House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has managed to ingratiate himself with Donald Trump, escaping the president’s wrath and transforming himself into the president’s most craven and crucial lapdog.
It’s an unlikely partnership, but vital to understanding how the Trump presidency works. Trump has kept Ryan in his influential and high-power speaker role. In exchange, Trump sees his impulsive tangle of formless wants translated by Ryan into coherent legislative form.
But Ryan has seized an opportunity to go farther and advance his own calculated, hardline agenda of shredding the social safety net and shrinking taxes for the super-rich. Any pretension of Trump’s oft-stated concern for people left behind in depressed rural and industrial communities has become hard to sustain.
Fascinatingly, the Trump-Ryan alliance was nearly torpedoed entirely by Ryan’s steady criticism of Trump during the campaign and Trump’s reflexive hunger for vengeance. Believing Trump had little chance of achieving victory in 2016, Ryan blazed away at him as a threat to “the soul of the party” and its sacred “free trade and free markets” doctrines.
As a result, Ryan placed his head on Trump’s chopping block once Trump was in power. Inflamed by Ryan’s “insults,” Trump was eager to unleash his House henchmen to tear Ryan to shreds and expel him as speaker. That would have likely killed off any prospects of a presidential run for Ryan.
Yet, Ryan evaded the attack dogs by some extended hand-licking and groveling with Trump. It meant “Ryan rising to a movie-version level of flattery and sucking-up painful to witness,” a top Trump aide recounted to Michael Wolff, who described it in Fire and Fury. Trump felt triumphant over the newly contrite speaker, seeing “a chastened Ryan as suddenly and satisfyingly abject, submissive and useful,” as Wolff wrote. Ryan essentially reverted into his high-school personality that got him elected as “the biggest brown-noser.”
Ryan delivers for Trump
Whatever the past, the emerging partnership between the overbearing Trump and Ryan produced dividends for each, along with costs for the American majority. Trump — lacking any clue on how to translate empty campaign rhetoric into a legislative program — discovered in Ryan a brutally efficient point man.
Ryan only narrowly missed destroying Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Of course, that was an issue on which Trump could not lead because he so dimly understood it — he literally confused health-care insurance with life insurance. Trump’s ignorance surely contributed to the failure of congressional Republican efforts spearheaded by Ryan.
But Ryan, trampling democratic niceties such as holding hearings, handed Trump a big pre-Christmas victory by successfully ramming through $1.5 trillion in tax cuts. The cuts will eventually deliver 83 percent in benefits to the top 1 percent.
Ryan has emerged as the central force shaping and driving Trump’s heartless legislative agenda punishing the poor and working class while showering new wealth on the hyper-rich. Much of the responsibility for Trump’s governing direction can be laid at the feet of the supposedly civil and sensible Paul Ryan.
Ryan transforms Trump
So we have witnessed Trump tossing aside “populist” pretensions of concern for “the forgotten man and woman” in favor of Ryan’s particularly vicious version of Republican doctrine. Some of Trump’s most fervent campaign pledges have thereby been tossed overboard. Following up on his campaign pledge, Trump had again vowed in 2017, “I promised people on the campaign trail I would not touch their retirement and I would not touch Medicare, and we owe it to them.”
But Trump has once more flipped his position and quietly adopted Ryan’s austerity-minded direction. True, Trump’s 2019 budget won't directly cut Social Security payments to retirees or Medicare, but it will make serious cuts to other entitlement programs such as food stamps over the next decade. For Ryan, the ensuing deficits produced by the tax cuts he pushed will provide a pretext for cutting social programs. “We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” Ryan declared in December.
Thus, Ryan has largely substituted traditional Republican politics — of enriching the super-rich and depriving most Americans of vitally needed government programs — for Trump’s claims of re-making the party as the new home of hard-working Americans.
Paying only the slightest attention to Trump’s rhetoric, Ryan is the iron taskmaster of the “free market.” This translates into rewarding the CEO class of “makers” with tax cuts and incentives” and punishing those “takers” whose paltry incomes leave them reliant on government programs in an ever-more unequal America.
Ryan’s declining popularity
However, Ryan’s new role as Trump’s hatchet man in Congress has not gone over well with his constituents in the 1st District, which spans de-industrialized factory towns like Racine, Kenosha and Janesville, as well as rural areas.
Ryan’s once-solid image as a thoughtful and genial native son of Janesville has been fractured by his loyal service to Trump. The notion that Ryan has switched his primary attention to pleasing Trump rather than serving his district has become increasingly widespread.
The Ryan program ignores the day-to-day problems of the constituents in his district. They are faced with fast-receding prospects with the loss of family-supporting jobs and intensifying afflictions like opioid abuse. At the same time, they are witnessing Ryan’s role as champion of massive tax cuts concentrated on the top 1 percent and corporations, more incentives for sending U.S. jobs offshore, and new plans for slicing away at Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps.
Ryan’s poll numbers reflect his tumbling status. By March 2017, Ryan had become “the most unpopular politician in the country,” with the liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling reporting 21 percent approval and 61 percent disapproval. An internal poll for Democratic candidate Randy Bryce, a union leader who is a Bernie Sanders-style progressive, gives the challenger a 44 percent to 41 percent edge. Cathy Myers, a Janesville school board member, is also running.
CNN changed the political status of Ryan’s district seat from “safe Republican” to “toss-up.”
Ryan himself has seemingly sensed waning support and rising resentment, as evidenced by his decision not to hold any open town-hall meetings over the past two years. Ryan’s gatherings in the district have excluded all but pre-selected audiences.
Still, Ryan has remained steadfast in his defense of Trump — even when he blamed “both sides” in the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, demanded loyalty from the FBI, and continued to refuse to release his tax returns.
Even when he does differ from Trump — as on the impetuous imposition of indiscriminate tariffs on steel and aluminum — Ryan cautions that members of Congress should not “bully” the president and calls for a “surgical” version of the tariffs. In making this rare departure from Trump, however, Ryan loyally serves another set of masters, his long-term and lavish sponsors: the Koch brothers, who gave Ryan’s campaign committee $500,000 after the huge tax cut.
But the primary partnership remains between the blustering Trump and the brown-nosing Ryan. Ryan provides Trump with some key legislative policies that the president is utterly incapable of defining and articulating, and uses what’s left of his credibility to offer up defenses of Trump. At the same time, Trump protects Ryan’s power and allows him to pursue his own policy goals of free-market fundamentalism.