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What happens if Donald Trump refuses to admit he lost in 2020?

(CNN) Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently offered a very blunt assessment of what Democrats need to do in 2020 to ensure a peaceful transition of power in Washington: Win "big."

Recalling her mindset in advance of the 2018 midterms, Pelosi told the New York Times:

"If we win by four seats, by a thousand votes each, he's not going to respect the election. [Trump] would poison the public mind. He would challenge each of the races; he would say you can't seat these people," she added. "We had to win. Imagine if we hadn't won — oh, don't even imagine. So, as we go forward, we have to have the same approach."

That might sound like exaggeration from Pelosi -- an attempt to gin up her base in advance of the 2020 presidential election. It isn't.

Since the moment he won the White House in November 2016, Trump has shown a willingness -- actually more of a proclivity -- to entertain the idea that there is some sort of broad conspiracy aimed at trying to disenfranchise conservative voters.

Less than a month after his 2016 victory, Trump launched this Twitter tirade:

"In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally It would have been much easier for me to win the so-called popular vote than the Electoral College in that I would only campaign in 3 or 4 states instead of the 15 states that I visited. I would have won even more easily and convincingly (but smaller states are forgotten)!"

Trump didn't then -- and hasn't since -- offered any evidence for that claim. (He lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by just under 3 million, the largest popular vote deficit ever for a president who won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote.) He convened a commission to study alleged election fraud -- of which study after study has shown simply doesn't exist in any sort of widespread manner -- but eventually disbanded it.

What Trump hasn't abandoned is his belief that -- some how, some way -- Republicans (and him in particular) aren't getting a fair shake in these elections.

"In many places the same person in California votes many times," Trump said at the official White House event in West Virginia on tax cuts in April 2018. "They always like to say, 'Oh that's a conspiracy theory.' It's not a conspiracy theory. Millions and millions of people and it's very hard because the state guards their records." (He offered no proof to back up this claim.)

Earlier this year, speaking at a fundraiser for the House Republican campaign arm, Trump again raised the specter that his side was being cheated. "We've gotta watch those vote tallies. You know, I keep hearing about the election and the various counting measures that they have." He added that Democrats won all of the close elections in 2018; "There's something going on," he said, telling the assembled lawmakers that they needed to "be a little bit more paranoid than you are, OK?" (He offered no proof to back up this claim.)

The point here is that Trump has a long record of making wholly unsubstantiated claims about election results. And that includes doing so in an election -- 2016 -- in which he won!

It's not much of a stretch then to imagine that Trump, if he does come up short in the 2020 election, wouldn't be willing to simply go quietly into that good night. For Trump, refusing to admit defeat and hand over power voluntarily would be the final sacred cow he could slaughter. He's built a political career on a willingness to break with long-held traditions, the venerated elements of our capital "D" democracy that have long distinguished us from the rest of the world. Trump scoffs at all that sort of stuff, the trappings, he would argue, of an arcane system put in place by elites who can't channel the will of the people like he can.

If you think that's overstating things, it's worth noting that Trump has repeatedly "joked" about changing the Constitution to allow him to serve more than two terms as president.

Last month, in accepting a gift from the Wounded Warrior Project, Trump "joked":

"Well, this is really beautiful. This will find a permanent place, at least for six years, in the Oval Office. Is that OK? I was going to joke, General, and say at least for 10 or 14 years, but we would cause bedlam if I said that, so we'll say six."

In a closed-door speech to Republican donors last year in Florida, Trump said this of Chinese President Xi Jinping: "He's now president for life. President for life. No, he's great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it's great. Maybe we'll have to give that a shot some day."

And then there was this "joke" from Trump in a speech to Members of Congress touting his tax law in 2018:

"We're cutting record numbers of regulations — we've cut more regulations in a year and a quarter than any administration whether it's four years, eight years, or in one case 16 years," Trump said. "Should we go back to 16 years? Should we do that? Congressman can we do that?"

HA HA HA HA...wait a minute.

In fact, Trump appears to already be laying the rational for an election challenge -- or at least the lack of a concession -- if he loses next November.

"Despite the tremendous success that I have had as President, including perhaps the greatest ECONOMY and most successful first two years of any President in history, they have stolen two years of my (our) Presidency (Collusion Delusion) that we will never be able to get back,
he tweeted Sunday night. "The Witch Hunt is over but we will never forget. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!"

Now, close your eyes and imagine this: Trump narrowly loses -- by 20-ish electoral votes -- in 2020. He refuses to concede, insists there has been widespread election fraud and notes that Democrats (and the media) have been trying to steal from him since he was elected in 2016.

Doesn't seem all that outlandish, does it?