This week, the Republican Party makes its final transition from parliamentary party to full-time senior citizen kabuki. The Grand Old Party began by freeing slaves and now it enslaves itself; it used to campaign against wage toil and now sells itself to the highest bidder of all. The party is dying in the most spectacular way possible, like Emperor SkekSo in the beginning of The Dark Crystal. We ought to consider the rich and strange transformation before our eyes. The GOP has become something new in American politics. This is an exciting time to be alive.
A lot of people talk about Trump as the axe descending on the neck of modern conservatism. The decay of the Republican Party didn’t arrive with the Orangeman. For me, that business was concluded when Paul Ryan, the Indifference-Giver from the Rock River, your favorite Wisconsin mortician and mine, ascended to the Speakership.
That, not Trump, was the moment I stopped taking the Republicans seriously — as an organized force that could plot and take the measure of its opponents accurately, a political machine capable of making adequate, informed judgments as to the nature of reality and responding appropriately. The elevation of Ryan was the single transcendent crystal fulfillment of modern conservatism, when we found out what condition their condition was in.
Ryan is exactly what the GOP has become: A group which has ceased to function as an elected and electable party, and instead lives as a bunch of raving memes from the white guy id in a stained brown burlap sack found in an American Legion Hall. Ryan, a nice, orphanage-closing Ayn Rand-acolyte from Wisconsin, is now sitting in Sam Rayburn and Tom Reed and Joseph Cannon’s chair, the chair of The Speaker of the House. Incidentally, he will be the Chairman of the Fortieth Republican Convention this week.
So the Republic has that going for it.
Personally, Ryan seems like an inoffensive dupe who just has a backwards ideology — Ryan the man is probably unobjectionable. But Ryan the symbol, as the final form of the party, is staggering. Consider his relationship with Ayn Rand. He renounced her several years ago, but for years Ryan was somehow simultaneously a Catholic and a follower of Rand, which should not be possible. Galt’s Gulch and the Great Commission do not go hand in hand. Here’s a bit from the King James translation of the Gospel of John:
“This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:12-13)
Here’s another Gospel according to John: John Galt, the anti-villain from Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel-shaped thing Atlas Shrugged. This is what Galt tells the proles over radio when he and his Real Geniuses leave the normies to go starve, while they high-tail it out to the badlands to Libertarian Fantasy Camp. I have kept the passage in its original language and not attempted to translate it into anything resembling conversational human English:
“I explained the consequences of your ‘brother-love’ morality, which they had been too innocently generous to understand. You won’t find them now, when you need them more than ever. We’re on strike against your creed of unearned rewards and unrewarded duties.”
If you’ve never read any part of the book, I envy you. Picture in your head a very stupid person’s idea of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Or a self-pitying drunk teen’s idea of what he would be like if he ever sobered up: Asperger Protestantism with frontal lobe injury. That is this book.
One of these passages reflects the current Republican Party more than the other.
Generally, when a child king is put on a throne, it does not indicate a healthy respect for the child, but that the political system is doing just astounding things, and this is where we are. All is true, all is permitted. I thought Oprah the all-giving and all-consuming was point Omega of our culture, and who didn’t? Now we see there are heights even she cannot scale. Such great heights.
What is so utterly dazzling with the Republicans — which began with Reconstruction, and ended as Mammon masquerading as a political club — is how they fell so completely into being the Koch Brothers’ stooges. Looking back, they were begging for Trump. The people leading the party have no new ideas, merely the laissez-faire boilerplate and whatever culture war wrapping they packed it in.
For Ryan’s GOP, wherever they start on the board, I guarantee you the game always ends at the same place—letting the poor shift and fend for themselves. The elite are out of ideas, and know it. There’s not a radical feminism they suggest. There’s not a radical labor innovation they suggest. There’s not a radical education platform they suggest. What about their core issues: defense? Guns? Business? They have nothing new. Sans plans, sans change, sans everything.
Trump has ideas, sort of. His fever-dream madness is an echo of a rumor somebody once heard in knife fight in Florida, but at least it’s a change.
Trace Ryan’s career backwards through time. When Boehner got his groove taken away, the establishment panicked. Who could they turn to? The Tea Party was on the march: Not enough power to bring down to temple, just enough to make trouble. So in 2015 the powers of the party picked Ryan – Ryan, who recently backed Trump. Back then, he was the establishment’s only hope. Paul was what the Romneys and their crowd were going to feed the base to keep them away.
