There is nothing Donald Trump values in his political partners quite so much as displays of submission. That is why the president holds televised meetings in which fellow Republicans shower him with almost comical praise. And it is why Mitt Romney’s op-ed criticizing the president actually matters.
On the surface, Romney’s argument contains little in the way of policy substance or commitment to future action. Romney praised the bulk of Trump’s agenda — even his trade policy, one of the few realms in which Trump has strayed from the party line — and threatened only to “speak out” against especially vile statements or actions by the president.
Predictably, Romney’s op-ed provoked responses from Trump and his campaign manager, Brad Parscale.
Less predictably, the members of the party Establishment jumped in. A highly incomplete list of Republicans lashing out at Romney would include Rand Paul, Ari Fleischer, Brit Hume, David Limbaugh, and Ronna Romney McDaniel. Ben Shapiro’s anti-Romney column in the National Review is especially telling. Shapiro denounced Trump during the 2016 primaries, and has wound his way back to the position that conservatives should support Trump’s conservative policy substance while opposing his personal character. And yet, faced with Romney doing exactly this, Shapiro argues that attacking Trump’s character is also a bad idea:
“By declaring Trump unfit for his office, Romney immediately forces a choice: Should he back Trump in 2020, or challenge him?” Shapiro reasons. He concludes that the choice will not be resolved in Romney’s favor: “If this is just seeking Strange New Respect from people who hated Romney in 2012 the same way they hate Trump today, that’s not likely to reunify conservatives around the principles Romney is espousing.”
This is probably true. Most Republicans adore Trump not only for his policies but for his character. He is a racist bully, and most (though not, of course, all) Republican voters like racist bullies. Indeed, while the party Establishment is enthusiastic about Trump’s corporate tax cuts and business cronyism and disgusted with his personality, his actual voters seem to have the opposite calculation. They are at best indifferent to the tax cuts but adore his style.
More importantly, Shapiro is conceding that the posture of reducing Trump to a disembodied vessel for Republican policy is unsustainable. Trump’s total lack of morality (not to mention respect for democratic norms) is a howling void that cannot be placed to the side of his policies. Acknowledging it inherently strikes at Trump’s “fitness for office.”
It’s easy to be cynical about Romney’s gesture. His op-ed commits no real ideological heresy and merely notes almost in passing that Trump is a terrible human being. But if pointing this out didn’t matter, Trump’s defenders wouldn’t be so angry about the fact that he did it.