Back in the early 1980s Republicans convinced themselves that the Reagan Revolution had ushered in a thousand year reign. It was unimaginable that any Democrat could possibly be president now that the glory of Ronald had been bestowed upon America. So when Bill Clinton won in 1992 they simply refused to believe it. Republican leader Dick Armey openly declared that Clinton was not his President. In his 2003 book "The Natural" Joe Klein wrote:
From the beginning of his presidency, there was indeed the sense – radiating from the Gingrich wing of the Republican Party . . . that the new President was a usurper who had managed to hoodwink the American public. He was to be opposed at every turn, by any means necessary, and, if possible, destroyed.
They nearly succeeded. In fact, it was that belief in Clinton's fundamental illegitimacy that propelled the scandal machine that dominated the era with the ultimate goal to force his resignation. They ended up impeaching him (and raising his approval rating to the high 60s in the process.)
However, when George W. Bush assumed the office under very dubious circumstances, they rejected all complaints from Democrats about the legitimacy of his presidency with a dismissive "get over it." 9/11 pretty much put an end to any such complaints. Democrats rallied around the flag and that was that.
Nonetheless, the Republicans didn't miss a beat when Barack Obama won the election with a decisive 7 point victory in 2008 and they picked up right where they left off. Their approach was different but the intent was the same. Instead of ginning up phony scandals to undermine his legitimacy they ran an underground whisper campaign suggesting that Obama was a secret Muslim who was not born in the United States. GOP congressional leaders casually announced from the beginning that their primary goal was to ensure he only had one term. They believed that obstruction and non-cooperation was the best way to do that and they worked hard to make it happen. But as with Clinton their efforts failed and Obama was re-elected in 2012.
Now we are in the midst of another presidential election and if the polling holds up it looks as though the Democrats are going to do what Republicans still believe is impossible and win the White House once again. And we are already seeing the contours of their latest attempt to make that victory illegitimate. Donald Trump has announced that he believes the election results will be invalid if Clinton wins. He told Sean Hannity that “November 8th, we'd better be careful, because that election’s going to be rigged. And I hope the Republicans are watching closely, or it's going to be taken away from us...I've been hearing about it for a long time.”
Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich explained the whole nefarious plan to the Fox News audience. Hannity drew upon the complaints by Bernie Sanders that the Democratic primary was rigged by the use of Superdelegates (it wasn't, Clinton would have won without them) and made some wild charges about the election being stolen from Mitt Romney in Philadelphia back in 2012. (Those charges were thoroughly refuted by a Philadelphia election inspector.) Gingrich answered without directly accusing Clinton of rigging the vote by using Trumpish weasel words saying, "if you assume that she's a crook, as he says, if you assume that she lies, as he says, why would you expect her to have an honest election?"
CNN's Brian Stelter took issue with Hannity's handling of the issue rightly pointing out, "suggesting an election is going to be stolen? This is third-world dictatorship stuff." Indeed it is. But then the voter fraud myth has been flogged by the right wing for decades now despite no evidence that it exists. Trump has begun building up his argument based upon recent court rulings against certain onerous Voter ID laws — laws that actually are "rigging" elections by suppressing Democratic votes.
He has every reason to believe he can convince GOP voters that the election was stolen from him. After all, he was the King of the Birthers in 2012 and a vast majority of his followers believe that Obama is a secret Muslim and an illegitimate president largely due to his handy work. He's got a track record. At this point, 69 percent of North Carolina Trump voters think that the only way Trump can lose is if the Democrats steal it. There's no reason to think Trumpies are any less gullible in other states.
Clearly, he's personally just setting up an excuse for when he loses. But there are some serious consequences to our democracy if a large number of Trump's supporters truly believe the election wasn't legitimate. After all, these are people who are already convinced that Clinton should be in jail for using a personal internet server. With Trump "joking" about "Second Amendment people" taking matters into their own hands, anything might happen.
Unfortunately, even if there are no violent consequences to Trumps reckless comments, a lot of damage will have already been done. It's possible that the GOP defections in the presidential race will result in the Republican Party finally sobering up and becoming a mature governing party once again but it's unlikely. There is no evidence that they have finally decided that a Democrat can legitimately win the presidency and with at least half of their constituency being mad as hell that their man was cheated, there will be tremendous pressure on the establishment to keep after the criminal usurper president in any case. The obstruction and investigations will continue.
So basically, Trump's "rigging" argument comes down to this: "nice little government you've got here. Be a shame if anything happened to it." Sadly it's almost certain that if he doesn't win, his followers and the GOP will do everything in their power to ensure that Clinton and the rest of us pay a heavy price for it. That's pretty much what they've done for the past 24 years and there's little reason to think they've changed. They simply refuse to believe they can lose.
Heather Digby Parton
Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.