Donald Trump’s Threat to Reject Election Results Alarms Scholars

Donald Trump

Donald J. Trump’s suggestions that he might reject the results of the American election as illegitimate have unnerved scholars on democratic decline, who say his language echoes that of dictators who seize power by force and firebrand populists who weaken democracy for personal gain.


“To a political scientist who studies authoritarianism, it’s a shock,” said Steven Levitsky, a professor at Harvard. “This is the stuff that we see in Russia and Venezuela and Azerbaijan and Malawi and Bangladesh, and that we don’t see in stable democracies anywhere.”

Throughout October, Mr. Trump has claimed, without evidence, that the vote will be “rigged” and “taken away from us.” At the final presidential debate, he refused to say he would accept the election’s outcome, and later joked at a rally that he would accept the results “if I win.”

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In weak democracies around the world, scholars warned Friday, political leaders have used the same language to erode popular faith in democracy — often intending to incite violence that will serve their political aims, and sometimes to undo democracy entirely.

The United States is not at risk of such worst-case scenarios. American democratic norms and institutions are too strong for any one politician to destabilize. But Mr. Trump’s language, the scholars say, follows a similar playbook and could pose real, if less extreme, risks.

“Almost always, public faith, public trust in institutions is eroded when this happens,” Mr. Levitsky said of politicians who accuse their opponents of stealing an election and refuse to concede.

Asked whether his study of democratic decline abroad led him to worry about low-level violence in the United States should Mr. Trump lose and refuse to concede, he responded, “I think we should be very worried.”

The dictator’s playbook

Mr. Trump, whether he knows it or not, is following a playbook — one that scholars could not recall being used before in modern American politics.

By placing blame for his likely loss on electoral fraud, he is telling his supporters not only that the results are flawed, but also that the democratic process has been seized by shadowy forces who are wielding it as a tool of oppression.

In this view, “your opponents are not just somebody that you differ with on policy, it’s that they’re somehow trying to undermine the will of the people,” said Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College who studies Europe’s descent into fascism in the 1930s.

Rejecting elections as rigged, she said, sends the message that both the winner and democracy itself “fundamentally threaten what the people actually want.”

This strategy, she said, is twofold: first, to present the country’s democracy as so flawed that a strong leader is required to step in to restore order; and second, to generate unrest that the strongman can wield as leverage.

When this works, it starts with voters’ concluding that they can restore popular will only through rallies or violence, which happened when Kenyan opposition leaders disputed election results in 2007. This was followed by widespread violence.

In extreme cases, people demand that the military step in to remove what they see as a sham democracy, which happened in Thailand in 2006 and Egypt in 2013. But most cases end with a compromise; for example, the losing side will win extra seats in Parliament or power-sharing within a “unity government.”

Concerns of violence

Because this strategy requires supporters to believe that the election was brazenly stolen, leaders will often spend weeks declaring the vote fraudulent before it is even held — as Mr. Trump has done.

“Merely talking about not accepting results sets off a chain of events that weakens the structure of democratic continuity,” Matt Glassman, a political scientist, wrote in a series of Twitter messages this past week.

Contesting a presidential election, he said, risks turning bedrock democratic assumptions — rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power, the sanctity of elections — into points of political dispute.

But not all leaders execute this playbook consciously or with an eye toward some specific prize, said Nic Cheeseman, a political scientist at the University of Oxford who studies sub-Saharan Africa.

Mr. Trump might be less Hugo Chávez than Julius Malema, he said, referring to a South African populist who challenged the legitimacy of elections this spring to save face after his party lost.

South African analysts have warned that Mr. Malema, whatever his intent, eroded popular faith in their country’s democratic processes. Disturbing political violence followed in the weeks after, with riots in Pretoria and two members of Mr. Malema’s party killed in Johannesburg.

Three factors shape whether accusations of election-rigging lead to violence, Mr. Cheeseman said: whether people consider political violence socially acceptable, the winning’s side willingness to appease the loser with concessions and “whether people genuinely, deep down, believe the election was rigged.”

The first of those three conditions is not present in the United States, which lacks the prevalent militia violence of weaker states, making large-scale violence extremely unlikely.

But the second works both for and against the United States: While Mr. Trump’s supporters do not have to fear political oppression if he loses, they cannot expect that he will be granted the vice presidency if they protest, which happened after Zimbabwe’s elections in 2008. The third is unknowable. If those conditions are taken together, Mr. Cheeseman said, the outlook is not one of doom, but it is worrisome.

‘I actually can’t believe that it’s happening here’

America’s democratic norms make widespread unrest unlikely, Mr. Levitsky said. Still, because Mr. Trump has spent much of his campaign challenging the legitimacy of the election, should he refuse to concede a loss, that could be “enough to provoke a fair amount of violence” from fringe elements.

As he went on, Mr. Levitsky’s language lapsed into a vernacular more commonly applied to very different sorts of countries: “American security forces,” he said, would need to move carefully to resolve any “electoral violence.”

He conceded that it was uncomfortable to talk about the United States as if it were “an authoritarian regime.”

It was one of many similar moments in recent conversations with political scientists, particularly those who are American but study faraway dictatorships and troubled states.

“I actually can’t believe all of the parallels. I actually can’t believe that it’s happening here,” Erica Frantz, a political science professor at Michigan State University, recently told The Toronto Star, in one of a growing genre of articles, blogs and social media posts chronicling political scientists sounding the alarm.

“Boy, is Trump giving those of us who study populism, fascism and the erosion of democratic norms ever more to think about,” Ms. Berman said.

Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, has written that even if Mr. Trump refuses to concede and wins nothing for it, his example could “encourage other losing candidates to challenge their own defeats, creating the risk of a more serious crisis of legitimacy in the future.”

“We see in Africa the way it builds up historical resentments, people’s sense that they cannot place faith in the system,” Mr. Cheeseman said. Over time, he warned, people who hear this message can come to believe that they do not “have a stake in the state” or “have a responsibility to obey the rule of law” that they are told no longer exists.

“When you start to delegitimize your system, including your electoral systems, your media and the police in different ways, then you start to have people genuinely questioning the value of the system,” Mr. Cheeseman said. “It takes a generation to rebuild that trust. This is not something that gets done in a year or two.”