I teach literary analysis to adolescents, and I often struggle to help them understand the difference between “text” and “subtext.” Making inferences is hard, especially when authors either don’t want readers peeking between the lines or when authors themselves aren’t aware of their own subtext. Prying the subtext loose from a Langston Hughes poem or an Isabelle Allende chapter can be hard for a 15-year-old to do.
But that literary and analytical process represents what makes great literature great. No one wants to be yelled at for 350 pages, or even 14 lines, so authors instead embed messages as subtext, leaving the text fun and interesting to read.
Real life is not literature, but you and I and everyone you know also use the text/subtext divide regularly. You probably find yourself in situations every day where you choose your words carefully so as to bury what you want to say – the subtext – behind more genial or acceptable text.
Sometimes there are giant red flags. When people start a sentence with “I’m not racist, but …” you can be sure that what follows is racist. Same with things like “I don’t want to sound mean” or “I really hate to be the one to tell you.” No, you sure do want to sound mean and you are absolutely reveling in being the one to tell me. Your text betrays your subtext.
Other times, it’s more subtle. You’ve no doubt heard about “dog-whistle” politics, as when segregationists in the 1960s spoke of “states’ rights” and, more recently, when defenders of the Confederate battle flag claim to really be defending “cultural heritage.” You have to look at the subtext to see what they really mean: Claiming to be for “states’ rights” is just as much a lie as saying “I’m not racist, but …”.
No one in the Republican party today is better at subtext than Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan. For more than a decade, Ryan has stood tall as the thinking man’s Republican, a handsomely wonkish slice of responsible-governance pie. His ascension to Speaker of the House last year cemented Ryan’s image as a stable, reasonable pillar in GOP leadership, specifically, and the national zeitgeist more generally.
But it wasn’t that long ago that Ryan made attempts at subtext and instead was all about the text – literally. That text, of course, is Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged.” Ryan is legendary for giving all staffers who worked for him a copy of that book, and he wasn’t shy about claiming how much the book shaped his worldview.
Ayn Rand’s book is – and remember, I am a professional, so you have to trust me – not great literature. This is in no small part because Rand never really understood the principle I noted above, that no one wants to be yelled at for 350 pages. Or, in the case of “Atlas Shrugged,” 1,168 pages. Instead, Rand has her characters deliver pages-long monologues (one example) about the value of work, the difference between true capitalists and the “moochers and looters,” and how everything the government does is wrong.
This book was Paul Ryan’s bible. He chose a life in elected office because of Ayn Rand, he has said. His own speeches have long been peppered with references to “makers and takers,” and for years, his big think-piece budget proposals involved eliminating almost everything the federal government does to help people and slashing taxes on the “makers,” the highest earners, because like Rand, Ryan believes that taxes are theft and freeing the “makers” from the burden of taxes will supercharge the economy.
All that seemed to change in 2012, after Ryan was tapped to be Mitt Romney’s running mate. Romney had his own “makers and takers” moment, when cell-phone footage showed him telling big-money donors that 47 percent of Americans were “dependent on the government” and would never not vote for Barack Obama.
So Ryan had to back off the text and embrace the subtext, telling conservative news outlets in 2012 that he rejected Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Since then, he hasn’t actually changed his policies – the Rand-inspired ultra-conservative attempts to sever both the national safety net and the IRS fingers reaching into your pocket – but he has changed his words.
Some of us, though, can see the subtext and haven’t let up on the criticism. Ryan still believes what he believed before, but rather than argue that giving kids free school lunches, for example, perpetuates dependence on government, he instead argues that a home-packed lunch is good for a kid’s soul. He is still calling poverty not an economic problem but a cultural one, a stance that would be as at home in an Ayn Rand novel as in the Republican Congress Ryan now leads.
But Ryan has been stepping up his subtext game in the past few months. Once Donald Trump became the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination this year, Ryan publicly apologized for a lot of his past rhetoric, admitting that calling poor people “takers” mischaracterized them, among other things.
This was Ryan becoming part of the #NeverTrump movement before the #NeverTrump movement was actually a thing, back when Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz still seemed to have a shot. Ryan was, simply, embarrassed that Trump was making the subtext into text again.
As part of his apology, Ryan said, “Our political discourse, it did not used to be this bad, and it does not have to be this way.” He didn’t name Trump, but it was clear who he was talking about. “We don’t have to accept this,” he said, “and we can’t enable it, either.”
And as Trump got closer to clinching the nomination, Ryan got more vocal in his opposition not to Trump’s policies but to the way Trump spoke. In early May, he told CNN that he was “just not ready” to endorse Trump, saying that Trump was no Reagan or Lincoln (um, duh) and that his loudmouthed bigotry didn’t represent the “principles” of the Republican Party.
But of course it does: Trump has made the Republican Party’s subtext into text again. It is not merely clear in the way GOP primary voters have responded and flocked to Trump, but also in the ideas Trump has advanced in his campaign: tax cuts for the rich, punishments for the poor, expulsion and exclusion of immigrants, hyper-robust foreign policy. These are boilerplate contemporary Republican ideas, principles that Trump and Ryan actually share.
It’s just that Ryan has been trying really, really hard not to say those things out loud anymore.
National pressure has been mounting on Ryan to endorse Trump, since there is no time in recent memory when the highest-ranking elected member of a party hasn’t worked hand-in-glove with that party’s nominee for president. He’s even earned himself a Trump-inspired primary opponent, who’s getting help from Sarah Palin, herself an expert at making the subtext into text, doncha know.
Last week, Ryan and Trump finally sat down for a meeting. Everyone walked out of there saying exactly what you’d expect – it was good, they made progress, they plan to meet again, etc. But there was still no endorsement from Ryan.
In a way, I feel bad for the guy. While he may not differ in substance from Trump (or Palin or the Republican electorate-slash-Tea Party in general), he’s put every ounce of energy these last four years into trying to make that substance seem less heartless and more hopeful than it really is. Trump has instead put Republican anger out front again, using language that would make Ayn Rand proud even as it makes Paul Ryan ashamed.
But in another way, I feel this is exactly what Ryan deserves. The GOP, Ryan included, has spent decades building its base by making plain their contempt for the poor, minorities and immigrants, even for the government itself, both through its rhetoric and its policies. Now that this contempt has assumed human form and is on its way to being the Republican nominee for president, Ryan can’t stop it.
He may dither a while about getting on the Trump train, but, in the way that John Galt was drawn to Dagney Taggert and her railroad empire in “Atlas Shrugged,” it is inevitable that Ryan will accept that subtext is now text again.