Which is astounding. From Ayn Rand to Paul Ryan to Speaker of the House. Alan Greenspan was also a friend of Rand, but he seemed so consistently closer to death, his adoration of his master felt more insubstantial, a leaf on the wind who could blow away at any time. Ryan seems more durable. But still: how did a half-baked Russian’s agitprop capitalist-porn novels became the firmware for this GOP? I suggest through the same processes which brought Trump to us. If a faction of Congress believed in notions which had nothing to do with reality—if a Wisconsian whose ideas had nothing to do with the reality of most Americans’ working lives could be lifted to prominence by that same faction – then it’s easy to see how an everlasting trainwreck like The Donald could game the same system to his own advantage. In a system which traffics in selling untruths, the loudest carnival barker of all will rise far and fast.
Especially if some of what he says is true. The elite never understood the base didn’t care for the abolishment of the estate tax or conservative movie reviewers: They wanted jobs, and Trump said he’d get them. The insurgents kept crying for new blood, and the “cream” of the party thought they wanted deregulated Cabernet Sauvignon. You can tell what these people think of the base; this convention features speakers from Duck Dynasty and a couple of MMA guys. The GOP’s delusions brought Ryan to the major leagues, and their weakness guaranteed the Orangeman.
You may remember a story about Ryan going on a Dickensian poverty tour a couple of years ago. McKay Coppins wrote about it in Buzzfeed. A preacher, Bob Woodson, was pitching a political win-win idea to Ryan, introducing a bill to reduce the charges jail prisoners must pay when they want to make phone calls. It makes sense from an ethical standpoint, it makes sense from a justice standpoint, it makes sense from Ryan’s ostensibly Catholic standpoint. But Ryan … could not grasp this. Here’s the relevant quote from Coppins’ article:
“I mean, this is the kind of issue that politicians just don’t pay attention to,” Woodson says.
“Or even know about,” Ryan adds.
“But it would have a profound impact if you were to come out and get interested in advocating for fairness to these families to say they need to keep more of the money they earn.”
“That’s why we spend so much time on these marginal tax rate issues,” Ryan offers, weakly. He seems to realize how the words sound as he says them, and he lowers his voice to complete his sentence. “Which is such a highfalutin spreadsheet thing…”
Woodson cuts him off. “We need to get on issues like this. If you were to come out and talk about this, I’m telling you, people would be shocked!”
“Yeah,” says Ryan.
Ryan didn’t argue against it. He just couldn’t get it. The Speaker of the House couldn’t pick up the signal.
Let me explain what the Speaker does. The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives makes deals and trades horses, as hawks pick off mice and college students barter ramen dates for sex. The truly great ones have senses, seven or eight of them, not available to average mortals. Sam Rayburn, the greatest Speaker of them all, had what was called an “indefinable knack for sensing the mood of the House,” knowing “just how far it could be pushed,” according to Robert Caro. When friends asked him about it, he said “If you can’t feel things that you can’t see or hear, you don’t belong here.” The way Gretzky knew the hockey rink, these guys know political barter; they could wrangle the angle at a vegan potluck.
That Paul Ryan cannot cognitively wrap his wonk-sense around such an obvious Total Win idea like reducing Prisoner Phone Call Expenses says a great deal about him. The article describes later how Ryan can detect a hidden space inside the Congressional parking lot as an oyster in a barrel still knows the rise and fall of the tides. Arguably, Ryan must have political instincts, to be elected at all.
So why is Ryan unable to see this? Perhaps because it is outside of his idea-system. He is blind to it. And here lies a hint about his political beliefs, and why he and the rest of the establishment could not stop Trump, why, as late as March, he was backing away from his “makers and takers” talk, which he had practiced publicly, with great vehemence, for years. For all of Commissar Paul’s reformist baton waving the market symphony concludes in the same way: the Universal Wolf eats well at the end.
The neoliberals who currently run the Democratic Party don’t care much about fixing the system. They just want a more diverse oppressor class: instead of old, white, male billionaires, they’re fine with young, female, Latino billionaires. To them, that is progress. Ryan is a libertarian. He doesn’t even go that far as the neoliberals, who want to keep the status quo. The Speaker is prepared to go even further. His idea of freedom is your boss having the power to fire you if you have a cold.
