The Slatest

What Is Trump’s Endgame With His “Rigged Election” Nonsense?

Maybe it’s all part of an elaborate plan to run away and join the circus.

Matt Cardy/Getty Images

One question that has emerged out of the presidential campaign in the past 24 hours is—why?

Why is Donald Trump futzing around with the fundamental principles of American democracy by refusing to say he’ll accept the results of the election? Why has he been pre-emptively complaining that the vote will be “rigged” weeks before Election Day? What is he trying to accomplish with these statements?

At Wednesday’s debate in Las Vegas, a few people I interviewed shared their personal theories without prompting for what they felt Trump was up to. Some of those theories were a bit odd!

As I already reported on Wednesday, actual billionaire Mark Cuban told me he believed that Trump was being played by his campaign CEO Steve Bannon, who wanted to increase web traffic to Breitbart after Election Day (Bannon is the former executive chairman of the site’s parent company).

That was not even the weirdest theory I heard, though.

Without my asking, Jesse Jackson raised the prospect that all of this was for Trump to form his own political party, presumably to run again in four years.

“He’s laid the groundwork for a third party,” Jackson said. “If he loses, he then wants to reserve the right to form another party—if he lost because it was rigged.”

While this sounds like wishful thinking on the part of the Democrat, Trump has never been a real Republican or a real conservative and did explore a run for a brief moment for the Reform Party nomination in 2000.

The Republicans who tried to explain Trump’s actions were the least convincing of all. Sen. Jeff Sessions said Trump was just keeping his options open. “I think he’s just saying I’m not giving up my rights that I might have to challenge, that’s all I think he was saying,” the Alabama Republican said. Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn told a different reporter that Trump was doing it to call out “media bias” and “maintain our elections the way we always have, which is free and fair.”

Associate professor of history at UNLV Michael Green brought up President Barack Obama’s theory that Trump was a sore baby loser.

“If you talk about saying, ‘Oh, it’s rigged, everything is against me,’ you do not find candidates doing that during a campaign,” Green said. “As President Obama said the other day, it sounds like you’re whining. I can say as a baseball fan, you do argue with an umpire during a game and maybe you protest a game, but ultimately the result is the result and you still play the game.”

The most reasonable explanations for why Trump is doing what he does—and the ones that I already sort of intuitively believed to be the most likely—came from Robert Lang, the director of the Lincy Institute and of Brookings Mountain West at UNLV.

“I’ve never seen anything like this where somebody pre-empted an election and decided it was going to be rigged in advance for either the purposes of masking his own defeat or creating a legitimation crisis post-election,” Lang told me.

Lang believed it was the latter. “I think he’s creating a legitimation crisis for a likely president Hillary Clinton,” he said. “You [would] have sort of an immediate challenge to the authority of the sitting president that some would believe would diminish their capacity to act as an executive.”

I didn’t buy that, though: In order for that to be true, you’d have to think that Donald Trump cared about something or somebody other than Donald Trump, either the good of the Republican Party, the good of the country, or conservative ideology. This campaign has provided no evidence that any of this is the case. More likely to me was the earlier explanation.

“There’s also [that] this guy might be covering, which is he loses and it’s very hard for him to accept that emotionally, so he’d rather talk about fraud when we know that there’s not fraud,” Lang said.

Lang had one more theory, one which I had raised with Cuban and he had rejected out of hand.

“Trump’s ambition may be something like media. If it is, then the storyline he starts his media empire with was: We was robbed,” Lang said. “It’s then that this guy’s also got his own little hustle he’s running.”

Cuban disagreed with the idea Trump’s long con was to start a media empire, as has been previously reported as a possibility, saying that he thought his former friend was a “puppet” of Bannon.

“I’ve seen Trump, he doesn’t look like he’s anybody’s puppet,” Lang argued. “He seems like a guy who’s too alpha male to let anybody guide him around. I’m sure he takes a lot of politics from Bannon and maybe Bannon will be a senior executive in the Trump enterprise, but believe me it will have the name Trump on it. It will be called Trump. Trump’s going to have his name on it.”

That theory sounds totally plausible.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.