Trump struggles to create unity in a party he fractured

The drama between Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan reveals a gaping fissure in the GOP.

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Ohio Governor John Kasich’s withdrawal from the Republican nomination race two weeks ago lifted the last obstacle between Donald J. Trump and the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Barring an unprecedented development at the GOP convention in July, Mr. Trump is now certain to become the party’s nominee.

The question now is whether Mr. Trump will succeed in his efforts to win over party leaders like Paul Ryan, who has spent his time as House Speaker working to soften the GOP’s image among Hispanics, women, and young voters—the demographic groups which Mr. Trump has most alienated with his polarizing campaign. Paul Ryan and Donald Trump represent conflicting visions of what the Republican Party is and should be, and only the next few weeks and months will tell whether Mr. Trump will manage to unify the party—from establishment stalwarts and hardcore conservatives—behind his polarizing populist message.

The drama over the past week-and-a-half between Messrs. Ryan and Trump has demonstrated the extent of the challenge which Mr. Trump will face in his quest to unify the Republican Party. On May 5th, when asked whether he will support Donald Trump as the party’s nominee, Mr. Ryan told CNN’s Jake Tapper that he is “just not ready to do that at this point.” The comment received immediate pushback from many of the candidate’s surrogates, including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who pledged her support to Mr. Ryan’s primary challenger after the remark. Mr. Trump also responded, threatening to remove Ryan from his position as the chairman of the Republican National Convention in July if he does not change his tune. He also emphasized the popular mandate behind his candidacy and dismissed Mr. Ryan’s claim to the leadership of the Republican Party. In a statement posted on his website shortly after the Speaker’s appearance on CNN, the candidate stated, “I am not ready to support Speaker Ryan’s agenda.”

The following day, Messrs. Trump and Ryan announced that they planned to meet and hash out their differences during the next week. The meeting proceeded as scheduled on Thursday, May 12th, but little progress appeared to be made. In a joint statement released after the meeting, the men spoke in the vaguest of terms about what they had accomplished. “[I]t’s critical that Republicans unite around our shared principles, advance a conservative agenda, and do all we can to win this fall,” the statement read. “While we were honest about our few differences, we recognize that there are also many important areas of common ground.”

Of course, the real question with which Messrs. Trump and Ryan are grappling is not whether Republicans should unite around their “shared principles,” as this statement indicates. Rather, it is whether there exists any coherent body of shared principles between Donald Trump’s nationalist appeals and Paul Ryan’s positive and inclusive conservative vision. In December, shortly after the brash real estate mogul proposed a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” Speaker Ryan took the highly unusual step of rebuking his own party’s frontrunner in the thick of an intense primary campaign. “This is not who we are as a party or a country,” he emphatically declared. “This is not conservatism.”

Mr. Ryan is not alone in his concern about the image which Mr. Trump imparts to the conservative movement. Some prominent Republicans, including the party’s 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, are looking into the possibility of drafting a third-party candidate to face off in the general election against Mr. Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Though such a person would likely torpedo Mr. Trump’s chances of winning the presidency, it would also boost turnout for Republicans in House and Senate races, who would suffer if conservatives dissatisfied with their party’s nominee refused to turnout to vote. But with the right candidate, a third-party effort could succeed. Clinton and Trump are among the most unpopular presidential candidates in history, and a likable, relatively moderate candidate could garner significant support among Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike who are unhappy with their choices this November.

Whether such a challenge to the presumptive GOP nominee is mounted, however, is up to Donald Trump himself. The candidate will need to continue making overtures to the conservative wing of the Republican Party in order to assure its members that he is an adequate representative of their values this November; otherwise, the rapid unification of the party which he desires will not be possible. There is still a sizable contingent of Republicans who feel unsettled by the prospect of a Trump presidency and want—at the very least—his assurances that he will implement an authentically conservative policy agenda once elected.

Mr. Trump also should cede control of many aspects of his public persona—his Twitter account, for example—to his aides in order to begin addressing concerns about his temperament as president. As the New York Times reported back in February, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, if nominated, plans to portray Donald Trump as a brash, impulsive individual “incapable of handling the duties of the Oval Office.” Mr. Trump would do well to head off these attacks by softening his tone, refraining from the juvenile personal attacks which he has employed throughout the primary election, and adopting a more disciplined, scripted message on the stump and in interviews.

Creating this balance will not be easy, however. Donald Trump’s most attractive characteristics—his off-the-cuff, unscripted style; his willingness to engage his opponents; and his lack of loyalty to traditional conservatism—are also the ones which most repulse his opponents. This intractable difficulty will dog Mr. Trump’s candidacy for the foreseeable future, as he attempts to balance a more inclusive message and his loyalty to the populist movement which propelled him to the front of the Republican field.

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