After Donald Trump implied that “Second Amendment people” might have to take matters into their own hands if Hillary Clinton wins the election in November, Paul Ryan responded as he always does these days—with laser-pointed displeasure at the words, but endless tolerance of Trump himself. “It sounds like just a joke gone bad,” he said. “I hope he clears it up very quickly. You should never joke about something like that.”
It was a mealy-mouthed defense—and an increasingly predictable one for a House speaker whose most closely guarded asset, before Trump came along and threatened to tear down everything he’d built, was his reputation for thoughtfulness.
It’s easy to see how Ryan crafted this reputation. He talks about his commitment to conservative principles all the time. He played strategically off the rancorousness of the Tea Party, casting himself for years as the movement’s reasonable, intellectual exponent.
But the most important step in the process came after Mitt Romney lost the presidential election in 2012, and Ryan had to account for it. When the aroma of defeat had finally dissipated, he blamed himself for being insensitive to the plight of the poor, and set about making amends. Two years ago, he relented in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. “[I] gave insult where none was intended,” he said. “People struggling and striving to get ahead—that’s what our country is all about. On that journey, they’re not “takers”; they’re trying to make something of themselves. We shouldn’t disparage that.”
Just four and half months ago, in a highly publicized speech, Ryan confessed to his sin again. “There was a time when I would talk about a difference between ‘makers’ and ‘takers’ in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits. But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong…. So I stopped thinking about it that way—and talking about it that way.”
Among other things, Ryan was demonstrating an awareness that unwise words can have lasting ramifications in politics, and that politicians unwilling to admit error will be haunted like ghosts by incidents of broken faith.
Trump embodies the opposite understanding. He gives no thought to anything he says, which is how he ended up encouraging violence against Hillary Clinton in the first place; and he’s pathologically incapable of admitting error, which is why he’ll let the incitement stand rather than correct the impression.
The fact that Ryan still supports Trump for the presidency is creating cognitive dissonance among those who helped him cultivate that thoughtful reputation. “Paul Ryan is an honorable man who made a terrible error in judgment,” explains conservative writer Jonathan Last.
Few, though, have considered the possibility that Ryan’s reputation was undeserved to begin with.
Ryan did ultimately make amends (rhetorically, at least) for pitting the wealthy against the underclass most of his career. But it’s telling that the problem only occurred to him after it cost him an election—after critics had hounded him about the terrible political and substantive implications of his worldview for years. Ryan was playing with divisive fires all along; they just burned less brightly than Trump’s.
Ryan has proven himself willing to say more passingly indefensible things, too, and has refused to retract them. The difference is that the impulse behind his lapses is a blind ambition to enact a particular policy agenda, whereas with Trump, there is no through line.
It’s easy to forget, after the horrifying Republican National Convention we just witnessed, and after Clint Eastwood lectured a chair at the RNC four years ago, that Ryan’s VP-acceptance speech in 2012 was censured by the often-adoring press for being unusually misleading. He blamed President Barack Obama for the closure of a General Motors plant in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, that had been shuttered before Obama became president; for doing “exactly nothing” to implement the findings of a debt commission Ryan himself had driven to gridlock; and for several other tendentious or false things. When confronted with skepticism from the press, he hid behind bad spin and technicality and deception.
Back in 2011, when House Republicans were trying to extort fiscal policy concessions from Obama, Ryan used his intellectual cachet to claim that briefly defaulting on the national debt—for “a day or two or three or four”—would be harmless if it ultimately forced Obama to accede to GOP demands.
Ryan and his colleagues precipitated a sharp drop in consumer confidence. Their antics alone threatened to send the economy into recession, and if they had actually defaulted on the debt, per Ryan’s guidance, the economic carnage could have been far graver.
Today, the stewards of Ryan’s reputation are aghast when Trump says he might refuse to meet the country’s obligations to creditors, but they mostly overlooked Ryan’s comments five years ago, and he’s never really walked them back. It took his ascension to the House speakership, when the onus to raise the debt limit was falling on him, for his office to admit he now believes the debt limit deadline set by the Treasury Department “is the date.” But if Hillary Clinton becomes president, it’s easy to imagine him reverting to his prior, more reckless view.
When Ryan gave that speech this spring apologizing for the stigma he’d attached to people on government assistance, he foreshadowed the current moment, which by that point he probably anticipated. “There are still going to be times when I say things I wish I hadn’t,” he warned. “There are still going to be times when I follow the wrong impulse.”
He wasn’t just speaking about the future; he was speaking about the past, too. He was, perhaps unwittingly, telling everyone with outsize expectations that they were unrealistic, and that they shouldn’t be surprised about what was to come.