Dangerous questions

Last night Donald Trump was asked whether he'd accept the result of the election, and he refused to say. "I'll keep you in suspense", he said.

If you need someone to explain why this is terrible, you can read one of the many "I can't believe I'm having to say this" pieces that are out this morning about it. But the core problem is that Trump saying this makes it that much more likely that some of his supporters will resort to violence or intimidation on election day and in the days that follow, very probably targeted at people of colour.

It's extremely implausible that Trump is going to refuse to accept the result or lead any kind of agitation after the election. This is a guy who's publicly talked about what a nice life he can return to if he loses, and even mused about resigning immediately after being sworn in. He's going to become some kind of revolutionary leader? I can't see it. Even so, him saying this stuff makes violence against marginalised people more likely. The country would be safer if his supporters never heard him making these stirring-the-pot comments.

Obviously the number one way to avoid them hearing it is in the control of Donald Trump, who shouldn't have said it. I'm going to talk from here about 'making Trump say something', or putting him in a position where he 'has to' say it, so let's be clear: nobody is literally making him do this stuff, which he could easily just not do. Decent people, however, have to accept that Donald Trump's behaviour is out of their control - but also pretty predictable. Trump has been going around for the last week telling everyone that the election is going to be rigged, that non-citizens and dead people are voting for Clinton. He was hardly going to turn around and say that he'd accept the result of this completely rigged election. If you ask him whether he'll peacefully accept the result, of course he's going to say no, or at least to obfuscate.

If he says no or obfuscates, innocent people and the integrity of the election system are put at greater risk of being violently assaulted. You know that'll be the consequence if you ask him about it, because you know what he's going to say - for all that it's shocking, it's not very surprising given what Trump is like and what he's been saying for the last week of the campaign. So don't ask him about it. When you ask him about it, and he gives a waffly answer about voter fraud, don't press him more specifically on peaceful transition and make him more explicitly refuse to commit to accepting the result.

What good is going to come from this question and this answer? Maybe some people will be so horrified by Trump's response that they'll now switch their vote to Clinton, or just away from Trump. I'm honestly sceptical, and anyway the value of those extra votes at this point is surely less than increasing the risk of a violent challenge to American democracy. Maybe you just think it's newsworthy, that there's an important public interest in knowing whether Trump intends to accept the election result. But there's also a public interest in not having a presidential candidate use a prominent platform to not-so-tacitly urge his enraged followers to resistance. Maybe he'll say it anyway, so ultimately it won't make a difference whether you ask the question. Still, you don't know that, and you do know that if you ask he'll definitely say it. So don't ask.

That Trump believes this - if he does - is much less dangerous than that he says it, which is dangerous whether he believes it or not. People, including and especially journalists, should not be creating situations in which he has to say it. It's not worth it.

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