Why Paul Ryan Might Not Back Donald Trump—And Why He Shouldn't

The House Speaker's refusal to back his party's nominee would be a small but important step away from two-party politics.


Foter / Gage Skidmore

After Speaker of the House Paul Ryan announced last week that he was not yet ready back Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, for president, I wrote that I expected he would come around to eventually supporting the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.

After all, Ryan made sure to qualify his lack of support by saying that he wasn't ready yet, and he suggested that he was open and even interested in the possibility of supporting Trump at some point in the future. It looked very much like Ryan, who had criticized Trump's behavior throughout the campaign, was out to influence Trump's campaign, at least a little, and push him in a direction that Ryan might prefer.

I still think that's a plausible outcome. But I'm no longer quite as certain that Ryan will end up supporting Trump.

Ryan, who is set to chair the GOP convention this summer at which Trump is expected to be nominated, said yesterday that he would be willing to step down from those duties if Trump asked, suggesting that he might be willing to separate himself entirely from the GOP nominee. And Josh Barro of The Business Insider makes a strong case that Ryan won't back Trump, because it wouldn't serve his ultimate goal of reforming the entitlement system and the government's entire fiscal structure. "If (as I think is the case) Ryan's real priority is policy, not power," Barro writes, "he has nothing to gain from backing Trump right now."

That's not a bad way of thinking about Ryan, who has tended to make decisions that give him political power, yes, but which also better position him to advance his policy goals, and to define the GOP's economic agenda. And it may prove right.

But Ryan is also an institutionalist who cares deeply about the strength and cohesion of the Republican party. It's not an accident that when he initially declined to support Trump, he said that it was because Trump had not yet unified the GOP. Preserving party unity and stability is an important goal for Ryan, independent of his policy goals. It's also important because he views a strong GOP, unified behind his agenda (or something close) as a way to advance his policy goals.

Ryan has an almost family-like devotion to the Republican party, and so the struggle here for him is difficult in the way that family dramas are often difficult. The question I imagine he is weighing is how to mitigate damage to the institution. Is it better to back Trump in the name of unity and harmony? Or better to oppose Trump—or at least decline to support him, which amounts to the same thing—in the name of preserving the party's identity, and in hopes of better positioning both himself and the party for whatever comes next?

Ryan and Trump are set to meet on Thursday of this week in order to talk things over, so this drama may end soon. And at this point, I think the outcome of that meeting could go either way, with Ryan backing Trump, or with him stepping down from the convention and declining to endorse the GOP nominee.

And if that happens, then Ryan, who is in many ways the party's standard bearer, would almost certainly end up backing no one for president all. He's stated clearly that he believes no one should support Hillary Clinton, and although a staffer raised the possibility of endorsing a third party candidate last week, Ryan has since ruled that out as well.

So Ryan, the institutionalist caretaker of the GOP, may end up breaking with the party—presumably in hopes that it can be salvaged after the Trump phenomenon runs its course.

That it is even a conceivable possibility that a party stalwart and leadership figure like Ryan might not back Trump suggests how unusual this election cycle is. This is deep into uncharted waters. And it suggests how weak and fractured the Republican party has become—and how much weakness there was even before Trump arrived on the scene.

Ryan won't leave the GOP entirely, and even if he withholds his support, he won't back another candidate, offering no endorsement instead. But even this would represent a significant break from the party, a major step away from Republican party politics as we have known them.

This would be a good step—and not simply because Donald Trump is a dangerous, authoritarian know-nothing who appeals to racists and has toyed with the idea of ordering the military to commit war crimes (although that, of course, should be enough). 

It would be good because it would represent a significant public statement that it is acceptable and even necessary for individuals, even those in prominent positions within political parties, to sometimes work outside of the two-party binary, to say that neither choice is acceptable and that no choice meets the threshold for acceptability.

It would be good because Ryan would be setting a precedent for working outside that system, or at least for declining to enthusiastically accept its many limitations.

It would be good because it would represent the return, in a small way, of power and authority to the legislative branch in a time when far too much has been ceded to the executive

And it would be good because Ryan would be taking a small but meaningful step towards preventing the sort of rotten lockstep thinking that led the GOP to Trump in the first place. He would be saying that parties and their nominees must earn their support rather than assume it, that no one's backing—not even from the speaker of the House—should be taken as a given. He would be sending the message that dissent and self-criticism within political parties is healthy and vital, and should never be treated as something to be silenced or punished.

I don't know what Ryan will decide, and I don't envy his choice, which pits his institutionalist priorities against his personal agenda. But I think it's clear enough that he doesn't really like Donald Trump, and doesn't support Trump's tone or general approach to politics—and with good reason. 

So I hope that, for the good of American politics, as well as his own conscience, Ryan will take this opportunity to definitively say so, and in doing so, make it easier for others to do so in the future.