When the final history of the American Empire is written, Mitt Romney, if remembered at all, will be remembered as a coward. He will go down through the ages as a man who would have betrayed his nation in service to an idol.
Yet the best thing that can be said of him is that he was never shrewd enough to lead his people to destruction. If, two hundred years from now, the American Republic is vanished from the globe, it will be mostly thanks to the actions of other men more effective in their quiet revolution: George Bush and the cadre of democratic warmongers who moved his heavy hand; the ever-less-shady cabal of military, media, and government elites that has buried every decent statesman since the end of the Second World War, from Joe McCarthy through Richard Nixon to Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump; the corporate cartels and spineless functionaries who have sold America, bit by bit, to the best and lowest bidder. Romney had the inclination but never the skill to join their highest ranks.
He did try. As chairman of one of the largest private investment firms on the planet, Romney was complicit in the theft of innumerable American jobs, which were resold for profit to the tyrants of the Second and Third Worlds. Like all the offshoring that undid American industry in these decades of decline, Romney’s business was duplicitous and traitorous, but it was all downstream of the operations of real power. Even at his capitalistic peak—long before the embarrassments of 2012 and beyond—Mitt Romney was not a man who could act on history.
Bless his heart, he does not seem to know this. On Wednesday, Romney announced his retirement from the United States Senate—where he slithered in 2018, six years after costing the GOP the White House—professing a desire to pass the torch to a new generation of Republican leadership. McKay Coppins, a Mormon Atlantic staff writer who has been since 2012 the media establishment’s Romney whisperer, took the opportunity to publish an excerpt from his forthcoming biography Romney: A Reckoning.
The picture that emerges from Coppins’s sympathetic treatment is, most of all, the overpowering image of a narcissist. Romney has, of course, been an eager participant through Coppins’s two years of preparation. He wants, desperately, for the definitive book on Mitt Romney to be written; he owes it to America. He has saved all his papers over decades for this moment, and gladly opened the archive to his long-awaited chronicler. He spent hours upon hours, week after week, in conversation with Coppins, sharing not just the details of his life but the ins and outs of his political philosophy—every quote transparently rehearsed. The self-important air of the silver-spoon son of a millionaire governor wafts from every word.
Mitt Romney’s first and final belief is in Mitt Romney. This is why he left his home state of Michigan first to build a fortune, and then to usurp the old populist order of Massachusetts, the historic cradle of American conservatism. It is why, in that first successful campaign, Romney abandoned any pretense of both principle and conservatism, racing his opponent to the left on abortion, homosexuality, and just about everything else besides a promise to cut taxes. It is why, when the Massachusetts Pro-Life Family Association swallowed their pride and endorsed the lesser of two evils, the ostentatiously observant Mormon rebuked the group publicly, as if he was receiving the endorsement of the Klan.
It is why he ran for president of the United States in 2012. It did not matter that Rick Santorum could win half a dozen crucial Rust Belt states where the chairman of Bain Capital would not have a prayer in a general election. (The point would be proven four years later when Donald Trump ran on Santorum’s playbook and flipped Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, along with Iowa and Florida.) It did not matter that he would have to reverse or deny virtually every position he had taken in the previous ten years if he hoped to deceive a Republican electorate, nor that this duplicity would crush his party’s chances in November. It did not matter that, through all of this, he had the gall to call his opponents two-faced. He was Mitt Romney. Quod licet Iovi…
It is why he hopped states yet again to run for the Senate in 2018. Donald Trump seemed on track to revive the old American populist tradition as a viable force in national politics. The son of George Romney could not allow this to happen. He hoped he could remind the Republican Establishment of itself, to inspire other liberals in the party to take a stand against the elected president. If the arrogance wasn’t thick enough already, he quotes Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” In his biography-ready version of events, Romney scribbled this line as the deciding factor on a pro/con list as he determined whether to make the Senate bid.
Senator Romney got his chance to take the spotlight during the first sham impeachment of President Trump in the spring of 2020. It is now public knowledge that Hunter Biden used his father’s position as vice president of the United States to score millions of dollars in international business deals, especially in notoriously corrupt backwaters like Ukraine, and that Vice President Biden himself likely knew about and was complicit in the scheme. Back then, this was just an open secret. The charges were obviously of interest to American voters and taxpayers, not to mention indicative of massive liabilities to national security. Trump, as any reasonable statesman would do, called his Ukrainian counterpart and asked that the concerns be investigated. Not unreasonably, he suggested that $400 million in U.S. taxpayer aid would not be disbursed until the situation was figured out.
This and other efforts to open investigations ran afoul of Oleksandr Semyonovich Vindman, a Ukrainian-born officer in the U.S. Army who was then assigned to the National Security Council. Vindman, his brother Yevgeny, notorious Russia hawk Fiona Hill, and others invested in the foreign affairs apparatus objected that it would be unseemly to investigate the Bidens’ Ukrainian escapades in an election year. Vindman has repeatedly admitted (in not so many words) that his concerns hinged largely on the possibility that investigating the Bidens’ crimes might hinder his efforts to expand the American people’s financial and military patronage of his home country. The one and only priority, he would remind the U.S. Congress in testimony, is “working together to realize the shared vision of a stable, prosperous, and democratic Ukraine that is integrated into the Euro-Atlantic community.”
