In his final months in Congress and as House speaker, Paul Ryan has been on a farewell tour decrying “tribal identity politics” — the David Brooks argument that today’s politics are more about being against a common enemy than being unified behind a common dogma.
“I worry about tribal identity politics becoming the new norm of how politics is waged,” Ryan said in October. “As conservatives, we always thought this was sort of a left-wing … thing. Unfortunately, the right practices identity politics now as well.”
Ryan is back to being just a conservative intellectual.
He’s attending talks at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank he has close ties to, to explain the “rise of illiberalism” and the “challenges with relativism,” and to answer questions like, “Why are politics a polarized zero-sum game?” (To that specific question, Ryan mused that he was still searching for the answer.)
To hear Ryan describe it from within the safe harbor of the conservative intelligentsia that put so much faith in him, he is curiously quiet on his role over the past two years. As speaker of the House, one of his primary roles was to placate a president who stole his party out from under him and turned white resentment into a political weapon not even Donald Trump and certainly not Paul Ryan can control.
Ryanism — the belief in privatizing Social Security and Medicare, shrinking the national debt, and solving poverty through, among other things, cutting social safety nets — has been pushed to the wayside. You would understand if the speaker were furious.
But instead, Ryan is crisscrossing Washington and the country saying he’s identified the Republican Party’s biggest problem: that its most prominent message to Americans is the race-baiting fear tactics now popularized by the party’s president. Lost in his recounting is the ways the Republican Party enabled it.
Paul Ryan thought he was tuning out Trump. Instead, Trump took over.
When on official House speaker duties, Ryan still speaks positively of the president. When he announced his retirement in April, he said Trump wasn’t a factor in his decision to step away from Congress.
“I’m grateful to the president for giving us this opportunity to get the country on the right track,” he said. “The fact that he gave us the ability to get this stuff done makes me proud of the accomplishments that I’ve been a contributor to. It makes me satisfied that I’ve made a big difference and he’s given us that chance, and I’m grateful to him for that, and that’s really how I see it.”
It was a perfect articulation of Ryan’s calculation with Trump: He would focus on passing legislation reflective of his conservative values, and everything else — Trump’s explicit racism, ethics concerns, breaches of decorum — would go away with a verbal slap on the wrist.
Over two years, Ryan has issued many mild scoldings of (and excuses for) the president; Trump is “new to this,” Ryan said after former FBI Director James Comey said Trump tried to get him to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. “I think he’s just trolling people, honestly,” the speaker said when Trump threatened to pull top government security clearances of people who were critical of the administration. Trump “messed up,” Ryan said when the president seemed to show deference to neo-Nazis at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
But Ryan’s strategy to tune out Trump didn’t work. Trump has suffocated traditional conservative ideals. He isn’t dedicated to “small government,” he’s restrictionist on trade, and he’s anti-immigration. He’s drawn red tape around any Medicare and Social Security reform.
“It can never work,” Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC), a conservative politician whom Trump helped oust in the 2018 midterm elections, said of Republicans’ attempts to work around Trump. “In a legislative branch versus executive branch debate, you can’t have a cacophony of voices.”
Meanwhile, Trump has blown the mask off a Republican Party that has always struggled to gain support from people of color. “Trump famously likes to make the quiet part loud,” Tim Miller, a former Jeb Bush Republican adviser, told me in the runup to the 2018 midterms — a euphemism for Trump’s explicit racism.
It all makes Republicans’ 2012 election autopsy — the soul-searching in the wake of Mitt Romney and Ryan’s loss that said the party had to appeal more to black and Latino voters — seem like a very distant memory.
“It didn’t work in the sense that it’s not an acceptable strategy to ignore rhetoric and speech that diminishes our institutions,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), a more moderate Republican who lost reelection and worked with Ryan on the Republican tax bill, said. “If I was speaker, my balance would have been different, but I am sensitive to the idea — and I have lived it — that you also can’t dedicate your time every day to addressing someone else’s speech.”
It’s on the private stages and within his circle of conservative thinkers that Ryan laments the new Trumpified Republican Party. It’s the party that defends a president who calls black-majority countries “shitholes,” creates false equivalencies between neo-Nazis and anti-fascism protesters using violence, and doesn’t blink an eye when Trump declares he is a “nationalist.”
Away from his duties as House speaker, Ryan will admit: “White identity politics — that is not conservatism. That is racism. That is nationalism,” he said onstage at the American Enterprise Institute.
“He’s deeply troubled by the state of affairs in the country,” Curbelo said. “I know he’s gotten criticisms for not being outspoken enough, but he’s been balancing many interests and priorities over the last two years. But now he’s going to be a private citizen; he’s going to go back to what’s truly most important to him at heart.”
