How Mitt Romney Reckoned With His Own Complicity in Trump’s Rise newsbhunt

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“Well,” Coppins said, invoking the Trump-incited riots, “after January 6, you told me you were very concerned about the fragility of democracy. Are you still concerned about it?”

Romney acknowledged he was — because of Trump, because of Trump’s “Big Lie” — “but I don’t know how widespread that is,” he said. “I’m not at the point of moral panic,” he added. “I do think that people fundamentally don’t want to be dishonest and acknowledge to themselves that they’re a dishonest person, that they’ve lied, and that they’ve thwarted democracy.”

This moment does not appear in Coppins’ biography of Romney, which is just out today. I know about it because of a handful of recent conversations I had with Coppins about the highly unusual, often clandestine conversation the two men had in more than 45 interviews over the course of more than two years. Romney: A Reckoning is filled with fun fodder for publication-day hype: unvarnished and unflattering assessments by Romney of many of the most prominent Republicans alive. But the book’s most meaningful contribution to what remains of civic discourse is the uncommonly intimate glimpse it offers of a man in elected office engaged in a hard grappling with the reality and consequences of Trump’s rise, the country’s (and in particular his party’s) increasingly antidemocratic, even authoritarian bent, and ultimately the complicated question of his own complicity.

Getting an answer to that last question required Coppins on numerous occasions to press Romney in ways he did not always like, to connect dots Romney did not always see as connected — to ultimately force him to recognize the rationalizations he had made in his career, the junctures at which he might have sacrificed his principles amidst his quest for power.

That night in Romney’s office was one of those moments.

Behind Coppins on the wall was a Rand McNally “histomap,” charting the rise and fall of the world’s leading civilizations through some 4,000 years of history, the key to the falls frequently meant the emergence of tyrants. “A man gets some people around him and begins to oppress and dominate others,” Romney told Coppins the first time he showed him the map. America’s experiment in self-rule “is fighting against human nature,” he said. “Authoritarianism,” he explained, “is like a gargoyle lurking over the cathedral, ready to pounce.” Was Romney, literally looking at a graphic depiction of a reason for democracies’ destruction, soft-pedaling the present danger?

“I see what you’re saying,” Coppins told him. “Nobody wants to think of themselves as a thief or a liar or whatever, but the conditions of the partisan media landscape are such that you don’t have to believe that you’re a liar. You can decide to believe in these various conspiracy theories or say, ‘Well, I’m only doing this because the other side does it,’ or, ‘What I’m doing is only correcting the corruption of the other side.’”

Romney, Coppins recalled, sat back in his chair, sort of slumped — “almost like a psychic sigh.”

“I don’t disagree with you,” Romney told Coppins. “I am concerned.”

It started in church.

Coppins on June 13, 2021, was sitting in adult Sunday school in the gym of his Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints in Oakton, Va., when he received an unexpected text message from Romney. Coppins had launched the work for the book, and Romney was a willing participant in the project. “Thought this might set the stage for our chat,” the text message from Romney said.

In Coppins’ email inbox was an attachment to Romney’s private journal running from right after his loss in the 2012 presidential campaign through the tumultuous election of 2016 — the first, it turned out, of tranches of personal documents Romney offered up. Coppins couldn’t help but start reading. “… probably should note my own feelings now that I am in the air and have a few minutes to write. Disappointed is the best word. Not angry, not despondent, maybe a little numb …” They had had a general conversation about papers or notes he might like to show or share, but Romney during his career had been known for control more than candor, and Coppins at that early stage of the work hadn’t yet thought to even specifically ask for this. “My immediate reaction was, ‘Oh, he’s entering into this in good faith,’” Coppins told me. “It showed me he was taking this seriously.”

There are different ways to take in this book. It’s an astonishing, nearly unprecedented catalog of intraparty critique. Steadily more depressing the deeper one reads, it’s a reminder of the grave current state of the republic. But it’s also, and maybe all the more importantly, a deft study of the capacity for rationalization — in this case an accounting of the chronology of Romney’s rationalizations in the business world at Bain Capital as (depending on somebody’s perspective) either a “blue-chip corporate turnaround artist” or “ruthless plutocrat who profited from destroying livelihoods,” as a political candidate starting in Massachusetts, as a presidential candidate starting in 2008, as a smart, sober, logical, capable, coherent, hyper-prepared person attempting to navigate this American era dominated by a figure he considered from the start if not outright odious then obviously absurd.

