“At least it’s not an ethos”: Nihilism as comfort food

I’ve come to the conclusion, as I’m sure many of you have, that Mitt Romney is the “least bad” Republican presidential candidate, both out of the primary field and in comparison with Bush and McCain (much as Paul Ryan must be grudgingly conceded to be a “less bad” VP pick than the frankly demonic Dick Cheney and the total loose cannon that was Sarah Palin). What alarms me about this is my rationale: not that he’s actually more moderate than the other options, not that he supports better policies, etc., but precisely because he seems like a completely nihilistic opportunist. In short, when it comes to Republicans, it seems like the best argument is “at least it’s not an ethos!”

I don’t know quite what to make of this comfort I take in Romney’s nihilism, in his seeming willingness to humiliate himself in every possible way in the service not quite of “power,” but of the simple fact of being president. He’s like a living reductio ad absurdam of my thesis in Why We Love Sociopaths — the fact of striving as such is somehow admirable or reassuring, but instead of “doing whatever it takes” in the sense of skillfully manipulating everyone, having people killed, etc., he’s just flagrantly lying in an easily traceable way.

Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a certain “sincerity” to his disavowal of Romneycare, for instance — precisely because he never cared about the policy one way or another and just wanted to take credit for some kind of big achievement that would help his personal brand as a “moderate Republican who comes up with sensible solutions,” a brand he unceremoniously ditched once it proved detrimental to his presidential ambitions. He’s so sociopathic that he’s willing to throw himself under the bus.

Still, there’s something deeply disturbing about this infamous video where Romney seems genuinely offended that his Democratic opponent would accuse him of being less than 100% pro-choice. On a first, “naive” viewing, we have a man who has bravely broken with his party and is outraged that his sincerity would be questioned. But when we rewatch it in light of the fact that he totally reversed his views within a couple years, perhaps the offense is at a different level: “What the fuck do I have to do to convince you people that I’ll say and do whatever it takes to hold office?”

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15 Responses to ““At least it’s not an ethos”: Nihilism as comfort food”

  1. Jack Says:

    I’ve always thought Romney was the worst possible candidate, precisely because his positions aren’t motivated by any obvious moral convictions. Santorum is scary far-right socially, but his “faith” anchors him there. For Romney, it would be just as easy to go from scary to horrifying as it was for him to go from a liberal Republican to the far-right Republican he is now.

    Anticipating Jeremy’s concern that I’m giving too much importance to motivation, I stress that I’m only looking at his motivations in an to attempt to speculate on Romney’s likelihood of swinging even further to the right.

  2. mattintoledo Says:

    This feels a lot like one of your old Blagojevich posts where what initially seemed like a funny, absurd idea turned out to be not all that far from what was actually going on.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I went back and looked those up — I don’t remember “calling” the fact that there was some degree of corruption in Blagojevich’s appointment of Burris to Obama’s vacated senate seat.

    Fun fact: Blagojevich was the basis for The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Jack’s response to Romney’s nihilism seems to be at least as reasonable as mine — probably moreso, actually. That’s why this phenomenon of people basing relative optimism precisely on his nihilism is so interesting to me.

  5. Jeremy Says:

    I like how Jack has already preempted my response. Well my suspicion of knowing Romney’s motive is that it’s based on some petty psychologization (wild analysis) of people we truly don’t know. Even Santorum’s supposed authentic faith is likewise manufactured to appeal to a certain constituency.

    I do think Romney’s nihilist opportunism should give leftists some hope if he actually manages to win. In other words, if the country took a left turn during Romney’s presidency, I think it’s fair to say Romney would be much more likely to compromise and negotiate given his inexplicable desire for power and his capacity to adapt to whatever the political climate demands (unlike W or Reagan).

  6. James K.A. Smith Says:

    Jeez, I hadn’t seen that video. We are all going to hell.

    I think your analysis is spot on. I suppose evangelicals who love a good conversion story won’t fall prey to the “run-on-your-record” logic of consistency, right? So, in a way, a video like this could never be damning evidence as long as he’s sincere that he’s changed his mind.

  7. Jack Says:

    I said “speculate” after changing at the last minute from “analyse.” Jeremy’s right to doubt it.

    I’m not so sure the left has any hope with Romney, though. It seems to me that the Romney’s nihilism only makes him unpredictable with regards to social issues. He may well be nihilist through and through, but the economic manifestation of nihilism is basically just capitalism.

    Whereas nihilism makes Romney unpredictable on social matters, it makes him all the more stubborn economically.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Jack: Especially since he personally benefits from Republican economic policy and has been ultra-unprincipled on that front in just about every conceivable way.

