From Golden Boy To Fool's Gold: The Decline Of Paul Ryan

It is strange to see Paul Ryan looking like the subject of a hostage video.

This, of course, is the effect of being confronted by reporters with the existence of Donald Trump. But Ryan became a prisoner long ago -- first, of the rigidity of his ideas; second, of his party's fratricide and incoherence. Beneath the narcissistic railings of a carnival barker Ryan surely hears the premonitory echoes of his own political demise.

True, Ryan has more going for him than the right-wing lumpenproletariat of the House Republican caucus, whose shrill rhetoric and dull intellect reflect the primitive world of gerrymandered districts, separated by talk radio from the reality which lies beyond.

He radiates clean living, with the pleasantly sharp featured and sincere affect of a dedicated high school gym teacher. Buoyed by his Catholic faith and a secure and prosperous family, he endured losses while still young -- the sudden death of his father, a grandmother afflicted with Alzheimer's. He became serious before his time, a hard worker in and out of school. He was marked for leadership early.

Politics does not seem to have changed his essence. He sleeps in his office, goes home to his family in Wisconsin as soon and often as he can. His pursuits are the same -- hunting and fishing -- and so are his friends from youth. By all appearances, he is as grounded as politics allows. And, more than his Republican peers, he has a passion for ideas.

But here, for many, lies the problem -- those ideas, too, are rooted in his youth. Specifically, college -- that heady time of imbalance between intellectual self -- confidence and one's actual experience of life.

Most of us recover. But Ryan, perhaps, less than most. Thus his distressingly attenuated enthusiasm for the novels of Ayn Rand. Though the young Ryan was also devoted to the free market abstractions of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, Rand became his intellectual wellspring.

For those whose short memories confer a certain mercy, a refresher course. In the estimate of critics, Rand's prose style was turgid and declamatory. But the real problem is her worldview.

In Rand's telling, altruism is a sham, social consciousness a cover for envy of one's betters, government the enemy of individual enterprise. Only the creative selfishness practiced by a small class of capitalist superpeople -- the sole characters for whom Rand does not feel a withering contempt -- can rise above our collective mediocrity.

This is social Darwinism run amok -- a Hobbesian landscape in which, quite telling, no children appear to complicate her avatars' single-minded pursuit of wealth. It is a world which has never existed, and never will, save in the minds of readers privileged enough -- and, in candor, white enough -- to imagine it in safety.

To say the least, Rand's appeal to the political lab rats who comprise the Republican base -- embattled white and blue collar folks -- is roughly zero. But such has been Ryan's enthusiasm for Rand that, until it became an embarrassment, it seemed near -- boundless.

Well into his congressional career, he credited Rand for inspiring him to enter public service; cited her as the source of his value system; and required his staffers to read her novels. "Ayn Rand," he asserted, "did the best job of anybody making a moral case for capitalism." Even now, his quarrel is not with her dystopian economics, but her atheism.

Thus the yawning gulf -- too little noted for far too long -- between the philosophy of Paul Ryan and the actual lives of Republican base voters to whom he must appeal.

Start with the epynomous "Ryan Budget."

For lack of competition, Ryan has become the GOP's "serious thinker" on fiscal matters. In college, a friend recalls, Ryan's serious thinking centered on vigorous advocacy of trickle -- down economics. Problem is, it still does.

In its various iterations, the Ryan Budget offers enormous tax cuts for the wealthy; eliminates taxation of capital gains, dividends and interest; and abolishes the corporate income and estate tax. Some versions partially privatize Social Security; privatize Medicare; fund Medicaid through block grants to the states; and eliminate the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance. Other versions decimate Medicaid and eliminate Obamacare without anything to take its place.

In a time when many students are buckling under the weight of student loans, the Ryan plan tightens eligibility for Pell grants, drastically reducing the potential beneficiaries while shrinking the amounts available. Student loans begin accruing interest while the students are still in school. And, ironically, Ryan champions the for-profit colleges which, in many cases, are an expensive consumer fraud paid for by looting Pell grants.

