The GOP’s Halfhearted Support for Trump Will Be Wholly Unsuccessful

Image: Paul Ryan at CPAC 2013. Photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Hunkering down to ride out the storm may instead contribute to a perfect storm.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s new status as the presumptive Democratic Party nominee only sharpens the difficult choice confronting Republican Party leaders visibly uncomfortable with their own party’s nominee. Nevertheless, the fact that the Republican establishment is unhappy that its voters have settled on a controversial antiestablishment candidate does nothing to alter the fundamental realities of presidential elections: either Clinton or Trump will win and will enjoy the power and influence of the office for at least four years, during which she or he will seek to implement policies reflecting a combination of party agendas and personal priorities. The other will lose and will not have that opportunity. Unlike any other election in recent history, Republican leaders do not yet seem to have decided whether they want their party’s candidate to be the winner.

The dilemmas that House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders now face are well-known. On one hand, they are under pressure from Republican voters who, in the end, have rather decisively selected Donald Trump—in no small part to rebuke elected party leaders and the Republican National Committee. McConnell and Ryan’s predecessor John Boehner learned that they were out of step with their rank-and-file in 2010 and failed to close the gap. At the same time, no committed Republican is likely to welcome a Clinton presidency, especially one that follows eight years of the Obama administration and is inflected by the angry leftist rhetoric of Senator Bernie Sanders and not-yet-candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren.

On the other hand, of course, more than a few Republican leaders and intellectuals appear to have reservations about Donald Trump’s commitment to their most recent definition of conservatism, whether on taxes, trade, social issues or foreign policy. Many are likewise deeply troubled by his style and particularly his public statements, some of which can only be called indefensible.

These countervailing forces (or more accurately these countervailing fears) have prompted many top Republican officials, and part of the Republican establishment, to try to have it both ways by declaring that they will vote for Trump while making quite clear that they don’t really support him that much. This approach rests on calculations that Trump will probably lose anyway, and on a pseudo-pragmatic argument that splitting the difference in this fashion is the best available strategy to defend Republican seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Few have seriously challenged or defended the assumptions underlying this case. Expert (and less expert) pollsters and commentators routinely argue that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats have considerable structural and demographic advantages that Donald Trump cannot overcome. Some offer powerful data. What none appear to acknowledge is that expertise and predictions are inherently founded upon past experience; experts use their knowledge of the past to predict what will happen in the future, with a default assumption that the same rules will apply tomorrow that applied yesterday and today. Experts are most often wrong in periods when no one has yet realized that the rules have changed. From this perspective, the last year in American presidential politics has presented a series of flashing red warning lights.

Another problem for GOP leaders is that despite their best efforts to define the Republican Party’s brand as distinct from Donald Trump’s, there are good reasons to expect them to fail. One is Trump’s instinctive command of media branding, which has generally served him well so far. A second is Trump’s willingness to offer dramatic soundbites—something with which few in any elected officials can or want to compete. Finally, Trump is one person with one voice and Republican officials are many people with sometimes conflicting voices. The combination of Trump’s outsized media presence with Republican leaders’ timidity and disunity will help Trump to continue to set the narrative—regardless of what GOP leaders may prefer or hope.

With this in mind, hunkering down to ride out the storm may instead contribute to a perfect storm: a Clinton presidency with a majority in one if not both houses of Congress, a Republican Party brand established by the victorious Democrats rather than by Republicans, and a significant number Republican voters who feel betrayed by leaders whose actions ultimately helped Clinton to win. Anyone hoping to pick up the pieces after November should therefore contemplate sorting through hurricane-level wreckage, in which there is little left to put back together.

Notably, Republican discomfort with Trump stems from what he has said, while one might expect their resistance to Clinton flow from what she has done. She has a record as a Senator and as Secretary of State; Mr. Trump has no comparable record in public service. This does not excuse Trump’s comments on race, which have at times been inexcusable. Still, in comparing the two candidates, it is important to remember what one is comparing—words and deeds are not the same thing. Are Hillary Clinton’s misdeeds and failures as Secretary of State obviated by Donald Trump’s offensive language? And if one compares words to words, is her statement that “if Congress refuses to act, as president I would do everything possible under the law to go even further” than Barack Obama in using executive orders to make immigration policy less problematic than Trump’s wall-that-will-never-be-built? Republicans familiar with the Clintons’ creative legal interpretations might think twice about that.