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Donald Trump’s epic meltdown, explained

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Campaigns In Cincinnati Photo by Ty Wright/Getty Images

Speaking to supporters in West Palm Beach, Florida, early Thursday afternoon, Donald Trump outlined a truly wild conspiracy theory in which a shadowy international cabal of bankers and media tycoons, working in cahoots with the FBI, is working to deliver the election to Hillary Clinton. I promise you, this really happened.

Trump started out sounding a vaguely leftist note, denouncing a “global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.” He said that this power structure has “stripped away these towns bare and raided the wealth for themselves and taken our jobs away, out of our country, never to return unless I'm elected president” and that “the Clinton machine is at the center of this power structure.”

“The Clintons are criminals,” he explained. Indeed, he argues it is “well-documented” that they are criminals but that “the establishment that protects them has engaged in a massive cover-up of widespread criminal activity at the State Department and the Clinton Foundation in order to keep the Clintons in power.”

Trump went beyond the vague insinuations that Republicans normally use on this point and squarely stated that the Clintons “have essentially corrupted the director of the FBI” — a lifelong Republican who served as a high-level political appointee in the Bush administration — as part of their conspiracy. He said the sexual assault allegations made against him are orchestrated by the Clintons, that they are false, “and the Clintons know it — they know it very well.”

On Friday, he said one of his accusers is too ugly to assault, a crowd of Trump supporters deployed the “lock her up” chant to argue that women who’ve accused Trump of assault should be jailed, and Trump alleged that Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim was now in on the conspiracy.

Trump, in short, is melting down. He’s also losing the election.

But while the fact that he’s melting down is certainly one of the reasons he’s losing, the more fundamental truth is that he’s melting down because he’s losing. He’s a bad candidate who is losing a very winnable election and possibly dragging many other Republican elected officials down with him. The meltdown is a coping mechanism to avoid admitting it.

Donald Trump is losing a winnable election

There was a time in the not-so-distant days of mid-September when the presidential election was very close. The media was full of breathless stories about the latest revelations from FOIAed Clinton emails, and Hillary made herself look triply bad by getting sick, covering up the fact that she’d gotten sick, and then getting sicker and getting caught.

Trump, meanwhile, had pulled himself together for a little while and was running something resembling a normal presidential campaign.

He stuck to replacement-level GOP attacks on Clinton, didn’t feud with anyone noteworthy, and successfully got congressional Republicans and the institutional GOP firmly on his side. He wasn’t their first choice and they weren’t entirely comfortable with him, but everyone was willing to give it a go in the interest of beating Clinton.

This Peak Trump era sparked a thousand takes about why Hillary was flagging against such a flawed candidate and a thousand counter-takes about false equivalence in the media hobbling her.

The truth, however, is that even at his best, Trump was underperforming where fundamentals-based models of the election thought a generic Republican should be reaching. He was a weak candidate running in a good year for the GOP, and he was close — but he was behind. And then his weakness really began to show.

Trump’s debate disaster

Donald Trump does not have Hillary Clinton’s knowledge of American politics and public policy. No amount of debate preparation would change that. But in advance of the first presidential debate, Trump didn’t even bother to try. The results were a disaster.

He started with a confident-sounding but totally nonsensical disquisition on trade policy, before shifting gears into a mode that was alternately peevish and listless. Clinton needled Trump gently on a range of topics while mostly delivering crisp, professional answers on policy. Trump got agitated, and seemed unable to either address specifics clearly (never his strong suit) nor to return to any big themes.

Then at the end, Clinton took a sharp turn and veered into the discussion of a former Miss Universe and current telenovela star not well-known to Anglophone audiences named Alicia Machado, and illuminated Trump’s decades-old humiliation of her.

The downward spiral

Live viewership for the debate did not set records as a share of the overall US population, but it was extremely high by the standards of the multichannel cable era. (Recall that back in 1976, when Ford debated Carter, there was literally nothing else to watch for most people.) This is a credit to Trump’s star power but also a problem for him, since his performance was terrible. Snap polls showed Trump had lost, and post-election spin from pundits reinforced the message.

But while the debate was a big deal, it merely revealed what had clearly been the case about Trump all along — he was a weak candidate, poorly informed and poorly disciplined, with little relevant experience and no deep bench of credible surrogates who could help him out in a jam.

Trump’s response was to launch into a bitter, counterproductive feud with Machado, which Machado herself encouraged with a couple of high-profile media appearances. This drew more attention to the underlying Machado story, which reflected poorly on Trump but also served as a living, breathing demonstration of one of Clinton’s longstanding arguments about Trump: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man you can trust with nuclear weapons.”

