Donald Trump has a plan to win even if he loses, which is looking more likely by the day. You can hear him lay out the strategy every time he climbs a stage in these final weeks of the campaign. At a brisk October outdoor rally in a parking lot behind a Toyota dealership in New Hampshire, he hammered home the message that has formed the heart of his campaign in recent weeks. “The election is being rigged,” the Republican nominee declared.
Just two days earlier in West Palm Beach, Fla., Trump even offered a unified field theory of the situation, proclaiming a vast plot against him, overseen by a group of faceless global elites, named media organizations, bankers, elements of the federal government and even his own party’s leadership. He has encouraged supporters to “watch” the polls in predominantly minority neighborhoods. “This is a conspiracy against you, the American people,” he told his supporters.
As the polls now stand, it appears there are not enough of those supporters to defeat Hillary Clinton on Election Day. National surveys show Trump with less than 40% of the vote nationally in a four-way race, with key swing states like Colorado, Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina all trending toward Clinton. Rather than overhaul his message to expand his appeal, as many have advised, Trump has concentrated on building a sense of grievance among the voters he does have. Republican party veterans have watched in amazement.
“He seems to be trying to point fingers at other people to explain how he loses,” says veteran Republican pollster and strategist Ed Goeas. Facing an up-or-down outcome at the ballot box, the candidate who built his brand on “winning” is looking for a third door.
“When you have someone as narcissistic and egomaniacal as Trump, he will simply refuse to believe what he did was wrong, despite the overwhelming evidence,” said former Ted Cruz strategist Chris Wilson. “So, in his mind, the election has to be rigged. If he can’t win then it has to be fixed. Unfortunately, the truth is, he has run perhaps the worst general election campaign in the history of American politics.”
Trump’s chosen path has also forced other Republicans to make clear that they will not follow him down the no-surrender rabbit hole. “Our democracy relies on confidence in election results, and the Speaker is fully confident the states will carry out this election with integrity,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan. Trump’s own running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, seemed uncomfortable with the rhetoric, saying Trump had meant to criticize media bias only and not the underpinnings of American democracy. “We will absolutely accept the result of the election,” Pence said on NBC’s Meet the Press. Trump was already correcting him. “The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary,” Trump tweeted Sunday, “but also at many polling places–SAD.”
In past failures, Trump has often found a way to come out ahead. In legal depositions, Trump boasted about making money even as creditors lost fortunes. He has spun his four corporate bankruptcies as demonstrating how he “used, brilliantly, the laws of the country.” He has defended a tax write-down of nearly $1 billion in losses as a sign he fully exploited the tax code. Even his failed marriages are recast as opportunities to flaunt his self-serving prenuptial agreements.
But Trump’s response makes sense if his campaign endgame is really just a new business model. Advised by former Fox News boss Roger Ailes and Breitbart executive chairman Stephen Bannon, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has held conversations about starting a Trump media entity after the campaign, according to two people familiar with the preliminary talks. Some senior Republicans believe Trump’s next endeavor will be less about money than about score settling. Most failed presidential candidates yield the spotlight to the victor, but Trump has toyed with launching a PAC to exact revenge on disloyal Republicans.
And with a grip on a substantial bloc of the GOP base, Trump could wield his new megaphone to shape the direction of the party for years to come.
This appears in the October 31, 2016 issue of TIME.