Speaking at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) pronounced that “there is a deeply serious problem we see right now within our society.” What might that be? “We see moral relativism becoming more and more pervasive in our culture,” he declared. “Identity politics and tribalism have grown on top of this. All of it has been made more prevalent by 21st-century technology. And there is plenty of money to be made on making it worse.”
One doesn’t know whether to laugh, cry or scream. Ryan’s lecturing about truth and tribalism comes the day after the president’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, literally said “truth is relative“; during an episode in which the president has made up a fake scandal about the FBI “spying on his campaign”; and in an administration in which the president has lied more than 3,000 times since taking office. Ryan denounces tribalism but supports the efforts of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to smear the FBI and interfere with a legitimate investigation of the president and his cronies. Ryan denounces money in politics as we learn the president’s lawyer Michael Cohen had a lucrative business hitting up corporations and foreign governments for money. Ryan grouses about moral relativism but did not support a resolution condemning the president’s comparison of neo-Nazis to anti-Nazi protesters, because doing so would have just devolved into partisanship or something.
Speaking of money in politics, has Ryan called for a single hearing on the president’s foreign emoluments? On the Trump family’s conflicts of interest? On Jared Kushner’s receipt of two jumbo loans shortly after he met with principals of the lenders?
Ryan demonstrated remarkable ability to disassociate his principles from his political conduct. He asserted:
Our social doctrine does not offer instant answers or easy outcomes. It gives us something far more important, far more animating: a way to conduct our public discourse so that a measure of wisdom is achieved through common work toward noble ends.
This goes beyond a call for civility. The problems we are facing are bigger than the tone we take.
Our social doctrine teaches us that democracy requires solidarity, a sense of civic friendship. We see our neighbors as partners in this common enterprise—even when we disagree, especially when we disagree.
That friendship is the foundation for a mature civic patriotism, where we live our freedom for the common good, not just our personal gain.
It is a patriotism grounded in respect for the inherent dignity and inalienable value of every person. We believe every person has a role and a voice in the community of concern and protection. No one is written off.
Fine sentiments — except he cheerfully supports a president who entirely repudiates that vision. When not actively supporting Trump’s brand of divisive politics, Ryan feigns ignorance or indifference to the president’s outbursts. Did Ryan speak up when Trump labeled illegal immigrants (or gang members, if you want to be generous in interpreting Trump’s rant) “animals”? I don’t think so. Will he rebuff the president’s comment on “Fox & Friends” Thursday morning suggesting that football players should leave the country if they don’t stand during the national anthem? Don’t count on it. Did he dissociate himself from Trump when we learned Trump paid hush money to shut up a porn star with whom he had an adulterous relationship? Of course not. He’s heading the defense of Trump on Capitol Hill.
Ryan is in a position to practice what he preaches but sadly instead chooses the role of tribal leader. He’s made the scourge of Trumpism — which embodies just about every ill he describes — infinitely worse by alternatively ignoring, rationalizing or out-and-out defending the president. He’s failed the very test of Christian virtue he spelled out.
Ryan’s spiritual and moral health is none of my concern, but by his own standards he has failed to live up to the fundamental principles required of a humane, democratic society. In retirement perhaps he can ponder the following: If a party embodies moral relativism and revels in tribalism, nativism, dishonesty and disrespect for fellow human beings, if all that becomes fundamental to its mission, should not all decent Americans repudiate it?