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In The Room Where It (Doesn't) Happen
Paul Ryan's choice
I, I wanna be in the room where it happens
The room where it happens
I wanna be in the room where it happens
The room where it happens…
Hold your nose and close your eyes
— Hamilton and (more or less) Paul Ryan
[Note: I’ve been thinking about my conversation with Paul Ryan last week and, given all the reaction, wanted to revise and extend my remarks on what we learned.]
Paul Ryan has been nothing if not consistent.
After Donald Trump’s election, Ryan made the calculation that it was better to be in the room than to defy a president he knew was manifestly unfit.
To publicly criticize Trump, the former speaker told Mark Leibovich in 2018, would just be counterproductive.
He tends to speak of the commander in chief as if he were sharing a coping strategy on dealing with a Ritalin-deprived child. “It boomerangs,” Ryan says of being too critical of Trump. “He goes in the other direction, so that’s not effective.” He added, “The pissing match doesn’t work.”
So he opted to stay in the room, telling Leibovich that he preferred to tell Trump how he felt in private, rather than speaking out about his recklessness, racism, and serial lies. Staying quiet meant that Ryan would stay relevant, stay in the game, and, as he told himself, stop all sorts of awful things from happening.
He was hardly alone. Wrote Leibovich:
He joins a large group of Trump’s putative allies, many of whom have worked in the administration, who insist that they have shaped Trump’s thinking and behavior in private: the “Trust me, I’ve stopped this from being much worse” approach. “I can look myself in the mirror at the end of the day and say I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy,” Ryan tells me. “I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal.”
I locked in on the word “tragedy.” It sets the mind reeling to whatever thwarted “tragedies” Ryan might be talking about. I asked for an example. “No, I don’t want to do that,” Ryan replied. “That’s more than I usually say.”
This was, of course, the basis of Ryan’s Faustian bargain, but it also reflects a mindset that has come to dominate our politics, especially in the GOP.
The right’s political culture now relies on this hive-mind rationalization that masquerades as a philosophy: That you can serve the greater good by staying silent — in the room — and therefore relevant.
Some of this is just simple moral cowardice; a lot of it is grift, but it’s not just Paul Ryan. In-the-roomism is a deeply internalized ethos — or perhaps anti-ethos — that has shaped the Republican party’s serial compromises, capitulations, and sellouts.
In this mindset, speaking out or taking a stand is foolish, because it means you lose your place at the table and your leverage. (Just look at what happened to Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger!) It’s the story that conservatives have been telling themselves for years now, and you can find it in virtually every corner of the right’s interlocking ecosystems.
Last year, National Review’s Rich Lowry insisted that Cheney was making a mistake by speaking so forcefully about the January 6th insurrection, because she would lose her ability to influence the future of the Republican party. As I wrote back then, in a piece headlined “The Doom Loop of Relevance”:
This is, of course a familiar argument: it’s the age-old rationalization of courtiers, time servers, and trimmers of all sorts, who convince themselves that the Greater Good is served by staying in the room.
And they tell themselves that they need to stay in the room, so they that can sound the alarm, but they refuse to sound the alarm so they can stay in the room.
But this logic is inevitably circular. Lowry argued that Cheney should not warn the party against being crazy . . . because that lessens her ability to influence the party to be less crazy. But if she denounces lies and sedition she will lose a seat at the table where the party decides whether it will embrace lies and sedition.
So conservatives convinced themselves that the savvy move is to stay in that room, no matter what it costs.
As we now know, Paul Ryan took the same approach to his role as a member of the Fox Corporation board as he did to the Trump presidency. He stayed in the room.
During my conversation with Ryan last week, I asked him whether he had a responsibility to push back against the lies pushed out by Fox news.
“I do,” he said. “I have a responsibility to offer my opinion and perspective, and I do that, but I don’t go on TV and do it, right? So I offer my perspective, my opinion, often. I’ll just leave it at that. Okay?”
