Look on the bright side: It seems as if soon-to-be-departed House Speaker Paul Ryan must have a sliver of a conscience left. How else to explain Ryan’s rash and terrible-looking firing of a House chaplain — the Rev. Patrick Conroy — because the Jesuit priest had the audacity to offer up a prayer for simple economic fairness at the very moment when the speaker was engineering a $1 trillion giveaway to wealthy taxpayers and large corporations?
The soft-spoken humanity of the priest’s imprecations must have sounded for Ryan like the incessant thumping in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the throbbing of the last lingering pangs of guilt for a lifelong Catholic who tried to put his church’s theology on mute after he grew up with a mission to murder the quaint notion of compassion for America’s poor.
This isn’t the first time, after all, that Paul Ryan has — in the timeless words of Henry II — rid himself of a turbulent, meddlesome priest. Growing up in Janesville, Wis., Ryan — an upper-middle-class kid who’s spun a myth of working his way to success belying the reality of the trust fund created when his lawyer dad died young — planted roots in the Catholic Church of the Nativity of Mary, where he was baptized and went to grade school. When Ryan reached adulthood and the priest there became Father Stephen Umhoefer, who preached according to his belief that the test of a government budget is “How does this affect the poor?,” Ryan and his family bolted for a different parish across town.
Now, the mini-scandal of Ryan and his inability to tolerate his own church’s theology from Conroy, who’d served as House chaplain dating back to the tenure of the prior, also Catholic, former Speaker John Boehner, is getting a lot of press (or it was until a comedian named Michelle Wolf dropped her — admittedly crude — truth bombs on both the Trump White House and a dazed and confused D.C. press corps). The latest spin is that Ryan’s rash act has sparked a war in the House GOP caucus between its Catholics and its Protestant evangelicals — but that seems like the sidebar to the main story.
The truth is as simple and as clear as Father Conroy’s prayer that eventually got him fired, when he last fall he implored lawmakers debating the massive tax giveaway to “guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans” — words that an angry Ryan aide told the priest were “too political.” Any distraction that exposes the warped tenants of the new creed of 21st-century Republicans — that poor people are lazy schemers undeserving of a break from the government that’s in thrall to hedge-fund billionaires — must be tossed down the memory hole, as quickly as possible.
Even as he scoots out the door to a cushy life as a millionaire lobbyist, Paul Ryan wants you to forget that the young man who dreamed of slashing Medicaid at his college keg parties ditched the teachings of the actual Jesus for Ayn Rand’s latter-day church of selfishness, sipping $350 bottles of pinot noir with Rand disciples like hedge-fund billionaire Cliff Asness.
But here’s what’s critical to remember: The firing of Conroy — while surely a heartless act in its own right — is more important as a reminder of how today’s GOP, controlling all the levers of government, has turned the cannons away from a 1960s “war on poverty” and toward an all-out war on the poor, which a) electrifies its political base, white working-class folks who aren’t really that much better off, and b) frees up billions to redistribute to their donors, the 1 Percent crowd.
The latest manifestation — which, frankly, should have gotten more attention than the priest firing — was the move by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to introduce legislation that would drastically reduce housing subsidies for the underprivileged and triple the amount of rent paid by the very poorest tenants in public housing. That’s a bizarre move in a time when skyrocketing urban rents from Seattle (squeezed by the runaway success of Amazon) to Philadelphia (desperate to be the next Seattle) are raising the ranks of the homeless.
It’s the kind of move that wasn’t supposed to happen from a HUD secretary like Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon who got picked for the job not because of his knowledge of housing policy (he had none) but because his difficult upbringing was supposed to offer insights into the struggles faced by HUD’s clientele. It doesn’t work that way, any more than the fact that Social Security death benefits helped pay for Ryan to attend an out-of-state college clashes with his schemes for gutting Social Security, or the fact that TV’s Sean Hannity — who uses his vast clout to deride “welfare queens” — is buying cheap homes from HUD auctions to jack up rents by 50 percent. It’s not that $350 bottles of wine have killed their memory cells. It’s that they just don’t care.
They don’t care because modern Republicans have hit on a formula that seems, for them, to be too good to be true. There are a lot more middle-class votes from people who — egged on by the Sean Hannitys and Donald Trumps of the world — cheer for the punching-down of the poverty-stricken than there are votes from actual poor people. Which means there’s little outcry when these cruel cuts in aid to the poor are funneled up to the rich via tax reductions. Rich folks who then fund the campaigns of Paul Ryan and his allies on Congress, pick up the tab at obscenely expensive Washington restaurants, and dangle millionaire lobbyist jobs if and when anything goes wrong.
And so we get not only the scheme for HUD rent hikes, but a 2018 budget from President Trump that aims to slash money for food stamps and job-training programs and completely eliminate home heating-oil assistance, legal aid for domestic-violence victims and Community Development Block Grants for America’s cities. It’s part fealty to their heartless electoral strategy, and part because, quite simply, they need the money to pay for their 2017 tax cut, which — if left untouched by future lawmakers — would deliver 82 percent of its benefits to the top 1 Percent.
It wasn’t always this way. This spring, I’ve been following a Twitter feed re-creating Robert F. Kennedy’s epic, ill-fated 1968 presidential campaign, and it’s striking how much valuable time was spent on endeavors like visiting Native Americans on a reservation, not because there were a lot of votes but because of a sense that politicians had a higher duty to the least fortunate. That extended across party lines, for anyone who still remembers one of Carson’s GOP predecessors at HUD, Jack Kemp, who — although he unfortunately believed in voodoo economics — also had a believer’s faith that free-market measures could truly help the poor. Somewhere in the fumes of Paul Ryan’s college kegs and the rise of the GOP’s “Southern Strategy,” that all got lost. Which is why a rare voice of conscience like Father Conroy stings so much.
Politics and the government that results from our elections are all about which groups have power — and how limited resources get allocated. When we take dollars away from poor people with no food on the table or oil in the furnace and crush the job-training programs that might get them out of this predicament, and we throw that cash at hedge-fund billionaires sailing by on their yachts, it speaks volumes about where America is right now — much louder than the silencing of one voice. It’s hard not to think that Ryan’s dismissal of Father Conroy is really the terror of a Catholic school kid wondering how he’d ever explain to a higher authority why poor people in his America didn’t have a prayer.