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Paul Ryan Can’t Be Expected to Condemn Trump

Speaker, for better of worse, is part of the party establishment

Paul Ryan faces opposition within the Republican conference to his budget plans. (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)
Paul Ryan faces opposition within the Republican conference to his budget plans. (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

One of the amazing things about Donald Trump’s candidacy is how he has created an environment where everyone must go on the record. No one gets a pass, no one gets to opt out. To render no decision about Trump is to make an affirmative one — a tacit endorsement of his excesses. To remain silent is also tantamount to cowardice because there are (on both sides) threats of reprisals.There is even talk of blacklisting Trump supporters , presumably if (and when) Trump’s moment recedes.  

It was with this context and backdrop that Ross Douthat penned a smart and compelling column for the New York Times this Sunday, titled “Profiles in Paralysis.” I share Douthat’s concern that a Trump nomination could redefine both the GOP and the conservative movement in ways that we would not recognize. Many of us would find it untenable to organize ourselves politically in groups that would be aligned with him. What is more, I have been disgusted with the impotence and obsequiousness that so many Republican politicians (looking at you Chris Christie) and pundits (thinking of you, talk radio hosts) have displayed.  

But does Paul Ryan, who has publicly condemned rhetoric that he deems inappropriate and unconservative, deserve to be singled out here?  

Ironically, Douthat sounds almost Trumpian when he employs a scary animalistic analogy to describe his critics. Just as Trump has used the allegorical poem, “The Snake,” to scare Americans about Syrian refugees, Douthat compares Ryan’s refusal to condemn Trump to “mice under a hawk’s shadow,” who freeze “and hope that stillness alone can save you from the talons.”  

Whether it’s a snake or a hawk, the implication is clear: We’re all doves.  

As a columnist, I can admire the talent and poetry employed here. And there’s an art to simplifying a complicated story and casting it as nothing more than a narrative about a clash of visions between two men. To be sure, Ryan is an important Republican leader. But setting this up as a confrontation between the two men seems to be more manufactured than organic.  

Douthat also betrays an interesting bias toward action. In fact, most conservatives realize the line “Don’t just do something, stand there,” can be good advice — when it comes to governmental action — as well as personal conduct. Sometimes, the best thing to do or say is nothing. Sometimes not being bated into a comment is the courageous act. And it occurs to me that Ryan is balancing things almost perfect, if one considers the tough spot he’s in.  

On one hand, Ryan has a responsibility to defend his more positive, solutions-oriented brand of conservatism, which he has done on multiple occasions. On the other hand, he holds a leadership position in the Republican Party. These two roles are not always complimentary.  

Complicating things even more is the fact that Ryan will chair the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. It occurs to me that it might be a conflict of interest for the person handling this important function to be publicly playing favorites. What is more, should Trump be denied the nomination at a contested convention, Ryan would either have to recuse himself, or else he would provide Trump’s supporters with evidence that the election was “stolen” or “rigged” — a development that might lead to riots, as Trump has warned.  

Consider this from Fox News’ reporter Chad Pergram: “So it falls to Ryan to keep order. Entertain and rule on parliamentary appeals. Consider amendment proposals governing the rules on the floor. Wrestle with delegate allocations. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Ryan will be to address such a potentially raucous scene in an unflappable manner that appears non-partisan and fair, even though various wings of the party may have daggers out for the speaker regardless what happens.”  

It’s also worth asking whether or not Ryan making a full-throated criticism of Trump would help or hurt Trump. For better or worse, Ryan is, in many quarters, now considered to be part of the establishment (it’s hard to be an anti-establishment Speaker of the House; in fact, it might be oxymoronic). Would Ryan’s condemnation matter more than, say, Mitt Romney’s?  

Each of us has a role to play. Douthat and I are not running the convention, so we are both free to publicly criticize Trump — and we happily avail ourselves of this opportunity. Paul Ryan has accepted a role that requires a different type of responsibility, and he must comply with those expectations in a manner that is appropriate.  

In essence, what Douthat is urging Ryan to be is more like Trump — irresponsible with his rhetoric — unaware or unconcerned about the consequences and precedents that he sets.  

Trump needs to begin to realize that when you are a front runner for the Republican nomination for president, you surrender some of your freedom. You now have a responsibility to realize that your words are powerful.  

As “Spiderman” tells us, “With great power comes great responsibility.” An even greater authority tells us that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”  

Matt K. Lewis is a Senior Contributor at the Daily Caller and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail.”

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