“Rigged Election” Rhetoric: A Dangerous Two-Way Street

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Google News returns (as of October 18) 285,000 search results on the phrase “rigged election.” It’s a trending topic, run up the flagpole of public consciousness by media coverage of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s mouth. Sample, from an October 17 rally in Wisconsin:

“Remember, we are competing in a rigged election …. They even want to try and rig the election at the polling booths, where so many cities are corrupt and voter fraud is all too common.”

Three observations:

First, this kind of rhetoric is dangerous, and not just in a notional manner. More than one country has descended into riot, revolution, coup or civil war territory over disputes about the integrity of its elections. Think it can’t happen here? Think again.

Secondly, this kind of rhetoric isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination. In the United States, the claim has enjoyed growing persuasive power ever since 2000 when a Florida vote recount was halted by the US Supreme Court, thereby awarding the office of president to George W. Bush, who probably didn’t actually win the election. Many Democrats ascribed John Kerry’s 2004 defeat to voting machine manipulation in Ohio. In 2012, Republicans threw in with complaints over apparent voter intimidation at urban polling places in support of Barack Obama’s re-election.

Finally, Trump is not the only presidential candidate claiming that this presidential election is rigged. As far back as August, we have Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton saying things like this:

“I think laying out the facts raises serious issues about Russian interference in our elections, in our democracy …. For Trump to both encourage that and to praise Putin despite what appears to be a deliberate effort to try to affect the election I think raises national security issues.”

The Clinton version is a bit more subtle (and even less well-supported by anything resembling actual evidence) than Trump’s. It’s also at least as dangerous and possibly more so to the extent that it might serve as a casus belli for World War III.

Trump is preemptively positioning himself to claim that a victorious Clinton and her party rigged the election. That could lead to fireworks.

Clinton is preemptively positioning herself to accuse a foreign power of rigging — or at least unduly influencing — the outcome to her loss. That could lead to fireworks of a nuclear variety.

Third party and independent candidates have the strongest complaints of election-rigging — the Republicans and Democrats have colluded in suppressing all other parties for lo on 130 years now with restrictive ballot access laws and other dirty tricks. But those complaints aren’t quite the gasoline-soaked pile of tinder that happens when the two wings of the ruling oligarchy have this type of falling out.

We certainly live in interesting times.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.