Mitt Romney’s Tragic Ambivalence

Rolling out the announcement that he won’t run for re-election, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah has framed it as a passing of the torch. “At the end of another term, I’d be in my mid-80s,” he said in a video statement. “Frankly it’s time for a new generation of leaders. They’re the ones that need to make the decisions that will shape the world they will be living in.” He clearly means this as a rebuke to the 80-year-old Joe Biden and the 77-year-old Donald Trump, neither of whom, he said, “are leading their party” to confront the major issues facing our country. “The next generation of leaders must take America to the next stage of global leadership.”

The problem with this argument is that Romney despises the next generation of Republican leaders. He’s watched the transformation of Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio into a Trump lackey with disgust. “I don’t know that I can disrespect someone more than J.D. Vance,” he told McKay Coppins, author of a forthcoming Romney biography. He’s similarly contemptuous of Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri for indulging the lies that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection. I doubt he’s a fan of the Florida congressman Matt Gaetz or the hucksterish presidential aspirant Vivek Ramaswamy.

Besides, as Coppins reveals in an Atlantic excerpt from his book, Romney himself thought of running a third-party campaign for president in 2024, deciding against it only out of fear that it would throw the election to Trump. So as much as I believe that America is stagnating under the death grip of the gerontocracy, I don’t think that’s why Romney is bowing out. Rather, he’s given up on a second Senate term because his brand of stolid, upstanding conservatism has become obsolete, replaced with a conspiratorial, histrionic and sometimes violent authoritarianism. His reluctance to say so clearly, at the cost of breaking with his party definitively, is evidence of something tragic in his character.

We know what Romney really thinks because of the access he offered Coppins, with whom he met weekly, giving him diaries, private papers and emails. “A very large portion of my party really doesn’t believe in the Constitution,” Romney told him.

When Romney gave a speech at the Utah Republican Party’s convention in 2021, he was prepared for boos, but emerged shaken by the sheer intensity of the red-faced fury that confronted him. He was, writes Coppins, afraid of his own constituents. “There are deranged people among us,” he said, and in Utah, “people carry guns.” After Jan. 6, Coppins writes, Romney spent $5,000 a day on security for his family.

But Romney isn’t using the announcement of his coming retirement to warn the country against the danger of a right-wing movement that routinely resorts to threats of violence. He certainly isn’t defecting from the Republican Party for the remainder of his time in the Senate. Instead, by putting age at the center of his argument, he’s setting himself above the fray, pretending that both parties are equally at fault in bringing the country to this perilous pass. Romney has shown far more decency and courage in response to Trump than almost all his colleagues, but in this case, he’s still pulling his punches.

There’s something Hamlet-like in Romney’s temporizing. He wants to defend the party of his revered father, the liberal Republican George Romney, but he’s often been hesitant about striking at the venal interloper who’s taken it over. During the 2016 campaign, Romney gave a speech warning of the “trickle-down racism” a Trump presidency would bring, an echo of George Romney’s refusal in 1964 to endorse Barry Goldwater, an opponent of the Civil Rights Act. Yet, as ABC News reported, even though Romney didn’t support Trump himself, he “said that he wouldn’t be spending the next six months trying to convince anyone not to vote for Trump.”

It’s possible that Republican leaders, had they acted quickly and decisively in 2016, could have thwarted Trump before he’d consolidated his messianic hold over the party’s base. But Romney, like other establishment Republicans, underestimated the autocratic threat posed by Trump, or overestimated his party’s patriotic fortitude. It’s a mistake he would make again.

After Trump was elected, Romney evidently thought he could save the Republican Party from the inside, abasing himself in a bid to become Trump’s secretary of state. Entering the Senate, he tried to chart a path for a post-Trump conservatism while ignoring Trump himself as much as possible. While promising to speak out about Trump’s worst excesses, he wrote in The Washington Post, “I do not intend to comment on every tweet or fault.” (For that, he had the pseudonymous Twitter account Pierre Delecto, where he could applaud squibs about Trump’s moral depravity and evident unfitness.)

Romney deserves our admiration and gratitude for being the sole Republican to vote to convict in Trump’s first impeachment, and then for voting again to convict him in his second. After a lifetime as a loyal Republican, it must have been extraordinarily difficult to break with his partisan allies.

But he must understand that the problem isn’t only Trump, but Trump’s party, which is also his party. There is no telling what sort of impact it would have if the last pre-Trump Republican nominee for president quit the G.O.P. and worked for its defeat — maybe hardly any. But given the stakes, what excuse is there for not trying? “Authoritarianism is like a gargoyle lurking over the cathedral, ready to pounce,” Romney told Coppins. He should be less coy in sounding the alarm.

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