House Speaker Paul Ryan has yet to condemn Donald Trump’s attempt to establish a moral equivalence between hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), neo-Nazis, and other white supremacist groups, and those who have protested against them. Instead, he has hidden behind a veneer of ambiguity and deception, and may therefore be responsible for helping to advance the cause of such hate groups, and whatever untoward consequences follow from it.
On August 15, Paul Ryan tweeted, “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.” This was in response to Donald Trump’s now infamous statement of August 13, in which Trump condemned the alleged “display of hatred, bigotry and violence” which he claimed occurred “on many sides” during the Charlottesville, Virginia white supremacist protest on Saturday, August 12, in which an innocent 32-year-old woman, Heather D. Heyer, was run down by a white supremacist who drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
Ryan’s claim that 'there can be no moral ambiguity' is itself morally ambiguous, and apparently intentionally so.
Unfortunately, Ryan’s statement was carefully crafted to look like it was unambiguously rejecting Trump’s contentious claim about a moral equivalence, when, in fact, it does not even address it. Ryan says nothing about the latter issue, while using the term “no moral ambiguity” to misleadingly suggest that he was weighing in on Trump’s controversial attempt to obscure the moral difference between white supremacists who espouse racial hatred, and those who oppose them. As such, Ryan’s claim that “there can be no moral ambiguity” is itself morally ambiguous, and apparently intentionally so.
Ryan’s moral failure becomes even more remarkable in light of Trump’s subsequent doubling down on his “on many sides” claim. On August 15, during a press conference, about three hours after Paul Ryan’s ambiguous tweet, in taking questions about the Charlottesville tragedy, Donald Trump stated,
I watched those much more closely than you people watched it, and you had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say that right now. You had a group on one side that came charging in, without a permit, and they were very, very violent.
Here, in stark terms, is Trump’s attempt to drive home a moral equivalence between white supremacists such as the KKK and the neo-Nazis, on the one side, and those who stand in opposition to them, including what Trump called the “alt-left,” presumably groups such as Black Lives Matter.
Still, in the aftermath of Trump’s vociferous attempt to defend the morally indefensible, Ryan has chosen to allow his previous misleading statement to stand rather than to take an unequivocal stand against the president. This is in contrast to Vice President Pence who has been quite clear about where he stands on the matter; for he has stated that he “stands with the president.” Pence has clearly taken a calculated political risk by taking a stand. Ryan, on the other hand, has attempted to escape taking any political risks. However, as the third in line to the presidency, Ryan surely cannot ethically fail to take a clear stand on an issue that goes to the heart of who we are as Americans. The issue is not whether he condemns bigotry. What is ambiguous is whether he thinks that there are “two sides” that are equally, or almost equally, as bad — those of hate groups like the KKK and the neo-Nazis, and those who oppose them.
The French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, admonished that those who participate in unjust institutions are responsible for the injustices that arise out of those institutions. Trump’s rhetoric has already inspired white supremacists including former KKK leader, David Duke, who thanked Trump for his honesty and courage in telling the truth about Charlottesville and condemning “leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.” However, it is the white supremacists groups, not those who oppose them, which have been increasing in number in America, have been most deadly in the past, and may now, therefore, be poised to cause increasingly more bloodshed in the future. As Sartre would instruct, if Ryan remains silent, and more deaths do, in fact, occur (which is likely), then these deaths will also be his responsibility. For, he has signed on to an institution that supports such untoward consequences. Ryan cannot have it both ways. Either he “stands with the President” or he denounces the moral equivalence Trump defends. If Ryan remains silent while attempting to obscure the real issue, under the pretense that “there can be no ambiguity,” then he fails to take responsibility for his tacit acceptance of a view that supports the white supremacist movement. Sartre would say, he is living in “bad faith.” This means that he is a coward who is afraid to take responsibility, and therefore hides behind a veil of deception and sophistry. Unless Ryan is clear as to where he stands on the question of moral equivalence, there can be no moral ambiguity about at least one thing: He lives in bad faith.
So where does Ryan stand? With Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and the likes of David Duke, or with those who stand unambiguously and firmly against them? The media should not let this question slide. It is a monumental question, one that itself can have profound consequences—including whether the Speaker of the House, who is constitutionally also the gatekeeper of presidential Impeachment, truly believes that the President holds values that may make him unfit as the leader of a free and democratic nation.