“Romney discovered,” Coppins writes, “a remarkable ability to justify his choices to himself.”

“I have learned through my life experience,” Romney told Coppins, “that it’s human to rationalize what’s in our best interest.”

In business? People had to be fired because he and Bain had a fiduciary responsibility to their investors. These companies, after all, already weren’t doing well. And in politics? Making nice with people he didn’t really like? Saying stuff he didn’t totally believe? “You say things that make the audience respond positively,” he told Coppins. “I admit it.”

In 2012, for instance, Romney agreed to accept the endorsement of Trump — at Trump’s insistence at Trump’s hotel in Las Vegas — because he calculated it would help him beat Barack Obama. And to do that, he needed not just Romney Republicans, of course, but also Donald Trump fans. Some of his advisers — even Nancy Reagan — told him to steer clear. “Romney was quick to rationalize keeping Trump inside the tent,” Coppins writes. “Alienating a guy with a massive bullhorn and a habit of holding grudges seemed risky. And while, yes, Trump was clearly ridiculous and vapid and filled with outlandish ideas, Obama had accepted endorsements and checks from every dolt and crackpot in Hollywood, from Kanye West to Lena Dunham to Adam Levine — why couldn’t Romney have his own silly celebrity surrogate? But the truth, which surprised even Romney himself, was that he liked Trump. Or at least, he liked having him around. Trump was funny and outrageous and talking to him broke up the monotony of the campaign trail.”

As for the insidious, racist and Trump-led “birther” smear? Romney “did not see” that having “a racial arc to it,” he told Coppins. “And perhaps I’m not as sensitive in that regard as I should be.”

Also: “I need to get to 50.1 percent or more,” Romney told reporters at the time.

By 2016, having lost and owing Trump nothing, Romney was freer to offer his true thoughts about the shocking presidential hopeful. Romney, in Coppins’ telling, considered Trump a “buffoon,” an “unabashed demagogue,” a “manifestly unqualified madman” and a “profoundly depraved and broken person whose election would coarsen America’s culture.” His “number one priority” was to stop him. When Chris Christie became arguably the first major establishment Republican to endorse Trump, Romney sent Christie an email: “He is unquestionably mentally unstable, and he is racist, bigoted, misogynistic, xenophobic, vulgar and prone to violence. There is simply no rational argument that could lead me to vote for someone with those characteristics. I believe your endorsement of him severely diminishes you morally — though probably not politically — and that you must withdraw that support to preserve your integrity and character.” When Reince Priebus, then the chair of the Republican National Committee, called Romney to urge him to endorse Trump, Romney laughed and called Trump “nuts.”

Yet in the end, Romney met with Trump after he was elected, first at Trump’s Bedminster club in New Jersey, then at the restaurant Jean-Georges in New York, to talk about being his secretary of state. He had in mind what at the time was a familiar refrain. He could help Trump, he thought, by being “an adult in the room.” But there was, of course, this, too: “I wanted to be president,” Romney told Coppins. “If you can’t be president, being secretary of state’s not a bad spot to come thereafter.” Romney obviously didn’t get the job — partly because he didn’t fully retract what he had said about Trump — but Trump got a picture widely viewed as humiliating to Romney.

Romney was elected to the Senate in 2018. One of the first things he did was write an op-ed criticizing Trump. He voted for his impeachment. Twice. He marched with Black Lives Matters protesters. Again and again, Romney was struck by the cravenness and cowardice of his colleagues. And on Jan. 6, 2021, he raged at Josh Hawley: “You did this!” He thought about Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. “The madness has come on us for our sins.” What Romney didn’t do that day, Coppins writes, was think to turn any of those ruminations or recriminations more toward himself. Is any of it my fault, too?

A week and a day, though, after Coppins had gotten Romney’s text in Sunday school at church, the two of them eating pepperoni pizza from Andy’s in his Capitol Hill townhome with the blinds drawn, Romney edged slightly closer to that difficult question. They were talking about a piece he’d recently read on The Bulwark. They were talking about Matt Gaetz. Part of what Romney said made it in the book: “I don’t recognize my party in some respects. … The things that people say in my party — it’s, like, how can I even associate myself with a party that’s doing some of those things and saying some of those things?”

