The ever-controversial political strategist Roger Stone caused a lot of predictable headlines this week when he said there would be a “bloodbath” were Hillary Clinton to be sworn in as president. What got less attention was the chain of his logic.
Stone thinks that if Trump fails to win the presidential election, that will be because Hillary Clinton stole it. He explains: “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.”
Stone, here, is putting into words the kind of reaction that Donald Trump wants all of his supporters to feel whenever he rails against election fraud.
Stone and Trump base most of their argument, such that it is, on one man. Stone refers to him as “a mathematician called Richard Charnin.” For years now, Charnin has been best known as the go-to guy for anybody who wants evidence that voter fraud is deciding elections. He’s beloved in the corner of the internet which believes that Hillary Clinton stole the Democratic nomination from Bernie Sanders, or, for that matter, that George W Bush stole the 2004 election from John Kerry. When he’s not concentrating on who-killed-JFK conspiracy theories, he can generally be relied upon to say that the more left-wing candidate got more votes than the winner in major elections.
That makes Charnin a very strange bedfellow for the Trump campaign, just in terms of his political leanings. But even stranger is the idea that Trump would want his supporters to pick up Charnin’s voter fraud ball and run it all the way into the zone of democratic illegitimacy.
The bedrock principle of democracy is that it is, in the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln, government of the people, for the people and by the people. Presidents are elected by the will of the people as a whole, and then serve the people as a whole.
But there’s an intractable problem: determining the will of the people is easier said than done. That’s how a monstrously complex apparatus has been created in order to decide exactly which candidate, of the countless people who would like to be president, should end up getting the job.
Like any complex apparatus – indeed, like all of government – the resulting American democracy has many weak spots. For one thing, only about 55% of the voting-age population actually votes in presidential elections. For another, the candidate who gets the most votes doesn’t always win: just ask Al Gore. For another, Republican legislatures in many states have passed strict voter-ID laws with the clear intent of effectively disenfranchising the populations most likely to vote Democratic. And then there’s the whole bizarre institution that is the electoral college – the 538 individuals who actually elect the president, and who never even meet as a collective body.
The whole thing, as in all democracies, is weird and messy, with many ways in which it can be gamed. (For instance, a smart tactician will tend to concentrate their time and resources on swing states, rather than on trying to campaign across the entire nation.) If you want to become president, what matters isn’t some amorphous “will of the people”; it’s whether you get those crucial electoral college votes on the Monday following the second Wednesday in December.
Consider this: Both Bill Clinton, in 1992, and Richard Nixon, in 1968, were elected president despite receiving a mere 43% of the popular vote. Their elections were accepted by Republicans and Democrats alike as being entirely legitimate. What matters isn’t getting a majority of the vote, or even close to a majority. The only thing that matters is getting elected.
In certain elections, in certain states, it is possible that the game has been played illegally. Was there vote-rigging in Chicago in 1960, for instance, which helped John F Kennedy win that year’s presidential election? Probably. But, as Republican strategist Murray Chotiner tells the defeated Nixon in Oliver Stone’s movie, the Democrats “stole it fair and square.” The loser can appeal to the courts, of course, and can certainly nurse a grudge, as losers often do. But once the judges have ruled, the electoral votes have been counted, and the new president is sworn in, at that point the election is over, and the president represents all of America, however those people voted.
To think otherwise is to reject the very constitution which all presidents are charged with protecting. America is a nation of laws, where everybody is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Republicans like to think of themselves as the party of law and order, of respect for authority – and in the U.S., there is no greater authority than the Constitution.
And yet here we have a high-profile Trump surrogate (and former Nixon adviser) talking about some kind of popular insurrection should the election not break his way. Even Charnin himself doesn’t go that far: while he’ll happily say that many elections have been “stolen”, he doesn’t go on to say that if you stole an election then that makes your presidency illegitimate, or that it is incumbent upon the populace to shut any such president’s government down.
Charnin is a pretty standard-issue internet crank; his speciality is looking at the difference between election results and exit polls, and determining that the exit polls somehow do a better job of reflecting the will of the people than fully-tallied results. (They don’t.)
On his own, Charnin is mostly harmless. His accusations are serious, but they have never come close to being proved, and until they are proved true, they should properly carry no political consequence.
Roger Stone, however, has decided that the time has come to weaponize Charnin, and to use his theories as being, on their face, sufficient reason to bring down an elected government. If that isn’t treason, it’s very close. Is it too much to hope that Charnin will denounce him?