It first crystallized for me when I read this Friday article from The Washington Post's Jenna Johnson - one of the best campaign beat reporters of the cycle. It's entitled "Donald Trump is in a funk: Bitter, hoarse and pondering, 'If I lose ..." Trump is still aggressive and attacking but more and more over the weekend, Trump was musing about possible defeat, even asking supporters for reassurance that he made the right decision to run.
Johnson captured some of the mood in that Friday report ...
The gloomy mood has extended to his signature rallies, which Trump used to find fun. During the primaries, he would bound onto rally stages bursting with energy and a sense of excitement that intensified as the crowds chanted his name and cheered his every word. He would regularly schedule news conferences, call into news shows and chat with reporters, eager to spar with them. He would say politically incorrect things and then watch his polling numbers soar. He used to be the winner.
After the debate Wednesday night, Trump flew to Ohio for a Thursday rally. He abruptly walked out of two local television interviews before taking the stage in front of a smaller-than-usual crowd. After it was over, he was back at the Columbus airport, slowly plodding up the steps to his personal jet. He was alone, holding a black umbrella as a light rain fell.
Then there's this little moment from the end of the Al Smith Dinner ...
As Clinton finished speaking, she received a standing ovation from many in the crowd. Trump clapped, then briefly stood, then sat down again, as if unsure what to do. Lip-readers caught him telling her that she did a good job.
As the dinner ended, Trump shook hands with some of the others on the stage, while a line of people wanting to talk with Clinton grew. After a few minutes, Trump and his wife made their way toward the exit.
For all the damage and destruction of Trump's effort to undermine the legitimacy of the election, I believe it's mainly been about preemptively managing the shame of defeat. If Trump just loses, it kills his brand and would I suspect be insupportably crushing in personal terms. But if he's cheated, he becomes a martyr, a political martyr. There's no shame in that. In fact, it fits in with his whole political mindset of battling crooked elites and hope for future retribution.
But maybe it won't turn out that way. Maybe he is deciding he'll deal with it by slinking out of any sense he ever really cared. Your loss, not mine, shambling, staggering, low-energy.