Donald Trump's 'rigged' bluff

Remember, Trump is a con man, a charlatan, a world-historical BS artist

Calling Trump's bluff.
(Image credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Donald Trump has been perfectly clear and consistent on the question of how he will respond to losing the presidential election on Nov. 8. He claims the entire system — from how the media covers the campaign, to the way polls are conducted, to the very process of voting itself in urban areas like Philadelphia — is "rigged" against him. That's why Trump is keeping his options open. As he put it during the third debate, he plans to "keep you in suspense" about whether he'll accept the legitimacy of a loss. The only thing he'll commit to, in fact, is accepting the outcome "if I win."

That sounds irresponsible. Reckless. Ominous, even. If political candidates actively began to question the legitimacy of the political system and make their acceptance of the outcome of elections contingent on prevailing in the vote, that would be a massive and potentially destabilizing blow to the integrity of American democracy. In this, as in so much else, Trump is playing with political fire.

But what if he's bluffing?

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Yes, Trump is a fan of conspiracy theories, especially those with racist undertones, and so he might really believe the election will be stolen from him. He has a ravenous craving for power and can't stomach the thought of being denied the presidency. He delights in the adoration of the crowd and wants it to continue past Election Day. He appears to believe that his large rallies demonstrate that he's winning, regardless of what the overwhelming majority of the polls say. He may have a financial incentive to leave his most fervent followers revved up and in a state of righteous indignation, since they will then be more likely to tune into Trump TV, a new media venture with which the Republican nominee may seek to keep his empire afloat now that his campaign has decimated the value of his name for anything other than demagogic populist politics.

Maybe all of this means Trump really intends to dispute the outcome of an election that is unlikely to be close.

Yet I have a hunch this isn't going to happen. Trump is many things — a demagogue, a vulgarian, a misogynist — but above all else, he's a con man, a charlatan, a world-historical BS artist. And I suspect he understands the truth of the situation — that he's going to lose, and that the loss will be so big that any claim of it having been "rigged" will be transparently ridiculous.

But if so, why would Trump persist in suggesting otherwise through the final weeks leading up to Election Day? What's his incentive to bluff?

There are actually two — both of them functions of his political "brand."

Trump the candidate is, first and foremost, a fighter. He never gives up. He's tenacious. Ruthless. He'll say anything, do anything, transgress bounds, cross lines. If he's running for president, he'll mock his opponents, give them insulting nicknames, make fun of their appearance. If he's embroiled in a lawsuit, he'll attack the other side both inside and outside the courtroom. He'll even suggest that the judge's ethnicity renders him incapable of presiding fairly over the proceedings.

All of which, supposedly, makes Trump a winner as well. He's fearless, fearsome, ferocious. He always comes out on top, always prevails, always beats his opponents, who invariably crumble into dust when they're forced to stand toe to toe with him and confront his mercilessness face to face.

Both fighting and winning lie at the core of the Trumpian mythos and, apparently, at the heart of his appeal. That's why Trump may have concluded that his greatest chance of pulling off an electoral upset is to convince his most passionate supporters that he's more devoted to fighting and winning than ever — that his foes consider him such a formidable threat that they'll cheat to bring him down, that he will never accept defeat, and that he's bound to prevail no matter what the "results" appear to show.

Which means that all of Trump's talk of the election being rigged, like his threat to contest the results, may not be about what he's likely to do on Nov. 9 — but rather about trying to control what the voters do between now and the evening of Nov. 8.

In that case, all of the bluster could be a calculated political act that gets shelved as soon as the magnitude of his defeat becomes apparent after the polls close on Election Day. Dropping the incendiary bluff at the last moment and accepting his own status as an electoral loser would be arguably Trump's only act of magnanimity in his entire 17-month campaign for president.

Is he capable of it? There's no way to know. All we can say for sure is that it's ultimately up to Trump to decide whether he wants to go down in American history as a man who did the civically responsible thing in the end — or as the political pyromaniac who lit a fire that threatened to burn the whole thing down.

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