During last week’s presidential debate, Donald Trump made headlines by suggesting that, rather than pledging to accept the results of the election, he would prefer to “keep you in suspense” — because apparently, suspense is what this horror-thriller of a presidential campaign has been missing. As the faintest hope of victory in November slips through Trump’s stubby fingers, his apocryphal cries of a rigged election are reaching a fever pitch.
Trump’s brand of “rigged” rhetoric is not unique to his campaign. Infused in the spirit of populism that has fueled this election is the idea that those who wield economic or political power, the so-called experts, are ill-merited frauds who have conspired to retain their power at the expense of the common man. More often than not, the truth is less nefarious — and frankly, less exciting.
But scattered around the world and throughout history are cases of real systemic bias and failure. To distinguish between those real cases and Trump’s “boy-who-cried-wolf” situation, we need independent institutions with broad trust across political divisions — and it is these institutions that Trump’s rhetoric undermines.
The most obvious examples of these cases come from authoritarian regimes such as those in Russia and Iran. But some are closer to home than you’d think. In the United States, we have widespread gerrymandering, which helps ensure that despite an abysmal approval rating, at least 90 percent of Congress is re-elected almost every year.
Another example of systemic failure comes from the 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which Trump surrogates have cited as an example of a time when Democrats refused to accept the results of an election. But in that case, the vote was extremely close, and Gore actually conceded to Bush before news organizations began rescinding their calls of Florida for Bush, casting the results of the election back into doubt. Gore recognized that it was not the place of the candidate to challenge the initial results of the election, but after independent observers confirmed that the outcome was ambiguous, he withdrew his concession, and the recount began.
The role news organizations played in 2000 can be instructive here. With respect to the possibility of a rigged election, there are two claims that Trump is making. The first is that the media is tipping the scales toward Clinton by painting him in a negative light and “making up phony polls” while the second is that there is “large scale voter fraud” taking place to rig the actual election system. Both claims are outrageous, but the first claim is more dangerous.
Sometimes, there are irregularities in our elections. There’s no particular reason to expect them this year, but it’s true that the system doesn’t always work — it didn’t in 2000. But luckily, it doesn’t have to. Our election system isn’t built on universal and unwavering trust that it always works. It’s built on trust in a handful of independent observers and authorities who keep an eye on the system — verifying that it works, letting us know if it doesn’t and investigating irregularities.
In our society, that role is largely filled by a free press. The free press is what allows us to distinguish between real rigging and the paranoia of Trump’s wounded ego. So when Trump excoriates the media for reporting facts, he does severe damage to the democratic process.
Groves is a government sophomore from Dallas.Follow him on Twitter @samgroves.