It is fitting that a man who lost so much money in the casino business will meet his final showdown in Las Vegas. At this point — Donald Trump’s third and final televised debate with Hillary Clinton on Wednesday — the odds are stacked against him. Having squandered his near parity with Mrs Clinton in September, Mr Trump has launched a breathtaking electoral blitzkrieg.
Is it the last gamble of an undisciplined narcissist? Or does scorched-earth Mr Trump pose a threat to US democracy?
Anyone concerned about America’s future role in the world should be relieved Mr Trump is the challenger. Imagine the state of the race were he capable of staying on message. Instead of denigrating the women who have made allegations of sexual misconduct against him, Mr Trump would be focusing on his case for “Americanism” versus Mrs Clinton’s “globalism”. He might have a serious chance of winning.
Those who think Mr Trump owes his likely defeat to his brand of nationalist populism should beware of drawing hasty conclusions. The chief obstacle to Mr Trump’s victory is his character. He just cannot help himself.
His advisers have pleaded with him to stay focused on the main themes. The Trump campaign’s strategy is to suppress turnout for Mrs Clinton by depicting her as a creature of internationalist corporate elites. The campaign’s other plank is to boost Mr Trump’s turnout by making the case that only a renegade outsider can fix a corrupt Washington.
It is a straightforward argument. But Mr Trump is unable to stick to it for more than a few minutes. Invariably he gets drawn into horrifying tirades against his female accusers. “Believe me, she would not have been my first choice,” he said of one alleged victim.
As a result, he has lost the support of his party. For the first time, the Republican National Committee is spending zero dollars on television advertising for the party’s White House nominee, according to Politico. Instead, the party’s resources are going to congressional races. Likewise, its leaders have broken precedent by dissociating from their presidential candidate.
Most Republicans acquiesced with Mr Trump “America first” message. They also shared his revilement of Mrs Clinton — as most still do. They even tolerated the wall with Mexico. What caused Republicans to “un-endorse” Mr Trump in the past week was the way in which he talks about women.
Yet his official message is also veering into fantastic self-parody. There is a powerful case to be made that Mrs Clinton stands for business as usual. Most Americans do not like the direction in which their country is headed. Most distrust Mrs Clinton. Even now, after all that has happened, Mr Trump still attracts the support of about 40 per cent of likely voters. Mrs Clinton’s lead is between five and nine percentage points. A cardboard cut-out might have given her a run for her money. Mr Trump is hell-bent on playing a real live monster.
His latest conspiracy theory could have been lifted from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion — an early 20th century forgery that stirred up anti-Semitic hatred. It is one thing to say that Mrs Clinton is cosy with the elites who have rigged the game in their favour. There is plenty of truth to that. It is preposterous to claim she plots secretlywith global bankers to rob America of its sovereignty. In Mr Trump’s paranoid imaginings, the Clintons’ co-conspirators include the Republican establishment, corporate America, neoconservatives and Pope Francis. It must be a huge meeting room.
What will the next three weeks look like? Mr Trump’s only sliver of hope lies in an improbable string of accidents that would derail Mrs Clinton’s campaign. This might include a serious health scare. If she were to collapse again in public, as she did with pneumonia last month, it would revive doubts about her stamina.
Mr Trump has laid the ground for this. On Saturday he said they should both take drugs tests before the final debate. Likewise, if there were a Paris or Nice-scale Islamist terrorist attack in the US, it might panic swing voters into the arms of the strongman. Or if WikiLeaks revealed a bang-to-rights case of the Clintons taking money for political favours, it would boost Mr Trump’s global conspiracy.
Even these may not be enough. The one thing that is theoretically within Mr Trump’s control is that which is least likely to happen — running a stable campaign that conveys his fitness to govern. There is a higher chance of Mrs Clinton hosting The Apprentice. Yet little comfort should be drawn from his likely demise. At some point a more self-possessed version of Mr Trump might pick up the baton.
In the meantime, he is unleashing demons. Their big victim is the Republican party. Mr Trump has exposed a weak establishment that no longer leads its rank and file, but is terrified of following it.
The Republican Humpty Dumpty is in pieces. He has also opened up cracks in US democracy. By predicting a rigged election, Mr Trump has sown doubts about the whole system. It is a habit Mr Trump perfected with his casinos. He racks up huge losses. Everyone else is stuck with the bill.