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Political Scientist Corey Robin: Paul Ryan Is Retiring After Failing to Fulfill Right-Wing Agenda

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In news that has sent shock waves through Capitol Hill, House Speaker Paul Ryan has announced he will not seek re-election this fall. Over 40 House Republicans have announced they will resign or retire, including nine chairmen of committees, leading many to speculate Republicans are fearing a blue wave will bring a Democratic majority to power in November. The most prominent Republican contender for Ryan’s seat is Paul Nehlen, a white nationalist and anti-Semite who has called for deporting all Muslims from the United States. For more, we speak with Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump,” which The New Yorker called “the book that predicted Trump.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In news that has sent shock waves through Capitol Hill, House Speaker Paul Ryan has announced he will not seek re-election this fall. Ryan is the most recent and high-profile Republican to depart Congress ahead of the 2018 midterms. Over 40 House Republicans have announced they will resign or retire, including nine chairmen of committees, leading many to speculate Republicans are fearing a blue wave will bring a Democratic majority to power in November. This is Ryan speaking at a press conference on Wednesday.

SPEAKER PAUL RYAN: Today, I am announcing that this year will be my last one as a member of the House. To be clear, I am not resigning. I intend to full my serve [sic] term as I was elected to do. But I will be retiring in January, leaving this majority in good hands with what I believe is a very bright future.

AMY GOODMAN: During the news conference, House Speaker Ryan said he’s retiring to spend more time with his family, but some have suggested his disagreements with President Trump may have fueled his decision. On Wednesday, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Ryan if he and the president have a different temperament and character. This is Ryan’s response.

SPEAKER PAUL RYAN: Yeah, we’re very different people. I’m from the Upper Midwest. I’m not from New York. We’re from a different generation. So we definitely have different styles. But what we learned, after we got to know each other, because we didn’t know each other at all in the campaign, and, yeah, we had a pretty—we had a lot of friction in our relationship. What we learned is we have a common agenda that we agree on, and we want to get it done, and we know it’s going to make a big difference in people’s lives.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ryan’s retirement now leaves a vacuum in House Republican leadership, with the top contenders expected to be House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and the House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Ryan’s announcement also leaves open the race for Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District. The Democratic front-runner, Randy Bryce, is campaigning on a platform of increasing the minimum wage, strengthening labor unions and passing universal healthcare. Meanwhile, the most prominent Republican contender for Ryan’s seat is Paul Nehlen, a white nationalist and anti-Semite who has called for deporting all Muslims from the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we spend the rest of the hour with Corey Robin, professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He’s the author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump. The New Yorker magazine said of the first edition, it’s, quote, “the book that predicted Trump.”

Professor Corey Robin, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. You just came from giving a speech at Harvard Law School on—you know, on the United States under President Trump. You then get this announcement that the House speaker, Paul Ryan, is leaving, is retiring, not only leaving the House speakership, but retiring the House. What does this mean?

COREY ROBIN: I think it means two things. First of all, we’ve seen this wave of retirement announcements that you’ve mentioned. I think the statistic is that you haven’t seen this many number of Republicans retiring from Congress, announcing their retirement from Congress, since 1930.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking like 41.

COREY ROBIN: Yeah. Well, it’s actually—and then if you add into the Senate, it’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Much higher.

COREY ROBIN: —you’re pushing 50, as well. So, it’s an extraordinary amount, more than double the number of Democrats. And what that first means is that parties that are either in ascendancy or firmly and confidently in power, you don’t tend to see their most powerful elected leadership resigning their seats of power after a mere three years in office, which is what is the case with Paul Ryan. So, I think the first thing is he’s seen the writing on the wall. Just over the weekend, before the announcement, there was a piece in The Washington Post where Mitch McConnell has—and all the donors have said, “Forget the house. We’re going to lose it. Focus on the Senate, because if you focus on the Senate and keep the Senate, you’ve got the courts.” That’s where the Republican Party and the conservative movement has put its money. So I think that’s the first thing.

