Ever since Donald Trump set his sights on winning the White House, he’s complained, with incendiary vitriol, that American elections are “rigged” against him.
n spring of 2016, he protested “a rigged delegate system” could prevent his nomination as the Republican presidential candidate.
Once he became his party’s standard bearer, the tycoon-cum-media celebrity shifted his concern.
During a Wisconsin rally three weeks before Election Day, Mr Trump repeated a refrain-resembling warning: “Remember, we are competing in a rigged election.
“They even want to try and rig the election at the polling booths, where so many cities are corrupt and voter fraud is all too common.”
His anxiety over treachery was so acute that he promised to cure electoral ills, tweeting: “As President, I WILL fix this rigged system and only answer to YOU, the American people!”
Yet, fast forward four years, and what is the incumbent chief executive invoking as a principal message for re-election? Nearly all of his public utterances decry dangers of voter fraud and a crooked election.
During August, remarks to the Republican National Convention, he asserted, “The only way they [Democrats] can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election.”
That statement followed a May forecast on Twitter: “It will be the greatest Rigged Election in history.”
Now that the president has returned to campaigning after his bout with Covid-19, remarks at rallies take a darker turn to underline “a lot of shenanigans going on,” as he railed this past Monday to Floridians.
In the bull’s eye of the president’s vituperation is voting by mail, especially in nine states where ballots are automatically being sent to registered voters.
Notably, California and New Jersey switched to ballots by mail this year to preclude long lines and hours of waiting amid the pandemic.
Asked at a recent White House news briefing whether he would pledge to “a peaceful transfer of power” should he not prevail, Mr Trump responded that “we’re going to have to see what happens. You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.”
Despite unending charges of cheating that provoke distrust, rampant electoral chicanery doesn’t exist in the United States, according to law enforcement.
Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), told a Senate committee last month that “we have not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it’s by mail or otherwise.”
At the same time mail-in voting is under attack by the president, America’s postal system is undergoing massive (and, in the view of many, questionable) changes.
A major campaign donor to President Trump and other Republicans, Louis DeJoy, became Postmaster General this past June.
Since then, sorting machines and letter boxes have been removed from service, delaying regular deliveries nationwide.
The coincidence of a new, politically-attentive postmaster taking charge when the president is in full cry about the menace of mail ballots is not lost on Democrats and non-partisan election analysts. They surmise that Mr Trump’s argument about postal evils is building the foundation for what he might say and do in the future.
On July 30, the president proclaimed on Twitter: “Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months, or even years later!”
Everyone understands it will take much longer to verify and count all the ballots arriving through the Postal Service, and the projected make-up of those who plan to vote by mail is, indeed, telling.
An academic opinion survey of 5,600 respondents last August found half of Democratic voters contacted wanted to cast their ballots by mail, while just a quarter of Republicans replied that they would do likewise.
That difference of 25pc could determine the outcome in competitive states, like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin.
If Mr Trump is ahead in vote-counting right after polls close on November 3, he might unilaterally declare victory over his opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, without waiting for the tabulation of mailed ballots.
Doing this would allow him to keep raising suspicions about the system being “rigged” and spread a blanket of doubt over the final result’s legitimacy.
The prospect of an extended period before a definitive resolution has already caused Democrats and Republicans to assemble teams of lawyers to oversee – and challenge – each step of the tally that’s potentially disputable.
A prolonged count, like the one that happened in Florida during the 2000 election’s aftermath, opens the door to nasty partisan quarrelling and court clashes on a much broader scale than just one state.
With all his talk of a “rigged” electoral system, fraudulent mail ballots and reluctance to accept any verdict other than victory, the president is taking America into dangerous and uncharted territory.
Speculation is circulating about intimidation or even violence occurring at voting places, where as many as 50,000 Trump supporters will be positioned to protest suspicious activity.
On Mr Trump’s Twitter account, an oft-repeated message appears: “Volunteer to be a Trump Election Poll Watcher,” and it adds in large letters: “Fight for President Trump.”
Clicking the tweet leads to a website titled “Army for Trump.” Somehow “fight” and “army” sound incompatible to the work of a “poll watcher.”
Uncertainty about what might happen on Election Day is not just a concern in the US. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, based in Vienna, plans to send election observers to America from its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
They’ll be watching for mischief on either side.
During the next two weeks, trying to guess what an incumbent president, who’s lagging in opinion polls and questioning electoral integrity, might hazard is a fool’s errand. Palpable desperation and the pursuit of power are a combustible combination in Washington.
Get ready for a high-stakes – and real-life – reality show, with corkscrew plot turns, until the ultimate winner is declared.
Robert Schmuhl is professor emeritus of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and adjunct professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. He is author of ‘The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump’.