None of these proposals address the needs of those embattled workers on whom the GOP depends. But Ryan advocates these measures as a grown-up effort to balance the budget. Far from it, for the plans are rooted in wishful thinking, calculated evasions, and lousy math. This is ideology, not budgeting. And it marks Ryan's besetting weakness: a preference for philosophy over fact.

Examples? Ryan's math depends on a hoary assumption which has been empirically disproven time and again -- that tax cuts at the top increase economic growth and, like magic, generate more tax revenues. Thus Ryan skips over enormous revenue losses which will inevitably explode the deficit.

But his intellectual dishonesty is far more comprehensive. He proposes to eliminate tax loopholes and deductions -- which remain nameless. And he assumes zero growth in domestic discretionary spending -- which, according to Paul Krugman, means a 25 percent cut adjusted for inflation and increased population.

This would further slash spending on transportation, education, housing, health-related research, veterans' assistance, homeland security, the justice system and environmental protection. Ryan spells out none of this.

Inescapably, the plan punishes the most vulnerable. It cuts down on food stamps, unemployment insurance and, of course, entitlement programs which can be reformed in far less draconian ways. And virtually all the tax cuts go to the top 1 percent. Little wonder, then, that Ryan is a favorite of the Republican donor classes, including the funding circles of Paul Singer and the Koch brothers.

Little wonder, too, that students of the Ryan plan assert that it would markedly increase poverty and income inequality. With a few more tweaks, one could fairly call it the Ayn Rand Budget.

But reality has started gaining on Paul Ryan -- fast.

In 2010, he and his House cohorts -- Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy -- recruited congressional candidates from the hard right by stoking Tea Party anger. But that same anger led to Cantor's humiliating primary defeat by an extreme right-winger. And then the trio's rageful janissaries brought down John Boehner and blocked McCarthys bid to succeed him.

Desperate, the Republican caucus offered Ryan the speakership. His reluctance to accept this poisoned chalice was painful to watch. He knew too well the forces which awaited him -- he had helped put them where they were, and now they were consuming their political parents. Only Ryan was untouched.

And so this man of ideas went from the safety of floating dubious budgets to presiding over a caucus beset by extremists. Worse, he assumed responsibility for one branch of a divided government, where the only alternatives to compromise are impotence or apocalypse - shutting the place down.

So far impotence is winning.

Ryan can't turn the "Ryan Budget" into law -- if the Senate didn't block it, President Obama would. But too many in his caucus won't support a compromise, even one which achieves key Republican priorities. Indeed, some of his right-wing progeny will only follow Ryan if he jumps off the fiscal cliff -- a political death spiral for his own career.

In short, the GOP's presumptive savior is being swallowed by his own ideas and those who believe in them most fiercely.

And now comes Donald Trump.

Ryan's dilemma was captured by his recent announcement of a plan to fight poverty and unemployment through block grants to the states. This proposal, at least, is interesting, though it requires an increase in funding which his caucus is unlikely to embrace. Moreover, it included a truly Randian proposal -- repealing a new government regulation requiring that retirement advisors serve the interests of their clients, instead of profiting by steering them into high -cost investments. And the announcement itself - set in a struggling DC neighborhood - was overwhelmed by reporters' questions regarding the latest idiocy from Trump.

This moment, too, was rich in irony. For the stark truth is that Trump is a political mutation spawned by Paul Ryan's "ideas."

Ryan has long stood for tax cuts for the wealthy; free trade; slashing entitlements; shredding the social safety net; reforming immigration to benefit employers; and other nostrums favored by the commercial interests which fund the party. So how have Ryan and the GOP sold this to their base?

They haven't, really. Instead the GOP offered diversionary scapegoats for their voters' economic insecurity -- inefficient government, welfare recipients, and thinly veiled attacks on Democratic "interest groups" -- i.e., minorities.

