That House Speaker Paul Ryan easily won his congressional primary on Tuesday, by a nearly 70-point margin, should not have surprised anyone. Yet the political world was watching the result on tenterhooks, waiting for a surprise that never came. The fact that there was no upset was, in this season of political surprises, news of its own sort: a signal that perhaps the Trumpist ideology that has disrupted the Republican Party this year doesn’t work for anyone not named Donald Trump, and may not outlast him as a force in the GOP.
Trump, you may recall, belatedly endorsed Ryan last week, after initially saying he was not ready to do so, the latest move in the two men’s yearlong dance of mutual wariness and technical alliance. Ryan’s opponent, Paul Nehlen, styled himself along Trumpist lines, railing against globalism and “open borders” and depicting Ryan as a tool of Wall Street; he said he would consider deporting all Muslims and campaigned alongside such pro-Trump figures as Tom Tancredo and Ann Coulter. Several former Trump aides went to work for Nehlen’s campaign, hoping to engineer an upset along the lines of what befell former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014.
Thus, even though Trump was technically on Ryan’s side, Nehlen’s candidacy was a test of whether there’s actually a latent constituency in the GOP base for a Trumpist ideology of populist nationalism. Some Trump fans believe he represents a larger philosophical movement to overthrow the longstanding priorities of the party’s donor class—that his victory in the presidential primary has revealed the secret preference of the party’s voters for an agenda antithetical to everything the elites hold dear. Ryan favors an interventionist foreign policy, cuts to entitlement programs, and immigration reform; Trump espouses the opposite.