The night Mitt Romney lost, Donald Trump tweeted.
About 20 minutes after polls closed on the West Coast, television networks called the election for President Obama. Like Karl Rove, who’d just been told that Fox News had called Ohio against the Republican, Trump was incredulous. “He lost the popular vote by a lot and won the election,” he tweeted. “We should have a revolution in this country!”
Over the next half hour, he continued.
The phoney electoral college made a laughing stock out of our nation. The loser one! We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!
Lets fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice! The world is laughing at us. More votes equals a loss … revolution! This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy! Our country is now in serious and unprecedented trouble … like never before. The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.
The tweets about “revolution” were deleted that night. Most of the others, including the one about how “we can’t let this happen,” remain.
Trump’s assertion that Obama had “lost the popular vote by a lot” was incorrect, though by 11 p.m., the votes had not all been counted yet. In the end, Obama won by about 5 million votes.
The first time Obama won, in 2008, there were similar rumors about the election results being fraudulent — despite the margin of victory that year being nearly twice as large. When George W. Bush won reelection in 2004, rumors about rigged voting machines were rampant. It’s probably not a surprise that this followed the historically close (and questionably resolved) election of 2000. But these conspiracy theories stayed mostly at the boundaries of partisan politics.
Which is where the Trump campaign was born. So it’s probably not a big surprise that Trump embraced the idea in 2012 — or that, at a campaign stop on Monday, he warned that he thought the 2016 election might be stolen, too.
“Bernie, poor Bernie. He looked so upset. You know what? He made a mistake. He shouldn’t have made a deal,” Trump said about the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
“He lost, he lost. First of all, it was rigged,” he continued. “And I’m afraid the election’s going to be rigged. I have to be honest.”
Why? Because he thinks the system in the primary was rigged against him, which, of course, it wasn’t. Trump actually won a disproportionate number of delegates in most states, which is why he was able to cement his nomination in a way that Clinton wasn’t. (Trump got well under 50 percent of the Republican vote. Clinton got a majority.)
There’s a big difference between Twitter personality Trump complaining about the results in 2012 and Republican nominee Trump complaining about the results in 2016 — particularly given his past apparent encouragement of violence at his events.
At least one prominent supporter is already on board with the message. Over the weekend, long-time Trump ally (and one-time Trump staffer) Roger Stone conducted an interview with Breitbart.com, a website that’s been staunchly and unabashedly supportive of Trump’s candidacy. Stone openly endorsed the idea that voting machines can be and have been rigged — including in Ohio in 2012.
Stone encouraged Trump to start priming the pump on the issue.
“I think we have widespread voter fraud, but the first thing that Trump needs to do is begin talking about it constantly,” Stone said. “He needs to say for example, today would be a perfect example: ‘I am leading in Florida. The polls all show it. If I lose Florida, we will know that there’s voter fraud. If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election of the winner will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government.'”
“If you can’t have an honest election,” Stone said, according to Breitbart, “nothing else counts. I think he’s gotta put them on notice that their inauguration will be a rhetorical, and when I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath.”
Three days later, Trump mentioned his concerns about the general election process being rigged to an audience in Columbus, Ohio.
The problem with election-rigging accusations is that they’re usually offered independent of evidence. During the Democratic primaries, rumors of elections being rigged for Hillary Clinton were rampant, without any evidence of widespread fraud. Crafting a scenario in which fraud is occurring takes as little as a temporary glitch in results in one state to be credible to some.
For a candidate, the bar is even lower. The last time a federal candidate openly embraced the idea that an election had been stolen was Chris McDaniel in Mississippi in 2014. He had little trouble convincing supporters that fraud had occurred, but was unable to convince many others — or the state’s courts. But that was a primary in one state, not a presidential general election.
In 2000, Al Gore declined to continue fighting the results of the general election, despite having actually won the popular vote.
“I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country,” Gore said on Dec. 13, more than a month after the day of the election and after the Supreme Court had halted the ballot count in Florida. “Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road. Certainly neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended, resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy.”
He later continued: “I say to our fellow members of the world community, let no one see this contest as a sign of American weakness. The strength of American democracy is shown most clearly through the difficulties it can overcome.”
If Trump loses, and if 2012 or his comments on Monday are any guide — America may have another chance to demonstrate the strength of its democracy.