I was only a lukewarm supporter of Mitt Romney as a 2012 presidential candidate, but I was very proud of his no-holds-barred denunciation of Donald Trump on Thursday. He must have been aware that his detractors would immediately reduce his motive to his own presidential ambitions and ridicule him, Trumplike, as a weak "loser." But, regardless of the immediate consequences for him or for the nomination contest, Romney did the right thing in plainly depicting the character of the Republican front-runner.
It's amazing and depressing that so many seem to need Romney to call attention to Trump's rank dishonesty, or to remind us that "this is an individual who mocked a disabled reporter, who attributed a reporter's questions to her menstrual cycle, who mocked a brilliant rival who happened to be a woman due to her appearance, who bragged about his marital affairs, and who laces his public speeches with vulgarity." And I'm glad Mitt didn't fail to censure Trump's frat-boy sexual attitude and behavior: "There is a dark irony in his boasts of his sexual exploits during the Vietnam War. While at the same time, John McCain, whom he has mocked, was imprisoned and tortured."
What is most depressing is that none of this background information should be necessary to anyone of sound judgment who observes Trump for two minutes: "the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics." And Romney hit just the right note, one that again should be obvious but that we are usually too sophisticated to acknowledge, when he connected the political and the personal: "All (presidential nominees) … bear the responsibility of being an example for our children and our grandchildren. … Now, imagine your children and your grandchildren acting the way he does."
Of course, private virtue and statesmanship are not the same thing, but neither can they be entirely separated. A man who cannot govern himself cannot govern a people, much less a free people. Those who know Plato's account of the Tyrant in the ninth book of "The Republic: must experience a shudder of recognition when Romney states an imperative that would be obvious for a healthy self-governing people: "His imagination must not be married to real power."
The only thing — though impossible, no doubt — that would have improved Romney's speech would have been some recognition of the responsibility that the Republican establishment bears for the creation of this monster. To Plato again: in the eight book of "The Republic" we learn that the vices of an extreme democracy (think: "populism") are produced by the narrow self-interest of the wealthy class: the oligarchs see the world through the lens of their economic interests, profit from the immiseration of the lower classes, and fail to instill solid virtues of character in the next generation.
This account resembles our Republican elites in too many ways: concern for our families and for society's moral fabric has too often been window-dressing, the middle class's very real anxieties over economic stagnation have been inadequately addressed, and the outrages of political correctness have passed largely uncontradicted, all because of the corporate elite's narrow and short-term interest in business as usual. Now the GOP is paying the price in the blind and incoherent outrage channeled by the repugnant Trumpster.
A friend nicely summarizes the "very bitter choice among three bad options" left to us who have seen the Republican party, despite its defects, as still America's best hope:
"1. Aim for a messy convention in which delegates rally around a non-Trump candidate after the first ballot. This might work but it would be horrible, because Trump voters would feel twice as betrayed by the party as they do now. This is The Romney Option.
"2. Let Trump take the nomination but disavow him. That means you probably hand the presidency to the other party, and Trump supporters hate you for your betrayal. The Ben Sasse Option.
"3. Get behind Trump and ride the wave. This might actually lead to victory, but at the cost of losing any moral or intellectual coherence to the party. Self-respecting leaders would defect, leaving only Trumpites whose loyalty to the party is itself suspect. The Huckabee Option."
The choice is not easy, my friend observes, because "parties matter, winning matters, principle matters. You can't always have all three." All very true, but one choice is easy for me: NOT 3 — not Trump.
However Romney's denunciation of Trump might be assessed strategically, in the long run, the utter sacrifice of decency and honor cannot be a good thing. If everything blows up, then the example of standing for some principles can make a difference, someday, somehow — a positive difference for our souls, and, we must pray, for our republic.