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What is the Mitt Romney martyr thesis?

An Atlantic columnist believes the thesis fails to fully explain the GOP’s support for rough-n-tumble Donald Trump

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Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks during a South Valley Chamber of Commerce meeting at Salt Mine Productive in Sandy on Aug. 18, 2022.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks during a South Valley Chamber of Commerce meeting at Salt Mine Productive in Sandy on Aug. 18, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The media’s treatment of Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race didn’t suddenly radicalize Republicans and lead them to embrace former President Donald Trump in response, according to a new column by David French for The Atlantic. They were “already radicalized” and were frustrated with Romney for not expressing more anger toward Democrats, he said.

French said that some Republicans have justified their support for Trump over his willingness to hit back at Democrats and members of the media, who they feel have treated GOP candidates like Romney unfairly for years. 

French calls this argument the “Mitt Romney martyr thesis,” which posits that Republicans nominated Romney — “a good and decent man” — only to see the media thrash their candidate with cruel and biased attacks, so can you really blame them for turning to Trump? “Republicans had been bullied, so they turned to a bully of their own,” French said, describing the theory.

French pointed to a tweet by Deseret News contributor Bethany Mandel, which was in response to a tweet from columnist Matt Lewis. “When did the GOP become the party of jerks?” Lewis asked. Mandel responded, “If I had to pinpoint a moment, when Mitt Romney spent his entire campaign being accused of killing Big Bird, building binders full of women, torturing the family dog, etc etc.”

While French said he was “infuriated” in 2012 by some of the attacks against Romney, he argued the Republican anger that led to Trump’s win in 2016 wasn’t “on behalf of Romney” but “against Romney.”

“Yes, there was anger at Democrats and reporters for their treatment of Romney, but the raw anger that really mattered was their anger at Romney for the way he treated Obama and the press,” he wrote.

French said well before Trump came on the scene, evangelicals and other portions of the Republican base didn’t care about a candidate’s “character” problems as long as they brought the fight to Democrats and the media.

French wrote about former Speaker Newt Gingrich, and how, during the impeachment proceedings against then-President Bill Clinton for lying under oath about an extramarital affair, it came out that Gingrich was having an affair himself. The Republican faithful didn’t seem to care, he said.

And in the 2012 GOP presidential debates, two days before the South Carolina primary, a moderator confronted Gingrich about the scandal. But Gingrich was cheered for sidestepping the question and instead condemning the media as “destructive” and biased.

“Surely, heavily evangelical voters in a key Republican stronghold would be concerned about Gingrich’s scandals?” French asked. “No, they were far angrier at media outlets than they were at any Republican hypocrisy.” 

French said the Republican voter base ceased caring about the character of their candidates long ago, instead favoring candidates who will “fight.” 

The real “cultural break” in the GOP party was between the establishment, who called for greater efforts of inclusion after the 2012 presidential loss, and the grassroots, who were convinced they “had been hoodwinked by party leaders into supporting the ‘safe’ candidate,” he said.

Trump’s nomination, French said, was a triumph of what the base had always wanted: not a nice guy, but a street brawler. When Romney campaigned against Trump for what he considered character flaws, Romney’s former GOP supporters scorned and despised him for not being as tough as Trump, he said.