Mitt Romney has added his voice to the chorus of Republicans who are dismayed that an ignorant demagogue such as Donald Trump could be poised to capture the presidential nomination of their grand and noble party.
In a speech Thursday morning, Romney said, “Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” He laid out a comprehensive case for why Republicans should reject Trump and pick one of the other candidates still in the race.
But before we start lauding Romney for being a statesmanlike voice of reason and moderation, it’s worth remembering a few things about him.
To begin with, four years ago, Romney eagerly sought and won Trump’s endorsement. This was after Trump went on a crusade to prove that Barack Obama was born somewhere other than America, so it wasn’t as though there was some mystery about whether Trump wanted to appeal to the basest prejudices within the Republican electorate.
But more importantly, Romney ran a campaign that was utterly demagogic and dishonest. It may not have been quite as appalling as what Trump is doing now, but in many ways it was similar, the only difference being that Trump says out loud what Republicans such as Romney prefer to imply.
It’s true that members of the Republican elite such as Romney don’t believe Trump would be a reliable conservative if he took the Oval Office, and they’re right about that. They’re worried he’ll lead the party to defeat in the fall, and they may be right about that, too. But what really has them appalled is the way Trump took the appeals they used to make with at least a veneer of subtlety, and tore that veneer right off.
Trumpism is Republican conservatism stripped of its politesse.
Let’s cast our minds back to the 2012 campaign and remember how Romney used to talk about Obama. He may not have charged that Obama’s birth certificate was fake, but he spent an awful lot of time trying to convince people that the President just wasn’t really one of us.
“Sometimes I just don’t think that President Obama understands America,” Romney would say, or he’d claim that Obama had “a very strange, and in some respects foreign to the American experience type of philosophy.”
Barely veiled attacks on Obama’s patriotism were a staple of Romney’s campaign. He took one of the most inane of the Republican criticisms of Obama — that he supposedly “apologizes for America” — and turned it up to 11.
Romney was so invested in this idea that he titled his 2012 campaign book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.” “Never before in American history,” he wrote, “has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many American misdeeds, both real and imagined.”
The number of times Obama apologized for America was zero, but that didn’t stop Romney from repeating this lie literally hundreds of times, to audiences everywhere he campaigned.
Parallels in rhetoric and ideas between Trump and Romney are not hard to find. Trump says that our military is weak and pathetic, while Romney said, “President Obama is shrinking our military and hollowing out our national defense.” The next line of Romney’s speech was this: “I will insist on a military so powerful that no one in the world would ever think of challenging us.”
Sound familiar? That’s because Trump says, “I’m going to make our military so big, so powerful, so strong, that nobody, absolutely nobody, is going to mess with us.”
When it comes to foreign policy, Trump offers nothing but an appeal to strength: We’ll be strong, we’ll kick ass, and everyone will bow down before us. And what did Romney say? His foreign policy had “three fundamental branches”: “confidence in our cause,” “clarity in our purpose” and “resolve in our might.” So pretty much the same thing, with barely more sophistication.
After the 2012 GOP nominee’s advisers concluded he needed “a more combative footing against President Obama in order to appeal to white, working-class voters,” Romney aired a stunningly dishonest ad charging falsely that Obama had removed work requirements from welfare, allowing shiftless leeches to sit back and enjoy government largesse paid for by hardworking Americans. (“You wouldn’t have to work. They just send you your welfare check.”)
While it may not have said anything explicit about race, you can be sure Romney and his campaign knew full well that attacks on lazy welfare recipients have a long and ugly racial history behind them.
But that kind of rhetoric always has plausible deniability, which Republicans count on. We’re not race-baiting, they say, that ad never mentioned race at all! And this is what they find so disturbing about Trump. He doesn’t bother with subtlety, or try to find ways to activate voters’ prejudices while being able to claim he doesn’t know what’s going on. His ugly appeals are explicit and unadorned.
Perhaps Romney is sincerely horrified by Trump’s campaign. But it ought to sound awfully familiar to him.