OCALA, Florida — Donald Trump was nearing the end of a raw, red-faced tirade at his rally here Wednesday afternoon when he paused to make an unexpected confession.
“If we don’t win this election,” said Trump, his voice ragged from shouting, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
The note of desperation was jarring amid the cacophony of machismo and triumphalism that defines a typical Trump rally — but, then, these are desperate times for the Republican nominee. Facing a party in revolt, a free-fall in the polls, and a feeding frenzy in the press as more than a dozen women have come forward to accuse him of inappropriate behavior, Trump is turning increasingly to his loyal crowds for reassurance — and redemption — in the final weeks of the presidential race.
Campaigning across Florida, the besieged candidate has appeared in recent days visibly agitated as he addresses his fired-up fans — careening unpredictably between angry chastisements, needy pleas for validation, and dark claims of martyrdom.
“Let's hope it all boils down to winning on Nov. 8 — because if not, I’ve wasted my time [and] you’ve wasted your time,” Trump told one crowd. “I will have spent over $100 million on running for office. That’s a lot of money. … If I don’t win, it will be the single greatest waste of time, energy, and money.”
Everywhere he goes, Trump compulsively reminds his supporters of what he gave up to run for president, as though unsatisfied with the electorate’s lack of gratitude.
“Folks, I didn’t need to do this,” he repeatedly told supporters in Panama City.
“My life was so simple. I had a beautiful, simple life,” he lamented in Ocala.
In West Palm Beach Thursday, Trump cast himself as a martyr beset by a sinister global establishment hell-bent on destroying him. He forcefully denied the latest round of sexual assault allegations against him, framing the claims as evidence of a vast political-media conspiracy.
“I knew they would throw every lie they could at me and my family and my loved ones,” Trump told a crowd of thousands. “I knew they would stop at nothing to try and stop me. But I never knew … that it would be this vile, that it would be this bad, that it would be this vicious.”
“Nevertheless,” he continued, “I take all these slings and arrows gladly for you. I take them for our movement, so that we can have our country back.”
This act is not entirely without a strategic rationale. As one senior campaign adviser explained, the aim is to reframe the election in its final month as a clash between “populist nationalists” and “elitist globalists” — with Clinton as the “guardian of [the] corrupt, remote … rigged system” and Trump as the “agent of change.” The approach is, in essence, simply an escalation of the us-versus-them-ism that has been at the center of Trump's candidacy from the beginning.
But at other times this week, Trump has seemed altogether unshackled from any kind of coherent campaign message — bitterly lashing out at reporters by name, ridiculing disloyal Republicans, and offering detailed critiques of whatever cable news segment most recently annoyed him.
During one campaign stop, he compared his burdens to the plight of the working-class voters he champions. “They’re older, working harder, and they’re making less,” Trump said. “Here’s the good news: I’m also older and working harder than I’ve ever worked before... I don’t know, maybe I’m wasting my time.”
He paused a beat. “Am I wasting my time?”
At the same time, Trump has taken to warning his fans in Florida that he may never forgive them if he loses their state. “I’ve created a lot of jobs in Florida. Miami, Mar-a-Lago — if you guys don’t vote for me, I’m going to be very angry at you.” (When these admonishments made it on TV, Trump complained that the cable news channels were taking him out of context to make him look like a “jerk.”)
Of course, Trump’s intense relationship with his crowds is nothing new. He has long taken pride in the throngs of admirers that assemble to watch him perform on the campaign trail. Aides say he draws energy from these fans, relishing the daily chance to entertain them, rouse them, whip them up into a frenzy.
But now, as Trump grapples with the implosion of his candidacy and the wide-scale defection of his allies, the crowds seem to provide more than just bragging rights for the candidate. They represent a political mirage — one that offers consolation, absolution, and a hazy vision of victory that looks almost within reach.
Many of Trump’s supporters seem to understand the role they’re now playing, and they are proud to help buoy their candidate. Elizabeth Breton waited hours on a baking tarmac in central Florida Wednesday to see Trump speak. “I almost passed out,” she said, “but I’m still here.”
Breton said the media and the GOP establishment had badly mistreated Trump, and she wanted him to know that she appreciated him — even if he was on the brink of defeat.
“I’m proud of him that he’s not quitting,” she said of Trump. “He’s sticking it out.”
Rosie Gray contributed to this story.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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