AP Photo/David Goldman

Everybody is having a grand time mocking Donald Trump because he said this at a rally in Ohio today:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to make a major announcement today. I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters and to all of the people of the United States that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election — if I win.”

It’s good to have Trump on record confirming that he is only claiming the outcome of the election will be rigged because he thinks he’s going to lose, even if it’s in the form of a joke. That aside, at the same rally, Trump also waxed serious, saying this:

“America is a constitutional republic, with a system of laws. These laws are triggered in the case of fraud. Or in the event of a recount where it’s needed. Of course I would accept a clear election result. But I would also reserve my right to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of a questionable result.”

In one sense, this actually is a walkback of sorts. Remember, Trump has not been saying that the outcome may be questionable. Rather, he has been insisting that it will be rigged, that is, that this is definitely in the process of happening. As Trump’s jokes above indicate, we were always meant to understand this to mean that the election will have been rigged if he loses. But the key is that, in his previous formulations, Trump was not allowing for the possibility that he would accept any outcome in which he did not win as legitimate. Now he is opening the door a crack — rhetorically, at least — to admitting that there are scenarios under which a Trump loss would be deemed legitimate — if this outcome is “clear.”

Of course, in another sense, all this is perfectly in keeping with one of Trump’s favorite tricks. As he famously said during the GOP primaries, he would only object to the outcome if the Republican Party did not treat him “fairly” — reserving for himself the right to define what it meant to be treated “fairly.” In keeping with that, all Trump really may have meant today is that he will accept the result if he deems it to be “clear,” which basically means nothing.

Still, I think this hints at one way all of this ends. It suggests the possibility that even Trump knows that if he loses decisively, maintaining the idea that the election was “rigged” will be a lot harder to sustain without him shriveling into a buffoonish international laughingstock. And there would be a method to all of this. As voting rights advocates have suggested, it’s plausible Trump is keeping up the “rigged election” chatter — which also frequently includes calls to his supporters to monitor the polls “in certain areas” — to intimidate nonwhites into not showing up. Feeding a general sense that there will be Election Day disruptions could help with that — or so Trump imagines. If this is the real motive, then it wouldn’t be that surprising if he dropped all of this nonsense if and when he finally loses.

Of course, it’s also perfectly possible, as one Republican suggested to me today, that much of this will turn on how his campaign CEO Stephen Bannon reacts to a loss. As Robert Costa reports, Bannon is the one who has urged Trump to continue claiming the election will be rigged, as part of a broader effort that Bannon hopes will outlast Election Day:

At the fore of this conglomeration is Stephen K. Bannon, the former head of Breitbart who has become Trump’s most influential confidant. Bannon encouraged the candidate’s claims of voter fraud and references to a deeply corrupt global conspiracy of international banks and corporate-friendly politicians.

Bannon has been a prominent backer of political assaults against Ryan and other Republican leaders over the past decade from the party’s fringes — boosting primary challengers against Ryan and others, and warning against compromise on hot-button issues such as immigration. But with the fringes of the GOP now managing the Republican nominee, a retreat is far from likely.

Bannon’s friends say that he has become emboldened during his time with Trump, and that they expect him to work with his network of allies, super PACs and websites to battle Ryan and the Republican establishment throughout 2017 as that wing of the party tries to rebuild the GOP brand.

In this telling, Trump has hijacked the GOP, and now Bannon is trying to hijack Trumpism. No one knows whether Trump is really going to go along with the plan. But I think we should not rule out the possibility that Trump will end up determining that it is not in his best long term interests to keep claiming the outcome was rigged, especially if he loses big. Remember, for Trump, this is all a big show — nothing he says actually means anything beyond the spectacle he thinks it will create and how that spectacle will impact perceptions of him.

Fortunately, we will all be relieved of our excruciating suspense over how Trump will handle a loss soon enough.