Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, denounced Donald Trump’s remarks about the judge presiding over the Trump University lawsuit as “sort of like the textbook definition of racism.” He proceeded to insist that Trump be elected president for the good of the Republican legislative agenda. When a reporter asked him whether comments like Trump’s undercut what Republicans are trying to accomplish, Ryan responded:
I do think these kinds of comments undercut these things. And I’m not going to even pretend to defend them. I’m going to defend our ideas; I’m going to defend our agenda.
What matters to us most are our principles and the policies that come from those principles and our ability to give the people of this country a better way forward. A better way is what we’re up to here, and we believe we have a better likelihood of passing that than we would have with a President Clinton.
This is an amazing moment in contemporary U. S. politics. Ryan is not only a former vice-presidential nominee, but he rose to prominence in the Republican party as a sort of idealist whiz kid who balanced a commitment to radical, post-Reagan ideology with a keen understanding of the mechanics of government. In a little more than a decade, he managed to move from the margins to the center of party leadership without really sacrificing his core commitment to his vision of conservatism.
My question is this: To whom does Ryan refer when he says “our”? Who is “we”? Does Ryan refer only to his fellow Republican legislators? He explicitly sets “us” against Secretary Hillary Clinton, against the Democrats. As if Donald Trump is not the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Are they—“we,” “our,” “us”—not all members of the same party? Do they not share the same agenda?
It seems to me as though Ryan is perhaps trying to draw a distinction between “our” ideas—the ideas of the Republican party as he conceives of it—and whatever passes for an idea when it is expelled from Donald Trump’s mouth. There’s an unstated sense in which Ryan does not recognize Trump as a Republican.
Then again, in every way that matters, he does recognize Trump as a fellow Republican. That’s why he’s said he’s voting for him. That’s why, literally seconds after calling Trump’s comments the “textbook definition of racism,” he makes the case that voters should choose a textbook racist over Clinton.
It’s tempting to view this as cognitive dissonance or crass hypocrisy or just plain politics. I don’t think that’s as helpful or as troubling as what’s actually going on. Because the truth is that when Ryan refers to “our ideas” and “our agenda” and “our principles and the policies that come from those principles,” he does not speak for Republican legislators alone. He refers also to Donald Trump’s ideas, agenda, principles, and policies. They are now in this together, and Ryan knows that full well.
Ryan’s attempt at rhetorical jiujitsu illuminates (however inadvertently) who the Republicans are right now. Trump’s ideas and principles are racist, by the admission of the highest-ranking elected Republican in America. Just because Ryan disavows particular racist comments in no way insulates him or his party from the plain fact of the matter: they (as identified by “we,” “our,” “us”) are endorsing for president a man whose ideas are soaked in racism. If Ryan is as intelligent as I suspect him to be, he knows damn well that racist policies flow from racist ideas.
He’s apparently okay with that.
Maybe not in the deeply personal, away-from-public-eyes, torment-of-the-soul kind of way. We’ll never know that unless Ryan or his heirs release his private papers at some point, or unless Ryan aquiesces to his conscience and publicly rescinds his endorsement of Donald Trump. But on the most pragmatic level, the level where actual legislation gets turned into actual law; the level where the actual power of the executive office can be leveraged to wreak awesome consequences that affect billions of real people—at this level, Ryan is okay with a “textbook” (his word) racist being president of the United States of America, so long as that president is one of them (“we,” “our,” “us”): a Republican.
Because Ryan’s here to defend the ideas and principles of the Republican Party. Well, Trump’s ideas are yours now, too, Speaker Ryan. So we (that is, the people of the United States and, I guess, the world) now know that, unified under Donald Trump, the Republican Party is, in principle, racist. It doesn’t have to be that way. Ryan and the rest of the Republican Party leadership could very easily make a crucial distinction between them and him by withdrawing their support and endorsements. They could very explicitly encourage only voters who wish to be counted as racists to throw in with Trump on their ballots. Unless and until that happens, however, I don’t think it’s unfair that we include include textbook racism as one of the ideas and principles that the Republican Party has, as of 2016, officially endorsed.