Churchill famously declared that “politics is not a game, it’s an earnest business”, which is a high-minded way of viewing an enterprise that is often so insincere as to be grievously duplicitous. At the moment, in Washington, the most earnest business comprises two games being played by Republicans, both of which they look increasingly likely to lose and neither of which they are being particularly honest about.

The first game will end with the 2018 mid-term elections, when 33 Senate seats and all 435 in the House of Representatives are up for selection. This is the standard political game to which we’ve long grown accustomed. It is a typical election cycle whereby the party in power must feign cohesiveness in order to pass legislation and prove itself worthy of the public’s trust. It’s about the pragmatism of politics and cutting deals. So, this time, that means the implementation of Trumpcare (no, don’t laugh), tax reform, and formulating and articulating a strategy for North Korea (no, don’t cry). This, you might say, is the short game.

Republicans, however, are already troubled by a different game that reaches fruition two years later, in 2020, when Americans again go to the polls to select their next president. This too is a game that demands party cohesion but of a different kind. The presidential game isn’t so much about speaking with one voice but, rather, sharing what George H.W. Bush once called “the vision thing”. This is a real problem for a party that, at some point between now and then, will have to decide what that “vision thing” means and what they actually stand for. This is the long game. It’s all about ideology and the soul of the Republican Party.

With two games to play, there is always bound to be confusion. What we see from the outside are two contests being played concurrently, each demanding different strategies from players struggling to stay within the often contradictory sets of rules. The result is the current Washington psychosis, with briefings behind cameras completely at odds with the things we see on our screens. Ex-presidents mutter warnings but they name no names, while current establishment figures – Reince Priebus, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan – grind their teeth but speak admiringly about the President. One game demands that the bulk of traditional Republicans profess their unnatural loyalty to Trump (standing ovations at this week’s “love fest” on Capitol Hill), while the other game continues to play out until it reaches the inevitable final innings when they give in to their natural instincts and all stab him in the back.

So much for the context. In terms of the play-by-play, this week saw a significant change to the team line up, with Senator Jeff Flake announcing his retirement from the short game. This came after Senator Bob Corker announced that he too would not be standing for re-election in 2018. Yet if it looks like the retirements of Corker and Flake amount to a rare victory for Trump, freeing up two seats (three if you factor in the declining health of Trump’s nemesis, John McCain), the reality is that both men intend to use their remaining 14 months in office to help the GOP win long. It’s a clever and perhaps noble strategy. Ceding the short game to Trump, they have set aside their immediate political ambitions in order to help rescue the Republican Party.

Reporting around the two decisions has naturally focused on their differences with Trump. Both Flake and Corker went out of their way to condemn the “adult day-care” President and, certainly, recent controversies have tended to orbit around his petty insults, childish remarks, deep-seated insecurities, and growing authoritarianism. At the same time, it’s important to realise that the actions of Corker and Flake are not entirely about Trump. It’s true that both would struggle to win in 2018 given their hostility to the current president, but both are outliers for rebels unwilling (or unable) to make their feelings known at this time. In the long game, Trump is fairly irrelevant. There is no “Trump Doctrine” that will serve as his lasting legacy to the intellectual life of the conservative movement. If Trump is remembered, he’ll be remembered for the party rules that will no doubt be introduced to prevent another cuckoo from invading the Republican nest.

What Flake and Corker are really responding to is the right-wing populism that Trump represents. The events of this week provided the first obvious signs of the Republican mainstream seeking to relocate their party and to counter the aggressive ambitions on the far right where Steve Bannon is growing more vocal.

Bannon, in all of this, is the key. The Hill reported this week that he is himself considering a run for the presidency and though it seems, at first glance, fairly risible, it would not be entirely ridiculous. For all his sins, Bannon is a true ideologue and the long game is a struggle between competing ideas. It’s why the fight circumvents Trump and why Jeff Flake’s revolt come as no shock. Published earlier this year, Flake’s book, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, was a love letter to traditional American conservative themes of fiscal responsibility, internationalism, free trade, and the twin principles of federalism and democracy. When Flake admits, as he did this week, that he’s now a “Rhino – a Republican in name only”, one should remember that this comes from the man who was a true conservative back when Donald Trump was a true democrat. Flake is forcing the point that his brand of conservatism is now at odds with the new Republican brand imbued with Bannonism. He is demanding that his fellow Republicans make a choice between him or Trump (the Bannon proxy). In the short game, they’ll choose Trump. Long game: Flake will win.

This ideological battle for the conservative movement is the overarching narrative within which the petty soap opera of personality politics is being played out. The Republican base is already splintering but when the schism happens it’s doubtful if Trump will be the figurehead for either side. In all likelihood the break will happen in the wake of an electoral defeat. The party will also not fracture down the middle but, probably, along the lines that Harry Enten on ThirtyFiveEight reckons is about 15% of the Trump vote. The GOP will be restored to the centre ground, carrying with it the majority of the Republican base. Whether it will remain the natural party of government is really the issue here. It’s the job of establishment Republicans to ensure that their natural 40% doesn’t become a natural 30% or less. If they fail, Democrats will be delighted and Steve Bannon could well become the best thing that’s ever happened to liberals in America.