The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Sorry, Mitt Romney. Denial is not an equal-opportunity offense.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) leaves a luncheon with party members at the U.S. Capitol on June 22. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Aside from Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), few Republicans have been as consistent in their condemnation of defeated former president Donald Trump as Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah). In his latest blast, he writes in an op-ed for the Atlantic: “A return of Donald Trump would feed the sickness, probably rendering it incurable. Congress is particularly disappointing: Our elected officials put a finger in the wind more frequently than they show backbone against it.” That puts it mildly.

Alas, Romney engages in his own brand of disappointing rhetoric by equating right-wing denial on the 2020 election and climate change (he could have added covid-19 and gun violence) with Democrats’ supposed denial about the debt and illegal immigration. Aside from the fact that deficits are projected to fall substantially in 2022 and Democrats have repeatedly offered comprehensive immigration reform, including border security measures, Romney’s lamentation of both parties smacks of, well, denialism.

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Only one party has adopted as its default setting conspiracy theories and disinformation, from quack remedies for covid to the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. Only one party rallies its base with resentment, anger and vitriol. And only one party relies on a propagandistic media that shields its base from disagreeable facts.

Romney, who voted against cloture for voting rights reform and has yet to condemn the GOP’s systematic assault on honest election administration, has not come out against Republican election deniers on the ballot in the midterms. He gives no indication of concern that the next House speaker could well be the spineless House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who tolerates the most extreme members in his party, including those who sought out pardons for their roles in the Jan. 6 insurrection, and attacks the House Jan. 6 select committee, from which he pulled his Republican members.

Romney would do well to acknowledge that the primary threat to democracy and the belief in objective reality is his own party. To the extent he advocates its return to power and refuses to denounce its most insidious elements, he contributes to the problem. Like too many in the mainstream media, his reflexive retreat to moral equivalence winds up normalizing his own party, thereby disguising its authoritarian impulses.

Romney, like many other “good” Republicans, exaggerates and inflates Democrats’ faults as a means to justify his continued participation in a malign party. But Romney has another option: to follow the example of his longtime friend, Evan McMullin. The Utah Senate candidate is running as an independent against incumbent Sen. Mike Lee, who eagerly sought to pressure state legislatures to send fake groups of electors. Like McMullin, Romney and like-minded Republicans can start anew. They can make common cause with independents and Democrats on the overriding issue of our time: preservation of democracy. They can refuse to contribute to Republicans’ return to power.

Romney, instead of passively hoping for “a president who can rise above the din to unite us behind the truth,” can help lead a movement that deprives the GOP of supporters who see no alternative to the status quo. As a believer in the free market, surely he understands that if Republicans had to compete for non-MAGA voters, they would either shed some of its worst elements or cede ground to a new, reality-based party.

Perhaps Romney’s op-ed represents his first effort to tiptoe away from a decrepit Republican Party. If so, he should pick up the pace and prepare to support an alternative to the party of Trump. Waiting for the GOP to clean up its act is the worst sort of denial.