Can Paul Ryan save what’s left of conservatism?
“Toxic sludge, racism, disinformation, and attacks on democracy.”
This is how Charlie Sykes, a conservative commentator and editor of The Bulwark, recently described the Fox News diet to his longtime friend — and Fox News board member — former House Speaker Paul Ryan.
It was a stunning interview between two principled conservatives who openly lament the direction the Republican Party has gone in over the past few years.
Sykes probed Ryan on his role at Fox in particular.
“Do you have any responsibility?” Sykes pointedly asked Ryan.
“I do. 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,” Ryan replied. “I’ll just leave it at that.”
As for why he remains on the board of Fox, a network whose hosts and executives are currently under fire for knowingly promoting election lies:
“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.”
I feel his pain.
A student of the Jack Kemp school of economic conservatism, a devout Catholic, a principled, rational, mild-mannered former star of the Republican Party, Ryan has watched — as many of us have — the American right morph into something unrecognizable over the past eight years.
Since 2015, just a couple of years after Ryan and now Sen. Mitt Romney would lose their bid for the White House to President Obama, the right’s constellation of institutions — the GOP, the RNC, Fox News, CPAC — were taken over and corrupted by a singularly deleterious and destructive force named Donald J. Trump.
The 2012 “autopsy” that movement conservatives like me worked on to bring new voters into the party, including millennials, minorities, women and LGBTQ voters, was essentially fed into a shredder by Trump and plenty of craven Republicans around him who wanted to ride his soiled coattails into power.
Trump convinced far too many on the right to jettison the one thing holding the myriad and disparate Republican fiefdoms together — conservatism — to accommodate his narcissistic, ignorant and often divisive impulses and whims.
Gone were things like the big tent, family values, small government, fiscal responsibility, worry over the debt and deficit, anti-protectionism, public service, policy debates, institutional knowledge, expertise, comity and decency. In came anger, greed, division, fiscal irresponsibility, tariffs, family separation, a weaponized government, culture wars, incompetence, willful ignorance, and conspiracy theories.
As someone who’s followed his journey from Congress to vice presidential candidate to House speaker to private citizen, I’m acutely aware of how disorienting this likely was for Ryan, as it was for me.
The difference is, he’s still on the inside of it. After retiring as speaker of the House he took a job on the board of Fox News, which, similarly to the GOP itself, abandoned conservatism (and journalism, more notably) for Trumpism.
As we’re now learning from text messages and sworn testimony, Fox hosts and executives knowingly promoted election lies to viewers in fear that they would lose them to Newsmax, another right-wing media outlet. They strategized over how to keep Trump happy, appease other big donors like MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, and cater to viewers’ desire for more election fraud conspiracy theories.
That Paul Ryan can stomach any of this is hard to imagine. And indeed, he pleaded with Fox Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch to “move on from Donald Trump” and “stop spouting election lies.”
And now he believes (earnestly I’m sure) that he can help steer Fox back to the conservatism he remembers. “Because,” as he says, “there isn’t a bigger platform than [Fox] in America. So I think the conservative movement is going through a lot of churn and a lot of turmoil, and I don’t like where it is right now.”
I’m with him, but the problem is, there’s no conservatism left at Fox to restore.
Trump and Fox conditioned their audience to stop caring about things like policies and principles so that they could focus on things like Mr. Potato Head, Confederate statues, and drag queen story hour.
Principled conservative voices like Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes left Fox in protest of the network’s propaganda, junk science and election lies.
And Fox execs know full well that the energy in the Republican Party is with Trump and angry conspiracy nuts like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, and not with good conservatives like Romney and Ryan.
There’s simply no audience left for a return to conservatism at Fox, because Fox told them conservatism wasn’t as important as owning the libs.
So Ryan, while well-intentioned and always principled, may be facing a losing battle. Because I’m afraid that when it comes to Fox — and perhaps the GOP at large — the conservatism has left the building.
S.E. Cupp is the host of "S.E. Cupp Unfiltered" on CNN.