House Speaker Paul Ryan is a servile political “eunuch” twisting himself to meet the capricious whims of Republican nominee Donald Trump, smirked Late Show host Stephen Colbert. Yet Ryan is “the most powerful Republican politician in America,” according to MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, a long-time observer of American politics.
So which is it?
Actually, Ryan fits both descriptions. Shamelessly endorsing Trump despite the candidate’s repeated racist and inflammatory statements, Ryan wants to display just enough support for Trump to avoid alienating Republican voters.
No wonder Ryan’s classmates voted him both prom king and “biggest ‘brown-noser’ ” in his senior year of high school.
Ryan, forty-six, understands the political benefits of sucking up. He is a clear favorite of the Koch brothers and other members of the Republican donor class. He holds enormous power as Speaker of the House. Most importantly, Ryan is the keeper of the flame for the Republican establishment. He defends his party’s traditional values: free market capitalism, low taxes for the rich, the rollback of New Deal and Great Society programs including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and repeated ideological attacks on progressives. (“Progressives deliver everything except progress,” he said in his speech at the Republican National Convention.) He is a man on a mission, with his eye fixed on the Republican presidential nomination in 2020.
Ryan and Trump have been engaged in a delicate dance, reflected in their ostentatiously reluctant endorsements of one another. They need each other, and, at the same time, they represent opposite, warring elements in a fracturing Republican party.
Ryan embodies the abandonment of working-class voters which provoked the Trump revolt. He has witnessed the economic decline and social disintegration of the three key factory towns in his district in southeastern Wisconsin. From 2000 to 2012, Kenosha has seen 30 percent of its manufacturing jobs wiped out, Racine has lost 33 percent, and Janesville, 54 percent. Ryan responded passively to devastating job losses like 3,800 Delco jobs in Oak Creek which mostly wound up in low-wage Mexico, 850 Chrysler jobs shifted from Kenosha to Saltillo, Mexico, and the closing of Janesville’s massive General Motors plant. All three towns have seen major increases in poverty, and Janesville in particular has been hit by increases in family violence and suicides.
“Ryan is out of touch with workers,” says Todd Price, fifty-three, a Kenosha native and director of policy studies at National Louis University. “The guys I went to high school with can no longer find jobs at Chrysler, American Brass, Snap-On, and other places that have closed. But Ryan wears blinders, and he is remarkably confident about the doctrines of [‘free-market’ fundamentalists] Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman.”
The problem for working-class voters extends way beyond southeastern Wisconsin. America has lost about a third of its manufacturing jobs since 2000 as some 56,000 factories have closed, and working-class communities have become increasingly fractured.
One grim indicator of community deterioration, especially in factory towns: the death rate among whites aged forty-five to fifty-four climbed 22 percent from 1999 to 2013. Alcoholism, opioid abuse, and suicide are among the key factors in an unexpected increase of nearly 500,000 deaths in this group, according to an eye-opening study by Angus Deaton and Anne Case. Deaton reflected on their findings:
“These are the people who used to have good factory jobs with on-the-job training. These are the people who could build good lives for themselves and for their kids. And all of that has gone away. The factory’s in Cambodia, the factory’s in Vietnam, the factory’s in China, wherever.”
Recently, Ryan finally jettisoned his long-standing support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), falling back on citing technical flaws in the deal while fervently maintaining support for “free trade” in principle. “I don’t think there’s a high likelihood [the TPP will pass.] . . . We don’t have the votes to pass it because people like me have problems with some significant provisions of it that we believe need to get fixed,” he said. “But here’s the point: We do need trade agreements. I know a lot of people say just get rid of trade agreements, don’t do trade agreements, and that’s terrible. That’s a problem for us.”
Ryan’s abandonment of the TPP did not come easily, despite public sentiment in his district, where city councils in two cities passed anti-TPP resolutions, and Ryan faced a primary challenge from vocal pro-Trump, anti-TPP candidate Paul Nehlen.
Barely a week before he announced his opposition to the TPP, Ryan delivered a scathing attack on the populist politics pushed by the party’s working-class interlopers led by Trump. He spoke at a lavish Colorado resort to a group of 400 major Republican donors hosted by the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a network promoted by the Koch brothers.
