Donald Trump’s delegitimizing attacks against Hillary Clinton may not help him win the White House, but they could lay a foundation for Republicans in 2017 and beyond to obstruct her agenda if she is elected.
Trump is borrowing a page from a Republican playbook, after all, that dates back to allegations against President Bill Clinton and, of course, claims that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and actually is Muslim. But while his tactics set the stage for a repeat of the Obama era of knee-jerk obstruction, Trump goes far beyond even birtherism, which he played a large part in stoking during the 2012 election cycle, when he suggests that a hypothetical victory for Clinton in November could only be the result of a fraudulent election.
“Much more alarming is the language about the election rigged,” Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University, told TPM.
Trump’s insistence on delegitimizing a Clinton presidency in a generic sense is in some respects a continuation of the GOP congressional strategy of the Obama era.
“There was an effort not just to vote against everything that Obama and Democrats were for, but to delegitimize the process and and then take advantage of the anger that would result. And it worked like a charm in the midterms of 2010 and 2014,” Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told TPM. “A lot of this anger that is being churned up against Clinton is going to be used in the same way.”
But it’s undeniable that Trump goes beyond the dog-whistle intimations of past politicians by specifically suggesting that Clinton could only be elected thanks to a “dishonest machine,” or that she should have been ineligible to run in the first place because of what he and his supporters see as her criminal use of a private email server.
Chants of “lock her up” became the unofficial refrain of the Republican National Convention, with more than a few current or former elected GOP officials egging on attendees in their speeches. More recently, Trump has floated the idea that if he loses, it’s because the election is “rigged.” Now, Trump is also touting the idea that Clinton could have mental health problems and may not be “all there.”
“It’s definitely going to set the groundwork, if Hillary wins, for an ongoing, sort of at least simmering question about how she won, whether she should have been in the race,” said John W. Patty, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “That’s part of the narrative among some of the people chanting ‘lock her up’—it’s that they really believe that she got away with a crime.”
If current polling trends don’t change drastically, Trump’s insinuations may not be enough to turn the election in his favor. But at the very least, he has offered congressional GOPers a few handy devices to justify refusing to work with her come January.
In the past, while top Republicans may not have been on the front lines of the birther attacks against Obama, they didn’t exactly offer full-throated condemnations of the rumor-mongering either. The GOP 2012’s nominee, Mitt Romney, made a big show of landing Trump’s endorsement at a time when he was among the most vocal “birthers.” When it came to suggestions that Obama may actually be Muslim, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pushed them aside rather timidly: “The president says he’s a Christian. I take him at his word,” he said in 2011.
This time around, Republican lawmakers have been less willing to engage with Trump’s warning of a “rigged” election than they have been to join in chants of “lock her up,” perhaps a signal that even they believe undermining the public trust in American democracy is a step too far.
Whether Republican politicians choose to use Trump-ified lines of attack against a hypothetical Clinton presidency will depend on the fallout of a Trump defeat, political scientists tell TPM.
One determining factor will be the margin of a Clinton victory.
“If he loses very badly, it could actually begin to, I am not going to say delegitimate, but inspire Republicans who know that this is all bad to start pushing back,” Skocpol said.
Gregory Koger, a professor of political science at the University of Miami, speculated that a Trump loss would be just the beginning of an internal GOP debate over whether his candidacy was a fluke or a sign of a deeper issues in the party.
“What I expect to see is a civil war between Trump-leaning Republicans who say the message is fine, we just need a non-crazy messenger,” Koger said, versus a Paul Ryan wing of the party that wants to direct the party away from this cycle’s racially-charged, nativist undertones.
“In that conflict, I expect to see that some Republicans will try to find ways to work with Hillary Clinton and accept her as a legitimate president and look to compromise,” Koger said.
However, it’s also not hard to imagine Republicans using Trump himself— and not just his Clinton speculations, but the very kamikaze nature of his candidacy—to argue that Clinton only won because of their nominee’s obvious shortcomings.
“If leaders attribute [a Clinton victory] simply to a reaction against Trump, then the drumbeat of delegitimization is not going to be reduced that much,” Ornstein said.