Much has been written about Romney: A Reckoning, the new biography of Sen. Mitt Romney by McKay Coppins. Romney’s decision to vote twice to impeach President Donald Trump, the first senator in U.S. history to vote to impeach a president of his own party, has rightly been hailed as an act of courage and conscience. His struggles with his fellow Republican senators and subsequent ostracization by them are a sad commentary on the pettiness and spinelessness of the Republican Party. But in reading reviews of the biography, I was especially struck by Romney’s soul-searching with respect to his party’s core identity. How, he wondered, had it surrendered so completely to Trump’s demagoguery, cult of personality, and calls to violence?
“Was the rot on the right new,” Romney asks, “or was it something very old just now bubbling to the surface? And what role had the members of the mainstream establishment—people like him, the reasonable Republicans—played in allowing that rot to fester?” Having pandered to the Republican base in his own failed 2012 presidential campaign against Barack Obama, how culpable was he for what the party would later become?
We’ve all trimmed the truth for advantage and later rationalized it. But, while Romney does bear some responsibility for not helping to curb his party’s excesses, the “rot” started long before him and is now too deep to root out. No party that nominates Donald Trump three consecutive times for president is salvageable. That said, Romney’s second thoughts about his own responsibility struck me as especially revealing, since his own father had been such a staunch opponent of that rot. George Romney, a successful automobile executive, was the Republican governor of Michigan when the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. Romney was a strong supporter of the civil-rights bill that Congress had recently passed—and that Goldwater had voted against. At the Republican convention in San Francisco’s Cow Palace, Romney senior spoke in defense of civil rights, much to the annoyance of what was a notoriously aggrieved and hostile assembly of delegates. “He had his own special amendments [to the party platform],” wrote the novelist Norman Mailer, who covered the convention for Esquire magazine. “He was a moderation of the moderates. As he spoke, he looked like a handsome version of Boris Karloff, all honesty, big-jawed, soft-eyed, eighty days at sea on a cockeyed passion.” Romney refused to endorse Goldwater, who had hinted he might use tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam, and who famously galvanized his fervent right-wing supporters in his acceptance speech by proclaiming that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice…. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” A “hatred of civil rights” animated the crowd, Mailer wrote.
Rereading Mailer’s account of the Republican convention today, one cannot help concluding that the authoritarian impulses Trump and his supporters are now displaying are a vital part of the party’s DNA. The continuities are startling and frightening. Mailer describes with a brilliant, sometimes outlandish use of metaphor how Goldwater’s true believers looked and acted. Think of the Republican caucus as it ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy. As Goldwater makes his way through a crowd outside his hotel, Mailer observes a middle-aged woman stop her car in the middle of the street, get out, and shouts “We’re going to get the country back!” Back from whom? In Mailer’s telling, Goldwater’s followers hated the Eastern Establishment, represented by New York’s liberal Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller, the original “RINO.” The ancestors of Goldwater’s legions, Mailer contends, had “won the country, and now they were losing it to the immigrants who had come after and the descendants of slaves.… This time Main Street was going to take Wall Street.” Sound familiar?
Workers for Goldwater, like the January 6 insurrectionists who responded to Trump’s call to “go to the Capitol,” were “full of moral indignation and moral vacuity…. One desire came off of them. They would not be happy if there were no orders to follow.” Let’s not forget that, when asked why they stormed the Capitol, most of the rioters said they were there because Trump had summoned them.
“It was a convention murderous in mood. The mood of this convention spoke of a new kind of society. Chimeras of fascism hung like fogbank,” Mailer wrote of delegates who threatened newspaper and television reporters. Few reporters would venture onto the floor of the convention for fear of their safety. “This was a party not much ‘of the people’ but very much ‘for the people,’ it presumed to know what was good for them.”
Mitt Romney was a teenager when his father spoke at the 1964 Republican convention, but one assumes his father’s opposition to Goldwater and everything he stood for helped to shape his own political version of a “moderation of the moderates.” Mitt Romney was, after all, a fairly liberal governor of Massachusetts. Presumably, he understood Ronald Reagan to be a more responsible conservative than Goldwater, and thereby a surer measure of his party’s true identity—an alternative to the rot. But Reagan was no moderate; he was only a more congenial version of a Goldwater conservative, a showman perfectly happy to exploit racial and economic divisions while exaggerating the threat posed by the Soviet Union. It was Reagan who kicked off his own 1980 campaign for the presidency in Neshoba, Mississippi, where three civil-rights workers were murdered by the KKK in 1964.
In short, the “rot” Romney has recently confronted has been there for a long time. No one understands that better than Trump. As he keeps promising, he’s going to take back the country. As he keeps boasting, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes. This time, his presidency would be about “retribution.” Remember, extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. But retribution for what? Mailer observed that the passion and loyalty Goldwater inspired “would strike a spark in many dry souls for he offered a release to frustrations deeper than politics.” Who can doubt that Trump offers Americans the same impossible salvation? “Part of Goldwater’s deal—he brought you back to the bright minted certitudes of early patriotism when you knew the U.S. was the best country on earth and there was no other,” Mailer wrote. “Yes, his appeal would go out to all the millions who were now starved and a little sour because some part of their life had ended in high school.”
In his prescient essay for Esquire, Mailer was careful to concede that liberalism had its own tendency to abuse power in pursuit of its vision of progress and justice. But in the end, he thought Goldwater’s politics were a “swindle,” an “extinction of the best in Conservative thought.” Mailer makes a point of quoting Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France throughout his piece. As one observes Trump and the contemporary Republican Party, a party of radical election-deniers and violent bigots, it’s sobering to read Burke’s rebuke to proponents of a scorched-earth politics. “They should not think it amongst their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of a habitation.”