House Speaker Paul Ryan didn’t want to be put in this position. But as his election to his current post demonstrated last fall, sometimes circumstances put people in places where they must make fateful choices. That’s what Ryan did today in an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN when he said that he couldn’t support Donald Trump. Ryan left the door open for doing so in the future if Trump adjusts his positions and his behavior. But in taking this stand the speaker did two things.

One was to send a signal to other Republicans that they needn’t unconditionally surrender to Trump, as so many officeholders and officials have been doing recently, now that he is their party’s presumptive nominee.

The other signal was to Trump. By warning the billionaire that he can’t take the backing of leading Republicans — even the man who will wield the gavel at the national convention that will undoubtedly nominate him in Cleveland — for granted, Ryan is letting Trump know that if he can’t move himself into the Republican mainstream on key conservative principles and conduct a campaign that the party “can be proud of,” he’s on his own in the general election.

Ryan’s announcement is important not just because of his stature in the party but because it puts the brake on the mass surrender of the rest of the GOP to Trump. With so many other senators and members of the House declaring that they would support Trump, albeit reluctantly, it appeared as if the resistance to his populist surge had collapsed with the withdrawal of the last Republicans still in the presidential race.

While individuals may stand aloof from the Trump nightmare with impunity, it is very different for officeholders and party officials. Politics is a team sport and abandoning your party’s presidential nominee is the sort of behavior that can end a political career or make a person an outcast for life. For the speaker, who is, by tradition, also the titular chairman of the Republican convention, to distance himself from the person the gathering will nominate isn’t just unusual, it’s a historic act.

It is a measure of the disgust that Ryan and principled conservatives feel about the way Trump has hijacked their party that even as his nomination has become inevitable, Ryan can’t bring himself to make a tepid or qualified endorsement.

This creates an awkward split in the party just at the moment when it ought to be unifying behind a candidate.

As Ryan explained, support for a candidate isn’t merely a matter of party label, especially when a newly minted Republican like Trump demands that lifelong conservatives bow to him. Trump may have won the nomination fair and square and with mass support. But the whole point of Ryan’s career has been not so much to advance a party as to promote conservative principles of limited government and a strong America. Getting other conservatives behind him would not, as Ryan implied, involve Trump changing his views on every issue to conform to those of the mainstream. But in the absence of a shift away from prejudiced stands like his absurd and unworkable ban on Muslim travel to the United States, his abuse of immigrants, and his wild and contradictory foreign policy positions there is simply no way he should expect principled politicians to fall in line behind him.

The simple truth is that for many politicians on both sides of the aisle, abandoning principles, even those that they campaigned on, isn’t that much of problem. If they feel comfortable with a man like Trump, who can smear a man and his family and then praise him later in the day (as he did with Ted Cruz on Tuesday), it is because they regard the truth and loyalty to basic tenets of political philosophy as optional. If the ranks of Vichy Republicans who are willing to collaborate with the occupation of the GOP by outside forces that traffic in protectionist and isolationist ideas as well as prejudice have been swelling it is because they regard party loyalty as more important than principle. That Ryan has now stood up and called a halt to this trend will hopefully give others the courage to do the same.

Can Trump change enough to convince Ryan to back him by the time the convention begins in July? He ought to try because although he can count on the support of the millions of voters who gave him so many primary victories, his already slim chances to win in November will disappear entirely if he can’t somehow convince principled conservatives like Ryan to back him.

Can he do it? It’s possible. Trump can be charming and behave when he wants to do so and if he is serious about giving himself any kind of a chance to actually win in November he needs to realize now that winning the nomination is one thing; gaining the support of a unified party is something else entirely. Since he believes in nothing except himself and this ability to continue to con his supporters, it’s not entirely unlikely that he will start trying to make noises like a would-be president and the leader of a conservative party.

But anyone willing to believe that Trump can resist the temptation to be himself and to lash out at opponents hasn’t been paying attention to the candidate during the last year. His gut instincts are always to viciously attack any critics. In the past, he threatened Ryan, saying he “would pay a price” if he didn’t surrender to him, and it’s just as likely he will respond to Ryan’s demand that he change with his usual contempt and gutter vitriol. Indeed, his first reaction was a stark refusal to shift to support the speaker’s demand for adherence to conservative principles.

As Ryan hinted, there’s more to the problem with Trump than ideological differences. Reasonable people can differ on difficult questions. But Trump is not reasonable. He has conducted a campaign that is an embarrassment to Republicans and effectively renders their party unfit to govern. It’s entirely possible that he can backtrack on some of his positions to the point where Ryan might feel able to endorse. But expecting him to behave like a president or even a decent human being over the course of a political campaign is probably too much to ask. Ryan has at least put him on notice that he must change and that other conservatives should make a similar demand if they want to retain the respect of their supporters or their standing as conservatives.

Resistance to betrayal often begins with one man. It will be up to the rest of the party to follow Ryan’s lead if they don’t wish to be tainted by the disgrace of a Trump candidacy.

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