At the event, Ryan urged the group to join him in a fight for “the soul of our party and for our country [that] we are in the middle of having right now.” This fight, said Ryan, is centered on “free markets” and “free trade.”
While not explicitly depicting Trump and his followers as a threat to these ideals, Ryan acknowledged the difficulties posed by a Republican presidential nominee whom many donors were not inclined to support. Holding aloft the House Republicans’ plan for corporate subsidies and cutbacks in spending for the poor, Ryan conceded the awkwardness of Trump’s heretical views on federal safety net programs and trade “‘We have a different kind of nominee now,” he said, “sparking laughter in the room,’” The Washington Post reported. “It’s just unique,” he sighed. The party finds itself in “clearly an interesting moment.”
Despite the burdens imposed by the party’s presidential nominee, Ryan stressed, fighting to retain Republican control of Congress is crucial.
“We’ve got to win some of these fights in Washington on behalf of the free-market system. We have our work cut out for us,” he declared.
Ryan warned his well-heeled audience about the dangers to their interests posed by “progressivism”—a word he used to include the blue-collar Republicans Trump has galvanized. The “progressive” menace to the “free market” system comes in new guises, Ryan suggested, that include opposition to trade deals, support for entitlement programs, and only limited interest in corporate tax cuts. “We are flirting with various forms of progressivism, and there are Republican forms of progressivism,” Ryan said ominously.
For example, the progressive anti-corporate Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican, Ryan reminded the donors, hinting that contemporary Republicans were also capable of betraying the upper class. As for progressivism:
“We have to thoroughly debunk it, repudiate it.”
The House speaker was received “with a standing ovation and whoops,” according to the Post.
But while Republican donors applaud job-killing trade deals and massive tax cuts for corporations and the super-wealthy, Republican voters are headed in a different direction. The demand to address economic injustice by working-class and small-business Republicans will persist after the November election.
Take the Freedom Caucus in Congress: This uncompromising group of Tea Party types has opposed “crony capitalism” programs including the Export-Import Bank, which primarily benefits corporate giants like Boeing and General Electric.
Or take the newly awakened non-union, non-college-educated blue-collar/small business constituency which had been the GOP’s most loyal and dependable voting bloc. As the rightwing Breitbart News site pointed out, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that “only a vanishing 11 percent of Republican voters believe that so-called ‘free trade’ will raise wages.” And “by a greater than 3-to-1 margin, Republican voters believe that ‘free trade’ will kill jobs, not create them.”
The collisions between Ryan and Trump may become noisier with Trump’s selection of the combative Stephen Bannon, who ran the rabidly anti-Ryan Breitbart site, to run the Trump campaign. Breitbart has lumped together Ryan and Hillary Clinton as tools of the Koch brothers and “globalist special interests.”
Such attacks are relatively new to Ryan. Up until now, he has enjoyed a high level of prestige among Republicans, owing to his hard-line policy positions. He is staunchly opposed to raising the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Despite the conditions in his district, he has consistently sought a wide range of cuts in programs for low-income people, ranging from food stamps to job training to unemployment insurance to Head Start to federal aid for college students.
His connections and fundraising power have warded off a serious challenge. He enjoys an astronomical funding advantage over Democratic opponent Ryan Solen. As of mid-July, Ryan had $9.5 million in cash on hand to less than $3,000 for Solen.
Ryan’s budget plans earned him a reputation for seriousness and courage—despite being torn apart for their faulty math and “flim-flam” by the economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat cited Ryan’s intellectual heft, and lamented Ryan’s endorsement of Trump, writing that Ryan’s “moral authority and brand are being laid waste in this campaign.”
The crisis for Ryan goes much deeper than the difficulties presented by Trump. As he looks toward 2020, he will be facing a fundamental challenge from rank-and-file blue-collar workers and small businesspeople who feel economically pinched and politically disenfranchised by the party to which they have shown such strong loyalty. The long-running issues of sliding incomes, the offshoring of jobs, and generalized economic and social insecurity won’t just go away.