Then came the partial leak of Trump’s 1995 tax returns, revealing he’d incurred a billion-dollar loss that could have been used to avoid 18 years’ worth of federal taxes. It was a bad storyline for Trump, and it drew further attention to the shocking details of his Atlantic City comeback, in which he made tens of millions of dollars by bilking middle-class suckers out of their savings.

This all got blown off the front pages in October when Trump was caught on tape bragging about how he likes to kiss women without their consent and “grab ’em by the pussy.”

Donald Trump is no Bob Dole

America has seen losing presidential campaigns before. But this one is different.

John McCain was dealt a losing hand by the deep unpopularity of the George W. Bush administration and the very poorly timed collapse of the global economy. He lost, he lost badly, and it was obvious in the weeks before Election Day that he was going to lose. But he was still a broadly respected figure in American politics who ended the campaign with a 57 percent approval rating. Everyone understood that his impending defeat wasn’t really his fault, and he had a reputation to maintain.

Bob Dole in 1996 was in some ways an even sorrier case, since his landslide defeat was visible from a long way out. But even more so than McCain, Dole was a broadly respected party leader in Congress. A man celebrated for his wartime heroism and for legitimately significant legislative achievements like the Americans With Disabilities Act. Dole surely wasn’t happy when GOP leaders made the decision to shift money away from his doomed campaign and toward helping down-ballot Republicans, but he was also a lifelong Republican who truly cared about the party and about his reputation as a party member.

Trump is not like that.

His reputation with the mass public has already been trashed by the campaign. He’s viewed unfavorably by 62 percent of the population, the value of his brand is tanking, and he has no loyalty or allegiance to the Republican Party. He has no intention of taking one for the team or going down with his ship like a noble captain.

The GOP’s problems are all Trump’s fault

Dole and McCain were victims of very unfavorable circumstances.

Even someone like Mitt Romney, who lost in a less challenging electoral environment, can still make a very good case that he was, all things considered, a strong nominee. Romney got a higher share of the vote than the Republican Party Senate nominee in virtually every state that had an election. He carried West Virginia, Missouri, and Indiana while Democrats won Senate races in those states. He did better than losing GOP Senate nominees in blue states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. He did better than losing GOP Senate nominees in purple states like Ohio. And he even did better than winning GOP Senate nominees in the South — even in places like Texas, where Ted Cruz faced only nominal opposition from a nobody Democratic nominee.

Trump is in just the opposite situation. Hillary Clinton is an unusually unpopular major party nominee whose saving grace is that Trump is even less popular. Incumbent Republican senators like Kelly Ayotte, Pat Toomey, and Richard Burr are in trouble, but they are running way ahead of Trump in their states. Right now the talk of Washington on both sides of the aisle is whether Trump-induced chaos will end up tanking Republican turnout and giving Democrats a crushing wave down ballot.

In other words, something that unites professional Republicans who’ve turned overtly anti-Trump and those who remain sincerely regretful that he is going to lose is a conviction that Trump has been a disaster for the party.

The establishment gets things wrong all the time, but they got this one right — Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or even an also-ran like Scott Walker would be giving the Democrats a much tougher time. The Republican Party has a problem, and that problem is Trump.

Trump needs an excuse

It would be wrong to say that at this point Donald Trump has given up on winning.

He can always hope that Russian hackers deliver some amazing dirt to Julian Assange or that Clinton collapses in a coughing fit during the third debate.

But to understand his current rhetorical outbursts, you can’t try to understand them as primarily aimed at winning the election. To win an election you are currently losing, you need to persuade new groups of people to change their mind. Calling Bill Clinton a rapist and arguing that Clinton is the beneficiary of a vast international banking conspiracy are not efforts to reassure white, college-educated women that Trump is not the unstable boor they fear is he.

What Trump is trying to do, primarily, is convince people who are already on his side that his looming defeat is not his fault. It’s Paul Ryan’s fault. It’s the media’s fault. It’s Crooked Hillary’s fault. When the Clinton administration takes office and starts doing things Republicans don’t like, the party’s elected officials in Washington are going to think to themselves, “This is all Donald Trump’s fault.”

Trump’s aim is to minimize the number of rank-and-file conservatives who agree with them and convince them that someone — anyone — else is to blame. Trump is not a loyalist who cares about the greater good of the Republican Party. Conversely, he’s not someone who can count on the goodwill and good graces of other GOP leaders to carry him forward. Whatever he’s planning next — whether it’s Trump TV or a political career for Donald Trump Jr. or a new line of Trump-branded manufactured homes — he needs to go to war to preserve his reputation.

Watch: How the GOP went from Lincoln to Trump

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