Last month, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman published The Real Romney, a book whose title said as much about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as any statement he's made in his own campaign. The biography's title is premised on the reaction everyone has to seeing or reading Mitt: "This can't be it, right?"
Romney's badness is so blandly self-evident that the mind almost wants to fill in the blanks, to create defenses for him that he's too clumsy or contemptuous to bother creating himself. But the whole pursuit isn't even necessary. Someone who is all surface has already told you everything you need to know.
Voters, to their credit, seem to have made up their mind. A few weeks ago, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.—which is like Comic-Con for conservatives, where everyone LARPs as "evil"—Romney was the butt of practically every joke. ("A conservative, a moderate and a liberal walk into a bar," billionaire Foster Friess joked before introducing Rick Santorum. "And the bartender looked at him and said, ‘What'll it be, Mitt?'") Meanwhile, Santorum still maintains a lead in polls in Romney's home state of
Utah Massachusetts New Hampshire Michigan.
You don't need words to explain Romney's particular defect. There's an interesting thing he does during his speeches that says it all for you. (No, not the unscripted ones, where he starts reciting forgotten verses of "America the Beautiful," like he can't quite tell whether to read a Walt Whitman poem or lead the crowd in a loyalty oath, so he's decided to awkwardly split the difference.) When he's been de-linted and given prepared remarks, he punctuates every "effective" line by raising his head to the side. He's looking at a teleprompter to make it seem as if he's engaging a side of the audience. (This is nothing new, even if Romney does it so rigidly that it looks as if he's witness to a tennis match played inside a weird gelatin mass your grandmother made for Thanksgiving.) The head raise is almost sweet. He leads with his nose and stretches his neck out a little vulnerably. Willard Mitt Romney becomes, simply, "Mallard Romney," some fatherly duck spooning food up to the audience with his bill. What's captivatingly terrible about this process is that every time Mitt delivers his "winner" line, he spoonbills some nourishment at the audience and pauses just a moment. Then, he winces.
At some point, some handler probably watched a DVD of Lie to Me or the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episodes with Vincent D'Onofrio's twitchy nerd character and learned something about micro-expressions and how even casual TV watchers were starting to become aware of them. Someone has obviously taught Romney that baring his teeth without making a hissing noise is not enough. When people smile, their eyes are supposed to crinkle.
Mitt's routine is to say some fake, horrible nonsense, and then issue a pained squint. Combined with his neutral toothiness or his simpering close-mouthed smile, it's easy to read his face, south-to-north as, "There, enjoy that, idiots," and, "I can't believe you're listening to this." Every Romney stump speech highlights this tic, and you can watch it after virtually every high note he hits.
Mitt not only wouldn't buy the meat and potatoes of his own campaign; he seems actively nauseated by it.
Like Pitchfork writers looking for The Last Real Rock Band, you can go to your grave exhausted and beaten trying to find the one remaining "authentic" candidate in national politics. But native press cynicism about politicians misses the boat on Romney. Everyone who runs for president is, at heart, probably a narcissist, a diseased scam artist, or an exception so dumbfounding that it proves the rule (Carter, Kucinich). Still, if you scratch the surface of their idealized rhetoric, you can at least find a genuine piece of shit beneath. Apart from fertilizer, that's the nice thing about shit: It's earthy.
For the most part, we accept this. We understand that it is the job of our public officials to lie to us for our own good, if only to lubricate the process of thoroughly fucking us later. We know they don't have an early meeting in the morning, but it helps if they say that ahead of time, so once they've taken us, they can dress and slink away in the dark. We are complicit in this process. We have established the basis for disappointment, and we expect them to work from that. If they aren't committed to the role of being sleazy and dehumanizing, the only thing left for us to face is that we've dehumanized ourselves.
Mitt Romney, though, is an insult even to the process of being insulted—a giant, grainy Xerox of a forgery of a human being. The problem voters have with him isn't that he's fake; it's that he's inauthentically fake. Every time he spoonbills a talking point and grimaces at his own unctuous smile, he forces audiences to confront the fact that both his ideas and even the process or conviction of having them is essentially filler. They exist, and, contrary to normal practice, it's our job to explain why.
Everyone in the press who's not lucky enough to get a book deal or desperate for a column topic has not only agreed on Romney's phoniness but also seemed to tacitly agree that trying to penetrate beneath it is a hopeless pursuit. On Mitt there is a consensus of nothingness; any attempt to unmask shreds of reality is doomed. Despite the fact that the man is running on a record of regularly and baldly repudiating his own beliefs and damning his own greatest act (Romneycare), critics miss the obvious conclusion: The Real Romney is very much the same as the fake Romney.
The fakeness is Romney's all the way down, layers of opaque lacquered bullshit poured onto plexiglass or Lucite or another unnatural transparency. This is why you out-fundraise your opponents 29:1 when you're getting your ass handed to you in your own backyard: Throw enough money in the air, and nobody can tell that nothing you were doing registered on the radar in the first place.
Flatly dismissing Romney as a fake is just as misgiven as searching for the Real Him. His is the realm of meta-counterfactuality. The ambition and sad emptiness of Romney effects something like a combination of the Scooby Doo monster and the bad guy impersonating it: There's the scary, fixed mask, and then there's the shabby, baleful old fraud beneath it, only someone fused them together and infinitely replicated them.
You can rip the Romney Mask off—Daphne shrieks—but it only reveals another and another and another, each one emitting a sad, small keening noise from the rictus mouth-shaped void in the middle of it.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo? and a former political blogger for Vice.com. He has also contributed to GQ.com and SomethingAwful.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and email him here.