What a time to be Paul Ryan.
It was only a week ago that the House Speaker had a plan. He would work to help Donald Trump win in November, he told an assemblage of reporters at a press conference, and then he would force massive tax cuts and a repeal of the Affordable Care Act through Congress using an obscure budget rule. Ryan was so committed to his vision that he had even agreed to campaign alongside Trump for the first time in the election, inviting him to attend a sort of unity appearance in his home state of Wisconsin.
Then The Washington Post published a video of Trump gleefully describing sexual assault. That news was followed by dozens of Republicans announcing that they had had either rescinded their endorsement of Trump, would no longer vote for Trump, or believed he should step down from the ticket.
But not Paul Ryan. On a conference call with Republican lawmakers on Monday, Ryan said he would no longer be defending their party’s nominee and encouraged his colleagues up for re-election to “do what’s best” for them in their district. But, he clarified, he would not withdraw his endorsement.
It seems the House Speaker has grabbed Trump by the metaphorical pussy and won’t let go.
Trump has called Ryan weak. He has withheld his own endorsement of the Wisconsin Republican. He has also firebombed whatever hopes Ryan may have had for a Republican resurgence come 2017. Which is why Ryan’s refusal to formally distance himself from Trump—as Arizona Sen. John McCain, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, and dozens of his colleagues in Congress have—is a curious one.
But not that curious, according to the psychology of lost causes.
“Essentially, it’s what you call sunk costs,” Professor Daniel Molden, an associate professor at Northwestern University and director of the school’s social psychology program, told me. “What you often find is that people will continue to do these things even if they’re not going well. It’s hard to let go of something they’ve invested a lot in even if might have been better if they had. They continue to throw bad money after good.”
The things we do aren’t just the things we do, Molden explained. Invest enough of your time, energy, and money into something and that “dedication to a particular endeavor becomes part of our self-identity.” Give up, and it’s not just your project—or your dream of having a Republican in the White House—that failed. You failed.
Part of this is healthy perseverance. It’s a good thing that we don’t immediately give up on something if it’s not initially working out. Life is cruel, and sometimes the best you can do is be a little human tank that just flips back over and rolls on despite the obstacles in your way.
But this has its limits, Molden said: “That initial tendency is a good thing, but it would be better if we could recognize when we get to a point at which we could better spend that time on something with a greater chance of success.”
And yet Molden, who did not comment directly on Ryan or Trump, has built a career around studying us when we don’t do this, how we protect our egos by digging in deeper.
“So as long as there is some possibility that things could turn around they feel really reluctant to let go because if you give up and declare failure, you are identifying yourself as a failure,” he said. “Whereas if you keep going, if you continue to invest in it, essentially you’re still holding out on the possibility that it could turn around.”
So it’s possible that Ryan is banking that Trump will, say, pull a large zipper on the top of his head and reveal that he has actually been Ayn Rand’s ghost this whole time.
Either that or he’s calculated that dropping Trump is a political reversal he can’t afford. Ryan has watched as the electoral base of the Republican party has stayed with Trump even as he’s called Mexican immigrants rapists, proposed banning Muslim people from entering the United States, called majority-black neighborhoods “hell,” called Carly Fiorina too ugly to be president, called Alicia Machado too fat to be Miss Universe, told Hillary Clinton to her face he would put her in jail.
If Ryan turns on Trump, his base may turn on him.
But the question now is if there’s anything at this point that could move Ryan. “What would it take to make that seem completely irrational, to stick with him?” Molden wondered.
But are people capable of pulling the breaks on lost causes, even if it’s ego-bruising or politically costly?
“People in general, I’m sure, are capable of that. Who knows if politicians are capable of that,” Molden said. “That’s hard to speculate about.”