Donald J. Trump’s suggestions that he might reject the results of the American election as illegitimate have unnerved scholars on democratic decline, who say his language echoes that of dictators who seize power by force and firebrand populists who weaken democracy for personal gain. “To a political scientist who studies authoritarianism, it’s a shock,” said Steven Levitsky, a professor at Harvard. “This is the stuff that we see in Russia and Venezuela and Azerbaijan and Malawi and Bangladesh, and that we don’t see in stable democracies anywhere.” Throughout October, Mr. Trump has claimed, without evidence, that the vote will be “rigged” and “taken away from us.” At the final presidential debate, he refused to say he would accept the election’s outcome, and later joked at a rally that he would accept the results “if I win.” In weak democracies around the world, scholars warned Friday, political leaders have used the same language to erode popular faith in democracy — often intending to incite violence that will serve their political aims, and sometimes to undo democracy entirely. The United States is not at risk of such worst-case scenarios. American democratic norms and institutions are too strong for any one politician to destabilize. But Mr. Trump’s language, the scholars say, follows a similar playbook and could pose real, if less extreme, risks.
“Almost always, public faith, public trust in institutions is eroded when this happens,” Mr. Levitsky said of politicians who accuse their opponents of stealing an election and refuse to concede.
Asked whether his study of democratic decline abroad led him to worry about low-level violence in the United States should Mr. Trump lose and refuse to concede, he responded, “I think we should be very worried.”
Mr. Trump, whether he knows it or not, is following a playbook — one that scholars could not recall being used before in modern American politics. By placing blame for his likely loss on electoral fraud, he is telling his supporters not only that the results are flawed, but also that the democratic process has been seized by shadowy forces who are wielding it as a tool of oppression.