Putting aside the polls, one of the most glaring signs of trouble for President Donald Trump is the way he has been talking. For weeks he has indicated that defeat is on his mind.
His most absurd threats to the public have a certain anticipation to them. He evokes imagined ballot fraud, visions of destroyed suburbs, cities ablaze, collapsing markets and coronavirus vaccines deferred — a Democrat dystopia if he loses.
Winners in a democracy tend to express confidence in the people's choice.
Trump even balks at discussing plans for a second term. He had a sour-grapes interview on CBS' "60 Minutes" in which he carped like a spoiled celebrity. All of veteran correspondent Lesley Stahl's questions easily could have been anticipated and answered if Trump was earnest about leading or campaigning.
On Monday, the president stood before an audience in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and said: "Nice trucks. You think I could hop into one of them and drive it away? I'd love to do it. Just drive the hell out of here. Just get the hell out of this. I had such a good life."
This was not an optimistic All-American campaign message. Nor was it lighthearted banter. This was a vague grievance, all about himself, issued in a state that might prove crucial in the election.
If Trump indeed loses, he could fall back on the excuse that he had lost interest due to the fault of someone else. Of course that might dispel the notion that he’s in office for the people. But Trump never treats self-contradiction as a problem.
Last week, he told donors it will be "very tough" for Republicans to keep control of the Senate. "I think the Senate is tough actually. The Senate is very tough," he was widely quoted as saying. "I can’t help some of them. I don’t want to help some of them."
In a second term, Trump would face enormous challenges if Democrats win the Senate majority. The GOP wouldn't be there to protect him from such things as impeachment and rejection of unqualified appointees. Trump might not speak so casually about losing the Senate if he thoroughly believed he will defeat Joe Biden.
One week ago, Trump told an audience in Erie, Pennsylvania: "Before the plague came in, I had it made. I wasn't coming to Erie. I mean, I have to be honest, there's no way I was coming. I didn't have to. I would've called you and said, ‘Hey, Erie. You know, if you have a chance, get out and vote.’ "
If you listen with anything but the most indulgent ear, he sounded teasingly contemptuous of his loyal audience.
If the hints behind his chatter prove valid, Trump would be the first president in 28 years to go down to defeat after one term. His three direct predecessors were reelected. Ending that streak would re-brand him as a loser, the most dreaded of humiliations in his world, where so much depends on the semblance of winning.