The starkest divide in this election is a new one, between white voters who have a college education and those who do not, and in each camp there is an uncertainty about what the other is capable of. Donald Trump’s supporters fear that the Clintonites are capable of rigging the election; liberals worry that, if Trump loses, some of his backers will resort to mass protests, or even violence. Trump himself is responsible for both uncertainties, having made the possibility of a rigged election the central drama of his speeches, and having refused to say whether he would accept the outcome of a vote in which he lost. Trump’s approach to conspiracy-mongering is squirmy—his accusations are often couched in the indirect language of what is possible, or of what “many people are saying”—and so it has not been easy to pin down the candidate on what he will say if he loses. In the third debate, Chris Wallace, the moderator, kept pressing the Republican nominee about whether he’d accept the outcome. “I’ll keep you in suspense,” Trump said, finally, and he has.
Hardly anyone has backed Trump’s talk about a rigged election. Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, and an outspoken Trump opponent, called it “beyond the pale” on Twitter, and other members of the Republican establishment, regardless of their stance on Trump, echoed the sentiment. So, in more muted ways, did most of the candidate’s team. Mike Pence, the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee, has distanced himself from the conspiracy talk. So has Trump’s beleagured campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway. So has his daughter Ivanka. If there is instability after Election Day, it will look little like 2000, when the entire Republican Party backed its nominee through the recount process. Instead, it will depend on the murkiest element of this election, the power that Trump personally has over his supporters.
There has long been some fear about this relationship, mostly because of the extreme scenes at Trump’s rallies. For six months, beginning just before last Thanksgiving, when a crowd at a rally in Birmingham beat and dragged a protester, Trump supporters kept roughing up protesters, especially black protesters, and Trump kept egging them on. By February, in Cedar Rapids, Trump was telling his audience to “knock the crap out of” a protester and offered to pay the legal fees. In March, a crowd shoved a University of Louisville student out of a Kentucky rally, cursing her. Eight days later, a seventy-eight-year-old Trump supporter punched an activist in Fayetteville, and said, “Next time, we might have to kill him.” Two days after the Fayetteville incident, there were so many clashes between Trump supporters and protesters in a University of Illinois arena that the candidate cancelled the event.
In the spring and early summer, fears of violence focussed on the Republican National Convention, which was to be held in Cleveland in mid-July. A group called Bikers for Trump promised to take advantage of Ohio’s open-carry laws to patrol the streets, armed, on the lookout for “agitators.” Protesters were told to expect thousands of counter-protesters. Nine-foot-high fences were set up downtown, to separate opposing crowds, and eight thousand police officers were brought in from across the country to support the local cops. The head of Cleveland’s police union asked John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, for a temporary repeal of the open-carry ordinance, out of concern that the officers would not to be able to control armed crowds. (Kasich rejected the request, causing even more alarm.)
But, for the whole week, cops and cameramen vastly outnumbered the protesters, on both sides. The reporters who had been assigned to cover street action, and who in some cases brought gas masks and bulletproof vests, turned out to be part of a panopticon with little to observe. At one point, Alex Jones, the stoutconspiracist radio host, marched into a left-wing protest and started shoving people, but there were no scary scenes, only surreal ones, of calm protesters walking past bike cops, who had assembled in line formations, prepared for a mob. The Bikers for Trump quickly dissolved into the normal Convention crowds, the thousands and thousands of lawyers. There was no horde.
One way to make sense of all of this is to conclude that Trump’s rallies—with their anger and physicality—are not representative of conservative emotion but, rather, a temporary theatre in which his supporters can act out more-extreme versions of themselves. They function in part as safe spaces for the anti-political-correctness crowd, much as talk radio and local Tea Party gatherings have. Even in the spring, when the rallies regularly erupted into violence, there were some signs that Trump supporters would not be capable of acting this way outside of the arenas. In March, after footage emerged of men pushing and shouting at the University of Louisville student, a young woman named Kashiya Nwanguma, reporters identified and tracked down one of them. He turned out to be a member of the Korean War Veterans Association named Al Bamberger, who was full of regret for his actions.“I was caught up in the frenzy,” he said.
Trump has had a catastrophic month, with his refusal to say that he will accept the results of the election and the mounting sexual-harassment and assault allegations against him. And yet, as these events have further alienated him from the mainstream of his party, he has seemed to take many of his supporters with him. After House Speaker Paul Ryan told Republican lawmakers that he would no longer defend the candidate, on October 10th, his approval rating dropped by twenty-eight points among Republicans, and forty-four points among Trump supporters, according to a poll by The Economist. An ABC poll conducted at the end of last week found that thirty-nine per cent of likely voters thought that a rigged election was a “legitimate concern”—which was almost exactly the same percentage of people who told ABC that they planned to vote for Trump. That Trump’s party and even inner circle do not back him, and that there has been (as the Times pointed out) no organization for any action after the election, seems to make instability less likely. But Trump’s talk during the past week means that November 8th is not the only date that matters; November 9th bears watching, too. The campaign, as it ends, is returning to the question with which it began: whether Trump’s supporters will believe him over everyone else.