"The United States cannot afford another four years of the Obama White House, which is what Hillary Clinton represents," read the joint statement from GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan after their meeting yesterday. "That is why it's critical that Republicans unite around our shared principles, advance a conservative agenda, and do all we can to win this fall."
Speaker Ryan later described the meeting too. "I was very encouraged by what I heard from Donald Trump today," he told reporters. Aides said Ryan did most of the talking and Trump did most of the listening and maybe that is what Ryan wants to hear from Trump, very little.
Still, I am wondering what the statement means by "shared principles." True, both men are staunch supporters of a robust understanding of the Second Amendment. Both say that want to see conservative justices appointed to the Supreme Court. And both want to see taxes cut. There is where the similarities end.
Trump has campaigned on the deportation of 11 million people, many of them Americans in all but legal form. To conduct such a massive enterprise would entail a massive expansion of the government and a deeply intrusive government at that. Mr. Ryan and most conservatives are committed to a smaller government, indeed, that is one of the core principles of the modern Republican Party dating back to Ronald Reagan's first Inaugural Address when he proclaimed that "government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem." So, how exactly did you discern a "shared principle" about the size and reach of government? Is Mr. Trump sticking by his pledge to build the wall and force those here without papers to go back? Or not?
Trump has said he wants a ban on all Muslims entering the country. Ryan is, like all conservatives, dedicated to a restrictive reading of the Constitution, and it is hard to reconcile banning people from anything on the basis of their religion given the spirit of the First Amendment. As well, the speaker is surely aware of the obvious fact that the only way ISIS and groups like it will ever be defeated is by moderate Muslims in the region who, understandably, resent being lumped in with terrorists.
Trump has denounced all recent trade agreements. Ryan, perhaps more than any other prominent member of the Republican Party, has been a steadfast devotee of libertarian economics, including the free movement of capital across borders, opposition to tariffs, and, however unintentionally, the exploitation of cheap labor in developing countries. And, while Ryan's economic views may be at the extreme end of the ideological spectrum, a commitment to free trade is a bedrock principle of the GOP. How can this be reconciled with Trump's consistent ranting against these trade deals?
It is important to note that these positions Trump has taken were not incidental to his campaign. They were front and center in each and every speech, in each and every debate appearance. If Trump runs away from them to make nice with the GOP establishment, will his own supporters realize they have been conned?
We know that Ryan wants to shrink Medicare and Social Security in order to lower the deficit. Trump has promised not to touch either. In this regard, Trump is undoubtedly right that his voters do not want to see cuts in these programs and he is right to resist Ryan's ideological commitment to cutting and/or privatizing these programs.
Other differences are murkier. For example, Trump has voiced his admiration for Vladimir Putin, a criminal thug whose military is sustaining a genocidal thug in Syria. I am sure Speaker Ryan does not admire Putin. But, Putin is not a principle, so their difference of opinion here might not contradict the assertion about "shared principles."
Of course, as I write these words this morning, I realize there is a still deeper concern that must animate Ryan's reluctance to endorse Trump. There is something strange about placing the words "Trump" and "principles" in the same sentence. We all realize that the issue is not whether Trump will stick to his own principles or adopt those of Ryan, but whether or not this narcissist would recognize a principle if it bit him on the behind. He is an un-serious person seeking one of the most serious jobs in the world. He says whatever he needs to say to make it to the next commercial or to get one more roar from the crowds he attracts. Thinking about Trump and Ryan and their "shared principles" is like going to a restaurant and being offered oyster sorbet. You can't really wrap your head around it and you certainly do not want to order it.
[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]