For those who care about American political institutions and their capacity for governing, one of the most troubling phenomena, in a year of deeply troubling phenomena, has been Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that if he loses the election it will be because it was rigged. Trump’s attacks on the fundamental integrity of American elections—which echo the claim that voter suppression laws are justified by widespread voter fraud—threaten the political system’s entire sense of legitimacy. The effect, if Clinton wins the presidency, would be to make her into an illegitimate president, in the eyes of Trump supporters, before she is even inaugurated—and to make it almost impossible for many Republican lawmakers to do business with her without partisan repercussions.
Of course, the problem would not simply be about creating even more gridlock. America’s increasingly polarized and tribalized society is driven more by negative partisanship—the desire to block the enemy—than by positive visions of voters’ own party. It is driven by deepening divisions along class, educational, regional, and racial lines. Americans have long believed that, even if the bad guys won, at least they did it because they won more votes under the rules. The prospect of destroying that is frightening. The malicious Russian-driven hacks and leaks of emails, which have expanded from the Democratic National Committee to Colin Powell and perhaps even the Republican National Committee, seem designed to make politics and politicians all look even worse, to accelerate the loss of faith Americans have in their political system.
In 2000, America saw its most controversial election in at least a century. It took 36 bitter days after the election itself to decide, the ultimate winner lost the popular vote, and the decision was made by a Supreme Court, ruling 5-4 along the lines of which party’s president chose the justices. But the U.S. avoided a major crisis of governance because Americans broadly accepted the rules of the game, and because Al Gore, the ultimate loser, called for unity. Absent those factors, we might have blood in the streets. And that was when Americans were less divided than we are now.
To protect the country, Trump must dial back his outrageous, dangerous, and irresponsible statements about a rigged system and a rigged election. But it will take more than that. It will require a public demonstration that candidates and campaigns are back within some acceptable boundaries. That does not mean weaving a fantasy world of false unity. Campaigns are rough and tumble; politics is a contact sport. As Peter Finley Dunne said 120 years ago, “politics ain’t beanbag.” But it does mean operating within broad standards of conduct.
The pivotal events will be the three presidential debates, which kick off on September 26. And here, fortunately, the National Institute of Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona has just come out with guidelines for debaters, the debate audience and, importantly, the moderators, that need to be heeded. Most of the guidelines are simple and obvious: Debaters should be respectful of others, answer the questions asked, and stand against incivility; audience members should be respectful, not create disturbances, and listen to those speaking.