What will Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters do if he doesn’t win?
“They’ll be angry,” predicted Ken Shaw, a retired lawyer, as he waited for Trump in a gymnasium thronged with noisy supporters in Geneva, Ohio, last week. “They’ll never accept Hillary Clinton as president. They’ll know she couldn’t have won it fair and square. It could touch off a revolution.”
“Civil war,” a man standing next to Shaw chimed in. “Could be a civil war.”
“Could be,” Shaw agreed, nodding cheerfully.
The faithful who turn out for Trump’s rallies, waiting for hours to hear their champion give his rumbustious stump speech, hold to certain articles of faith.
One is that they are the majority of American voters, no matter what the “corrupt” polls say. Another is that the “corrupt” media are lying about nearly everything. Still another is that Clinton’s Democrats are already trying to steal the election with illegal voters and rigged election machines. And that Trump represents the last, best chance to save the country.
More than two-thirds of Trump voters believe the election returns could be manipulated, according to a Suffolk University/USA Today poll released last week. A significant number, 43%, say they won’t accept Clinton as a legitimate president if she wins. (Only 35% said they would accept her victory; the rest were undecided.)
“This is how Rome fell,” said Elva Daniels, a Pentecostal pastor from Vandalia. “And that’s why people will be angry if he doesn’t win.”
Mistrust of this sort isn’t new.
In 1964, amid an earlier conservative insurgency, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a classic essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter wasn’t writing about mental illness, he explained, but “the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people.”
Its characteristics, he wrote, include a belief that the political system is rigged and that malign conspiracies are at work to thwart the popular will. That kind of thinking rises in “a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise,” he wrote.
But in most campaigns, such sentiments belong to the fringe. This year, the Republican nominee has made them his central theme.
“It is a rigged system,” Trump told the faithful in the Ohio gymnasium. “Are you starting to agree with me about the rigged system?”
“Yes!” Shaw and others roared back.
“This is an election between the small handful of people who benefit from the corrupt system and the great majority of American citizens who are the victims of that same corruption,” he went on. “Those who benefit from the corruption will say and do anything to keep it the way it is.”
In a speech earlier this month, Trump went farther, charging that Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors.”
Of course not all Trump supporters are ready to take down the system.
When I asked Trumpites in Ohio about former congressman Joe Walsh’s declaration that he would “grab his musket” if Clinton wins, most of them laughed or rolled their eyes.
“We have plenty of guns, that’s for sure,” said Jim Wood, who wore a brown baseball cap with the National Rifle Assn. logo. “But no.”
“We’ll investigate it,” said John Letki, a retired engineer from Rome, Ohio. “Congress ought to see if the election was fair. And if it was, that’s the way it is. We’ll live with it.”
Despite the predictions of a “revolution” or “civil war,” none of the two dozen people I interviewed said they were personally considering armed revolt as a real course of action. Their suggestions were considerably milder.
“He can contest it the way Gore did in 2000,” offered Tom Griggs, a Painesville steelworker.
“The Republican Party needs to clean house,” said Gary Mullins, a sign painter from Geneva. “They need to replace Paul Ryan.”
The future of Trump’s political career isn’t up to his supporters, though. It’s up to Trump to decide what he does next.
He’s never forsworn challenging the results, much less asking Congress to investigate reports of irregularities – a move Trump supporters will demand in any case.
And his campaign chairman, Stephen Bannon, who also runs the paranoid-style Breitbart News Network, has suggested that Trump intends to keep going after Election Day.
“Trump is a builder, and what he built is the underlying apparatus for a political movement that’s going to propel us to victory on Nov. 8 and dominate Republican politics after that,” Bannon told Bloomberg Business Week.
Having awakened such passion and created a movement that will look to him for leadership, it’s hard to imagine that Trump will simply fade away.