The End of Pretenses

The Atlantic – Daily

The End of Pretenses

Tom Nichols, Staff Writer – September 14, 2023

Our excerpt from a forthcoming biography of Mitt Romney has many people talking about the Utah senator’s principles and character, but we should be deeply alarmed by Romney’s warning about the Republican Party.
The End of PretensesMitt Romney(Charles Ommanney / Getty)

My colleague McKay Coppins has spent two years talking with Mitt Romney, the Utah senator, former Massachusetts governor, and 2012 Republican presidential nominee. An excerpt from McKay’s forthcoming book confirmed the news that Romney has had enough of the hypocrisy and weakness of the Republican Party and will be leaving the Senate when his term expires; other stunning moments from their conversations include multiple profiles in pusillanimity among Romney’s fellow Republicans. (I am pleased to know that Senator Romney holds as low an opinion of J. D. Vance as I do; “I don’t know that I can disrespect someone more,” he told McKay.)

But I want to move away from the discussion about Romney himself and focus on something he said that too many people have overlooked.“Some nights he vented,” Coppins wrote of their conversations; “other nights he dished.” And then came a quiet acknowledgement that should still be shocking, even after seven years of unhinged right-wing American populism:“A very large portion of my party,” [Romney] told me one day, “really doesn’t believe in the Constitution.” He’d realized this only recently, he said. We were a few months removed from an attempted coup instigated by Republican leaders, and he was wrestling with some difficult questions. Was the authoritarian element of the GOP a product of President Trump, or had it always been there, just waiting to be activated by a sufficiently shameless demagogue? And what role had the members of the mainstream establishment—­people like him, the reasonable Republicans—played in allowing the rot on the right to fester?

I think every decent Republican has wondered the same thing. (The indecent ones have also wondered about it, but as Romney now accepts, people like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz have figured out that playing to the rot in the GOP base is a core skill set that helps them stay in Washington and far away from their constituents back home.)

But enough about the hollow men of the GOP. Think about what Romney is saying: “Millions of American citizens no longer believe in the Constitution of the United States of America.” This is not some pedestrian political observation, some throwaway line about partisan division. Leave aside for the moment that Romney is talking about Republicans and the hangers-on in the Trump movement; they are also your fellow Americans, citizens of a nation that was, until recently, one of the most durable democracies on Earth. And they no longer care about the fundamental document that governs our lives as Americans.

If Republicans no longer care about the Constitution, then they no longer care about the rule of law, secular tolerance, fair elections, or the protection of basic human rights. They have no interest in the stewardship of American democracy, nor will they preserve our constitutional legacy for their children. Instead, they seek to commandeer the ship of state, pillage the hold, and then crash us all onto the rocks.

It would be a relief to find out that some of this is about policy, but for many of the enemies of the Constitution among the new right, policy is irrelevant. (One exception, I suspect, might be the people who, if faced with a choice between a total ban on abortion and the survival of the Constitution, would choose theocracy over democracy; we’d all be better off if they would just admit it.)

The people Romney is worried about are not policy wonks. They’re opportunists, rage-junkies, and nihilists who couldn’t care less about policy. (Romney describes one woman in Utah bellowing at him, red-faced and lost in a mist of fury while her child stood nearby, to the point where he asked her, “Aren’t you embarrassed?” She was not.) What they want is to win, to enjoy the spoils and trappings of power, and to anger and punish people they hate.

There is no way to contend, in a rational or civic way, with this combination of white-hot resentment and ice-cold cynicism. Romney describes multiple incidents in which his colleagues came to him and said, You’re right, Mitt. I wish I could say what you say. I wish we could stop this nightmare. And then all of them belly right back up to the table in the Senate Dining Room and go on pandering to people who—it bears repeating—no longer care about the Constitution.

This is the seedbed of authoritarianism, and it is already full of fresh green shoots. And yes, at some point, if someone is clever enough to forge a strong and organized party out of this disjointed movement, it can become a new fascism. So far, we should be grateful that Donald Trump and those who surround him have all been too selfish and too incompetent to turn their avarice into a coherent mass movement.

If you’ve ever served in the military or as a civilian in the U.S. government, you’ve taken the oath that requires you, above all—so help you God—to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” Romney is warning us that many of his Republican colleagues and much of their base will do no such thing. They would rather turn their personal misery and resentment into mindless political destruction—even to the point of shredding one of humanity’s greatest political documents.

I have written before that we can no longer indulge Republicans and their various media enablers in the fantasies that Trump is a normal candidate, that we are heading into a normal election, that the Republican Party is a normal party (or, indeed, a political party at all). How we each defend the Constitution is an individual choice, but let us at least have no pretenses, even in our daily discussions, that we live in normal times and that 2024 is just another political horse race. Everything we believe in as Americans is at stake now, and no matter what anyone thinks of Mitt Romney, we owe him a debt for saying out loud what so many Republican “leaders” fear even to whisper.

Author: John Hanno

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Bogan High School. Worked in Alaska after the earthquake. Joined U.S. Army at 17. Sergeant, B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 84th Artillery, 7th Army. Member of 12 different unions, including 4 different locals of the I.B.E.W. Worked for fortune 50, 100 and 200 companies as an industrial electrician, electrical/electronic technician.