The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Paul Ryan sadly diminishes himself

Here's Speaker of the House Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) full remarks at the 2016 GOP convention, during which he said it's time to unify the Republican Party. (Video: The Washington Post)

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) played the role of dutiful party man Tuesday night. But it is perhaps a tribute to his intellectual integrity that he exposed the dark shadow that Trumpism has cast over the Republican Party.

Ryan, like other credible conservatives before him, tried to avoid praising Donald Trump. He said, ” Next time there’s a State of the Union address, I don’t know where Joe Biden and Barack Obama will be. But you’ll find me right there on the rostrum with Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump.” That’s a prediction, not an endorsement. He declared that none of the conservative agenda would “happen under Hillary Clinton. Only with Donald Trump and Mike Pence do we have a chance at a better way.” That is not speaking to either’s abilities or qualities. He managed to get through his speech by saying, in essence, Clinton is bad and the GOP House has a great agenda.

But if you were reading between the lines, you also saw an implicit indictment of Trump. ” We know better than to think that Republicans can win only on the failures of  Democrats. It still comes down to the contest of ideas. Which is really good news, ladies and gentlemen, because when it’s about ideas, the advantage goes to us.” But of course Trump has few ideas — and those he has are extreme and objectionable. Virtually all of the convention to date has been a nonstop, hysterical rant against Clinton.

As Ryan continued, there was a poignant quality to his remarks:

In America, aren’t we all supposed to see beyond class, or ethnicity, or all those other lines drawn to set us apart and lock us in groups? Real social progress is always a widening of the circle of concern and protection. It’s respect and empathy overtaking blindness and indifference. It’s understanding that by the true measure we are all neighbors and countrymen – called, each one of us, to know what is right and kind and just, and to go and do likewise. Everyone is equal . . . everyone has a place . . . no one is written off, because there is worth and goodness in every life.

Does anyone for a moment think this is Trump’s vision? He worships power and money. He has told us America is great because it is rich. Ryan, in other words, was there to usher in a nominee whose vision bears no resemblance to his own, and who if elected would personify “blindness and indifference.” It is that stark contrast between Ryan’s principled, ethically grounded brand of politics and Trump’s nihilism and even cruelty.

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It is for this reason that there is profound sadness among many admirers of Ryan. They know that in his heart — and speech (if one reads between the lines) — Ryan abhors Trump’s brand of politics. It is what he has fought against. And yet he could not bring himself to decline to endorse Trump.

It’s a waste, to be honest. Ryan wouldn’t have lost the speakership if he had declined to endorse Trump. Goodness knows Republicans had no one else to do the job. Since he agreed to come on board, he has improved his standing and gained the respect of the Freedom Caucus. Remaining mum would not have provoked a mutiny.

Ryan’s tortured efforts to justify support for a man whose remarks he denounced as racist and whose policies he rejected have forfeited some of his intellectual integrity, which inspired many conservatives. Perhaps this episode, in the wake of a Trump loss, will fade into the background and Ryan will reestablish his voice as the dominant one in the party. He nevertheless will be a smaller man, a less credible one, after having put his stamp of approval on Trump.

The diminishing of an intellectual and moral force within the party is second only to Trump’s nomination on the list of disappointing developments on the right. And the former was so unnecessary.