Voters line up inside the government center in Fairfax, Virginia, on Oct. 13 to cast absentee ballots in person, part of a surge in absentee voting in Northern Virginia. (Antonio Olivo/The Washington Post)

Donald Trump’s accusation that massive fraud will deprive him of the election has engendered such blowback on both sides of the aisle that his supporters are pretending he did not say it. Trump for weeks has talked about a “rigged” election. On Monday, he tweeted: “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naive!” Remember Trump wants polling places in certain areas (African American strongholds) to be “watched” especially closely, a suggestion cheered by his most shameless apologist Rudy Giuliani.

Republicans are not buying this. Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) declared the election results will be secure. Vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence pretended Trump was talking about the media. He vowed to accept the results of the election. So did Kellyanne Conway (who seems to have shifted entirely from defending her candidate to defending her crumbling reputation).

Election officials, as one might imagine, are fuming at Trump. Jon A. Husted, the secretary of state of Ohio, told CNN:

Even Trump backers like Florida Gov. Rick Scott say Trump is talking nonsense. (“Our secretary of state, Ken Detzner, has been very focused on making sure we have a smooth election,” his spokeswoman is quoted as saying.)

Trump does not seem to understand that when he assaults the competency and integrity of public servants (e.g. the military, election officials), they are going to defend themselves. Trump is forever in quest of people to blame and look small so he appears big in comparison. Instead, he winds up sounding loony and whiny.

In the case of election integrity, secretaries of state object strenuously to the accusation the system is rigged. “State election chiefs want to assure Americans that our process is fairly administered and well-secured, with built-in structural safeguards to ensure honest outcomes and accurate results,” said Kay Stimson, communications director for the nonpartisan National Association of Secretaries of State. “Election officials treat allegations of fraud and election rigging — as well as voter disenfranchisement and intimidation — with the utmost seriousness.” She added, “Specific instances of impropriety should be reported, so that credible claims can be immediately shared with proper authorities under law, including investigative agencies and law enforcement personnel.”

This is also a signal that Trump’s stranglehold on the party will be hard to maintain after Election Day. (The taint is another matter, and officials who backed and apologized for Trump will face the consequences.) Once he is soundly defeated, Republicans will no longer have to fear the base’s accusations of sabotaging Trump. He can huff and puff all he likes, but to what end?

Claims of massive fraud and efforts to discredit the election system are preposterous on their face, but injurious to our democratic system. Long before Trump arrived on the scene Republicans helped manufacture an environment in which the talk show/Breitbart/Sean Hannity set actually thinks massive fraud is possible. Republicans insistent on ensuring the integrity of the election system with voter ID requirements (which are overwhelmingly popular with voters) too often made it sound as if impersonation and double voting are commonplace. They are not. For example, in Florida in 2014 the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher turned over 14 names of people who possibly voted twice. Roughly 400,000 people voted in the county that year.

As the Associated Press reported, a 2012 study found millions of out of date voter registrations or people registerd in multiple states, but “the report cited no evidence that those errors had contributed to any significant voter fraud. Instead, it pointed to estimates that at least 51 million U.S. citizens are eligible but not registered to vote.” (If you’ve moved from one state to another you likely did not “unregister” in your former state of residence; that’s not fraud.) Contrary to Trump’s latest hysteria, “Most experts say voter fraud is extremely rare in the U.S., with one study by a Loyola Law School professor finding just 31 known cases of impersonation fraud out of 1 billion votes cast in U.S. elections between 2000 and 2014.”

Responsible conservative outlets concur, although their argument that fraud is exceptionally rare seems to undercut the urgency of voter ID measures. National Review’s editors write:

The electoral process, from bottom to top, is managed by citizens and governed by a dense body of election law. Vote-counting is heavily scrutinized by party officials and independent monitors, and irregularities are subject to legal challenge. The voting equipment used is tested prior to Election Day and carefully monitored before, during, and after. None of this is to say that voter fraud does not exist, or that errors don’t occasionally affect vote totals. But to “rig” an election at the national scale would require logistical know-how seen only in Hollywood capers. To think that the same Clinton campaign that had trouble putting away Bernie Sanders has now arranged to steal an election on a continental scale defies logic — to put it mildly.

At the debate tomorrow, moderator Chris Wallace would be well advised to read Trump’s words back to him and ask:

-If you lose, will the reason be massive fraud?

-Who is in on the plot?

-Are GOP governors and secretaries of state part of the plot?

-What about judges?

-Why are you suggesting areas with lots of African Americans are suspect? Do you think African Americans are more dishonest than other Americans?

-Are the GOP secretaries of state denying massive fraud is possible lying?

If  Trump cannot back up his ridiculous conspiracy theory, he should drop it — or be exposed, yet again, as an hysteric and ignoramus.