Georgia State University

Rigged: How Donald Trump Eroded Norms of Respect in the 2016 Election by Zach Hopkins @ Georgia State University

The classic refrain we hear with regard to our democratic process is “one person, one vote,” so when that principle is violated, we should be concerned. But is such a phenomenon so prevalent as to rise to the level of disrupting the electoral process? During the 2016 United States presidential election, candidate Donald Trump certainly wanted us to believe so. He repeatedly made comments that undermined the integrity of the democracy of the U.S. with unsubstantiated claims of systematic voter fraud. He went so far as to say that if he lost the election, he would contest it because of his assertion that he was up against a “rigged” vote which favored his opponent. With voter fraud being virtually nonexistent in this nation, such comments only served to undermine the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Voting fraud occurs when people are voting who shouldn’t, vote multiple times, and/or impersonate another voter. This is an increasingly rare issue in our system. There are occasional instances of individual levels of fraudulent voting, with NYU’s Brennan Center compiling a number of studies detailing voter fraud in various timeframes and localities. One study found ten cases of such impersonation fraud from 2000 to 2012, with another finding thirty-one “credible instances” from 2000 to 2014. A different study listed showed that the “upper limit on double voting in the 2012 election was 0.02%” and even here the authors note that most of these “could be a result of measurement error”. Neither the president’s own commission charged with investigating voter fraud nor any of the Brennan Center’s studies found that this was anything more than an occasional issue in some elections, certainly none rose to such a level as to be systematic or helping any particular candidate or party, contrary to President Trump’s claims otherwise. In order for vote rigging to be systematic, there must be a candidate for which these illegitimate votes will lopsidedly help and because Donald Trump is the one making the allegations, the implication is that any Clinton victory will be on its face illegitimate and illegal.

The president’s insistence that the election would be rigged against him despite any evidence to support this claim, and that should he lose he would not concede the election served to undermine Secretary Hillary Clinton as a legitimate political rival. In How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt detail how political opposition can be delegitimized or otherwise sidelined. This most often happens by buying off opponents, but it also occurs through legal channels where an authoritarian executive will find a pretext to arrest their opposition. Usually, in order for this tactic to succeed, the executive must fill the courts with loyalists. President Trump has had the opportunity to nominate two Supreme Court justices, and it is possible that there will be more opportunities as members of the court age. During the campaign, candidate Trump and his supporters would often chant “lock her up!” while at rallies and even during the Republican convention. Even as late as two months ago, in July 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who leads the Department of Justice, repeated the chant while giving a speech. Secretary Clinton remains free, but she is also no longer an electoral threat to him. If he is the Republican nominee in 2020, he will surely have a Democratic opponent who will have the potential to unseat him.

So far we have stayed primarily in the realm of mere aesthetic authoritarianism, with the president lashing out when things don’t go his way, usually without much material consequence on his part, and haven’t crossed the divide toward an actualized autocratic Trump. As the anonymous op-ed published in the NYT demonstrates, he is still, to some extent, surrounded by advisors who are interested in the continuation of America as we know it. It will be interesting to see if in 2020 the president reverts to claims of a rigged election and delegitimizing his rivals, as he is still wont to do. If the democrats fail to impeach him, it will rest upon the Republican party to nominate a candidate who is more in line with established democratic values who will respect the democratic process. As Lieberman, Mettler, Pepinsky, Roberts, and Valelly say in Trumpism and American Democracy, when “one of the two major parties” turns toward autocratic behavior, it “undermines democratic norms in ways that neither populism nor polarization could ever do on their own”.  With their leader repeatedly making claims that his rivals are un-American and illegitimate, going so far as to undermine the validity of a national election, the establishment members of the Republican party have an obligation to not let their party be hijacked by this authoritarian element and to do everything in their power to return to the democratic status quo.

(Photos by Gage Skidmore, edited together by Wikimedia user Krassotkin)


  1. Maria Andrade

    November 2, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    It was clear from before Donald Trump was even elected to the oval office, that his rhetoric was very much in line with authoritarian values. As mentioned here, Donald Trump actively sought to undermine his opponent by claiming that her campaign was not capable of surpassing his, but instead, Trump insisted that the system in of itself was rigged against him. This idea of undermining you opponent is just one of many characteristics that Donald Trump shares with authoritarian rulers around the world. It is interesting to wonder whether his campaign team was so afraid of Hillary Clinton’s strength as a candidate that they decided to shape their campaign message as one of hate towards her and everyone who supports her as, or whether it was Donald Trump’s own initiative that inspired him to undermine her credibility by chanting things like ‘“lock her up.”

  2. Taylor Robinson

    December 5, 2018 at 6:30 pm

    Trump treated the past election like a popularity contest in which the candidates used mudslinging as their tactics to win. Few of his arguments focused on what he could do for America alone. Instead, he chose to point out what his opponents could not do and emphasized his “superiority”. Furthermore, his willingness to so publicly and unabashedly undermine democracy proves his blatant disregard for the foundations of this country. Also, I appreciate that you pointed out the fact that a lot of responsibility of replacing Trump lies on the republican party, and it is unfortunate that many republicans are standing with Trump. However, it is important that as time progresses, many republicans are also leaving his side and renouncing their support for Trump. Some politicians who I once had respect for lost support from myself and other Americans once they began to stand for his nonsense. It seems several politicians have realized this and changed their stances on Trump.

  3. Julian Toro

    December 5, 2018 at 7:39 pm

    Trump was undeniably GOING to be the president, this was my assertion after the primary elections. Knowing how trends go in the US after an 8-year term of one political party, most likely the other party would be voted in. Stepping aside from tendency, and looking into the candidates, none of them were great options. One thing that Trump used to his advantage was belittling his opponent by her track record while holding positions in office. I am not saying she did not do great things, but people often overlook the great things an individual does as soon as that individual makes a mistake. Voter fraud was a stupid claim, but it woke up many voters. Undermining your opponent, even Hillary took that into power during the debates, she did not use words, but she did use non-verbal communications. Trump is playing as an authoritarian leader under a highly democratic government, which can and will affect the institution in the long run if he is elected again. At this point in time I dare to say that his second term may be a bit more far-fetched than he thinks, with people actually waking up to see what they cause by not voting or voting for the wrong candidate. Whether they vote republican or democrat it is the least to my worries as long as they do not vote by partisanship. A lot of great candidates have actually stepped up and declared their bid for presidency, my advice? Let these next two years run out, hope our president does not keep stirring the pot and effect a change come next election.

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