“I’ll keep you in suspense.”
That was Donald Trump, candidate for president of the United States, treating the peaceful transfer of power like a reality-TV show cliffhanger in the final presidential debate.
The hyperpartisan hype man was either teasing the opening season of Trump TV or promising a constitutional crisis. Either way, it’s a display of stomach-churning disregard for our democracy by a celebrity demagogue whose narcissism has already stained our political history.
By now, we’re now used to The Donald treating this election as a vehicle for his vanity. Most sober Republicans have slowly come to the horrified realization that they have a manifestly irresponsible man at the top of their ticket. But the radius of damage seemed contained to the GOP and the quality of our civic debates. Donald changed that Wednesday night.
Once the act-like-an-adult sedatives wore off around 30 minutes into the third debate, he lapsed into his reflexive lying and insult comedy. He lied about insulting a disabled reporter. He lied about his past praise of Putin and his call for Japan to pursue nukes. He called his opponent a “nasty woman” and said she shouldn’t be allowed to vote, let alone run for president.
But those were just the fetid appetizers before the rotten main course that instantly defined the third debate.
The most troubling rumble from Trump’s flailing final weeks has been his suggestions that maybe he wouldn’t accept defeat. He teased this riff repeatedly to crowds only to have it be denied by his designated straight man, Mike Pence. But Trump went full wingnut with his comments in the third debate, refusing to say whether he would accept the results of the election if—as the polls show is likely—he loses on Nov. 8.
Put down the popcorn for a second. Remember that this election is real. It is not a reality show.
We in the media may try to entertain as we educate, but at the end of the day this is deadly serious stuff—selecting a leader who will make decisions about war and peace. And in democracy, we get the government we deserve.
Donald Trump has gone beyond dog-whistle appeals to the ethno-nationalist crowd. He is doubling down on the delegitimizing of duly elected presidents that has helped cripple our democracy over the past few decades. Much of the alt-right Clinton-hating crowd staffing his senior team—David Bossie especially—started this anti-democratic cycle with the hunting of the president in Bill Clinton’s term. The blame shifted to the left after the loss of the popular vote made many of those folks consider W. illegitimate. And God knows, we’ve had the same putrid stain grow during the Obama years, symbolized by the “birther” conspiracy theories that Trump used to grab the heart of the GOP base, who couldn’t accept a black man as president. If Hillary Clinton is elected, we’ll see sexism take the place of racism in the most unhinged corners of the internet activist class.
But the fundamental message of illegitimacy is the same. And the recourse? “I’ll keep you in suspense.”
Trump surrogates were furiously spinning in the aftermath, understandably panicked that their man had once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Apparently the talking points had been emailed out before the end of the debate because both campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and Jeffrey Lord were spouting the same ahistorical nonsense on CNN about how there is a liberal double standard because Al Gore didn’t concede the 2000 election until December. Of course, that ignores the whole Florida recount and loss of the popular vote.
There is no precedent in modern American politics for contesting an election before the votes are in. Both Conway and Lord are political pros who know better as, presumably, does Kayleigh McEnany, who was reduced to talking about dead voters and fraud in a desperate attempt to distract from the fact that her candidate is playing footsie with a fanatical disregard for the democratic process.
The most generous explanation is that Donald Trump just doesn’t have the psychological capacity to admit defeat. The prospect of being defined in the history books as a loser—possibly on an epic scale—is too much to bear. And so the only face-saving play is to say that the whole system is rigged against him. This is the ultimate expression of the conservative-as-victim card.
But what makes little Donald feel better isn’t the best gauge for what’s best for our democracy. I know this is hard for Trump to compute, but some things matter more than himself. The real damage comes when his anti-democracy defiance is heard as validation by extremists looking for an excuse to make the culture wars even more real.
During the Tea Party wave, I interviewed a fringe folk hero on the far-far right: a patriot militia man named Mike Vanderboegh, who recently died. His favorite slogan was “all politics in this country now is just dress rehearsal for civil war.” “We are rapidly coming to a point in this country when half of the people are going to become convinced of the illegitimacy of this administration and its designs upon our liberty,” he told me. “Need I remind you that this side is the one with most of the firearms?”
Talk about “Second Amendment solutions.”
Likewise, Trump’s favorite unhinged conspiracy entrepreneur, Alex Jones, loves to say “the cure for 1984 is 1776.” The same echoes are evident.
And lest this just sound like a litany of cranks, one month ago Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin referenced Timothy McVeigh’s favorite Jefferson quote—“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”—before talking about how America could survive a President Hillary Clinton only if the blood of patriots were shed as well. “Whose blood will be shed?” he asked in a speech. “It might be that of our children and grandchildren. I have nine children. And it breaks my heart to think that it might be their blood that is needed to redeem something, to reclaim something that we, through our apathy and indifference, have given away.”
Got that? The governor of one of our 50 states was actively musing about civil war and the bloodshed it could cause in his family if Hillary Clinton is elected president. Spin that any way you want—and Bevin tried to say that he had been talking about a foreign war—but the audience at the Values Voter Summit heard him loud and clear. Losing an election is akin to living under tyranny, and it will be up to patriots to take down tyrants to make America great again.
Finally, on Wednesday night, just after Trump left the stage, his surrogate Sarah Palin told reporters he’d only accept a “legitimate” election since doing otherwise would betray those who “died” for freedom.
The point is that none of this happens in a vacuum. Calls for massive resistance to democratic processes and legal decisions have been a repeated riff in conservative populist circles for decades. It’s possible that the proud Fifth Avenue redneck has no idea about the historical ghosts he’s stirring up. Or he may know exactly what he’s doing. The sick twist is that everyone understands Trump isn’t motivated by political convictions. He’s just looking for his next marketing campaign. We’re living through the final stages of Eric Hoffer’s immortal insight: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
By denying that he would accept the results of this election in a presidential debate, Donald Trump delivered perhaps the final insult to our democracy in his disgraceful campaign. The only saving grace is that a true constitutional crisis would require that the election results be close. But less than three weeks from Election Day, he has offered the latest example of why he is deeply unfit to be president of the United States. He has no interest in uniting the nation.
Donald Trump is one of those folks who want to ruin if they cannot rule. In a school yard, he’d be called a spoiled brat. In politics, he’s a dangerous demagogue with a dictatorial streak.