One is profane, the other devout. One is unpredictable, the other thoroughly predictable. One is an outsider, the other an insider. One flouts family values, the other flaunts them. One is deliberately unconventional, the other studiously conventional. Both won a New Hampshire primary. But only one of them won the White House.
Donald J. Trump and Mitt Romney — both professed teetotalers, both with business degrees, both with commercial success and business values, both with peculiar Twitter affectations — increasingly sit atop rival factions of the Republican Party.
The size of those two factions is not comparable; Trump’s is vastly larger. But Romney, who is not temperamentally inclined to confrontation or conflict and who is not by nature an insurrectionist, poses a serious threat to Trump, and the president knows it. This month he denigrated Romney as a “pompous ass” and called for him to be impeached. This week Romney indicated he was open to the possibility of voting to convict Trump in the Senate if the House, as is nearly certain, votes to impeach him.
The two have sparred for years. Romney wrote in his wife for president rather than vote for Trump. Once elected, Trump interviewed Romney for secretary of state, perhaps primarily to have the opportunity to reject him. But as much as Romney prefers the high ground, it is incontrovertible that Trump occupies the White House grounds.
Apart from their different world views — it is inconceivable, for example, that Romney would question the value of NATO, just as it was inevitable that Trump would — they fill vastly different categories in the Meyers-Briggs personality profiles. Trump considers Romney a wimp. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts now occupying a Senate seat from Utah, considers Trump a vulgarian. At times they are both right.
Trump spoke recently about the critique that his comportment isn’t considered presidential. “It’s much easier being presidential, it’s easy,” he said in Dallas, before 20,000 supporters. “All you have to do is act like a stiff.” Romney personifies uber-stiffness. When he was running for president in 2012, he recalled turning to his wife and saying, “In your wildest dreams, did you see me running for political office?” She responded: “Honey, you weren’t in my wildest dreams.”
That was one of those moments when people laughed less because it was funny than because it rang true.
As a result, a close Romney associate told me that his mini-revolt against the president is “the first irresponsible thing he’s ever done.”
This is what that sounds like: “The places where I would be most critical of the president would be in matters that were divisive, that appeared to be appealing to racism or misogyny,” he said in an interview for Axios on HBO. “And those are the kinds of things I think that have been [the] most harmful long-term to the foundation of America’s virtuous character.”
These two men are the most different successive winners of the Republican presidential nomination since the party’s choices in 1916 and 1920: Charles Evans Hughes (a cultivated Brown-educated governor of New York and Supreme Court justice) and Warren G. Harding (a raucous serial adulterer more suited to the presidency of a fraternity than of a newly minted world power, one so inarticulate that H.L. Mencken said his rhetoric “reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights”).
The difference between the two pairs of successive GOP nominees: Harding actually did choose Hughes as his secretary of state, positioning him for even greater influence, because later Herbert Hoover selected Hughes as chief justice, and he occupied that post with distinction for nearly a dozen years. “He took his seat at the center of the court with a mastery, I suspect, unparalleled in the history of the court,” said Justice Felix Frankfurter.
Nothing remotely like that would happen today, a century after Harding’s awkward overture to Hughes. Instead, Romney increasingly is regarded as the center of the (currently infinitesimal) Republican resistance to Trump. But in recent weeks, an odd consensus has gathered, and it envelops both Republicans and Democrats:
Trump is supremely safe at the moment; the chance of 20 Republicans voting to convict, and thus remove him from office, is about equal to the likelihood of the Cincinnati Bengals (record: 0-7) winning the Super Bowl, or even defeating the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday. That is how things stand now.
But according to this bipartisan theory, if Romney stands firm, and if new revelations prompt fresh qualms among Republican lawmakers who harbor them privately already, Trump’s Senate support — now wide but not deep — could collapse in hours, and senators could insulate themselves from the president’s rhetoric and rage by acting in concert.
Some Republicans hold out the (vain) hope that Romney will mount a challenge to the president in New Hampshire next February. But the senator has run two New Hampshire primaries (losing to Sen. John McCain in 2008, prevailing in 2012), and he does not have the taste for a third, particularly against an incumbent president, even one with a 42 percent approval rating in the state. Some veterans of the Republican write-in campaign of 1964 that gave Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge the Granite State primary that year still rumble around in Republican circles in New Hampshire, but the most prominent among them told me the other day that there is little prospect for a repeat of that effort. Indeed, Romney has no inclination to visit the state, despite his particular fondness for Lake Winnipesaukee.
“People will recognize that character really is important in our leaders and that it’s important for our leaders to do things that unify us, that welcome people who come here legally as immigrants, that in no way signal to anybody in America that they’re less of an American because of where they came from or their sexual orientation or their race or their religion,” Romney said in the Axios interview. Trump sees the world differently.
So the two continue to circle each other warily. Trump does so with the bully pulpit of the White House, Romney with the bullhorn of rebellion. Their tension — uneasy and unresolved — is what defines the Republican Party today.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.