Speaker Paul Ryan in Literature

Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan


Last week Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was elected Speaker of the House, one of the most powerful positions in Washington and therefore the world. I’ve long been concerned about Ryan because of his devotion to the ideas and novels of Ayn Rand, which I view as threatening the United States in potentially disastrous ways. For today’s post I go back and survey some of the essays I’ve written about Ryan.

At one point I noted that Ayn Rand appeared an integral part of Ryan’s budget balancing plan, which involves

privatizing Medicare and slashing Medicaid, Pell grants, food stamps and low-income housing.  It also involves extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and, in fact, increasing them.  Ryan says we must make sure “that America’s safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.”  The implication here is that many of those struggling economically are just not sucking it up.

When Ryan was chosen as Mitt Romney’s running mate, I quoted The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who  posted on all the ways that Ryan has been guided by Rand.  Mayer joked that the Republicans had a woman on the ticket after all.

At first glance, however, Ryan doesn’t appear to be a Rand acolyte. His choirboy exterior and his purported concern for the poor seem at odds with his heartless economic proposals. But that concern, which Ryan showed off that year, was only for show, as Jon Chait of New York Magazine explained. I therefore alluded to John Milton’s description of such politicians as wolves in sheep’s clothing. First, here’s Chait:

Ryan’s budget absolutely slays the budget for anti-poverty programs –the vast majority of his spending cuts come from the minority of federal programs aimed at the poor. That fact has led to his current predicament: Democrats have painted him as a cruel social Darwinist, causing him to become concerned about his image as an “Ayn Rand miser,” causing him to re-brand himself as a poverty wonk, causing him to dive into scholarly literature. But scholarly literature is never going to show that his plans to impose massive cuts to the anti-poverty budget will help poor people.

And now here’s what Milton has to say about such leaders:

Wolves shall succeed for teachers, grievous wolves,
Who all the sacred mysteries of Heaven
To their own vile advantages shall turn
Of lucre and ambition…
Then shall they seek to avail themselves of names,
Places, and titles, and with these to join
Secular power; though feigning still to act
By spiritual, to themselves appropriating
The Spirit of God…

Take off the façade and Ryan is revealed to be someone more like the workhouse board of directors in Oliver Twist, as I wrote in another post. Here’s how the Board economizes:

For the first six months after Oliver Twist was removed, the system was in full operation. It was rather expensive at first, in consequence of the increase in the undertaker’s bill, and the necessity of taking in the clothes of all the paupers, which fluttered loosely on their wasted, shrunken forms, after a week or two’s gruel. But the number of workhouse inmates got thin as well as the paupers; and the board were in ecstasies. 

When Paul Ryan stigmatized urban black men as addicted to dependency, I said that he was projecting onto them as Joseph Conrad projects onto the citizens of the Congo in Heart of Darkness (as Chinua Achebe famously pointed out). In another post I wished Ryan would realize that most of America’s poor resemble Jane Eyre when, fleeing from Thornfield, she suddenly finds herself destitute and starving. She’s more than willing to work for bread and shelter. She just can’t find an opportunity.

Above all, I noted that Ryan resembled Mr. Bounderby of Coketown in Dickens’s Hard Times, berating his workers for desiring “to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon.” Only Ryan doesn’t mention turtle soup. Instead (as he did over the weekend) he talks about how paying for access to family leave would be an imposition on  “hardworking taxpayers.”

Of course, generous tax benefits for the wealthiest Americans, also paid for by “hardworking taxpayers,” are another matter.

Yet, as I say, Ryan has hidden all his hardness well. So in addition to comparing him to Milton’s wolf, I’ve also likened him to Lewis Carroll’s crocodile:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws! 

In one effort to understand Ryan and people like him, I turned to Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, who creates a similar character in Okonkwo. Okonkwo too believes in pulling himself up by dint of his own efforts and is ashamed of his moocher father. Could it be, I wondered, that Ryan shares some of Okonkwo’s fears. Certainly there is something amiss in the rigidity of both men. Here’s what I wrote:

There is something too reactionary about Okonkwo’s ambitions, and as a result he starts getting into trouble. While individual initiative should be celebrated, it must come from a clean space. Just as Republicans like Ryan often talk about success as a way of berating the 47% of Americans that they claim are moochers, so Okonkwo sees success mostly as a way of contrasting himself with his father:

“[H]is whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.”

Maybe Ryan speaks not from confidence but from anxiety—that his success is as much due to his privileged upbringing and to the government support both his family and he received as to his own efforts Perhaps he’s haunted for not having done everything on his own.

One other note: Paul Ryan is a hardline anti-abortionist who believes ending a pregnancy should be illegal even when it results from rape or incest, or if a woman’s health is in danger. At one point, noting his resemblance to Thomas Hardy’s youthful Angel Claire in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I asked how he would respond to Tess’s pregnancy as a result of what is probably a rape. Tess is a good woman but Angel, who regards her as tainted, can see nothing but his own sense of violation.

I pray that Ryan will mellow as speaker. At the moment, however, I see him as a man filled with a sense of self-righteousness and confident in his superiority over the takers of the world. That does not bode well.

This entry was posted in Achebe (Chinua), Carroll (Lewis), Conrad (Joseph), Dickens (Charles), Hardy (Thomas), Milton (John), Rand (Ayn) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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