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.
The other key word that Ryan used a week ago—but was absent today—was “Kemp.” For contemporary Republicans, the late Representative Jack Kemp, Ryan’s former political mentor, has become a symbol of conservative outreach to racial and ethnic minorities. Last week, when Ryan referred to the GOP as the party “of Jack Kemp,” he was saying Trump must adhere to the party’s tradition of anti-racism. How strong that tradition actually is in the modern GOP is a matter for historians. But by mentioning Kemp, and by insisting that the Republican presidential nominee “appeal to a wide, vast majority of Americans,” Americans from “every walk of life, every background,” Ryan was signaling that Trump must end his demonization of vulnerable minority groups. He must stop calling undocumented Mexican immigrants criminals. He must stop encouraging his supporters to assault African American protesters. He must stop calling for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.
Maybe Ryan will quietly convince Trump to move in that direction. Maybe Trump will decide that, in a general election, it’s politically advantageous to do so. But in today’s press conference, Ryan’s anti-racism language was strikingly absent. He didn’t mention Kemp. He didn’t insist that Trump appeal to a broad cross-section of Americans. When he mentioned Republican principles, he talked about “the Constitution, the separation of powers,” “limited government,” and “life.” He didn’t talk about treating all Americans equally and with respect. Especially given Ryan’s reference to the issue of abortion, which he mentioned twice, the Speaker could be signaling that if Trump offers robust assurances that he will appoint conservatives to the bench, that will constitute unity enough. Kemp-style inclusion be damned.
Give Ryan credit. He still hasn’t endorsed Trump, even though, politically, that would have been the safer short-term move. But over the last week, as Sean Hannity has suggested that Ryan be dumped as speaker and Sarah Palin has declared her support for his primary challenger, the risks Ryan is courting by taking an anti-Trump hard-line have become clear. The House Speaker is a decent man whose vision of conservatism is clearly very different than Trump’s. But he’s not a writer at National Review. He’s an ambitious Republican politician who saw what happened to Marco Rubio, another up-and-coming darling of the GOP elite who incurred the wrath of the nationalist right. And so, in his press conference today, by abandoning the rhetorical framework he outlined last week, Ryan began the process of surrender.