Three times in the past two days, Donald Trump has stood inside meeting halls before a teleprompter and tried on his Serious Candidate hat. And the harder he tries to prove to us that he should lead America, the more frightening the prospect of his victory becomes. On Tuesday, he lectured an all-white audience about "law and order" and the Democrats taking black voters for granted, all while standing just 40 miles from a Milwaukee simmering with racial tension following the recent fatal police shooting of a young black suspect. The day before that, Trump gave a speech about foreign terrorism that introduced us to something called "extreme vetting," a policy with echoes of McCarthyism that intelligence expert Malcolm Nance called "the single most un-American thing I have ever heard."
If Nance is keeping track of these "un-American" Trumpisms, there's something else that he should add. On Friday, Trump doubled down on earlier claims that the November election will be "rigged," when he told a rally audience in Altoona, Pennsylvania, that the only way he'll lose the state "is if cheating goes on."
If he'd left it there, we could almost laugh it off. After all, Trump said these words in a state that Democrats have won for the last six elections (and where he's currently trailing Clinton by an average of nearly 10 points); he isn't trying to win Pennsylvania as much as he’s framing the narrative for his eventual November defeat. The press is out to get him, Clinton gets a free pass, the election is rigged, and so forth. The Man so clearly targets men like Trump, after all. I mean, can a rich white guy running for president get a break?
Of course, Trump kept talking and turned what could have been mere whining into something potentially threatening. He told the crowd that both law enforcement and his voters should be on alert for this unspecified cheating in November. "We have to have the sheriffs and the police chiefs and everybody watching," Trump told the Altoona crowd, later adding that the only way Clinton wins in Pennsylvania is "if in certain sections of the state they cheat."
Certain sections, perhaps like minority-populated urban areas in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, or suburbs where he's shedding college-educated white voters? Given the swaths of voters who despise Trump, he's got a lot of ground to cover — so he urged his voters to prioritize vigilance over actual voting. "I hope you people can sort of not just vote on the 8th, go around and look and watch other polling places and make sure that it's 100 percent fine, because without voter identification — which is shocking, shocking that you don't have it."
As a matter of fact, Pennsylvania did once have a voter-ID law. But in the summer of 2012, the state's then House Majority Leader, Republican Mike Turzai, got a little too honest about its purpose. While listing off his legislature's accomplishments, Turzai included, "Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." The law was undone months later by a state judge, after the state admitted that it didn't have a voter fraud problem at all — meaning requiring an ID wasn't necessary.
So what, then, does Trump have in mind? Precisely what he said Friday night: deputizing his flock to make sure the election goes his way.
To that end, shortly after the Friday rally in Pennsylvania, Trump's campaign website was registering "Trump Election Observers." The registration form looks like a sign-up sheet for an Election Day goon squad, and evokes not just Jim Crow voter intimidation but also the legal shenanigans that continue to suppress the vote in our present day. Completing the form takes you to a donation page and triggers an email that says the Trump campaign will "do everything we are legally allowed to do to stop crooked Hillary from rigging this election." They're not really allowed to do much, though. Republicans tried something similar to this in the 1980s, in fact, and are now strictly prohibited from engaging in voter-intimidation efforts.
Campaigns have enlisted poll watchers in the past, and those workers are paid to prevent the exact kind of "rigging" Trump is talking about. Back in 2012, President Obama's reelection campaign launched its own separate voter-protection effort to counteract suppressive laws designed to limit voting for certain sections of the electorate (it even had its own app). But election law expert Rick Hasen told the Washington Post that what Trump is proposing is pretty much the opposite of Obama's program.
"I think the question is, what would he be organizing the election observers to do?" Hasen said. "He is gathering names based on the idea that these observers are going to stop 'Crooked Hillary' — his words — from 'rigging' — his words — the election. That to me does not sound like observation or GOTV [a get out the vote operation]." Trump's current effort more closely resembles the disruptive True the Vote program, an offshoot of the Tea Party that elicited complaints from voters that their rights were challenged.
It isn't difficult to imagine a Trump Election Observer doing something similar, if not worse. Trump has repeatedly deployed reckless rhetoric in response to protesters, the media, and his opponent in the past, so there is no reason to give him the benefit of the doubt here and ascribe innocent motivations to what he's doing. Voting restrictions are being struck down by courts left and right — six in the last few weeks — so it appears that Trump has decided to launch a voter suppression effort of his own.
It's likely to escalate in the remaining three months of the election, too, considering he's brought on Breitbart News executive chairman Stephen Bannon — whose job has been to run an absurdist alt-right echo chamber — as his campaign's new chief executive. (It's been a propaganda outlet for Trump's campaign; Breitbart regularly entertains a number of conspiracy theories about voter fraud — the same kind that have been showing up in Trump's remarks.)
Voters shouldn't let this slide into a sea of otherwise offensive and threatening statements by the Republican nominee. The Supreme Court's 2013 ruling has left this the first presidential election since 1968 without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, and that means fewer federally appointed poll monitors "to guard against voter suppression and intimidation." Some activists on the left, regardless of whether they support the Democratic nominee, are already engaged in voter-protection efforts with a decidedly different tone than Trump's "observers," aiming to provide "poor and working class voters with resources to confront the many ways in which the right wing seeks to prevent them from voting." He has made their job harder. So, I agree with him in one respect — law enforcement should be on alert for someone trying to rig the election: Donald Trump.