Unlike Trump, Romney (R-Utah) came from a background rooted in public service and the expectations of holding office. Maybe for a moment back then, Romney might have thought he might fight to reject his loss, but that seems unlikely. Both because that’s not the political world he knew and because, also unlike Trump, Romney’s understanding of the world is rooted in reality.
Romney didn’t command a fervent cadre of supporters who took his every word and inclination as gospel. Romney didn’t build political power by telling people what they wanted to hear and by constantly redirecting anger at his opponents. Romney wasn’t the Republican nominee in 2012 because he was surrounded by sycophants eager to rationalize and excuse even his wildest theories and efforts.
So when Trump began to try what Romney would not have considered, insisting that the election was undetectably rigged against him, Romney objected. For more than two months now, Trump has wove a fishnet of claims and conspiracies in which his base has been ensnared. The sitting president insists he won an election by a “landslide” that he lost by 7 million votes, with his allies in conservative media and congressional Republican caucuses nodding along, remoras feasting on money and power as Trump devours his supporters. Trump has said few things about the 2020 presidential contest that are true and has repeatedly made claims even after he’s been presented with evidence that they are false. And, on Wednesday, that was the focus of Romney’s most deep-seated frustration.
Romney was one of the first senators to speak after the elected leadership of the U.S. government had reclaimed its official headquarters from a mob of deluded Trump supporters hellbent on obstructing the finalization of Trump’s electoral loss. The violence and fear of the day were at the forefront of everyone’s minds. But Romney, in prepared remarks, focused on the lies that inspired the violence.
Those in Congress who were enacting Trump's futile strategy of objecting to the counting of state-submitted electoral votes, Romney said, “have claimed they are doing so on behalf of the voters. Have an audit, they say, to satisfy the many people who believe that the election was stolen.”
“Please!” he continued. “No congressional led audit will ever convince those voters, particularly when the president will continue to claim that the election was stolen. The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That is the burden, and the duty, of leadership.”
It’s an unquestionably true statement. We elect leaders to deal with crises and rely on them to present them honestly. The democratic ideal is that an informed electorate should pick its leaders, but Trump and others have figured out the loophole that a misinformed electorate is often a lot less likely to strip them of power.
At its heart, it’s such a simple request: Just be honest. Admit you lost the election. Romney pointed out that he understood that loss but, of course, he could never understand what it meant to Trump to lose. Losing an election was part of the system Romney knew. But Trump famously came from outside the system and had loyalty neither to its niceties nor its maintenance.
Romney accused Trump of inciting the day’s “insurrection” with complete justification. But even as he did so, the forces loyal to Trump were gearing up for another round of fantasized rationalization.
Over at Fox, a series of interviews, hour after hour, included a remarkable allegation: Maybe the day’s violence was actually a function of antifa, Trump’s favorite left-wing boogeyman. Matthew Gertz, a fellow at Media Matters, documented the slow capillary spread of the theory. It popped up on Lou Dobbs’s show on Fox Business, then was raised by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin on Fox News proper. A Tucker Carlson guest offered it up, as did Trump’s most loyal attack dog, Sean Hannity. All of that happened before Romney spoke, but the theory continued to trickle out on Laura Ingraham’s show, repeatedly, in the following hour.
The mood in the Senate when Romney spoke was fairly somber, with several senators who had flirted with humoring Trump’s plan backing off the idea following the day’s tumult. Over at the House, though, it was full speed ahead, with the chamber’s rowdy pro-Trump right jockeying to get a coveted clip into Fox News’s rotation.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) landed in the pole position.
Gaetz cited “pretty compelling evidence from a facial recognition company” that purportedly showed that “some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters. They were masquerading as Trump supporters and, in fact, were members of the violent terrorist group antifa.”
Democrats in the chamber groaned.
The genesis of Gaetz’s claim (and, presumably, most of those who made similar ones on Fox News) was a report from the right-wing Washington Times based on information it had received from “a retired military officer.” That person reportedly received information from a company called XRVision, which cited three people from the crowd, two of whom purportedly matched “two Philadelphia antifa members” and the third of whom “shows up at climate and Black Lives Matter protests in the West.”
Update: A Twitter user appears to have tracked down the images. If it is the same people, the two individuals are on an antifa webpage — identified as neo-Nazis.
This appears to be what Palin was talking about as well. Trump likely would have elevated it, too, had his Twitter account not been temporarily suspended for fomenting political violence.
But that’s the evidence. Maybe two guys, based on photos a guy got from some guys, out of a large crowd wearing MAGA hats and waving Trump flags. Out of a crowd that was recorded by multiple journalists making precisely the arguments that Trump had hoped they would and precisely the claims about the election that most of those same Fox News shows had amplified. These two guys are now a rationalization for waving away any notion that maybe Trump’s delusional claims played a role in the worst threat to the Capitol since Sept. 11, 2001.
It’s at best dishonest. Gaetz, an elected official, is doing precisely what Romney suggested a leader shouldn’t do, offering reassuring misinformation to Trump’s base instead of accepting the unpleasant reality that their collective side bears blame for the incidents of the day.
At worst, Gaetz and Fox are providing political cover for a violent attempt to foment an insurrection. At best, they’re reducing the political cost of ignoring what happened on Wednesday at the Capitol and, in doing so, making it more likely that such an event might occur again.
What Romney didn’t say is that the route of disinformation aimed at coddling supporters is the easy route. It’s far easier for Gaetz and Sean Hannity to propose that the day’s descent was a function of the left than of their own long-standing willingness to give Trump free rein to do what he wants.
Honesty is hard and lying is easy. Honesty is risky and lying isn't. Honesty can incur a cost and lying can line pockets. We ask that our institutions do the hard work of being honest. But we need to be the ones who ensure they do.
Now more than ever.