Paul Ryan appeared today in Washington, D.C.’s impoverished and overwhelmingly black Anacostia neighborhood to promote the House Republican agenda. The visit was steeped in racial symbolism, a long-planned photo op intended to convey Ryan’s no-doubt-sincere belief that his party’s policies would better the lives of the urban poor by freeing them from the dependence of subsidy (and, by reducing taxes and regulations on business owners, supplying them with more jobs). Unfortunately for Ryan, the visit came as the news media was in a full-blown frenzy over racist comments made by Donald Trump against Gonzalo Curiel, the judge in his fraud trial. The contradiction between the two could not be ignored. And so Ryan made an astonishing confession. “Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment,” he acknowledged. And yet he conceded he would support Trump for president anyway.
There is nothing inherently racist about Ryan’s policy agenda. The arguments for enormous, regressive tax cuts, deregulation of finance and carbon pollution, and large reductions in spending assistance for the poor may be unpersuasive, but they have no intellectual connection to racism. The trouble for Republicans is that building a real-world constituency for these policies does rely on racism. Conservatives stopped the momentum of the New Deal in the mid-1960s only when they associated it with support for the black underclass. Republican politics has grown increasingly racialized over time, a trend that has dramatically accelerated during the Obama era.
Over the last eight years, the tension between these two things has grown unbearable for conservatives. Republican voting support is increasingly coterminous with white racial resentment even as conservatives firmly believe in their own racial innocence. Conservatives have built an alternative history in which racism, rather than migrating to the Republican Party as white Southerners revolted against the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights, remained in the Democratic Party all along. Racism, they insist, is a practice of the race-conscious left, not the right, which has long been cleansed of the racist taint. Republicans constantly liken President Obama and his policies to segregationists or to slavery, and cast themselves as the heirs to the civil-rights movement. Conservatives deny the existence of racism in the Republican Party as a matter of doctrinal sanctity, just as Soviet authorities had to officially deny the existence of poverty in the USSR.
Trump has ratcheted the tension between theory and reality to unbearable levels. Of course, Trump has exploited racism for years, from his public demand to execute what turned out to be innocent black youths a quarter-century ago to his birtherism to his crude bigotry toward Mexican and Muslim immigrants. But because his outbursts against Curiel are bigoted in such an undisguised fashion, with no policy pretext to hide behind, they forced the question into the open. The responses of various figures on the right have fallen into two broad categories. Conservatives who continue to reject Trump as an ideological impostor have frankly denounced his bigotry. “Saying someone can’t do a specific job because of his or her race is the literal definition of ‘racism,’” tweeted Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, the staunchest holdout of the anti-Trump forces among elected Republicans. “These were not racially tinged or racially charged attacks. This was racism plain and simple,” wrote Erick Erickson. This is a natural outgrowth of their position that Trump is not a conservative at all, and his identification with the Republican Party nothing more than a temporary error.
On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of Republicans committed to supporting Trump have engaged in various tortured constructions. “I would not have said what he said, but then I don’t know all the facts,” asserted Senator Charles Grassley. “My experience with Donald Trump is he doesn’t have a prejudicial bone in his body,” said Orrin Hatch. Former Bush administration attorney general Alberto Gonzales gently reprimanded the front-runner like so: “If the criticism is solely based on Curiel’s race, that is something voters will take into account in deciding whether he is fit to be president.” The “if” construction of this sentence is its crowning touch, treating Trump’s repeated, blunt insistence that Curiel’s “Mexican heritage” presented an “inherent conflict of interest” as some sort of mysterious hypothetical. Other Republicans edged closer to outright denunciation. The Wall Street Journal editorial page slapped Trump’s wrist — “giving his political opponents ammunition … pettiness … obnoxious … racist implications” — without drawing any overt conclusions about Trump’s racism.
Even those Republicans willing to describe the statement as racist (and not merely as something that implied racism) presented it as a singular mistake that did not reflect their nominee’s belief system. “I think it’s wrong. He needs to stop saying it,” scolded Marco Rubio. It was a “regrettable mistake,” allowed Representative Lee Zeldin. “It’s time to quit attacking various people you competed with or various minority groups in the country and get on message,” said Mitch McConnell, treating Trump’s parade of racist comments like a habit he is trying to give up. “I don’t know what’s in his heart,” allowed Ryan.
Ryan hates the words that come out of Trump’s mouth, but he draws no conclusions from them and will endorse him anyway because Trump will sign Ryan’s bills into law. “I do absolutely disavow those comments,” he pleaded. “I think they are wrong. I don’t think they are right-headed. And the thinking behind it is something I don’t personally relate to. But at the end of the day this is about ideas. This is about moving our agenda forward.” Somehow, once again, Ryan’s agenda found itself in the anomalous position of depending on a racist in order to prevail.