It must be weird beyond all telling to be Mitt Romney right now—like becoming one of Shakespeare’s characters, or living out a fable. It must be like playing the part of the emperor who’s ordered new clothes. When the tailors deliver the robes, supposedly made of magical cloth that’s invisible to the stupid and incompetent, they go through the motions of dressing the emperor, who then presents himself to his people. No one dares admit that they can’t actually see the clothes. Well, the GOP’s new emperor, Mitt Romney, has been parading around naked these past few months, asking everyone to admire his threads. Back in 2008, his consultants went through the motions of dressing him up us a conservative, and Romney went through the motions of talking like one. But he was never close enough to the nomination for many people to pretend they believed the fictions. Now that he’s the all-but-certain nominee, though, it will be interesting to watch as Republicans congratulate the former governor on what a splendid set of conservative principles he’s wearing. What makes this charade so fascinating is that, if you’re Mitt Romney, it’s possible that you’re blind to the truth about yourself. Even you can’t discern your motives and intentions: what you might do and become. Maybe the costume that you claim to wear is actually real. But if so, why is there a naked man staring back at you in the mirror? Is it possible that what other people claim to believe about you is the truth, rather than the nakedness and emptiness that you see in your own soul? Is it possible that you can become your true self by pretending to be that self?
It must be maddening. It must be like living the part of Hamlet: all the voices in the head, and the ghostly presence of the father, prodding him toward his fate. During George W. Bush’s two terms, it became a cliché to attribute his behavior to the influence of the father/son relationship. It became a cliché because there’s profound truth in it. So many of Bush’s awful decisions made sense only in light of the powerful burdens and the rivalry he must have felt as a son. And though it’s difficult to draw a connection between Barack Obama’s father and his policy decisions, it’s telling that Obama spent much of his autobiography wrestling with “dreams from my father,” as he titled the book, even though Obama’s father was never more than a ghostly presence in his life. So it’s interesting to ponder how the ghost of George W. Romney has shaped his son. Mitt’s moving to the hard right during the primary campaign has been a rejection not only of his own past, after all, but also of his father—the consummate Republican moderate. The elder Romney wasn’t shy about raising taxes during his terms as governor of Michigan, for example, and he was remarkably progressive on racial questions. He also came out against the Vietnam War during his bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 1967. Explaining his change of heart, Romney said he had been “brainwashed” by the American military into supporting it, and had subsequently seen the folly of the war. That sort of candor sealed his fate. Imagine the kind of dreams and conundrums this family history must create. Does the ghost of George Romney prod Mitt to avenge his own failed candidacy by pandering to hardcore conservatives and thus winning the nomination? Or does George loom as the successful but too-honest father that the adult son is still obsessed with defining himself against? In other words, is George Romney his son’s collaborator or his archrival? Or both? As if all this psychodrama weren’t enough, Romney has also been busy fending off attacks from fellow Republicans. Before he dropped out of the race yesterday, Rick Santorum said that Romney was the Republicans’ worst possible candidate and that a Romney presidency wouldn’t improve on Obama. Gingrich has called him a baloney-filled Massachusetts moderate. It‘s all enough to make even a “severely” conservative man begin to doubt himself. Hoping to help put an end to the intra-party squabbling, Bob Dole—the Republican presidential candidate in 1996—dropped a big hint last month, suggesting that it was time for Santorum to concede defeat and rally around the new emperor. “As much as you don’t want to do it,” he said, “sometimes you have to face reality.” Santorum finally bowed to that advice. But what about Romney? Is he finally ready to face reality? At this point in the game, how would he even begin to?
Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.