Mitt Romney and the Verdict of History
Thoughts about Death and History and Fragility and Violence.
“This madness has come on us for our sins.” — Alfred Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King.
Mitt Romney will leave the Senate the same way he came in. One of the vanishingly rare statesmen left in politics, Romney tried to be the conscience of the party he once led. That made him a very lonely man.
As he told the Wapo’s Dan Balz yesterday: “It’s pretty clear that the party is inclined to a populist demagogue message.”
Now comes the verdict of history.
Over the last several years, Romney unburdened himself to McKay Coppins, whose book on Romney is excerpted in the Atlantic. It’s an extraordinary read, and a reminder of so much of what we’ve lost. A former governor, and the nominee of his party for president, Romney tried to warn his party against the dangers of Trumpism and became the first senator in U.S. history to vote to convict a president of his own party. He did it twice; and if a handful of his colleagues had followed his lead, we would be living in a different world today.
Instead, he’s joining Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, and a handful of other principled conservatives, in exile.
The first piece I ever wrote for The Bulwark was about Romney and his quixotic effort to pull the GOP back from the full embrace of the Trump presidency: “What Romney Exposed About Late-Stage Trumpism.”
Romney’s central heresy was his observation that “policies and appointments are only a part of a presidency.”
To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow “our better angels.” A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect. As a nation, we have been blessed with presidents who have called on the greatness of the American spirit. With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable.
As I noted back in 2019, not only is this passage not especially controversial—it was almost a boilerplate restatement of what conservatives have claimed to believe for decades.
But the perfervid defenses mounted by Trump World told us quite a lot about the decadence of late-stage Trumpism. Romney had performed a useful service. I wrote back then: “He has exposed the extent to which the acceptance of Trump’s character hardened from tactical improvisation into habit—and this habit has now become full-blown intellectual justification.”
It only got worse. A few months later, after the release of the Mueller Report, Romney found himself alone in denouncing “the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection by individuals in the highest office of the land, including the President.” He was alone again when he called out Trump for his attempts to extort the Ukrainian president in an effort to dig up dirt on the Biden family. And he fully realized how isolated and out-of-step he was when he was loudly and roundly booed by his fellow Utah Republicans just weeks after he voted to convict Trump for his role in the January 6th insurrection.
As the boos intensified, Romney asked the crowd:
“Aren’t you embarrassed?”
That question seems to hang in the air. How is the GOP not thoroughly humiliated by what it is becoming?
Romney is still wrestling with the question.
Unlike so many of his colleagues, who have rushed to embrace the Trumpian moment, or cowered in the cloakrooms, or become addicted to the trappings of office, Romney has been thinking about Death and History and Fragility and Violence. As he tried to tell his colleagues: “There are worse things than losing an election. Take it from somebody who knows.”
No wonder nobody wanted to sit with him at the GOP caucus meetings, which Coppins says “had a high school cafeteria quality that made him feel ill at ease.”
The addiction of power
What Romney learned watching his fellow senators and their desperate need to stay in office: “Job preservation became almost existential. Retirement was death. They needed the stimulation, the sense of relevance, the power.”
The verdict on Trump
A fellow senator told Romney privately:
“He has none of the qualities you would want in the president, and all of the qualities you wouldn’t.“ But that senator wouldn’t say it publicly.
Mitch McConnell once said to Romney:
“You’re lucky. You can say the things that we all think. You’re in a position to say things about him that we all agree with but can’t say.”
Fear of political violence runs through the account.
“There are deranged people among us,” he told me. And in Utah, “people carry guns.”
“It only takes one really disturbed person.”
He let the words hang in the air for a moment, declining to answer the question his confession begged: How long can a democracy last when its elected leaders live in fear of physical violence from their constituents?
The silence of Mitch
In the days leading up to the violent attack on the Capitol, Romney sent an urgent text message to the Senate’s GOP leader.
Romney sends his text: “In case you have not heard this, I just got a call from Angus King, who said that he had spoken with a senior official at the Pentagon who reports that they are seeing very disturbing social media traffic regarding the protests planned on the 6th. There are calls to burn down your home, Mitch; to smuggle guns into DC, and to storm the Capitol. I hope that sufficient security plans are in place, but I am concerned that the instigator—the President—is the one who commands the reinforcements the DC and Capitol police might require.”
McConnell never responds.
On January 6th
He thought about the text message he’d sent to McConnell a few days earlier explicitly warning of this scenario. How were they not ready for this? It was, in some ways, a perfect metaphor for his party’s timorous, shortsighted approach to the Trump era. As a boy, he’d read Idylls of the King with his mother; now he could understand the famous quote from Tennyson’s Guinevere as she witnesses the consequences of corruption in Arthur’s court: “This madness has come on us for our sins.”
