As I noted the other day, Paul Ryan’s primary against Paul Nehlen tonight in Wisconsin’s First District was an early test of whether the Republican Party has truly embraced Trumpist ideology and style and rejected pro-immigration, pro-trade, pro-free-markets, pro-life, pro-racial-inclusion “globalism”. The fact that Trump himself ended up endorsing Ryan after playing footsie with Nehlen shouldn’t matter, if this was a contest of irreconcilable ideas, as Trumpist sites like Breitbart portrayed it. The Breitbart site in particular played up Ryan’s vulnerability: a month ago, Julia Hahn trumpeted a poll purporting to show Ryan at 43% (about half his final support), and just last week, Matt Boyle claimed that Ryan was “running scared.” But all accounts show Ryan winning by about 70 points, as the popular vote margins look like Ryan 85, Nehlen 15. People who got their news from Ryan-bashing sources were suddenly brought in contact with reality.
If you take a conventional view of politics, this should be unsurprising. Ryan had huge fundraising advantages, he’s the Speaker of the House (the first ever from Wisconsin, as well as the first Wisconsinite ever to be on a major-party national ticket), he’s a born-and-bred Janesville resident who has (unlike Eric Cantor) never neglected his district and even negotiated as a condition of his Speakership the right to return there every weekend, running against a guy not even born in Wisconsin, and he even had the formal-if-grudging endorsement of his party’s presidential nominee. Plus, Ted Cruz had beaten Trump handily in the district in April.
That last is key: Cruz-type anti-establishment conservatives are not big fans of Ryan, but are even less fond of Trump, and it’s awfully hard to stage a populist primary revolt without conservatives. Yet, conservatives rallied to Ryan in the face of something a lot worse. (I have my issues with Ryan despite his ideological conservatism, but a lot fewer of them than many others do). But if you buy into the Trumpist mythology that we are seeing a sudden and dramatic uprising of the silent volk in which the old rules no longer apply, none of this should matter.
The real lesson here is that the Trumpists are just one faction of the party, and the really hard-core ones are a smaller faction at that. Factions must be catered to, up to a point, or they will leave; but they rarely have the power to just tell everyone else what to do unless they have made common cause with some other, powerful faction. Perhaps tonight can be the beginning of the Trumpists learning what most other GOP factions already know: you can’t go it alone.