Opinion: Mitt Romney’s tragic ambivalence

File photo/Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times / Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, listens during a hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington on July 20, 2021. Romney is leaving office because his brand of stolid, upstanding conservatism has become obsolete, replaced with a conspiratorial, histrionic and sometimes violent brand of authoritarianism, writes the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg.

Rolling out the announcement that he won't run for re-election, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah has framed it as a passing of the torch. "At the end of another term, I'd be in my mid-80s," he said in a video statement. "Frankly it's time for a new generation of leaders. They're the ones that need to make the decisions that will shape the world they will be living in." He clearly means this as a rebuke to the 80-year-old Joe Biden and the 77-year-old Donald Trump, neither of whom, he said, "are leading their party" to confront the major issues facing our country. "The next generation of leaders must take America to the next stage of global leadership."

The problem with this argument is that Romney despises the next generation of Republican leaders. He's watched the transformation of Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio into a Trump lackey with disgust. He's similarly contemptuous of Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri for indulging the lies that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection. I doubt he's a fan of Florida congressman Matt Gaetz or the hucksterish presidential aspirant Vivek Ramaswamy.

Besides, as McKay Coppins reveals in an Atlantic excerpt from his upcoming book, Romney himself thought of running a third-party campaign for president in 2024, deciding against it only out of fear that it would throw the election to Trump. So as much as I believe that America is stagnating under the death grip of the gerontocracy, I don't think that's why Romney is bowing out. Rather, he's given up on a second Senate term because his brand of stolid, upstanding conservatism has become obsolete, replaced with a conspiratorial, histrionic and sometimes violent authoritarianism. His reluctance to say so clearly, at the cost of breaking with his party definitively, is evidence of something tragic in his character.

We know what Romney really thinks because of the access he offered Coppins, with whom he met weekly, giving him diaries, private papers and emails. "A very large portion of my party really doesn't believe in the Constitution," Romney told him.

But Romney isn't using the announcement of his coming retirement to warn the country against the danger of a right-wing movement that routinely resorts to threats of violence. He certainly isn't defecting from the Republican Party for the remainder of his time in the Senate. Instead, by putting age at the center of his argument, he's setting himself above the fray, pretending that both parties are equally at fault in bringing the country to this perilous pass. Romney has shown far more decency and courage in response to Trump than almost all his colleagues, but in this case, he's still pulling his punches.

It's possible that Republican leaders, had they acted quickly and decisively in 2016, could have thwarted Trump before he'd consolidated his messianic hold over the party's base. But Romney, like other establishment Republicans, underestimated the autocratic threat posed by Trump, or overestimated his party's patriotic fortitude.

Romney deserves our admiration and gratitude for being the sole Republican to vote to convict in Trump's first impeachment, and then for voting again to convict him in his second. After a lifetime as a loyal Republican, it must have been extraordinarily difficult to break with his partisan allies.

But he must understand that the problem isn't only Trump, but Trump's party, which is also his party. There is no telling what sort of impact it would have if the last pre-Trump Republican nominee for president quit the GOP and worked for its defeat — maybe hardly any. But given the stakes, what excuse is there for not trying? "Authoritarianism is like a gargoyle lurking over the cathedral, ready to pounce," Romney told Coppins. He should be less coy in sounding the alarm.