Hypocrisy and failure are only the beginning: Ryan’s speakership is a story of craven cowardice and collaboration

There’s considerable pathos and dramatic irony to the end of Paul Ryan’s political career — if you are able to view him from a distance, like a character in a Jonathan Franzen novel or a Netflix drama set in Norway. He’s a guy who believed he was out in front of history and positioned to shape it, but wound up being dragged behind the emperor’s chariot while the populace laughed at him and threw unpleasant objects. Until a few years ago, I bet he didn’t even know what “cuck” meant!

As an actual human player in the real world of American politics, however — assuming for the moment that anything about that world is real — Paul Ryan is pretty much contemptible. He was given a sort of parting valediction this week, in the form of a chummy conversation with Washington Post reporter Paul Kane that was broadcast on C-SPAN, and it was one of those strange D.C. spectacles that splits the difference between deadly dull and flat-out horrifying.

There was a rueful, semi-apologetic tone to the whole thing, as well there might be in the circumstances under which Ryan leaves the capital. Michael Cohen and Robert Mueller were mentioned, more or less in passing; Ryan acknowledged that he had heard of those people, but didn’t appear to have an opinion about them one way or another. This guy has been speaker of the House of Representatives throughout the period when the president of the United States has vigorously labored to undermine democracy and the rule of law, while being investigated for various kinds of corruption and conspiracy. That has been Ryan’s survival mode the whole time: What crisis? He hasn’t heard about any crisis; it’s all distant and vaguely irritating family gossip about an aunt he barely knows.

As Jonathan Chait of New York magazine put it, Ryan was allowed to depict himself in the Post interview as a “wonk-statesman” who had “pointed the way toward a brighter and more responsible future” and, at worst, had “failed only to achieve the ideals for which he strived.” Chait’s principal complaint is that Ryan’s posture of sad-eyed fiscal responsibility is utter hogwash, since he has consistently pursued policies that have massively increased the federal debt. That’s unquestionably true, but I would say the hypocrisy, mendacity and all-around fakery of Ryanism runs much deeper than that.

If Paul Ryan isn’t the worst House speaker in living memory, that might be because he only got to do it for three years. Mind you, the competition for that title is stiff, considering that the list includes a convicted child molester (Denny Hastert) and the vainglorious and self-destructive Newt Gingrich. But Ryan merits a special award for failure when you consider his inflated reputation for political genius, his built-in advantages — Republican majorities in both houses throughout his tenure, a Republican president for two-thirds of it — and his record of accomplishing virtually nothing.

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