I have separated Ryan and Trump, for a reason. Nobody really knows what will happen, supposing Trump loses this fall. Even without Trump, the Ryan moment, and the modern GOP it symbolically stands for, is a new event in our nation’s history.
Ryan is a meme, a name with an unearned rep for deep thinking, and nothing else attached to it. Who likes him? Does the neoliberal consensus even like him? How will he achieve the ends of capital? What about seniority? What of the Freedom Caucus, who will not accept him in the long term — if they took a moment to look at what he wants, there’s just no way he can please them.
What of the Chamber of Commerce types? Ryan should be their guy, but he doesn’t really jive with what they want — “What is this Rand stuff?” I can hear them say. It’ll be hard to keep the Brethren down on the Balanced-Budget Farm once they’ve craved Red Meat.
Comprehending the power of ideas over the life and career of Paul Ryan is essential for learning how the conservative movement came to WrestleMania Cleveland. People who wonder why the brain trust at the RNC could not respond to the Tea Party or Donald forget the power of a vision, even a misguided one.
It’s a mistake for pundits to wonder why the former Speaker Boehner’s House was being held in terror by the forty member Freedom Caucus. The pundits who are wowsered by this fact are living in ye olde times, in Putin’s world, the world of the 19th and 20th century, where bigger territory equals Regina George status, where there’s shuttle diplomacy, cast-iron child furniture, DDT solves everything, etc. In our new world of our politics — the world of memes and lulz — the Freedom Caucus is very strong. The idea is what matters, not the results, and not its relevance. If the idea seems irrelevant, it just hasn’t been tried hard enough yet.
I suspect this is why Taylor Swift’s feud with Kanye is trending up my Facebook wall at this very moment, while one of America’s ancient political factions is disintegrating. In the physical world, Taylor Swift is one person, and should not overshadow the dissolution of Lincoln’s party. But in the world of ideas, the world of signs, symbols, and fads, the world where Paul Ryan has gravitas – in that world, TayTay, with her 89.5 million Instagram followers, looms larger than the Lutheran Council of Great Britain, shepherd of roughly 200,000 souls. Why are so many curmudgeons railing against Pikachu and his crew for driving people to chase after apparitions in public? Doing just that has been the cornerstone of our politics for the last twenty years.
In one sense, Paul’s election as Speaker on October 29, 2015 was a high-water mark for the gold-standard crowd and all its beliefs. The rise of an honest-to-God-I-will-burn-all-food-stamps libertarian was a moment of real victory for the people at Reason: no more of this middle-of-the-road Reagan nonsense; we have a true servant of Hayek piloting us at last. And yet, in another, more accurate, much funnier way, it was also the low point of Ryan’s ideology. On that same day, Trump’s lead was re-confirmed, Newsmax announced. Two days later, the Leather Carrot gave a speech in Norfolk where he pledged to make Veteran’s Affairs great again. How did his site put it?
“… allow veterans to get medical care from any doctors or medical facilities that accept Medicare. It also would give veterans education benefits, business loans, job training and placement services to ease their transition from battlefield to civilian life.”
In short, the sort of social programs that gives the privatize-the-air crowd statist hives. Appropriate that it was on Halloween.
Tybalt, a commenter on the blog Alicublog, summed up establishment conservativism’s complaint with Trump: “I didn’t spend all these years peddling easy answers just so some yahoo could steal my marks with some even easier answers,” It’s professional jealousy. After all this time on the con, it took a real pro to show them how it’s done, and Trump was that pro. The very moment Atlas Shrugged became required reading by the Speaker’s staff, the starving-everything movement began to fall. To paraphrase another writer, the non-stop grifting of conservatives by conservatives was a kind of perpetual motion machine, and all the research has been diverted into maintaining the perpetual emotion of outrage. To most Americans, the Rust Belt going into full shutdown is much more important than shaking down the Federal Reserve.
But why didn’t they peddle new answers? They may not be capable of it. Perhaps we’ve misconceived the modern mainstream of the Republican Party as a group of politicians who has drifted too far to the right. What we have now is something much more special. I mentioned above that they have no new ideas, but they have new practices, and this is where the miracle really lives.
