Donald Trump is refusing to be a good loser.
For months now, GOP leaders have been pleading with Trump to "tone it down," get more "focused," and just generally act/speak/tweet in a more refined and presidential way. But Trump's response has been absolutely clear: He's never going to change. Amid all those calls for him to change, he's made comments about "2nd Amendment people" and insisted repeatedly that President Obama and Hillary Clinton "founded ISIS."
But here's the thing: Contrary to popular political opinion, Trump's continuing refusal to act the way establishment Republicans want him to remains his best chance to win.
And it's also what an increasingly defensive, tone deaf, and cynical GOP deserves. That's because the establishment — and supposedly respectable — Republican Party has lost five of the last six presidential elections in the popular vote. But at the same time, the GOP has controlled both house of Congress for all but five of the last 22 years. And the Republican power brokers inside Congress really like having that power.
Unlike the top job in the White House, Congressional positions can last for life and they come with far less scrutiny and a much lower price tag. That's what the GOP has become used to and more interested in keeping. It's not that the Republicans don't want the presidency back, it's just not all that interested in risking its safe, cozy, and non-term limited Congressional power to get it.
Holding on to power means taking fewer risks, something that's infuriated a growing number of rank-and-file Republican voters for years. From the GOP Congressional leaders' decision to back off threats to shut down the government, to a failure to stop President Obama's bevvy of executive orders, the Republican establishment has been playing it safe for a very long time. That's been a good strategy for people like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and all the House and Senate committee chairmen for most of the last six years. But the Republican voters have become more and more dissatisfied with that status quo.
Enter Trump, who is running a campaign that threatens all of that and more. GOP primary voters decided to turn to Trump to punish those leaders and their safe electoral strategies, giving them and their 16 safer and more favored presidential candidates an historic whipping.
But Trump is far from the perfect candidate, even for the protest voters desperately looking for something to replace the establishment in both parties. And Trump's brand and style aren't winning over the general public as much as they did for disaffected Republican voters.
Polls say several Republican Senate and House seats that had been safe aren't so safe anymore as an anti-Trump vote is trickling down to other races. The GOP may not only lose its majority control of Congress, but could also lose seats it's held for generations. Make no mistake, reversing this dangerous trend for Congressional Republicans is the No. 1 priority for the GOP right now and the party is very close to the "couldn't care less" mode when it comes to Trump's chances to win in November.
Trump seems to realize this, even as he has begun to acknowledge that he may not win. His two choices seem to be: 1) Pivot to a more respectable and disciplined persona on the campaign trail and lose by a smaller margin, or 2) Keep up the bombast and boost his chances of both pulling off an upset while also risking losing in a landslide. Choice No. 2 is the only one that includes a winning scenario, so it makes sense that Trump is sticking to it.
But there's also another scenario currently being discussed in the establishment Republican world. Monday's op-ed by the Wall Street Journal editorial board calls on the Republican Party to replace Trump as its nominee if he doesn't start acting more like a buttoned-down and respectable candidate by Labor Day. This effort is also much more about protecting existing power and saving face than giving the Republicans a better chance to actually win the White House in November.
But anyone who isn't too snobby to pay real attention to Trump's primary voting totals and those massive crowds that still jam into his boisterous campaign rallies will realize that such a coup would very likely backfire against the Republicans at all levels. If you thought you saw grassroots voter anger from Bernie Sanders supporters when it became clear the Democratic National Committee was stacking the deck to help Hillary Clinton win the presidential nomination, wait until you see how the Trump supporters will exact their fury on GOP establishment types on Election Day if their party tries to forcibly take Trump off the ticket.
And so what we continue to witness is a Republican Party that refuses to even try to learn from the last 24 years of presidential elections or this year's primaries. And the GOP is also mostly choosing to ignore all the evidence that Trump will continue to refuse to lose gracefully no matter what it tries to do to politically neuter him. It's just this kind of defensiveness and cluelessness that's made the Republicans a party that can't win the White House unless a maverick candidate grabs the nomination much like Trump did earlier this year. Trump may not be able to turn his non-establishment strategy to an actual victory this time, but it was always going to take someone very much outside the GOP establishment to win this year or any presidential election year from now on.