Does Mitt Romney deserve praise for criticizing Donald Trump?

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By Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The spineless jelly fish rears its ugly head again… and we all salute as we always do

Obviously, this cartoon is a metaphor for Trump. Saturday Night Live produced a skit featuring Alec Baldwin telling working class voters how he, as Trump, was going to screw them over. Upon hearing this, the supposed working class voters thanked him.

Trump ran as a populist focused on helping the working class. Instead, he has turned into an oligarchist, completely focused on his own enrichment, and caring little for the plight of working people.

Much political commentary since the election has focused on why these working class people voted for and continue to support someone who is so clearly uninterested in their needs. The New Yorker cartoon captured at least part of the reason: people are looking for authenticity in their politicians.

This is the same reason young people were so attracted to a 74-year old Brooklyn socialist representing Vermont in the U.S. Senate as an independent. He seemed to say it like it is, unfiltered, just as Trump does. That’s part of the reason that Trump’s most outrageous statements don’t bother many of his supporters. Even if they disagree with him, at least he tells them what he’s thinking.

This thirst for authenticity is based upon the approach most politicians take. Their goal is to offend as few people as possible, and the best way to accomplish that goal is to say nothing controversial. In fact, politicians are trained to answer questions from reporters without actually answering the question. In the short run, that might protect the individual politician from criticism. But in the long run, it creates frustration among the voters.

This frustration is compounded when voters feel that the politicians are not representing them in the first place. Many middle class voters, facing years of stagnant real wages and declining opportunity have a sense that the politicians who have been promising relief have not delivered. These politicians seem to say nothing that offends them, but nothing changes. At least if a politician isn’t going to help them, let him be honest about it, so the logic goes.

Since Tuesday, when the Washington Post published an editorial written by former Massachusetts governor, former GOP Presidential candidate, and current junior Senator from Utah Mitt Romney criticizing Trump for his bad character, Twitter has been ablaze. Trump’s critics have praised Romney, calling him a person of principle. Trump’s supporters have savaged him, attacking him as disloyal to the party. Ironically, both sides have argued that Romney is the antithesis to Trump, but Trump’s critics see that as praise for Romney while MAGAers see that as a censure.

One of the most interesting subplots of this little drama has involved Romney’s niece, Ronna Romney McDaniel, who as Chairperson of the national Republican party dropped the Romney part of her name. She specifically called out her uncle for attacking Trump. Response on Twitter has criticized her for putting party before family. But isn’t that a sexist statement in and of itself? Why isn’t Romney being criticized for putting his niece’s job in jeopardy? Is it because as a man Romney has a right to a job while as a woman McDaniel does not? Feminist commentators should consider this before they wade into this debate.

Anyway, neither side should be surprised by Romney’s latest maneuver. I remember when I was practicing law, one of my most right-wing clients told me about how he was despairing at the choices among Republican candidates in the 2012 primary. Of course he believed that none of the candidates were true conservatives, except for… Romney. Since he was my client, I held my tongue, but I was taken aback that this one-time moderate governor of Massachusetts, who had advocated for and passed the model for Obamacare during his tenure there, and who had painted himself as a moderate on abortion, had somehow convinced rock-ribbed right-wingers that he was a far-right conservative.

Since then, Romney has only continued to prove to me his lack of any real ideological commitment. He criticized Trump during the 2016 Presidential campaign, helping lead the never-Trumpers. Then, after the election, he publicly dined with Trump as he lobbied unsuccessfully to be appointed Secretary of State. Then, as a candidate for U.S. Senate in Utah in 2018, he welcomed Trump’s support, only to attack him in this oped! Will the real Mitt Romney please stand up?

For those of us who believe that your politics is related to your morality, as I do, we find such ideological flexibility deeply disturbing. People’s lives are at stake, we say, and such ease of shifting positions points to a lack of moral center.

Romney, for his part, seems not to understand the problem. He has always put career before politics, both literally and figuratively. In fact, before he followed in his father’s footsteps and ran for office, he went to work in finance and built himself a fortune. He is clearly an intelligent, competent person. But in politics, that alone is not enough. You must stand for something too.

So in some respects, the critics and supporters of Trump both have it right. Romney is the anti-Trump, but not in the sense that any of them mean it. Romney stands for nothing, while Trump, much as I despise him and what he stands for, he does stand for something. I expect that when the winds change, Romney will change his position again, just as he always has. Some might say that this is an improvement over Trump, and it might well be, but personally, I wouldn’t support either of them. And the unfortunate truth is that the self-serving vacuity of Romney helped pave the way for the successful bull in the china shop approach of Trump.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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