He has tried to be reasonable, tried to be patient. But Mitt Romney, with an earnest sigh, says he’s arrived reluctantly at a moment of unavoidable judgment: Donald Trump has bad character.
Disrespectful. Divisive. Erratic. Yuck.
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Romney’s Washington Post commentary denouncing Trump—published just a day before he takes the oath as a new U.S. senator—was presumably intended as an act of political and moral leadership. Perhaps in due course events will reveal Romney as the vanguard of a new willingness by Republican traditionalists to confront and defeat a president who so flagrantly offends their values.
For now, however, Romney and his op-ed are better understood as a case study in why Trump has defied and humiliated GOP establishment figures again and again, a pattern now in its fourth year. Trump’s critics consistently show more interest in attacking his weaknesses than they do in understanding their own. And while they congratulate themselves on their differences with Trump, he is exploiting their similarities.
For all that Romney’s op-ed is being portrayed as a frontal attack on Trump—“Trump’s character falls short,” the headline read—the piece itself touched only obliquely on what Romney finds offensive about Trump and did not offer concrete examples of his deficiencies as the 2012 presidential nominee sees them.
But there was no missing what Romney thinks: Far beyond specific policy debates, Trump is simply a rotten apple, and on important questions of values and leadership style they could not be more different. That’s one way to look at it.
Here’s another way: Beneath stark stylistic differences, as politicians they are more similar than Romney would ever wish to admit.
At important junctures of his public career Romney—like many or perhaps most politicians—has revealed himself as a supremely transactional figure, flexible in altering his words and his positions to align with self-interest as the occasion demands. If Trump is the more transactional figure—boasting about his deal-making savvy rather than trying to defend his gyrations as rooted in some higher morality—this is only a difference in degree, not a difference in kind.
Once the debate leaves the field of principle and moves to the field of results, there is no denying which of the two transactional figures is better at the game. Thus Trump’s rejoinder Wednesday: “I won big, and he didn’t.”
Well might Romney recoil at a comparison between him and Trump. The former Massachusetts governor has been prominent in national life for a quarter-century, and rarely during that time have people who know Romney raised their voices to say that—on personal matters—the reality of his life is different than his Boy Scout image. Who has reason to doubt that he is not a devoted husband and father, a caring friend and neighbor, that he keeps his word with business associates?
But in his public career Romney has shown a willingness to do what needs to be done—a willingness to subordinate principle to self-interest that is the essence of one familiar Trump critique. Trump was in favor of abortion rights before he opposed them. So was Romney, as he moved from running for office in liberal Massachusetts to establishing his conservative bona fides with national Republicans. He ran for president in 2008 boasting of passing something very similar to Obamacare in Massachusetts, then ran for president in 2012 assailing Obamacare. In all his campaigns Romney has emphasized his record of professional achievement and business success more than his ideological consistency—a pattern that has also marked Trump’s rise to the presidency.
Romney has been similarly itinerant in his language on Trump. He accepted the New Yorker’s endorsement in 2012. Then in 2016 he said on Twitter, “I would NOT have accepted his endorsement” if Trump said then, “the things he says today about the KKK, Muslims, Mexicans, disabled.” He called him “a phony, a fraud.” Then, after Trump’s election, Romney praised his “message of inclusion” and signaled that he might be willing to serve as Trump’s secretary of state. Then, this year, in his race for Senate in Utah, he accepted Trump’s endorsement. Yet in the Washington Post on Wednesday he bemoaned Trump’s treatment of allies and the parade of senior officials out of his administration and concluded, “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.”
Trump seems to have sized up Romney well. His assessment of his would-be adversary is little different than his assessment of former Speaker Paul Ryan or his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney (both of whom issued sharp criticism of Trump in the 2016 campaign, before stepping into line for his administration) or Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), or virtually any of dozens of prominent GOP pols who turned from Trump critics to cheerleaders. That interpretation seems to be that virtually any word from them—criticism today, praise tomorrow—is driven less by conviction than self-interest, and if he is president because he is more effective at pursuing self-interest than they are.
Because Trump typically presents his situational ethics as a selling point rather than liability—sure, he once donated to Hillary Clinton, it was good for his business—people seem less surprised by his own inconsistencies. In fact, Trump has zigged and zagged in his views of Romney as much as Romney has in his views of Trump.
“Congratulations to Mitt Romney. He was not only good, he was absolutely fantastic tonight!” Trump tweeted after the first general election debate in 2012. In 2015 he called him “a choker” on Fox News. And in 2016 he tweeted, “Mitt Romney, who was one of the dumbest and worst candidates in history of Republican politics, is now pushing me on tax returns. Dope!” Also: “a mixed up man who doesn’t have a clue.” Then, after Romney won the GOP nomination for a Utah Senate seat in 2018, Trump tweeted his “Congratulations!….A good and loving family will be coming to D.C.”
Even Trump’s barbed response Wednesday seemed to hint at the possibility that mutual self-interest might bring him closer to Romney once again. “I wish Mitt could be more of a team player. I endorsed him and he thanked me profusely,” Trump told reporters at the White House. And lo, only hours later, Romney was telling CNN’s Jake Tapper that he agreed with Trump about the need to keep the government closed until Democrats cough up more money for the president’s wall.
Trump’s explicitly and proudly transactional view of politics—compared to his rivals’ implicitly and self-ashamedly transactional view of politics—in some ways recalls the old joke about a man and a woman discussing whether she would agree to spend the night with him.
In the old chestnut (sometimes but apparently wrongly attributed to a variety of eminences including Winston Churchill and Groucho Marx), a woman says she would sleep with the man for a huge sum of money. When he then suggests a paltry offer, she responds indignantly, “What kind of woman do you think I am?” His response: “We’ve already established that. Now we are just haggling over price.”
Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna contributed to this report.