How was your weekend? If your name is Mitt Romney, the answer is “not so great”. The Utah senator appeared at his state’s Republican convention on Saturday to speak to the crowd – or attempt to do so before he was loudly booed by Trump loyalists.
Romney, who was very much on the “give Trump a chance” side in late 2016, tried to tell the crowd how much he now dislikes the former president. “You know me as a person who says what he thinks,” he said, in an apparent – and, it soon turned out, ill-fated – attempt to gather some of the sympathy society reserves to straight talkers. “And I don’t hide the fact that I wasn’t a fan of our last president’s character issues. And I’m also no fan–” Here, Romney paused as the chorus of jeers escalated. “Aren’t you embarrassed?” he asked, somewhat bewildered, before attempting to pick up where he left off with a safer jab at Biden: “And I’m also no fan of the president’s...”
Derek Brown, the state party chair, stepped in at this point to ask the crowd to “show respect”. His admonishment prompted cheers and claps, and Romney was able to finish his speech, but from a PR perspective, it was too late. Now, it’s difficult to recall much at all from Romney’s address other than the loud boos, his awkward silences in response, and his pained smiles.
It’s not entirely surprising for Romney to be walking a tightrope within his own party. He was the only Republican to vote twice to impeach Donald Trump, even as most GOP figures let the former president get away with – well, you know, just about anything. And Romney’s relationship with Trump has run a wide gamut: prior to the 2016 election, Romney (himself the 2012 Republican presidential nominee) readily condemned the then-presidential candidate as a “phony” and a “fraud”. Eight months later, he was sitting down with Trump for dinner at Jean Georges, an upscale restaurant located inside Trump’s International Hotel overlooking Central Park.
That dinner was immortalised in a photo that can only be described as Faustian. It’s one of those images that reveals its full meaning in hindsight. Everything in its composition is remarkably foreboding: the light hitting Trump’s face from below, “spooky campfire story” style; Trump’s own cat-got-the-cream grin (except the cream is the most powerful political office in the world); Romney’s supremely uncomfortable posture, and a tight smile that seems to confirm that his sense of self-respect is, in fact, the main item on the menu.
Look at the photo of Romney uncomfortably resting his hands on each side of his Michelin-starred dinner and you, too, will feel it: It was the moment when it happened. It was the moment a rift opened, and the Fates decided that Romney’s rapport with Trump was a battle he would never win. After the meal, he assured reporters he felt “increasing hope” about Trump’s potential as a president. Those hopes, of course, have been dashed. Romney, either out of personal principle or political strategy or a mix of both, rescinded his brief moment of loyalty to Trump, and now he’s getting booed for it.
To be clear, I have no interest in defending Romney against the scornful crowd. Romney and I disagree on just about anything. As someone with a uterus, I would very much like to be able to get an abortion should I ever need one, and Romney, per his own website, “[opposes] abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother, and [supports] longstanding federal prohibitions on taxpayer funding for abortion”.
For those reasons, the video of Romney getting booed is complicated to unpack: It feels like someone getting his comeuppance, but from the wrong people, and for the wrong reasons. Don’t boo the man for saying (possibly too late) that he disagrees with Trump! Boo him because he legitimized Trump in the first place. Boo him for refusing to accept a woman’s bodily autonomy. Or even better, and in the words of one President Barack Obama: “Don’t boo. Vote.”
Schadenfreude aside, the clip of Romney’s address is interesting to watch because it encapsulates so many of the opposing forces currently at play in the GOP. Joe Biden has been in the White House for almost four months, and the Republican Party has yet to find a clear sense of how it wants to handle this post-Trump phase. It doesn’t know what it wants to be, and certainly not what it wants to stand for. And so it puts speakers such as Mitt Romney, the ultimate never-Trumper Republican, in front of crowds who readily and loudly condemn him.
This isn’t even a new refrain. Back in January, Romney was heckled and called a traitor by Trump supporters on a flight to Washington DC. The schism has only deepened in the months since. A new Lincoln Project ad seeks to make a mockery of Trump’s former “drain the swamp” theme, proclaiming that “the swamp won, Donald” and that Trump himself has been “played” by establishment Republicans.
To all this, it’s tempting to ask: What did you all think was going to happen? No, really, what was the plan? I’m no leader, but even I can intuit that if you spend years pushing someone whom most people within your ranks can barely bring themselves to stomach, it doesn’t bode well for the future.
Watching that video of Romney, and considering the overall state of the GOP right now, is like watching someone grunt their way through an utterly predictable hungover. Listen, you might want to say, I know headaches suck, but no one forced you to do all these shots. Now get yourself some electrolytes and a greasy breakfast sandwich, go sit in the dark, and think about what you’ve done.
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