Why the G.O.P. Won’t Embrace Mitt Romney

An analysis of the Republican psyche

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Obama’s been quiet this past week, so I’ve decided to turn my attention to the psyche of the GOP and its current identity crisis. The very public debate over Republican self-definition stands in stark contrast to the previous three presidential election cycles, which were driven by a binary message that divided the electorate into two categories — voters who were either with them or against them.

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In fact, as they struggle to settle on a leader by indulging in serial infatuation with a variety of unelectable alternatives to the front-runner, the Republicans are revealing a fundamental fact about a large and controlling segment of the party: they can only tolerate leaders who are simpler than Mitt Romney seems to be. The “anybody-but-Mitt” attraction to simpler alternatives is just the latest expression of a concept known as the attraction to non-thought, an unconscious defense first identified by British psychoanalyst Gianna Williams. The appeal of the phenomenon is simple: why make the effort to entertain notions of complexity when to do so invites the risk of psychic chaos that uncertainty can produce?

Now the attraction to non-thought is exacerbated by our collective insecurity in response to the shakiness of our economy. In practice, this defense, motivated by a denial of the messiness of reality, extends to a hatred directed against anyone who tries to challenge that denial. Though Obama is the primary target of that hatred, expressed in the automatic rejection of every proposal he makes, we now see attacks on thinking whenever a challenge is made to Republicans yearning for simplicity. In last week’s debate, CNBC moderator Maria Bartiromo was booed before she could even finish her question about Herman Cain’s character.

The Republican resistance to Romney is rooted in this same mindset, expressed as a desperate need to find a leader who is simple, certain, and who will never change his mind. Like Obama, Romney is perceived as Other — wealthy, northern and Mormon, which arouses deep distrust bordering on hatred among Tea Party voters. Compared to his Republican rivals, whose rhetoric can rarely be confused with sophisticated thought based on a command of history or the facts, he comes off as a thinker and as different as the exotic Obama.

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We won’t hear Romney making a joke about “Ubecki-becki-becki-becki-stan-stan” the way Cain appealed to an audience driven by non-thought when he joked about his own illiteracy about the rest of the world. We won’t hear Romney revealing an ignorance of history to rival either Michele Bachmann’s or Sarah Palin’s. Nor will Romney elicit applause for a capital punishment record on a par with Rick Perry’s. And though he is clearly comfortable reversing or denying past political positions for the sake of political expedience, and pandering to the either/or outlooks of the Tea faction of the party, he is not afraid of presenting himself as capable of both/and thought processes.

As a both/and thinker leading an either/or nation, Obama continues to be faced with total resistance to any proposal he makes. But as a candidate who doesn’t shy away from the value of thinking, Romney faces the same anyone-but-him opposition as Obama. They could both benefit from confronting the destructiveness of the gang mentality they’re up against, though realistically it’s hard to imagine either one being as confrontational as the situation requires. If they ultimately run against each other next year, they may find themselves facing a common unthinking foe.