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The (very real) possibility of election violence in the US


The (very real) possibility of election violence in the US

The US presidential election is around the corner. Though polls suggest Republican Donald Trump’s longshot candidacy still has a chance, a victory for Democrat Hillary Clinton remains the most likely outcome. Perhaps of greater importance is the election’s aftermath, and specifically whether Trump – or his supporters – accept the result. Trump has filled the tail end of the campaign with allegations of voter fraud and bias by the media and pollsters. Democrats have hit back, claiming Republican voter intimidation and FBI favouritism. With public distrust of both candidates at record levels, the previously inconceivable possibility of post-election violence remains.


Acceptance of defeat is a core feature of any democratic system. It validates the victor’s legitimacy and pacifies opposition supporters. Donald Trump appears to be pushing back against this tradition. When asked during the final debate whether he would accept the result, Mr Trump said “I’ll keep you in suspense”. When pressed, he added, “I will tell you at [that] time”. Although he later clarified he would accept the results if he won, or if there was a clear outcome, Trump’s words have sparked a flurry of speculation about his post-election plans.

Trump’s reluctance to say he would accept defeat takes on added importance in light of other statements he has made about the election’s validity. The Republican candidate has repeatedly railed against perceived media bias, tweeting:

56 per cent of likely voters, including 87 per cent of Republicans and 30 per cent of Democrats, agree media bias is prevalent in the US. Mr Trump’s allegation have some factual basis; negative reporting of his frequent controversial statements has provided his campaign with billions of dollars of media coverage. But Trump’s complaints of ‘rigging’ form part of his case that his campaign is being undermined.

Trump’s campaign has complained about ‘election rigging’ for months, but recently this rhetoric reached new heights after he claimed that “large scale voter fraud happening”. Numerous studies show voter fraud is not an issue in the US; among the over 800 million federal votes cast since 2000, there have only been a few dozen cases of voter impersonation, ‘dead voters’, multiple voters, and stolen votes. Yet Trump’s sentiments resonate with a majority of Republicans, among whom only one-third express confidence that votes will be counted fairly.

The Manhattan billionaire has accused pollsters of being in on the scheme. As he has fallen further behind in the polls, Trump is increasingly suggested they are rigged. His reasoning is that polls showing a large Clinton lead are intended to convince his supporters that there is no point turning up to polling stations on Tuesday.

Now that the polls are narrowing, Trump has reversed his position and has returned to quoting polls that show him ahead of Clinton. Yet his supporters, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, continue to claim the polls are biased.

Trump may find support from his claims from unexpected places. On October 9, the US government formally accused Russia of attempting to interfere in the election. Several US states have detected attempted breaches of their electoral systems originating from servers operated by a hitherto unspecified Russian company. Federal agencies have assured the public that the voting system’s decentralised nature, as well as the lack of connectivity of voting machines, will protect the system against tampering. However, the recent findings of nefarious external activity in and around election systems open the door for Trump to cast doubt over the election result, and for his followers to believe him.


Photo: AP/Richard Shiro
Photo: AP/Richard Shiro

Despite appearances, it seems likely Mr Trump will accept Tuesday’s results. His campaign manager Kellyanne Conway has quoted her candidate as saying if he doesn’t win, “that’s okay”. This would align with his position on accepting a “clear election result”. However, Conway’s statement only reflects Trump’s private position, which does not necessarily align with his post-election plans.

A popular theory is that Trump will return to media after November 8. The anticipated “Trump TV” network – which Trump has said he has no interest in – would capitalise on the millions of loyal followers he has cultivated during the marathon election campaign. According to those briefed on the proposed “mini-media conglomerate”, Trump intends to develop an entire network that caters to those supporters who feel they haven’t “had a voice in a long time”, enabling him to maintain his political influence outside the system.

Alternatively, billionaire tech investor Peter Theil – one of Trump’s Silicon Valley-based supporters – has said Trump is laying the foundations for a “new Republican Party”. The proposed party would go “beyond the dogmas of Reaganism” and shake up the political system. There is certainly space in US politics for such a party; the GOP has been divided for some time, particularly since the Tea Party movement emerged in 2009.

“Trump TV” insiders say the network is likely to go ahead whether Trump wins or loses. This suggests Trump is willing to accept the election result rather than pursue ‘victory’ at all costs. The creation of a new party also indicates Trump is preparing for defeat; after all, victory would see him become a Republican president – planning a breakaway party would not be in his political interest.

However, whether Trump accepts Clinton’s victory at the ballot box may already be a moot point.


