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What Mitt Romney’s Body Language Is Trying to Tell Us

Lots of people have talked about how Mitt Romney comes off like a robot.

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During the Republican debates, Romney, Sarah Kaufman wrote in the Washington Post , would often “lean an elbow on his lectern and, with the mild, slightly wincing smile that is his default expression, he’ll settle in to listen. (Is that the consultant in him, keeping an open mind? Or is it the missionary, hoping to find common ground and then swoop in for the conversion?) .… Stiff, yes. But not cold…. This man wants to be involved. He has the missionary’s tenacity.” (If so, this gives new meaning to “the missionary position.”)

But here’s the problem: Romney had the same look on his face right before he famously and physically laid into Rick Perry for accusing him of hiring “illegals” at one of the debates. Grabbing Perry’s shoulder and refusing to let Perry interrupt him, Romney was no wimp or weenie. He was aggressive, he was bold—as he’s been in other debates and can be on the campaign trail. Yet, when it was officially Perry’s turn to speak, Mitt returned to the same mild mien that I had taken as benevolence and kindness. (See the episode here.)

Mitt may well have vast reserves of both qualities, but they are not necessarily what his passive posture reveals at all. Elspeth Reeve may be right when she writes that when Mitt seems to be making goo-goo eyes at others, he’s really just expressing “ boredom and contempt.”

Maybe he’s really saying: “You can’t say I’m not paying attention to you. Look at me: I’m politely wasting my time, feigning interest and positive feelings toward you. I will smother you with my listening power!”

My pop-psych take is that—with some notable exceptions (like grabbing Perry, or tackling a fellow student at prep school to cut off his hair off)—Mitt finds it far safer to express the passive side of his passive-aggressiveness: arms immobile at his sides (the better to not throttle you with); mouth closed (the better to not blurt insults); eyes dreamy (the better to not shoot daggers). It all goes with how he trained himself, consciously or otherwise, to not be as honest as his dad. (George Romney lost the GOP nomination for president when he said that the military had “brainwashed” him into supporting the Vietnam war—a lesson Mitt has not forgotten.) As I wrote of Mitt a few months ago, “Bland on the outside, roiling on the inside, he’s almost the definition of passive-aggressive: expressing ‘negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way.’ Mitt regularly attacks, lies or infuriates people, all the while professing to be blissfully unaware of any negativity.”

Why, he attacked, lied and infuriated people just the other day, when he implied that Palestinian culture is inferior to Israeli culture—and then, as if unaware of any negativity, denied two days later he’d said a thing about culture. Hours later, of course, he reversed himself again and doubled down on the culture explanation in a National Review op-ed.

And none of this even touches on the idea that his lying is beginning to seem not just passive-aggressive but pathological. Rachel Maddow showed Wednesday how Romney probably lied about his tax returns when he was running for governor of Massachusetts. Back then, he refused to show the returns to the Boston press after promising to do so—much as he promised ABC News this week that he’d answer questions about his tax returns, but has since refused.

We may never know the truth about his taxes or his other secrets. But the body knows…