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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks to attendees at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on October 20, 2016 in Delaware, Ohio.

Ty Wright/Getty Images

Only 17 days remain until the U.S. presidential election, and Robert Kuniegel believes Donald Trump is poised to win a landslide victory. Only one thing stands in Mr. Trump's way, he says – rampant voter fraud.

So, on Nov. 8, Mr. Kuniegel will travel from his home near Scranton, Pa., to the heart of Philadelphia to conduct his own independent poll monitoring. He's recruiting a group of like-minded Trump supporters to join him. They don't plan to confront anyone, he says, but will photograph the alleged abuses they've read about on right-wing websites, like people being bused from one polling place to another.

Mr. Kuniegel has long worried about the influence of powerful elites and corporations in American life. But it's only during this campaign that he began to pay attention to conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, who believes the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were an inside job.

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"The country's basically been overthrown by internationalists," says Mr. Kuniegel, a newly retired corrections officer.

"They would never put up somebody like Hillary Clinton, who's so openly corrupt, if they didn't feel they could do some shenanigans and steal the election."

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Read more: Trump says he'll accept the election result, if he wins

In a stunning turn to a campaign that has broken with nearly every norm of American politics, Mr. Trump has repeatedly declared – in rallies, on Twitter and on national TV – that the election system is somehow rigged. The last-ditch manoeuvre is part of a long pattern of attempts by Mr. Trump to divide Americans, and could have lasting consequences.

At Wednesday night's debate in Las Vegas, he made a startling assertion in response to a question about whether he would abide by a cherished principle of American elections – that, at the end of a presidential campaign, the loser respects the result and concedes to the winner. Unlike any nominee in modern memory, Mr. Trump refused to uphold that tradition. "I will tell you at the time," he said. "I will keep you in suspense."

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On Thursday, he turned his debate statement into a punchline. "I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election – if I win," he told a cheering crowd in Ohio. He then pledged to honour "a clear election result," while reserving his right to challenge anything "questionable."

By making claims that the election system is beset by fraud, without any evidence, Mr. Trump has taken what was once the feverish fringe of American political discourse and placed it into the national spotlight. The question that remains for the country – and for Ms. Clinton, who is likely to become the next president – is whether this is a fever that will break on Nov. 8 or smoulder in the U.S. body politic and within the Republican Party for years to come.

Mr. Trump's rhetoric has raised fears that his supporters could engage in voter intimidation on election day in the name of uncovering ostensible fraud. And his unwillingness to declare that he will abide by the outcome of the election has introduced a destabilizing element into the most vulnerable period of the U.S. political calendar: the transition from one president to the next.

Mr. Trump's ultimate intentions remain murky. By keeping Americans in suspense about them, is he simply orchestrating a cliffhanger to keep people watching until the end of his highly rated political melodrama? Or does he seriously mean to contest the electoral results? If he does dispute the outcome, some believe, his goal is not to lead a new political movement but rather to start a new business: a right-wing television venture catering to his fervent supporters.

Whatever his goals, the Republican Party will have the unenviable task of picking up the pieces. This year's presidential campaign has revealed a party paralyzed by cleavages between its elite and its grassroots, and unable to neutralize the threat posed by a candidate like Mr. Trump. The reckoning ahead for the party promises to be a brutal one

The realm of the preposterous

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For the people who deal with the nuts and bolts of U.S. elections, Mr. Trump's contention that the election result will be rigged against him belongs to the realm of the preposterous. Indeed, Republican officials in charge of the voting process in Ohio, Georgia, Indiana and elsewhere have all publicly stated their confidence in the final counts.

Mark Braden served as counsel to the Republican National Committee for a decade and has supervised election recounts across the country. "Rigging the election system on a national basis is really impossible," he says. That's because national votes are organized by the states, and counted in a decentralized way at the precinct level. Plus, members of the two parties keep watch on each other both at polling stations and on county election boards.

There are also provisions for automatic recounts if the margin separating two candidates is slim.

Mr. Braden says it is unprecedented for a presidential candidate to question the integrity of the system prior to the vote, as Mr. Trump has done repeatedly. "What happens if you win by 100 votes?" he asks. "Do you want to have been on record that the system is buggered?"

While he's confident in the overall election process, that doesn't rule out occasional irregularities, Mr. Braden adds, especially in local elections. Absentee ballots sent by mail have proved vulnerable to manipulation and, on occasion, poll workers have colluded to try to influence results. But research has shown that the number of such cases is minute: A study by Justin Levitt at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles found only 31 cases of voter fraud out of more than a billion ballots cast in the United States between 2000 and 2014.

Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, says that Mr. Trump's claims that the election is rigged undercuts Americans' confidence in the electoral process and could encourage rogue Trump supporters to threaten voters at polling places – or worse. Prof. Hasen pointed to a photo shared on Twitter in August by an avid Trump supporter in Florida: a pickup truck with a cage in the back and a caption saying he would watch for "shenanigans" at the polls and "haul" people away.

Mr. Trump's talk about elections being rigged sounds right to his core supporters. Part of their attraction to him is his apparent willingness to take on what he describes as a rotten system. Asked if the election is rigged, Blake Wassmann, a 20-year old Trump supporter in Las Vegas, smiles and says, "It might be, because I feel that government is corrupt on the inside." He adds that he has no trust in either the media or the pre-election polls.

