There’s a lot for which to blame Paul Ryan. His ideological radicalism from 2009 to 2015 pushed the party in directions that made it unelectable at the presidential level. The Republican rank-and-file wanted more health care and less immigration; the GOP congressional leadership consistently offered exactly the opposite. It opened the market opportunity that Donald Trump exploited. Arguably too, some of its members also allowed their personal animosity to Ted Cruz to sway them against supporting the last available alternative to Trump. (Not that Cruz helped. If Cruz had asked them to put aside their personal feelings, and do what’s best for the party and the country, they might plausibly have replied: “When did you ever do that?”)
Yet in the end, Trump is a creature not of the congressional leadership, or the Republican elite, but of the voters upon whom any future center-right presidential candidacy must be based. One can disavow Trump. But if one disavows Trump’s voters, one has effectively surrendered any hope of a center-right alternative in national politics.
I’ll concede: If you define your right-of-center politics as anti-statist politics, maybe you don’t care. The big reveal of 2016 (it was visible to see for much longer than that of course, as I’ve been arguing since 1994) is that Republican voters aren’t anti-statists. People who aspire to lead those voters must recognize that fact and respond to it. If your principles won’t allow you to do that, then you belong not in a political party organized to compete for power, but in an intellectual movement aimed at influencing elites. That’s not a criticism, by the way! Such intellectual movements can change the world, as the environmentalists have done, and the gay rights movement, and gun advocates. Libertarians have won arguments in the past (deregulation of transportation), and they may win arguments in the future (marijuana legalization). But while such movements can shape and bend politics, they cannot form it, because they are inspired by a unitary ideological doctrine and most human beings are not. True parties must be run by politicians, and politicians must make concessions to the refractory and contradictory demands of non-ideological voters.