By Eric Genrich
When Paul Ryan took the stage in Madison to offer stale critiques of progressivism, he missed an opportunity to condemn instead the authoritarian in Republican clothing, Donald Trump. Trump is a much greater threat to the Speaker’s party – and to the future of this country – than is Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, but Ryan has been cowed by Trump’s rapid supporters on the fringes of our politics and he has been made mute by his own ambitions. Donald Trump is neither a conservative nor has he demonstrated basic human decency, yet he is the man Paul Ryan wants to put in the Oval Office. This kind of shameful political calculation masquerading as a principled stand against liberalism should disqualify Ryan himself from ever seeking the highest office in the land.
Modern day progressivism is not without its flaws – it is, after all, a human creation – but the shortcomings of the Democratic Party and its elected officials pale in comparison to the fatal flaws of Trumpism and the virulent xenophobia and misogyny it has mainstreamed. In failing to renounce the imminent threat that Donald Trump’s candidacy poses to liberal democracy and the values that both major parties embrace, Paul Ryan has committed a sin of omission that rivals Trump’s own worst moments on the stump.
Our greatest leaders have taken on members of their own parties when the progress of the American republic was at stake: think Reagan on arms reductions or LBJ on Civil Rights.
Instead of rising to meet the challenges of the moment and condemning the words and actions of his party’s nominee, Ryan saw fit to attack the legacy of one of Wisconsin’s most beloved heroes and one of our proudest principles: Fighting Bob and the Wisconsin Idea.
Robert LaFollette, Sr.’s movement was one that targeted corrupt and corrupting political and economic power, embodied by the party bosses and robber barons of his day. He inspired countless small business owners, farmers, and working people to reject the status quo in favor of a government that truly served its people by providing education, opportunity, and a democratic voice in the governing of the state’s affairs.
Fighting Bob, in fact, celebrated just the kind of politics we need now. We need a big-hearted populism that raises up the needs of working people without demeaning immigrants. We need a progressive movement for change that is humble enough to align itself with the modest ambitions of our friends and neighbors. Americans deserve a governing philosophy that contains multitudes, one that understands the dangers posed by both market nihilism on one extreme and an amoral government behemoth on the other.
There is a better way forward, as Speaker Ryan said, but it won’t be pursued by ducking from the real battles of the day. A better way cannot be articulated with a stage-managed town hall or a carefully curated question and answer session. A better way is within our grasp if we, citizens and elected leaders, look within ourselves and to each other with an openness and humility grand enough to meet the challenges of our times.
A better way is possible, and a better world is imperative, but it will not be made by those who enable bullies and demagogues that stand outside the American tradition. A better way might lead in many directions, but none of them toward Donald Trump.