That turned out to be true. The court filings by Dominion Voting System this week revealed just how active Ryan was — behind the scenes. From the filing:
As a Board Member, Ryan believed that the period immediately following the 2020 Presidential Election was a pretty important inflection point, not just for the company Fox, but for the country and for the conservative movement itself and shared this view as a fiduciary with Rupert and Lachlan.
( Q. And you thought it was in Fox News interest to separate out these fringe claims of voter fraud, correct? A. Yeah, that's my fiduciary duty. ).
He confirmed that the inflection point was not just one day; it was the whole time in the post-election November/December timeframe. Ryan knew that these conspiracy theories were baseless and that Fox should labor to dispel conspiracy theories if and when they pop up.
Ryan also understood that when events occur, Fox can clearly amplify that news being made by covering it. Ryan believed there ought to be a listing of all the allegations and then all the evidence or the validation or invalidation of those [election fraud] allegations just for the viewers sake, and suggested as much to Fox's senior management. . . . Ryan told Rupert and Lachlan "that Fox News should not be spreading conspiracy theories.
The former speaker clearly had the ears of Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch.
Ryan gave Lachlan and Rupert plenty of suggestions with respect to programming, as well as suggestions regarding content and show hosts. Id. 410 :8-22 . Specifically, he told the Murdochs that Fox should be pivoting at this key inflection point during November 2020 through January 2021 consistently advising them to move on from Donald Trump and stop spouting election lies…
On December 6 , 2020, Paul Ryan texted Rupert and Lachlan, telling them, we are entering a truly bizarre phase of this where [Trump] has actually convinced himself of this farce and will do more bizarre things to delegitimize the election. I see this as a key inflection point for Fox, where the right thing and the smart business thing to do line up nicely. He called for Fox to put forth solid pushback (including editorial) of Trump's ] baseless calls for overturning electors...
But this is the problem with being a thought leader. Sometimes you have to lead. In Ryan’s case that would have meant getting up from the table and telling the folks outside the room that Fox was lying and endangering democracy. But once again he decided to stay silent; and he regarded his reticence as savvy and virtuous.
This was the point I was trying to make in the May 2021 open letter to Ryan that he claimed he had never read or heard of.
Paul, your position right now is unique [I wrote]. You are not just the former vice-presidential nominee of your party and the former speaker of the House. You sit on the board of directors of the media company that is shaping and distorting the future of the movement to which you have given your life….
What brighter red lines could possibly be crossed? If this isn’t the moment to draw your own line, what would be?
If you want to make a difference, isn’t this the moment? If you want to change your legacy, isn’t this the time?
When I asked him directly about red lines last week, he explained why he wanted to stay in the room.
PR: I want to see the conservative movement get through this moment. And I think Fox is a big part of the constellation of the conservative movement. [crosstalk]
CS: Is it the solution or the problem?
PR: Oh, no, I think it’s gonna have to be a part of the solution if we're going to solve the problem in the conservative movement.
Ryan seems to believe that he has exercised his fiduciary responsibilities by speaking confidentially with the Murdochs.
That, however, is far from clear.
Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, a professor and senior associate dean for leadership studies at the Yale School of Management told CNN this week, that board members like Ryan had a responsibility to do a lot more than they did.
“The duties of loyalty and diligence are NOT to the management but to the owners,” Sonnenfeld said. “By silently going along with misconduct about which they are aware, all directors, including Paul Ryan, are guilty of complicity through their complacency.”
By staying on the board, Ryan seems to be telling himself, he will be able to steer the network away from the craziness, and from batshit crazy lies about the election.
But here’s the thing: He didn’t.
Tucker Carlson and others continue to push the racist Great Replacement Theory, pro-Putin propaganda, vaccine disinformation, and bizarre and baseless conspiracy theories about the election.
Executives who kept their integrity, like Chris Stirewalt and Bill Sammon, were fired. In November 2021, longtime Fox contributors, Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg resigned in protest over “Patriot Purge,” Carlson’s deeply dishonest documentary on the attack on the Capitol.
Paul Ryan stayed in the room.
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