Donald Trump’s Jeezus-Christ-Did-He-Really-Say-That Moment last night—saying he wouldn’t guarantee that he’d accept the result of the impending presidential election—didn’t come out of the blue. Herewith, two explanations.
Explanation One (the short one): People seem to have forgotten Trump’s answer to the very first question at this year’s very first prime-time presidential debate, which featured the ten highest-polling Republican presidential candidates. The moderator asked the debaters to raise their hands if they’d pledge to back the eventual Republican nominee, whoever that was going to be. Nine hands went up. Trump’s did not. By suggesting he might oppose the nomination of anyone but himself, leaving open the possibility he might run as an independent candidate, the conventional wisdom was that he’d hurt himself, possibly fatally, with the Republican electorate (certainly, with the studio audience, some of whom booed).
Clearly, he didn’t. To millions who were to vote for him in the forthcoming GOP primaries, he’d shown he was different, an outsider, a change agent. He refused to play by the conventional rules. And he won.
Surely, this must have been one of the things that informed (more precisely, misinformed) his answer Wednesday night. He’d not played by the rules once, and—all that matters to him—he’d won. His base had loved it; they’d love it again. That there were larger considerations this time around—acknowledging the legitimacy of the next president, of our electoral system, of some of the more fundamental tenets of a democratic republic—well, maybe those mattered a little, but not very much.
Far more importantly, by insisting the election is rigged, Trump won’t have to acknowledge that he lost, something that could shatter his self-image. In the mind of Donald Trump, there’s nothing worse than being a loser. By avoiding conceding, by claiming that the election was stolen and fixed, then he won’t really be a loser after all.
What a relief!
Explanation Two (the longer one): The imperatives of Trump’s fragile psyche are his and his alone, but they complement the fears that haunt the entire Republican Party. What the GOP fears is not losing elections as such—at least, no more than any political party fears losing them—but losing control of the nation to a party they fear will take America irrevocably away from them.
Democrats are cosmopolitan. Democrats are feminist. Democrats are less religiously observant. Boomer Democrats did terrible things in the 1960s. The Boomer Democrats who governed in the age of Reagan (that is, Bill Clinton) governed just enough in the spirit of Reagan to sign trade agreements and legislation deregulating Wall Street that destroyed the livelihoods of millions of white workers (for Trump Republicans, if not their fellow GOP-niks, this was, quite understandably, a signal betrayal).
Above all, Democrats aren’t white—not all white, anyway, as the Republicans have increasingly become. Democrats in power—Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and soon, it appears, Hillary Clinton—are bad enough, but their unforgivable sin is that they signal the rise of a new America in which not just the old rules but the old protagonists—white men—are shoved aside.
That’s a warped or at least overstated perception, but it’s the perception that right-wing media outlets constantly feed their viewers and listeners (see, for example, the War on Christmas). To be sure, the Democrats can justly claim to champion family values. Hence their support for paid family, sick, and parental leave; for affordable college, and for same-sex marriage. Still, these aren’t the families of traditional patriarchy, and Trump is far from the first conservative populist whose image is at least partly that of the authoritarian father (Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh got there first).
The Republican response to the rise of this new, post-patriarchal, post-white America is three-fold. The first element is voter suppression, raising the oh-so-false alarm of voter fraud as the basis for enacting laws intended to keep minorities from voting (and in case those minorities still insist on exercising their franchise, sending out “poll watchers” to intimidate them). The second element comes into play when voter suppression fails to deter Democratic victories: Claiming that the victory was the result of fraud. Trump is merely the latest in a succession of Republicans to use the voter-fraud myth both to discourage minority voting and question the legitimacy of Democratic victories. The Republican attack on ACORN—largely based on the “reports” of scam artist James O’Keefe—were intended to suggest that Obama’s victory was at least partly the result of fraud, and hence the Obama presidency itself was illegitimate.
The third element of the response to rise of the new America, then, is to bring down Democratic presidents by any means possible. That meant funding fulltime operations to find something on Bill Clinton, culminating in his impeachment for getting a blowjob in the Oval Office; that mean floating the preposterous tale that Obama had been born in Kenya and refusing to compromise with any proposal coming from his White House, even refusing to consider a vote on his Supreme Court nominee; and now it means that Donald Trump can say that Hillary Clinton should not even have been allowed to run and can refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of a presidential election should that election end in his defeat.
But what’s become so threatening about Democratic victories and Democratic administrations? Republicans didn’t challenge the legitimacy of the two Democratic presidents—Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson—who enacted landmark legislation more disruptive of the old order than anything that Bill Clinton or Barack Obama got through Congress, or that Hillary Clinton has proposed. They didn’t challenge the legitimacy of Democratic presidents who won narrowly: Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter.
When Roosevelt, Johnson, or even Carter governed, however, there were still liberal Republicans and conservative (and Southern) Democrats. Since then, the Republicans lost all their liberals and became rooted in the white South; a whiter, righter party is hard to imagine. What’s really not legitimate to this Republican Party—as is clear from its voter suppression, its mythology of voter fraud, and its treatment of Obama and both Clintons—isn’t so much elections as it is the new America the elections bring to power: traditionally subordinate people espousing alien values, who couldn’t possibly prevail at the polls absent fraud or conspiracy, and whose leaders, therefore, can’t possibly be legitimate.
Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of next month’s election, then, only took the Republicans’ existential phobia one step beyond what has become their widespread belief and common practice. Trump’s own fearful dread of losing probably compelled him to go despicably where no presidential candidate had gone before. But he couldn’t have gone there if Republicans weren’t just as terrified of losing their (real or imagined) country.