Politics is understood as the art of the possible, but what our friends have done is something else; politics as the triumph of the impossible. One of their number, Tom Wolfe, who I love to quote, once wrote a book about modern art, The Painted Word. In it, he lamented that modern painting was no longer representative. The idea was more important than the picture. The theoretical had eclipsed the realistic. You could no longer understand a painting by just staring at it, he wrote. With the rise of abstraction – images that bore no resemblance to anything in the world – you had to read the little card next to the painting to understand what the artist meant: “The artists themselves didn’t seem to have the faintest notion of how primary Theory was becoming.”
Well meme’d, Brother Wolfe! Well said, indeed. That is the case here. A change has come in how to be a conservative politician.
Old timey paleo-conservatism, Burkean conservatism, was in reaction to 19th-century liberal movements, the Rights of Man, When reform became the order of the day in the world, when the welfare state started to become real and kings were cashiered, the conservatives—for the first time—had to draw up a model of just what they were defending. The right wanted to preserve realities that were disappearing. They had values and beliefs about the best way to order human society. These were passed on from generation to generation. Conservatives saw themselves as the adults, so this was their job.
Now, our modern Republicans started with Goldwater. That’s when the Hayek and Rand crowd, the starve-the-poor and outsource-the-jobs gang moved in. They willingly shared the party with nuke-Iran folks. As time marched on, the new coalitions had to do what past conservatives had done, make maps of the Holy Land they were trekking towards. There are only so many things that can be said through a megaphone with a straw boater on your head, after all. But these new conservatives were different. They were idea men, and didn’t have 18th-century England or 1901 Iowa as models. They also didn’t have love for pointy-headed evidence, which was roundly suspected of being liberal when it conflicted with their cherished beliefs. What the new conservatives had were ideas: the way the world should be, would be, if they just kept comin’ round the mountain.
So they had to draw blueprints of blueprints, abstractions of abstractions, and eventually, all ties to reality are cut. You can see how this is troublesome. To quote Brother Wolfe: “First you get the Word, and then you see.” To review reality and adjust goals, as the progressives did, was a dreary business. By the Nineties, even the most stalwart Old Guard Republican was condemned as a simpering equivocator and cast down with the lepers and Lincoln Chafee.
For the modern GOP, the goal, always, was to get away from their consensus reality into their own Private Idaho — one that would be lucid, honest, gut-felt. It was a manful struggle, but the modern right’s moment has come there at last: no more representations. No more talk of “real hardworking Americans,” if that simulacrum ever held water, or real appeals to Silent Majorities who actually exist, in the numbers and in composition that Nixon imagined. That’s done.
There is no relationship with any part of our world; Trump is the final form of the party … separated from the real … anchors cut away … the idea of conservatism pure and perfect in a spotless ideal. Even the slightest conceivable possibility of someone cheating on welfare or of immigrants sneaking in is enough to prove that it already happened, world without end. To paraphrase Brother Wolfe, conservatism is making its swan flight, higher into the stratosphere, up and into the limbo where Hayek’s ghost and his Invisible Hand keep a hearty home, devouring itself into nothing, trickling back down as coming out as a pure, simple, perfect ideal: America and the free market, untainted by time, floating forever in perfect union with itself. This is how American can be great: when there are no real Americans to interfere.
What is crucial here is the understanding that the GOP is not a party: this is Performance Art. The entire party is now a machine for taking cold hard lucre from sclerotic old plutocratic tortoises and transmogrifying it into gloriously fabulous pageants of whiteman make-believe. Trump, and the men of Duck Dynasty, and the rest of the cast of the Convention know this in their bones.
Once I understood their cherished visions were the exact same hallowed narratives of a hallucinating octogenarian patient in Orange County, all was made clear to me, through a glass clearly. If you’ve ever gotten a chain-letter from a relative discussing Obama’s secret Muslim mosque under the White House, then you have glimpsed into this reality. The current Republican Party is best understood as writers of fan-fiction of America: nothing is canon, so everything is permitted.
For years there’s been a notion that “we’ve reached the bottom of a barrel.” But this is a new heaven and a new Earth, and we need to think no longer in bottoms of barrels. There is no bottom. There is no barrel. There is only the forever dialectic of hashtags and glory. Obama said, famously, “You didn’t build that.” And he’s right … but only in this world. If you consider the Narnia realm where Ryan lives, the GOP has a stately pleasure-dome decreed, where the Koch River ran, past markets unregulated by man, to a trickle-down sea.