Every day that Donald Trump continues to beat the false drum of “stolen” or “rigged” election he is proving William Shakespeare correct that “what’s past is prologue.”
In August 2016, before James Comey’s pronouncements about Hillary Clinton’s emails torpedoed her bid for the White House, Trump was far behind Clinton in the polls and on track to become the one thing he despises the most. A loser. So in a malignantly narcissistic effort to claim victimhood Trump and avoid accepting blame, he began diagnosing the election as rigged, claimed the media was out to get him and said the Republican establishment was conspiring against him.
In a 2016 article in Politico, Eli Stokols quoted a Trump advisor saying, “If he loses, [he’ll say] ‘It’s a rigged election.’ If he wins, he’ll say it was rigged and he beat it. And that’s where this is headed no matter what the outcome is. I can’t really picture him giving a concession speech, whatever the final margin.”
Sound familiar? These should, too. They’re Trump quotes from 2016 campaign rallies. They are strikingly similar to comments he made in countless rallies in 2020. Just substitute “Biden” for “Hillary.”
“The only way we can lose, in my opinion – I really mean this, Pennsylvania – is if cheating goes on,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Altoona, Pa. Days before that in Wilmington, N.C., he warned that without stronger voter identification laws people would be “voting 15 times for Hillary.”
At that time political observers warned what harm Trump’s brand of divisive, “they’re out to get me” politics could do to the nation. “Among the values most necessary for a functioning democracy is the peaceful transition of power that’s gone on uninterrupted since 1797,” said Steve Schmidt, who went on to co-found the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “What enables that is the acceptance of the election’s outcome by the losers.”
Of Trump in 2016, he said, “Here you have a candidate after a terrible three weeks, which has all been self-inflicted, saying the only way we lose is if it’s ‘rigged’ or stolen – in a media culture where people increasingly don’t buy into generally accepted facts and turn to places to have their opinions validated where there’s no wall between extreme and mainstream positions. That’s an assault on some of the pillars that undergird our system. People need to understand just how radical a departure this is from the mean of American politics.” Those words are incredibly, unfortunately relevant today.
So here we are, four years on, justifiably fretting about what a defeated and humiliated Donald Trump might try to do before his term as president ends on Jan. 20. But there’s also the after-times to worry about. As conservative commentator Charlie Sykes predicted, Trump is unlikely to exit the political stage quietly and the country is going to have to deal with Trump’s rabid supporters for years to come.
“I can’t see the fever swamp, alt-reality media universe on the right learning the lessons of this,” said Sykes, now editor of The Bulwark. “Can you see Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham saying, ‘OK, sorry, we screwed up’?”