This article was originally published on The Washington Spectator.
Somewhere in the annals of the world’s folklore—perhaps somewhere in the collected Brothers Grimm—there must exist some allegorical tale that lays bare the folly of what happened yesterday in Salt Lake City. There, Mitt Romney inhabited the voice of probity, caution, trustworthiness, and integrity in order to warn the unwashed Republican masses away from Donald J. Trump. “Haven’t we seen before what happens,” he pleaded, “when people in prominent positions fail the basic responsibility of honorable conduct? We have, and it always injures our families and our country.”
Kind of like in 2012, when the last man standing in the Republican freak show was this same Mr. Romney, and when a New York Times editorial noted that his “entire campaign” rested “on a foundation of short, utterly false sound bites” repeated “so often that millions of Americans believe them to be the truth.”
Romney’s campaign was also built on eviscerating a little law the incumbent president had passed that mandated individuals purchase health insurance on government exchanges. “Obamacare” was based, of course, on a Massachusetts law that mandated individuals purchase health insurance on government exchanges, which, until Romney started running for the 2012 Republican nomination, was known as “Romneycare.”
“Dishonesty is Trump’s hallmark,” he says. As, once upon a time, it was Willard Mitt Romney’s: refer to blogger and former MSNBC producer Steve Benen’s epic 41-part series “Chronicling Mitt’s Mendacity,” which documented 917 separate falsehoods during 11 months of Romney’s campaign in 2012.
“There are a number of people who claim that Mr. Trump is a con man, a fake.” ¡Quelle courage! Governor Romney. Can’t you muster the backbone to call Trump a con man yourself? Maybe because Romney knows a little bit about con men. He cites Trump University, Trump Steaks, Trump Mortgage, all veritable frauds—but then, so are “multilevel marketing” companies like Nu Skin and Melaleuca, whose executives bundled millions for Romney’s presidential campaigns and which he has praised effusively.
“He inherited his business, he didn’t create it.” In that respect, Trump is nothing like the bootstrapping Mitt Romney, whose dad was merely an automotive tycoon.
He says, “Mr. Trump has changed his position not just over the years, but over the course of the campaign.” Speaking of changing over the course of a campaign, I’m so old I remember how Mitt Romney launched his campaign for the 2008 nomination in front of a state-of-the-art electric car, in tribute to his father’s prophetic insistence in the 1950s that to prepare for a time when petroleum might be scarce, Detroit should stop stamping out “gas guzzlers.” But Mitt would soon choose right-wing orthodoxy instead, denying the existence of man-made climate change.
“His bankruptcies have crushed small businesses, and the men and women who worked for them.” We’re supposed to forget that Romney’s job at Bain Capital was advising the companies that pioneered outsourcing, and buying companies then shutting down their factories to make them more attractive to investors.
“He calls for the use of torture.” In case the Internet is down in all eight of Romney’s homes, here’s the memo from his foreign policy advisers, the one he echoed on the campaign trail, recommending he go full bore on same.
“Mr. Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are more worthless than a degree from Trump University.”
Just like yours, Mr. Romney. Just like yours.
Romney’s flaccid speech, too little, too late, too lame, won’t amount to anything, except as a useful historical document. For one thing it renders perspicuous, given the similarities between the campaign he ran and the one he criticizes, how he and his fellow sachems of the Republican establishment understand their underlying contradictions with Donald Trump.
One crux: capitalism. How it must work to ensure the establishment remain the establishment. It is surely no accident that the speech’s first major point concerns Trump’s heresies on international trade: they “would instigate a trade war” that would “kill our export jobs and lead entrepreneurs and businesses of all stripes to flee America.” (Since Romney in his business practices had no compunctions about abetting the same practices, that’s how you know the problem is not the depredations of capitalism itself, but the wrong kind of capitalism.)
Then, “his refusal to reform entitlements and honestly address spending [that] would balloon the deficit and the national debt.” (Since every Republican candidate’s proposed tax cuts for the rich would balloon the deficit and national debt, too, you know the solution is not austerity as such, but merely austerity for Everyone But Us.)
These two points are the speech’s emotional core. The line, “You can’t punish business into doing what you want,” is its quintessence. The rest of it—the nonsense about Trump being some sort of new-vintage liar, con man, and all around meanie—is just politics.
But the politics are important. Listen to Mitt Romney summon John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln: “I understand the anger Americans feel today. In the past, our presidents have channeled that anger, and forged it into resolve, into endurance and high purpose, and into the will to defeat the enemies of freedom. Our anger was transformed into energy directed for good. Mr. Trump is directing our anger for less than noble purposes. He creates scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants.”
