For Donald Trump, defeat might be the ultimate prize

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Story highlights

  • McTernan: Trump has repeatedly raised the issue of the election being rigged because he wants to keep his supporters angry
  • Trump supporters won't turn on him and blame him for an election defeat -- they will angrily double down

John McTernan is a former speechwriter for ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and ex-communications director to former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Why would the man who rode a tide of populism to a shocking victory over the Republican establishment throw it all away?

Why did he tweet in the middle of the night? Why does he not have a ground campaign? Why hasn't he neutralized his negatives? (He and his campaign certainly know they exist). Why, above all other questions, has he not run a professional campaign? Surely the prize is worth the discipline?
For a while now, some see the answer as straightforward: Donald Trump privately wants to lose. He's like the man in a bar lunging for someone, safe in the knowledge that he will be held back by his friends. Victory, according to this analysis, would be Trump's worst nightmare. The presidency is not simply a job for which he is unfit, it is a job he does not want to do.
    Perhaps. But what if defeat is actually victory? Remember, the logic of populism is a topsy-turvy one. The best analogy for Trump is found in Scotland. The Scottish National Party (SNP) have only one raison d'être: independence for Scotland. All else is subordinated to that goal. Even defeat.
    So, the independence referendum, which was lost two years ago 55%-45% -- a decisive 10-point margin -- has gone from something which was a "once-in-a-lifetime" or "once-in-a-generation" event to something which can be repeated as often as Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's leader, wishes -- until she gets the result she wants.
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    What binds the 45% together is a sense of grievance. And this is the clue to Trump's future.
    Trump has repeatedly raised the issue of the election being "rigged," not because he believes this to be true, but because he wants to keep his supporters angry.
    Populism is, at base, "us versus them" politics, so Trump needs his voters to think not just that "we were robbed," but "WE were robbed by THEM." Scarily for the Republican establishment, that includes them as well as the mainstream media, the Democrats, President Obama and the probably soon-to-be-President Hillary Clinton.
    Trump's most profound insight has been that the authority conferred by celebrity in modern American culture -- which is mainly exploited for commercial gain -- can be transferred directly to politics.
    The fluency of the docu-soap star -- learned on "The Apprentice" -- has been easily transferred to the stump. In the next act of his political career, Trump will show that the narrative of the soap opera applies to political life -- or more precisely his political life. Few characters in soaps ever crash and burn -- there is a relentless reinvention and recycling.
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    Politicians beaten as decisively as it is anticipated that Trump will be normally leave the field humiliated. But "The Donald" will not retire -- his roughly 40% of the popular vote will be as carefully cultivated by him as those who voted for Scottish independence have been by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.
    Of course, this is about brand. And it may even be about building a media empire, as some have suggested.
    But it's easier to maintain a political brand than it is to establish and maintain an empire.
    "Betrayal" will be the rallying cry of Trump and his followers after the general election. Trump's lock on 20-25% of the Republican core vote during the primaries was the rock on which his opponents foundered.
    It has been the reason it took so long for Republicans running for election this year to repudiate him -- in tight races they need his supporters. It is why he won't go away.
    Trump supporters won't turn on him and blame him for an election defeat -- they will angrily double down. And Trump will remain news and in the news -- which is what he wants.
    How much damage can Trump do to America after the election? Quite a lot, I imagine.