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Photos: Mel Evans/AP, Carolyn Kaster/AP
The day after Donald Trump swept five primaries this week and tightened his grip on the Republican nomination for president, both he and the other most prominent Republican politician in the country were speaking the language of populism.
“We’re going to get rid of these politicians,” Trump said in his opening remarks during an hourlong appearance on Fox News on Wednesday in which Greta Van Susteren and a studio audience in Indianapolis lavished him with praise, sometimes in the form of questions.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., sounded a similar note. Ryan said at Georgetown University: “We do not believe we should be governed by our betters, that elites in Washington should make all those big decisions.”
The similarities between Trump and Ryan, however, end with their recognition of antiestablishment sentiment. In fact, these two men have come to represent powerful and opposing wings of the Republican Party — perspectives that are on a collision course. The tension between the two men will become all the more evident if and when Trump clinches the nomination, and a clash would be all but unavoidable should Trump defy what appear to be high odds and defeat likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for the presidency.
And regardless of whether Trump wins or loses, the fight between his faction and Ryan’s will continue beyond this election.
Trump has come to represent not just a pugnacious, take-no-prisoners style but a group of voters whose animating principle is that they want to blow up the existing order in Washington, D.C., and don’t care who they alienate along the way. Ryan, meanwhile, has emerged as the most formidable Republican leader arguing for rebuilding the party by rejecting the path of damn-the-consequences Trumpism.
The contrasts between the two couldn’t be more stark. Trump lacks a coherent political ideology. Ryan has spent most of his adult life honing conservative philosophy and ideas. Trump rose to power through celebrity (and money). Ryan did it with ideas (and the power of an important House chairmanship). Trump’s candidacy is fueled by anger and disillusionment with government. Ryan is trying to repair public trust in Congress. Its approval rating has risen six points in Gallup’s regular tracking poll since Ryan became speaker at the end of October, but it is still a dismal 17 percent.
Audience members take photos of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump before a campaign rally at West Chester University in West Chester, Pa., on Monday. (Photo: Matt Slocum/AP)
Many Trump supporters see in his business success and outsize personality the answer to a government they view as sprawling, stumbling and corrupt. To them, he is a strongman who can knock heads, hire “the best people” and make things work again by dislodging entrenched special interests and reducing the size of government. To that end, Trump has promised to take on lobbyists and political insiders, and often boasts that he is not taking money from wealthy donors. But close scrutiny of his proposals shows they would vastly increase the size of government and do almost nothing to reduce the national debt.
Ryan also wants to restore confidence in government — but by reforming it and reducing its size and scope. In that effort, he has spent the last decade working inside the system and with Democrats. He spent the first half of the Obama administration pushing a plan to reform Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, with an eye to reducing long-term government debt. Since the 2012 election, when Ryan was the GOP vice presidential nominee, he has increasingly spoken about the needs of Americans stuck in cycles of poverty and crime.
Trump, meanwhile, has promised not to change the entitlement programs that, along with demographic trends, are a driver of long-term debt. He even blamed Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss on his selection of Ryan as his running mate.
The coming confrontation between Ryan and Trump — and the poles of the party they represent — has been building all year, with Ryan speaking out against Trump more often as the year has gone on. This month, he said Trump had “disfigured” American values with his call to ban all Muslims from the U.S., and that foreign heads of state in the Middle East had thanked him for repudiating Trump when the businessman announced his proposal in December.
When a young Republican student at Georgetown University told Ryan Wednesday that he was “dismayed” by the presidential election, Ryan smiled wryly and joked, “Why is that?” The audience laughed. And when the student asked Ryan reasons he could give to be optimistic, Ryan responded by talking about the policy agenda he is promoting in the House for Congress, and said: “Look at the policies, not the person necessarily.”
