Sometimes you do things that make you feel ashamed. It was the first day of the Republican convention in 2012, and I had nothing to write about, so I wrote a humor column mocking the Romney family for being perfect in every way. It was a hit with readers, but the afternoon it was published, I crossed paths with two of Mitt Romney’s sons, and they looked at me with hurt in their eyes, which pierced me. I’d ridiculed people for the sin of being admirable.
A few years later, before he was a senator, Romney asked me to come out to Utah to give a talk to a group he was convening. It’s a pain to write a speech and get on a plane, but I did it in penance for my sins. Of course, all the Romneys were lovely to me, as is their nature. And I learned a lesson: The partisans may applaud if you ridicule those you admire, of any political stripe, but stay faithful to them.
We all struggle to be the best version of ourselves we can be, and Romney’s struggle is now taking him into retirement and out of the Senate. On the way he gave us a gift, in the form of a series of conversations with The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins, who has written a book on him, excerpted in the magazine.
Romney puts on the record what so many of us have been hearing for years off the record — that the Republican Party has become a party of fakers, that its congressional leaders laugh at Donald Trump contemptuously behind his back while swooning over him before the cameras.
Mitch McConnell is the tragic figure in Romney’s tale. He comes across as — and I believe actually is — a decent man who is trying to mitigate the worst of Trump’s effect on his party. But we see the daily corrosions that McConnell must endure to keep up this front — turning a blind eye to Trump’s crimes, turning a blind eye to the threats that were coming in the lead-up to Jan 6.
At one point, McConnell resorts to the rationalization we’ve heard a thousand times — that if Trump loses and the Democrats win, they will pass a hard-left agenda that will ruin America forever. McConnell has to exaggerate how radical Joe Biden is, and what the electorate will support, in order to justify supporting his own party’s lamentable leader.
McConnell’s core problem is that you can’t negotiate with narcissism. Every time you make a concession to Trump’s selfishness, it voraciously seeks to devour another pound of your flesh.
Paul Ryan also makes a sad appearance in this story. Romney tells Coppins that Ryan called him during the first impeachment trial, seemingly lobbying Romney to acquit. Preserve your viability with Republicans, Ryan advises; preserve your ability to do good.
It’s advice that once seemed plausible and that guided many upright people to enter the Trump administration as voices of sanity. The first problem with it is that the cult of Trumpism demands absolute fealty. One moment of honest dissent, and you are cast from the ranks. The second problem is that loyalty to Trump is ultimately enforced by the threat of violence. As the Coppins piece makes clear, there were Republicans who chose not to vote yes on impeachment or conviction because the outcome either way was inevitable and because they didn’t want potential assassins coming after them or their families. We have gone beyond the bounds of normal democratic governance.
The third problem is that if you ally yourself with a con artist, you have to become part of the con yourself. You have to become Ted Cruz, who went to Princeton and Harvard Law and is married to an employee of Goldman Sachs, ludicrously popping a brewski live on TV — an elite nerd’s attempt to appear populist.
Over the Trump years, we’ve learned how easy it is to anesthetize one’s moral circuits. John McCain kept his moral compass, and so did Romney, but they are the exceptions. Many others joined the general fakery. You start by lying about yourself, and pretty soon you’re lying to yourself.
The pivotal moment for Romney seems to have come on Jan. 6 — not what the insurrectionists did to get into the Capitol but what the Republican legislators did in the chambers after the rioters had been cleared out, continuing their efforts to negate the election. This is where five years of negotiating with narcissism had brought the party.
Romney’s retirement, which goes into effect in 2025, will mark the end of an era, the end of the Republican Party that once featured people like Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and more recently George Romney, Mitt’s father, and George H.W. Bush. Realistically, Romney will have little role in trying to produce a better G.O.P. future. What replaces Trumpism will be different from what came before.
I admire him for deciding to step down at the senatorially young age of 76. As we’ve all come to see, the hunger for continued relevance is the corroding lust that devours the very old. Romney stands for the valuable idea that there are things more important in life than politics and winning elections.
The G.O.P. needed to change and become more in touch with the working class — but not in the vicious way Trump has championed. As long as Trump is leading it, the Republican Party cannot be reformed. It can only be deprived of power.
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