But the second thing that I think is going on here, which is very important, is that when Paul—after the November 2016 election, Paul Ryan announced an extraordinarily ambitious agenda. This was the moment to fulfill long-standing Republican dreams, not simply the repeal of Obamacare, not simply the tax cuts, but also the final assault on the welfare/entitlement state. And this was the vision. And the truth of the matter is, with the exception of the tax cuts, which is something that the Republicans can almost do on autopilot, they have not been all that successful. They were not able to gut Obamacare, and in particular the Medicaid part of it, which is very important. There weren’t able to really touch that. And, more important, since the tax cuts, I think you may remember, right after the tax cuts, in November, December, Ryan said, “OK, now we’re going to go after the entitlements and the welfare state.” Well, and what did we see in this budget that they’ve just passed? Increases in Health and Human Services, increases on the Department of Education, increases in Pell Grants, increases on Head Start. The fact of the matter is, despite having total control over the elected branches of government, the Republican Party has been radically constrained in its ability to fulfill their long-standing dreams. And Paul Ryan knows it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, can you explain if you think that there are substantial ideological differences between Paul Ryan and Trump? And also, more broadly, I mean, all these Republicans resigning, what do you think accounts for that?

COREY ROBIN: I think that for many years in the conservative movement what held this movement together was, first and foremost, the Soviet Union and international communism—I’m reaching way back here, I realize. But it was—

AMY GOODMAN: Maybe not so far back. It’s just not called Soviet Union anymore.

COREY ROBIN: They’re trying, yes. But that was, you know, the real glue that held things together internationally. But domestically, it was the existence, the still persistent existence, of a kind of liberal Democratic Party. And they were able to rally against that over and over and over again. I think, beginning with Bill Clinton, the fact of the matter is that that argument got increasingly less powerful for the Republican Party. And so, what you have seen is these divisions that were always there, an increasing fragmentation and, if you look at it again in terms of the long haul, decreasing popular support for the Republican Party and conservative party—conservative positions.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to ask about something you said in your Harper’s column called “Forget About It.” You write that “The United States of Amnesia: true to form, we don’t remember who coined the phrase. It’s been attributed to Gore Vidal and to Philip Rahv, though it also appears in a syndicated column from 1948. But more than forgetfulness is at work in our ceremonies of innocence repeatedly drowned.” So, could you explain what you mean by that, and, in particular, in the context of the ways in which Trump is viewed as a radical break from the Republican Party?

COREY ROBIN: Sure. We have this tendency in this country—and, in particular, liberals have this tendency—to look at whoever is the contemporary face of conservatism and the right, and to say about that person, “This is a monster. This is like nothing we have ever seen before on the right. This is a break with whatever came before.” People may remember that this is exactly what was said about George W. Bush, and particularly in the run-up to the Iraq War and the “war on terror.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But not to the same extent, do you think, I mean, the way that Trump is talked about?

COREY ROBIN: Not to the—well, it was pretty powerful there, actually. I mean, particularly after the Iraq War, there was a real sense that these—remember, the neoconservatives, who were in control, that they were these adventurous, expansive, reckless imperialists and that that was a real break from the more moderate, constrained vision of Ronald Reagan. Well, lo and behold, it’s only taken less than, you know, 10 years at this point, and George W. Bush has been rehabilitated as a moderate, genteel face of the Republican Party in comparison to Trump. So there is this constant forgetfulness and amnesia about who these people were in the past, in order to declare whoever it is—whoever the current incarnation is as somehow completely out of bounds, nothing we’ve ever seen before.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re talking to Corey Robin, professor of political science at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center, author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, this at a time when the House speaker, the Republican House speaker, Paul Ryan, has announced his retirement. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with Professor Robin in a moment.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Mindset’s a Threat” by Rage Against the Machine. The New York Times reported in 2012 that House Speaker Paul Ryan is a fan of Rage Against the Machine. That prompted the band’s guitarist, Tom Morello, to tell Rolling Stone magazine Ryan’s fandom is, quote, “amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades.”

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Corey Robin: Striking Teachers Are “Real Resistance” to “Incoherent” Republicans and “Gutted” Dems

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