Why Romney’s bullying is a big deal

So, for the past couple of days I’ve been trying to figure out whether or not the latest Romney scandal is a big deal. On the surface, the answer may seem obvious. I mean, the story of the time when a young Mitt Romney had a gang of his friends hold down a boy while he forcibly cut his hair has dominated the news cycle for a couple of days, competing successfully with Barack Obama’s declaration of his personal belief that same-sex marriage should be allowed.

What I am wondering is whether or not the story is going to remain in the public consciousness for more than a few days, and whether it will actually substantially alter the public perception of Romney and influence the outcome of the election in the fall. The fact is that every day there is some scandal or crisis that dominates the news cycle, sending pundits scurrying to their typewriters (metaphorically) to write about how the the news of the day is a game changer, and how the outcome of the campaign hinges on how they respond over the next few hours. Most of these crises fade away to be replaced by the next crisis, and don’t seem to have any lasting impact on the election dynamics.

There is a part of my that thinks that the haircut scandal may be different.

The difference, I think, is the tangibility and violence of the act.

Most of the short-lived crises that crop up in election cycles do not really have gut-level impact. Maybe one candidate served on a corporate board with someone who was accused of insider trading. That is a situation that is so disconnected from the lives of most people that, while they might understand it intellectually, it is unlikely to resonate emotionally. Or maybe another candidate had an affair in the past. Affairs are much more universal, but that universality also mitigates our outrage. Everyone has friends who have, or have had, marital difficulties, and most of us understand that relationships are difficult and complicated, and that those situation are rarely simple.

Perhaps more important is the fact that we have have a very strong cultural narrative of infidelity followed by redemption. It is not hard to come up with examples of movies, television shows, and novels where there is infidelity in a marriage, but the cheater learns the error of their ways, makes amends, and winds up with a stronger marriage as a result.

Contrast these two situations with the Romney haircut scandal. It seems to be a clear case where Romney was a bully. Bullying is a cultural universal. It is something that everyone can picture from their own personal experience. Furthermore, pretty much everyone thinks of themselves as having been on the receiving end of bullying (even many of the people who were also the bullies at some point). So, while there may be a few people who identify and sympathize with Romney, everyone can identify and sympathize with John Lauber, the boy whose hair was forcibly cut by Romney.

Adding to the emotional resonance is the extreme violence of the incident. I actually have a bit of a hard time picturing the scene. Not because it is so very foreign, but because it makes me queasy to think about it. Here’s the description from the Washington Post:

“He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann’s recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber’s look, Friedemann recalled.

A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors. 

It’s a scene of extreme violence. A group of boys tackling another boy and pinning him to the ground. The pinned boy screaming for help and starting to cry while his hair is forcibly cut with a pair of scissors. I’ll posit that if picturing the scene doesn’t make you feel sick, either you’re a psychopath, or you’re not really picturing it.

The other thing about this that spell trouble for Romney is the cultural resonance of the scene. In contrast with the infidelity-and-redemption trope, try to picture the haircutting scene in a movie. This is exactly the sort of scene you can imagine being used as short-hand near the beginning of a movie to quickly establish characters. Now, think about what the scene would actually be telling us about those characters.

It is not hard to imagine one of the cronies, one of the gang of kids holding John Lauber down, being sympathetic. He might be a character who is not really bad, but was weak, and got caught up in the moment. Maybe by the end of the film this character redeems himself by standing up to the group of bullies who were his former friends.

But what about the kid who was holding the scissors? I have a hard time picturing that kid as a redeemable character. He’s the kid who is rotten to the core, the one against whom other characters’ redemptions are measured. That is the image of Mitt Romney that has just been presented to us.

That’s not to say that, in real life, a kid who callously engages in acts of cruelty can’t learn empathy and set his bullying days behind him. But I don’t think that’s the narrative of least resistance. That means, I think, that it is incumbent on Romney to demonstrate that he has totally changed between then and now.

The problem is that Romney has done absolutely nothing to suggest that he did learn anything from the experience, or that he has acquired more empathy than he seems to have had as a teenager. So far, his responses have been the usual political denial-of-recollection and non-apology:

I don’t recall the incident myself, but I’ve seen the reports and I’m not going to argue with that. There’s no question but that I did some stupid things when I was in high school and obviously if I hurt anyone by virtue of that, I would be very sorry for it and apologize for it.

Contrast this with the people who were interviewed for the original Washington Post piece, who are still haunted by the cruelty that they witnessed and facilitated. So far, they seem to fit pretty well into the narrative of the henchman-bullies who did some cruel and callous things, but who learned from the experience became better people as a result. One of them went so far as to seek out John Lauber and apologize to him (years later, but presumably prior to Lauber’s death in 2004).

There seem to be three possible interpretations of Romney’s response, none of which paint a flattering picture of the presumptive Republican nominee:

One possibility is that Romney is being honest, that he doesn’t remember the incident. That he, in fact, probably never gave it is second thought, and doesn’t really fully understand, even now, why people think it is such a big deal. This would speak to a troubling, pathological lack of empathy on Romney’s part. Unfortunately for Romney, this picture resonates with his image as a child of privilege who feels no moral obligation to other people.

A second possibility is that Romney recalls the incident, and maybe even feels bad about it, but that he is trying to manage the political impact of the story by minimizing it. That would speak a little better to Romney’s capacity for empathy (and long-term memory), but still paints a picture of someone whose sense of entitlement (and political ambition) far outweighs any sense of morality.

A third possibility is that Romney genuinely feels bad, but is unwilling to say so because he feels that he need to pander to the anti-homosexual contingent in his base. That would make Romney a bit less of a monster personally, but fits neatly with his image as a candidate who has no core values, and who is willing to say or do anything in the name of getting elected.

Maybe I’m wrong, and next week this will be forgotten as we’re all talking about the lost thirteenth tribe of Kardashians. But to me, this story is so visceral, and so resonant with everything else we know about Mitt Romney, that it just might stick around.

Update: The original title of this post was “Why is Romney’s bullying is a big deal?” Which is, um, derp, is not very grammaticish.

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