After Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee last spring, he went before a West Virginia audience and said, "You've been hearing me say it's a rigged system, but now I don't say it anymore because I won. It's true. Now I don't care. I don't care."
He continued, "And the only way I won was I won by such big margins because it is a rigged system. But the only way you can do it, it's like a boxer, you got to knock them out then you don't got to worry about the judges."
Trump didn't win by big margins. He won by grinding it out in primary after primary, winning just enough in a huge field to come in first with far less than a majority. But Trump is a total stranger to the truth and he says whatever he needs to say to get through the moment.
The polls show that Trump is lagging far behind right now. And on Wednesday night during his final presidential debate in Las Vegas with Democrat Hillary Clinton, when moderator Chris Wallace asked him if he would accept the results of the upcoming election, Trump said again that the system is rigged, that the media has been dishonest and corrupt and has poisoned the minds of the voters. Then he said this, very pointedly:
So let me just give you one other thing. So I talk about the corrupt media. I talk about the millions of people — tell you one other thing: she shouldn't be allowed to run. It's crooked — she's, she's guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run. And just in that respect, I say it's rigged because she should never . . . Chris, she should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with emails and so many other things.
He refused to say whether he would follow the U.S. tradition of peaceful transfer of power, telling Wallace that he wanted to leave the American people "in suspense."
This seemed to shock just about everyone, despite the fact that Trump has been saying this at every recent appearance. Apparently people thought that in the formal setting of a nationally televised debate he wouldn't dare defy the norms of our electoral system, which is silly. That is what he does.
This is the man who challenged the legitimacy of Barack Obama's U.S. birth for many years and only a few weeks ago conceded that he was an American citizen and therefore entitled to run for president. If you look at his comment above, you will see where he's heading with Clinton.
Just as he questioned whether Obama should have been "allowed to run" because he had not adequately proven his citizenship, he is saying that Clinton shouldn't have been "allowed to run" "based on what she did with emails and so many other things." That's what will make her victory illegitimate, not the vote count. As Rebecca Traister of New York magazine described it on Twitter, "this is false criminalization as birtherism."
How all this will play out after the election is unknown, but anyone who thinks he plans to just fade away like his favorite old soldier, Douglas MacArthur, is probably fooling herself. The birther stuff fed directly into the right-wing obstructionism that has characterized the last eight years so we can expect this to be even more salient during a Hillary Clinton administration. Trump's angry army will believe the presidency was usurped by a criminal.
And it may end up somewhere substantially more dangerous. Trump had been coasting along in the debate with snippets of his stump speech and managed to avoid blowing his cool until Clinton challenged him to repudiate the Russian interference in the election. Despite the fact that the consensus of intelligence agencies is that Russia deliberately interfered with the election, Trump has refused to concede that it's happening.
Republican strategist Steve Schmidt on MSNBC said that his unwillingness to concede this point is every bit as bad as his unwillingness to commit to accepting the outcome of the election, since Russian interference in Western elections on behalf of far-right parties is becoming a serious challenge. He speculated that this relates to what Trump has planned:
I think he plans on being martyred. I think in his martyrdom he's going to wave the bloody shirt and he's going to go out and say through a party of grievance and resentment that "we were cheated and this was stolen" and he'll have a critical mass [for] a UKIP style third party that splits off from the Republican Party. Who knows where the funding for Trump TV will come from, but it will be a media designed to undermine the democratic foundations of the United States and the credibility of our elections processes. Vladimir Putin couldn't hope for anything better than that.
That's a startling scenario and perhaps it's hyperbole. But Trump's behavior with respect to all the Russian activity around this election is strange. But then what isn't strange when it comes to him? Perhaps Trump simply believes that "someone" has good taste in presidential candidates.
One thing we do know is that even if he concedes the election in some technical sense, he is not going to concede that Clinton is a legitimate candidate whatever the outcome of the vote. The chants of "lock her up" will fuel whatever he does next.
To those Trump surrogates who are using Democratic nominee Al Gore and the 2000 election as their precedent: Please! Gore did not spend the month before the election telling millions of people that Republican candidate George W. Bush was a criminal and shouldn't have been allowed to run. The state of Florida's laws kicked in an automatic recount and when the whole process was finished, Gore graciously accepted the results.
Since Donald Trump doesn't have a gracious bone in his body, it's highly doubtful that we can expect the same, even if he loses in a landslide.
Unfortunately, right-wingers have killed off another important American democratic norm. Soon there won't be any left, not even for them.