What If Trump Is the One 'Rigging' the Election?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

More readers are building on the projection argument that Fallows outlined in Time Capsule #142: “that ‘projection,’ in the psychological sense, is the default explanation for anything Donald Trump says or does”—that he accuses people of sins that are far more his own. Reader Tom contrasts Trump’s approach with recent history:

I may be saying the same thing in a different way, but Mr Trump has been engaging in what I’ve thought of as a new style of political attack.

“Rovian politics,” named after Karl Rove, was taking on your opponent’s strengths and attacking them head on to negate their advantage (e.g. “Swiftboating” John Kerry to attack his war record and turn a strength into a weakness).

In “Trumpian politics” you take your weaknesses, exaggerate them, and accuse your opponent of possessing that weakness. Is womanizing a potential weakness of yours? Accuse your opponent of being much worse than you were, making yourself look good (at least in your own mind) by comparison. Temperament? Accuse your opponent of being completely unstable to divert attention. Old enough to be the oldest person ever elected to a first term? Accuse your opponent of being weak and sickly.

By exaggerating your weaknesses and targeting your opponent with the same, you not only attack them with something they consider important but you potentially make yourself look good by comparison.

Sandra notes another example of projection:

A minor thing, but Trump may well have lied about his weight. After the Dr Oz show, the number 267 pounds was floating around. Apparently a few studio audience members said that was the weight that was mentioned from the medical report. It could easily have been doctored before the screening. Plus he added an inch to his height to get himself into the merely overweight category.

So the fat-shamer in chief lies about his weight and probably falls well into the obese category. Weigh-in before the next debate perhaps?

This next reader, Joe, poses a compelling and disturbing question:

Reading the latest entries about Trump’s habit of projection and his latest assertions that the election is “rigged,” I can’t help but draw a horrifying extrapolation: What if Trump’s allegations about Democrats and the media rigging the election are themselves projection?

Is it so hard to imagine that Trump himself might want to rig the election? Or, more likely, that he could believe that Roger Stone or WikiLeaks or Putin’s Kremlin have a plan to do it for him? I’m not sure I believe this, or even that Trump believes it, but it does present a cautionary illustration.

If Trump’s “rigged” allegations are projection, then the recent response to them would play into his hands. Gore et al stepped aside despite reasonable arguments he should have won, and I (a Gore supporter) agree with that. But what if there were an actual, serious effort to steal this election—more than just, as in 2000, a close election with a few irregularities?  Then Trump would certainly point to pre-election comments like Fallows’s as affirmation that the loser should step aside, that even Clinton supporters were on record saying so.

In fact, this kind of pre-emptive defense is part of the Trump playbook. Recall the Trump University scam, where instructors routinely harassed students into giving glowing evaluations, which were later used in court to try to undermine those who accused him of fraud.

I’m not sure what the answer is, though perhaps it’s something like Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted’s nuanced statement (reported in the NYT) that it’s irresponsible to question the integrity of elections without evidence. In any case, this example illustrates the challenge of dealing with demagogic candidate like Trump (or a dirty trickster like Roger Stone) who seems to have no respect for our political system. Demanding that they play by “the rules” only works if those rules can be rigorously enforced.  But rigorous enforcement also gives them a stick to exploit against their opponents, if decency doesn’t hold them back.

Speaking of a possible Russia connection, another reader, Peter, notes a historical irony:

A large bloc of Trump’s supporters believe that the election will be fraudulent if Clinton wins, and a large bloc of Trump’s supporters see Russia in a favourable light. That means that it is the Republican base who doesn’t believe in democracy and is impressed with the strength of Moscow. Who would have thought that the most credible attempt of a Communist takeover of the U.S. would come from Republicans.

Of course this is a complete 180 from four years ago:

Back to Peter:

Perhaps more seriously (hopefully), there are two larger questions. One is if the Republican party can / will / should split in two, and if so, into what parts? The argument against them splitting in two is that the American political system is so geared to a “two party” system that any and all permanent non-majority parties are banned to the political wasteland. The argument in favor of them splitting in two is that the the current party has absolutely no working definition of what a “conservative” is.

Post 2016, “conservative” will have lost all meaning. Currently it means “family values” and supporting sexual abuse and a complete lack of religious faith. Currently it means “American ideals” and a disrespect for democracy and a praise of authoritarians and former Communists. Currently it means “small government” and massive spending. It had already taken to mean both isolationism and empire building.

The word itself means a resistance to change, but in practice it means complete radical change. There seems to be little point to having a “conservative” party when the word no longer means anything. Right now it’s just the “I hate Hillary” party. Except for when the Republicans unite in their daily “two minutes of hate,” they have nothing to do with each other.

The other question is: Why can’t the Democrat left ever figure out how to talk to the white working class? They are some of the very people who they are claiming to help, but since before Reagan, they were written off. This whole Trump thing could have been prevented in the first place if the Democrats knew how to talk to a third of his base. But with the white working class largely anti-union, it may be a bigger trick than it should be.

If you disagree with any of these readers or just want to add to the discussion in general, drop us a note anytime. Update from a reader who poses a question: “Doesn’t asking his supporters to patrol polling centers and challenge ‘suspicious looking people’ or whatever already count as attempting to rig the election?” Another reader:

Consider the stated Trump desire to jail Clinton as an effort to put his opponents on record as opposing jailing the loser (now almost certainly him). Is it possible he has done any jail-worthy deeds with taxes, charities, or Russian money-laundering for which he would like preemptive immunity? I swear I am not projecting ...