Speaker of the House Paul Ryan announced on Wednesday that he would not be seeking reelection, leaving the Republican Party even more concretely in the hands of President Donald Trump. When he assumed the office in 2015, Ryan had ideas; he had visions; he had notions of a Grand Old Party very different from the one we observe today. Nevertheless, he also had three children, whom he claims he is retiring from politics to spend more time with. According to his predecessor, a certain Newt Gingrich, “He’s tired.”
Ryan was everything Republicans always wanted to think of themselves as: measured, moral, masculine, a master of policy, family-oriented. The man who was formerly described as the “intellectual center” of the Republican Party has bowed out to a smattering of applause, from those cognizant of what could have been.
Ryan once dreamed of a simplification of the tax code, a smaller social safety net and an inclusive Republican Party. And yet, Medicare and social security are intact; his tenure leaves behind a deficit scheduled to surpass $1 trillion by 2020, in the best of economic circumstances; and the tax overhaul he celebrated this week makes for a lackluster swan song, especially considering what he really wanted — tax code simplification — was lost in the sea of final negotiations.
He stood behind a president who lionized white nationalists in Charlottesville last summer and characterized majority-nonwhite allies as “sh-thole countries.” Conflicts of interest abound; scandals that run contrary to Evangelical family values pop up faster than even “The failing New York Times” can handle. Ryan watched his president tear the Trans-Pacific Partnership apart and demand a laundry list of new tariffs; the longtime supporter of nonpartisan law enforcement institutions watched Trump denounce and excoriate the FBI and Justice Department. These were not the Republican emblems or messages of which a wide-eyed Ryan dreamed.
One of my favorite devices in modern literature is the story of defective resurrection: Tragic hero uses unconventional method to bring lover back from dead; lover comes back wrong, different — tragic hero realizes lover can never truly be with them again.
The story of Ryan and his conference is much the same — to his credit, he inherited a fracturing, radicalizing mess of factions from his predecessor John Boehner, a party on the brink of a debt crisis having just cannibalized its own Speaker and precipitated a government shutdown. But the cost of that resurrection was the final death of the party’s moral character.
It is hard to imagine George H. W . Bush’s Republicans standing behind a president who behaves like Trump. The sort of opportunism that allowed many in his conference to un-endorse and then re-endorse presidential candidate Trump is the same opportunism that ignores the mass murder of children from gun violence and supports accused sexual predators for Senate. I don’t chalk all this up to Ryan. But he did not have what it took to use his youth or intellectual capital to make himself or his office the much-needed conservative bulwark against Trumpism.
Instead, he chooses to jump ship. Is drowning with honor really superior to crashing and burning with the crew?
As for the rest of the party, Ryan’s departure signals something more gravely concerning. Environmentalists often make reference to the “keystone species” of any given environment; inextricably dependent on key ecological factors, this species’ disappearance signals an unsustainable level of toxicity in the ecosystem.
Ryan is the keystone species of intellectual conservatism; he was the man with a plan greater than reliance on adjoined greed or the enduring bonds of wealth or whiteness. He held onto the last vestiges of traditional American conservatism — low taxes, free-market economics, individual liberty, social traditionalism. His disappearance speaks to the death of a party of Reaganomics and the rise of a party of Trumpian ethno-nationalism.
Nevertheless, it’s more good news for the Congressional Democrats, and those of us who would actually like to see the protection and freedom of all Americans. It’s another slew of bad news for the Republicans, making it that much harder to campaign in the midterms; it’s another opportunity for the Democrats to turn things around to better reflect their own party and goals.
Ryan claims he will not be running for anything in the foreseeable future (Stop! Stop laughing!) and we’ll see if that’s true. Policy mastermind and conservative whiz kid or not, Ryan was no friend to average Americans and no hero to the millions of people who depended on programs he tried so hard to sabotage. To be a truly insufferable millennial and quote synth-pop sensation Garrett Borns: “Bye-bye, darling!”
Lily Vaughan is a junior majoring in history and political science. Her column,“Playing Politics,” runs Fridays.