But didn’t Mitt Romney joke during the 2012 campaign in Michigan, “Nobody ever has to see my birth certificate. They know this is the place where I was born and raised”? Indeed he did. And then spent days dialing it back and apologizing. Just the kind of apology that’s inconceivable from Mr. Trump.
Previously, the men who’ve scaled the commanding heights of Republican politics have understood that in order to institutionalize the right kind of capitalism, and the right kind of austerity, you have to win the political loyalties of precisely those people harmed most by the right kind of capitalism and the right kind of austerity, and that the way to do it is to scare the bejeeususes out of them about—well, whatever: invading terrorist hordes will do; and also the dusky hordes here at home.
But, as I’ve noted here before, these men were also “sufficiently frightened by the daemonic anger that energized their constituencies that they avoided surrendering to it completely, even for political advantage.” They wanted the proper measure of demagoguery, but no more; and also a brand of demagoguery that lets decent folk sign onto the coalition from a position of self-respect—some of whom, truth be told, are not really racist at all, but do sincerely believe the nostrums that the minimal state delivers the greatest good to the greatest number. Lots of people voted for Reagan not because they heard in his cry that “government is the problem” an invitation to kick “the minorities” off food stamps, but because they just believed government was the problem. Dog whistles are not only pitched at a frequency that the media or liberals can’t hear.
Trump’s post-dog-whistle politics queers that second sale—the part of the conservative Republican appeal that keeps it from falling off the cliff of ill repute. You can read all about that in a fascinating new article from the conservative economics writer Megan McArdle. She collected the impassioned testimonies of the most loyal Republicans imaginable expressing a revulsion at Trump’s racism as authentic as yours or mine.
Romney’s right: because of Trump’s sheer grossness, he’s disassembling a very hard-won political accomplishment. The Republican Party is a coalition. Trump is hiving off part of the base. The political question is whether he can replace what is missing with the addition of authoritarians in his own image.
Which, even if he can, is no comfort to these establishmentarians, for the reasons I describe above.
So Trump has to go. But how?
In the speech, Romney stumbled through an oblique expression of strategy: “I’d vote for Marco Rubio in Florida and for John Kasich in Ohio and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state.” This was a nearly verbatim transcription of what The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol said Wednesday on Morning Joe: that by denying Trump victories in two huge states with “winner take all” primaries—where the candidate who gets the most votes gets all the state’s delegates—Trump can be denied 50 percent of the votes on the first ballot at the party convention, and “it remains very much an open race.”
Then, apparently, just like in the days of Boss Tweed, the power brokers can assemble in back rooms and find a suitable “conservative” who knows that multinational corporations’ trading prerogatives are sacrosanct, that, yes, you deal with dictators, but only the right dictators (Romney: “Donald Trump says he admires Vladimir Putin, at the same time he has called George W. Bush a liar. That is a twisted example of evil trumping good.”); and that entitlements and top marginal tax rates were born to be cut.
William Kristol? Yes, you’re remembering it right. William Kristol was the genius who, after meeting her on a National Review cruise to Alaska, decided that a governor named Sarah Palin was the perfect figurehead to lead the Republican Party into the future as John McCain’s running mate—under, of course, the tutelage of people like Bill Kristol. Soon, of course, she was revealed as an uncontrollable maniac. Now, in her endorsement of Donald Trump, she’s one of the people wrenching the Republican Party apart.
No wonder you hear a certain character invented by Mary Shelley referred to a lot in discussions of the Republican Party these days, when it comes to this challenge of controlling the beast of right-wing populist rage they’ve been stoking lo these many years.
It is, in fact, a venerable metaphor. The first time I’ve located its use in the current partisan context was by the columnist Mike Royko way back in the 1980s, describing Ronald Reagan as the progeny of Goldwater—“who is generally credited with being the father of present-day conservatism, an honor that can be compared with the medical achievements of old Doc Frankenstein.”
Just so: Reagan conservatism was a Frankenstein’s monster. (Come to think of it, doesn’t that rectilinear thing Mitt Romney calls his head look a little like Frankenstein as played by Boris Karloff, only cleaned up after a few decades in the forest?) And Trump is the product of their politics. That makes him Dr. Frankenstein’s monster’s monster—exponentially more dangerous and frightening. Now, naturally, they’re trying to kill him off. Good luck with that.
Rick Perlstein is the Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.