No one knows how to handle what might be about to hit on Nov. 9.
Donald Trump is laying the groundwork to lose on Nov. 8, refuse to concede the election, and teeter the country into an unprecedented crisis of faith in government. Republicans and Democrats, in Washington and beyond, fear that the aftermath of the 2016 election will create a festering infection in the already deep and lasting wound that the campaign is leaving on America.
And, they say, only Republican leaders who speak up will have any chance of stopping it.
“Polls close, but can you believe I lost large numbers of women voters based on made up events THAT NEVER HAPPENED. Media rigging election!” Trump tweeted Sunday morning in response to the latest round of numbers showing him behind.
President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and their top aides, along with leaders on Capitol Hill, worry about the preview Trump is providing in this final month, part kamikaze mission to take down Clinton, part temper tantrum by a man who has never been embarrassed on either this scale or spotlight.
They worry about how his egged-on followers might respond, and the violence – perhaps against Muslims, Latinos or any of the many other groups he has targeted in his campaign rhetoric — that might follow.
“People do dangerous things when dangerous leaders foment deep resentment,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.).
Even after the election, many Democrats and Republicans fear, Trump could keep showing up at rallies. He’s all but certain to keep up his near-constant claim of a “rigged election” on Twitter and in friendly news interviews, casting doubts and stoking a toxicity that, at least as of now, relatively few in his party have explicitly rejected.
A measure of where things stand already: asked Saturday at a Trump rally in New Hampshire whether there could be an armed rebellion if Clinton wins, South Carolina Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster at first pegged the chances of it only at “highly unlikely.”
“There’s going to be a rebellion, yeah. Everybody’s tired of the system,” said Fred Steadman, a 57 year-old semi-retired man who was at Trump’s Saturday night rally in New Jersey, sure already that the election is rigged.
If Clinton does win, most agree that the immediate burden will likely fall on Republican leaders—particularly House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—to quickly and vocally insist on the legitimacy of her election.
“What this would be is an assault on the foundations of the long established traditions of the country, an assault on democracy, vandalizing it,” said Steve Schmidt, the Republican strategist who led John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “It would be incumbent finally on national leaders in the Republican Party to speak clearly, unequivocally about not just the situation, but the totality of it.”
Ari Fleischer, who worked for George W. Bush on the 2000 campaign and later his White House press secretary, contrasted how “Al Gore graciously accepted the outcome” to Trump’s rhetoric that has him “disgusted.”
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“If he never calls to concede, he’ll go down as one of the sorest of sore losers,” Fleischer said, but “if Donald Trump loses and fights the outcome, it will make many of his followers, which means millions of people, question the legitimacy of our American government. That’s destructive and corrosive.”
Tony Fratto, a former aide to George W. Bush, said, “You hate to have to fight something like this, but it is very corrosive, so you do have to fight it. You don’t want it to even pick up with a small segment of the population. Reince [Priebus] and Ryan and McConnell will have to concede for him, for the party. They just have to take things out of his hands.”
Only Republicans—and maybe leaders from the right who aren’t going to be suspected to be part of the “establishment”—will be able to move the country forward if Trump won’t, many agree.
“This is on them. They’ve created this. They need to defuse,” said a senior Democrat on Saturday evening.
But that probably won’t be near enough to prevent Trump’s most determined supporters, some of whom are as suspicious of Republicans as Democrats, from challenging the results.
Trump’s refusing to concede “totally fits into his strategy of exploiting voters’ historic breakdown in faith in institutions across the board,” Israel said. “The problem is he’ll make democracy itself collateral damage to his ego.”
It all sounds like ridiculous hypotheticals, the stuff of novels—except to the people who’ve been closely watching the race so far and Trump’s endgame in recent days, for whom it sounds frighteningly, dangerously real.
The slope has already been slipped down: Trump has threatened to throw Clinton in jail, asserted that her campaign is working with the media to fabricate the stories of his sexual assaults and claiming she stole the nomination from Bernie Sanders.
Little of that has drawn condemnation from his fellow Republicans.
On the contrary, when he was asked about WikiLeaks in late August, Priebus said he wasn’t “cheering for folks to be stealing private information,” but he’s spent the last week triumphantly tweeting about revelations from the WikiLeaks hack into Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s email, though the government has officially linked the actions to Russia.
“Imagine if North Korea or Iran had hacked the RNC and Democrats were publicly using the materials to their benefit,” complained a senior Democratic official Saturday morning.
So far, there have been many hacks into Democratic political groups, but notably none into Republican groups or the Trump campaign, which has Trump’s unofficial adviser Roger Stone proudly in touch with WikiLeaks and the candidate himself citing the discoveries constantly on the stump.
Former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis predicted that Republicans leaders and voters alike will quickly accept the results and move past the election, blaming the loss on Trump and washing their hands of him—unless it’s another close result where the winner is decided by hanging chads and court cases.
“It’s a lot different from 2000,” Davis said, noting that Gore conceded after the Supreme Court ruling and that Democratic leaders did too. “The media is more polarized today. Everybody’s got their own access to information.”
Fratto argued that journalists and cable networks will shape what happens next: “People in the media made choices about covering Trump early on. I think they regret those choices and we’ll see whether they truly regret those choices,” he said. “Because on Nov. 9, there aren’t good reasons to give him the kind of attention that he’s going to want.”
Trump’s not the only factor. Hacks now seem like a new way of life, with months and years ahead of email and document dumps from campaigns and government offices, but also politically prominent individuals, news organizations and anyone else who can be targeted as part of an agenda to create chaos and distrust.
“Trump is now attacking our democracy. Any elected R who doesn’t condemn this anti-American thug will carry a moral stain forever,” tweeted Republican strategist Mike Murphy on Saturday, adding the hashtag “#cowards.”
“Democracies rely on some modicum of trust between people & their institutions. Destroy that thru conspiracy mongering & there’s no going back,” tweeted Neera Tanden, a former Clinton aide who’s remained in touch with the campaign in Brooklyn.
Ryan, who’s attempted to define his career through optimism and spent the last year pushing himself as a different kind of Republican than Trump, on Friday latched on to Trump-style apocalyptic distrust, warning that Democrats “rig the system” and promise a future of “gloom and grayness.”
Saturday afternoon, though, Ryan’s spokeswoman Ashlee Strong released a statement pushing back on the rigged talk, hours after Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) declared, “they are attempting to rig this election” at a Trump rally.
“Our democracy relies on confidence in election results and the speaker is fully confident the states will carry out this election with integrity,” she said.
Try telling that to the Trump supporters.
“Pitchforks and torches time,” tweeted Milwaukee County Sherriff David Clarke, Jr. Saturday.
Or Douglas Wells, who said Saturday at a Trump rally in Portsmouth, N.H. that if Clinton wins, he’d “probably go buy another gun before she stops selling them.”
But, Wells added, “everyone I know is supporting Trump and saying it’s going to be a landslide, so there’s no reason to worry right now.”
Ben Schreckinger contributed reporting from Portsmouth, N.H. and Edison, N.J.