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Opinion: Trump puts America on notice again: If he loses, he won’t go quietly

When Trump says "it depends," here's the problem: He has never competed in an election that he acknowledged as fair.

Donald Trump has put America on notice: If he loses the presidential election, he reserves the right to encourage his followers to fight.

When Time magazine asked Trump whether the election would end in political violence if he loses, the former president replied: “If we don’t win, you know, it depends. It always depends on the fairness of an election.”

“If everything’s honest, I’ll gladly accept the results,” he later told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “If it’s not, you have to fight for the right of the country.”

When Trump says “it depends,” here’s the problem: He has never competed in an election that he acknowledged as fair.

Even when he won the presidential election of 2016, he claimed that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats rigged the count to deny him a popular-vote landslide, contending without evidence that millions of noncitizens had voted in California. The official inquiry he ordered up found no significant irregularities.

In 2020, when he lost to President Biden by 7 million votes, Trump not only claimed the result was illegitimate; he worked for months to overturn it, demanding that state officials “find” thousands of new votes in his favor. When his court challenges failed, he summoned supporters to Washington and urged them to march on the Capitol.

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“If you don’t fight like hell, you won’t have a country any more,” he told them. The mob responded by invading the building.

He returned to that apocalyptic theme last week, when he told supporters in Wisconsin that if Biden wins a second term, “we won’t have a country left.”

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“Joe Biden is destroying our country,” Trump said at a rally. “The enemy from within is more dangerous than China and Russia. … I actually think our country is not going to survive.”

It was as if he was priming his followers for extreme measures if he doesn’t prevail.

And it was part of a long pattern. In January, he warned that if his four criminal indictments prevent him from winning, the result will be “bedlam in the country.”

“It’s the opening of a Pandora’s box,” he warned.

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In March, he posted a video on his social media account showing an image of Biden hog-tied like a prisoner.

And for months he has extolled the defendants convicted of violent crimes in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection as “hostages,” promising to pardon many or all if he is reelected.

“He’s telling us what his intentions are, as he did before Jan. 6,” Juliette Kayyem, a terrorism expert at Harvard University, said recently on PBS. “The language is the language of incitement. … If he loses, we certainly know from what Trump has said — and we also know from what the FBI is telling us — that there are large groups and organizations that are preparing to continue the fight.”

As matters stand in the presidential campaign, that kind of 2020-style crisis may not recur, since Trump stands a good chance of winning.

The average of public opinion polls published by fivethirtyeight.com shows a dead heat in the national popular vote — but it shows Trump winning in all six of the most important swing states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

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Trump used a day off from his New York criminal trial Wednesday to campaign in Michigan and Wisconsin, where he returned to his warnings about an unfair election process.

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“The radical-left Democrats rigged the presidential election in 2020,” he claimed untruthfully yet again. “We’re not going to allow them to rig the presidential election in 2024. We won’t have a country left … 2024 is our final battle.”

For months, Biden has sought to remind voters that Trump, if reelected, would run roughshod over the norms of American government and politics.

“Democracy is on the ballot,” the president often says.

By reminding voters that he doesn’t accept the duty to recognize the result of an election he loses, Trump has paradoxically bolstered Biden’s case.

For some voters, this election may come down to a choice between preserving democracy and hoping for a return of the low inflation of the Trump years. They may not find it an easy choice.

A survey last year by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 38% of Americans believe the country needs “a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.” That substantial minority included 48% of Republicans.

When Time’s reporter asked Trump whether his rhetoric about overriding the Constitution and ruling as a “dictator for a day” might alienate voters, the former president disagreed.

“I think a lot of people like it,” he said.

Unfortunately, he’s right.

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