Milbank: Even a Trump loss could be destructive
WASHINGTON – All Americans should be alarmed by Donald Trump confidant Roger Stone's suggestion that Trump claim Hillary Clinton is trying to steal the election.
Asserting that there is already "widespread voter fraud," Stone said Trump should say that "if there's voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate … we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government." In an interview with the conservative outlet Breitbart, Stone continued: "I think he's got to put them on notice that their inauguration will be a rhetorical, and when I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath."
A bloodbath. Rhetorically speaking, of course.
If you have any doubt that Stone has Trump's ear, two days later Trump said, "I'm afraid the election is going to be rigged," and he went on to warn of voter fraud.
Some are comforted to know this election ends in three months. But a Trump loss in November — which seems increasingly likely — could be only slightly less destructive than a Trump victory. At best, his followers would regard the Clinton administration as illegitimate from Day One and use whatever legal means they can to prevent government from functioning. At worst, they will conclude that their white-male dominated America is lost forever — and take extra-legal measures to protect themselves.
Americans take for granted peaceful transfers of power. But if the losing side declares the government illegitimate and talks of bloodbaths, something else could occur.
Sixteen years ago, after the contentious 2000 recount, Al Gore gave a gracious concession speech that invoked Stephen Douglas' words to Abraham Lincoln: "Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I'm with you, Mr. President, and God bless you."
"This is America. Just as we fight hard when the stakes are high, we close ranks and come together when the contest is done," Gore said. "We will stand together behind our new president."
Can anybody imagine Trump saying those words after a Hillary Clinton victory?
Trump's supporters are primed to suspect conspiracy — all the more so now that they see Trump sinking in the polls. At a Trump rally in Virginia this week, after Trump told the crowd, "We're running against a rigged system," the Trump backers I sampled at random all thought the election could be stolen.
Dawn Quires told me that FBI director James Comey didn't recommend charges against Clinton because he "doesn't want to get shot in the back like others." James Scarborough said court defeats for voter-ID laws were evidence of a rigged election. And Connie Jagger reasoned that a Trump defeat would necessarily mean a stolen election because Trump's crowds are bigger than Clinton's.
This fallacy — that the winner is determined by crowd size rather than the 125 million ballots cast — makes Trump backers think a legitimate Clinton victory is impossible. "Trump in trouble? 10,000 people in Jacksonville!!!!" somebody named Eric Swenson emailed me Thursday. "Pathetic media, corrupt to the core."
Mix that paranoia with the propensity for violence seen at Trump events, and you can see where this could go after Nov. 8.
At a Trump rally in Pennsylvania last week, a video posted by PennLive shows Trump supporters shoving, throwing to the ground and bloodying the nose of a demonstrator.
A video montage published this week by the New York Times captures the rage at Trump rallies: Trump supporters proclaiming "F —- those dirty beaners," "F —- Islam," "F —- that n ——-," "Hang the bitch"; and various scenes of pushing and shoving of demonstrators.
Slate's Ben Mathis-Lilley has a tally of 20 violent incidents at Trump events by Trump supporters, and protesters, including protesters hit with pepper spray by Trump backers, and instances of demonstrators being sucker-punched, shoved and choked.
Trump has encouraged such activity by offering to pay the legal fees of the violent, by likening demonstrators to terrorists, by suggesting a demonstrator "should have been roughed up" and saying "knock the crap out of them" and "I'd like to punch him in the face," among other things.
Trump has identified Clinton as a criminal and the devil. Would his most ardent backers just possibly assume he would favor violence against a government run by such a person?
The rage will only increase if Trump continues to sink in the polls and — as is his pattern when in trouble — he continues to get more and more outrageous. "I worry that all he knows how to do is double down," Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican critic of Trump, told me this week. "They're out of options."
Not entirely out of options. There's still the rhetorical bloodbath. Or worse.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.