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'Rigged election' claims: What they say about the culture of grievance

Understanding each other

Claims of a 'rigged' election fit into a broader pattern of rising political grievance as many voters feel politically and culturally disenfranchised.

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    A sign displays absentee voting hours at a voting site in Marietta, Ga., as a Cobb County sheriff deputy sits in his vehicle Monday in Marietta, Ga. Monday was the first day people could vote absentee in the state. Facing unprecedented warnings of a 'rigged' election from Donald Trump, state officials around the country are rushing to reassure the public, and some are taking steps to boost security at polling places because of the passions whipped up by the race.
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James Linzey is one of the many Americans worried about voter fraud in this presidential election.

“Especially if the results diverge from the exit polling in key battleground precincts or regions, Donald Trump should not accept the results, because this could be an indication of stealing the election by the Clinton campaign,” says the former Army chaplain, who was involved in the Trump campaign at the Republican convention this summer.

Some 41 percent of registered voters say fraud at the polls next month could steal the election from the Republican nominee, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll this week. Nearly 6 of 10 registered voters polled said the accuracy of the election results should be scrutinized.

This despite numerous studies showing that voter fraud in the United States is next to nonexistent.

It is one sign, some experts say, of what has become a deep-seated culture of grievance.

Before Mr. Trump began talking about the presidential election being rigged, supporters of Bernie Sanders were talking about rigged Democratic primaries. But the sense of grievance goes deeper.

Often, it is directed at the media. Why, many conservatives ask, has the national media largely ignored a new video recording that shows liberal activists crassly discussing how to incite Trump supporters to violence?

Likewise, “elites” can be the target, as was the case during the Democratic primaries, when the party establishment was seen as anointing Hillary Clinton despite data to the contrary.

Underlying much of the trend, particularly among religious conservatives and white working class males who make up a key part of Trump’s support, are breathtaking cultural, demographic, and economic changes – from the rise of same-sex marriage to the widening of income inequality. Put simply, the country is not what it was even a decade ago, and the onward march of these changes – despite efforts to push back – has instilled in many a sense that the deck is stacked.

“I really do think that what’s happened this year in politics is bigger than Donald Trump,” says David O'Connell, a political scientist at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., who focuses on presidential politics. “And most of this discussion right now, I think, has focused on Trump as an individual, instead of putting Trump in a wider social and political context.”

When pluralism becomes the norm

In part, Trump and Senator Sanders simply have given voice to people who have often been largely brushed aside by federal politics.

“So when Donald Trump goes and he visits communities in western Pennsylvania that have been decimated by the loss of manufacturing jobs, or to Youngstown, Ohio, where you’re still seeing double digit employment, I mean, those aren’t the types of communities that politicians have paid attention to,” Professor O’Connell says. “They’re low-educated, low-income communities with low voter turnout and they’re not politically valuable constituencies.”

But Trump’s appeal beyond these groups speaks to a broader sense of grievance, others say. The people who once dominated the national conversation are now expected to make space for other groups and voices.

“This reflects what I’ve called the death rattle of an implicit white Protestant privilege, in America in general and in the South in particular,” says Bill Leonard, a professor at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity in North Carolina, who has studied the religious cultures in Appalachia. “Religious and cultural and ethnic pluralism is no longer just a trend, it has become the norm in the public square.” 

When Trump says the election is rigged, it provides a rough-and-ready explanation for these feelings of political and cultural disenfranchisement, scholars say.

Baskets of deplorables

And the grievances are not all without basis. The mass media, run by more-liberal and urban elites on the coasts, generally celebrate liberal ideals.

At the same time, there is also a perception that the last social groups that can be freely mocked without social censure are religious conservatives and the white working class. They are either simpletons (or white supremacists), bigoted religious zealots, or a basket of deplorables. 

“And those people can reasonably feel that everything is kind of against them,” says O’Connell. “Other sectors of society are advancing, their wages are going up, they’re provided with more opportunities, yet these are communities that have been somewhat left behind.”

So as Trump flouts political decorum and traditions, he speaks to both their resentment of elites and their anger at the direction of the country.

For his part, Linzey says it’s more than that. He sees a real threat of voter fraud, suggesting it benefitted President George W. Bush in Ohio in 2004.

The Voting Technology Project, headed by Caltech University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, concluded the 2004 presidential election was accurate. But Linzey, who now heads the Military Bible Association in Escondido, Calif., says: “As an evangelical leader, I think I’m being very fair and honest and unbiased here when I say that it would appear that maybe Bush was able to steal the election that year.”

Hidden cameras and election fears

This past week, a hidden-camera video put out by Project Veritas Action, a conservative activist group, showed a Democratic operative explaining how he trains people to attend Trump rallies and incite supporters.

“If you’re there and you’re protesting and you do these actions, you will be attacked at Trump rallies. That’s what we want,” Scott Foval, identified as the national field director at Americans United for Change, is recorded saying. “The key is initiating the conflict by having leading conversations with people who are naturally psychotic.”

Mr. Foval has since been laid off by Americans United for Change, and the interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, Donna Brazile, said his actions “do not in any way comport with our long-standing policies on organizing events.”

Still, the video has been cited as evidence of a conspiracy. Such reports have only inflamed the growing culture of grievance, many say.

“Yeah, the religious conservatives are always mocked, that’s a given,” says Linzey. “I think it’s time that conservatives stand up and be strong... It’s tough enough to get fair elections sometimes in certain areas, what has transpired in the past with voter fraud... We need to stand up and not be cowards. We need all the people we can, all the power we can.”

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