Trump inherited wealth and saw business after business fail, Romney pointed out. What we know of his economic plans would “sink” the country “into prolonged recession,” Romney argued, and “his tax plan…would balloon the deficit and the national debt.” Moreover, Romney said, Trump poses a unique danger to basic democratic values such as freedom of the press; he encourages violence against dissenters; he shamelessly repeats bald falsehoods. Backing Trump would be a step toward the nation’s democracy committing suicide, Romney implied.
Romney concluded: “His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president. And his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.”
Romney’s critique has a better chance at discrediting Trump, who bases his candidacy on his unmatched talents, than Ted Cruz’s attempts at ideological one-upsmanship or Marco Rubio’s decision to join Trump in the gutter. True, Romney is not an ideal messenger, tarnished as he is among the GOP base because he lost the 2012 presidential race and because many suspect he is a plutocratic Republican In Name Only. But instead of hiding behind the the excuse that denunciations from “establishment” politicians will only help Trump, Romney decided to speak his mind. Any Republican leader with any pull among any GOP voters should follow Romney’s lead. Maybe this sort of campaign would not work. But relative silence certainly has not worked.
Romney also essentially endorsed a strategy to defeat Trump. “I would vote for Marco Rubio in Florida, 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,” he said. The idea is to deny Trump a majority of delegates before the GOP convention, then combine all the non-Trump delegates behind someone else. This is a long-shot. It would be tough make this maneuver seem legitimate if Trump gets the most delegates. But it may be the only chance the party has to avoid the disaster of a Trump nomination.
Even if it does work, however, Romney and everyone else in the GOP “establishment” would not have washed away the moral stain that Trump has already left on the party. They would have to contemplate their role in encouraging the forces that have boosted him. Even as Romney condemned Trump as a fundamental threat to the nation, he gave credence to Republicans’ wide-ranging hysteria about Hillary Clinton. “A person so untrustworthy and dishonest as Hillary Clinton must not become president,” he declared, reflecting a variety of negative GOP tendencies — accepting distortions as plain truth, making it seem as though the fate of the Republic constantly hangs on Republicans winning the next election, arguing that their opponents are not just wrong but illegitimate. Similarly, Romney did not accept any blame for flirting with and benefiting from the populist forces that Trump has mustered. As many others have already pointed out, Romney was all too eager to obtain Trump’s endorsement in 2012, well after he should have known how toxic Trump is. Romney also courted Trumpian nativists, running on “self-deportation” during his primary campaign.
To be clear, there is no moral equivalence between Romney and Trump. Romney is not responsible for Trump. Romney respects a variety of essential political traditions and mores; Trump is a fundamental threat to the country. But the fact of Trump’s rise requires Republicans to conduct a thorough, unsparing self-examination, rather than simply hoping they can stop Trump and get back to conducting their politics the way they did before.