On a basic level, Trump is right. He stands now as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee because of millions of the Republican Party’s own voters, and in spite of, almost to a man and woman, the party’s leadership.
Many or most of those who matured under traditional conservative ideas, shaped by opinion-makers and even presidents, have never been able to accept the idea of Trump as the nominee because he gave so little care to what they have considered core to the party’s ideals.
But that’s where Ryan and a handful of other prominent Republicans come in. The speaker’s unusual decision to hedge on his support for Trump at this moment – to declare that earning millions of more votes than any other candidate isn’t enough to earn the support of the Republican speaker of the people’s House – is a move that will be felt for years, perhaps decades.
“This is the party of Lincoln, of Reagan, of Jack Kemp,” Ryan told CNN’s Jake Tapper Thursday. “What a lot of Republicans want to see is that we have a standard bearer that bears our standards.”
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a freshman Republican who has been compared to Ryan, went even further in a Facebook posting less than 24 hours earlier. Sasse has declared that the conservative thing to do is to reject the Republican nominee and draft a third-party candidate with a commitment to conservative principles.
“This is America. If both choices stink, we reject them and go bigger. That’s what we do,” he wrote. “Remember: our Founders didn’t want entrenched political parties. So why should we accept this terrible choice?”
But the fact that such discussions are even happening marks an extraordinary moment in a country that has seen party ideology defined from the top down for as long as anyone in politics has been alive.
Trump usurped a power structure that has been dominant for at least a century. Even the famously disciplined Republican Party is too shaken to accept that he won, by playing by the rules that Trump has consistently, and accurately, described as rigged in favor of party leaders.
Trump’s candidacy represents a policy threat to what Republicans have stood by for generations. His is a populist and nativist vision, resisting and seeking to reverse what previous Republican presidents have sought to accomplish on trade, taxes, immigration and foreign policy, just for starters.
To their frustration, the election will almost certainly be a choice between two options many conservatives view as simply bad. Many will say it’s a choice they can’t make and, yes, that will hurt Trump in November.
But by seeking to reclaim principles at this political moment, Ryan and some of his allies are seeking to make this election more than a binary choice. That may not be good for the Republican nominee of 2016, but it may be what the Republican Party, and even the two-party system as we know it, needs to survive beyond that.