There could be no better karmic end to this election than Donald Trump placing Republican leaders at the center of the kind of conspiracy theory those same Republicans typically foment against Hillary Clinton, while she contentedly allows them to spread.
On Monday, House Speaker Paul Ryan told Republican members of Congress he will no longer campaign with or do surrogacy work for Trump, and Trump has responded by insinuating that Ryan is part of a conspiracy to deny Trump the presidency and, by extension, to deny Trump supporters the champion they’ve staked their livelihoods on.
At a rally on Wednesday, Trump complained that Ryan didn’t call him to congratulate him for his performance in the second debate. “Wouldn’t you think that Paul Ryan would call and say, ‘Good going’?” he asked. “He doesn’t do that. There is a whole deal going on there. There is a whole deal going on and we’re going to figure it out. I always figure things out. But there’s a whole sinister deal going on.”
It should go without saying that there is no secret bipartisan cabal working to defeat Trump, and that Ryan in particular has humiliated himself repeatedly this election for the sake of his party, his policy agenda, and his own political hide. He has attacked Clinton at every turn of every one of her controversies; he is a strong supporter of voter suppression laws that help Republicans like Trump shape the electorate in ways that favor them; and as speaker, he has stood as an important bulwark against expanding voting rights.
Trump’s innuendo, in other words, is totally without merit. It is also richly deserved.
As the self-styled intellectual and moral leader of the Republican Party, Ryan has become the object of unending liberal schadenfreude. Trump is anti-intellectual, horribly immoral, and yet Ryan’s endorsement stands unbowed.
But it’s important to distinguish between the kinds of Trump offenses that debase Ryan, Republicans, and the American ideal, and those that threaten the underpinnings of American democracy. In each case, Ryan has been largely missing, poking his head up now and again to scold Trump for his most politically damaging offenses. But with respect to the latter kind of transgression, Ryan has been completely absent.
Ryan’s predicament is the subject of such intense interest because of his unique placement within the party. As the speaker of the House, he’s the most powerful elected Republican in the country; he only became speaker because of the wide respect he commanded at all levels of the party; and he commanded such respect because he fashioned himself a highbrow exponent of conservative ideas that are often promoted with boorish pandering. His alliance with Trump strips away the artifice that made his success possible.
On that general score, the focus on Ryan’s support for Trump is fairly myopic. Trump is Trump, and if Ryan wants to trash his reputation, and idly let Trump set back civic norms, that’s his choice. If he wants to support a buffoon who fat-shames women, he is welcome to taint himself with it.
But Ryan is also a constitutional officer, and on that score, he has been unforgivably derelict. Ryan has let Trump taint him with dumb politics and racist politics, but Ryan has been just as mum when Trump has set about smashing the foundations of democracy.
Trump routinely says that if he loses the election, it will be because it was stolen from him, and has encouraged mobs of his white supporters to descend upon black precincts on November 8 to police imagined fraud. On Thursday, he incorporated the election-theft conspiracy theory into a larger one, which he laid at the feet of a shadowy network of financiers and media titans—the elders of Zion whom Trump did not name—working on behalf of his opponent.
“The Washington establishment, and the financial and media corporations that fund it, exist for only one reason, to protect and enrich itself,” Trump said. “The most powerful weapon deployed by the Clintons is the corporate media: the press. Let’s be clear on one thing, the corporate media in our country is no longer involved in journalism. They’re a political special interest, no different than any lobbyist or any other financial entity with a total political agenda and the agenda is not for you, it’s for themselves. Their agenda is to elect crooked Hillary Clinton at any costs, at any price, no matter how many lives they destroy.”
Ryan has said nothing about this speech or Trump’s wider affront to the legitimacy of the election. Ryan presided over the Republican convention where delegates erupted into chants of “lock her up” on an hourly basis, and has been unperturbed by Trump’s promise to jail Clinton if he wins the election.
Like most Republican officeholders, Ryan is petrified of the GOP base. It explains why he has taken a one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach to Trump as his campaign implodes. Ryan may also believe that ginning up panic and paranoia like this is politically expedient for Republicans in a hostile election environment. But it is corrosive stuff, the consequences of which won’t become fully clear until November 8 and after. The fact that Ryan himself is now getting sucked into the wrong side of the conspiracies is rich. And if it ultimately clarifies for him and his fellow Republicans how destabilizing these kinds of conspiratorial politics can be, our democracy will be healthier for it.