Photo: YouTube
Photo: YouTube

Trump may no longer control the ‘election is rigged’ narrative. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in late October found just 50 per cent of Republicans will accept Clinton as their legitimate president. 70 per cent of Republicans would attribute her victory to fraud while just 20 per cent think the final tally will be accurate. Even if Trump were to publicly congratulate Clinton on election night, her legitimacy is already undermined by Trump’s ‘rigged’ rhetoric, as well as a wave of anti-establishmentism that runs deep throughout American society.

The concerns do not end with Clinton’s legitimacy. Clinton herself may become a target for outraged Trump supporters who may feel she stole the election.

On August 10, Trump infamously suggested that “Second Amendment people” could stop Clinton becoming president. Though Trump later claimed he was referring to voters, many observers took his words as an endorsement for gun-bearing Americans to assassinate his political rival.

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Threats to Clinton’s life have become constant features at Trump rallies. On November 30 in Las Vegas, a warm-up speaker for Trump fantasised about a TV movie in which Clinton meets an ending “like Thelma and Louise”, by driving off a cliff. The Secret Service investigated another regular Trump rally speaker – Al Baldasaro – after he gave an interview in which he said: “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot”. Effigies of Mrs Clinton strung up by a noose have regularly been seen among crowds at Trump rallies.

The Secret Service can almost certainly manage threats to Clinton’s life. However, there remains the possibility of more widespread political violence. Republicans at Trump rallies have been quoted calling for “revolution” and warning of “bloodshed” if Clinton is elected. On October 27, former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh tweeted, “if Trump loses, I’m grabbing my musket” and asked Trump supporters to join him. Walsh later clarified his tweet, saying he was only calling for civil disobedience, but such remarks have resulted in half of Americans fearing Election Day violence, according to a recent poll.


Photo: AP Photo/Noah Berger
Photo: AP Photo/Noah Berger

Paralleling his rigged election rhetoric, Trump has called on his followers to act as “poll watchers” come November 8. Democrats claim this proposal is tantamount to inciting a “coordinated campaign of vigilante voter intimidation”. Several swing-state Democratic Parties have filed complaints against Trump and his officials, claiming they have violated the Ku Klux Klan and Voting Rights Acts in an effort to reduce minority turnout in urban areas.

On November 1, a federal judge ordered the Republican National Committee to detail any agreement it has with Trump’s campaign over efforts to ensure “ballot security”. The GOP has been banned from such practices without court approval since the 1980s after supporters harassed minority voters.

Democratic faith in the polls has also been rattled by FBI Director James Comey’s “October surprise”. In the campaign’s final stretch, Comey publicly announced the FBI was investigating whether new emails related to Clinton’s private email server scandal contained classified information. The news shifted focus off Trump’s sexual assault scandals and reapplied pressure to Clinton. Some Democrats believe this was a deliberate act to aid Trump, and the Senate’s Democratic leader Harry Reid has accused the FBI of a double standard in publicising its investigation into Clinton while allegedly resisting calls to release information regarding Trump’s ties to Russia.

Democrats have begun expressing concerns about possible election rigging. Almost a third say they will not accept a Trump victory and nearly half believe the GOP candidate’s success would rely on vote manipulation. There remains the possibility of Democrat-instigated violence should Trump achieve a shock victory.


Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

The outlook for Election Day is bleak. In the nightmare scenario, Trump will lead in early counting, reinforcing the belief that pre-polls were biased. As postal and provisional votes – which favour Democrats – roll in, Clinton could take the lead, prompting the GOP candidate to allege vote rigging and media bias. Trump could then direct his followers to protest, with the possibility of escalatory behaviour resulting in violence.

The outcome may remain the same even if Trump concedes defeat. The majority of his supporters already think the polls, media, and the election itself are skewed against them. It would be no stretch to assume the GOP candidate had been caught up in the vast conspiracy, even against his will. It would then only take a small spark to set the blaze, and there are individuals willing to provide the flame: on October 16, a GOP office in North Carolina was firebombed, and on November 2, a black church in Mississippi was burned down and “Vote Trump” painted on the walls. Similar actions on Election Day may be enough to instigate escalatory confrontations between the two sides.

Widespread political violence in the US seems inconceivable. Indeed, the risk is small as the majority of the threats are likely bluster. However, that it exists at all is a major concern. Were the election taking place in any other country, international observers would be advising federal authorities to enact preventative measures and cautioning Trump to allay his followers’ fears. Yet Trump’s rhetoric and allegations have fostered an environment that is conducive to the probability of electoral violence. Whether or not he concedes defeat may now be irrelevant.

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