Donald Trump continues to question the integrity of the United States presidential election based on unsubstantiated claims and outlandish allegations. Such claims do more than erode America’s democratic norms and institutions – they endanger American lives.
Trump’s narrative about massive voter fraud and a “stolen election” signals to his supporters that the Biden-Harris administration is illegitimate and could encourage violence against the forces that supposedly helped Biden “steal” the White House.
Trump’s refusal to accept the election outcome delayed the presidential transition, prompting more than 100 former national security officials from four Republican administrations, including President Trump’s, to sign a letter warning that the delay threatened American national security. The officials argued this posed “a significant risk to our national security, at a time when the US confronts a global pandemic and faces serious threats from global adversaries, terrorist groups, and other forces”. The risks were not simply hypothetical, they warned, pointing to the 9/11 Commission Report which identified a shortened transition time between the Clinton and Bush administrations as jeopardising the national security community’s ability to defend against al-Qaeda in the months before 9/11. The transition is now under way, but Trump continues to spew misinformation about the election.
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The national security officials’ concerns are alarming, but they are neither the most likely nor most dangerous consequence of the president’s continuing lies. Trump’s repeated false claims add fuel to the already simmering fire of right-wing extremism in America. The individuals and groups who hold such views, including white supremacists, could interpret Trump’s narrative to justify violence against the federal government, the Biden-Harris administration, or other targets.
Polling already indicates that an alarming number of Trump supporters do not believe the election was free and fair. Some polls indicate that as many as 70 – 80 percent of Republicans have serious doubts about the election’s integrity. One recent poll found that only 20 percent of Republican voters believe Biden actually won. Such beliefs, encouraged by the president, Republican lawmakers and conservative media, are troubling and could easily metastasise into violence.
According to the FBI, right-wing extremist groups now pose the greatest threat to American domestic security: not American Muslims radicalised by al-Qaeda or sympathetic to ISIS. This was never the case, despite the stream of television shows and Hollywood movies after 9/11 which regularly portrayed them as suspect and potentially violent.
Today, the primary threat is white and domestic, not brown and “foreign”. They are the “very fine people” Trump refused to denounce in Charlottesville and those he encouraged to “liberate Michigan!” Emboldened by Trump’s racist, xenophobic and bigoted rhetoric over the last four years and indignant because of a “stolen election,” some in these groups could resort to violence. Trump’s fantasy about “massive election fraud,” repeated by Republican lawmakers and amplified by right-wing media, is an incitement to violence for groups already predisposed to hatred and conspiracy thinking.
The Department of Homeland Security reported in October that white supremacist extremists “will remain the most persistent and lethal threat to the Homeland” and that their ideologies are “often reinforced by a variety of online content, including conspiracy theories”. The DHS specifically warned these groups could target “the election itself, election results, or the post-election period”. The October DHS Threat Assessment was published before Trump’s fictitious allegations and his supporters’ outlandish claims about malfunctioning and misprogrammed voting machines, disappearing votes, lost ballots, dead voters, and Cuban and Venezuelan communist election interference.
You don’t have to be a national security expert to see the dangers manifest in Trump’s rhetoric. The plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer after her stay-at-home order and the death threats Georgia’s election officials have received are disturbing examples of what the future could hold. The individuals accused in the Michigan plot discussed taking hostages in the state legislature, executing them on live television and starting a civil war. No, these were not ISIS sleeper cells in the American Midwest, but home-grown right-wing terrorists affiliated with a paramilitary group. Some of the suspects participated in an anti-Whitmer rally supported by Trump.
The logical conclusion of Trump’s narrative and the conspiracy theories peddled by conservative media are that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president-elect soon to be running a corrupt federal government thanks, in part, to the “Deep State,” “fake news,” Antifa, George Soros, and Black Lives Matter (did I forget Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the FBI and China?).
You also don’t need a well-organised or sophisticated organisation to cause havoc and mass murder. I live a short 20-minute drive from the site of the old Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It was there on April 19, 1995, that an anti-government extremist detonated a homemade truck bomb, killing 168 people, including 19 children, and injuring hundreds more in the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in US history.
The horrific bombing took place nearly two decades before I moved to Oklahoma. At the time, I happened to be visiting a friend in Beirut. I’ll never forget my friend’s mother’s first words when we saw the death and destruction on television: “I hope it wasn’t Arabs.”
It wasn’t. Despite initial media reports suspecting “Middle Eastern” looking men, the terrorist was a white, 26-year-old, US Army veteran. He had served in the 1991 Gulf War and became enraged at the federal government for perceived injustices, including the 1993 Waco siege. He was also a white supremacist who dabbled in anti-government conspiracy theories.
Trump’s unwillingness to consistently and unequivocally condemn white supremacists during his presidency, his rhetoric and his occasional winks to these groups have emboldened right-wing extremists who pose an actual threat to US security. Trump’s toxic “stolen election” narrative, parroted by prominent Republicans, Fox, Newsmax and other conservative media does more than erode American democracy. It endangers American lives.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.