What will the historians say, when the time comes for them to draw up their judgments? I think their eyes will alight upon Paul D. Ryan, currently second in line for the presidency, after Joe Biden, and they will declare that, in the election of 2016, Ryan was truly the odious figure, he above all others. About Ryan, you cannot say that he is merely a 12-year-old, incapable of taking responsibility for his own actions, which distinguishes him from his party’s candidate. Nor can Ryan be regarded in the same simple light as the candidate’s leading supporters and surrogates, Gingrich, Giuliani, and Christie. Those people, the henchmen, have merely been faithful to their own inner natures—ambitious and mad, in Gingrich’s case; ambitious and sinister, in the case of Giuliani and Christie.

Ryan, though, has been presented to us for many years as a thoughtful man. He is even said to be a man of ideas: a disciple of Milton Friedman and, in his youth, of Ayn Rand, who matured sufficiently to prefer Aquinas.  He wrote speeches for Jack Kemp. The burnish of intellect is upon him, if only in a speechwriter’s version. And Ryan has been presented to us as the incarnation of the small-town dream, in its Republican version, than which nothing is dreamier—Janesville, Wisconsin’s leading citizen, the impeccable family man and humble congregant. When Ryan poses for his photo-ops in front of wooden porches, dressed in crisp shirtsleeves and blue jeans and gazing with frank democratic ease at the camera, you are meant to think that here is the authentic descendant of Lincoln and Reagan, the sons of Illinois, even if Reagan moved to Hollywood. And the authentic descendant has made a point of displaying his ruminative sobriety.

In the early stages of the campaign, he plainly understood that something appalling was happening to the Republican Party, and he responded with a multiphase show of hesitation—his delayed and slightly tortured endorsement of the candidate in the columns of the Janesville Gazette, his dis-invitation of the candidate to a Wisconsin political fair, his announcement that he would not be campaigning for the candidate, and finally his announcement that he has already voted for the candidate, which was a way of signaling that everyone else in the Republican Party ought to overcome their own small-town and virtuous revulsion and vote likewise.

In this extended fashion, Ryan has shown us that he knows; and he doesn’t care. He knows that he has called upon people to vote for everything that he is against. Sometimes he has even specified what he is against. It was Ryan who uttered the denuncation, “a textbook definition of a racist comment.” The descendant of Lincoln called for Republicans to vote for the author of the racist comment, even so. Then again, Ryan called for Republicans to vote for the opposite of Reagan’s greatest legacy, too. The Republican candidate is, after all, the only philo-czarist to run for president on a major party ticket in the history of the United States. But there is no point in tabulating the many ways in which the Republican candidate represents a rupture in the American political tradition.

It is true that Ryan did all of this in the hope of executing a complicated pool shot. He resembles in this respect David Cameron, the former prime minister of Britain, who, in order to outmaneuver his rival Boris Johnson, called for the Brexit referendum, fully expecting the referendum to fail, and for Johnson to suffer the consequences. Cameron is, for this reason, the most odious man in Europe, the man who gambled the stability of the West and the prospects of his own country for the pettiest of purposes. In Ryan’s case, he has hoped that by calling for Republicans to stand by their candidate he will preserve his party’s unity and strength, and, after the candidate’s defeat, he will resume the leadership. And if the candidate is not defeated? Ryan, like Cameron, has preferred not to stare into that abyss.

Being the Janesville man of thoughtful mien, Ryan is, of course, not enjoying himself, the way that Giuliani is enjoying himself. He knows what Mitt Romney must think of him, and what the Bush family must think of him, and what the ghosts of Lincoln and Reagan must think. He knows that he has been through a terrible battle of God and Satan, and he has emerged on the side of one and not the other. He knows that if anyone could have ensured the candidate’s defeat in the general election, he is that person, or is one of a small group who could have done it. He knows every last thing. Every molecule of his body is an eyeball, and all of the eyeballs are gazing downward (if I may borrow from Emerson). But here is the odious quality precisely. Odiousness requires self-knowledge.


To read more of Paul Berman’s political and cultural analyses in Tablet magazine, click here.