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Decency, R.I.P.

If manners are the small change of morality, we’ve gone bankrupt a few cents at a time.
July 1, 2021
Decency, R.I.P.
U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)

Sen. Mitt Romney appeared on Jake Tapper’s CNN show last weekend and for a few brief minutes I felt transported to a saner world. Asked about the gross things some on the right are saying about Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Romney responded that “General Milley is a person of extraordinary accomplishment and personal character and a brilliant man.” Asked about continuing allegations from former President Donald Trump and his enablers that the election was stolen, Romney didn’t hesitate to call it “the big lie.” He added:

Look, the president was saying—was crying foul on election night and actually before election night. And the question is, what were his sources of information? Where did he hear that the election had been fraudulently carried out? Did he hear it from the Justice Department? No. Did he hear it from the intelligence community? No. So, where did he hear it from? The MyPillow guy? Rudy Giuliani?

On substance, Romney was rock solid. He still believes Russia is going to take every opportunity to “poke a stick in our eye” and he worries that China is on track to become “the most powerful economy in the world and the most powerful military in the world.” He opposes government efforts to dictate what is taught in schools. He supports spending $1.2 trillion on roads, bridges, rail, air, water pipes, broadband, and more, but when Tapper noted that the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that we face an additional $800 billion backlog on infrastructure spending and asked why Romney didn’t “at least meet the demands that these and other experts” were calling for, Romney responded politely but deftly: “Well, I must admit that I do pay a lot of attention to the engineers, but, of course, they’re paid based upon how much we spend in their arena.” Spoken like someone who wasn’t born yesterday.

It went on like that for the whole interview. Romney knew the infrastructure bill in detail. He praised President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He differed with Democrats about social spending and taxes. He stated unequivocally that the election was free and fair. In short, he was completely out of step with modern “conservatism” and the Republican party.

Some said that the permanent change Trump would effect in the Republican party would be a heightened attention to the needs of the working class. That may or may not materialize. Some Republicans are making noises about being a “worker’s party,” but there doesn’t appear to be anything concrete there yet.

No, the biggest post-Trump change is the eager embrace of indecency. On his Fox show, Tucker Carlson played a clip of Gen. Milley explaining that he thinks it’s important to hear various points of view (even critical race theory). At the conclusion of the clip, Carlson spat, “He’s not just a pig, he’s stupid!”

Leave aside the fact that an entitled, trust-funded scion of the Swanson frozen-dinner fortune who was thrown out of a Swiss boarding school and managed to attain a B.A. at Trinity College is daring to call Milley (Princeton, B.A.; Columbia, M.A.; Naval War College, M.A.) “stupid,” and just focus on the glaring social transgression. The host of a widely viewed TV show should be, if not a model of decorum, at least not a foam-flecked fulminator. That’s part of what it means to live in a civilized society. And certainly a much-decorated general, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is entitled to respect for his service to the country. Every member of the military deserves to be honored for their service. Or, if that’s too much to manage, how about not grossly insulted? And this from a self-styled conservative? Didn’t conservatives once fume about someone in the Clinton White House saying something disrespectful to an officer? Didn’t they mock Obama over a coffee-cup salute?

The 2021 conservatives clearly don’t respect the military or the police (see January 6) if it’s inconvenient. While dissing decorated officers, these new conservatives eagerly embrace war criminals. Fox News has campaigned on their behalf, and Trump pardoned several. When Trump suggested targeting the children of terrorists, or told police to rough up suspects, or denied raping a woman because “she’s not my type,” or intimated that a deceased Democratic politician was in hell, Republicans nodded along.

Nikki Haley, who once calculated that the best path to political prominence in the GOP was to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol grounds following the brutal massacre of African-American churchgoers, has now figured out that basic decency is the road to irrelevance. In 2015, she explained movingly that while she knew that many non-racists in South Carolina saw the flag as a symbol of tradition, the feelings of others, for whom “the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past” had to take precedence. And so, she concluded, 150 years after the conclusion of the Civil War (but only 54 years after the flag was first raised there), the “time has come” to remove it.

No more of that. Campaigning in Iowa recently, she told the audience that “Republicans are too nice. I wear heels. It’s not for a fashion statement. I use them for kicking. But I always kick with a smile.” We get it. She’s after the “She Fights” slogan. Haley has probably set some sort of record for flushing her own dignity down the toilet in record time. She’s sensing the mood of the Republican base. It’s ugly, so she’s diving in.

Do you remember—eons or five years ago—when it was considered beneath contempt to attack a politician’s family? Bring the heat for the man in the arena, but by all that is holy, leave his wife and kids out of it? It seems antique now. When one of the Biden family dogs passed away a couple of weeks ago, a National Review writer tweeted, “Champ Dies. Major lives on. The Biden family tragedy in miniature.”

Mocking a family when they’ve lost a beloved pet, which was the way some on Twitter interpreted this, would have been tasteless and cruel. But this was much more sinister. The implication was that Biden’s “good son,” Beau, had died while his brother Hunter lived on. Who does that? And especially those who call themselves conservative and constantly rant about threats to civilization. How can they not see that undermining basic civility and decency is itself an attack on civilization?

Well, at least we have Romney, and a few more, to remind Republicans of what they once were and could be again.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].