Ryan spoke at Georgetown and answered questions from students as part of an ongoing effort on his part to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party. He opened his remarks by joking about the party’s lack of appeal to young people. “Why support Republicans?” he asked, and paused as the audience laughed in response, and applauded. “I’m going to go out on a limb and I’m going to assume that the thought has not been occurring to most of you recently.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan during a town hall on Wednesday at the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Ryan’s remark was an offhand way of acknowledging that Trump’s candidacy has not been winning over very many converts among young voters. But he sought to persuade the students that the GOP actually stands for a vision of the future that is radically at odds with the message that has come from Trump. “The America that you want is the America that we want: open, diverse, dynamic,” Ryan said.
But Ryan has also resisted calls for him to openly disavow Trump, and has maintained he will support whoever emerges as the Republican nominee. He has been mocked for doing so, but if Trump were to win the presidency, Ryan would loom as the largest counterbalance to Trump’s nativist and authoritarian approach. Most recently, Trump has said he would change the rules of the Republican primary nominating system. It’s something far easier said than done, but indicates the degree to which Trump has no use for the checks and balances inherent in American democracy since the nation’s founding.
Ryan has made clear that one of his top five priorities in Congress next year is to dramatically reduce the power of the president. He reiterated this at Georgetown on Wednesday.
“We need to restore the Constitution and Article 1 in the Constitution. What that means is the laws we live under should be written by we, through our elected representatives. Right now we don’t really have that,” Ryan said. “We’ve got this fourth branch of government — unelected bureaucrats — writing our rules, writing our regulations that govern our society, that determine how our businesses run, how our schools work. It determines almost everything we do.”
Ryan blamed both President Obama and previous Republican presidents for expanding executive power. And he added: “We believe in self-determination. We believe in government by consent of the governed. We are losing that. So we have a lot of ideas for restoring that.”
Earlier in the day, Ryan said he’d spoken with Trump about his agenda for next year, and said all had been supportive.
“I said here is what we’re doing, here’s where we’re going. Here’s why we’re doing it. We decided this last year before the presidential election got even started. And yes, we had a very pleasant conversation,” Ryan said on CNN.
Of course, around the same time that Ryan and Trump had that conversation, Trump also publicly threatened Ryan during a press conference. “Paul Ryan, I don’t know him well, but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him, and if I don’t? He’s gonna have to pay a big price, OK?” Trump said.
Ryan this week indicated there is a high degree of uncertainty about how Trump would conduct himself as president. Asked by CBS’ Charlie Rose how Trump’s brand of Republicanism would differ from his own, Ryan responded: “We’ll find out.”
Ryan’s aggressive and omnipresent media efforts — TV and print interviews, a social media presence and constant video content out of his office — are seen by the press as signs of pure political ambition. But it’s more than that. Ryan is also an institutionalist, who believes Congress has to be trusted to work.
Ryan’s media operation is part of an attempt to restore faith in government. By communicating clearly and often Congress’ goals and how they will be accomplished, Ryan is seeking to reverse a growing pattern in which lawmakers have overpromised to get elected and then underdelivered on their pledges, from ending the war in Iraq to repealing Obamacare.
Ryan’s most immediate political concern is to maintain a Republican majority in the House. It’s a growing concern that with Trump at the top of the ticket, the GOP could lose its 30-seat advantage, which had been thought impregnable. The GOP’s four-seat edge in the Senate is slim in comparison.
Ryan wants to give Republican candidates in competitive states or congressional districts a positive, forward-looking message to run on, rather than the grievance-based politics of Trump.
“Instead of playing the identity politics of ‘our base’ and ‘their base,’” Ryan said recently, he thinks the GOP should seek to “unite people around ideas and principles.”
Republicans, Ryan said, should not “just oppose someone or something” but should instead “propose a clear and compelling alternative.”
“And when we do that, we don’t just win the argument. We don’t just win your support. We win your enthusiasm,” he said.
If Ryan’s vision of what the GOP should be is to win out over Trump’s, it will have to do just that.