Donald Trump is no longer trying to steal the election.
He’s trying to lose it.
This past week Mr Trump, cooped up in the White House with COVID-19, called on the US Attorney General William Barr to indict his opponent Joe Biden, his former opponent Hillary Clinton and former president Barack Obama for imagined crimes stemming from the various investigations into alleged Russian involvement in his 2016 campaign.
“Bill Barr is going to go down either as the greatest attorney general in the history of the country or he’s going to go down as a very sad, sad situation,” Mr Trump said.
“He’s got all the information he needs … Bill’s got to move.”
That’s right: Three weeks before an election, a sitting US president is calling for the immediate criminal indictment of his opponent by publicly pressuring an independent law enforcement officer in his government.
We could dwell on the Constitutional vandalism of this tirade, or make banana republic comparisons, but that would miss the point. Let’s instead consider what this signals politically.
For months, Mr Trump has railed without evidence against mail-in voting, claiming it’s rigged and prone to fraud.
In doing so, he’s softened the ground for multiple challenges to the count in various states where the vote could hang in the balance.
He also made it clear that he wanted his Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, on the bench in time for her to rule, presumably on his behalf, in any election dispute brought before the court.
It has all been particularly traumatic for Democrats with a memory of the 2000 Bush v Gore contest.
The commonly held view is that Mr Gore was out-lawyered and outmanoeuvred by Mr Bush and his team, the coup de grace coming from 5-4 conservative Supreme Court that stopped the Florida recount weeks after the election and gave Mr Bush the election.
That recount, let’s remember, involved a micron-thin contested margin of just hundreds of votes in Florida – the only state whose vote remained uncertified.
As grim and ominous as Mr Trump’s threats sound, they are predicated on the notion that the vote could be just as close as it was in 2000.
If you believe the latest polls, that ain’t happening.
By the end of last week, Mr Biden had a 10-point lead nationwide, and high single-digit leads in several battleground states.
He was up by 16 points in Pennsylvania, according to one respected poll.
Even if that lead were cut in half by election day, it’s the kind of electoral margin no Supreme Court is going to review.
Mr Trump could file dozens of challenges around the country, but it would be impossible to make up his deficit by crying vote fraud.
By pivoting to the Russia investigation, the Deep State, Hillary’s emails and assorted conspiracy theories, Mr Trump has found a new “rigged” rationale for explaining what looks to be an impending loss.
There will be no indictments by election day, which means Mr Trump can play the victim no matter how big a blowout may be looming.
He no longer needs a close vote, just a willing band of QAnon followers who will perpetuate his wronged man fabrications.
And he can forever blame Bill Barr for failing to act, thereby absolving himself from responsibility in his defeat.
He will leave office without conceding, stocking a grievance-in-exile industry until a rightful heir – Ivanka? Donald Jr? – can pick up the cudgel.
Mr Trump’s true north is an epic narcissism that rejects the possibility he could lose fair and square.
Philosophers and shrinks can debate whether Mr Trump is doing this consciously or out of some reptilian impulse of self-preservation. No one in Washington seems to care any more.
Last week, GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signalled his own reptilian impulses by telling reporters he hadn’t been to the White House since August, alarmed by their lack of COVID-19 protocols on mask-wearing and social distancing.
It’s not just COVID-19 that’s contagious, Senator McConnell seemed to be saying.
So is defeat.
Larry Hackett is the former editor-in-chief of People magazine, and a contributor to the US morning television news program Good Morning America