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Trump contemplates reality: He might lose

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Briar Woods High School, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016, in Ashburn, Va.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Briar Woods High School, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016, in Ashburn, Va. AP

Is it possible that Donald Trump has begun to contemplate his own political mortality? Is it possible that Trump, who had previously boasted to GOP primary audiences that he would beat Hillary Clinton “easily” — has begun to contemplate the possibility that he might lose the presidential election?

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Trump has suddenly stopped tweeting about polls (which are now showing Clinton taking a meaningful lead) at precisely the moment that he is escalating his efforts to cast doubt, in advance, on the legitimacy of the general election’s outcome.

Trump and his supporters have now said in a series of new public remarks that the outcome of the election is likely to be “rigged.” Monday, on the campaign trail, Trump said: “I’m afraid the election’s going to be rigged. I have to be honest.”

Meanwhile, longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone is explicitly encouraging Trump to make this case to his supporters. “I think we have widespread voter fraud, but the first thing that Trump needs to do is begin talking about it constantly,” Stone told a friendly interviewer, adding that Trump should start saying this: “If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election of the winner will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government.”

Stone also said: “I think he’s gotta put them on notice that their inauguration will be a rhetorical, and when I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath.”

There’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter to the effect that Trump is trying to delegitimize his potential loss in the eyes of his supporters. But I think this goes further than that: It’s also about delegitimizing the Hillary Clinton presidency, should she win.

Indeed, it bears recalling the GOP convention itself was to no small degree framed around this idea. The chants of “lock her up” at the convention, which were specifically encouraged and assented to by speakers on the stage, were at bottom about precisely that. Though a variety of investigations have failed to produce evidence of any criminal behavior by Clinton, those egged-on “lock her up” chants are about keeping hope alive, a hope that can be sustained deep into a Clinton presidency, if it comes to that. As Brian Beutler has argued, there’s a direct line from Trump’s birtherism to the “lock her up” chants — both are about denying the fundamental legitimacy of the opposition, in the most recent case in advance of her potential ascension to the presidency.

Now Trump and his top supporters have taken this a step further, explicitly saying that the process by which Clinton will have been elected, should she win, will itself be illegitimate. It is obvious that Trump will only amplify this idea if the polls continue to show that he is probably going to lose, and that Clinton is probably going to prevail.

Given that a sizable bloc of GOP voters is apparently willing to agree with Trump on pretty much everything, it’s plausible that a sizable bloc of them will be open to being convinced that the outcome of the presidential election was illegitimate — and that Clinton, should she win, is not legitimately the president. Trump will presumably have something of a national following after this is all over — one that remains deeply in thrall to Trumpism’s nativism, protectionism, white nationalism, and all-around deranged conspiracy-mongering — and it’s not hard to imagine Trump continuing to speak to that following by castigating President Clinton’s illegitimacy.

Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders should be asked whether they think it is appropriate for Trump to be trying to persuade millions of his supporters — millions of Republican voters — that the outcome of the presidential election is shaping up as a potentially illegitimate one.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant for The Washington Post.