In his crude and opportunistic way, Trump ripped the party's mask off. He took the tacit racism of all too many Republican officeholders and made it overt -- targeting Muslims, Hispanics and, with barely less subtlety, blacks. He said that free trade agreements betrayed American workers. He stood up against cuts in Social Security and Medicare. He questioned tax cuts for the rich. And, of course, he promised to build that Wall.

In sum, he was everything that Paul Ryan is not. And the base loved him for it. Only Trump's historical illiteracy prevented him from narcissistically misappropriating Martin Luther King by telling his followers that, under "Trump", they would be "free at last" -- in this case from Ryan and the Republican donor classes.

For them, Trump poses a hydra-headed problem. He has pretty well trashed their free-trade agenda: to the distress of Chamber of Commerce types, Trump is competing with Bernie Sanders for restive voters displaced by the global economy. In the process, he has turned the GOP's attack on identity politics into a defense of embattled white folks against the supposed depredations of a multiracial society.

Establishment Republicans were horrified. Though too intimidated to say very much, they knew that Trump's alienation of minorities was a demographic loser. And when racism stops whispering and starts screaming, polite Republicans begin squirming.

And so, yet again, they turned to Paul Ryan. Not only was he the party's highest elected official, but it's defender of serious ideas -- indeed, its very conscience. He became the GOP's St. Thomas More, it's man for all seasons.

And so, like More, he dithered. Perhaps because he knows too well how the story ends, and dreads his own political beheading.

For weeks, he refrained from endorsing Trump, providing cover for worried Republicans while cloaking himself in principle. But for a man bent on preserving his own political life and, quite likely, running for president, this pose had a half-life of its own.

To pave the way for an endorsement, Ryan pretended to believe that the narcissistic casino magnate was buying into his serious ideas, facilitating their passage should Trump become president. But in the primaries Trump had kicked his agenda to the curb, and now was treating Ryan to condescension and veiled threats. And in Ryan's own caucus, nervous Republicans were pushing him to back their presumptive nominee.

At last he did so, penning a letter to his hometown newspaper which, it was clear, he wished were written in invisible ink. Promptly, Trump rewarded him by attacking the federal judge presiding over a lawsuit against the bogus Trump University -- converting a respected Indiana-born jurist into a biased "Mexican" resentful of Trump's wall.

Confronted with this evidence of blatant racism - not to mention emotional disturbance -- Ryan was compelled at the anti-poverty press conference to denounce Trump's virulence as "the textbook definition of a racist comment." And then this apostle of Republican inclusiveness reaffirmed his support for Trump -- because, after all, he would be better than Hillary Clinton.

Really? Paul Ryan truly prefers that a narcissistic, ignorant, ungovernable, unqualified, race-baiting, misogynistic moron becomes our next president? The New York Daily News captured the moment perfectly, tagging photos of Trump and Ryan with the lethal headline: "I'm With Racist!"

It will only get worse.

On Sunday, Trump reacted to the slaughter perpetrated by a demented ISIS sympathizer at a gay nightclub in Orlando with the odious demagoguery which is his trademark, doubling down on his call for a ban on all Muslims from abroad, asserting that American Muslims at large "know what's going on" regarding terrorism, and congratulating himself on his supposed prescience in identifying these threats. He then topped this dangerous and irresponsible scapegoating -- so damaging to our national security and national fabric -- by implying that President Obama was complicit in, or at least tolerant of, terrorist violence against Americans. With every repugnant utterance from Trump, Paul Ryan becomes a little smaller.

And so, in the end, Ryan is not merely a captive in Trump's hostage video. He is a politician caught between his rejected ideology, and the racist pseudo-populism of an interloper who emerged from the political and moral void he and his party helped create.

Trump, of course, will lose. But he will leave behind a Republican Titanic, headed for an electoral iceberg which will shatter the party for years to come.

Ryan may survive as speaker by clinging to some piece of ideological flotsam -- if only because no one else will want the job. But he will never rise above the waterline -- not in 2020, or ever. The shipwreck is catastrophic, and its fatalities include the party's would-be savior, President Paul Ryan.