June 7, 2024 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Romney kisses Trump’s ass. That’s what Republicans do

Trump has hacked GOP partisanship, writes Noah Berlatsky.

2011 file photo Wikimedia Commons.
2011 file photo Wikimedia Commons.

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Editor’s note: The following, which is for Editorial Board subscribers only, first appeared in Everything Is Horrible, Noah’s newsletter. –JS

Utah Senator Mitt Romney has been one of Trump’s most vocal GOP critics. He voted to convict Trump in his impeachment trial following the January 6 coup attempt. Since then, he’s called Trump a “demagogue” and a “whack job,” among other epithets. He’s made it clear that he thinks Trump is a danger to the Republican Party, a danger to the republic and a man who should never serve as president again.

So you’d think that Romney would be celebrating Trump’s conviction on 34 counts of falsifying business records, right? Romney thinks Trump is horrible. Here, he has been held accountable for one aspect of his horrifyingness. Three cheers from Romney!

Ha ha no.

Romney blames Biden for kowtowing to Trump
Instead of celebrating, Romney’s been wandering onto cable news sets and blustering about how the real problem here is not Trump’s criminality, but Biden refusing to tamper in the justice system to let the great orange asshole off the hook.

“If LBJ had been president, and he didn’t want something like this to happen, he’d have been all over that prosecutor saying, ‘You better not bring that forward or I’m gonna drive you out of office,’” Romney declared, arguing that Biden should have violated judicial independence and the principles of federalism to threaten a New York state prosecutor.

Romney then argued that Biden should have pardoned Trump for all federal charges, including charges for mishandling of top-secret documents and charges for masterminding a coup to overturn the election.

“You may disagree with this,” Romney said, perhaps dimly realizing that he sounded like a fook, “but had I been President Biden, when the Justice Department brought on indictments, I would have immediately pardoned him. I’d have pardoned President Trump. Why? Well, because it makes me, President Biden, the big guy and the person I pardoned a little guy.”

Of course, it wouldn’t have looked like Biden was the big guy. It would have looked like Biden was a corrupt shithead who thinks the powerful should be above the law and is unwilling to fight fascism. It would have been a massive rebuke to Democratic partisans who want champions to fight fascists. Biden’s approval is low enough, but the one thing that could push it much lower is pardoning Donald Trump.

You don’t need to be a particularly perspicacious political observer to know that pardoning the guy who tried to overthrow the Constitution would be a bad idea. Romney, as he says, has been in politics for many years. He seems at other moments to understand the threat Trump poses. Why would he recommend that Biden do something so obviously foolish, corrupt and horrible?

Romney dons the red tie of shame
It’s telling that in the same interview, Romney talked about how the trial had been embarrassing for Republicans. Referencing the numerous GOP pols who had rushed to defend Trump in person in New York at the trial, Romney said, “I think it’s also demeaning for people to quite apparently try and run for vice president by donning a red tie and standing outside the courthouse. It’s just — I’d have felt awkward.”

Romney would have had the grace to feel awkward about going to the courthouse to defend Trump. But I think, reading between the lines, it’s clear that he also feels awkward watching the Republicans debase themselves. He’s a Republican; he identifies with Republicans. He dislikes feeling that his party is composed of ridiculous sycophants, bounders and cringing toadies.

There’s cognitive dissonance there. Romney is a Republican and identifies with Republicans. Republicans are embarrassing themselves, which means Romney is embarrassed. How do you resolve that embarrassment?

One way would be to say, “Holy fuck, the GOP sucks. I’m getting out of this fascist dead end of a party.”

But Romney’s entire identity for decades has been built on being a Republican. Jettisoning that would come at enormous cost, both personally and professionally.

There is another option, though. Romney finds it embarrassing to identify with the GOP. But partisanship has two handles. It’s not just boosting your own party. It’s also attacking the other guys. Romney finds himself unable to praise his colleagues. But he can still attack the enemies of those colleagues, and so find himself (tenuously, but still) on the right side of his own identity again.

And so, he ties himself into knots to find some way to blame Biden for the fact that (a) Trump broke the law, and (b) the rest of the Republican Party has debased itself to defend Trump. The fact that Romney himself has debased himself — that he is, in fact, awkwardly donning a red tie to stand outside the courthouse and defend Trump — doesn’t occur to him, because the whole point of the exercise is to enable him to defend Trump, and be on the right side, without admitting to himself that that is what he’s doing.

The lure of GOP partisanship
Romney says he would feel awkward debasing himself, and then rushes to debase himself. It seems bizarre that anyone would do that. But it’s not bizarre. It’s partisanship.

Partisanship is the single most powerful force in politics. People identify strongly with their party (or sometimes against a party) and that determines how they vote and who they root for. More, partisanship is so powerful is often distorts people’s ability to assess reality and their own experiences.

Partisanship powerfully affects how people assess the economy, for example. When a Republican is in power, Republicans will almost always say that the economy is good; when a Democrat is in power, Republicans will almost always say the economy is bad. This is irrespective of economic indicators. (Democrats are affected by partisanship, too — though they are significantly less disconnected from reality than Republicans in evaluating the economy, according to a 2023 analysis.)

The GOP, locked in a rightwing media bubble, are more and more hyperpartisan. Donald Trump, the leader of the Republican Party, keeps doing more and more horrific and embarrassing shit. Republicans — even Republicans who don’t like Trump — are under intense psychological and communal pressure to try to find some way to be on the right side, no matter what Trump does. That’s why even supposedly rightwing anti-Trump Republicans like Romney will reach for virtually any anti-Biden talking point like a drowning man clutching a life raft.

Except, in this case, of course, Romney is drowning not in water, but in bullshit, and the life raft is an anvil, taking him where he wishes to go — the bottom.

The media dons the red tie
This dynamic doesn’t just affect Republicans. The supposedly neutral media tries to model itself on figures like Romney — supposedly good-faith centrists, who articulate conservative views while forswearing the excesses of Trumpism. But people like Romney and Maine Senator Susan Collins are extremely eager to shore up their Republican bona fides by saying ridiculous pro-Trump, or at least anti-Biden, shit.

There’s a kind of partisanship of centrism, too, and so when important Centrist Thought Leaders like Romney say that Biden should have abused his authority to protect Trump — well, other Very Important Thinkers like say, Megan McArdle, will start to babble about “motivated prosecutions” to keep their both sides cred.

So, what’s to be done? Here, I think Romney actually has the right idea. He pointed out that those supporting Trump demeaned themselves, and he (mildly) mocked the way they all dressed in the same attire and looked ridiculous.

So when Romney goes ahead and demeans himself in the same way, we should all feel free to mock him (and not mildly.) Romney looked around for approval, vomited in his hat and then pulled that hat down low over his head so he could marinate in his own smelly effluvia. McArdle and many others did the same thing. We should laugh and point. Then we should go back to calling for Trump to resign his nomination and to stop embarrassing himself and the country.

Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.

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