The U.S. presidential election, starring Donald Trump and a growing cast of antagonists, is now officially stranger than fiction, and more estranged from reality than the most implausible reality TV plot. Mr. Trump, who has spent the past week expanding and deepening his enemies' list, may now be in the process of losing the election. He is definitely in the advanced stages of losing the Republican Party, or at least its traditional establishment.
Is Mr. Trump self-destructing, and melting down in a sea of his own indiscipline, narcissism and stubborn unwillingness to moderate his message or his behaviour? Maybe. But voting day isn't until November, and three months is a heck of a long time in politics.
And until last week, almost everything had been going The Donald's way. Despite changing nothing after the end of the primaries, and continuing a campaign whose style is off-the-cuff chaos and whose message is fear, his polls numbers climbed through the early summer. He came out of the Republican National Convention in a dead heat with Hillary Clinton. Considering that mainstream Republican politicians had been saying since last year that Mr. Trump could never be nominated, and if nominated would lose the general election in a landslide, Mr. Trump's rising prospects were an accomplishment and a surprise.
But this may be the week where Trump being Trump finally started to undo him. Until now, the more he disrespected rivals, tagging them with elementary schoolyard taunts – Little Marco Rubio, Lyin' Ted Cruz, #CrookedHillary – the more at least some voters warmed to what they took to be his unscripted, politically incorrect honesty. His daily emission of odd and crazy pronouncements, which would have been fatal gaffes for any other candidate; his inability to feel shame or embarrassment or remorse; even his repeated self-contradictions on virtually every policy save for the desire to build The Great Anti-Mexican Wall, all were somehow translating into greater popularity.
This week, however, Mr. Trump went after Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim-American soldier killed fighting in Iraq. Mr. Khan had taken the stage at the Democratic National Convention to attack Mr. Trump, and Mr. Trump spent the next few days pushing back rather than moving on. Many Republicans immediately distanced themselves from the candidate. Even his vice-presidential running mate, Mike Pence described Mr. Khan's son as "an American hero," whose family "should be cherished by every American."
Then Mr. Trump refused to endorse the candidacies of several senior Republican senators who are up for re-election. Mr. Trump's fights with other Republicans were understandable when he was running to take over the party and wrest it from a hostile establishment. But now that he's the name at the top of the ticket, why try to publicly undermine Senators Paul Ryan, John McCain and Kelly Ayotte? Good question. Because after Mr. Trump refused to endorse them, his running mate Mr. Pence did the exact opposite.
While all of that was happening, the list of prominent Republicans denouncing Mr. Trump was growing. It includes at least one GOP congressman who is urging his constituents to vote for Ms. Clinton, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO and former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who is fundraising for her.
And the crazy thing is, there may be method, and even a certain genius, in what otherwise looks like Mr. Trump's self-immolating madness.
His constant battles within the GOP are part of his popularity – at least for many conservative voters. He has to know that winning the election is going to be a stretch – but if he plays his cards right, he and his movement/cult of personality can cement their control of the party. That's because, as the size and passion of his rallies demonstrate, Mr. Trump is more popular with Republican voters than any other Republican. And in politics, popularity is the coin of the realm. He may not have the Republican establishment on his side, but he apparently has a lot of their voters. That may be because a lot of long-time Republican voters, possibly even the majority, don't like the current Republican Party.
On Wednesday, Fox News host Sean Hannity was channelling those people when he laid Mr. Trump's calamitous week not at the feet of its author, Mr. Trump, but instead blamed the Republican establishment.
"If in 96 days Trump loses this election," he told listeners of his radio show, "I am pointing the finger directly at people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and John McCain."
He described the GOP as having been "more harsh toward Donald Trump than they've ever been in standing up to Barack Obama and his radical agenda," and said that Mr. Trump's candidacy was necessary "because of your ineffectiveness, because of your weakness, your spinelessness, your lack of vision, your inability to fight Obama …. I'm getting a little sick and tired of all of you. I am, honestly, I am tempted to just say, I don't support any of you people, ever."
To readers not resident within the Trumpian headspace or the Tea Party universe, it sounds certifiably nuts. Yet Mr. Hannity's words reflect the views of many of his viewers and listeners. As far as they're concerned, when the Messiah finally showed up, instead of welcoming him, the Republican establishment betrayed him. If Mr. Trump loses the election, he and his supporters will peddle a stab-in-the-back myth. They'll say the GOP went full Judas on their boy.
Donald Trump may be leading the GOP into its worst defeat in since Barry Goldwater in 1964. He may cost it control of the Senate and the House, handing all three branches of government to the Democrats. Then again, win or lose, he and his followers have one eye on the job of purging the GOP of moderates, intellectuals and the old guard, thereby remaking the party in his image: meaner, cruder, angrier – and dangerously unstable.