Easy Chair — From the November 2012 issue

All the Rage

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A telling incident in the life of Ryan: back in April, the New York Times reported that he was a fan of the Nineties alt-rock band Rage Against the Machine. The members of the band, however, are well known for their association with leftist causes, and in August their guitarist, Tom Morello, declared that Ryan “is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades.”

This exchange represents, I think, something more than an amusing culture clash: it is a metaphor for Paul Ryan’s career. His meteoric rise over the past four years is partly due to his appropriation of symbols and rhetoric and, indeed, rage that used to belong to the left. Raging against power is how the machine—which is to say, the conservative movement itself—gets its business done.

Ryan speaks frequently of the travails of growing up conservative in Wisconsin, the cradle of the Progressive movement. He has described Progressivism as an alien affectation, a product of what he calls “these German intellectuals” at the University of Wisconsin. Meanwhile, he seems confident that his own pet Teutons—“the Austrians,” meaning free-market economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises—are more closely attuned to the “whole idea of this country.”

Elsewhere, Ryan has identified Hegel, Weber, and Otto von Bismarck as the great villains lurking behind Progressivism.

At the same time, Paul Ryan has clearly absorbed more than a little of the old Progressive magic. His votes in Congress may identify him as a stalwart friend of the banker, but in public Ryan appears to be a ferocious critic of organized power. He first came to my attention in 2009, when he wrote an article for the Forbes website called “Down with Big Business,” in which he denounced the bank bailouts in piquant terms of the sort that Washington Democrats no longer employ. This Ryan lives to lambaste a system that, according to an article he published in 2011, allows a privileged “class of bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists to . . . call the shots, rig the rules, and preserve their place atop society.”

In Young Guns, the ballistically boring magnum opus he authored with Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy in 2010, Ryan even implied that his zeal for deregulation was intended to strike a blow at the fat cats. “Businesses,” he wrote, “want regulations to make life easier for themselves and more difficult for their competitors.” Oppose regulations, it follows, and you oppose cronyism, privilege, and society’s ruling class.

Reasoning like this may have had a germ of meaning back in the Sixties and Seventies, but as a description of our own disastrous time, it is so detached from actual events that it makes you wonder about Ryan’s grasp on reality. Go down the long, mournful list of deregulatory decisions leading up to the financial crisis of 2008, and ask yourself how many of them were made in order to spite or confound the power of the moneymen. When Congress (including Paul Ryan) voted for the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, complete with its famous Enron loophole, were they doing it to make life difficult for Enron? When the Bush Administration turned the Office of Thrift Supervision into a supremely lax and bank-friendly agency, were they doing it to get tough with the banks?

Back in 2010, Ryan took umbrage when I criticized the antibusiness rhetoric of his Forbes article, which ultimately instructed the world to observe the commandments of the almighty market with greater piety. Later that year, however, he himself professed annoyance at the idea of a political group swiping the phraseology of its opponents—but only when it is liberals taking up the language of the right. Democrats were selling “an agenda that was completely the opposite of its rhetoric,” he complained in Young Guns. “And people started to realize that they were trying to transform the country using the rhetoric of the Right to push through the substance of the Left.”

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October 2019