What's tormenting Paul Ryan?

Story highlights

  • Tim Stanley: Paul Ryan move reflects the moral ambivalence over Trump of many Republicans
  • Stanley says they must accept that Trumpism is a new mood that demands respect

Timothy Stanley, a conservative, is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)What can Republicans do now?

Paul Ryan has said he will back out of chairing the Republican convention if Donald Trump (the presumptive Republican nominee for President) asks him to -- adding that he hasn't yet decided whether to endorse him, that he still has concerns that need addressing.
    Timothy Stanley
    It's a slightly awkward move that captures the moral ambivalence tormenting many Republicans. Some, like Lindsey Graham and conservative writer P.J. O'Rourke, say that Trump isn't a real conservative or a qualified candidate -- so they're sticking with #NeverTrump. Others say that #NeverHillary is a more important goal -- so Bobby Jindal and others are falling in line behind the nominee.
    But Ryan joins those like Ted Cruz, who resist the simplicity of hashtag politics, and who are confronting more nuanced propositions.
    They will be weighing up two things: strategy and conscience. On strategy, many #NeverTrump people believe Trump is destined to lose the 2016 election. They argue that Republicans, particularly ideological conservatives, should disavow the candidate and the looming disaster -- let the Trumpites take the blame.
    Yet they are wrong to presume that Trump will lose. Yes, he's behind in the polls right now. But Hillary Clinton is an unpopular opponent and Trump could attract enough blue-collar Democrats to beat her. If he did win, what Republican would want to have burned his or her bridges with a new President? Wouldn't it be better to be a friend and, therefore, a positive influence?
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    Even if Trump did lose the election, what Republican would want to have alienated supporters by having publicly attacked the party's man? Like it or not, the message of this primary season was that Republican voters have a subtly different set of priorities from many Republican officeholders.
    Trump's voters don't necessarily want less government -- that old conservative ideal -- but rather government that is more on their side. If Republican leaders loudly reject Trump then they also reject that agenda and the millions who support it.
    #NeverTrump is counting on a defeat in November killing Trump's movement. On the contrary: if Trumpites feel the Republican Party's defeat was purposefully self-inflicted, then they might redouble their efforts. #NeverTrump could end up perpetuating the civil war.
    So Republican leaders like Jindal have reasons of self-preservation to reluctantly endorse Trump. But these could be negated by reasons of conscience.
    A Trump coronation would pose a challenge to the kind of conservative orthodoxy that Ryan was a poster boy for in the 2012 presidential campaign. The Donald has denounced neoconservatism and the Iraq War; taken a softer line on transgender rights and even said the rich might have to pay more in tax. If the Republicans endorse this manifesto, says conservative columnist Ross Douthat, they threaten the very Reagan revolution itself.
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    That's a little hyperbolic: Reagan wasn't nearly as Reaganesque as he's remembered. The Gipper did raise taxes and was prepared to negotiate with terrorists.
    No, Trump represents a rejection of conservatism as professional activists have tried to define it for the past 20 years: think tank conservatism. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
    Back in the mists of time, conservatism represented a preference for reason over passion and for personal faith over inflexible ideology. By sheer accident -- by veering from one position to another without a mooring in philosophy -- Trump actually offers to return the Republicans to their practically minded, pro-business, anti-interventionist policies of the 1920s and 1930s. He is more authentically, historically Republican than some of the free-market, hawkish Republicans who oppose him.
    But where he does depart from GOP tradition is in personality. The conservative presidential ideal is a Lincoln or a Coolidge: self-satirizing, plain speaking, intelligent, well-versed in the Constitution.
    Trump is none of these things. He is much closer to the historical archetype of a Democrat: loud, brash, populist, desiring bigness in all things. And just as the Democrats were once the party of graft, so the whiff of shameless materialism sticks to Trump.
    Republicans are asking, "If we refuse to back Clinton because of her history of misleading statements and marital scandal, how can we back Trump instead?" Conservatism is about distinction, taste, discrimination against all that is bad. Trump is not only unrefined in terms of etiquette but unrefined in the sense of unexperienced -- of being frankly unqualified to run a country.
    And yet moral qualms remain about refusing to endorse him. One is that it would hand the country over to Hillary Clinton -- the very embodiment of everything Republicans have been fighting for decades. How can they, in the midst of the final battle against the Clintons, run away from the field of conflict simply because their commander is inept? Americans, as Republicans reminded us throughout the Iraq War, do not cut and run.
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    Moreover, conservatives have been telling us for decades that they -- not the left -- speak for the people. So when the people speak, isn't it incumbent upon conservatives to listen?
    Trump's sympathizers, like Sarah Palin, who is threatening to back Ryan's challenger in the primary, argue that there is something anti-democratic about #NeverTrump. This framing threatens to become the mirror image of the left's "safe space" policy, an approach to political debate that relies on asserting moral superiority rather than full engagement in ideas.
    The best conservative anti-Trump voices are engaged in patiently explaining why Trump is wrong, which he is. A few, alas, are so detached from the reality of his victory that they resemble Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who was discovered in 1974 on a remote island still fighting a war he hadn't realized had ended.
    The Republican Party can survive this strange calamity. But only if its managers recognize that Trumpism is bigger than the man himself -- that it represents a new mood within their party that demands, and should by now have earned, a little respect.