It would be a stretch to say that Paul Ryan was a beacon of moral clarity during the presidential campaign, but the Republican House speaker’s standards have actually regressed considerably since then.
Early last year, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke expressed his support for then-candidate Donald Trump, who, pressed by CNN’s Jake Tapper, lied. “I don’t know anything about David Duke, okay?” Trump said. “I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.”
Ryan’s response scanned as a threat to banish Trump from the GOP: “When I see something that runs counter to who we are as a party and as a country, I will speak up, so today I want to be very clear about something: If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people’s prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln.”
Like a typical party officer, Ryan maintained that he would support the eventual Republican nominee throughout the primary, and was thus reluctant to utter Trump’s name in any critical contexts. But the fact that he was willing to name his party, and to suggest Trump’s behavior was incompatible with membership in it, made a lot of people wonder if Ryan and other Republican leaders might intervene to stop Trump if his alliance with racists didn’t end.
Instead, Trump went on to win the GOP presidential nomination, with Ryan’s near-total acquiescence. Before the convention, Ryan called Trump’s criticism of “Mexican” judge Gonzalo Curiel “the textbook definition of a racist comment,” but added that the party should nominate Trump and rally around him to defeat Hillary Clinton anyhow. Now that Trump is president, and continues to coddle the scum of the nation, Ryan has withdrawn the party-membership warning from his condemnation of white supremacy altogether. His response to the murderous mob in Charlottesville, and his implicit critique of Trump’s response, read as if they were delivered from a fugue state.
Trump’s allies on the far right would dismiss Ryan’s non-specific condemnation as “virtue signaling,” but in the context of the past year and a half, it looks much more like appeasement than posturing. Ryan and other Republicans distancing themselves from Trump are objecting to Trump’s conduct more weakly now than they have in the past, and barely trying to conceal their true motives.
Since the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville on Saturday, and as of this writing, Ryan has tweeted 18 times. Three tweets (including a retweet of his equally spineless Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) condemned white supremacists. One tweet promoted a forthcoming CNN town hall. Two related to the opioid crisis. The other 13 were about tax cuts.
Ryan’s ideological fanaticism has been apparent for years, and become more widely accepted since Trump began meticulously exposing the hollowness of Ryan’s commitments to anything other than supply-side fiscal policy. “Let taxes be cut, though the heavens fall,” would have been a fitting epitaph for Ryan without Trump’s intervention, and is now uncomfortably close to a literal description of Ryan’s priorities.
But there are no moral exemplars with power over Trump, and most have subverted national interests by appeasing Trump in pursuit of their own narrow ones.
After Trump’s initial comments transformed the disgrace in Charlottesville into a crisis for the White House, only a handful of CEOs on Trump’s business councils resigned unprompted. A few more followed when activists threatened boycotts, but it was only after Trump’s truly unhinged defense of neo-Nazis on Tuesday that the remaining participants responded en masse. Only, rather than resign in disgrace, they connived with Trump to dissolve the councils altogether, sparing themselves the personalized wrath Trump directed at Merck CEO Kenneth C. Frazier, who initiated the exodus, and protecting their access to regulatory favors in the future. Like Ryan, they are now free to criticize white supremacy as an abstraction, without having to cite Trump specifically.
Within the White House, the response has been even more craven. Trump’s closest advisers—at least, those who are not white nationalists personally—promote themselves, individually and collectively, as the country’s saviors. When they then fail to protect the country from Trump’s depredations, they distance themselves from his behavior through anonymous leaks to the press. Thus we learn that Trump’s Jewish aides, including chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, are supposedly “disgusted” with Trump. But Cohn returned to work dutifully on Wednesday, still angling, no doubt, for a plum appointment to the Federal Reserve chairmanship early next year.
Though the president who took America to war with Nazis was a Democrat, and conservatives fought the civil rights movement with billy clubs, Republicans have nevertheless fashioned themselves for decades as the true heirs to both righteous traditions. This rhetorical sorcery has paid off for them in many ways, but it will be put to the ultimate test now that Trump is appeasing neo-Nazis in the role of GOP Grand Wizard.