“This is not conservatism.”
In just four words, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan made clear in December 2015 that then-candidate Donald Trump's suggestion to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States has no place in the Republican Party.
A little more than a year later, President Trump has signed an executive order temporarily halting admission of all refugees — with an indefinite pause on Syrian refugees — and a pause on all visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 120 days. Trump has promised priority for Christians. The order is meant to give U.S. agencies more time to come up with a more stringent vetting system.
Ryan (R-Wis.) appears to have a completely different perspective on Trump's executive order. Here's what he said in a statement released Friday (my emphasis added in bold):
Our number one responsibility is to protect the homeland. We are a compassionate nation, and I support the refugee resettlement program, but it’s time to reevaluate and strengthen the visa vetting process. This is why we passed bipartisan legislation in the wake of the Paris attacks to pause the intake of refugees. President Trump is right to make sure we are doing everything possible to know exactly who is entering our country.
Some recent historical context here: When Trump proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, he had been leading the GOP presidential primary for four consecutive months and counting. When he suggested the ban, Republican leaders already wary of Trump's penchant for controversy quickly pushed to distance themselves and their party from his more controversial proposals.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus (now Trump's chief of staff) said: “I don't agree.” He added: “We need to aggressively take on radical Islamic terrorism but not at the expense of our American values.
“Trump is wrong,” tweeted then-Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.).
Of course, Vice President Pence tweeted this:
Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.
— Governor Mike Pence (@GovPenceIN) December 8, 2015
But, as I wrote at the time, what Ryan said resonated in a way few others' comments did. His denunciation was elegant, simple and unequivocal. Like the best political messages, it could be easily grasped and easily repeated.
And its meaning was tough to misconstrue: The notion of banning all members of one religion from the country “is not what this party stands for,” to quote Ryan. His rebuke was made even more powerful because he typically avoided commenting on the presidential race. “More importantly, it's not what this country stands for.”
Just days before, then-British Prime Minister David Cameron celebrated similarly succinct words uttered by a man to a suspect in a London subway stabbing deemed a terrorist incident: “You ain't no Muslim, bruv." ("Bruv” means “bro” on that side of the pond.)
“Some of us have dedicated speeches and media appearances and sound bites and everything to this subject,” Cameron said after hearing the now-famous cellphone clip. “But ‘You ain’t no Muslim, bruv’ said it all much better than I ever could.”
These two statements work so well because the person saying them easily lays out clear boundaries of the group they ostensibly belong to — and then, in no uncertain terms, draws the person in question outside of it. It puts the onus on the person in question (in Ryan's case, Trump) to defend themselves and explain why they should be considered part of that group.
Now, Trump is part of the Republican Party. He's leading it, in directions that its former gatekeepers may have never thought they'd go.
When the issue came up again in July, Ryan did not mince words:
A religious test for entering our country is not reflective of America's fundamental values. I reject it. pic.twitter.com/DdsYj2XoLS
— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) July 31, 2016
Ryan has not backtracked from characterizing conservatism as a tolerant ideology, nor that implementing a religious test is fundamentally un-American. But now that some version of Trump's controversial campaign proposal is reality, Ryan is taking a very different approach.