There is a theory in widespread circulation on the right that purports to explain the Republican electorate’s attraction to Donald Trump. The idea is that Republicans tried nominating a decent and thoughtful candidate in Mitt Romney only to see Democrats and the media ruthlessly smear him, causing them to turn in disillusionment to a ruthless bully.
The theory appeals not only to Trump’s more-or-less proud supporters on the right who revel in his role as avenger of their collective humiliations but also to conservatives who abhor and disdain their party’s leader.
“It was the left’s (and the media’s) treatment of Romney that numbed the electorate to real, valid concerns about ‘character’ four years later,” argued Tim Alberta, who has criticized Trump bitterly. The same notion has been proposed by such anti-Trump conservatives as Noah Rothman, Michael Strain, Matthew Lewis, and Bethany Mandel, among others.
Despite its superficial cause-and-effect logic, this explanation collapses immediately upon historical scrutiny. For one thing, while it is true that Romney was the target of some unfair attacks during the 2012 campaign, this is a trait he shares with every other presidential candidate in the history of the United States. And while Republicans may have particular bitterness at the flavor of some of the especially silly attacks thrown at Mitt Romney — the mockery of his earnest claim to have compiled binders containing the names of female candidates was memorably stupid — his treatment was utterly routine.
It’s natural for Republicans who feel affection toward Romney to object more strongly to his depiction as a heartless plutocrat — a theme first developed by his Republican primary opponents — than to the portrayals of Al Gore as a liar and John Kerry as a coward and flip-flopper. The only unusual thing about Romney’s treatment is the affection felt for him by a species of conservatives. (Romney’s post-defeat reincarnation as a Trump critic has given him a retrospective sheen, making him the subject of unusually strong nostalgia for conservatives queasy at their party’s current state.)
For another thing, the imagined sequence by which Republicans turned to the brutish Trump only after watching poor Romney get his head dunked in the toilet ignores Trump’s rise in the party. He captured the fervor of the Republican base with his conspiratorial attacks on Barack Obama in 2011 — before Romney won the nomination. Indeed, by February 2012, Trump’s appeal had already reached a point where Romney felt obliged to publicly court the notorious birther:
Indeed, it ignores the entire modern era of the postwar Republican Party. As even some conservatives have acknowledged, Trump hails from a long line of populist right-wing demagogues, from Lindbergh to McCarthy to Palin. Republicans didn’t turn to a right-wing huckster in response to the events of 2012 but because they do so periodically.
The existence of the theory that Romney’s mistreatment gave rise to Trump tells us more than the theory itself. It appears to fulfill a deep need by conservatives who are humiliated by Trump and desperate for ways to explain this catastrophe that do not implicate their own beliefs and deeper attachments. The Romney-backlash theory — like other notions floated by the Trump-skeptical right, such as the idea that FBI mistreatment of Trump has caused Republicans to defend him — resolves their cognitive dissonance. It allows them to detach the good parts of the party from the bad ones, even if the two parts were literally once shaking hands.