Paul Ryan, who once aspired to advance the vision of conservative icon Jack Kemp, will leave Washington carrying a more tarnished legacy—as the most important enabler of Donald Trump.
No one in the GOP was better equipped, by position and disposition alike, to resist Trump’s racially infused, insular nationalism, or to define a more inclusive competing vision for the party. Instead, Ryan chose to tolerate both Trump’s personal excesses and his racially polarizing words and deeds as the price worth paying to advance Ryan’s own top priorities: cutting spending; regulations; and above all, taxes. The result was that Ryan, more than any other prominent Republican, personified the devil’s bargain the GOP has signed with Trump. And his departure crystallizes the difficult choices Republicans face as Trump redefines the party in his belligerent image.
From the exhaustive reporting of Politico’s Tim Alberta, who was first to telegraph that Ryan was likely to retire, we know that the speaker, expecting a Trump defeat, planned to deliver a speech on Election Night in 2016. He intended to denounce Trump’s racially polarizing agenda as a political dead end and a betrayal of conservatism’s ideals. Instead, when Trump won, Ryan folded the speech back into his jacket pocket—where it has receded deeper ever since.
Throughout his career, Ryan has presented himself as a disciple of Kemp, the ebullient former pro-football player and Reagan-era Republican congressman who sought to expand the party’s appeal to non-white communities. Ryan idolized Kemp and even worked for him: The future speaker was a young staffer at Kemp’s think tank, Empower America, in the early 1990s.
But after Trump took office, Ryan blinked at confronting the president’s appeals to white racial resentments. Pressed for reaction to comments like Trump’s reported description of African nations as “shithole” countries, Ryan managed to mumble the bare minimum of plausible criticism: “The first thing that came to my mind was very unfortunate, unhelpful.” For most people genuinely distressed by Trump’s remarks, “unfortunate” and “unhelpful” were probably not the first words that came to mind; “racist” and “xenophobic” were.
Even more consequential was Ryan’s refusal to challenge Trump on behalf of the young undocumented immigrants included in former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Though the speaker repeatedly promised the “Dreamers” that Congress would protect them, he has allowed the legislation that would have preserved their legal status to wither, after Trump and House Republican hardliners insisted on linking it to poison-pill provisions that would slash legal immigration.