Politics

It’s Donald Trump’s Party, Not Paul Ryan’s

Sooner or later, the House speaker will have to make nice with Trump.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan holds his weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., April 28, 2016.
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan can get away with this for about 70 more days. Above, Ryan at one of his weekly news conferences in April.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

House Speaker Paul Ryan, the saint of the Beltway press, polished up his halo Thursday and went on CNN to say that he could not in good conscience support this vulgar beast that his party’s primary voters selected to be their presidential nominee. And yet …

“I’m not there right now,” Ryan said in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Thursday. “And I hope to, though, and I want to. But I think what is required is that we unify the party, and I think the bulk of the burden on unifying the party will have to come from our presumptive nominee.”

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Uh huh. The burden really is on Ryan to make the move toward Trump, and it’s only a matter of time before he does so. More specifically: He has 70-something days to fall in line. That’s how much time remains before the Republican National Convention—over which Ryan presides—officially nominates Trump. Ryan won’t just have to support Trump’s nomination at that point: He’ll have to gavel it in.

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There are all sorts of reasons Ryan said what he said Thursday: He wants to provide cover for nervous members of his conference to similarly distance themselves from Trump, he wants a meeting with Trump, he genuinely believes that Trump is insane and doesn’t want to be associated with the guy, he wants to preserve his beatified glow in the media, he wants to retain his strong standing among “Never Trump” ideological conservative snoots, and so on.

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All well and good. And, again, he can get away with this for about 70 more days.

The problem with Ryan’s posture is that he fancies himself the leader of the Republican Party when that is manifestly no longer the case, if it ever was. Trump is the leader, at least for the next six months, and Trump understands this. If the taco bowl tweet was Trump’s most embarrassing offering to the public this week, Friday morning’s tweet was one of his shrewdest statements in recent memory (not a high bar, but still).

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He’s just so very correct. Trump won control of the Republican Party by persuading millions and millions of Republican voters to bestow that honor upon him. It is less clear, meanwhile, by what means Ryan thinks he gained custody of the Republican Party. Was it given to him by the ghosts of Abraham Lincoln and Robert Taft? We’re all living here together in the present, and Trump got the power dynamic correct in the statement his campaign issued Thursday night: “I am not ready to support Speaker Ryan’s agenda. Perhaps in the future we can work together and come to an agreement about what is best for the American people. They have been treated so badly for so long that it is about time for politicians to put them first!” (Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson, in a more recognizable Trump campaign flight of fancy, suggested that the speaker himself was unfit to serve.)

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If Ryan wanted a meeting, well, he got a meeting. And whether it’s at that meeting next Thursday or some other meeting over the next couple of months, Ryan is the one who must make the attitude adjustment before he places the tiara on Trump’s head in Cleveland. Unlike figures such as Rick Perry or Marco Rubio, who’ve come around to supporting Trump when doing so was optional for them, it’s not an option for Ryan.

Ryan’s inevitable acquiescence to that reality will make him especially useful to Trump. The moment he throws in his lot with the real estate magnate will be a major step in the domestication of Trump. It will send the message that Trump has made himself into a viable candidate.

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Of course, Donald Trump is incapable of changing, but the narrative surrounding him is plenty malleable. What better way to trick the useful idiots in the media into believing Trump has improved than by getting St. Ryan to emerge from a meeting, gushing that the presumptive nominee has really “shown growth”? Maybe Trump promises to stop calling for, say, the Muslim ban, and Ryan validates him, and the two raise their locked arms to the sky. Within a week Trump will just start talking about the Muslim ban again as if nothing happened, but by then Ryan will already be on the ship.

Here’s another sop that Trump could offer to get Ryan on board: nothing. Would “nothing” work for Ryan? He came into this believing he had leverage over Trump. He has none, and he’s going to have to change his position in the near future. He’d better prepare himself to accept Trump and all his warts as the symbol of his party, because, whether he realizes it or not, Trump already owns him.  

Read more Slate coverage of the Republican primary.

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