What does Donald Trump mean when he charges that the election is “rigged”?

There are at least three ways that Trump has applied the label. The first two are flatly absurd. But the third contains just enough truth to raise the specter of unrest, violence, and a destabilized democracy.

This usage—rigged—may stem from thimblerig, a swindler’s game played with three thimbles and a pea, like three-card monte. The sharp puts a pea beneath a thimble, and shuffles them around. His mark points to the thimble containing the pea, but when it’s lifted, there’s no pea to be found.

From there, it seems to have jumped to the stock market, to describe brokers manipulating stocks in an illegal manner. By the early 20th century, it was being applied to sports games or elections. In every case, though, it describes a con—where participants think it’s a game of chance or skill, but the outcome is actually being manipulated in an underhanded way.

But is that an accurate way to describe this election?  

Media Bias

The press, you may have heard, is out to get him. It’s a charge he levels at his rallies, which are broadcast with a frequency every other recent candidate for the presidency must envy; on his Twitter feed, where he speaks directly to millions; and in interviews, which are given prominent play in print and on screen.

On Sunday morning, he renewed his plaintive whining. He touted a Saturday Night Live skit as evidence of “Media rigging election!” And he complained that coverage of the women who have stepped forward to allege that he inappropriately ogled, touched, groped, or assaulted them is turning women against him. “Election is being rigged by the media,” he tweeted, “in a coordinated effort with the Clinton campaign, by putting stories that never happened into news!”

It’s a charge his key surrogates have amplified. “Eighty to 85 percent of the media is against him,” Rudy Giuliani told Jake Tapper on Sunday. “I think that without the unending one-sided assault of the news media, Trump would be beating Hillary by 15 points,” Newt Gingrich said on ABC's This Week.

Where to begin?

The media made Donald Trump’s business career possible, and The Apprentice made him a fixture on the national stage. Perhaps no candidate in history has so masterfully generated wall-to-wall coverage of his every move. Outside of the Trump campaign, the media is more often blamed for facilitating his rise than for imperiling his chances. The man running his campaign, Steve Bannon, is the executive chairman of Breitbart—a media outlet sometimes accused of functioning as the propaganda arm of a campaign.

I don’t know how many reporters now oppose Trump—and neither does Giuliani. I don’t know how much support recent stories have cost Trump—and neither does Gingrich. What I do know is that Trump is not the passive victim of a vast conspiracy. For one thing, media outlets don’t conspire; they compete vigorously, sometimes viciously.

But even that elides the more central truth: Trump did this to himself. His conduct over decades, and his statements in recent months, generated the stories about which he now complains. He bragged, on video, about doing the very things women have stepped forward to allege he did, and which he now denies having done. He’s said things on the campaign trail that no modern candidate has said—and then complained when the press points this out.

Moreover, he unilaterally disarmed, depriving himself of the mechanisms other Republicans, who have also complained about media bias, often use to respond. He alienated staunchly conservative outlets, feuding with Fox hosts, and leading National Review to call an entire issue, “Against Trump.” He failed to raise the funds that other candidates use to speak directly to voters, bypassing media outlets by using direct mail, phone calls, television advertising, and extensive field operations.

If media coverage is rigged against Donald Trump, it was Donald Trump who rigged it.

Voter Fraud

There’s a second charge that Trump has often appended to the first, as he did again on Sunday afternoon.

The second charge is equally specious. Trump has been complaining about voter fraud for months, and has doubled-down on those complaints in recent weeks. Last Saturday, in Manheim, Pennsylvania, he issued a dark warning to his supporters:

You’ve got to go out. You’ve got to go out. And you’ve got to get your friends. And you’ve got to get everyone you know. And you got to watch your polling booths, because I hear too many stories about Pennsylvania. Certain areas. I hear too many bad stories, and we can’t lose an election because of you know what I’m talking about.

Here, too, his supporters have amplified the charge. Giuliani told Tapper on Sunday:

There are a few places, and not many in swing states … where they have been notorious for stealing votes. Pennsylvania, Chicago. There have been places where a lot of cheating has gone on over the years … Dead people generally vote for Democrats, rather than Republicans … what they do is, they leave dead people on the rolls, and then they pay people to vote those dead people four, five, six, seven, eight, nine times.

