The highlight of the third and, thankfully, final presidential debate last Wednesday came roughly at the midway point, when Donald Trump refused to say that he would accept the results of November’s election.
Since then, Trump has doubled down on his position, declaring he would accept the outcome only if he wins and invoking the example of the contested presidential vote in 2000 to reinforce his right not to concede. His rationale—articulated with increasing vigor as his poll numbers have plummeted—is that the vote is “rigged” as a result of electoral irregularities.
Like most of the loathsome rhetoric he’s spewed since announcing his candidacy back in June 2015, Trump’s pre-emptive refusal to recognize the election’s outcome is an incendiary mix of personal pathology and magical thinking, racism and xenophobia, facts and legal distortion.
In a column published in July, I discussed the Republican standard-bearer’s personality, as analyzed by several leading mental-health experts who have followed his career closely. Their view is that Trump is a malignant narcissist—that he suffers from a well-defined psychological disorder marked by an exaggerated sense of self-importance and entitlement, an overinflated belief in the quality of his achievements and talent, a preoccupation with fantasies about success and power, and a lack of empathy for others.
As a narcissist, Trump cannot countenance actual defeat or even the possibility of losing in an election that hasn’t happened yet. His signature axiom is that he’s a “winner.” Hence, if he fails, it must be the fault of a rigged system—and the deceit and/or stupidity of those responsible for his undoing.
The scapegoats in Trump’s confabulated thinking include not only powerful forces such as the mainstream media and the Clinton campaign but also some of the nation’s most vulnerable populations, particularly black and Hispanic voters. Such voters, he has charged—with allusions to inner-city neighborhoods in Philadelphia and elsewhere—will cast multiple ballots with fake or no identification documents. Illegal aliens, he’s added, will beat a path en masse to polling booths around the country, while hordes of dead people who have not been purged from voting rolls somehow will manage to resurrect themselves and pull their levers or punch their chads for Hillary.
In reality, of course, in-person voter-identification fraud virtually is nonexistent. A comprehensive 2014 study conducted by professor Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School Los Angeles found only 31 incidents of polling-place ID impersonation anywhere in the country since 2000.
The total number of ballots cast nationwide, in general and primary elections during the 14-year period Levitt reviewed, exceeded 1 billion. The Bush administration reached similar findings regarding the incidence of in-person fraud in a five-year Justice Department probe completed in 2007.
Much the same can be said for postmortem balloting. Dead men don’t wear plaid, as comedian Steve Martin taught us in one of his funniest movies, and they don’t vote, either. Nor do the living impersonate the dead in order to cast ballots, at least in any appreciable numbers.
As Levitt concluded in another study, this one funded by the Brennan Center for Justice based in New York City, nearly all allegations of dead people voting have stemmed from mismatched death records and voter rolls, with ballots cast by living individuals whose names matched or were similar to the names of people who had passed away.
Nonetheless, millions of Trump supporters have bought into their leader’s lunacy. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last Friday, only half of Republicans are prepared to accept Clinton as their commander in chief if she is elected. Worse, nearly 70 percent of GOP respondents indicated that a Clinton victory would come about because of illegal voting or vote rigging.
It would be a different situation if Trump had decided to take up the mantle of Bernie Sanders and educate the nation about the many ways our electoral process actually is rigged. But he hasn’t—and he can’t—because he’s part of the very rigging he condemns.
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Although he’s long fulminated in public about the stranglehold big-money donors have on other, less-wealthy candidates, Trump has been an active fundraiser in his own right. According to the Washington Post, through the end of September the Trump campaign, its affiliated committees and super PACs had amassed a war chest of $712 million—less than the $1.1 billion raised by and on behalf of Clinton but still a staggering sum.
The reason the system is rigged, as Sanders told us time and again throughout the primaries, is that our campaign-finance laws have opened the floodgates to corruption. Fueled by growing economic inequality and a series of pro-corporate Supreme Court decisions, beginning with Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 and extending to Citizens United v. FEC in 2010 and McCutcheon v. FEC in 2014, money dominates our electoral process as never before, at both the state and national levels. The oligarchy wields undue influence—whether in the form of billionaire candidates like Trump or billionaire surrogates like Clinton.
At the same time, with its 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act, accelerating already-existing suppression techniques such as voter ID, racial gerrymandering and restrictions on early voting and same-day registration.
Far from telling the truth about such tactics, Trump has been a fervent advocate for them. In an August rally in North Carolina, a state with arguably the most onerous record of suppression in the aftermath of the Shelby case, Trump told supporters that without voter ID, fraud would be rampant and people would head to the polls “15 times” for Clinton.
Fortunately, Trump’s threat not to concede electoral defeat is empty. Although the loser in American presidential elections typically concedes as soon as the results are clear, there is no legal requirement mandating formal capitulation.
Nor is there any legal basis for demanding a national recount of the vote. As we were reminded in 2000, when Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore outpolled the Republican George W. Bush, the popular vote doesn’t determine the outcome of presidential elections.
Under Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, the presidency is determined by the vote of the states’ representatives to the Electoral College. The candidate receiving the highest number of electoral votes becomes the president, as tallied in a joint session of Congress in January.
The Electoral Count Act of 1887, as subsequently amended over the decades, gives the states 35 days (known as the “safe-harbor” period) after the presidential election to certify their respective slates of electors to Congress. Any challenges to the selection of electors or to popular vote counts must be made at the state level—and resolved within the safe-harbor time frame for each state’s electors to be recognized by Congress.
What threw the 2000 presidential election into doubt was the razor-thin margin of the popular vote count in Florida, which then had 25 electoral votes. Given the overall closeness of the national race between Gore and Bush, the winner of Florida would carry the Electoral College and gain the presidency.
After the election, Gore filed suit in Florida to contest its certification of the election in Bush’s favor. The state’s supreme court ordered a recount. But before the recount could be completed, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and halted the process, effectively giving Florida to the GOP in its notorious Bush v. Gore decision. As a result of the court’s ruling, Bush won the Electoral College by a score of 271-266 (with one abstention).
The only way Trump realistically could hope to mimic the litigation and delays of 2000 would be for him to challenge the results in a state in which the popular vote was uncertain and whose electoral votes would be decisive in the overall Electoral College totals. The chances of that happening, however, are slim to none—and growing dimmer with the release of each new opinion poll.
Unless lighting strikes and the ground shakes, Trump’s political career is drawing to an embarrassing close. Progressives should bid him a fond farewell, even as they gear up to face off against the Clinton administration and whatever new demagogue comes along to fill Trump’s shoes on the right.