Rich Lowry: The worst word in American politics
For the past couple of years, the most important word in American politics has been the worst — “rigged.”
Emanating from slang back in the 17th century, developing into a description of financial fraud, and then branching out to apply to cheating in sports and elections, “rigged” had a breakthrough year in 2016, and it shows no sign of loosening its grip.
It is a word of grievance and conspiracy. It is a word of institutional distrust. It is a word of larger forces beyond our control taking advantage of us. It is a word that says, “We wuz robbed — and we will make the bastards pay.”
In short, it is the perfect term for a fevered era in our national life.
“Rigged” began to get its currency as a charge thrown around by the anti-globalization movement and left-wing critics of income inequality. The anti-poverty group Oxfam issued a report in 2002 on globalization called “Rigged Rules and Double Standards.” The word popped up during the heyday of Occupy Wall Street. So it wasn’t unexpected that Bernie Sanders made the “rigged” economy a rallying cry.
What was surprising was that Republicans embraced a candidate for whom the word “rigged” was and is a verbal tic, the all-purpose, ever-ready explanation for any setback or anything he opposes.
Donald Trump has charged, not to put too fine a point on it, that everything is rigged. “It’s not just the political system that’s rigged, it’s the whole economy,” he said during the campaign. The rigging specifically encompassed, among other things, “unfair trade, immigration and economic policies,” as well as the Republican primary (at least when he was losing ground), the Democratic primary and the race for Democratic National Committee chairman this year.
Since Hillary Clinton picked up on the verbiage from Bernie Sanders, both major-party candidates last year argued that the system had been manipulated by nefarious forces working for their self-interested ends, i.e., “rigged.” The election was basically a contest over which party had a better claim on the word. Yes, “the game is rigged,” Elizabeth Warren thundered. “It’s rigged for guys like Donald Trump.”
In the stretch run of the campaign, Trump warned his supporters that “we are competing in a rigged election” and demurred from saying in advance that he would accept the results. Democrats lamented Trump’s rhetoric as tantamount to the end of democracy, but when he pulled off a stunning upset, they immediately resorted to rigged charges of their own. Trump hadn’t really won; the election had been stolen in a smoke-filled room somewhere in the Kremlin.
The charges and countercharges contrast with the bygone era when national politicians avoided public allegations of foul play even when they might legitimately suspect it. Richard Nixon didn’t contest his razor-thin defeat in the 1960 presidential election, despite doubts about the vote count in Illinois and Texas. He thought it wouldn’t be good for the country, whereas now charges of rigging are the default. With trust in most American institutions badly eroded over the past 40 years, such accusations find a ready audience — and do their part to undermine trust a little bit more.
The idea that whatever we don’t like about our country is the handiwork of shadowy forces is a form of paranoia, certainly when it involves systems as large, diverse and uncontrolled as our politics or our economy. But there is a certain comfort in this mindset. It provides a ready, simple explanation for unwelcome trends or outcomes, and fixes responsibility for our troubles on an enemy. It implicitly promises not so much the creation of a set of truly neutral rules or more legitimate institutions than simple vengeance against those who are allegedly responsible for the rigging.
In other words, it heralds a particularly nasty politics, and, increasingly, it’s the one thing that unites the right and left.