Donald Trump has an oversized appetite for revenge. He’s said that his favorite Biblical teaching is “an eye for an eye,” and he certainly hasn’t been shy about humiliating political rivals like Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz. It’s tempting to see a similar drama of retribution unfolding in the way Trump has been putting Mitt Romney through the wringer in the process of selecting a Secretary of State—a process that continues today when they meet for a second time.
Trump has ample reason to want to inflict pain on Romney. In early March, Romney tried to sabotage his campaign, saying in a ferocious speech, “Here’s what I know: Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing members of the American public for suckers.” In June, after Trump had sewn up the nomination, Romney—who never endorsed Trump and refused to attend the Republican Convention—went even further, warning in a CNN interview that Trump’s presidency would bring “trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny” to America.
Trump loyalists like Kellyanne Conway and Newt Gingrich haven’t forgotten those words. They’ve launched a very public campaign, possibly with Trump’s connivance, to spike Romney’s potential appointment, saying he’s unpopular with the base and potentially disloyal. Some members of the Trump camp have said Romney needed to apologize for his attack on Trump if he wanted to be seriously considered for the job.
Despite the attacks by his lap dogs, Trump himself is reportedly still serious about selecting Romney. For the former governor, there’s a real danger that this is all an elaborate Trumpian abasement ritual, with the risk that Romney might demean himself with a public apology—after already demeaning himself to seek a job in the “fraud’s” cabinet—only to have the job denied to him. As an anonymous Republican told The Washington Post, “the danger is apologizing and not getting the job.”
Yet there’s a real possibility that, as vengeful as Trump undoubtedly is, his desire for a reconciliation with Romney might be genuine. The flip side of Trump’s vindictiveness is his desire for adulation and acceptance, especially by elite figures who scorn him as vulgar. As BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins noted in an acute analysis of Trump’s psychology, the defining theme of the president-elect’s life has been “his sad struggle to extract even an ounce of respect from a political establishment that plainly viewed him as a sideshow.” And that, Coppins wrote, is a by-product of the way he’d felt “for virtually his entire life—face pressed up against the window, longing for an invitation, burning with resentment, plotting his revenge.”
By this reading, Trump has always been the Queens boy who needed to prove to the Manhattan snobs that he’s as good as them, a quest that mixed in both a thirst for revenge and a desire for approval.
Romney—son of a governor, much-admired business success, and former presidential candidate with a large party following—is Trump’s latest version of that old Manhattan elite. Trump endorsed Romney in 2012, but still smarts from he disrespect he feels he was shown by the campaign. As Coppins records:
[F]or Trump, the ultimate insult came at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. “Everybody wanted me to make a keynote speech,” Trump told me. “People were writing me thousands of letters and emails, all going crazy.” Yet despite the pleading of these vast letter-writing multitudes, the Romney campaign turned him down.
For Trump cronies like Conway and Gingrich, Romney is beyond the pale, the very embodiment of the respectable elite that Trumpism was designed to overthrow. In her remarkable Sunday-show outburst against Romney, Conway told Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd, “People feel betrayed to think that Governor Romney, who went out of his way to question the character and the intellect and the integrity of Donald Trump, now our president-elect, would be given the most significant Cabinet post of all, secretary of state.” Gingrich, claiming to speak “for most of the Trump supporters” on Fox News Sunday, said “we will be enormously disappointed if he brought Mitt Romney into any position of authority.”
As is his wont, Trump has turned the transition process into a chaotic, reality-show-style drama. Letting Conway and Gingrich rip into Romney is part of the theatrics (not to mention the revenge). But it’s by no means clear that Trump shares their view that Trumpism requires the establishment to be vanquished. Those are the emotions he’s used to power his movement, but Trump’s own ambition, going back to when he worked in his father’s Queens firm but dreamed of conquering Manhattan, has been not to overthrow the elite but to join it.
While it might disappoint Conway and Gingrich—and the whole inner circle of campaign loyalists who want to remain the ones whispering in Trump’s ear—there’s surely no better way to join the elite than to adorn his cabinet with establishmentarians like Romney. It wouldn’t just be a smart move politically—helping to heal party divisions and neutralize a potential foe—it would also satisfy Trump’s own search for acceptance more than simply punishing Romney would. It would be a way for Trump to have his cake and eat it too: bringing Romney low by making him subservient, while also winning the approval of someone who famously disrespected him.
For Trump, the choice for Secretary of State ultimately won’t come down to weighing the merits of Romney versus Rudy Giuliani (or Bob Corker). It’s whether to get a brief jolt of spiteful pleasure from rejecting Romney outright (as Conway and Gingrich want), or to enjoy long-term gloating pleasure by having the former governor as a Trumpian underling.