With his whine about vote rigging, Donald Trump is challenging the foundation of his country’s democracy

Four out of ten voters agree with the Republican candidate, say polls

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It is easy to see Donald Trump’s charge that the election has been rigged in advance as no big deal – to be dismissed with the old schoolyard taunt, “Just because you’re losing.…” In fact, of the many threats he represents to America’s national and international wellbeing, this is surely the most dangerous. Trump is challenging the foundation of his country’s democracy.

No recent major party presidential candidate has ever talked this way: not Barry Goldwater, George McGovern or Walter Mondale, who all must have known well before election day they were heading for trouncings even more severe than the one Trump seems likely to suffer on November 8.

Nor the likes of Richard Nixon and Al Gore, who were beaten by margins and in circumstances that might easily have drawn complaints from the candidates that the outcome had been fixed: Nixon in his narrow 1960 loss to JFK, where rumours of ballot box rigging in Chicago, that determined the result in the crucial state of Illinois, persist to this day; and Gore of course in 2000.

Donald Trump is now trailing Hillary Clinton by 11 points, according to a new poll (Getty Images)

Gore won the popular vote over George W. Bush by 500,000. But he lost Florida, officially by 537 votes,and that tiny margin denied him the White House. No-one will ever know who truly won the state.

But with a statewide recount halted by the Supreme Court, and the earlier fuss over hanging chads and butterfly ballots, many would have forgiven Gore if he’d refused to accept the result. However, like Nixon 40 years before, he did accept it. Why? Because both knew that to have done so would have plunged the country into political instability, and dented Americans’ faith in their democracy.

Both understood that a successful democracy rests on unspoken principles. It’s not just the mere holding of an election, as the US mistakenly thought when it brought “democracy” to Iraq. The requirements run much deeper. There must be general acceptance that the process is fair, and not fixed in favour of one side. And all parties and/or candidates must share the belief that should they lose, the winner will play by the rules and give up power upon losing an election, as in a democratic system will sooner or later happen.

That’s always been the case in America – which is why it prides itself as an international beacon of democracy. But in many, perhaps a majority of countries it’s not the case. Which is why such nations (China or Russia, Iraq or Zimbabwe, Venezuela or Egypt, you name them) suffer variously from stifling one-party rule, coups and military juntas, or have populations either divided against themselves, or resigned to the belief that nothing can ever change.

And this is where Trump is playing with fire, though he may not realise it and certainly seems not to care. Daily, he fulminates against a system that’s “rigged” against him, part of a “global conspiracy” to deny him victory. His camp, led by Trump’s running mate Mike Pence, insists he’s talking only about the media, and if that were so, then fair enough.

The traditional ‘mainstream media’ is indeed overwhelmingly against him (though the biggest cable news channel, Fox News, is pretty sympathetic, not to mention rightwing radio hosts and an an army of blogs and internet sites like Drudge.)

Trump however goes further. Take a typical tweet this week: The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary - but also at many polling places – SAD. At many polling places? The implication is that Democrats, or the establishment that detests him, are already stuffing ballot boxes, and arranging for millions of fraudulent votes to be cast.

As usual, Trump provides no evidence to support his claims. What evidence there is, moreover, refutes him. US elections are localised, run separately in each of the 50 states, 31 of whom have Republican governors.

As for voter impersonation, according to one academic study there were just 31 case of it in all state and national elections between 2000 and 2014. In other words, 31 instances of vote fraud (and many of those probably accidental) out of a billion votes cast. 31 votes wouldn’t even havd tipped Florida in 2000.

And all of the above overlooks the fact that the most effective eldection rigging is currently being perpetrated by Republican-run states, with measures designed to make it harder for poor people and minorities –more likely to be Democrats – to cast ballots. These range from tough new voter ID laws, to a reduction of voting stations in poorer neighbourhoods and inner cities.

But Trump’s hard core supporters may take him at his word. They may follow his exhortations to go to polling stations and monitor proceedings (as many states allow), a recipe for election-day intimidation and violence. And 35 per cent or more of the electorate may be convinced  that the vote won’t have been fair – that if their man loses, the election will have been stolen.

The result: diminished public faith in democracy and, in an already polarised country, a further delegitimising of the winner who from next January 20 must govern the place. At this point, those universal but unwritten principles of democracy are starting to shake, and America’s example would be called into question.

Four decades ago it was different. On the night of August 8 1974 Nixon announced he was resigning because of the Watergate scandal. It was a triumph of the constitutional process and the will of the people. That evening, wrote his biographer John Farrell, the future Democratic speaker Tip O’Neill drove past the White House, struck by what wasn’t happening. Just one motor-cycle policeman directing traffic, no tanks, no mobs, no regiments of riot police.

The next day O’Neill spoke with patriotic pride to the press. “This is no banana republic. The rest of the world will look on in wonder at our orderly transition of power.” Will the same hold true for the upcoming change of president?