WASHINGTON — Paul D. Ryan, the former Republican speaker of the House, re-entered the political arena on Thursday night with a speech obliquely criticizing Donald J. Trump and warning Republicans that the only viable future for the fractured party was one unattached to the former president.
“Here’s one reality we have to face,” Mr. Ryan said during a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. “If the conservative cause depends on the populist appeal of one personality, or on second-rate imitations, then we’re not going anywhere.”
Mr. Ryan said he had found it “horrifying to see a presidency come to such a dishonorable and disgraceful end,” although he did not specifically refer to the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 or to Mr. Trump’s repeated election falsehoods.
He added that Republican voters would “not be impressed by the sight of yes-men and flatterers flocking to Mar-a-Lago.”
The former speaker tempered his criticism by avoiding any mention of Mr. Trump by name — except to say that the former president’s brand of populism, when “tethered to conservative principles,” had led to economic growth, and to credit him with bringing new voters to the party.
A senior adviser for Mr. Trump, Jason Miller, responded to early excerpts from the speech with a terse brushoff: “Who is Paul Ryan?” he said in a text message.
Mr. Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee, left behind his 20-year career in Congress in 2019. In his role as speaker, he kowtowed to Mr. Trump at first, and later edged away from him, publicly breaking with the former president only after leaving office.
Since then, he has taken on roles as a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame; a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank; and a board member of the Fox Corporation.
Mr. Ryan’s political re-emergence, and his relatively gentle warning of the dangers of a party crafted in Mr. Trump’s image, came as the former president has said he plans to return to the campaign trail this summer with rallies for Republican House and Senate candidates supportive of his agenda and his election falsehoods. Mr. Trump is also still hinting at a potential presidential run in 2024.
Mr. Ryan delivered his message even as Republicans still in office have ostracized lawmakers who criticize Mr. Trump. Most recently, the party removed Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming from her leadership post in Congress because she refused to drop her repudiations of Mr. Trump and Republicans who abetted his election falsehoods.
“We win majorities by directing our loyalty and respect to voters, and by staying faithful to the conservative principles that unite us,” Mr. Ryan said.
Eager to show off his conservative bona fides, Mr. Ryan also criticized President Biden and his agenda.
“In 2020, the country wanted a nice guy who would move to the center and depolarize our politics,” he said. “Instead, we got a nice guy pursuing an agenda more leftist than any president in my lifetime.”
Mr. Ryan’s speech was not the first time he had expressed worries about Mr. Trump since leaving office. Weeks after returning to Wisconsin, his home state, the former speaker unloaded on a president he had been careful never to criticize while still in office.
“Don’t call a woman a ‘horse face,’” he told the journalist Tim Alberta, referring to one of the many insults Mr. Trump had lobbed. “Don’t cheat on your wife. Don’t cheat on anything. Be a good person. Set a good example. And prop up other institutions that do the same. You know?”