In his press conference this morning, Paul Ryan began the process of surrendering the Republican Party to Donald Trump. The key isn’t what he said. It’s what he didn’t say.
In the CNN interview last week in which he refused to endorse Trump, Ryan used two key words. The first was “inherit.” In winning the GOP presidential nomination, Ryan argued, Trump had “inherited something very special.” The implication was clear: The Republican Party has a historic identity that Trump cannot overturn just because he got the most votes this year. In classic conservative fashion, Ryan argued for the value of tradition and warned against the danger of convulsive change. In so doing, he framed the challenge of unifying the GOP not in terms of an accommodation between Trump and himself but between Trump and the legends of Republicanism past: Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. Trump, he said, must be “Lincoln and Reaganesque.” And since the GOP can’t abandon its patron saints, it is Trump who must alter his views. “The bulk of the burden on unifying the party,” Ryan declared, “will have to come from our presumptive nominee.”
Ryan didn’t say that today. Instead, he talked about what “we need to do to unify the Republican Party” and “how we can bridge these gaps going forward.” Rather than depicting Trump as a heretic who must accommodate himself to longstanding GOP orthodoxy, he described the real estate mogul as a different, but equally legitimate, kind of conservative. “I represent a wing of the conservative party you could say,” Ryan declared. “He brings—he's bringing a whole new wing to it. He’s bringing new voters we haven’t had for decades. That’s a positive thing.” Now the accommodation is between Trump and Ryan, not Trump, Lincoln and Reagan. Now the “new wing” that Trump represents doesn’t constitute a betrayal of GOP tradition. It constitutes necessary, invigorating, change.