As he fell further behind in polls and battled allegations of sexual misconduct in recent days, Donald Trump moved to darker corners. He sketched out conspiracies involving global bankers, casually threatened to jail his political opponent, and warned in increasingly specific terms that a loss by him would spell the end of civilization.
The distrust of U.S. institutions that Trump has nurtured among his core supporters is readily apparent.
One North Carolina man predicted in an interview that the military would probably assassinate Hillary Clinton if she’s elected president. A woman at an Iowa town hall for Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, offered to join a revolution if Clinton prevails. Another man at an Ocala, Fla., rally was certain Trump would fire the FBI and scores of other federal bureaucrats in a housecleaning if he wins.
Many who have watched Trump’s campaign warn that the spread of such ideas may be only the beginning. The scorched-earth strategy Trump has adopted risks creating a lasting and bitter divide in American society, they say.
“It is going to have consequences,” said Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio host in Wisconsin who has raised alarms about the Republican Party’s identity crisis. “Somebody referred to this as civic vandalism: the paranoia, the injection of the conspiracy theories that there are dark forces that somehow are going to rob him of this election.”
Historians, political scientists and other experts say the durability of Trump, what he proudly calls his movement and the extent of its impact, will depend heavily on the results of the election.
Even a tight loss, let alone a Trump win, could push his brand of politics further into the mainstream. Not only would future candidates and the party adopt some of the sharp rhetoric, but members of Congress in districts carried by Trump might feel compelled to join in, regardless of the outcome of the presidential election.
“If this is a close election, this is a signal that there are real rewards for this type of discourse,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Historians point to the strength of the country’s institutions and the short memories many Americans have after bitter campaigns, making the case that Trump could present more of a ripple than a sea change.
“It’s amazing to me how much we forget about past rhetoric,” said Lara Brown, author of a book on the history of presidential candidates and interim director of the George Washington University School of Political Management. She cited the ugly 1884 election between Grover Cleveland, derided as a fornicator, and James Blaine, labeled a liar, that is now lost in the dusty pages of history books.
No matter its results, the election has shown that the country, and both political parties, are splitting apart more deeply. Eight in 10 voters in a Pew survey released Friday say Trump supporters and Clinton supporters don’t just disagree on ideas or policy solutions; they rely on different sets of facts. Indeed, it was the one area in the Pew survey that backers of both candidates agreed on.
Another poll, taken this month by SurveyMonkey, found that 40% of voters said they had lost faith in American democracy, while 6% said they never had it.
If Trump refuses to concede a close loss to Clinton, that faith could erode even further.
Trump has been a master at tapping into the polarized fact universe, devoting much of a major Thursday speech in West Palm Beach, Fla., to castigating the establishment media as part of a larger conspiracy, working hand-in glove with the Clinton machine to destroy him “as part of a concerted, coordinated and vicious attack.”
The conspiracy, he said, includes Clinton meeting “in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty” and enrich “global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors.”
On Saturday, as sexual allegations piled up against him, he tweeted about a “FIX!” and an election being “rigged by the media pushing false and unsubstantiated charges, and outright lies, in order to elect Crooked Hillary!”
The rhetoric had the markings of Trump’s campaign chief, Stephen Bannon, who as editor of the conservative website Breitbart pushed against the mainstream media with stories about a global conspiracy of elites bent on undermining America’s culture and civilization.
Ben Shapiro, a former editor at the site who left in protest over Bannon’s management and philosophical leanings, said he believes Trump and Bannon are less interested in disrupting order and are instead orchestrating a blame game — aimed at Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan; Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, a New York Times investor; international bankers; and any number of other targets.
“It’s everybody’s fault,” Shapiro said. “If we lost, it’s not because we lost. It’s because they stabbed us in the back.”
The goal, he predicted, is to maintain Trump’s image of strength among core supporters so the two men can build a media empire centered on the same ideas. That would keep Trump’s brand alive, and, depending on the size of his audience and the number of votes he gets in the election, maintain his influence on the Republican Party.
“He wants the firefight. He needs the firefight,” Shapiro said.
Clinton has tried to make Trump’s temperament the central topic of the election. But she insisted Friday that she is not taking satisfaction in his increasingly erratic behavior.
“Damage is being done that we’re going to have to repair,” she said during a visit to a campaign office in Seattle. “Divisions are being deepened that we’re going to have to try to heal.”
Other Republicans are also expecting a party battle, with Trump supporters on one side blaming mainstream Republicans for backing off from Trump, and factions of mainstream Republicans blaming Trump supporters for making him the nominee.
Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee, predicted during an “Ashcroft in America” podcast interview posted on Friday that even a Trump loss would spark “many, many people who still carry his banner” and that it would require a leader in the mode of Winston Churchill or Dwight Eisenhower to restore any semblance of Republican unity, something he does not expect to see in the next four years.
“Absent that kind of leadership, I think it will be very difficult for the Humpty Dumpty to be put back together again,” he said.
Trump has already begun laying out his case, lashing out against Ryan after the speaker said he would no longer publicly defend Trump and calling out Republicans who denied their endorsements as disloyal losers. Many of Trump’s supporters have pledged to stick with him against the others.
“They’re turncoats,” said Terry Gravely, a 72-year-old Trump supporter at a Pence rally in Fletcher, N.C. “They will regret it.”
“They’re scared he’s going to be elected,” said Mike Hollowell, a 55-year-old who fixes boats and attended a Trump rally in Florida. “And their little gravy train is going to end.”
Times staff writers Michael A. Memoli in Seattle and Melanie Mason in Ocala, Fla., contributed to this report.