Donald Trump’s blistering attacks on trade deals with Mexico and China, regardless of how simplistic and distorted, have placed House Speaker Paul Ryan in an awkward spot, in part because of his own entrenched “free-trade” beliefs—and those of the Republican donor class he has so skillfully cultivated.
But Ryan’s position is most precarious because if he harbors ambitions for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination, he wants to avoid alienating the supporters of Donald Trump, whom, despite mounting criticism of his support for the New Yorker, he has continued to endorse. To balance his own fiercely held convictions on “free trade” and austerity policies with Trump’s contradictory economic direction, Ryan has been going through a remarkable set of contortions recently.
On August 9, during a visit to his economically declining southeastern Wisconsin district, Ryan made a carefully calculated concession to Trump’s anti-“free trade” position by reversing himself and coming out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership on vague technical grounds. (Around the same time, Trump made a long-delayed, pro forma endorsement of Ryan.)
But statements like Ryan’s qualified comments on the TPP are likely to have little impact on bridging the yawning canyon between the party’s donor class and a suddenly assertive base of blue-collar and small-business voters mobilized by Trump. This gap seems certain to persist far beyond November, with or without Trump’s leadership.
As Nicholas Confessore of The New York Times memorably recounts, in the long-smoldering conflict within the GOP, the “party elite … abandoned its most faithful voters, blue-collar white Americans, who faced economic pain and uncertainty. … From mobile home parks in Florida and factory towns in Michigan, to Virginia’s coal country … disenchanted Republican voters lost faith in the agenda of their party’s leaders.”
“The American middle class is losing ground, no longer the majority and falling behind financially,” a Pew report grimly concluded. Finding their earnings stagnant or declining and anxious about job security, many non-college educated people are no longer content with the Republicans’ traditional economic agenda, which has combined unregulated offshoring of U.S. jobs, tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and cuts in vitally needed “entitlement” programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Ryan himself has played a highly visible role as the most outspoken advocate for shaping Republican agendas in this mold. “His ‘Ryan budgets,’ which called for large income tax cuts for the wealthy, lower taxes on capital gains, and the shifting of Medicare to a voucher system, became the gold standard for Republican policy, and drew plaudits from big donors for their seriousness and depth,” Confessore notes. Liberals, however, castigated Ryan’s budgets for their ruthless cuts to social programs like food stamps, and Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman dismissed him as a “con man” for his failure to make even rudimentary economic sense.
The budget proposals streaming from Ryan’s office consolidated his reputation as a “leading intellectual” among Republicans, a dubious distinction bestowed on the speaker by credulous Beltway pundits. With his close identification with the standard elite-focused agenda of the Republicans, it seemed inevitable that Ryan would attract an anti-globalist primary candidate who excoriated Ryan for his ties to Washington, D.C., elites.
“Paul Ryan is the most … pro-Wall Street, anti-worker member of either party of Congress,” Ryan’s opponent Paul Nehlen shouted during a rally outside the speaker’s palatial home in Janesville. Despite Nehlen's support from far-right media celebrities like Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Malkin, the heavily funded and well-established Ryan won overwhelmingly, 84 percent to 16 percent.
As Ryan sought to reconcile his “free trade” views with Trump’s slashing attacks on trade deals and the export of U.S. jobs, his reversal on TPP was a key step. Ryan cited vague flaws in the current version of the pact while defending the broader principles behind corporate globalization.
“I don't think there's a high likelihood (of the TPP's passage) right now because ... 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 told factory workers and managers at a plant in Racine, Wisconsin. (The city councils in Racine and nearby Kenosha have passed resolutions against the TPP, although these moves appeared to have had little impact on Ryan’s rationale.)
“But here's the point: We do need trade agreements,” Ryan said. “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.”
Unlike his tepid rejection of the TPP, Ryan had made a much more vigorous and convincing defense of “free trade” just eight days earlier, drawing a standing ovation at a Koch brothers-sponsored gathering of 400 big donors at the plush Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs. Ryan has long been “clearly a favorite of the Koch donor network,” as evidenced by the lavish funding he has received for his campaigns from Koch-affiliated groups.
Ryan has earned high esteem among big-money Republican donors through his crucial support of measures like the Wall Street bailout by taxpayers and his passive acquiescence to major corporations that have closed up shop and moved south of the border, abandoning thousands of workers in his district.
Ryan raised no protest when Delco shifted as many as 3,800 jobs to Mexico, or when General Motors closed its giant plant in his hometown of Janesville in late 2008. GM then proceeded to use government-provided bailout money to enlarge its Silao, Mexico, plant, which was built in the mid-1990s to duplicate its production lines in Janesville. Ryan remained utterly silent when Chrysler utilized its bailout funds to transfer the last 850 jobs remaining in Kenosha to a new low-wage plant in Saltillo, Mexico.
Ryan has also been a fervent advocate of eliminating taxes for the foreign operations of U.S. firms, which tax experts like David Cay Johnston view as a major incentive for greater offshoring of U.S. jobs.
Ryan recently addressed a group of powerful GOP donors at a seminar sponsored by the Koch network, all of whom who had given at least $100,000 to the Kochs’ Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. That audience was delighted by his powerful defense of corporate globalization as “a fight for the soul of the party.” “Ryan touted the importance of free trade, an issue Trump has railed against, and said it was essential that party leaders make a better case for the free market,” The Washington Post reported.
Ryan coupled his “free trade, free market” message with a warning against the resurgence of “Teddy Roosevelt”-style “progressivism” within the Republican Party, seemingly aimed at Trump and his supporters. The attacks on “free trade” and defense of “entitlements” like Social Security and Medicare were apparently sufficient to qualify them for the “progressive” label, despite the racism and xenophobia associated with Trump and his supporters.
Ryan thundered, “We are flirting with various forms of progressivism [one of Ryan’s long-time ideological targets], and there are Republican forms of progressivism. Teddy Roosevelt [who enacted progressive domestic policies like trust-busting and building up a national park system] was a Republican. We have to thoroughly debunk it, repudiate it.”
At the conclusion of his speech, the House Speaker “received with a standing ovation and whoops” from the normally restrained members of America’s top 1 percent, the Post noted.
However, as long as America’s middle class continues to shrink and household incomes decline, a return to traditional elite-centered policies will inspire few ovations and whoops of joy from non-union blue-collar workers and small-business people without college degrees. Ryan’s call for a revival of the GOP’s standard program of “free trade,” “free markets,” and tax cuts for corporations and the rich will represent the familiar formula causing more anxiety and misery among the non-college educated.
As the party’s power-brokers push a return to long-standing GOP economic policies, Paul Ryan (and his presidential ambitions) and the Republican elites seem certain to face deepening disaffection among their most dependable voting bloc. Having been mobilized by Trump, their alienation is likely to persist in an ongoing rebellion against a party establishment that has forsaken them.