Trump Smash: Paul Ryan’s Heroic Media Image Finally Cracks

Trump Smash: Paul Ryan’s Heroic Media Image Finally Cracks

When Paul Ryan announced his disinclination to run for the nation’s highest office last summer, opting instead to wield the House Ways and Means gavel, I was both frustrated and relieved. The move was heralded by slavishly devoted Republicans and the mainstream media as further evidence of Ryan’s commitment to serious policy making. This is one of the biggest deceptions in modern politics. More on that later.

But for columnists, anomalous conservatives and regular Americans who find themselves outside the circle of Ryan adoration, the Wisconsin congressman’s decision to opt-out of the 2016 circus was welcomed. We were still recovering from the binders of women, 47 percent, Clint Eastwood talking to a chair, corny gym photo shit show that was Romney/Ryan 2012. We knew well that he’d be back on the national scene in 2020. Ryan, despite his proclaimed, disingenuous humble approach to governance, is as nakedly ambitious as anyone in Washington. Nonetheless, many of us looked forward to the marathon time-deflating politico’s relative retreat.

Of course all of that was before former House Speaker John Boehner got run of out of Dodge by a Tea Party caucus hell bent on inertia. Subsequently Ryan was asked, nay begged, by his party mates to take a job that no one wanted. And because of the new Speaker’s puzzlingly lofty stature, he made a list of demands designed to ensure he wouldn’t be “Boehnered.”

Once again, Washington’s “lawmakers” and pundits swooned. Savior of the GOP! Yet Ryan is as big a failure at eliciting actual governance from his party as his retired predecessor ever was. I couldn’t have said it better than writer DDM at Wonkette, who observed in December, “He vowed to bring back ‘regular order’ to the House of Representatives despite a CBO estimate that North America doesn’t produce nearly enough dietary fiber to achieve such a feat.”

Then Trump mania (intended with both meanings) descended upon Decision 2016 and our serious, thinking conservative found himself in the middle of a “Will he or won’t he?” intrigue regarding his endorsement of the presumptive Republican frontrunner. It was always clear that the highest elected member of the party would get in line, but once again the media went all in on the narrative of a man struggling with his conscience and ethics. The Washington Post actually insisted that Trump was “smacked down” by Ryan in May. Barf.

Last week in a shocking (shocking I say!) turn of events, Paul Ryan put on his best conflicted face and endorsed the most racist, divisive, unhinged egomaniac this side of George Wallace. If you’re in need of a break today, treat yourself to this aggregated collection of Twitter responses to the Speaker’s cynicism (warning: NSFW). Media hacks like NBC’s Chuck Todd can push the Sophie’s Choice storyline all they like. It doesn’t make it so.

Thankfully there are a few Cassandras in our media midst. For a breath of Ryan-fellating fresh air, Charles P. Pierce of Esquire wrote How Paul Ryan Is Really Going to Let This Trump Thing Play Out last month. He predicted the inevitable with this parody of the Speaker’s thought process:

“I’m going to come around on the vulgar talking yam, but I need a few weeks of completely undeserved approval to make sure my media-cultivated image as a serious person stays nice and shiny.”

Exactly. The marvel is not Ryan’s pivot toward Donald Trump. The real conundrum is how we got to this place of fiction, an alternate reality where the Wisconsin native is in a position to play kingmaker. These questions are echoed by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who wrote for The New York Times:

“I think you can understand this media fail by considering the tale of ‘Paul Ryan.’ Not the actual Paul Ryan, but the media-created mythical character.

Actually existing Ryan has always been a con man — someone playing the part of Serious, Honest Conservative, but never doing a very good job of it. His budgets were always fraudulent in obvious ways, full of trillion-dollar magic asterisks and spectacular evasions. But he has consistently been portrayed in news reports and analysis as an earnest policy wonk. Why?

Perhaps fittingly, in a year where Trump is playing human tire fire with one of America’s two established political parties, Ryan’s game with the media has grown more complicated. Now that he’s officially left the #NeverTrump movement, he’s completely beholden to the whims of a candidate who worships no one but himself.

It was never clear to begin with that the Donald gives a shit about Ryan’s awesomely lopsided legislative agenda. And a mere week after his “sudden” endorsement, the Speaker tussled with Trump’s racist, embarrassing feud with U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel. Don’t look now but the con man has been conned.

I get it. In 2016, mainstream media is a business. One that thrives on binaries, rivalries and heroes. Perhaps because there were so few options, pundits and their outlets went all in on Ryan after the disintegration of the Dubya regime. But he’s not going to save the broken political process, his party or anyone else – with or without the Trump albatross tied to his neck. A “considerable fake” isn’t up to the challenge. That’s the real Ryan story.

Becky Sarwate

Becky Sarwate

Becky is an award-winning journalist, Op-Ed columnist and blogger. On March 29, 2018 her first book, Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team, will be published by Eckhartz Press. She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob. Check out her collected work at, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.