Ryan didn’t do anything to stop Trump’s nationalism
Ryan and his allies say his legacy is that the economy remains strong, Republicans passed a significant corporate tax cut, the military has received massive spending boosts, and Republicans have been proactively reversing the most recent Obama-era regulations.
“I can look myself in the mirror at the end of the day and say I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy. I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal,” Ryan told the New York Times in exit interviews published in August. Vox has reached out to Ryan’s office for an interview but did not receive a response.
Ryan has regrets. In a live-streamed interview with the Washington Post, he said he wished he hadn’t left immigration unaddressed — the issue that is very near the heart of his stated qualms with Trump’s Republican Party. But Ryan did address immigration in Congress: He encouraged a partisan exercise that elevated a nationalist ideology, popularized by Trump.
Those in Ryan’s brain trust say the speaker avoided bipartisan immigration reform out of political necessity. A real debate would have divided the GOP ahead of a difficult midterm election. It was Ryan’s dedication to the Republican Party.
Ryan would only allow votes on immigration bills “that, if they got to [Trump’s] desk, he would sign.” In the end, he threw his weight behind a failed proposal that would have given immigrants eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program temporary legal status for six years, after which they could apply for — but would not be guaranteed — a green card. It granted $25 billion in funds for a southern border wall, made it more difficult for migrants to seek asylum, and allowed migrant families to be detained indefinitely at the border. It also included provisions that would have significantly cut legal immigration levels. Many bipartisan proposals were pushed aside in the process.
Ryan, who is often said to have been shaped by his mentor Jack Kemp — the pro-immigration New York Republican for whom Ryan worked early in his career and with whom he remained close until Kemp’s death in 2009 — allowed for immigration hardliners to dominate the negotiation. The result was a policy debate that clearly reflected Trump’s nationalism.
“It certainly influenced it in a negative way,” Curbelo said of Trump’s hardline views during the immigration debate.
And while those like Curbelo laud the debate, if only for being a debate, the resulting consensus (which failed) was a far cry from the 2005 comprehensive immigration push from Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) that would have created a path to citizenship for nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants. Ryan supported that. It was an even farther cry from Ryan’s Chicago speech in 2013 — with Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), among the most progressive immigration activists in the House — in support of a pathway to citizenship.
It was a piece of legislation made in the mold of a man who seeks to stoke false fear about immigrants.
“Everything is black and white — it’s us versus them,” Sanford said of how Trump talks immigration. “Defining races as good versus evil. Running ads to that effect. There is no notion of an incremental win.”
The problem with politics today, according to Paul Ryan, has nothing to do with Paul Ryan
“We used to talk about Western civilization, which to us meant these classic liberal ideas, and now the ‘blood and soil’ guys have sort of hijacked the term,” Ryan said in a conversation with conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg, passively referencing the elevated platform the Trump presidency has given to white supremacists.
He admits his party responds to what’s now known as “Trumpism.”
“The problem that we have is that there is fresh evidence that this stuff works,” Ryan said of the political expedience of Trump’s white nationalist rhetoric.
Trump’s closing message to voters in the 2018 midterms was explicit: Be very scared of brown people in this country.
Days from the midterm election, the White House unveiled a modern-day Willie Horton ad — the TV spot used as a textbook example of a racialized attack that George H.W. Bush used against Michael Dukakis 30 years ago — featuring footage of Luis Bracamontes, the twice-deported unauthorized immigrant who killed two Sacramento police officers in 2014. “I’m going to kill more cops soon,” Bracamontes is shown saying in court as a caption flashes on the screen: “Democrats let him into our country. Democrats let him stay.”
In House and Senate races across the country, Republicans poured money into waging culture wars. The House Republicans who lost in 2018 — ultimately giving the majority to Democrats — did so in largely suburban districts wary of Trump and his tactics. One ousted Republican Congress member, Mike Coffman of suburban Denver, told me he thought Trump traded losses in the House to win Senate races in conservative states.
But ask Ryan how it got to this point and the Wisconsin Republican becomes the intellectual outsider looking in — no longer the man third in line to the presidency.
“You can monetize anxiety,” Ryan said in a July interview with CBS. “You can monetize anger.”
In another appearance, he blamed the media and 21st-century technology for feeding off Trump’s rhetoric and perpetuating “tribal identity politics.”
“Math is part of our enemy right now,” Ryan said. “It’s algorithms on websites and cable news that are basically saying in order to survive this business model — hits, clicks, and ratings — you better project back to people what they want.”
Nowhere in Ryan’s math is an acknowledgment that allowing the president to go unchecked — from his violent rhetoric and unprecedented untruths to actual policy action — played a central role in what Ryan himself is calling a social and political crisis.