If Donald Trump won’t lead, I will.
That’s the message House Speaker Paul Ryan appears to be sending with a new statement – released via his Facebook page Monday – on the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and President Trump’s remarkable “both sides” comments in its wake. (Ryan will take part in a town hall hosted by CNN’s Jake Tapper tonight at 9:30 p.m.)
Headlined “Let There Be No Confusion,” Ryan writes on Facebook:
“I still firmly believe this hate exists only on the fringes. But so long as it exists, we need to talk about it. We need to call it what it is. And so long as it is weaponized for fear and terror, we need to confront it and defeat it.
That is why we all need to make clear there is no moral relativism when it comes to neo-Nazis. We cannot allow the slightest ambiguity on such a fundamental question.”
Later, he adds: “This is a test of our moral clarity. The words we use and the attitudes we carry matter. Yes, this has been a disheartening setback in our fight to eliminate hate. But it is not the end of the story. We can and must do better.”
Now, Ryan – and/or Republican – haters will note that nowhere in that statement does the Speaker actually say the words “Donald Trump” or “President Trump.” And they will – and should! – point out that Ryan very publicly disavowed Trump in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape but has pushed the president’s agenda in Congress nonetheless.
All fair. And warranted.
But, it’s also important to note that politics abhors a vacuum. And that people will, inevitably, move to fill such a vacuum. And that is exactly what Ryan is doing here.
As I wrote at the time, Trump’s “on many sides” comments – and then his doubling down two days later – was not solely a political failure but also a moral one. It wasn’t about what we expect from a Republican. It was about what we expect from a leader in a moment of genuine outrage and anxiety. Trump’s cluelessness about what he needed to do in that moment – and his stubborn refusal to acknowledge that, maybe just maybe, he hadn’t handled it the right way, left a giant gaping leadership hole in the country and the party.
Ryan, in this statement, is moving to fill it – to show that he understands the stakes of events like Charlottesville and what it means to the country in a way Trump doesn’t or can’t.
“This is a test of our moral clarity,” Ryan declares in a line that it’s hard to imagine Trump thinking, much less actually saying. It’s a recognition that what happened in Charlottesville is a moment that matters and that leaders step up in just these sorts of moments.
This isn’t to say Ryan is plotting some sort of secret 2020 primary bid. I don’t think he is or will – although I do think someone (John Kasich maybe?) will step up to challenge Trump.
What it is to say is that Ryan recognizes the danger to the long-term health of the Republican party that Trump poses. Whether Trump gets re-elected in 2020 is less important than whether Trump’s views (or lack thereof) becoming definitional for the GOP.
When you have a Republican president of the United States who is unwilling to say that the violence in Charlottesville was the work of white supremacists and neo-Naizs who have no analog on the other side of the political spectrum, there is real danger that people – well after Trump is gone – associate the Republican Party with those sorts of intolerant views.
Trump, who was never a Republican before he decided to run for president and might not be one after he is done being president, isn’t terribly concerned about the future of the GOP. (Trump is concerned first, second and always with Trump.)
Ryan, clearly, is. As I’ve written before, Ryan isn’t actively running for president right now. What he is doing, however, is making sure a party exists in the future that can win a national election if and when he wants to run for president. (And, yes, Ryan is going to run for president at some point in the next 8-12 years.) He is, quite literally, in the GOP brand protection business at the moment.
That’s smart. Survival of the brand may well be the best that Republicans can hope for given Trump’s unpredictability and the poll numbers – both for himself and the GOP – that have resulted from this chaos.