It was only a matter of time before Donald Trump trained his fire on his final target. He ridiculed Rand Paul’s hearing. He brutally savaged an unsuspecting and unprepared Jeb Bush to the point of oblivion. He disparaged Chris Christie’s record and Carly Fiorina’s face. He “raised questions” about Ben Carson’s religious faith and mental health. He vanquished Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted with devastatingly childish sobriquets. He lambasted potential “White Knight” Mitt Romney as a choke artist and a phony. With Winner-Take-All-Tuesday around the corner, he buried John Kasich in an avalanche of tweets pillorying his economic record as governor of Ohio. Now Trump has his sights set on the only Republican Party figure not cowering beneath his bed in fear—Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
For his part, Ryan has sought a feeble middle ground on all things Trump. He has refused to denounce the Republican frontrunner as a con man, as his former running mate Romney recently did. Ryan has also repeatedly promised to support and work with Trump should he win the nomination. On the other hand, Ryan has offered tepid rebukes of the Trump campaign’s most outrageous proclamations, including from Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States, to his coy courting of white supremacists, to the pervasive violence fulminating against protestors at Trump rallies, to the candidate’s suggestion that riots would erupt should he be denied the nomination in Cleveland. Trump has mostly kept his powder dry for the Speaker, waiting for the moment when he can provoke Ryan into attacking first before letting loose. As he always must, however, Trump made it clear that his relationship with Ryan will proceed on Trump’s terms. Speaking after his decisive Super Tuesday victories on March 1st, Trump proclaimed: “Paul Ryan, I don’t know him well but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him. And if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price, OK? OK.” In essence, the message was: do what you will, Mr. Speaker, but you are next.
Of all the disturbing elements of the Trump campaign, perhaps most disquieting is his unquenchable penchant for threats such as this. Whether it’s his chilling warning to Bernie Sanders to “be careful” or else Trump’s supporters will disrupt Sanders’s rallies, or his ominous insinuation that Ted Cruz should rein in “his” Super PAC or else Trump would “spill the beans on your wife,” Trump traffics in the basest thuggery unbefitting a low-level criminal, let alone a major presidential candidate. It does not matter who you are or what your position is, your choices are Christie-like capitulation or total war. Now that his more immediate rivals are defeated or diminished, Trump surely knows that Ryan presents the greatest challenge to him at a contested convention. So as he continues to shred the Cruz family’s remaining tatters of dignity, it is only a matter of time before he makes good on his Super Tuesday threat. Sure enough, after more than a week off the campaign trail, Trump tellingly chose Ryan’s hometown of Janesville to kick off his campaigning in advance of the Wisconsin primary.
Judging from the bombast over the years of “high-minded” and “responsible” Republican leaders towards President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, Speaker Ryan and his colleagues will know exactly how to respond to Trump’s latest provocation. If there is one thing we know from this commentary about President Obama, it is that he practices an unacceptable foreign policy of appeasement. In 2008, it was President George W. Bush who compared then-Senator Obama’s promise to negotiate with Iran with “the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.” In the lead-up to the 2012 election, Governors Rick Perry and Mitt Romney repeatedly depicted Obama’s projection of American power as timid, weak, and akin to “appeasement.” “Have we ever had a president who was so eager to address the world with an apology on his lips and doubt in his heart?” Romney asked. Former Senator Rick Santorum and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich also referred to Obama’s Iran policy as “appeasement.” In 2014, Republicans lambasted Obama’s response to Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, with Senator Lindsey Graham stating that “we have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression.” This time around, the rhetoric is the same. The GOP candidates blamed North Korea’s nuclear test on Obama’s weak foreign policy. Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer called Obama’s negotiations with Iran as “appeasement of the highest order.” Graham called Obama “the Neville Chamberlain of our time.” Always the charmer, Chris Christie referred to the President in a debate as “a feckless weakling.”
And if there’s one thing we know from this commentary about Republicans themselves, it is that they will reverse this spineless foreign policy with the power of rhetoric— assuring our friends and strongly warning our enemies. Every 2016 candidate has challenged Obama’s toughness, fortitude, and defense of America’s ideals abroad (without disagreeing with any specific policies except those they mischaracterize and then adopt). All of the candidates contend that ending Obama’s current “leading from behind” will restore American greatness. Marco Rubio argued that Putin would be stopped when a new president made clear to him that the U.S. will stand up to Russian aggression and defend NATO allies. Mike Huckabee’s foreign policy was simple: “[W]hen we have a threat, whether it is ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Iranians, whatever it is, we make it very clear that we plan to push back and destroy that threat to us…it will be like a 10-day exercise, because the fierceness of our forces would mean that we can absolutely guarantee the outcome of this film. That’s how America needs to operate in the world of foreign affairs, and foreign policy.” Ted Cruz unceasingly asserts that ISIS can easily be defeated simply by “calling it by its name” (click your heels together, Dorothy, and say the magic words three times: Radical. Islamic. Terrorism).
Paul Ryan has studied Obama’s mistakes, listened to his fellow Republicans, and is of a similar mind in taking on bullies abroad. “When we show that we’re cutting our own defense,” he said in 2012, “it makes us more weak. It projects weakness, and when we look weak, our adversaries are much more willing to test us, they’re more brazen in their attacks.” Who better than Ryan, then, to stand up to Trump, to project strength rather than weakness?
