The following essay is by Takeaway Washington Correspondent Todd Zwillich. Click on the 'Listen' button above to hear the audio version.
Conceding an election after a hard-fought race is an American political tradition. Mitt Romney did it. John McCain did it. So did John Kerry, Al Gore, and pretty much every other presidential runner-up in modern history. That's how the orderly and peaceful transition of power works: The acknowledgement from the loser that though they lost, the winner won fair and square and is rightfully the president.
But throughout this presidential election, Republican nominee Donald Trump has been doing something very different: warning his supporters that the election may be stolen from them.
“I'm telling you, November 8th, we better be careful because that election is going to be rigged and I hope the Republicans are watching closely or it's going to be taken away from us," Trump said in August.
From rallies to TV appearances, through the entire campaign, Trump is telling his supporters that if he loses it can only be because the election itself was rigged.
And lately, the warnings have included clear racial innuendos. In October at a Pennsylvania rally, Trump said, “You've got to go out and you've got to get your friends and everybody you know and you've got to watch your polling booths because I hear too many stories about PA, certain areas. I hear too many bad stories and we can't lose an election because of, you know what I'm talking about.”
That has more and more people worried that Trump is paving the way for racial confrontations on election day.
Usually, commentators have chalked Trump's increasingly bellicose warnings about a rigged election to ego. They’d translate it to, “Hey, if I lose, it's ‘cuz you cheated.”
Others think it’s a business strategy. Trump supporters, believing more than ever that the system is rigged against them, are a prime audience for something like Trump TV, the only media outlet with their interests in mind.
And everyone is worried that Trump is insulting the hallowed democratic institutions. He's not honoring the sanctity of elections or the will of the voters. But the true ramifications are much more dire. If Trump loses, what he’s doing is priming his supporters to go home after Nov. 8 believing that the election was stolen from them. And what does that mean? That Hillary Clinton isn't really president. She's an illegitimate leader.
Sound familiar? Maybe because it sounds a bit like when Trump said this in 2011 on ABC News:
“I would like to have him show his birth certificate and can I be honest with you? I hope he can. Because if he can't, if he can't and if he wasn't born in this country, which is a real possibility. I'm not saying it happened. I'm saying it's a real possibility. Much greater than I thought two or three weeks ago. Then he has pulled one of the great cons in the history of politics.”
The notion stuck with huge groups of voters, and polls prove it. And while it wasn’t the only reason, it was a significant part of why some Republicans in Congress almost instantly recoiled from President Obama. Not because the lawmakers themselves believed Obama wasn't American, but because enough of their most vocal constituents did. And the effect on those lawmakers was very, very real. It drew them further to the right and made them realize that if enough of your base voters think the president isn't really president, then you can’t be seen to support your president politically.
Then, finally, last month, Trump acknowledged, “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.”
But it scarcely matters. The damage is done.
And that's the risk here. Of course with Hillary Clinton, a claim of illegitimacy doesn’t have a racial component, but it can have the same message: She's stolen the election. She's not really president.
And that actually means a great deal of trouble for House Speaker Paul Ryan and any other G.O.P. leaders who need to negotiate with Clinton. If the president you're negotiating with isn’t even really the president, then what political cooperation would ever be acceptable to your voters?
It's a problem the one Republicans leaders should really be worried about. That in a post-2016 world, basic governing -- passing budgets, paving the roads -- with would-be President Hillary Clinton will be impossibly toxic.
And in the last 24 hours, Trump’s attempt to delegitimize his opponent has gotten broader and darker.
At a rally in Florida yesterday, he stated, "Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plan the destruction of global sovereignty, in order to enrich these global financial powers."
If you don't get the code in that language, refer to the anti-semitic classic, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was written in Russia in 1903 and details the make-believe secret Jewish plot to rule the world. It was also a huge hit 30 years later in Nazi Germany.
At bottom, it all goes to the same place. Donald Trump is methodically preparing his supporters to believe the election was stolen by an international conspiracy involving Hillary Clinton, blacks, banks, the media, and now Jews. And it was all made possible by a rigged election at the polls.
And he’s telling his supporters that democracy -- that the peaceful transition of power -- holds nothing for them. That’s a notion that’s far more dangerous in defeat than it is in victory.
Donald Trump's birtherism isn't dead. He's just rebranded it. It’s even more dangerous than before, and it's here to stay.