POLITICALLY, PAUL RYAN is suffering rigor mortis — his last impotent months as speaker of the House. The immediate cause of death was Donald Trump and the mindless tribalism that turned Ryan’s Republican caucus into a snake pit. But another cause is a belated reckoning with his repute as fiscal policy wonk — the master of big ideas.
Ryan’s big ideas ossified in college — that heady time of imbalance between intellectual self-confidence and one’s actual experience of life. Most of us recover; Ryan did not. Thus his distressingly attenuated enthusiasm for the novels of Ayn Rand.
In Rand’s telling, altruism is a sham; social consciousness a cover for envy of one’s betters; government the ultimate enemy. Only the creative selfishness practiced by a small class of capitalist ubermensch — the sole characters untouched by her relentless misanthropy — can rise above humankind’s collective mediocrity.
Rand’s Darwinian landscape speaks only to adults privileged enough to imagine it in safety. Which is to say Ryan’s patrons — the Republican donor class.
For Ryan, they were the constituency that mattered most, with Rand’s fever-dream a template for policy proposals. Insulated from reality by the presidency of Barack Obama, he developed the “Ryan Budget,” a Randian wish-list with no chance of enactment. Its various iterations offered enormous income tax cuts for the wealthy; eliminated taxes on capital gains, dividends, and interest; and abolished the corporate income and estate taxes. Others eliminated Obamacare without anything to take its place, offering still more upper-income tax cuts.
And the rest of us? As millions of students buckled under student debt, Ryan tightened eligibility for Pell grants. His plan cut food stamps and unemployment insurance while offering nothing to embattled workers. Some versions partially privatized Social Security and Medicare; others gutted Medicaid. Little wonder that serious economists considered it a blueprint for increasing poverty and income inequality.
Shrewdly, Ryan disguised this draconian wealth transfer as a courageous plan to balance the budget. This fiscal fraudulence relied on two transparent parlor tricks. First, Ryan exhumed the empirically discredited myth that tax cuts for the wealthy generate more tax revenues. Second, he assumed zero growth in domestic discretionary spending. Yet conservative ideologues and Republican donors — the prospective beneficiaries of Ryan’s audacious fictions — anointed him as a fiscal truth-teller. So, too often, did a hapless media.
Then reality began gaining on Ryan.
First came the GOP’s Tea Party rebellion, seating a group of zealots bent on actually enacting Ryan’s vision – if necessary, by shutting down the government. Swiftly, they kneecapped John Boehner and his presumptive successor, Kevin McCarthy. Desperate, the Republican caucus offered Ryan the speakership.
His reluctance to accept this poisoned chalice was painful to watch — he knew too well the forces that awaited him. Hostage to the intoxicants he had helped create, he went from the safety of floating fanciful budgets to the nightmare of presiding over a caucus beset by janissaries.
Next came Trump. This moment, too, was rich in irony. For the stark truth is that Trump is a political mutation spawned by Paul Ryan’s big ideas.
Those ideas — promoting free trade, slashing entitlements, and shredding the social safety net – offered nothing to a base beset by economic insecurity and racial anxiety. To win their votes, Ryan and his party offered diversionary scapegoats — feckless bureaucrats, lazy welfare recipients, secular elites, job-stealing immigrants, and venal minorities practicing “identity politics.”
Then Trump ripped the party’s mask off. He exploited white identity politics. He insisted that free trade and nonwhite immigration betrayed American workers. He pledged to preserve entitlements. He promised to “drain the swamp” — and wall off Mexicans.
The base loved him for it.
Abruptly, the party became Trump’s hostage; Ryan, his court eunuch. Ryan stood mute as Trump vilified Muslims, shafted Dreamers, and separated refugees from their kids. He supported Devin Nunes in reducing the House Intelligence Committee to rabid pit bulls bent on killing the Russia investigation to protect Trump from impeachment. Cruelest of all, Trump signed a version of Ryan’s donor-driven fiscal fakery into tax law. Reality, indeed, bites.
Thus ended Paul Ryan’s fatal deception. He becomes in history what he always was in fact — the avatar of a fiscally-ruinous wealth transfer to America’s 1 percent. His legacy? Trillion-dollar deficits with no end in sight, the largest explosion of peacetime debt in memory. Plutocracy beckons; a government stripped of solvency cannot serve the rest.
Somewhere Ayn Rand smiles.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @ricpatterson.