The Mitt Romney who is running for president simply cannot be the same Mitt Romney who ran Bain or even the Olympics. The Mitt Romney who did those things had to be clear, decisive, and gaffe free. He had to rally diverse groups of people and who had to create effective working teams who accomplished things. Mitt Romney's presidential campaign has been oddly chaotic, marked by a series of missteps and topped by the last, disastrous week, which I think is the worst week I remember any presidential campaign experiencing. Mitt's off his game.
What's going on?
Well, Kristine Haglund suggests a solution grounded in the Mormon conception of masculinity:
The performance of Mormon masculinity is a difficult balancing act, a tightrope walk between poles established by a brutish, hyper-masculine “natural man” and an effeminate gay man. It is perhaps unsurprising that Mormon patriarchs—as well as Mormon men running for high elected office—wobble from their carefully constructed equilibrium when buffeted by the cultural winds of feminism and the gay rights movement.I'd push Haglund's thesis a bit further.
Mitt Romney is a product of Mormon culture, which is carefully constructed to support Mormons as they adhere to the strict moral codes of the faith. Mormon culture is characterized by a deep sense of reserve around intimate matters. Mormons don't talk or joke about sex. Public nudity is unheard of in Mormon culture and private nudity not really encouraged. Mormon culture is so chaste as to almost seem like a parody of the 1950s. Mormons don't swear. Faithful Mormons can go a lifetime without drinking coffee or alcohol, without smoking. Mormonism is a faith filled with rules and strictures. There are deeply held values about gender roles and propriety. Mormonism's public world is orderly, tidy and carefully arranged into hierarchies and smoothly running schedules. In response, the Mormon personality is bifurcated between a public and private persona. The public face is carefully controlled, deeply reserved, prone toward conformism, characterized by seriousness; the private face is often goofily quirky and good humored (though Utah is filled with secrets - child abuse, spousal abuse, sexual abuse and exploitation, high rates of use of internet pornography and so on). Quiet, obedient and restrained in public, goofy in private; frugal to the point of parsimony in public, generous in private, awkward in public, disarmingly at east in private. I've met more than a few Mormons who are publicly conservative and privately liberal, whose private self is completely disconnected from their public persona.
Romney's confessed indulgences - peanut butter sandwiches and chocolate milk - are embarrassingly chaste. Romney's casual acceptance of his own privilege is a perfect exemplar of the successful Mormon man. He's followed the rules, he obeyed all the edicts and all the commands and he has succeeded and his success confers upon him authority which we should obey. The insistence that the "private" Mitt Romney has a great sense of humor, the attempt to use anecdotes to humanize him, the sense the public Mitt Romney and private Mitt Romney are different people strikes me as typically Mormon.
Romney cringe worthy answer to a question about what he wears to sleep ("As little as possible") makes sense when you consider that within Mormon culture such a question would never be asked. He could never have prepared for such a question and could never have had a humanizing, witty response prepared. Mormonism is deeply reserved about the body. A few years ago, the University of Utah women's gymnastics team won a national competition. To celebrate, they put up a billboard on the freeway in Salt Lake showing a gymnast in her outfit doing the splits or something typically gymnastic. Locals complained almost immediately about these "sexualizing" billboards. When Victoria's secret opening in Salt Lake, locals complained that it made the mall unsafe for children. Sexuality is dangerous and must be avoided at all costs.
In Mormon culture, hierarchical status confers respect. Authority in Mormonism is rarely questioned. Mormon authorities are bad at explaining why they're doing what they're doing because within Mormonism they have the ultimate conversation stopper - "God said so." I think Romney is genuinely confused when his public assurances aren't simply accepted as fact. Why should people want to see his taxes when he's said there's nothing illegal in them? His odd, robotic public persona is the political version of the Mormon church leader who speaks in a near monotone (the "church voice") which is designed to comfort by its very blandness. The histrionics of the pulpit pounding evangelical are totally alien to the Mormon church.
Haglund's thesis - that Mormon masculinity gets knocked out equilibrium by the larger culture - can be expanded. It's not just Mormon masculinity, it's the Mormon personality in general. Mitt Romney is an exemplary Mormon with all that implies. The contemporary public square has knocked Mitt out of his equilibrium and he's wobbling. The collapsing of boundaries between public and private, the refusal to casually accept his authority, the jostling of different groups, standards and rules all feel anarchic to a good Mormon who is accustomed to the order and tidiness of Mormon life.
Living most of my life in Utah and in the shadow of Mormon culture, I see Mitt's troubles as a near perfect reflection of what happens when Mormons encounter the wider world. They feel adrift, lost, unsure and they feel their sense of self wobble; and then return with relief to the orderly and organized world of Mormonism. Mitt Romney is experiencing this dynamic on the national stage. His missteps, mistakes, and organizational problems all reflect his personal disequilibrium.