This is, what’s the word? Oh, yes. This is a lie.

A comprehensive report from the Brennan Center for Justice in 2007 looked at allegations of dead voters casting ballots. The cases it examined almost all turned out to involve bad matches—voters who shared names, were incorrectly marked as having voted, or died after the election and not before it. That’s not to say the dead cast no votes—in a 2004 Washington state election, 19 absentee ballots mailed to the deceased were returned. But a court there found no pattern of advantage to either party. And other allegations of fraud tend to follow the same pattern—ineligible voters do cast votes, but not as part of any grand conspiracy.

Take Pennsylvania. There have been eight arrests for voter fraud in Philadelphia since 2013. Not one involved an apparent attempt to rig the results. Four of the arrests, for example, involved a group of poll workers who noticed a discrepancy between the number of voters who had signed in, and the number of votes that had been cast, and added a half-dozen votes to the machine so they wouldn’t have to answer for their negligence.

My colleague Jim Fallows, who has chronicled all the ways this election has deviated from established norms with remarkable clarity, has already made clear the dangers of leveling this charge. And Alex Wagner has explained how this charge may translate to voter intimidation on the ground. Even without evidence, just making the claim of fraud loudly and repeatedly threatens to undermine the functioning of American democracy.

The Electorate

As dangerous as the first two charges of rigged elections may be, there’s a third claim that’s even worse. As is so often the case with Trump, it seems impossible to tell for certain whether it’s something he means to imply, or whether he’s simply speaking in a way that carries implications he doesn’t intend:

Either we win the election or we lost the country and this is the last time. This is it. We're either gonna win or we're gonna have a whole different country and it's never going to come back.

This is the third sense in which the election is allegedly rigged. If Hillary wins, it will be with substantial majorities of the votes of women, of blacks, of Hispanics—but quite likely with support from only a minority of white voters. And it will signal a demographic shift that may prove irreversible. Unlike the claims of media conspiracies or systemic fraud, this charge is accurate on its own terms.

When Trump singles out urban areas for allegations of voter fraud, when he suggests that any result other than a Trump victory will reveal the election to have been rigged, those claims have to be evaluated against the current electoral landscape. FiveThirtyEight has published electoral maps split by gender, and users have generated their own based on race. Trump wins among men, and white voters. If the electorate looked like it did in 1860—comprised exclusively of white men—Trump would win in a landslide. But today, he’s headed to a historic defeat.

To say that a Trump defeat would be illegitimate, then, is necessarily to suggest that the votes of those groups to which Trump habitually prepends a definite article—the Hispanics, the African Americans, the women—ought to be worth less than the votes of white men. That’s simply how the math works.

The Boston Globe recently rounded up voices from a Trump rally in Cincinnati, where one voter was already refusing to accept the legitimacy of a Hillary Clinton presidency:

“If she’s in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot. That’s how I feel about it,” Dan Bowman, a 50-year-old contractor, said of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. “We’re going to have a revolution and take them out of office if that’s what it takes. There’s going to be a lot of bloodshed. But that’s what it’s going to take. . . . I would do whatever I can for my country.”

Another was less sanguinary, but no less resolute:

“All I know is our country is not going to be a country anymore,” she added. “I’ve heard people talk about a revolution. I’ve heard people talk about separation of states. I don’t even like to think about it. But I don’t think this movement is going away. We don’t have a voice anymore, and Donald Trump is giving us a voice.”

The “we” in the sentence is left implicit. But looking at the electoral coalition Trump has assembled, and contrasting it with the coalition that opposes him, it’s hard not to hear it as “white voters.” She’s suggesting that if most Americans disagree with her, she won’t be bound by the results of the election. She’d rather flirt with secession than accept an outcome in which the “us”—Americans as she’s used to defining them—get outvoted in an increasingly diverse nation. That represents a betrayal of the democratic faith.

It is also vile.

An American is an American. Our votes are equal. And the agreement to abide by the results of elections, particularly those whose outcomes we regret, is the pact that sustains our democracy.

Trump is playing a game of thimblerig with his voters, masking what he’s up to with engaging patter, misdirection, and deceit. But when time runs out on November 8, his supporters should look closely beneath each of these three thimbles—of media bias, voter fraud, and electoral illegitimacy.

They’ll find that each is empty. It’s all a con.