Whatever he says publicly, there can be no doubt that Ryan is privately rooting against Trump with all his being. Trump presents a direct threat to Ryan’s twin goals of broadening the Republican coalition and of passing conservative legislation. Regarding the former, it is no surprise that Ryan has chosen to break his formal Trump neutrality on “diversity issues” such as the New Yorker’s proposed Muslim ban and coziness with the Ku Klux Klan (although tellingly not over Trump’s reprehensible rhetoric on immigration). As for the latter, Trump both grievously wounds Republican prospects in November and offers no hope for “true” conservatives even should he win election. In February, the New York Times well summarized the policy challenges Ryan faces in acceding to Trump’s bid to lead the Republican Party:
Mr. Ryan’s positions embody the modern institutional Republican Party. He has been a crucial promoter of free trade on Capitol Hill, which Mr. Trump opposes. Mr. Ryan supports taking away money from Planned Parenthood — a central target of Republicans for years — while Mr. Trump has said the group provides needed care to women. Eminent domain, the right of the government to seize private property for public use? The concept is despised by Republicans. Mr. Trump, who has used eminent domain to try to demolish an older woman’s home in Atlantic City to build a parking lot, calls it “wonderful.” There is more: Mr. Ryan is the architect of his party’s plan to rein in spending on entitlement programs, which Mr. Trump has said is the reason the party lost the White House in 2012, name-checking Mr. Ryan in his swipe. Mr. Ryan supports all forms of domestic energy development, but Mr. Trump has called for colonizing Iraq’s oil reserves through military intervention. Mr. Trump’s signature issue — deporting millions of undocumented workers — also stands in contrast to Mr. Ryan’s belief that his party needs to change the current system to help some immigrants, and in the process attract them to the party. Not least, Mr. Trump said last week that he would be “a neutral guy” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Mr. Ryan holds the traditional Republican position of strong support for Israel.
Yet last week, Ryan gave a well-publicized and lofty speech about the present and future of American political discourse, decrying the rhetoric “on both sides” and only obliquely referring to Trump—though not by name. “Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations,” he offered. “Instead of playing the identity politics of ‘our base’ and ‘their base,’ we unite people around ideas and principles…We don’t resort to scaring you, we dare to inspire you.” Without context, it was a reasonable, middle-of-the-road missive. When matched against Trump’s loathsome campaign and recent actions, however, its message rang hollow. As Dana Milbank framed it in lamenting Ryan’s weak-kneed address in the Washington Post, “leading by example means denouncing and disowning the demagogue in our midst.”
If Ryan believes that he can have it both ways on Donald Trump —morally and politically, ideologically and practically—he is sorely, sorely mistaken. To begin with, the idea that Donald Trump will seek Ryan’s counsel once he is entrenched in the West Wing is laughable. Trump’s entire history is one of using others to further his own goals followed by discarding the previously helpful as circumstances change. Praise begs tolerance and dissent begets rebuke. This has been his modus operandi regarding business and women, and it has been his relentless pattern in political dealings over the last year. Secondly, Trump has shown time and again that he views any strong figure as a potential threat and a future enemy, even those who currently promise their fealty. The only Trump aides and allies with any staying power are the sycophants and hangers-on, too pathetic to go it alone and shameless enough to prostitute themselves at the altar of Trump.
But more than all of that, there comes a time when allegiance to party, concern for political fortunes, and long-term realpolitik must yield to basic human decency. That time came six months ago. Ryan cannot blanch the immoral stench secreting from every pore of the Trump campaign by mildly distancing himself and his party from the more untoward elements of its vile messaging and then stand shoulder to shoulder with him in the Fall campaign. One half expects Ryan to emerge from a future meeting with Trump after future outbreaks of violence and domestic rioting with rosy promises of “peace for our time.” Already, Ryan has vowed to “be Switzerland” as Chairman of the Republican National convention—apparently undisturbed by the negative connotations that country’s neutrality holds for so many. As the New York Times’s “Never-Trump” conservative Ross Douthat despairingly lamented about Ryan’s approach to Trump: “faced with a potentially-existential threat to his vision of conservatism (not to mention his House majority), Ryan’s answer is first, change nothing; second, do nothing.”
If this sounds like the precise kind of feckless buckling that Republicans have so long deplored, that’s because it is. Remarkably, the Wall Street Journal rose to Ryan’s defense this week, supporting his speech and rejecting calls for him to fully denounce Trump. Ryan would “undermine his credibility and impartiality if he joins the never-Trump clique,” wrote the paper’s Editorial Board, “especially when the Trump campaign is already warning of riots and building a stabbed-in-the-back narrative if their man doesn’t get the nomination.” A more perfect defense of appeasement has never been written.
“The dearth of criticism of Donald Trump from Republican politicians and assorted party figures has been one of the great mysteries of this election cycle,” wrote Yuval Levin in the National Review last week. Not so. It has certainly been tactically disastrous and morally embarrassing. But surprising? As Obama himself noted mockingly last November regarding the faux-controversy over CNBC’s questioning at a Republican debate, “[h]ave you noticed that every one of these candidates say, ‘Obama’s weak. Putin’s kicking sand in his face. When I talk to Putin, he’s going to straighten out.’ Then it turns out they can’t handle a bunch of CNBC moderators at the debate. Let me tell you, if you can’t handle those guys, then I don’t think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you.” As it turns out, the situation was much worse; Ryan and his Republican cohorts couldn’t even handle an obviously repugnant reality TV star. For a party whose policy agenda has been so intertwined with toughness and backbone, the cruel joke of this campaign has been that the Republican response to Trump’s bullying tactics resembles instead their own perverted caricature of the President. Ryan may be an appealing Speaker, but his speech last week laid bare that, like his colleagues, he’s an appeasing one as well.