The Trump primary is over. Thursday in Las Vegas, Donald Trump took to the podium to endorse Mitt Romney, who just over a month ago made headlines by spurning a debate that Trump planned to moderate in Iowa. With Trump’s backing of his “tough, smart sharp” fellow businessman, we are probably done—fortunately or unfortunately—with the possibility for Trump to spend the entire Celebrity Apprentice season teasing the press with the possibility of an independent run for President.
The temptation is to make a few Boardroom jokes, shake one’s head that politics has come to this, and move on. But there are a few reasons why, God help us, the endorsement may matter, for better or worse.
First, while the endorsement ends the Trump primary, it does not necessarily end the Trump problem, which I wrote about in an earlier column: the need for a Republican nominee to appeal to GOP voters who like Trump (even if they don’t want him to run) while not alienating those who think that Trump is a clown. Earlier in the campaign, Romney, like some of his rivals, met with Trump to court him but—one eye on the general election—made sure to do so without cameras following him. This time, Romney could not help but go on camera. (And the Obama campaign, evidently at least as happy with the photo-op as Romney was, made a point of sending out a link to video of the event to reporters and to over 12 million Twitter followers.)
Yesterday’s event was a textbook case of a candidate embracing a supporter while trying not to look like he was embracing him too much. Trump kept his remarks very short—”Gov. Romney, go out and get ’em”—and I have to wonder if that was deliberately calculated, so as to minimize the soundbites for later. Romney, meanwhile, tried to strike a balance between gracious and amused, with a thank you that seemed planned so that you could read it as genuine or ironic: “There are some things you just can’t imagine happening in your life. This is one of them.”
Still, Romney was there on that stage with a NBC reality-TV host, and no one forced him to do it. He could have passed on the endorsement, standing on principle. (Ha ha! I know!) Maybe the short-term calculation was that the help in knocking down Newt Gingrich in Nevada was worth it; or that he could win some Tea Party bona fides now, while the endorsement would be irrelevant come the fall.
But arguably too, there is a real and important thing Romney could learn from his fellow .01 percenter: how to get people to love you for being a rich guy. Trump is (to use a favorite adverb of his) hugely polarizing, yes, especially since he became America’s Birther in Chief. And even before then, plenty of people saw him as more of a publicity hound and media star than a business icon. Nonetheless, there were also plenty of non-rich people who loved Trump—who loved him for his success and Ozymandian self-monuments, not in spite of them. Whereas Romney can come across as a dispassionate alien from Planet Mammon, prone to gaffes about money, Trump was a jillionaire who had a following among non-jillionaires—maybe because of his pugnaciousness, his comfort with self-promotion, or his lifestyle itself, the kind that people imagine having if they won the lottery. (“I would build a skyscraper out of solid freaking gold!”)
Say what you want about Trump—I’m sure you will in the comments—but candidate Romney would not mind if a bit of that rubbed off on him. The first question is whether that’s possible. The second is whether too much of Trump rubs off on him through the endorsement. Having visited Trump in his hotel, can Mitt Romney avoid carrying his political baggage?