Save us all the faux drama. We already know how this star-crossed courtship is going to end: House Speaker Paul Ryan will decide that Donald Trump isn’t such an ogre after all, and they'll live unhappily ever after.
Ryan will be unhappy, at least. Trump has stolen his party, and there’s nothing Ryan can do in the short term to get it back.
“I heard a lot of good things from our presumptive nominee,” Ryan told reporters after his much-ballyhooed Thursday meeting with Trump. “I do believe we are now planting the seeds to get ourselves unified to bridge the gaps and differences.”
Translation: Ryan may still not be “there yet,” in terms of a formal endorsement, but we should have no doubt about where he’s headed.
Trump came to Washington for meetings with Ryan and other GOP establishment figures as a conqueror, not a supplicant. His populism, xenophobia, isolationism, bigotry and evident love of big government may be anathema to the Republican elite, but the party’s base clearly feels otherwise. Anyone choosing self-interest over principle — a habit I have observed among politicians — would think twice about opposing a man who received more primary votes than any previous GOP nominee.
Thus we witness a shameful parade of quislings. The most galling surrender may have been that of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who says he will support the nominee even though Trump cruelly ridiculed him for being shot down and captured during the Vietnam War.
McCain’s military service was a profile in courage; what he’s doing now is not. Leaving aside the personal insult, McCain has spent his career advocating a muscular foreign policy. His has been one of the loudest and most persistent voices arguing that more U.S. troops be sent to Syria and Iraq.
Trump, by contrast, has proclaimed an “America first” doctrine that focuses resources on solving problems at home. Trump has even expressed deep skepticism about NATO, which has been the cornerstone of the West’s security architecture for more than half a century.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, McCain’s closest soul mate on national security issues, is one of the few leading Republicans who remain in the “never Trump” camp. He vowed this week that “no re-education camp” would change his mind.
What’s the difference between the two amigos? Graham doesn’t have to face South Carolina voters again until 2020. McCain is running for re-election this year – and watched as Trump scored a blowout victory in Arizona’s presidential primary in March.
Ryan is, or perhaps was, the last great hope of those Republicans who oppose Trump on ideological and historical grounds. The party of Lincoln has a storied past – the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s, for example, never could have made it through Congress without GOP support.
This heritage has been dishonored in recent years; among other transgressions, Republican governors and state legislatures across the country are trying to discourage minority voters with restrictive voter-identification laws. But there are those, such as Ryan, who profess to believe that the party can still be compassionate and inclusive.
Not with Trump in charge, however. Trump’s appeal has been built on anger, grievance and nostalgia for a golden age that never was (at least for women and people of color). To the extent he has any coherent political philosophy, it is one of exclusion. His one unwavering promise involves the building of a wall.
Everything else, it seems, is negotiable. Having sewn up the nomination, Trump has entered the “three-card Monte” phase of his campaign in which he shuffles his positions so quickly that the gullible patsy loses track. His proposed ban on Muslim immigration? That was a mere “suggestion,” he said the other day. His view that wages are too high? He now wants to see the minimum wage raised, but by the states, not the federal government. His view on whether the rich should pay more in taxes? Yes, no and maybe.
Ryan acknowledged after his meeting with Trump that “differences” remain. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has endorsed Trump, as has most of Ryan’s leadership team in the House. If Ryan were to announce at this point that he deems Trump unfit for the presidency and therefore cannot support him, he would become the leader of a movement with few followers.
The Republican Party will not be united this fall. In what promises to be a display of cravenness on an epic scale, it will pretend to be.
Reach Eugene Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.