What Ryan represents

David Bromwich writes: On 11 August, Mitt Romney stirred excitement in a dull election by announcing that he would share the Republican ticket with Paul Ryan: a seven-term congressman, chairman of the House Budget Committee and intellectual guru of the congressional Tea Party. The choice was not altogether surprising. The moderate lawmakers whom Romney might have picked were without popular appeal, and it must have seemed possible that Ryan’s extreme proposals for federal budget-cutting and lowering taxes on the rich could be presented as evidence of a manly concern with principle which any impartial spectator ought to admire.

News presenters, keen on human interest, point out again and again that Ryan’s father died suddenly when he was 16. He learned independence the hard way, the story seems to say. In fact, Ryan grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin, close to grandparents and aunts and uncles who constituted an aristocracy in the town. The Ryans were numerous and they were rich. In time of trouble, Paul could always fall back on the network of a family that lived in concentric circles around him. His proposals to reduce the social ‘safety net’ for the unlucky may be seen as drawing a convenient but contortedly wrong lesson from his own life.

Ryan learned his anti-government ideology from an intoxicated early exposure to the writings of Ayn Rand.[*] It is now clear that Rand has been the most influential thinker in American politics of the last fifty years. Her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged promote, as Rand put it, a ‘morality of rational self-interest – or of rational selfishness’. The central tenets of her politics, hatred of anything that could be construed as self-sacrifice and cruelty towards the helpless, are the exact inverse of the worship of collective sacrifice and blind solidarity that she detested in communism. For a lonely but well-fed achiever in Janesville, this doctrine was a gift – just as it had been once for Alan Greenspan, a young cultist before he became chairman of the Federal Reserve and presided over the bubble and collapse of the Clinton and Bush years.

What signal did Romney send by choosing Ryan? He is on the ticket to make sure that Romney will let Wall Street write its own rules. Free the dollar men, and free them not abashedly but proudly. The odd thing about the choice is that Ryan, though he is running for vice-president, was immediately taken to be the counter-Obama. At 42, he is young, as Obama was young in 2008. He, too, is an ‘idealist’. What the country has vaguely now been promised is an honourable contest of ideals. Yet it was natural for people to compare Ryan with Obama on other grounds. Both are handsome, athletic, comfortable with their early success, and irritating in no obvious way. Somewhere beneath the Obama presentation was always the message: ‘No one (ultimately) can resist my serious charm, and all problems (eventually) find solutions by listening to my voice.’ Ryan’s appeal is just as in-the-groove, but it takes the delivery to the edge of aggression: ‘I am clever and quick, I never lose my temper, and people can only pretend I didn’t win the argument if they ignore my facts and numbers.’

Where Obama projected the calm consciousness of a grave but unnamed mission, Ryan’s self-love is more recognisably American-boyish. He radiates ambition, healthy ambition, as if ambition were one of those permitted substances you could take at the gym to enhance performance. He has a lean and hungry look even when he smiles; and a relentless eagerness also, which will wear on people over time. His constant demeanour is cocksure; his face never registers reflection. Listening to other people is a formality, for Ryan, to be endured before he springs his answers. And how the answers pour out! There is an attractive, efficient speed in the way he works, but also a kind of deadness. And the deadness is there in his eyes – the hard eyes of the self-fulfilled and self-justified, clean of mind and clean of body, a whole mental mansion trip-wired against invasion by entities seeking pity and bearing excuses. [Continue reading…]

Since the beginning of the age of television, Americans have been deeply affected by the way candidates look and the deadness Bromwich rightly observes in Ryan’s eyes reminds me of my first response to the Romney-Ryan combination: these guys look like undertakers.

Romney offers the saccharin words of condolence, while Ryan gives a suitably concise presentation on the options for choosing a casket. And perhaps that’s fitting, now that the contrived hopes inspired during the last election have given way to a pervasive sense of cynicism and despair.

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