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Expert comment: The ‘Rigged’ US Election

Bryce Evans Tuesday 18 October 2016

Senior Lecturer in History Dr Bryce Evans is currently in the US on a research fellowship funded by the University of Delaware. Each Wednesday lunchtime until US Election Day, he’ll be providing updates on the Presidential campaign for Liverpool’s Radio City Talk 105.9 FM and an expert comment for the website.   

Meet Mike. A stocky US Military veteran aged 62, he has a neck as thick as it is sun-reddened. He loves his right to bear arms and he hates anything that resembles socialism, including wider health coverage under America’s Affordable Care Act 2010 (often dubbed ‘ObamaCare’). Mike is a private security guard in Wilmington, DE, and has voted for the Republican Party all his adult life. Until this election, that is. This time around, he tells me, his distrust for his party’s presidential candidate Donald Trump means he’ll be abstaining.

And yet he seems to match the stereotype of Trump supporter perfectly. So why, I ask him, won’t he vote accordingly? “Because I love my country” he replies. Mike explains further. He is worried that Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric risks him becoming a stooge for Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Although he agrees with much of what the property-mogul-turned-politician says, when it comes to national security and foreign policy he feels that Trump is simply too unpredictable.

The ‘Rigged Election’

Mike’s distrust of Trump has found reflection in the most recent polls. The latest, from the state of Utah - solidly conservative, solidly Republican, predominately Mormon – indicates that Trump only has a 1 per cent lead over independent conservative candidate Evan McMullen.

Trump has responded to this, and similar, indications by suggesting that the election race is not only being ‘rigged’ in his opponent Hilary Clinton’s favour by the mainstream media, but that such bias will operate at polling booths as well.

It’s an extraordinary claim, but one which speaks to the fact that this US Presidential race is unusually hostile.

On this score, it’s important to point out that not all the blame lies with the shrill Trump campaign. The US does not have a moderate, supposedly ‘neutral’ media giant like the BBC to oversee things. Instead, the battle between broadcast giants ABC (traditionally Democrat) and Fox (traditionally Republican) has become as heated as some of the exchanges between Trump and Clinton.

And then there’s the menacing actions up and down the country which point to a wider resort to direct action. Two days ago, in Virginia, a Trump supporter stood outside the office of local Democrat candidate Jane Dittmar for 12 hours with his firearm exposed. However, as the recent fire-bombing of a Republican constituency office in North Carolina shows, resort to such behaviour is not the exclusive preserve of one camp.

Desperation and Democracy

What many observers worry about is that the growing sense of desperation around the Trump campaign, as he continues to struggle in the polls, will incite angry white men with guns to challenge the result of the election on 8th November.  

Trump appeals to a strong libertarian streak within American culture – the corrupt federal government wants to tax us more, they want to take our guns. He also appeals to working class people who feel that it is too easy for African Americans to get ahead by playing the ‘race card’, and are tired of what they see as a decade of liberal political correctness that does not operate in their interests.

But those concerns are nothing new; where this election differs is the radical unpredictability of Trump, something that has alienated the Republican Party establishment and even rank-and-filers like Mike.

You know this is a different type of campaign when another Mike (Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate) assures people that their campaign will respect the election result only for Trump to undermine him a few hours later by claiming the election will be rigged not just by the media but at polling booths.

Trump’s resort to ‘Wikileaks’-inspired ruminations, often via Twitter, has led to an explosion in the humorous hashtag ‘Things Trump Claims are Rigged’ – with wits suggesting other spurious alternatives such as ‘door locks that are meant to prevent him walking in on undressed teenagers’, ‘the science that supports climate change’ and ‘his own multiple bankruptcies’. 

It’s easy to lampoon Trump, but the media circus around him is not just due to his policies or his indiscretions, it’s because he is a genuinely good performer. I’ve met plenty of black American voters, for example, who admit to liking him as a TV personality. By contrast the majority Democrats I’ve spoken – even in staunchly liberal eastern states like New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Connecticut - don’t like Hilary Clinton, viewing her as a merely the ‘least worst’ candidate. The Clinton team have certainly done their homework in the last few weeks in exposing Donald Trump’s past, but remain hamstrung not by their own candidate. It’s not just Hilary’s lack of ‘charisma’ that’s problematic but her knack, like her opponent, of offending huge swathes of the electorate; her past remark that she could easily have forsaken politics for a life of domesticity, seen as an insult to American housewives, is now regularly dragged up, as is her ‘basket of deplorables’ comment: now a badge of honour for Trump supporters.  

But there’s a greater danger here in Trump’s rhetoric. Firstly, as many have suggested, it calls into question whether his supporters will respect the democratic result and the peaceful transfer of power. But remember, too, that Americans are going to the polls on 8th November not just to elect a president, but to elect members of the House of Representatives and a host of local and state officials such as mayors. Rumours of ‘rigged polls’ tarnish democracy more widely.

Secondly, and much more likely than an armed Trumpist insurrection following his defeat, is a prolonged legal battle instigated by his campaign that will stall the swearing-in of the new President. Talk of ‘rigged polls’ seems a harbinger of this. And, again, the result of such a long process may be that people’s faith in democracy suffers.

We can’t rely on polls

Ultimately, the outcome of this memorable US election will, as per usual, come down to swing states - most notably Florida (remember George Bush winning here in 2000?) and Ohio. And all the indications are that it’s not looking good for Mr Trump.

So with much of his party against him and even died-in-the-wool Republican voters worried about where he might take the country, it would appear that all Hilary Clinton has to do in the next TV election debate is calmly rebuff Trump’s wilder accusations while coming across as the steadying hand.

If only it were that simple. If a week is a long time in politics, there are still three to go. If the polls are to be trusted, it should be in the bag for Hilary. But, as the results of the recent referendums on ‘Brexit’ and the Colombian peace process have shown, pollsters sometimes get it very wrong indeed.

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