By Bret Stephens
Shortly after last year’s midterms, when Republicans failed to take the Senate and eked out only a thin majority in the House, Paul Ryan gave an interview to ABC’s Jonathan Karl in which he described himself as a “Never-Again Trumper.” It’s worth recalling what Ryan and other Republicans said about Donald Trump the first time he ran to see what a sham this feeble self-designation is likely to become.
In 2015, Ryan, the House speaker then, denounced Trump’s proposed Muslim ban as “not conservatism,” “not what this party stands for” and “not what this country stands for.” Then-Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana privately complained that Trump was “unacceptable,” according to the G.O.P. strategist Dan Senor, before he accepted the vice-presidential nomination. Ted Cruz called Trump a “sniveling coward” for insulting his wife, Heidi, before declaring that “Donald Trump will not be the nominee.”
They all folded — and they all will fold again. Their point of principle wasn’t that Trump had crossed so many moral and ethical lines that they would rather live with a Democrat they could honorably oppose than a Republican they would be forced to dishonorably defend. Their point was simply that Trump couldn’t win. When he did, they become powerless to oppose him.
Seven years later, they’ve learned nothing.
In his interview with ABC, Ryan said he was “proud of the accomplishments” of the Trump years, citing tax reform, deregulation, criminal-justice reform, and conservative Supreme Court justices and federal judges. So why oppose Trump in 2024? “Because I want to win,” Ryan said, “and we lose with Trump. It was really clear to us in ’18, in ’20 and now in 2022.”
The best that can be said about this argument is that it’s a half-clever way for Ryan and the type of “normal Republicans” he represents to salute and absolve themselves at the same time — to claim, in effect, that the conservative policy wins of the Trump years were all their doing, while the Republican electoral defeats were all his.
But the analysis is shaky in its premises and dangerous in its implications, at least to Republicans like Ryan. Shaky, because does anyone remember the conservative policy achievements of the Romney-Ryan administration?
Trump, the man everyone assumed couldn’t win in 2016, did. He brought millions of voters into the G.O.P. fold, including former Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders supporters. Did his manners and methods repel an even larger share of voters, particularly centrists who in previous years might have voted for Republicans? Probably. But the inescapable fact is that without MAGA voters there would have been no victory in 2016 and none of the conservative victories of which the former speaker is proud. For Ryan to say “we lose with Trump” may or may not be right, but it fails to wrestle with the fact that Republicans can’t win without him.
As for the danger of Ryan’s argument, it’s that it fails to come to grips with what really ails the Republican Party.
The trouble for Republicans does not lie in the difficulty of holding together a fractious coalition of MAGA and non-MAGA conservatives. That would be politics as usual in any major party. It lies in the depressing combination of MAGA bullies and non-MAGA cowards, with people like Ryan being a prime example of the latter. If there’s anything more contemptible than being a villain, it’s being an accomplice — less guilty than the former, but also less compelling, confident and strong.
That’s what became of Ryan’s side of the G.O.P. in the Trump years. Every policy victory they helped achieve was a political victory for Trump and his side of the party. But every Trumpian disgrace was a disgrace for the Ryan side but not for Trump. The 2020 election lies and Jan. 6 and Trump’s blatant obstruction of justice in the documents case may trouble the conscience of Ryan. The MAGA crowd? They’re cool with it.
This is why Trump is now cruising toward renomination, much to the chagrin of those conservatives who assumed he would have faded away by now. With the honorable exception of Asa Hutchinson and the intriguing one of Chris Christie, none of Trump’s most notable so-called opponents have actually bothered to oppose him. Vivek Ramaswamy wants to be a younger version of Trump; Ron DeSantis an angrier version. But just as people will prefer a villain to an accomplice, they’ll take the original over the imitation.
Even at this point, it may be too late to change the fundamental dynamic of the Republican race, particularly since every fresh criminal indictment strengthens Trump’s political grip and advances his argument that he’s the victim of a deep-state conspiracy.
But if the Paul Ryans of the conservative world want to make a compelling case against Trump, it can’t be that he’s unelectable. It’s that he’s irredeemable. It’s that he brought shame to the party of Lincoln; that he violated his oath to the Constitution; that he traduced every value Republicans once claimed to stand for; and that they will not support him if he is the Republican nominee.
That may not keep Trump from the nomination or even the presidency. But on any road to redemption, the starting point has to be the truth, most of all when it’s hard.
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Bret Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post. Facebook
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