In the 1990s, then House Majority Leader Dick Armey used to refer to Bill Clinton in conversation with Democrats as "your president," as though acknowledging Clinton to be the president of the whole country were so repugnant that Armey could not bear to say the words. As Bob Dole later said, "We had a pretty hard-right group in the party who were just never going to accept him" — not like him or respect him, but just accept that he should be treated like the president, however much you might disagree with him.
In the time since, the idea that a Democrat could not possibly be a legitimate president spread from the hard-right to become mainstream thought within the broader right. With Barack Obama, much of that energy was directed toward propagating the lie that Obama is a usurper because he is literally not an American. So if Hillary Clinton wins next Tuesday's election and becomes the 45th president of the United States, how will Republicans maintain that she isn't really the president either?
As near as I can tell, there isn't much controversy about the fact that Clinton is a natural born citizen, has attained the age of 35, and has been 14 years a resident of these United States — the requirements laid out by the Constitution. That doesn't mean some on the right won't maintain that she stole the election, because they will. But others will probably be content to simply act like she isn't really the president, even if they won't say so out loud.
Consider the question of the vacancy on the Supreme Court, which opened when Antonin Scalia died in February. Upon Scalia's death, Republicans decided that Barack Obama had no right to fill his seat — who does he think he is, the president or something? — so they refused to consider Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland. Instead, they insisted, it was vital that the people weigh in with the election to be held nine months later, so that the next president could fill the vacancy.
But as that election approached and it appeared that Hillary Clinton would be the one making that choice, some began to experience second thoughts. "What's wrong with eight justices anyway?" they began to ask themselves. Wouldn't it just be better if we wait to fill the seat until we have a real president? You know, a Republican one?
So first John McCain made a noble stand. "I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up," he said. "This is where we need the majority" in the Senate, because then the seat would simply sit unfilled until a Republican occupied the Oval Office. While McCain later walked back his remarks (a bit), he wouldn't be alone for long. Last week Ted Cruz suggested that he's on board with leaving the seat open, and some conservative writers emerged to testify to the idea's prudence and wisdom. And now Richard Burr, fighting to hold his Senate seat from North Carolina, says, "if Hillary Clinton becomes president, I am going to do everything I can do to make sure four years from now, we still got an opening on the Supreme Court."
Today those statements may sound alarming. But if Clinton is elected and Republicans hold the Senate, I promise you that this will in short order become the nearly universal position among Republicans.
No one will say they're doing it because they refuse to accept that Clinton is the legitimate president. And though Democrats will fume, they would have no legal recourse, since the Constitution does not actually mandate the size of the Court; it just says that the Senate has to advise and consent on nominations. Well, Republicans will say, we're advising you that we're withholding our consent.
And if that violates longstanding norms of how the government is supposed to function? They won't care. This is a party that has spent years subverting norms of conduct, whether about filibustering everything or shutting down the government or weaponizing the national debt. And they just went through an election led by a man who took a flamethrower to accepted norms, who refused to release his tax returns, encouraged violence at his rallies, and led chants demanding that his opponent be jailed. You think Republicans who spent the last few months defending Donald Trump are going to feel bound to traditions of courtesy and reasonable behavior?
And even if the more genteel Republicans won't dwell on the conduct of the 2016 election, all Trump's talk about how everything was "rigged" against him is going to persist in the minds of his supporters, to the point where it could become almost an obsession. Talk radio will fill with conspiracy theories about how Democrats stole the vote from its rightful victor. Every ridiculous story from anywhere in the country (A lady in Waukesha says she saw an election official throw her ballot in the trash!) will get its own 12-part series on Fox.
Watch carefully what happens in the next few days. Battles on the ground between Republicans trying to intimidate, challenge, and discourage people from voting and Democrats trying to beat back those efforts are going to become increasingly intense. They'll be going on in courtrooms and election offices but also on the streets, and don't be surprised if tempers flare and a few punches get thrown.
By the time it's over, many Republicans will have convinced themselves that the fix was in, just like Trump warned them. They'll repeatedly harken back to the controversy, no matter the actual facts, as proof that Clinton and her thugs stole the election. This will go on for years.
And it will become one more justification for not treating Hillary Clinton with the respect due her office. She may call herself the president, they'll say to themselves and each other, but that doesn't mean we have to treat her like she is.