Paul Ryan’s empty chastisements of Donald Trump’s failures of leadership remind me of my own periodic bouts of highly ineffectual parenting. With every morally reprehensible, politically dangerous and socially damaging attack Trump makes on decency, constitutionalism and individual people, Ryan produces yet another talk bubble of coddling enablement. Ryan is about to write himself into history as one of those who were asleep at the switch at a pivotal moment of American political decline.
On Trump’s comments about how supporters of the Second Amendment should respond to Hillary Clinton, he said: “It sounds like just a joke gone bad. I hope he clears it up very quickly. You should never joke about something like that. ”
On Trump’s attacks on the parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed serving in Iraq: “Many Muslim Americans have served valiantly in our military, and made the ultimate sacrifice. Captain Khan was one such brave example. His sacrifice — and that of Khizr and Ghazala Khan — should always be honored. Period.”
On Trump’s attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel: “I disavow these [comments]. I regret those comments that he made. . . . Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment. I think that should be absolutely disavowed. It’s absolutely unacceptable. . . . The way I look at this is if you say something that’s wrong, I think the mature and responsible thing is to acknowledge it was wrong.”
But, of course, Trump didn’t acknowledge that his comments on Curiel were wrong. There have been no consequences from Ryan for crossing Ryan’s bright line on how those who have died for the country should be treated. Trump has not cleared up his comment about the Second Amendment, because few of his comments can ever really be cleared up, dependent as they are on trademark Trumpian innuendo and vagueness. Trump dwells in the realm of the suggestive to land his hits while also maintaining plausible deniability. The comment-that-can-never-really-be-cleared-up is his basic working method.
So now, every time I hear Ryan on another Trump misdeed, I hear my bad-day self talking to my kids.
What? You’ve hit your sister again? You know you’re not supposed to do that. Do that again and you won’t get any bedtime stories! Seriously!
Another fib? Really, haven’t I told you that’s no good? No more of that, sweetie, or this time there really will be consequences!
Ryan can yammer on all he wants. At this point, it’s utterly meaningless and only counts as one more voice in a chorus of Trump enablement.
And what precisely is Ryan enabling? Not merely Trump but also a further and especially steep descent of American political culture into a nihilism corrosive enough to imperil the foundations of democracy and constitutional politics.
Ryan has accepted marriage to Trump’s immoral, unconstitutional commitments for the sake of the potential acquisition of power that will permit him to pursue his agenda. This is the act of the proverbial foolish man who built his house on the sand. Constitutionalism and democracy are both nothing more than crystallized, concretized, institutionalized versions of common decency and fairness. If you have been given the opportunity of political leadership but undermine the foundations of democracy and constitutionalism in the process of trying to wield their powers, you will go down in history not as a statesman but as a self-serving, self-deceiving sycophant.
Put aside Trump’s original supporters from the birther movement, the alt-right movement and the white nationalist movement. Over the past year, he has clearly won a great deal more support among ordinary, decent Americans. During this time, Trump has been leading his supporters to new understandings of what political leadership consists of. Those new understandings — with their abandonment of long-standing moral “guardrails,” to borrow a phrase from David Frum — are a long-term danger to our country. They can be countered only by other leaders who repudiate them and seek to rebuild the standards of decency and moral seriousness on which democracy rests.
Those repudiations can’t be so many empty words, blowing away with the winds, scarcely keeping up with each new infraction from the child. Only leaders who with their actions set an alternative course are likely to find themselves in the winning column in history’s review of 2016.
There is only one action through which Ryan can achieve this. He needs to repudiate Trump. He needs to figure out how to lead at least his own people away from the dismal place we’ve reached. If he can’t stomach Clinton, there is always Gary Johnson.