Last week, his campaign foundering, a sputtering Donald Trump warned his supporters that the election was rigged in Hillary Clinton’s favor, thereby threatening the peaceful transition of power that has been a democratic tradition both mythologized and actual since John Adams turned the office over to Thomas Jefferson. “It’s one big fix,” Trump at a campaign event in Greensboro, N.C., on Friday. “This whole election is being rigged.” He continued: “The media is indeed sick, and it’s making our country sick, and we’re going to stop it.”
As with so much else about the Trump campaign, mainstream politicians—including President Obama, who today told Trump to “stop whining”—and commentators have rushed to condemn his remarks and behavior as utterly deviant. “I haven’t seen it since 1860, this threat of delegitimizing the federal government, and Trump is trying to say our entire government is corrupt and the whole system is rigged,” Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University, told the New York Times. “And that’s a secessionist, revolutionary motif. That’s someone trying to topple the apple cart entirely.”
Despite all this, and the fact that claims about election rigging are demonstrably false, Trump’s message was well received by his supporters. “If [Clinton is] 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, told the Boston Globe. “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.”
“We’re going to have a lot of election fraud,” said Jeannine Bell Smith, 65-year-old longtime teacher in a red Trump shirt with a bucket of popcorn under her arm. “They are having illegals vote. In some states, you don’t need voter registration to vote.”
After a prayer is said and the national anthem sung, she leans in.
“We can’t have that lying bitch in the White House,” she said.
“If Hillary wins, it’s rigged,” said Judy Wright, who is from Illinois but took off work recently to come volunteer for Trump in Ohio.
Wright sighs at what seems to her an unfathomable outcome.
“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.”
Trump has been laying the groundwork to lose the general election—and to decry those results as fraudulent—since at least early August. “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest,” he said at a campaign event in Ohio. “November 8th, we’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged,” he told Sean Hannity later that day. “And I hope the Republicans are watching closely or it’s going to be taken away from us.” (Even earlier, after losing a slew of primaries to Ted Cruz in April, Trump sounded the same note: “Our Republican system is absolutely rigged. It’s a phony deal,” he said. “They wanted to keep people out. This is a dirty trick.”)
In this, he appears to have been following the advice of longtime ally Roger Stone, who told Breitbart News all the way back in July that he wanted Trump to begin questioning the validity of the electoral process. “I think we have widespread voter fraud, but the first thing that Trump needs to do is begin talking about it constantly,” Stone said. “He needs to say for example, today would be a perfect example: ‘I am leading in Florida. The polls all show it. If I lose Florida, we will know that there’s voter fraud. If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election of the winner will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government.’”
“If you can’t have an honest election, nothing else counts,” Stone continued. “I think he’s gotta put them on notice that their inauguration will be a rhetorical, and when I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath. The government will be shut down if they attempt to steal this and swear Hillary in. No, we will not stand for it. We will not stand for it.” In response to a question at the New Yorker Festival earlier this month about whether Trump would accept the outcome of the election in the (likely) event that he loses, Stone was ambivalent. “As long as there is no irrefutable evidence of fraud, yes,” he said. “He should—unless there is any refutable evidence to the contrary.”