As Trump and the nation prepared for the 2020 election, the Democrat-controlled House impeached the president for “abuse of power,” plus a bonus charge of “obstruction of Congress.”
The course of action was obvious to everybody else. The Democrats had been looking for any excuse to impeach him since the day he was elected; after three years, what they managed to get him on was flimsy beyond belief. Every Republican would vote against conviction, and the matter would be settled. Everyone except Mitt Romney, that is.
Somewhere in the Constitution’s very brief instruction that “The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments,” Romney found a hidden requirement that Republicans must indulge all Democratic efforts to steamroll any official who runs afoul of the power behind the throne. Romney made clear from that that he would break ranks if the enemy won him over, and that he did not much plan to resist their overtures.
Mitch McConnell tried to talk some sense into him. The Republican leader pointed out what a disaster it would be if the plot to drive the party out of power was successful. The number of babies murdered, children mutilated, dollars wasted in a single day of Democratic government is more than enough to justify extraordinary measures. McConnell cautioned the whole caucus against naivety: There was no impartiality, no fair shake, no legitimate trial. This was a political hit job, and it was the responsibility of every decent Republican to hit back, whatever they thought of the president himself.
Romney only groveled: “If impeachment is a partisan political process, then it might as well be removed from the Constitution.” (It is unclear, in Mitt Romney’s mind, what purpose exactly a Constitution serves.) In the end, he became the only senator in American history to vote for the conviction of a president of his own party.
Still, in Romney’s eyes, it must be everyone else who’s wrong. He was the one man standing in the breach, the paragon of virtue at the end of the republic. It only got worse when a few of his colleagues had the courage to pursue concerns over the integrity of the 2020 election. He has Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz especially in mind. They are not men of principle like Romney. They do not have his right to pass in and out of culpability at will. It was cynical: They “were making a calculation that put politics above the interests of liberal democracy and the Constitution.”
Ha! May the Lord see fit one day to give us a Senate of 100 men with the wisdom and courage to “put politics above the interests of liberal democracy and the Constitution.”
Never mind the glaring contradiction between the two idols—“liberal democracy” and the carefully anti-democratic United States Constitution—that Mitt Romney professes to revere. Politics is the use of power in service of the people; it should be self-evident that this service supersedes all forms, especially one as novel and impractical as “liberal democracy.”
Not for Mitt. He would not be the hero in that story. America cannot be action, people, place; that would ask far too much of him. It must be an idea, so that the passing of a thought from ear to ear will count for honor.
“This is a very fragile thing,” he admits of these democratic dreams. “Authoritarianism is like a gargoyle lurking over the cathedral, ready to pounce.” The senator no doubt has little time for ancient superstitions, but the image he chooses is compelling, unexpected.
The legend of St. Romanus and la Gargouille is likely apocryphal, but like all the tales of medieval hagiography it must contain a large kernel of truth. As the story goes, a great dragon—la Gargouille—had plagued the town of Rouen for four years, killing its people and ravaging its crops. Romanus, a young priest educated at the court of the Frankish king, had just been appointed bishop of Rouen, and arrived to find his see almost completely devastated. The townspeople explained that the dragon, lurking just across the river, would cross to hunt the vulnerable and pillage what he could. Their leaders all were either dead or impotent with fear.
Romanus was a bishop and a nobleman to boot. He understood his duty: to protect his flock, he would slay the dragon. He knew that the Lord would provide, but he asked for one of the surviving townsmen to join him on his mission. (Trust in God, our Mohammedan friends remind us—but tie your camel.) Nobody would come. That a terrible fate at the dragon’s hands was certain if they did not go seems not to have crossed their minds.
In the end, Romanus took the only companion he could find: a man condemned, awaiting execution. His crimes are lost to history, but they likely would have been graver than giving advice on election law. The prisoner—like so many silent figures in the history of salvation, we do not know his name—was offered his life and freedom in the event he survived the journey.
The men approach. The prisoner is terrified. (In some versions he is a courageous volunteer; in others he is conscripted.) When the moment comes, he is astonished at its ease. All Romanus does is to present a cross—in some versions solid gold, in others a movement of his hand on the creature’s head—and the dragon is subdued. He leads him back to Rouen on a makeshift leash, where the townspeople have the captive monster burned.
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There is something strange when the flames subside. The body is gone, but amid the ash the head remains unblemished. Maybe they try again: stoke the fire, pile fuel. Nothing touches it. Soon, Romanus and his just-gained flock understand the miracle. They hoist the unburned head above the entrance of their church. The superstitious among them say the relic will ward off danger. It is gruesome, but it is fitting. The Lord loves to invert symbols: the tree, the cross; flood water and baptismal font.
That is the meaning of the “gargoyle lurking over the cathedral, ready to pounce”—not a threat to the church or those inside (why would a Christian builder put him there?) but a terrible force of nature seized, sanctified, set up as a warning of just vengeance: a sign of the power of heaven. At the very thought Mitt Romney is perturbed. Retirement will suit him; he can do less damage there.
The challenge remains in spite of him; across the river, a dragon stirs.