Live recklessly and imagine, for a moment, being inside Donald Trump’s head as he tried to decide between Newt and Mitt. Each stranger-than-fiction figure offered a great big bang for the buck.
Gingrich fit Trump’s temperament like a glove. Both depend on television to fuel their power. They both possess finely tuned demagogic instincts. Both direct their appeals to the angriest, most disenfranchised segment of the country: the birthers, the haters, the racists. And the two men seem to have in their blood the casino rhythms of our national life. Having acquired the surreal authority of fame, you keep rolling the most outrageous lies onto the public gaming table until you strike gold and fame balloons into celebrity. And then the very fact of celebrity bankrolls its own momentum, creates its own truth out of a card house of untruth.
But Gingrich posed a problem. A phony as a leader, he is the real thing as a demagogue. He is consumed by an obsession with power that disdains mere money and celebrity. In Trump’s case, on the contrary, his greed has always been a brake on his political ambitions. Pretending to run for president is good for business; getting down into the slime and muck of actually running is not—for most people, anyway. In his self-devouring obsession with power, Gingrich was too crazy for Trump, who is just sane enough to know how to perform crowd-pleasing craziness. Anyway, Gingrich has his own gambling mogul behind him.
Romney was the safer choice. He can rabble-rouse with the appearance of utmost propriety. Reagan had his Teflon; Romney has his inviolably immaculate white shirts. Nothing sticks, nothing stains. His college prank of presiding over a formal dinner party on the median of a busy highway was the perfect expression of his political persona. There is a magic margin between him and the filth and roar of political combat, even as he cuts a deeper swath through them. Unlike blunt Gingrich, Romney can project the red-meat promise of wounding, of humiliating the black president during a debate, without ever soiling himself by making the literal threat. The story of the dog in the cage on the roof of the car is most significant for what it says about Romney’s method and mystique. He hosed the dog down, cleaned off its excrement until its coat shone once again, and drove on.
Like all instinctive gamblers, Trump is a connoisseur of the expert bluff. Romney is bluffing the liberal media like nothing you have ever seen before. The uniform response to him is that he has a tin ear, that he is blind to ordinary people, that he is a fool, et cetera. You might call this the Gail Collins response to the Other Side. So convinced are you that anyone who is with Them is a mentally and morally challenged nitwit that you have lost the basic skill of writing a sentence that does not drip with sarcasm and smugness. So sunk are you into your own comfortable perspective and that of your readers—like a favorite old chair—that you can see neither the forest nor the trees. In the meantime, Romney is carrying the chickens out the backdoor of the henhouse, one by one.
It is an elementary fact that during moments of crisis in modern democracy, hard-pressed people side with hard-assed leaders, even if the latter are the ones doing the hard-pressing. The very fact that they are the abusers of power seems to prove their power and their toughness. They may be monsters, but they are our monsters. Of course they have the capacity to beat the other side! They have been beating us for so long, and so well.
Trump’s endorsement of Romney seems like something that came full circle. For Romney could well have been inspired by Trump at the outset of his campaign. After all, it was Trump who made the phrase “You’re fired” sensationally popular on The Apprentice at a time when sectors of the economy were contracting and throwing great numbers of people out of work. Go figure. Well, Romney did just that. He figured it out and came to the conclusion that hurt: people with no one to turn to end up turning to the ones who know how to hurt.
There was nothing tin-eared about Romney making $10,000 bets or declaring that earning more than $300,000 a year in speaker’s fees was no big deal. There was nothing clueless about him saying that he liked to fire insurance providers whose service he deemed unsatisfactory. He was giving the hard-pressed the hardness they yearned for, and he was directing that hardness not toward the rich—anyone can become rich in America, right?—but toward the liberal elites—because unlike getting rich, you don’t just get elite. Wealth is a public offering. Elite status is privately held. Or so it seems in the heat and haze of losing your house and your job.
The very moment Romney declared, during a recent debate, that he would say “You’re fired” to anyone who came to him with a Gingrich-like idea of colonizing the moon was the very moment he conclusively placed his bet on the popular appeal of hardheartedness. And that was no doubt the moment when Trump, experiencing the thrill of self-recognition, decided to put his money on the Mormon from Massachusetts.