Thanks to Donald Trump and his fellow Birthers, who continue to claim that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Islamist enemy of America, we know what it takes to create a villain for the conservative lunatic fringe. The process involves deadening the brain.
Now, through the example of Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, auteur of a new plan for attacking the dangerously increasing national debt that amounts to economic three-card monte, we are learning how the far right creates its heroes. That process involves turning off both the brain and the heart.
Ryan's political apotheosis has been going on since 2007, when the right-wing Weekly Standard featured him in a fawning profile headlined "The Thinker." It kicked into high gear during the first week of April with the release of "The Path to Prosperity," the House Republicans' budgetary outline (pdf) for the 2012 fiscal year, which was formally adopted on Friday.
Seldom has the production of such a wonkish proposal been greeted by such a tsunami of hero worship. For those on the right, the young chairman of the House Budget Committee is no longer merely a respected analyst and lawmaker. He has become an Economic Policy God.
Google "Paul," "Ryan" and "hero" together, and you get about 2,850,000 hits. That's right: more than two million, eight hundred and fifty thousand hits. In addition to heavy breathing from mainstream-media pundits like New York Times columnist David Brooks, referenced by our colleague at Slate David Weigal, the hits include such encomiums as this fairly typical comment from the Lonely Conservative blog: "We all see the fiscal train wreck coming, Ryan has the cojones to do something to stop it. God bless him." Or this, from conservative blogger Framing the Dialogue: "Ryan not only says the right things, but has a plan and shares his plan … refreshing. I hesitate to place hope in any politician, but Ryan seems like a true American hero." You get the picture.
Judging by all this huffing and puffing, you'd think that Ryan had come up with something new, courageous and realistic, instead of simply doubling down on Republican nostrums for cutting taxes for millionaires, repealing Obama's health care reforms and replacing Medicare with a voucher system that will force future retirees to pay a lot more for a lot less services. (Those 55 and over would be "grandfathered" into the existing system.)
But once you cut through all the self-congratulatory malarkey in Ryan's proposal, that is really all there is to it. It's the same old, same old Ronald Reaganesque idea that demanding proportionately less from the rich while demanding more from everyone else is sound economic policy.
Whether Ryan's plan would actually reduce future deficits, unleash an economic boom and start cutting into the national debt is a matter of debate. Plenty of economists think that it wouldn't. But what interests — and, frankly, alarms — me more is why anybody would think that there's anything courageous about his ideas.
For me, political courage means going against the ingrained beliefs and vested interests of your most dedicated constituents and sticking to an inconvenient truth. For a liberal Democrat like Obama, that would mean taking on such groups as unions and civil rights organizations. For a conservative Republican like Ryan, it would mean telling the wealthy that the time has come for them to start making sacrifices like everyone else to resolve what is plainly a national crisis.
And that's exactly what Ryan and the Republicans haven't done. Indeed, the road map that he lays out is neither brave nor candid. It doesn't take any guts to tell the superrich 1 percent who control a gargantuan share of the nation's wealth that you want to reform taxes by lowering the top rate from 35 percent to 25 percent.
And it's misleading, to say the least, for Ryan to label a plan (pdf) that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says will force future retirees to "reduce their use of health care services, spend less on other goods and services, or save more in advance of retirement than they would under current law" as "Strengthening the Social Safety Net."
When you get right down to it, the motivating trait behind Ryan's proposal is not courage at all; it's chutzpah — the kind of gall that the great Leo Rosten famously defined as "that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan."
Philosophically, Ryan's supposedly high-minded and serious plan is a pretentious repackaging of Reagan's trickle-down economics that favors the rich while picking the pockets of the average Joe. As Obama points out, Ryan is "the same guy that voted for two wars that were unpaid for, voted for the Bush tax cuts that were unpaid for, voted for the prescription-drug bill that cost as much as my health care bill — but wasn't paid for."
It's hard to see why anybody, including the right, would take Ryan's ideas seriously, much less view them as courageous. Expedient, maybe. Cynical, for sure. Hypocritical, beyond a doubt. But hardly courageous. If this is what it takes to make Ryan a hero to the right, the lord only knows what they think of the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Jack White is a frequent contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.