The latest variant of the presidential election parlor game we call “What Were They Thinking?” asks why Mitt Romney chose this moment in his quest for the White House to become involved with Donald Trump.
Here’s a contrarian guess by way of an answer: Populism. Bear with me for a moment of explanation.
Romney has accepted Trump’s support before, but the renewal of their alliance seemed curiously timed. Most of the commentary has wondered aloud about the “birther” allegations that Trump is again lobbing at the president (defying all the evidence long accepted by reasonable people of all political stripes). One might imagine why Trump sees headline and TV potential in these fantasies, but it defies reason that Romney would want to associate himself with them.
Moreover, it’s doubly difficult to divine why Romney would want to truck with The Donald at all. Even before his recent career as a “reality TV” star, Trump was an avatar of ostentatious consumption, serial marriages, loudmouthed behavior in defense of egregious income inequality and dubious business dealings. His signature line in pop culture was and is: “You’re fired.”
What part of this would Romney want any part of?
The common response is that Romney wants or needs the millions Trump can raise for him in Las Vegas, New York and New Jersey — or wherever else he has friends. This week’s event at Trump’s hotel off the Vegas strip lends millions of dollars’ worth of credence to this view.
But does Romney really need Trump to raise money? Romney already has any number of friends whose claim to being billionaires is a lot more believable than Trump’s. These friends and allies have already put in motion a process by which Romney’s campaign and an array of superPACs will raise and spend at least as much as the incumbent president will. Whatever else you want to say about the presumptive Republican nominee, he will not be underfunded. A few more million is no big deal.
So if it’s not money, what really makes it worthwhile for Romney to break bread with this man?
It’s not money, it’s people. Or more properly: The People. Or certain people who call themselves The People.
Who are they? Let’s put it this way. They are NOT the same people John Lennon was talking about when he wrote “Power to The People.”
What Romney is looking for in Trump is something he can’t get from other billionaires. It is populist appeal. And from the Romney perspective, Donald Trump looks closer to popular appeal than Romney himself.
Look at the TV shows, the cable TV news shows, the instant attention from conservative pundits and pollsters. Trump has star power the way Sarah Palin had star power, except you won’t catch him retreating to Alaska and renouncing it.
When Trump indulged in his childish contretemps with Wolf Blitzer on CNN this week, he was both nettled and delighted. He resented being denied the chance to peddle his own view of global economics. But he relished being on CNN and bearding the host of The Situation Room, taunting him about CNN’s ratings (far below those of Fox News).
This is the sort of dialog that makes The Donald a hero to many ordinary Americans who might otherwise consider him a self-indulged rich twit from Manhattan. And that is the kind of jujitsu Romney would like to practice on TV interviewers himself. Watch the man work. He takes a few questions from the host or the anchor and then bang, he turns the tables and comes off like a regular lunch-bucket guy.
Seen from the right perspective, the TV journalist becomes the elitist — the apologist for President Obama. That’s a mojo that Romney would love to capture. He would love to be able to go toe-to-toe with Wolf Blitzer in this fashion. He might not come out ahead on points, but it would please a lot of people who are not normally pleased with Mitt.
And if he can’t do it on his own, well, there’s The Donald.
That’s why a candidate who has trouble finding his own Inner Populist sees a resource in the guy famous for firing people.
Ron Elving is senior Washington editor for NPR News.