The list of outrageous things Donald Trump has said is now so long that it is, what's the word, disqualifying. From his initial statement announcing his candidacy last summer, during which he suggested most Mexicans were rapists and criminals (he allowed that "some" were good people), through his insulting the family of a U.S. Army officer who died fighting in Iraq, to last week's suggestion that the "Second Amendment people" might have a way to stop Hillary Clinton from nominating new justices to the Supreme Court, Trump has demonstrated heretofore unthinkable bigotry and stupidity, worse than any candidate for the presidency.
Yet, he has now topped his list of outrageous things with a new charge, the most insidious to date. He has said that if he does not win the election this November, it will be because the election is rigged.
The first time I heard him suggest this scenario was on the "The Sean Hannity Show," right after the Democratic National Convention, and I did not think much of it because it was Hannity who first raised the prospect and who egged Trump on. My reaction at the moment was to be repulsed, of course, but I put most of the blame on Hannity. My thought about Trump was that I would not want someone in the White House who is so easily egged on! Then, the next day, Trump repeated the suggestion at a rally. It has now become a staple of his interviews and makes a regular appearance in his stump speech.
I say this is the most insidious thing he has said for several reasons. In the first place, it reveals something deeply disturbing about Trump's personality, his utter unwillingness to take responsibility. When he derails his own campaign and distracts the entire country for 48 hours on account of his flippant remarks about the Second Amendment, he blames the media. Blames them for what? Reporting on what he says? When the GOP convention is widely viewed as one of the less successful conventions in history, Trump does not take ownership of the fact and pledge to do better. He simply denies the assessment and proclaims it was the best convention ever. Harry S. Truman used to say "The buck stops here." Trump does not what the buck is, let alone where it stops.
Second, questioning the integrity of our democracy is like playing with fire in a dry forest. Such questioning has been a consistent, minor theme among certain right-wing conspiracy theorists, led especially by Hannity. They make frequent hay of the fact that there were certain precincts in Philadelphia where Mitt Romney did not get a single vote, which only testifies to the degree of racial and political polarization in the country by ZIP code. Hannity neglects to mention that there were also some precincts in Utah where President Obama did not get a single vote. It is Mr. Trump's sometime pal Vladimir Putin who has perfected the art of vote rigging, not anyone in this country. No one who is running for the presidency should evince such a casual disdain for democratic norms.
Third, these false claims about the degree of voter fraud have already done great harm to this country. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization funded by the Koch brothers, runs into states when the Republican Party gets control of both houses of the legislature and rams through voting laws that make it more difficult to vote, mindful that such hurdles have a disproportionate impact on the poor and minorities who, for example, may not have a driver's license because they live in the inner city and have no car. These blatant attempts at voter suppression are rationalized by citing the need to combat voter fraud, which is scarcely a problem anywhere in the U.S. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated one such law in North Carolina last month, saying the law intentionally discriminated against minority citizens. Intentionally. The opposition some of us hold to the Koch brothers is not rooted in partisanship but in principle.
A side bar here. Every four years, our bishops pass a document called Faith Citizenship in which they write powerfully about the right and the responsibility to vote. Every four years, different bishops in different ways, speak out about the moral character of the issues. I have not heard they or the bishops individually speak out against these voter suppression laws as morally objectionable. Indeed, I have been somewhat appalled by this lack of public witness on behalf of poor people who are being disenfranchised. I wonder how many bishops are even aware of the nefarious things the Koch brothers do. They may think that other issues like abortion or immigration are more important than a decent respect for democracy, but democracy is how we hope to address those other important issues, yes?
The oddest thing about Trump's warning the election will be stolen is that it shows him to be such a whiner and a weakling. He tries to project an image of strength, but what is strong about blaming the media for one's own foibles, for suggesting scenarios in advance to explain one's own failure, about never taking responsibility for anything, including the words that just came out of one's own mouth? I don't get it.
A last thought. This fear the election will be stolen in which Trump now traffics is especially insidious because he is already appealing to people who feel alienated, people who already feel "the system" does not work for them. I blame Democrats as well as Republicans for failing to address the sources of economic insecurity that afflict the working class, which is not to say I blame both parties equally. But, there is a racial component to the whole "elections are rigged" meme that is totally a Fox News/Republican phenomenon. (Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin is a notable exception to the rule, having pushed to restore the Voting Rights Act Section Five that the GOP majority on the Supreme Court stripped away in 2013.) Voter suppression is now joined with questioning the integrity of the election process. It is outrageous in America, but such hostility to small "d" democratic norms have been seen before: Think 1922 and the march on Rome. The lack of condemnation from those who claim to be moral authorities in our society and in our Church is also outrageous. Normally, I think moral leaders should be more reticent than they have been during election time, but this year is not normal.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]