Shortly after moving into his Senate office, Romney had hung a large rectangular map on the wall. First printed in 1931 by Rand McNally, the “histomap” attempted to chart the rise and fall of the world’s most powerful civilizations through 4,000 years of human history. When Romney first acquired the map, he saw it as a curiosity. After January 6, he became obsessed with it. He showed the map to visitors, brought it up in conversations and speeches. More than once, he found himself staring at it alone in his office at night. The Egyptian empire had reigned for some 900 years before it was overtaken by the Assyrians. Then the Persians, the Romans, the Mongolians, the Turks—each civilization had its turn, and eventually collapsed in on itself. Maybe the falls were inevitable. But what struck Romney most about the map was how thoroughly it was dominated by tyrants of some kind—pharaohs, emperors, kaisers, kings. “A man gets some people around him and begins to oppress and dominate others,” he said the first time he showed me the map. “It’s a testosterone-related phenomenon, perhaps. I don’t know. But in the history of the world, that’s what happens.” America’s experiment in self-rule “is fighting against human nature.”
“This is a very fragile thing,” he told me. “Authoritarianism is like a gargoyle lurking over the cathedral, ready to pounce.”
The cravenness of Paul Ryan
After word leaked that Romney was going to vote for the first article of impeachment against Trump, he got a call from his former running mate.
Romney had been less judgmental of Ryan’s acquiescence to Trump than he’d been of most other Republicans’. He believed Ryan was a sincere guy who’d simply misjudged Trump.
And yet, here was Ryan on the phone, making the same arguments Romney had heard from some of his more calculating colleagues. Ryan told him that voting to convict Trump would make Romney an outcast in the party, that many of the people who’d tried to get him elected president would never speak to him again, and that he’d struggle to pass any meaningful legislation. Ryan said that he respected Romney, and wanted to make absolutely sure he’d thought through the repercussions of his vote. Romney assured him that he had, and said goodbye.
Hawley and Cruz
What bothered Romney most about Hawley and his cohort was the oily disingenuousness. “They know better!” he told me. “Josh Hawley is one of the smartest people in the Senate, if not the smartest, and Ted Cruz could give him a run for his money.” They were too smart, Romney believed, to actually think that Trump had won the 2020 election. Hawley and Cruz “were making a calculation,” Romney told me, “that put politics above the interests of liberal democracy and the Constitution.”
“I don’t know that I can disrespect someone more than J. D. Vance,” Romney told me.
They’d first met years earlier, after he read Vance’s best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. Romney was so impressed with the book that he hosted the author at his annual Park City summit in 2018. Vance, who grew up in a poor, dysfunctional family in Appalachia and went on to graduate from Yale Law School, had seemed bright and thoughtful, with interesting ideas about how Republicans could court the white working class without indulging in toxic Trumpism. Then, in 2021, Vance decided he wanted to run for Senate, and reinvented his entire persona overnight. Suddenly, he was railing against the “childless left” and denouncing Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a “fake holiday” and accusing Joe Biden of manufacturing the opioid crisis “to punish people who didn’t vote for him.” The speed of the MAGA makeover was jarring.
[It] was hard to dispute that the battle for the GOP’s soul had been lost. And Romney had his own soul to think about. He was all too familiar with the incentive structure in which the party’s leaders were operating. He knew what it would take to keep winning, the things he would have to rationalize.
“You say, ‘Okay, I better get closer to this line, or maybe step a little bit over it. If I don’t, it’s going to be much worse,’ ” he told me. You can always convince yourself that the other party, or the other candidate, is bad enough to justify your own decision to cross that line. “And the problem is that line just keeps on getting moved, and moved, and moved.”
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McCarthy’s Month from Hell
On Wednesday’s podcast, my new colleague A.B. Stoddard and I discuss Kevin McCarthy’s attempts to appease the MAGA wing of his party by impeaching Joe Biden. Plus, David Ignatius steps into the fray on Biden, and a badly behaved Boebert gets ejected.
1. Farewell to Mitt Romney, Republican with a Spine
Romney could have retired to his car elevator and grandchildren Olympics. Instead, he stayed in the fray. Became the only Republican senator to vote to convict Trump in both impeachments. The first senator in American history to vote to convict a president of his own party. The GOP elected official with the most clear-eyed rationale for denying Trump the presidency ever again. The one most willing to openly attack the Trump minions like George Santos who have infested the Capitol.
Through all that, he has been a loner in Washington. McKay Coppins reports, in an excerpt from his forthcoming biography of Romney, that when he goes to the GOP Senate lunches, he has flashbacks to his time as the only Mormon at Cranbrook (that’s a private school).
But he hasn’t given up an inch to a desire to be “in the mix”; neither has he bent even a little to peer pressure from fellow Republicans or his new friends in the middle. The Washington Post reports that he has repeatedly implored Joe Manchin and others flirting with “No Labels” to avoid the group out of a concern that they would only help Trump darken the White House door again. Thank God.
2. Elon Musk’s Ukraine Delusions
While Musk has taken on the responsibility of deciding Ukraine’s fate, determining himself what actions constitute conflict escalation, and restricting the battlefield strategy of a U.S. ally at his own discretion, it’s worth asking who voted him into a position of such power—and how elected officials might curtail his power in the future.