pursue such a tactic are to stir up his base to vote now, and to provide a pre-emptive excuse for defeat. Certainly this rhetoric seems to have increased as his campaign has suffered from the recent allegations of sexual assault, which seems rather a large coincidence.
But some things are meant to be bigger than a candidate trying to win or save face. Trump’s initial pitch to voters featured numerous attacks on American values, which was bad enough. Now his campaign is launching an attack on the foundations of American democracy itself, which is a threat not only to that country but to its allies.