Ryan has been experimenting with new strategies to appeal to resentful voters. In June he unveiled a plan to stop U.S. job flight, carefully crafting his message to avoid blaming corporations that seek higher profits in low-wage countries overseas. Instead, Ryan attributed the offshoring of jobs to the “over-taxation” of U.S. corporations. He focused on the official but meaningless U.S. corporate tax rate of 35 percent, which he called “among the highest in the world.” Never mind that actual federal corporate taxes on 288 profitable Fortune 500 corporations were only 19.4 percent in 2008-2012, according to Citizens for Tax Justice. This makes the United States eighth-lowest among advanced nations. Taxes on the largest corporations like General Electric, Boeing, and others are among the very lowest in the world.
Ryan argued in an interview with The Weekly Standard that cutting the tax rate for corporations is “even more pressing now,” because capital is more mobile than ever. Going even further, Ryan has proposed eliminating taxes on the profits from overseas plants operated by major U.S. firms, “making America the most favorable and competitive.”
In reality, the Ryan tax plan would provide an enormous inducement for the offshoring of even more U.S. jobs. “Ryan’s plan would insure that any profits created offshore by U.S. corporations would never be taxed by the U.S. government,” explains David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of two books on tax avoidance by U.S. corporations. “This would create a tremendous incentive to move more and more U.S. jobs overseas.”
Ryan’s reflexive blaming of “over-taxation” for job loss to foreign sites was particularly absurd when he claimed that General Electric’s U.S. tax burden drove it to shift 350 Wisconsin machinists’ jobs to Canada. GE’s tax burden has been notoriously minimal: Between 2008 and 2013, it earned $33.9 billion in profits and paid no federal taxes, instead walking away with nearly $3 billion in tax credits, for a total tax rate of negative 9 percent.
Ryan’s “globalist” pro-corporate proposal will hand more ammunition to the Republican “progressives” who threaten party elites.
I met some of those “progressive” voters at a Trump rally in West Bend, Wisconsin, in August. Against the backdrop of rioting by young African Americans in Milwaukee after the police shooting of twenty-three-year-old Sylville Smith, Trump staged a “law and order” event that veered quickly into talk about the economy and jobs.
Trump promised to protect low-wage African American workers from competition from immigrant workers willing to work for less. He thundered that African Americans had been cruelly neglected by Democrats who simply “wanted your votes”— a curious comment made to an audience that was almost entirely white.
As racial tensions exploded around him in nearby Milwaukee, Trump played the economic card, over and over. He lashed out at giant U.S. corporations for offshoring millions of jobs while cutting back on employment for Americans.
“We’re not going to let corporations leave our country so quietly and quickly, and then turn around and sell their products here,” he railed.
But Trump offered no industrial policy to control offshoring. His comments highlighted the awkwardness his populism has created within his party. His speech was preceded by comments from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who echoed Ryan, saying the 2016 election is crucial to stem the rising tide of “over-taxation” and over-regulation of U.S. corporations, causing them to relocate outside the country.
Scott Hermann, a tall, thoughtful auto mechanic who said he has gone eight years without a pay increase, attended the West Bend Trump rally and liked what he heard. “We’ve gotta boost the economy, and keep stuff being built in America,” he said.
Alongside burly, working-class men in T-shirts, the West Bend rally attracted a substantial number of men and women dressed in business casual. Several expressed resentment of high CEO pay and trade agreements that threaten U.S. jobs.
Tracey, a forty-eight-year-old, college-educated inventory manager who declined to provide her last name, blamed the federal government for exporting American jobs. But she blended her populism with a dash of traditional Paul Ryan bootstraps rhetoric. “I don’t think corporations are abusing people,” she said. “You’ve got to self-improve. People are always looking for freebies and handouts.”
Whatever becomes of Paul Ryan and Donald Trump, Republicans are going to continue to struggle with the class war unleashed this year within the once-staid Republican Party.
Roger Bybee is a labor studies instructor, longtime progressive activist, and writer who edited the weekly Racine Labor for fourteen years.