The American political class is reeling over Mitt Romney’s Washington Post op-ed, supposedly a blistering broadside against Donald Trump’s character but in reality a mincing, milquetoast, lame-to-the-marrow clarion call to his fellow rich, starched-out white people to protect the way they make their money. While yes, you could argue it’s good to see a Republican speaking out even without teeth against Trump, that argument would be wrong. We can’t lionize or sensationalize this mealy-mouthed garbage as “blistering” or effective or even worth reading. Just like we should have learned from the lame-ass anonymous op-ed the New York Times published this September, this kind of exercise in self-adulation is counterproductive, and, outside of the fact that it provides a lesson in exactly how not to go after Trump or articulate American values, its myopic, privileged, outdated worldview should offend every thinking, feeling person in the country.
Here’s the title: The president shapes the public character of the nation. Trump’s character falls short.
Here’s the coverage:
If you went by the tenor of the coverage you’d be forgiven for assuming the thrust of Romney’s argument is that Trump is a lying little clown who sucks at crimes and who, unless we immediately remove him from office, will rot our democracy and take western world with it. Well. Here’s the take from the man himself:
Insert sarcastic fire emoji here.
And as Romney sort of warns us there, the article mostly doesn’t even concern Trump. Here is the sum total of his direct “attacks” on the president, which number exactly six—SIX—and come straight out of Victorian England or a Neville Chamberlain speech:
The Trump presidency made a deep descent in December. The departures of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John F.?Kelly, the appointment of senior persons of lesser experience, the abandonment of allies who fight beside us, and the president’s thoughtless claim that America has long been a “sucker” in world affairs all defined his presidency down…
After he became the nominee, I hoped his campaign would refrain from resentment and name-calling. It did not…. on balance, his conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions last month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office….
With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring…
I mean. Come on. More:
To reassume our leadership in world politics, we must repair failings in our politics at home. That project begins, of course, with the highest office once again acting to inspire and unite us.
Trump’s words and actions have caused dismay around the world.
Furthermore, I will act as I would with any president, in or out of my party: I will support policies that I believe are in the best interest of the country and my state, and oppose those that are not. I do not intend to comment on every tweet or fault. But I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.
Look, Romney is trying to make as much a point with his style and rhetorical structure as he is with the content. He provides us here an alternative to Trump’s gutless, guttural, gutter-ball insults: A man with tact, class, and vision who is in full command of the English language. Unfortunately, it’s an aristocratic bastardization of the English language that most Americans don’t care about or vibe with, and here, too, his style reflects his true content, though unintentionally: I, Mitt Romney, despite being publicly, remorselessly dragged for my elitism for about a decade now, am somehow still profoundly out of touch with normal people everywhere, and I obviously have no interest in looking beyond the abstract, rarefied power politics of the wealthy class, let alone using that power to help the people who under this administration need it most.
Make no mistake: This is a piece of sleight-of-hand that, when analyzed, isn’t about Trump at all. Romney, now an incoming freshman senator, has no interest in going after Trump. If he did, he would have. He also has no interest in you or me beyond that fact we’re all offended by Trump’s behavior, offenses so patently clear to anyone with a heart and access to the news that it’s a sign of low political intelligence to pander to such baseline criticism. We’ve seen it all, and we’ve thought it all. More to the point, though, we all know it’s much worse than Romney is saying here. We despise this self-important language and see it for what it is: A dodge, a dumb trick that, like slipping your dog’s medicine into a scoop of peanut butter, is supposed to get us to swallow his real message here, which is that white, rich, powerful people need to seize control.
Romney’s silver bullets go down like silver spoons: “We must repair our fiscal foundation, setting a course to a balanced budget. We must attract the best talent to America’s service and the best innovators to America’s economy.” Or “our economic and military strength,” and “our enduring commitment to principled conduct in foreign relations, and to the rights of all people to freedom and equal justice.”
Perhaps most disappointing, Romney doesn’t lay the blame squarely at Trump’s feet, either. Just like the anonymous op-ed writer, he has the gall/ignorance to both-sides it:
To reassume our leadership in world politics, we must repair failings in our politics at home. That project begins, of course, with the highest office once again acting to inspire and unite us. It includes political parties promoting policies that strengthen us rather than promote tribalism by exploiting fear and resentment. Our leaders must defend our vital institutions despite their inevitable failings: a free press, the rule of law, strong churches, and responsible corporations and unions.
To be clear, the Democratic party is not by any stretch exploiting fear and resentment. If you’re to believe Romney’s main point—that Trump is vile and mean to the point of dysfunction—the responsibility for healing his wounds doesn’t fall to the wounded. It falls to Trump, and failing that, to the party that keeps him in power. Romney, however, makes clear that party (and “policy and appointments”) outweighs those comparatively superficial concerns: “I look forward to working on these priorities with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other senators. Furthermore, I will act as I would with any president, in or out of my party: I will support policies that I believe are in the best interest of the country and my state, and oppose those that are not….”
You don’t need a President Trump to enact those policies, and if we’re really being honest, Trump’s ignorance, incompetence, and increasing insanity make it harder for country-club Republicans like Romney and McConnell to get anything done. It’s in their best interest in any case to remove Trump from office as soon as they can, and the fact that in the face of all evidence to the contrary they still make the misguided calculation that any kind of political partnership with Trump will help preserve our “fiscal foundation” (e.g., the deficit and debt have exploded and the stock market is tanking) or acquire whatever the hell other gifts they want to give themselves is arrogance, which in large doses is indistinguishable from stupidity.
Case in point, I can think of no other term for the following conclusion than arrogant stupidity: Romney cites a 2016 Pew Research Center poll that said “84 percent of people in Germany, Britain, France, Canada and Sweden believed the American president would ‘do the right thing in world affairs. One year later, that number had fallen to 16 percent.” What conclusion does Romney draw from this? “Trump’s words and actions have caused dismay around the world.”
That’s not “dismay.” That’s sheer terror. We can’t trust anyone who thinks we’ll buy this kind of soft-core vision of a nation and world that are seriously a few thousand stock market points, a few bullets, or a few more abuses of power from runaway calamity.
So yeah, Romney won’t get into the mud. That might strike you as admirable, but that’s where so many Americans are unfortunately living, and if you want to pull people out you’ve got to get in there. We don’t need lip-service from another one-percenter Republican who distorts reality in hopes that 800 sterile, stolid words will rally Americans to get behind a movement for common decency that we’ve been pushing already for years now—who wants to throw a cautious, deliberate moral parade against the guy he helped get elected and, despite the acknowledged existential threats still sees value in working with.
And we’re still supposed to trust Mitt Romney’s morals? Look, he’s a good enough guy. But don’t mistake propriety for morality here. The leadership we have from the Romneys, Grahams, and Flakes of the world isn’t cause for hope. It’s dangerous because it’s dishonest. When we mistake these people for heroes or guardians of democracy, we’re seeing only what we want. And that’s ultimately the danger: We’re not seeing what they want.