It is well known that Donald Trump was not my choice for the Republican presidential nomination. After he became the nominee, I hoped his campaign would refrain from resentment and name-calling. It did not. When he won the election, I hoped he would rise to the occasion. His early appointments of Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, Nikki Haley, Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, Kelly and Mattis
were encouraging. But, on balance, his conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions last month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT)
To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow “our better angels.” A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect. As a nation, we have been blessed with presidents who have called on the greatness of the American spirit. With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.
The world is also watching. America has long been looked to for leadership. Our economic and military strength was part of that, of course, but our enduring commitment to principled conduct in foreign relations, and to the rights of all people to freedom and equal justice, was even more esteemed. Trump’s words and actions have caused dismay around the world. In a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, 84 percent of people in Germany, Britain, France, Canada and Sweden believed the American president would “do the right thing in world affairs.” One year later, that number had fallen to 16 percent.
To reassume our leadership in world politics, we must repair failings in our politics at home. That project begins, of course, with the highest office once again acting to inspire and unite us. It includes political parties promoting policies that strengthen us rather than promote tribalism by exploiting fear and resentment. Our leaders must defend our vital institutions despite their inevitable failings: a free press, the rule of law, strong churches, and responsible corporations and unions.Even though the Romney opinion piece focused on the need for a stronger foreign policy, his brief mention of Trump's character flaws and his suggestion that Trump isn't defending American institutions (indeed Trump attacks American institutions at every opportunity) has caused the President and his gang of Kool-Aid drinking supporters to have a meltdown on social media. Any talk about the importance of "integrity," "honesty" and "character" in politics causes Trumpers' eyes to glaze over. They do not think those traits matter one bit when it comes to any politician named Donald J. Trump. As I have said before, it is not that Trumpers refuse to believe that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to win an American election. They simply do not care if the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. (In fact, Russian assistance to help Trump get elected make President Vladimar Putin a hero to Trumpers.) Nor do they care if the President is using his position to enrich himself and his family. That is the way personality cults work. The object of the cultists' affection always gets a pass on behavior that would be objectionable for anyone else.
More serious commentators chose to opine on the reason why Romney chose to write the op-ed piece. Many point out that Romney's moral compass when it comes to Trump has not always pointed toward virtue. I too question whether Romney's motives are entirely pure. I tend to think they might be strategic.
It is far from a given that Trump runs for re-election in 2020 (or even that he completes his first term.) If he does run in 2020, it is quite possible, given his unpopularity and lack of support among independents, Trump would lose in a landslide forever tarnishing his image. Why risk that? Plus, the Mueller and other investigations are likely to uncover unethical if not illegal behavior on the part of Trump and his family. Why risk that exposure going forward? If Trump leaves office early, the interest in pursuing such investigations would decline dramatically.
Romney's letter was likely the first step into an anticipated vacuum in political leadership. He is positioning himself, post-Trump, for a leadership position in the Republican Party. He is betting that Trumpism, with its brand of hatred, bigotry and appeal almost exclusively to older whites, has no future in the GOP. Sadly, however, long after Trump leaves office, the stench of Trumpism will remain with the GOP. That is something that Romney and other Republicans will have to deal with in the post-Trump world.