It’s become clear with his scorched-earth campaign in the homestretch of the presidential election that Donald Trump is preparing to lose. And lose big.
Nothing else rationally explains him going to war with the women who claim he made unwanted sexual advances, the sitting president and his wife, the Republican Party, a shadowy and unnamed conspiracy, the press that built him up and now tears him right back down and, well, everyone. At first blush, this would seem to be the final days of an unstable megalomaniac. And they might well be.
Yet when it comes to someone as dangerous as Trump, it would be prudent to believe that he knows precisely what he is doing. Knowing the election is lost, he is laying the groundwork to tell some 30 million angry and disaffected Americans that he was robbed on Election Day without a shred of evidence. That’s enough people to create a right-wing rump political movement that would also double as a lucrative, right-wing media empire. Trump is preparing to lose. But he has no intention of going away.
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Consider that if Trump is viewed over the longest term – the last 40 years or so of his public life – he has displayed a ruthless ambition, a quenchless thirst for fame, a passing interest in power for its own sake, an absolute ignorance of governing and, of course, a disdain for most people. He has constantly telegraphed these qualities.
“I really believe in trashing your enemies and staying loyal to your friends,” he said in 1984. “No,” he said when asked if he was a Bush Republican in 1988. In that same year, asked if he would run for president, he said he didn’t know, then added, “Do you want to see the United States become a winner?”
Trump’s ambition has been hiding in plain sight the entire time. “Well, if I ever ran for president, I’d better do it as a Democrat (rather) than as a Republican,” he told Playboy in 1990. As president, he said, “a toughness attitude would prevail.” He even propped open the door to nuclear war and said he would leave an American hostage behind in Lebanon. As for George H.W. Bush’s kinder, gentler America, Trump said: “I think if this country gets any kinder and gentler, it’s going to cease to exist.”
Fast forward more than 25 years. Donald Trump knows he is going to lose but he has no reason to simply go away the day after Election Day. With the firing of Paul Manafort, a veteran Republican operative, Steve Bannon of Breitbart News appears to be running the show in its final days.
Bannon’s Breitbart is no stranger to hate and conspiracy. It traffics heavily in both and is as much a “news” organization as is Alex Jones’ Infowars. Jones has spent much of his career feverishly imagining government concentration camps on the High Plains and broadcasting from beneath a tinfoil hat in Austin. But both men have emerged in these final days as the horsemen of the Trumpocalypse.
While Bannon theoretically serves as Trump’s campaign manager, Breitbart News is playing offense with “Republican Leaders Plot Purge Civil War.” Meanwhile, Jones publishes online “Busted: Trump Sex Allegations Full of Holes,” a story that reads precisely like a Trump press release.
Both men appear to be gambling their minor media fiefdoms on turning them into one major empire. Both appear to be willing to risk what hurt Rush Limbaugh dearly a few years ago: not the wrath of liberals but the caution of advertisers.
This is each of these men’s Achilles heel. They are gambling that the risk between now and Election Day is worth the reward after. Jones has featured longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone. And no less than Roger Ailes, dumped from Fox News for alleged sexual harassment, has reportedly helped Trump prepare for his debates.
A union of these men, with Trump at the helm, would present two opportunities: a rump movement of the far-right that will effectively destroy the Republican Party by cleaving it in two. More tangibly and lucratively, a new far-right-wing media empire would emerge from the ashes of the campaign. There is big money in conservative media for advertising, books, direct-marketing and petition-based fundraising. Conservative media’s dirty little secret is that it takes a healthy rake on all of it.
In this admittedly nightmare scenario, Trump might appear night after night on the flickering screens of television screens, computers and mobile devices, the flames fanned by the likes of Bannon and Jones. The American political system could become wildly imbalanced with only one functional major party, controlled by establishment Democrats who would then move to co-opt what would be left of genuine Republicans. This could allow a Clinton presidency to fashion a long-term monopoly on power.
If that’s what voters want they should definitely vote for Trump. For the rest, it seems the only way to forestall this dystopian future is to discredit Trump at the polls by crushing him, to deal him such a devastating loss that his claims ring hollow even to supporters who simply walk away from, yes, a loser.
Trump knows he will lose. But he believes he can still, as always, capitalize richly. For the sake of the democracy, defeating Trump is not enough. Only destroying his movement and his prospects will do.
Richard Parker is a journalist, author and lecturer-of-practice at Texas State University. He wrote this for the Dallas Morning News.