Paul Ryan has always relied on the assumption that the people he answers to—constituents and reporters—are stupid.
This is why he dresses up his routine deceptions with condescension while slathering us with Eddie Haskell-esque flattery. It’s why he prefaces his highly spun talking points with the proviso that he doesn’t “want to get too wonky here.”
Ryan shows he thinks you’re stupid with fancy graphics suggesting the complexity of the tax code stems from its number of income tax brackets rather than from its vast menu of deductions and other loopholes.
He shows he thinks you’re stupid by making demonstrably dishonest comments about the instability of the Affordable Care Act marketplaces.
And, perhaps most importantly, he shows he thinks you’re stupid in the many ways he protects President Donald Trump from accountability. On Monday night, during a CNN-moderated town hall event in Wisconsin, he offered the following justification for opposing a congressional resolution that would censure Trump for coddling white supremacists:
I will not support that. I think that would be—that would be so counterproductive. If we descend this issue into some partisan hack-fest, into some bickering against each other, and demean it down to some political food fight, what good does that do to unify this country?
Ryan, who was recently gearing up for years’ worth of partisan investigations of President Hillary Clinton, says censuring Trump for coddling Nazis would be too partisan for his taste. What he hopes you’ll overlook is his own power to determine what is partisan and what is not. If a censure resolution passed the House overwhelmingly—reflecting a broad rejection of Trump’s comments after the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia—it wouldn’t be partisan. What makes censuring Trump “partisan” is Ryan’s view that Trump doesn’t deserve it.
But Trump does deserve it. Not only does he deserve it on a basic and obvious moral level, but he deserves it because significant, symbolic rebukes to white supremacy are effective means of driving it back into the discredited silence where it belongs. Ryan is fortunate, in a way, that the events in Charlottesville, and Trump’s response to them, occurred amid a lengthy congressional recess, with Republican elected officials scattered across the country rather than gathered in Washington, D.C. That is the one thing insulating Ryan and his party from answering for their apparent determination to see Trump clear of the political consequences of siding with neo-Nazis. But the winners who will benefit from Ryan’s good fortune aren’t Republicans in Congress or in the White House—they are the racists who will take note when the censure resolution fails.
This isn’t theoretical. White supremacists were pretty happy with Trump’s initial response to Charlottesville, undeterred by his second, and absolutely thrilled with the unhinged defense of Nazi marchers he offered on the third go.
By contrast, after upwards of 10,000 peaceful counterprotesters dwarfed a dismal gathering of white supremacists in Boston over the weekend, the anti-Muslim group ACT canceled scores of “America First” rallies scheduled for Saturday, September 9.
The lesson in this contrast is that hate-group organizers and their supporters respond to signals, and the signal Paul Ryan wants to send them is that he will meet their ascendency with a Facebook post, an exceedingly gentle slap on the wrist for the president, and a strongly worded rejection of any meaningful efforts to drive them out of the sphere of acceptable discourse.
As a reminder, Trump volunteered last week that some of the early Charlottesville marchers were “fine people.” Among other things, those “fine people” were chanting “Jews will not replace us.” That chant is anti-Semitic on its face, but the plain text of it doesn’t quite capture how hateful and violent the underlying sentiment is.
The “fine people” of the so-called alt-right claim that Western society is beset by a subversive process called “white genocide,” in which an imagined array of social forces permit ethnic minorities to foster the advancement of their own races while enticing white people to miscegenate, diluting whiteness out of existence. Whether they genuinely believe this or simply pretend to believe it as a mobilizing tool may vary from person to person, but the concept is despicable either way. Jews, of course, are a tiny minority in the United States, but in alt-right lore, they contribute to the fictive white genocide through control of media, finance, and so forth—all the familiar anti-Semitic tropes—which together prop up the forces threatening white dominance and even whiteness itself.
The footage of this chant at the initial Charlottesville march was widely available before Trump touted the “fine people” in the crowd. And yet Paul Ryan doesn’t think the president deserves censure. Ryan is wrong: we are not stupid. But how good are our memories? If the Speaker is hoping that public outrage will have fizzled by the time Congress reconvenes in September, he may be in for a surprise.