The Republican "leadership," represented most conspicuously by House Speaker Paul Ryan and the party's past four presidential candidates, are flummoxed — astounded! — by the popularity of Donald Trump with a segment of the party they pretend not to have known even existed.
After Ted Cruz and John Kasich surrendered to the inevitable, the leaders proclaimed that they would not put up with Trump as head of the party, setting off a storm of media speculation that the GOP was emulating its great predecessor, the Whig Party, which disintegrated over slavery and immigration in the election of 1852.
It won't happen. At the convention, nearly all of them, including Ryan, will come around for a show of euphoria over Trump, fake for many though it will be. They have to.
Ryan, heeding the trumpets of the entire conservative intelligentsia, from George Will to Ross Douthat, said that without backtracking from Trump he could not give even lip service to a nominee who doesn't share the core values the party has promoted since Ronald Reagan: lower and lower taxes for the rich and corporations; free trade; punitive social policies against women and sexual minorities; bigger defense and smaller social spending; and a militant stance toward those who do not follow U.S. interests in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Pacific.
Trump has flouted all those sacred principles at one time or another and even said good things about Planned Parenthood and the constitutional rights of transsexuals.
But, unless Trump tells Ryan to step down as convention chairman, look for this scene on the last night of the convention: Trump, Ryan and other dissident figures standing shoulder to shoulder, arms raised in victory, in a confetti-littered convention hall.
Though the party establishment and all but one of his colleagues in the Senate despised him, Cruz represented those values more than anyone in the race, but he did not gather even a third of the votes in the primaries. So the party, as Douthat and David Brooks say, should consider whether those goals are really what they should proclaim for the party. Polls have long suggested not. Most Republicans, for example, say the rich should pay higher taxes, a stance sometimes taken by Trump when he is not proposing a huge cut for them.
For all the leaders like Ryan and Cruz who say Trump is not a true modern conservative, there are the Bruce Bartletts, who contend that he is, which is the problem. Bartlett, a Reagan adviser and Bush I treasury deputy, wrote in April that he had voted for Trump, counting on the certainty of his defeat in November: "[T]he Republican Party is sick. It's dying. It just doesn't know it. Anything that speeds up its demise is to the good, because then it can reinvent itself and return as something healthy ... . Trump is a symptom of a disease of rampant stupidity, pandering to morons, bigots and racists and all the stuff that defines today's Republican coalition." Only a giant Democratic victory could turn the GOP around.
If that were so, he should have wished for a Cruz nomination, for while Hillary Clinton is likely to win decisively and Democrats may take the Senate, demographics and the primary turnout suggest that Cruz would fare worse. Demographics, not Trump, are the party's biggest electoral problem, followed by myopia. That is the party leaders' failure to understand Trump's strategic advantage over all his opponents, the triumph over inconsistency.
All his primary opponents except Rand Paul deferred to Trump in the early going because, like the party's leaders, they assumed that his campaign would collapse under the weight of bold inconsistency. He championed a woman's right to choose whether to carry a fetus to term and then said the government should punish them if they didn't; he favored heavy taxes on the rich but proposed a giant tax cut for them; he claimed to have opposed Bush's 2002 invasion of Iraq but research showed that he actually had praised it; he criticized Barack Obama for not taking bold action against adversaries around the world, but then suggested abandoning U.S. allies and encouraging them to develop nuclear arsenals to protect themselves; he denounced trade agreements and promised a trade war with China but said he loved free trade; he said every nation in the world trampled upon the United States but that he would develop close ties with autocratic Russia, which has not a single friend in the world except the besieged Bashar al-Assad. The list is endless.
His life a reality show, Trump understood what none of his party's elite did, which is that disaffected masses, who think things are going badly for them because a black man is leading the country to ruin, distill from all the political rhetoric only what suits them. They hear what Trump says that they like. The rest is chatter.