As shocking as it was, Donald Trump’s suggestion that “Second Amendment people” would be able to deal with Hillary Clinton and the judges she appoints—a clear appeal to political violence—should not be seen as the nadir of his candidacy. Rather, it was part of his larger pre-emptive attack on the legitimacy of Clinton’s presidency. The “Second Amendment” talk is of a piece with his claims that the election is being “rigged” against him. Trump is poisoning the well, so that even if Clinton wins, she’ll govern over a population in which a significant minority rejects the notion that she has the right to rule at all.
There’s ample evidence that his rhetoric is having an effect. According to a PPP poll conducted in North Carolina, 69 percent of Trump supporters believe that if Clinton wins, it will be because the election was rigged. Even more remarkably, 40 percent of Trump voters are prepared to blame this impending vote theft on the long-defunct organization ACORN. This means that a huge chunk of voters will believe that Clinton cheated her way to the White House.
Yet the coming legitimacy crisis won’t be solely Trump’s fault, even if he’ll deserve the bulk of the blame. As in so many other areas, Trump is merely pressing to their logical conclusion ideas that have been advocated by the last generation of Republicans, albeit more subtly. In truth, the last time Republicans wholeheartedly accepted the legitimacy of a Democratic president was Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. Since then, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have faced repeated attacks from an opposition that refused to fully accept their victory as final. Clinton had to fend off ginned-up scandals that suggested he and his wife were crooks and murderers, while Obama has had to contend with birthers who think he has no legal right to be president and conspiracy theorists who believe ACORN stole the election on his behalf.
It wasn’t Trump who created the bogeyman of voter fraud, which resulted in laws making voting more difficult. That’s a mainstream Republican position, advocated in the respectable pages of The Wall Street Journal and enacted into laws by Republican governors across America, in states like North Carolina and Wisconsin. In his usual manner, Trump has taken the subtext of “voter fraud” discourse and turned it into text, making explicit the assumption that Democratic electoral victories are illicit.
If Trump isn’t the only cause of the legitimacy crisis, then his defeat in November won’t be the cure for it either. America has a political problem that goes deeper than Trump: The Republican Party refuses to accept the fundamental idea that when it loses an election, it has to accept the results. To be sure, there are some Democrats who think in this same way, as with those who muttered about voting machines after George W. Bush was re-elected. But such complaints existed only at the fringes, while talk about “electoral fraud” is a pervasive Republican theme.
A resounding Trump loss, coupled with Trump embarrassing himself by refusing to concede, could serve as a wake-up call to more moderate Republicans—that it’s finally time to accept the legitimacy of Democratic rule. The Republican Party post-Trump will need to reckon with their responsibility for creating this demagogue. Right now, such a reckoning is being deferred by Democrats themselves: Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have gone out of their way to say that Trump is not a normal Republican, in the hopes that they can shake loose Republican votes. But after the election, this polite fiction has to end. We need to confront the fact that Trump, as extreme as he is, is all too representative of his party.
The Republican Party has been recklessly playing with matches for more than two decades. Now they’ve handed over a flamethrower to a pyromaniac. However scary Trump might be, the GOP desire to burn everything down long precedes him.