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Hair vs. Hair: Romney Is No Alternative to Trump

Republican elites see Romney as a white knight. But he's actually a precursor to Trumpism.

Heading into Tuesday night’s GOP debate, Trumpism remains scarily popular: The dominant figures in most polls are either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, who is selling himself as a more polished version of the front-runner. With their loathing of Trump and Cruz, the Republican establishment is increasingly toying with strange and off-kilter contingency plans to retake the party. One scenario involves a floor fight in a brokered convention. But if there is a convention coup to make sure Trump or Cruz don’t get the nomination, who could the GOP put in their place? Surely candidates who lost this time around—as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and the rest would in this scenario—would hardly be fit standard-bearers. So who could be a plausible alternative? 

For a core of very wealthy Republicans, the only answer to that question is Mitt Romney. The trouble with this far-fetched idea is not just the obvious (he lost in 2012), but also something more subtle: Bringing Romney back as an alternative to Trumpism makes little sense when it could be more plausibly argued that Romney was the pivotal figure who set the party on the road to Trumpism.

Writing at Buzzfeed, McKay Coppins lays out the pathway for Romney to return to the spotlight. “With Donald Trump’s ruinous domination of the Republican primary polls showing no signs of abating, top leaders in the GOP are reportedly now preparing for the possibility of a contentious brokered convention next year in Cleveland,” Coppins argues. “If that happens, a small group of wealthy donors and die-hard loyalists close to Mitt Romney will be ready with a strategy to win him the nomination from the convention floor.”

One problem with this far-from-fool-proof plan is that Romney is impressively adamant that he has absolutely no interest in campaigning again. Asked about being brought in as a white knight at the convention, the former Massachusetts governor responded, “Please let me know who’s doing that and I’ll have a word with them. I’m not running.”

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has described Coppins’ account of the schemes to recruit the 2012 Republican Presidential candidate as “Romney porn.” Yet, despite this dismissive comment, Douthat himself has a taste for Romney smut, tweeting that, “I’ve been kinda-sorta fantasizing about a Romney write-in campaign in NH, because a Mitt v. Trump showdown would be, in a word, amazing.” There are polls showing that only Romney could beat Trump in New Hampshire. According to the Boston Globe, if Romney were in the race, he’d trounce Trump by a two-to-one margin in New Hampshire (31% to 15%). Sans Romney, Trump dominates in the first primary state. 

Douthat makes the intriguing argument that a battle between Romney and Trump would be a contest not of opposites (a moderate versus an extremist), but of two very similar candidates. Both Romney and Trump appeal to a Republican nostalgia for a kind of fantasy version of the 1950s, days when supposedly competent white businessmen ran the show and America was a showcase of managerial expertise. In Douthat’s words on Twitter, Romney versus Trump would be “Capitalist v. capitalist. Alpha v. Alpha. Hair v. Hair. Opportunistic immigration restrictionist v. opportunistic immig. restrictionist.”

This acute observation brings to the fore the real problem of resurrecting Romney. It’s not so much that he still has the stench of defeat from 2012, or that he’s not particularly eager to run: The real weakness of Romney is that he’s not an alternative to Trump but the progenitor of Trumpism. 

The origins of Trumpism are often located in figures like George Wallace or Ross Perot. There is some truth to that, but there is also a way in which Trump comes not from outside the GOP but from the very heart of the party. This goes back to the 1968 election, when the Southern Strategy emerged and the GOP chose to abandon African-American voters. Leap forward to the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the sweeping changes happening in the country’s demographics. The Republicans faced a stark choice: Should they double down on the white vote or make an outreach effort to non-white voters (not just African-Americans but also Latinos, Asians, and other groups that are increasingly feel alienated from the GOP)?

In 2012, Romney made the fateful decision to reject outreach to non-whites and to focus on maximizing the white vote for the Republicans. Romney’s talk about “self-deportation” and his willingness to wave aside 47 percent of the population as moochers has to be seen as part of this focus on concentrating only on the core racial demographic of the GOP. On the one hand, his campaign was remarkably successful with those target voters: He won 59 percent of the white vote, higher than any candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984. But even that large share wasn’t enough to offset the rising number of non-white voters, the vast majority of whom voted for Obama. 

Romney’s failed strategy left a legacy: It primed the party for Trump. The two men should not be seen as opposites but as two adjacent points on a curve. Trump is Romney taken one step further: Romney is an extravagantly wealthy man who has open contempt for those he sees as losers, and is willing to run a campaign aimed almost entirely at a white audience. Trump is the same, except much more blunt and explicit about the white nationalism. Everything that was subtext in Romney is out in the open with Trump. But the core strategy followed by Trump is in keeping with the plans of the Romney campaign in 2012. It’s worth remembering that even though Trump was an explicit Birther in 2012, Romney welcomed Trump’s endorsement.  

If Trumpism is the problem for the GOP, the solution cannot be the candidate who paved the way for it to take over the party. Like Cruz, Romney would offer a more polished version of Trump, but the former Massachusetts governor is not an antidote to Trump but a carrier of the same virus.