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The curious case of Paul Ryan’s evaporating courage

He used to call out Trump’s racist comments. Now he doesn’t.

House Speaker Paul Ryan Holds Weekly News Conference At The Capitol Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

On June 2, 2016, Donald Trump, then the presumptive Republican nominee for president, told the Wall Street Journal that he didn’t think Judge Gonzalo Curiel could oversee two lawsuits targeting Trump University. Curiel is “of Mexican heritage,” Trump noted. “I’m building a wall. It’s an inherent conflict of interest,” he said.

House Speaker Paul Ryan was outraged. “I regret those comments that he made,” Ryan told reporters. “I don’t think — claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sorta the textbook definition of a racist comment. I think that should be absolutely disavowed. It’s absolutely unacceptable.”

On January 11, 2018, during a meeting with a bipartisan group of senators on immigration, now-President Trump asked, of Haiti, El Salvador, and a number of African countries, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

If the Curiel remarks were “the textbook definition of a racist comment,” it is hard to argue how this is not. If anything, it’s more overtly and grotesquely bigoted.

Paul Ryan did not call the remarks racist. He did not call them unacceptable. Instead, he declared that saying black and brown people come from “shitholes” is “very unfortunate, unhelpful.” Today, apparently, textbook racist remarks are merely inconvenient, counterproductive.

It’s not an original observation to note that Paul Ryan has degraded himself in service of Donald Trump. Nor is it reasonable to suggest that the 2016 Paul Ryan, the Paul Ryan who could call Trump a racist when Trump said something racist, was somehow truly resisting Trump.

In the same press conference where he condemned Trump, Ryan was sure to add, “Do I believe that Hillary Clinton is the answer? No, I do not,” and that Republicans “have more likelihood of getting our policies enacted with him than we do with her.” Even then he was very clearly willing to tolerate a presidential nominee who he knew was a racist, who he said publicly was a racist, in order to enable the enactment of his preferred economic policies.

But Ryan’s response to the “shithole” remarks is as clear a sign as any that the terms of his deal with Trump have changed.

The end of even token congressional Republican resistance

Before Trump took office, Ryan was able to criticize Trump’s racism harshly while continuing to ally with him for the greater cause of cutting health care benefits and corporate tax rates. Now he no longer does.

This is not because Trump has somehow become less racist or less worthy of condemnation. Just read my colleague German Lopez’s comprehensive rundown of all of Trump’s racist comments and actions for corroboration.

Or look at the remarks NBC News reported shortly after the “shithole” story broke. Trump repeatedly asked a Korean-American CIA analyst where she was “really” from; she kept telling him Manhattan, and when she finally mentioned being Korean-American, Trump asked why she wasn’t working on North Korea. When a black member of Congress told him that his proposed welfare cuts would harm her constituents, “not all of whom are black,” Trump replied, “Really? Then what are they?”

Nor would it suffice to say that these are just words. Trump has not only condemned immigration from black and brown “shithole” countries, he has backed legislation to cut legal immigration by half, which would go a long way toward his goal of keeping those “shithole” people out. Trump’s Justice Department, led by a man whose nomination to the federal judiciary was blocked by civil rights groups for his record of racist comments, has pointedly refused to crack down on local police departments that engage in unprovoked violence against black men.

You could concoct race-neutral rationales, or rationalizations, for these policies if you really wanted to. But at some point it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a president who has repeatedly said he doesn’t like black and brown people is pursuing policies that hurt black and brown people because he feels genuine antipathy toward them.

When Paul Ryan saw evidence of this in June 2016, he was alarmed. He called Trump a racist and condemned him in clear terms. But now Trump has shown that he can give Ryan tax cuts. That he could give Ryan another conservative Supreme Court justice. And now, curiously, Ryan appears to lack that same fervor.

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