It’s hard to say that Donald Trump ordering white supremacists to “stand by” to attack American cities was the most jaw-dropping moment of a debate where his performance was simply gruesome from beginning to end. Because there was also the section where Trump ripped into trying to defeat racism as un-American, and the point where Trump sneered at Joe Biden’s memories of his dead son.
Truthfully, Trump’s ordering the Proud Boys to load up their ammo cases wasn’t even the only time in the evening when Trump refused to denounce violence, or the only point where he seemed to be encouraging it. Over the course of the astounding dumpster fire performance, Trump repeatedly veered into statements about voting by mail that went beyond lies into a fantasyland in which mailmen were selling ballots and China was preparing to flood the nation with … honestly, that part isn’t clear. But when he was asked if he would tell his supporters to listen to the outcome of the election, Trump doubled-down on his refusal to promise a peaceful transition.
“Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period, not to engage in any civil unrest?” asked Wallace. “And will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified?”
Trump would not. In fact, he did the opposite.
Replying to Wallace, Trump gave no hint of either accepting the outcome of the election, or telling his supporters to remain calm. “I’m urging my supporters to go in to the polls and watch very carefully,” said Trump. “Because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it. As you know, today there was a big problem. In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They’re called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia. Bad things.”
The reason Trump’s people were thrown out of polling places in Philadelphia is because they were not poll watchers. As The Philadelphia Inquirer reports, Trump supporters tried to squeeze into a number of small offices that aren’t regular polling stations, but just locations where people can request or submit mail-in ballots. As the Republican city commissioner in charge of local elections said after Trump’s group had to be extracted from the tiny offices: “We don’t give someone a poll watcher certificate to … watch somebody fill out their ballot at their kitchen table.” The even bigger reason that extra people weren’t allowed to clog the entrance of these small offices was that they were repeatedly violating social distancing rules that were already limiting the number of people who could enter the locations. They weren’t poll watchers, they were poll blockers.
The process of appointing and locating poll watchers is just that—a process. Campaigns make requests, elections official provide credentials, inform the poll watchers of where they are allowed to go, and tell them what they are allowed to do within the polling space. What Trump’s campaign has been pushing is nothing like that—he’s encouraging intimidation and a breakdown in normal order.
But Trump didn’t end with just encouraging his supporters to descend on polling places. He made it clear he was ready to lead them in opposing any outcome that did not lead to his victory. As Wallace tried to get Trump to simply agree that he would follow the will of American voters, he utterly refused.
Trump: “If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that. And I’ll tell you why—”
Wallace: “What does that mean, not go along? Does that mean you’re going to tell your people to take to the streets?“
Trump: “I’ll tell you what it means. It means you have a fraudulent election. You’re sending out 80 million ballots.”
Wallace made several other attempts to extract from Trump a “then what” answer, but Trump only continued to claim that “they cheat” and “this is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.” Trump isn’t just saying that he won’t go along with the outcome of the election, he is already declaring it “a fraud.” Trump claimed that his name was on ballots in “a creek,” as well as a trash can. He gave a broken account of the nine ballots located at Luzerne County, Pennsylvania—an event where William Barr personally briefed Trump on how to act as if there were a serious issue, when the truth was ballots had been thrown out because of rule changes insisted on by Trump.
Biden was direct in his response. “He has no idea what he’s talking about,” said Biden. “Here’s the deal. The fact is, I will accept it, and he will too. You know why? Because once the winner is declared after all the ballots are counted, all the votes are counted, that’ll be the end of it.”
But Trump had already stated: “It’s a rigged election.” He’s not waiting to see how badly he loses on Nov. 3. He knows that’s no longer in doubt. Trump is no longer even concerned about winning. He is focused on holding on to power, which is something completely different. Trump repeatedly claimed that it could be “months” before there was an outcome, and agreed readily to the idea that he was trying to seat Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court because he expects that court to protect his power. “Yeah,” said Trump. “I think I’m counting on them to look at the ballots, definitely.”
Trump has already declared the election “fraudulent” and “rigged.” He’s already instructed his followers not to accept the outcome of the vote. And, of course, he’s told white supremacist militias to “stand by.”