I read The Atlantic’s excerpt from McKay Coppins’ new Mitt Romney biography on the train ride home Friday. It delivers the goods. I’ve never been a Romney fan, but I appreciate his willingness to stand up to Donald Trump and Trumpism when it really mattered.
I was also struck that, after Romney became an outcast within his own party, he preferred to work with conspiracy-minded loons like Sen. Ron Johnson over the hypocrites who defended Trump in public while sidling up to Romney in private to tell him they would love to denounce Trump, too, but they just couldn’t. (“There are worse things than losing an election,” Romney would tell them. “Take it from somebody who knows.”)
What is chilling, though, is that, as Romney tells it, Republicans who once indulged Trump in order to advance their own political ambitions later had a different, more elemental reason for defending Trump in public: they were afraid they and their families would be killed by Trump’s deranged supporters, whipped up into a fury by the maximum leader himself. Coppins writes:
Some of the reluctance to hold Trump accountable was a function of the same old perverse political incentives — elected Republicans feared a political backlash from their base. But after January 6, a new, more existential brand of cowardice had emerged. One Republican congressman confided to Romney that he wanted to vote for Trump’s second impeachment, but chose not to out of fear for his family’s safety. The congressman reasoned that Trump would be impeached by House Democrats with or without him — why put his wife and children at risk if it wouldn’t change the outcome? Later, during the Senate trial, Romney heard the same calculation while talking with a small group of Republican colleagues. When one senator, a member of leadership, said he was leaning toward voting to convict, the others urged him to reconsider. You can’t do that, Romney recalled someone saying. Think of your personal safety, said another. Think of your children. The senator eventually decided they were right.
Romney was paying $5,000 for security, and he understood that many of his colleagues couldn’t afford that. But this is horrifying, and it shows the near-impossibility of breaking up the Trump-Republican alliance. Moreover, it’s how we move from democracy to authoritarianism to fascism. As New York Times columnist David Brooks put it Friday on the “PBS NewsHour”: “There are members who were going to vote to convict on impeachment, but were afraid that they or their families might get assassinated, and they knew their vote wouldn’t make a difference. We are way beyond the bounds of normal democratic governance, when that’s even on the minds of members of Congress.”
My fear is that Joe Biden’s presidency represents little more than an uneasy interregnum between Trump and whatever’s next. If Biden can win re-election, maybe that will give us four more years for passions on the extreme right — now a majority of the Republican Party — to cool off. From where we are standing today, though, I don’t see much chance of that happening.