    Jamie: I remember that Matt Yglesias once said that Romney should’ve converted to Southern Baptism when he decided to revamp all his views to become more conservative — without that unifying narrative, I think that changing your mind on each individual issue to become more conservative is read as simple opportunism. Mormonism is the one thing he won’t back down on, but he won’t/can’t talk about it with the general public.

  9. James K.A. Smith Says:

    On the other hand, just being white might cover a multitude of sins for part of the demographic he’s trying to reach, so they might be inclined to renarrate the opportunism.

  10. Imma Says:

    I was basically going to say what Jeremy said about Romney the potential compromiser. I think he would have been far less likely to dismiss the massive anti-war demonstrations in 2003 as irrelevant “focus groups” as Bush did. That said, it seems a bizarre turn of events that we are seeing in 2012, two presidential candidates that are relatively contentless; ready to tailor their political platforms to perceived mass opinion when Bush so successfully showed that a quasi- monarchic “decider” can be so successful and popular with Americans. In the end, he didn’t lose popularity for his authoritarianism, but for the fact that his plans ultimately failed. I really believed Bush had paved the way for a long-standing style of executive governance that operated on the principle of “we will do what WE decided is best for America regardless of what the world or America’s citizens think.” The fact that the radical authoritarianism of Bush hasn’t become the defining characteristic of an American presidential candidate is certainly something to be optimistic about.

  11. Nathan Says:

    This makes his new refrain – Obama “will do anything to hold on to power” – seem like some rather extreme projection.

    I know many left/liberal folks DO find Obama to be similarly content-less [see above], but to me they are plenty distinguishable on this point: O’s shifts in position and positioning seem at worst like “a normal part of the political process” (not necessarily a healthy or desirable or even “political” process – but certainly “normal”), a la how Mitt’s team tried to spin the “etch-a-sketch” comments, while R’s radical flexibility does seem more acutely pathological.)

    Aside: I’m sure it must be frustrating for anyone, but I’ve always found something chilling in the precise way Mitt delivers “Let me finish” type lines to his debate opponents when he thinks their cutting into his time. I find him deeply creepy in general, but this is a particular peeve. You see it a bit in the video above; the most exaggerated example is this exchange with Perry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c37VcgHUFVk. Help me diagnose/define what’s going on here.

  12. Nathan Says:

    Also, didn’t Adam write awhile back about how Bush’s content-light, “centrist,” “compassionate conservative” position coming into office is precisely what enabled all the worst things about his presidency?

    Well anyway someone wrote that, I read it, and it was persuasive.

  13. S. D. Jeffries Says:

    Sorry, Jeremy, I don’t agree with this at all:

    “I do think Romney’s nihilist opportunism should give leftists some hope if he actually manages to win. In other words, if the country took a left turn during Romney’s presidency, I think it’s fair to say Romney would be much more likely to compromise and negotiate given his inexplicable desire for power and his capacity to adapt to whatever the political climate demands (unlike W or Reagan).”

    If Romney is elected he will be ensconced in the D.C. “bubble,” able to ignore anything short of the unwashed mob’s crashing through the doors of the White House. He will be surrounded by aides, advisors, counselors, and myriad staff wiling to reassure him that his severe conservatism is best for the country and he should stay the course. He will have the full weight of the Republican party breathing down his neck to toe the party line, including threats to scuttle any plan he may have for a second term or a lasting legacy as a bold, innovative chief executive. His multi-millionaire contributors will likewise assure him, “This is no time to go wobbly.”

    There will be no reason for a President Romney to compromise and/or negotiate with “leftists”, and plenty of reasons not to.

  14. askod Says:

    @Nathan
    I think it is not what Romney does during that debate – claims his talking space, delivers talking point – but his emotional state when he does it. His pathos if you like. When he claims his space he is aggressiv and dominant, and then he becomes distant and emotionless when delivering his talking point. There is a dissonance there.

    Me, I think he gets angry when interrupted, and bored when delivering talking points. I suspect he is not the only politician that gets bored at his own talking points (not all, some find debates and meeting voters fun). Romney is simply not a good enough actor to hide either the anger or the boredom.

  15. Jeremy Says:

    There will be no reason for a President Romney to compromise and/or negotiate with “leftists”, and plenty of reasons not to.

    Maybe, I guess time will tell. I just think Romney’s malleability makes him easier to bully. I also feel like folks on the right were having the same anxiety about Obama in the 2008. And we all know how that turned out.


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