On Wednesday, Paul Ryan announced that he has decided to retire from Congress rather than seek reelection in November. The timing of this decision means that his career will be capped by two fairly recent elements of his legacy: His sloppy, oligarchic tax bill, and his supine acquiescence to the Trump White House. These two are directly related, but their connections have been obscured by a third defining facet: His undeserved reputation as a well-intentioned problem solver. Ryan will leave the House of Representatives in its worst shape in decades (at least), and he ranks as one of the most dishonest and cynical figures of a dishonest and cynical age. Yet this has long been concealed by his aw-shucks demeanor, complete with a well-preserved upper-Midwestern accent and a wide-lipped, “well, gosh” facial shrug that makes him look, for all the world, like Fozzie Bear. Obviously, Ryan didn’t secure this reputation solely by the way he presents. He had plenty of help from credulous political reporters, who identified him as a key player in a group of GOP reformers whose reformism (as well as their constituency) was largely mythical. Interestingly, another of those supposed reformers announced his retirement just last month: Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute.
Brooks and Ryan are figures from a recent era that nonetheless sometimes seems to belong to the distant past. They were perfectly suited to serve as the sober faces of the Tea Party freakout: well-spoken conservatives who could articulate anti-Obama positions without spouting racism or revealing fundamental, “Keep government out of my Medicare”-level ignorance of public policy. This was enormously convenient to a number of pundits, whose elitism and desire for a loosely centrist both-sides framing made the actual rank-and-file Tea Partiers an inconvenient pairing with the wonky, calm, polite new President.
In this friendly climate, Brooks and Ryan were allies and sometime collaborators. In a jointly-written Wall Street Journal piece that ran just before the 2010 midterms, they solemnly called for “a defense of our culture of free enterprise” and warned that “the road to serfdom in America does not involve a knock in the night or a jack-booted thug. It starts with smooth-talking politicians offering seemingly innocuous compromises, and an opportunistic leadership that chooses not to stand up for America’s enduring principles of freedom and entrepreneurship.” There is every reason to believe that Ryan and Brooks both meant this with deadly seriousness—an obvious conclusion to anybody who was aware of Ryan’s fondness for Ayn Rand, or who had followed expert analyses of his policy proposals, or who had paid attention to Brooks’s apocalyptic book (released earlier that year) framing economic debates as an all-or-nothing culture war with freedom itself on the line. Nonetheless, each continued to receive largely favorable coverage as the Reasonable (Conservative) Alternative to Obama. Ryan’s reputation in this respect was damaged slightly by the 2012 election and his unhelpfully revealing (and since renounced) tendency to describe society in terms of “makers” and “takers.” Yet Brooks remained the subject of goopy profiles and was even selected to serve as President Obama’s onstage interlocutor in a public conversation about poverty.
The ascent of Donald Trump has, at the very least, demolished the careful cosmetic work that Brooks and Ryan were performing on behalf of Republican policies. Whether Trump’s rise demonstrates a repudiation of their intellectual project is another question entirely. Brooks, for his part, has remained mostly quiet about Trump. He may believe that Trump rejects important conservative free-enterprise principles (as he gently suggested at points before the election), but he has raised little protest since Inauguration Day. And for somebody who once saw the threat of authoritarianism around every corner, his apparent calmness at this moment in time is, um, noteworthy. Ryan, for his part, got from Trump the tax cuts he so desperately wanted. If he has found any of Trump’s other actions disturbing, he has mostly kept those worries to himself (with the exception of a few vague, meaningless non-denunciations: Hey, what can you do when the President defends the honor of neo-Nazis?).
To put it lightly, Trump’s party does not look like the reformist GOP we were promised. In fact, it resembles nothing so much as the worst of Tea Party mania, a guttural roar that (we were once assured) could be made reasonable when rendered in the language of well-meaning wonks. The fundamental mistake of this assurance was the belief that reasonable demeanors were proof of moderate views. But unlike the Medicare recipients raging against government involvement in health care, Brooks and Ryan operated with a high degree of ideological coherence and a single-mindedness that was all the more effective for its beguiling, unassuming self-presentation. Trump may be constitutionally incapable of mimicking that reasonable style, but crucially, he doesn’t have to. Ryan and Brooks have, with his help, achieved Republican control of all three branches of government, and now they are exiting major leadership roles in the movement. Whether they do so having failed or succeeded at their task depends, in no small part, on how you interpret what they were up to all along.