WASHINGTON — When Scott Farris wrote a book on the legacy of U.S. presidential-election losers, he began with a chapter paying tribute to the concession speech — that moment of grace that greases the engine of self-government.
“It’s one of the things that makes American democracy work,” says Scott Farris, author of “Almost President: The Men Who Lost The Race But Changed The Nation.” “Our democracy’s a bit more fragile than we think.
“It wouldn’t take a lot to really put the country in turmoil, if people thought the election was completely illegitimate.”
His book starts with John McCain, cooling an upset crowd after a heated campaign. People at 2008 rallies had screamed of Barack Obama, “Kill him!” and “terrorist!” McCain silenced boos on election night, by hailing the election of America’s first black president. Farris’ book profiles other history-shaping losers like William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Dewey, and Barry Goldwater.
Now Farris wonders whether this year’s events will prompt him to update the book. He’s slightly worried. What alarms him is how this year’s loser might potentially shape history: By refusing to concede.
Donald Trump has ridiculed concession speeches as phoney. Lately, he’s been more into resentment speeches. He’s travelling the country telling Americans their democracy is a sham. Trump warns of elections being fixed by financial elites, the media, illegal immigrants, and crooked Democrats: “The election is rigged. It’s rigged like you’ve never seen before.”
His party’s leaders have made futile efforts to steer him away from the message — which they fear will hurt not only capital-R Republicans by depressing voter turnout, but the public trust that underpins republican democracy itself.
Some like Paul Ryan have flatly contradicted him. His running mate, Mike Pence, adds a qualifier: Trump is just complaining about bias from the media, he says, not the actual voting system. But Trump contradicted his ally Monday — he says he means it.
Trump alleged voter fraud on a large scale, based on extremely flimsy evidence: “People that have died 10 years ago are still voting. Illegal immigrants are voting…. Voting fraud is very, very common.”
The clearest proof he cited was a survey of 339 non-citizens from the 2008 election — which suggested a number may have voted illegally. Meanwhile, a comprehensive study at Loyola Law School found a mere 31 credible cases of voter fraud since 2000 — from one billion votes cast.
Democrats say if anyone’s cheating, it’s the other party. It’s primarily Republicans packing minority voters into gerrymandered districts; stripping ex-felons of voting rights; and passing ID laws that disproportionately hurt youth and minorities.
Yet Trump’s message is another blast of distrust, blowing into a perfect storm.
— U.S. voters are divided, into two deeply polarized camps. Among those with a favourable opinion of Trump, half told an Associated Press poll they have little or no confidence in this election result.
— Trust in institutions is at historic lows. Gallup polling finds it for members of Congress, the media, the justice system, public schools _ the number of people who profess “a great deal,” or, “quite a lot,” of trust in them ranges between nine and 30 per cent. Only the military holds steady above 70 per cent.
— A foreign government really is working to undermine confidence in U.S. democracy, says American intelligence. It says Russians are stealing and leaking emails showing cozy relations between Hillary Clinton and banks, media, and Democratic party figures that favoured her over Bernie Sanders.
— Attempts have been made to hack into voter databases in several states _ Illinois, Arizona and Florida have reported such attempts. State officials downplay these concerns _ voting machines themselves aren’t connected to the Internet.
But if there are flickers of distrust, a major party nominee is now fanning them.
“He’s already (telling people) this was a fraud, that they got screwed,” Farris said. “That means Secretary Clinton, if she is the next president, is going to have some legitimacy issues in some people’s minds. They’ll think she stole the election. Potentially that could be the most destructive thing Trump does — to be a bad loser.”
Scholars studying this issue say they’re not worried — yet. Three political scientists who research trust in political institutions say it’s a troubling, but likely limited, trend.
The margin of defeat is a factor, one says. Trump won’t persuade many people that he was robbed if he suffers a solid, multi-state drubbing — which, according to recent polls, is a possibility.
“If the election was close, it might be a problem. It does not appear that it’s going to be close,” said Marc Hetherington, a Vanderbilt University political scientist and co-author of, “How Trust Matters.” His book trends a decline in trust since the 1960s — interrupted briefly during economic boom times or foreign-policy crises.
“(But) we are in uncharted waters. Imagine if Al Gore had taken an approach like this in 2000,” Hetherington said. “Our political institutions continue to work because of the norms observed by people who serve rather than because of the application of hard and fast rules. Trump has been a giant norm violator.”