As a war of words between Donald Trump and his supporters on the one hand and Paul Ryan and congressional Trump-dissers on the other grows, the odds of a postelection “struggle for the soul” of the GOP are now very high. But its direction and outcome are more uncertain than ever.
The conventional wisdom among Republican elites, however, is not so uncertain. It was summed up back in March by Senator Lindsey Graham in one word: “interloper.” Trump was, he said, not a real Republican. And thus if he loses he will be expected — well, not necessarily to go away, but to resume a position on the margins of the Republican Party whence he came.
That dismissive attitude went into occlusion for a while when it looked like Trump might actually win. But now that his prospects don’t look so hot, the “interloper” feeling has returned. Accordingly, when Speaker Paul Ryan, always presumed to be the adult in any Republican room, distances himself and his candidates from Trump and, in return, Trump attacks him and the GOP Establishment he represents, it’s Trump who’s generally treated as the party-destroying narcissist who would rather take down his own “team” than show some self-discipline.
There’s one big problem with the belief that Trump is spoiling the party. It was identified recently by Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight:
Trump is more popular among Republicans right now than Ryan is. In the most recent YouGov poll, for example, Trump’s net favorability rating (the percentage of respondents who rate him favorably minus the share who have an unfavorable opinion) among Republican primary voters was +36 percentage points. Ryan’s was just +16 points. Perhaps more telling is that Trump’s “very favorable” rating among this group is 34 percent, while Ryan’s is only 13 percent.
This means two things. First, Ryan really doesn’t have as much credibility among Republicans as Trump does. Second, if forced to choose, Republicans would almost certainly choose Trump over Ryan.
That’s an extraordinarily heretical thought for most elite Republicans. But there is no empirical reason to think Enten is not right about it. And once you’ve absorbed it, you no longer assume Trump is committing political suicide by attacking his party’s congressional leaders. He’s appealing to the independent and Republican voters who don’t have much use for the status quo in Congress. And it’s Ryan who may be guilty of great self-destructive folly.
This Copernican Revolution in how one thinks about the GOP — and the possibility that it is indeed Trump’s party as much as or more than it’s Paul Ryan’s — is what has driven some conservative thinkers into despair and a willingness to look beyond the GOP for salvation. Conservative commentator Avik Roy is a good example, as Molly Ball of The Atlantic explains:
Of the various explanations that have been advanced in such quarters to explain Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP, Roy’s may be the most explosive. Although he was originally drawn to the party for its emphasis on economic freedom and self-reliance, he now believes that a substantial portion of Republicans were never motivated by those ideas. Rather than a conservative party that happens to incorporate cultural grievances, today’s GOP is, in his view, a vehicle for the racial resentment, nationalism, and nostalgia of older white voters. The element of the party that he once dismissed as a fringe, in other words, now seems to form its core.
If Roy — and, for that matter, those polls showing Trump as more popular among Republicans than Ryan — is right, then a postelection reformation of the GOP won’t just be a matter of the pre-Trump Establishment deciding exactly how much ideological or rhetorical ground to give up to Trump supporters to keep them on the reservation. If Trump indeed represents what the GOP base has really been wanting for years now, then these voters are not going to just shuffle along in the great cattle drive of life and get back in line to support pols for whom globalization is a given, “inclusiveness” is mandatory, and the Iraq War was not “stupid” but just a lost opportunity.
After a losing election, moreover, the intra-party conflict going on right now, in which Trump looks like a self-destructive tyro in the eyes of the Beltway cognoscenti, could look different to actual Republican voters as well. By publicly attacking the Establishment as feckless and disloyal, Trump is building an unmistakable foundation for a “stab in the back” explanation of why he lost. Republican opinion-leaders who think it’s self-evident that any other candidate would have done much better had better hone their talking points, because it’s really not self-evident at all.
Now, Trump’s critics do have some resources Trump won’t be able to marshal. If, for example, Republicans lose the presidency and the Senate but hang on to the House, Paul Ryan will be the natural focal point for party-wide resistance to the Clinton administration, and 2018 midterm gains (statistically very probable if Democrats continue to control the White House) will make him look successful (that’s assuming, of course, that Ryan could again cobble together the votes to retain the gavel, and would want to). Other would-be successors to Trump as party leaders — notably former rivals Cruz, Rubio, and perhaps Kasich — will be around to help with the anti-Trump heavy lifting. And Establishments don’t get to be Establishments without a lot of skill and even more money.
But the scary possibility remains that Donald Trump has become the indispensable leader whose politics of grievance is actually strengthened by an election that he lost due to GOP perfidy, media bias, voter fraud, and God only knows what other demons his supporters find in the wreckage. At a minimum, he’s not “going away” without a mighty strong eviction notice.