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The GOP's Trump dilemma

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

The surreal quality of the Republican presidential nomination continues. Donald Trump passed the 1,237-delegate threshold to win the nomination, dashing our hopes and dreams for a contested convention. He tore into Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, just as I wrote in a survey that she would be a strategic choice for him as a running mate. At the same rally, violence broke out.

In the midst of this, elite Republicans have begun to fall in line in support of their party's nominee — but not all of them. Notably, House Speaker Paul Ryan continues to hold out, despite reports earlier in the week that he would endorse Trump.

But at this point Ryan is hardly the only holdout on supporting the unconventional presumptive nominee. There's still some tension — and the Never Trump movement still has a few loyal members. We're also seeing some tepid, noncommittal statements that suggest some support for the nominee, without a full-throated endorsement.

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who faces a tough reelection campaign this fall, is among the most recent to try to strike this balance by announcing his support for, but not endorsement of, Trump. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza quickly issued a corrective, pointing out that the dictionary definition of "endorse" includes support.

I'm tempted to go all pedantic syllogism here and point out that this just tells us that all endorsements entail support but not necessarily that all statements of support are also endorsements. But this isn't very useful. More relevant to the real questions is that the context of party politics might allow a real distinction between endorsement and support.

What's actually at stake is less about the distinction between "endorse" and "support" and more about the distinction between parties and ideologies. As we all know from reading Hans Noel's work, the parties we refer to as polarized are really "ideologically sorted," or consistent. We are accustomed to party labels as very meaningful shorthand for principles, beliefs, and policy stances.

It wasn't always this way. Parties used to be ideologically diverse and held together by common rules and norms, including the idea of party "regularity" — that party members would support the nominee even if they opposed some of his policy stances and even voted against them in Congress. (See Daniel Klinghard's book on party nationalization and the party politics chapter of David Herbert Donald's book Lincoln Reconsidered for more about this.)

This may or may not be exactly what Johnson and other reluctant Trump supporters are thinking. But it does imply that it's possible to invoke party loyalty in support of a candidate while declining to endorse all that the candidate stands for.

This week's episode of Brian Beutler's podcast Primary Concerns illustrates the party loyalty versus principles concept nicely. Beutler talks to two Republican strategists who've arrived at different conclusions about Trump. One has decided to support the presumptive nominee, citing the fact that a Republican will pick conservative advisers and, of course, fears of a Hillary Clinton presidency.

The other, who leads the Never Trump PAC, mentioned Trump's extreme views and statements as well as his character and judgment, noting that he could not imagine himself someday telling his children that he had supported such a candidate.

Sometimes a disagreement about issues or candidates is just that. But the specific tenor of the Trump dilemma highlights some key party politics ideas: ideology (by which I mean both the liberal-conservative dimension and a broader definition of political ideas, including nationalism/racism) and party loyalty can diverge, even though this is something we've rarely seen in recent years.

It also illustrates two very distinct ideas of politics: one that is about forming teams of people who share some ideas, if imperfectly and opposing the other side, and another that's about individuals and moral stances.

This debate rages on the left, too, as the quest for a more principled and ideological vision for the party clashes with arguments about preventing a Trump presidency and supporting the Democratic Party — the team. But on the Democratic side, the contours will be fairly intuitive, with insurgents like Bernie Sanders (who doesn't call himself a Democrat and who has named fellow non-Democrat Cornel West to the party platform committee) on one side and steadfast party types like Clinton on the other.

What makes the Republican version noteworthy is that loyalty to the party label and the team mentality it represents may be the thing that draws people to Trump's insurgent, outsider candidacy.

This post is part of Mischiefs of Faction, an independent political science blog featuring reflections on the party system. See more Mischiefs of Faction posts here.