In 1933, Franz von Papen was hungry for revenge. Having been ousted as chancellor of Germany through political subterfuge, he wanted payback against the former ally who had succeeded him. So he struck a new alliance, this one with Adolf Hitler, leader of a rising popular movement called the Nazis, and maneuvered to have him appointed chancellor.
Von Papen didn’t think much of his partner. Like most political observers, he considered Hitler a noisy buffoon. Von Papen was certain he could control him once in power.
House Speaker Paul Ryan seems to have made a similar calculation last week in endorsing another noisy buffoon, Donald Trump.
He is not, of course, the first Republican to do so. While the likes of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney have shown statesmanlike courage and refused Trump their support, other big names have shown all the spinal fortitude of Gumby.
This includes New York Rep. Peter King (who once called Trump a “feckless pretender”), Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (who said he was less qualified for the presidency than “a speck of dirt”), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (who described him as “the most vulgar person” to ever run for president) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, (who proclaimed him “a madman who must be stopped”).
It is not unheard of for a politician to hang a philosophical U-turn on a candidate once the primaries are decided. But it is unheard of – perhaps even unprecedented – for so many to do so having criticized the candidate in such harsh and personal terms. Paul now thinks a man less qualified than dirt should run the country? Jindal now wants to give a “madman” access to the nuclear codes?
That’s not a U-turn. That’s a U-turn in an 18-wheeler with bad brakes doing 90.
Now Ryan adds his name to this list of moral imbecility. After weeks of ostentatious agonizing, he finally declared his support in a statement that, like so many others, was mainly noteworthy for its tepidity. “I'll be voting for @realDonaldTrump this fall,” he tweeted. “I’m confident he will help turn the House GOP’s agenda into laws.”
The very next day, Ryan was forced to condemn his nominee for another spasm of the graceless, clueless, classless behavior that has long characterized him. Meaning his claim that a federal judge hearing the case against the apparent fraud that is Trump University should recuse himself because he is a “Mexican” and therefore unfit to fairly judge a man whose attacks on undocumented Mexican immigrants are the stuff of political legend.
It didn’t seem to matter to Trump that this particular “Mexican” was born in Indiana. Indeed, he doubled down, later adding that a Muslim judge would also be unfit.
This blatant bigotry, said Ryan, was “out of left field.” Which is bull. When you know a man is adored by David Duke and other white supremacists, when you’ve seen him tweet racist material, heard him call Mexicans “rapists” and say the border should be closed to Muslims, you don’t get to play the startled ingenue when he says something racist.
Does Ryan really believe this guy will be guided by “the House GOP’s agenda”? Does he really think a man who has reached this lofty point by ignoring convention will suddenly agree to be constrained by it once he has achieved power commensurate with his ego?
Apparently, he does. And that’s pathetic.
Some people will resist comparing Ryan with von Papen. But history teaches, when we allow it to. It imparts lessons, if we only listen. The lesson here is that leadership requires sound judgment, the ability to see what is right in front of you and understand it for what it is.
Von Papen did not. He saw only a noisy buffoon he thought he could control. Ryan should take note. Because, as it turned out, von Papen was wrong.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Miami Herald and can be contacted at email@example.com.