Unlike President-elect Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan can pass for a carbon-based life form. His boyish physical appearance and wonkish image are not exactly the stuff of nightmares (those creepy eyes, on the other hand…). More substantively, Paul Ryan does not make an overt appeal to bigotry (although he is capable of unbearable paternalism), mock disabled reporters, talk about the size of his penis on national TV, or brag about sexually assaulting women. Ryan also seems to possess a superficial respect for democratic norms and Constitutional rights. This is not much (especially considering he’s a big fan of Citizens United), but given Trump and the alt-right’s alarming disregard for the First Amendment, it’s something. Oh, and he would rather see undocumented immigrants be exploited by corporations than kick them out of the country.
But don’t let the fact that Paul Ryan isn’t Trump fool you. The House Speaker is a threat in his own right who, unlike Trump, is completely unconstrained by any populist pledges made in the heat of a presidential campaign. Instead, he is free to inflict his austerity on federal, state and local levels. In light of Paul Ryan’s ambition to remake government in his austere ideological image, the media’s fawning over him is almost as egregious as its normalization of Trump. Unless Paul Ryan inserts himself into, say, an increasingly high-profile story about the Obama Administration’s decision to halt construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline (hint: the House Speaker opposes the decision as “big government decision-making at its worst”), his reactionary vision does not receive the scrutiny it deserves. For those who care to look, however, Paul Ryan’s policies speak for themselves.
Said policies, most of which President Trump is likely to rubber stamp (perhaps that’s why Ryan gives Trump a pass on his most egregious statements and Tweets), would eviscerate the social safety net, placing on the chopping block not only the legislative accomplishments of the Obama years, but basic and beloved elements of the social contract in place since the New Deal and the Great Society. Ryan would cut the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, along with other programs that benefit the poor.
Paul Ryan has also long sought to privatize (and cut) Medicare and Medicaid, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Given Trump’s appointment of privatization proponent Tom Price as Director of Health and Human Services, Ryan will likely get the chance. Even Social Security, a promise for generations of Americans, is not safe. Paul Ryan has the audacity to call his plan for regressive taxation and draconian spending cuts “A Better Way.” A better way for the wealthiest Americans, perhaps, but for everyone else? Not so much. But the mainstream media prefers to focus on Trump’s outlandish Tweets, many of which are destined to be forgotten after a couple of news cycles.
Every aspect of American life that relies on federal funding will be adversely affected, diminishing overall quality of life for all but the wealthiest of citizens. And what will the American people receive in return? Little to nothing, at least for those who aren’t millionaires and billionaires. In keeping with his extreme aversion to spending any money for the public good, Ryan opposes even Trump’s inadequate, crony capitalist infrastructure bill at a time when America’s roads and bridges are literally crumbling.
Although Paul Ryan constantly undermines the very government in which he serves with his draconian austerity measures, he and President-elect Trump believe it has a responsibility to pass obscene and unpopular tax cuts for the wealthy. On policy, the former is, inconceivably, worse than the latter. Trump, an opportunist dedicated only to furthering his own interests, could theoretically be swayed to support some progressive priorities because they appeal to his base or appeal to his endemic grandiosity.
Paul Ryan, on the other hand, is dogmatically committed to his ultra-conservative, Ayn Rand-inspired ideology. In Paul Ryan’s case, ideology does not constitute admirable commitment to guiding principles but rather amoral adherence to a rigid set of rules. He believes that government programs intended to help the poor and, to a degree, the middle class, actually hurt them by fostering dependence. Never mind the economic and institutional factors that create and sustain poverty; to Ryan, poor people don’t do well because they simply aren’t trying hard enough. And they aren’t trying hard enough because of, well, government.
It is probably just a coincidence that the tax cuts and defunding of popular government programs contained in Ryan’s budget happen to line the pockets of plutocrats like the Koch brothers. It’s probably also just a coincidence that the Koch brothers fund the think tanks that develop the supply-side heavy policy papers that Ryan relies upon to craft “his” plans…
Although there is no way to know if Ryan is acting based on altruistic intentions or merely serving his corporate overlords, he seems to sincerely believe in his draconian policy prescriptions. In this case, sincerity is a bad thing. Ryan preaches the virtues of screwing the poor for their own good with missionary enthusiasm, even visiting impoverished communities to devise creative ways to “help.” The problem is, Ryan’s ideology forces him to rule out any anti-poverty programs that requires substantial spending. Therefore, his efforts are limited to shifting around woefully inadequate funds in creative ways (the preferred method of so-called “reformicons”).
Paul Ryan fashions himself a policy intellectual and he plays the part well. His passion for policy details is almost quaint in an age when the political discourse is defined by soundbites. But he possesses a rigidity, an inherent inflexibility of the mind, that limits him. He is a mechanic working with a limited box of tools inadequate to the bold tasks he sets for himself. He knows policy well, down to the granular details. But he refuses to entertain solutions to problems that don’t line up with his Randian assumptions, which are fixed and not subject to change or even moderation by evidence. Ryan is a smart man, perhaps even a good one, but his fanatical adherence to a dangerous vision makes him every bit as much of a threat to America as the more conventional villain—Trump.
Because the GOP will soon control all three branches of government, Paul Ryan will have the opportunity to turn America into the objectivist dystopia of his dreams. But barring unprecedented intimidation on censorship on President Trump’s part, Democrats will be in an ideal position to call him out for implementing extremely unpopular policies. If Democrats cannot obstruct Republican legislation, they must hang the Ryan-Trump agenda around the GOP’s collective neck.
Mandates might mean nothing to Trump, but they may mean something to the American people come 2018 and 2020. Because Republicans know demographics are working against them and this might be their last, best chance to “make America great again,” there is a real possibility that they will overplay their hand. Democrats must get to work fanning the flames of backlash against Paul Ryan’s cuts and offer a progressive alternative. The party most instrumental in laying down the social safety net may have lost the 2016 election. But it can still win the battle of ideas if it is willing to stand up for them passionately and fearlessly.