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Why Donald Trump's furious tweetstorm at Paul Ryan is so revealing

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Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

He’s trailing Hillary Clinton by double digits in some polls, but Donald Trump has now adopted a promising strategy that could rejuvenate his flailing campaign.

Haha, just kidding! Trump has decided to declare war on his own party via Twitter, attacking Paul Ryan and turning the GOP into a circular firing squad just four weeks from Election Day.

The backstory here is that in the wake of Trump’s leaked grab ’em by the pussy” tape scandal and recent decline in the polls, Ryan held a conference call with House Republican on Monday in which he said he would no longer spend time defending Trump and would focus his efforts on protecting his House majority.

Now, since Ryan already hadn’t been defending Trump or campaigning with him, his statement could have been interpreted as mainly a restatement of the status quo, as National Review’s Tim Alberta argues. And Ryan reportedly stressed on the call that he wasn’t rescinding his endorsement of Trump. So the GOP nominee could have just looked the other way.

But instead, some media outlets — like the New York Times — chose to interpret Ryan’s move as a devastating rebuke of Trump. Ryan “dealt a hammer blow to Donald J. Trump’s presidential candidacy on Monday, dashing any remaining semblance of Republican unity,” Alex Burns and Jonathan Martin wrote. And a Politico story quoted sources close to Ryan saying it was still possible he could retract his endorsement of Trump.

Naturally, Trump has been unable to stay silent about these media reports, and has responded by trying to do as much damage to Ryan and the Republican leadership as possible, to punish them for disloyalty even though this newfound spectacle probably makes him even less likely to win.

It’s possible that there’s no deeper method to Trump’s madness here — perhaps he’s just lashing out at a critic, like he’s done again and again throughout this campaign (and his career).

Or perhaps Trump is trying to prevent future Republican defections by firing a shot across their bow — warning them that there will be consequences for criticizing him.

Is Trump preparing to make a “stabbed in the back” argument?

Yet what’s most striking about these new tweets is that Trump seems to be preemptively making an excuse for losing.

“Despite winning the second debate in a landslide (every poll) it is hard to do well” because of Ryan’s lack of support, the GOP nominee whines.

Now, scientific polls actually showed Clinton as the winner of the debate, despite the useless, meaningless website polls Trump prefers to cite.

But the more telling point is that it’s very odd for Trump to admit that he’s not doing “well,” since he typically pretends everything is going wonderfully and he’s on the path to victory.

Trump can read polls and he can read a calendar, so I suspect he knows full well how deep a hole he’s in at this point. And since he doesn’t care how much damage he does to the Republican Party, he may think he has nothing to lose by shaking things up and adopting this newly aggressive approach.

But if Trump hopes to avoid being portrayed as a “loser,” he needs a convincing-sounding excuse for why he lost. So rather than taking responsibility for being incredibly unpopular, he could be trying to pave the way for a “stabbed in the back” narrative that puts the blame on Republican elites for electing Hillary Clinton.

And it’s important here to remember those persistent rumors that if Trump loses, he plans to start a conservative media company.

If Trump convinces tens of millions of his supporters that he lost because party leaders threw him under the bus, those are tens of millions of people who will come away from this election embittered and disappointed in traditional GOP institutions — and seeking somewhere to turn.

They could turn to “Trump TV.” Already, many talk radio hosts have long denounced the Republican Party’s leaders as timid sellouts, so it’s quite possible that this point of view will become even more popular after the election.

This hypothetical new media outlet could give Trump a power base to help shape the discussion over the Republican Party’s future, if he so desires. Or Trump TV could mainly be used for revenge against people Trump feels has wronged him.

Or, most prosaically of all, his goal could be to make a whole lot of money.

The Republican Party is terrified of Trump’s power

But the deeper problem here for Republican leaders is that their base already didn’t like or trust them — indeed, that’s a key reason why Trump rose in the first place.

That’s one big reason so many top Republicans have been so hesitant to criticize Trump, particularly since he became the party’s nominee. They are genuinely (and perhaps rightly) fearful that if they get on the wrong side of the GOP base, their political careers will be in jeopardy.

But instead of working to keep the party united around him, Trump is trying to prove that these politicians’ worst fears are justified. He’s adopted a probably suicidal strategy designed to inflict maximum pain on any Republicans who have criticized him, diluting his anti-Clinton message with furious attacks on GOP elites. In doing so, he’s chosen to do grave damage to Republican prospects that could harm the party for years.

Watch: Trump is running for dictator, not for president

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