Speaker of the House Paul Ryan gave a nice speech about treating people decently to a group of young House interns yesterday. Despite the fact that he never mentioned his name, it was nonetheless seen as a rebuke to a 60-year-old adolescent named Donald Trump.
Ryan's not the first, of course. Just two weeks ago, the man with whom he once shared a presidential ticket said much the same thing although as a private citizen, he could be much more explicit. Mitt Romney called Trump out, saying, "He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president. And his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill." Make no mistake, the 2012 Republican presidential ticket thinks that Mr. Donald Trump has very bad manners.
Ryan had earlier issued some mild criticisms of Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the country and his refusal to disavow the KKK, which is what passes for responsible Republican leadership these days. After all, he's second in line for the presidency. It's literally the least he can do.
But yesterday he got more personal. Ryan talked about his time as an intern with Jack Kemp, a Republican who was known for his empathy and portrayed that era as being a time when our government was serious and responsible. And he reminisced fondly about the good old days on the Ways and Means Committee during, his first years in Congress in the early 2000s, recalling that everyone treated one another with respect and behaved with decorum back then.
That does sound like an oasis of civility in a body that had just spent eight years obsessed with witchhunts, scandalmongering and impeachment, and where committee chairmen would publicly call the president a "scumbag." And he didn't mention that at the same time he was learning from Kemp about the plight of those less fortunate, the party to which he belonged was dominated by a malevolent figure by the name of Newt Gingrich, a man who has done far more to degrade our politics than anyone who's running for president today. Indeed, Donald Trump wouldn't be where he is if Gingrich hadn't built the modern GOP in his image.
Gingrich and his crew were the original "Freedom Caucus" back in the late '80s and early '90s, right-wing firebrands who believed that the party needed to upend the establishment to create a new congressional majority. When George Bush Sr. made a compromise deal with Democrats to raise taxes and cut spending to reduce the deficits run up during the Reagan years, the Gingrich rebellion was instrumental in his defeat two years later. And two years after that, largely in reaction to the election of Bill Clinton whom they considered to be an illegitimate president, they won 54 seats in the House, turning it Republican for the first time in four decades.
Gingrich became Speaker and initiated an era of brutal slash-and-burn politics. And although it wasn't characterized by the anarchistic obstructionism of Ted Cruz and company more recently, the demeaning rhetoric and grotesque character attacks we see in the current campaign come right out of the Gingrich playbook. And that's literally true -- he had an actual playbook that was called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control," which he distributed to Republican candidates all over the country under the auspices of his "educational" PAC, called GOPAC.
It gave these candidates a list of positive words to use to describe themselves and negative words to describe their "enemy," the Democrats. Here are just a few examples: decay, failure, collapse, deeper, crisis, destructive, sick, pathetic, lie, liberal. That's just for starters.
And like Donald Trump, Gingrich was a master manipulator of the media. He complained incessantly about bad coverage from the liberal media even as he spent more time in front of the cameras than anyone in politics. He said outright that he was "reshaping politics through the news media." And he realized that "fights make news" and made sure to provide plenty of them.
That's the party to which Paul Ryan belonged in the late '90s, when he decided to run for Congress. He knew what he was getting into. It was anything but a genteel gentleman's club.
Yesterday he expressed some regrets for being harsh in his own rhetoric, citing as an example when he characterized people who needed government benefits as "takers" compared to the noble "makers" of the 1 percent. He explained:
"But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong. 'Takers' wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don't want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point."
It was wrong. But he shouldn't be too hard on himself. He had been marinated in Republican dogma for years which held that people who depended on government to survive were nothing more than lazy sods who refused to work for an honest dollar. That attitude has pervaded the conservative movement at least since the 1970s, when that shining light of compassionate conservatism, Ronald Reagan, popularized the myth of the "Welfare Queen." The GOP's small government philosophy has always been, to some degree, about the government taxing the hard working Real Americans to subsidize the undeserving.
But there was another influence on Paul Ryan who also has a lot to answer for if we are assessing the harsh, degrading rhetoric of modern conservatism: Ayn Rand. It wasn't all that long ago that Ryan wasn't giving sensitive speeches about empathy and caring, but was instead giving his interns his personal guidebook, "Atlas Shrugged," for Christmas. He was such a devotee that he gave a speech at the Atlas Society, testifying to its great influence on his life. As recently as 2009, he was singing the praises of Rand "moral teachings":
The issue that is under assault, the attack on democratic capitalism, on individualism and freedom in America, is an attack on the moral foundation of America. And Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism, and this to me is what matters most.
It is not enough to say that President Obama's taxes are too big, the health-care plan doesn't work for this or that policy reason, it is the morality of what is occurring right now and how it offends the morality of individuals working toward their own free will, to produce, to achieve, to succeed, that is under attack. And it is that what I think Ayn Rand would be commenting on, and we need that kind of comment more and more than ever.
Many teen-agers get caught up in Ayn Rand's philosophy, extolling as it does the selfishness and puerile sexuality of the adolescent psyche. Ryan was 39 when he made that speech, so he has no excuse. Neither did this famous man, who explained the Randian way of thinking that captured so many impressionable young people who later formed the intellectual backbone of the conservative movement. A letter to the New York Times in 1958 complaining about a review of "Atlas Shrugged":
To the editor:
Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should,
That is probably the most succinct definition of Rand's philosophy and one that exposes the heartless cruelty underlying so much of the conservative creed. Sure, it sounds more civilized than the dreck Donald Trump is spewing, but it does explain why so many Republicans are starry-eyed over a pompadoured billionaire promising to make the country rich, rich, rich. He's a comic book version of the book's heroic "producer," John Galt.
Paul Ryan's budgets have always been the product of his Randian education. As Jonathan Chait pointed out, when he issues his inevitable dire warnings of collapse, he isn't really referring to deficits (which he has had no problem supporting); he's "invoking Rand's almost theological certainty that when a government punishes the strong to reward the weak, it must invariably collapse. That is the crisis his Path to Prosperity seeks to avert." There is little evidence that he's changed his mind about any of that. He just thinks it would be better not to be rude about it.
So while he may be softly chastising Donald Trump for his rudeness and bad manners, it's highly unlikely that anything fundamental in the GOP has changed. All these modern Republicans, whether Rand-loving "intellectuals" like Ryan, power-mad hawks like Dick Cheney, anarchic nihilists like Cruz or vulgarians like Trump come from the same toxic ideological swamp.
It's a positive step that Ryan thinks it's a good idea to be more respectful of our fellow citizens. But he's going to have to dig a lot more deeply if he wants to cure what ails his party. Its problems can't be fixed with etiquette lessons.