Last night, Paul Ryan wrapped up his speech at the RNC with this: “What do you say that we unify this party?” It was the one line that garnered real, enthusiastic applause. But I cannot help spying some sleight-of-hand here.
In backing Donald Trump, the speaker of the House has made a tactical calculation: Trump might sign off on conservative policy; Hillary Clinton won’t; Trump is a letch, but the ends plausibly could justify the lecherous means. That calculation may or may not be correct. It depends entirely on whether Donald Trump actually cares about the scattershot agenda he has adumbrated, or if he would be happy to be a rubber-stamp. If it’s the latter, then this is the “party of Trump” (as Paul Manafort declared earlier today) in form, but not in substance. If it’s the former, the Republican party is truly rent: between conservatism, broadly understood, and Trumpian nationalist-populism. As of now, no one knows which would be the case.
Ryan’s call for unity, then, demands a follow-up: Unify behind whom? Ryan seems to want Republicans to rally around Trump because doing so would actually be rallying around Ryan (and what he represents, generally), Trump being a more or less empty vessel that could be filled. Trump’s true-believing supporters definitely think otherwise. They want to rally around Trump to repudiate Ryan. Both sides are “behind Donald Trump.” But they have wildly different notions of what “Donald Trump” means.
All of this has been cloaked — purposefully, by Ryan and others — under the guise of anti-Hillary sentiment. That is, favor Donald Trump or not, there is one thing on which we can all agree: a President Hillary is the worst outcome here, period.
But being united against Hillary is not the same as being united for Donald Trump. We’re not talking about real, durable party unity here. If defeating Hillary is the entire content of GOP “unity,” then what’s going to happen, in the (unlikely) event that Trump is elected, is another, especially fearsome clash, when the façade of unity falls, and the party a) suffers a genuine ideological split, or b) Trump de facto hands the reins over to the folks 45 percent of Republican voters thought they were rejecting. In other words: Après Hillary, le deluge.
Maybe it would be better to hammer out those cleavages in the party while in power, rather than out of it. Maybe. But they’re going to be exposed eventually, and it’s going to be ugly when they do. It’s not hard to think that papering over them in the meantime will prove shortsighted.