Jeffrey Voda, 47, another Trump voter in Las Vegas, expressed similar distrust while showing support for his candidate at Wednesday's debate at the University of Nevada.

"I just think the establishment, together with the Democrats, always seem to have some last-minute surprise – that's how they control people," he says. A fellow Trump supporter nearby is wearing a sign that reads, in large capital letters, "Rigged Biggly" – combining Mr. Trump's assessment of the electoral system with an adverb the candidate helped coin.

Conciliatory or disruptive?

What will Mr. Trump say if he loses? Perhaps in the end, he will congratulate Ms. Clinton and move on to his next real-estate venture. Or perhaps he will claim the election was stolen, undermining Ms. Clinton's legitimacy and setting off an unusually tense transition from one president to the next.

The peaceful passing of the torch is the pride of the American political system. Most historians agree that the country has maintained a track record of success in that department for well over a century.

The last hostile transition came in 1876. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes eventually became president after a hotly contested result amid widespread allegations of voter fraud. There was talk of two separate inaugurations for Mr. Hayes and his opponent, Samuel Tilden, says Edward Foley, an election-law expert at Ohio State University and the author of Ballot Battles. Some Democrats at the time dubbed president Hayes "His Fraudulency."

"In the U.S., we definitely don't have perfect institutions and we don't have perfect virtue among politicians. We have been fortunate for a century or so to have an adequate supply of both," Prof. Foley says.

"I would like to think that no one individual can destroy the system as a whole."

The last difficult presidential transition occurred in 2000, when George W. Bush lost the popular vote, but prevailed in the Electoral College, thanks to a razor-thin victory in the state of Florida. The month-long legal battle that followed centred on whether a recount could proceed in that state. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court quashed the recount and former vice-president Al Gore conceded, saying it was time for the country to come together.

Mr. Trump has not shown a great capacity for similar graciousness. And, between social media and cable news channels, he could find platforms to continue his fight against an allegedly rigged system long after losing on voting day, if he chooses. In one scenario, he could attempt to form a third-party to rival the GOP.

But McGill University historian Gil Troy, author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, is skeptical about that prospect. Building a third party requires discipline, infrastructure and an ability to forge the kind of alliances "that Donald Trump has shown a complete disinterest in building," he says.

A more likely role for Mr. Trump, should he lose, is that of disruptor, travelling across the country to speak at rallies, and perhaps even using a new television platform to undermine the Clinton presidency, and reap profits in the process.

Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump's son-in-law, recently floated the idea of a new Trump-backed television venture with investment bankers, the Financial Times has reported. Stephen Bannon, Mr. Trump's campaign chairman and the founder of right-wing website Breitbart News, hasn't denied such a possibility. When asked by CNN about the rumoured media venture, he simply responded, "Trump is an entrepreneur."

Into the wilderness

For America's political class, the larger question is how to put the genie back in the bottle. Mr. Trump has rampaged through the Republican Party, rewritten how presidential campaigns can be run, and inflamed passions across American society.

One distasteful consequence of the election has been to embolden extremist voices. "The spike in hate we've seen online this election cycle is extremely troubling, and unlike anything we have seen in modern politics," Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement this week. "A half-century ago, the KKK burned crosses. Today, extremists are burning up Twitter."

White supremacists increasingly and openly espouse their beliefs online, viewing Mr. Trump's plan to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and to ban Muslims from entering the country as part of their vision to protect the white race, says Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.

In that environment, calling the election rigged is a dangerous game. "To throw that question or that suspicion into the pool of gasoline that is the American radical right, who knows what's going to happen? But it doesn't look good," says Mr. Lenz.

"I'm not just distressed by the election. I'm distressed by the consequences of this election. I think it's going to be long-term damage," says Donald Critchlow, a political historian at Arizona State University and the author of Future Right: Forging a New Republican Majority.

"It's going to take a while for the body politic to get healthy after this."

Prof. Critchlow sees the emergence of a one-and-a-half party system. In other words, an ascendant Democratic majority and a hobbled Republican party that drifts through the political wilderness after alienating Latinos and suburban voters with its 2016 standard-bearer.

There are parallels, he adds, with the Republican Party that was locked out of the White House for two decades beginning with the 1932 election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That party also faced a demographic challenge. It had lost support of black voters, as well as white working-class and middle-class voters hit hard by the Great Depression, says Prof. Critchlow.

In theory, the GOP could also enter a period of rebuilding, take its cue from a fed-up electorate, and work more closely with Democrats. Ms. Clinton could be swept up in national pride at having elected the first female president in American history, adds McGill's U.S.-born Prof. Troy.

But these read like wishful scenarios.

"What I'm calling the great American stress test of 2016, which we're failing, will continue. And we'll continue to fail it," he says.

Mr. Trump's supporters see the election in even more dire terms. Mr. Kuniegel, the retiree who lives in Pennsylvania and intends to monitor polling places on election day, says that, if Mr. Trump loses, "the United States will be no more – no, really," he says. "We'll have elections, but sovereignty will slowly move to the international stage."

Mr. Kuniegel points to to a speech Mr. Trump gave this month in Florida in which the Republican nominee described "a small handful of global special interests rigging the system" and a "corrupt political establishment" with "virtually unlimited" resources out to stop him at all costs.

"That's the truth, there's nothing they would not do," says Mr. Kuniegel. "They cannot let him have it."

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