If it wasn't clear before Wednesday night's debate, it should be obvious now that Donald Trump is no longer seriously running for president. He is using his campaign to become the leader of what he calls “our movement”—a white supremacist, nativist, and nationalist crusade—to boost his ego, settle scores (including with many Republicans), and make it impossible for Hillary Clinton to govern. He intends to become America's first celebrity demagogue.
For at least the past month, Trump had realized that he is going to lose the race for president on November 8. Indeed, every day, it looks more and more likely that Clinton will beat him by landslide margins in both the popular vote and the Electoral College.
If he were still running for president, and trying to win 270 Electoral College votes, Trump would be appealing to swing voters in battleground states. But during his performances in all three debates—as well as in his speeches at Trump rallies since the GOP convention—he has appealed entirely to his base of fervent supporters. In the third and final debate Wednesday, he doubled down on his most extremist positions—on abortion and immigration, in particular. By inviting President Obama's Kenyan-born half-brother to attend the event, he was slyly signaling his supporters that he still has ways to promote the racist “birther” myth that Obama was not born in the United States and is not a legitimate president.
As his poll numbers have dropped, Trump has become increasingly inflammatory. After his campaign advisers realized that they could not control him and that he could not control himself—that he was prone to impulsive and self-destructive behavior—they tried to turn his worst character traits into an asset by claiming that they were encouraging "Trump to be Trump." It was all on display on the debate podium at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Trump's performance offered no surprises. What Americans saw was the same racist, sexist, thin-skinned, nativist bully—dispensing paranoid conspiracy theories, unable to make a coherent argument, going ballistic whenever Clinton criticized him—that we've watched for more than a year on the campaign trail.
For the past few months, Trump has been using his campaign to set the stage for a new white supremacist right-wing media empire with Breitbart News head Stephen Bannon (his campaign chair) and adviser Roger Ailes (the former Fox News head fired for flagrant sexual assault and harassment). Their goal is to create a media vehicle that will serve as the voice of the right-wing movement Trump intends to lead and to compete with, and outfox, Fox News.
What we witnessed Wednesday night was not a presidential debate but a dress rehearsal for the battle between Trump's right-wing movement and the Clinton administration that will begin on November 9, when Trump refuses to acknowledge Clinton's victory but continues to claim—as he said at the debate—that the election was “rigged” against him. Trump's unprecedented refusal to say that he'd accept the results of the election was the clearest indication that his campaign will morph into an anti-Clinton crusade even before she takes the oath of office in January.
Throughout his campaign, Trump's comments have “normalized” many forms of extremist bigotry, including anti-Semitism, hostility to immigrants and Muslims, attacks on Mexicans and African Americans, insults toward women, slanders against veterans like Senator John McCain, and mocking derision of people with disabilities. He has poisoned the culture by encouraging hate and division. He has encouraged his fervent followers to engage in violence and to threaten and intimidate voters on Election Day.
Trump did not invent this ugly aspect of American society but he has given voice to, galvanized, emboldened, and mobilized it.
When this election is over, he will seek to reconstruct the remnants of his campaign, which he has increasingly referred to as “our movement,” into a political force that will make the Tea Party and Fox News look tame, leveraging the media savvy of Ailes and Bannon, and the financial support of right-wing billionaires like hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer. Whether they can motivate and mobilize Trump's hard-core supporters into an effective political movement is an open question. But surely they will utilize their new media empire to provide Trump with a public stage on which to act out his ego-driven fantasies. He will seek to settle scores with his many enemies, including Republicans who refused to support him, withdrew their support for him, or (like Paul Ryan) failed to fall on their swords for him.
But his biggest target will be Hillary Clinton, whose administration's initiatives he will try to thwart at every turn. He will be a thorn and a tormentor, hoping to put her on the defensive and to rally Clinton haters to pressure Congress to block her Supreme Court nominees and kill her legislative priorities, including raising the minimum wage, expanding Obamacare, and jump-starting jobs with a public infrastructure program.
The closest precedent to what Trump hopes to become is Charles Coughlin, the Michigan-based Roman Catholic “radio priest,” who was the one of first political leaders to use radio to reach a nationwide mass audience. During the Great Depression, Coughlin exploited people's fears and anxieties to advance an anti-Semitic, nativist, isolationist right-wing agenda, as well as his fervent opposition to President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. He used his radio program to promote anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and to support Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. At the peak of his influence, 30 million listeners tuned in to his weekly broadcasts.
Coughlin was a dangerous force in America for almost a decade. In 1934, he started a political organization called the National Union for Social Justice and a newspaper called Social Justice to mobilize his followers in elections. But the NUSJ was poorly organized on the local level, and he was unable to translate his media appeal into an effective grassroots organization. By 1939, he was forced off the air.
Like Coughlin, Trump has brilliantly used the mainstream media to gain attention and stoke the fears and anxieties of millions of Americans. His greatest talent is that of a self-promoting publicist, marketing his celebrity TV shows, his hotels and apartments, his beauty pageants, his steaks and clothing lines, and of course, himself. His campaign rallies have been remarkable spectacles filled with zealous true believers.
Surely, after the election, some of Trump's most fervent admirers—many of them already part of white supremacist hate groups, immigrant-bashing militias, anti-abortion zealots, and gun rights fanatics—will join forces with Trump to stoke hatred and dissesion at rowdy rallies and online.
But, also like Coughlin, Trump has shown no talent for building a grassroots political operation. Under his three different campaign managers—Corey Lewandowski, Paul Manafort, and Kellyanne Conway—Trump showed no inclination or capacity for developing the ground operation—voter registration efforts, local precinct organizations, and a get-out-the-vote apparatus—that is essential to any successful political campaign. So perhaps, like Father Coughlin, Trump's next incarnation will be more that of a controversial right-wing carnival barker than a real movement leader who can mobilize his followers to protest, disrupt and vote.
Of course, when the election is over, Trump will have other matters to worry about. He will have to spend time in court, before Judge Gonzalo Curiel, defending his phony Trump University con operation. He may have to defend himself against lawsuits brought by women whom he sexually assaulted. He will have to pay attention to his troubled real-estate empire, golf courses, and casinos that are deeply in debt, and perhaps even face boycotts of his businesses by consumers and former corporate partners. Surely he will hand over many of those tasks to his lawyers and his children, so he can devote time to his next career as the leader of a right-wing movement.
Whether Trump can translate his megalomaniac fantasy into political reality remains to be seen. But as America hits the home stretch of this bizarre election season, it is clear that after the votes have been counted, we won't have seen the last of Donald Trump.