But most of what he said that night did not. “Matt Gaetz … 20 years ago he would be run out of our party. … Now he’s celebrated,” Romney told Coppins. He was staring down at his kitchen table, based on Coppins’ notes, his face “twisted” into a “pained expression.”

“If I watch Fox and — what is it? — OAN,” Romney continued, “I mean, is this my party?”

For a moment, Coppins thought, Romney seemed to be talking to himself.

They had an agreement. Romney would have no editorial control but would get to read the manuscript before it was published. Coppins in return would at least listen to his concerns. And so Coppins headed back to Romney’s townhome earlier this year for one final time.

Coppins had figured Romney would have misgivings mostly about what he had said about his fellow Republicans — about Ted Cruz (“frightening”), about John Kasich (“too undisciplined”), about Scott Walker (“too opportunistic”), about Rick Perry (“prima donna, low-IQ personality”), about Rick Santorum (“sanctimonious, severe and strange,” “driven by ego, not principle”) about Michele Bachmann (a “nut case”), about Bobby Jindal (a “twit”) …

Not so much.

“The stuff that he was more focused on was just this idea of his rationalization,” Coppins told me. “I think he was surprised when he read it by how much attention I gave to these moments in his career when he found himself rationalizing in his own self-interest,” he said. “He felt that I was giving those moments too much weight. And I think maybe he worried that the reader would come away thinking that his entire life and political career have been one sort of downward drift into moral relativism and nihilism.”

For what it’s worth, I didn’t come away thinking that, but I told Coppins I did come away thinking that this is what makes this book so interesting, and also important. Even Romney — manifestly diligent and disciplined, apparently more self-aware, let’s say, than some of his peers, committed to his faith in a way that seems not at all fake — even Romney was and might to a certain extent still be susceptible to these kinds of rationalizations. And even for Coppins and Romney, with their shared Mormon backgrounds, values and trust, it was hard to have this conversation.

“I really do think that a huge part of this kind of crisis moment that our politics have landed in is there’s an epidemic of self-justification and rationalizing in the American political class,” Coppins told me. “So many people have internalized the idea that getting reelected is what matters, and fitting comfortably in your partisan tribe is what matters, and that it’s almost kind of like self-righteous and quaint to talk too much about your conscience and your principles.”

Coppins in the book asks Romney if he would have voted for Trump’s impeachment 30 years earlier — at the beginning of his political career instead of the end, in other words, when he still harbored the very highest ambitions.

His answer sits on the page as honest as it is unnerving.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Romney told Coppins. “I think I recognize now my capacity to rationalize decisions that are in my self-interest. And I don’t know that I recognized that to the same degree back then.”

“In our two years of interviews, Romney’s efforts to process his party’s evolution — and his own — were halting and messy. He’d seem to confess complicity in one meeting, then walk it back in the next. He’d get angry and then cool off.” Romney’s rationalizations, “he argued, have been the exceptions in his life, not the rule, and they’re hardly unique to him. Fair enough,” Coppins writes in the epilogue. “But his rationalizations fascinate me because they’re so common in Washington. The path to this fraught moment in American history is paved with compromises made for political advantage that didn’t seem like compromises at the time.”

In one of our last conversations last week, Coppins offered additional context: “I think he has a hard time kind of accepting blame for the Trump era when he’s one of vanishingly few Republicans who did anything to try to stop it. And none of the other Republicans who are way more complicit are willing to accept blame,” he told me. “He doesn’t think that it’s his fault that Donald Trump ended up becoming president. I think the way he sees it is, in the grand ledger … by standing on that stage in 2012, he may have added a little bit of weight on the side of helping him — but then, in 2016, he added way more on the other side in trying to stop him.”

This stance makes sense. It’s hard not to sympathize. It’s ironic, too, that the very fact of Romney’s earnest self-examination — an act almost no one else in his party has ventured — is leading to a measure of scrutiny more intense than is typically directed at Trump’s worst enablers.

Romney: A Reckoning is a fine and sensible title. But Coppins at one point had a different pick. “I wanted to name the book,” he told me, in a nod to the histomap on Romney’s wall, “The Cathedral and the Gargoyle.” His publisher said no. Wouldn’t sell. And maybe so. But still. “I sometimes,” Coppins said of Romney, “tried to be the person who would remind him of the gargoyle.”

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