So-called “mainstream Republicans” really are delusional. Either that, or they think the rest of us are delusional. We know this because the buff poster-boy of GOP insider politics, Paul Ryan, keeps peddling the fantasy that there is a high-level Republicanism that has differed from Trumpism. In conversations with Tim Alberta for the new book American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump, the former speaker of the House continues his long-term project of portraying himself as a heroic check and balance on Donald Trump. “Those of us around him really helped to stop him from making bad decisions. All the time,” says Ryan. “We helped him make much better decisions, which were contrary to kind of what his knee-jerk reaction was. Now I think he’s making some of these knee-jerk reactions.”
Say what? Better decisions? Which ones? To exit the Paris Climate Agreement and appoint charlatans who have attacked climate science to the most critical positions in the federal government? To scrap the Iran nuclear deal? To fire the director of the FBI in a fit of anger over inquiries into Russian meddling with the 2016 election? To attack and undermine the Affordable Care Act? To cut taxes for the wealthy and corporate interests in a deficits-be-damned orgy of budget busting? To demonize immigrants and refugees and divide the nation? To identify “very fine people” among the fascists in Charlottesville? To fill cabinet posts with grifters, wild-eyed ideologues, and flat-out incompetents? To make a mockery of the emoluments clause while ushering in the most scandal-plagued presidency in the history of the Republic? To disregard the separation of powers and make the legislative branch of the federal government a servant of the executive branch?
Ryan wants us to imagine that the Trump presidency got worse when the speaker opened his “escape hatch” and canceled a 2018 reelection run that he might have lost. He’s wrong. There is no disputing the role that Ryan and other supposedly “mainstream” Republicans played in charting the course of Trump’s presidency. It is only necessary to read a few more pages of Alberta’s book to find the evidence. “Alberta reports that Trump berated Ryan over a 2018 spending bill because it didn’t include funding for his border wall but then said he would sign it if Ryan were to give him time to build suspense on Twitter,” explains an assessment by The Washington Post, which obtained an advance copy of the book. “Ryan agreed and then publicly sang the president’s praises after the meeting.”
Ryan and other Republican leaders played an awful game from the moment Trump launched his presidential bid in 2015. They collected headlines with mild rebukes of the candidate who became their party’s nominee and then their party’s president. But they invariably rallied around Trump when it mattered.
No Republican was guiltier of this than Ryan. The speaker of the House and the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee was supposedly the embodiment of a conservative, yet “responsible,” Republicanism during the period in which what had once been “the party of Lincoln” was reorganized as not just the party of Wall Street (favored by Ryan and his allies) but the party of Trump.
Ryan’s steadfast refusal to reject Trump’s 2016 candidacy—even as the Wisconsin Republican griped about Trump’s extreme statements—sent a signal that Trump was acceptable to the elites of the Grand Old Party. Ryan’s words provided essential aid and comfort to Trump throughout the campaign, and the speaker proved to be an even greater loyalist after Trump was sworn in on January 20, 2017.
This loyalty has come at an enormous cost—to a nation that is experiencing political chaos at an unprecedented level, to a Congress that has abandoned its constitutional duty to check and balance an out-of-control—and frequently lawless—presidency, and to a Republican Party that Ryan once sought to lead.
Ryan acknowledges in conversation with Alberta that “I told myself I gotta have a relationship with this guy to help him get his mind right,” Ryan recalls. “Because, I’m telling you, he didn’t know anything about government.… I wanted to scold him all the time.”
Ryan scolded Trump when it served his political purposes. When it appeared, for instance, that Trump would crash and burn as a candidate in the final month of the 2016 presidential race—following the release of the Access Hollywood video that featured the Republican nominee bragging about abusing women—Ryan distanced himself from Trump. Yet, in the critical days before the election, Ryan rallied Republicans to the cause, announcing on Fox & Friends that “I am supporting our entire Republican ticket. I have been all along.” That was critical support for Trump, who had no chance of winning a majority of the vote—or even a plurality—but whose aides had identified a route to victory that required maximized support from the GOP base. Trump got what he needed: 88 percent support from Republicans, according to exit polls. That was parallel to the support Hillary Clinton received from Democrats.
What if Ryan had simply refused in those final interviews to discuss supporting Trump? What if Ryan had taken the bolder step of saying that he could not bring himself to vote for Trump? Is it reasonable to suggest that the signal might have cost the Republican the 22,748 votes that gave the electoral votes from his home state of Wisconsin to Trump? The 10,704 votes that gave Michigan to Trump? The 44,292 votes that gave Pennsylvania to Trump? These 77,744 votes, from states where old-school Republicans still formed a substantial portion of the electorate, handed an Electoral College win and the presidency to a man Ryan acknowledges “didn’t know anything about government.” That result might have been averted. But Paul Ryan put partisanship ahead of patriotism. In so doing, he earned a badge of shame that no attempt to rework history can remove.