Two obvious points, and they’re connected. One: Hardly anyone in Trump’s base will hold what he says here against him even though they’re mostly blue-collar. Two: Mitt Romney would have been destroyed for saying something similar even though he’s worth far less than Trump and actually gave away the inheritance he received from his father to charity. (How much Trump inherited isn’t clear but he appears to have controlled a one-fifth share of his father’s $200 million real-estate empire by 1974.) Why the double standard?
One reason is that Trump is a populist and Romney palpably is not. Americans have never held great wealth against their political leaders provided that they’re ostentatious about wanting to help the working class. I remember that debate from 2008, with multimillionaire trial lawyer John Edwards talking up “two Americas” at every stop. The left-wing grassroots loved him just as liberals decades ago idolized super-rich aristocrats like FDR and JFK. Democrats, as the party of organized labor, retain a certain reservoir of “common man” cred no matter how rich they get. But aristocrats on the right, or rather the center-right, can tap into that occasionally by articulating a “torches and pitchforks” attitude towards the ruling class when the moment for it is right. Perot and Trump are the obvious examples, with Trump drilling down on all sorts of middle-class economic anxieties — outsourcing, labor competition from illegals, protecting entitlements, etc. Romney never spoke to that effectively. On the contrary, his campaign will be remembered in time mainly for what he said about the “47 percent.” Night and day.
Another reason is personal style. Huckabee once said of Romney that voters prefer a candidate who looks like the guy they work with, not the guy who laid them off. Trump’s image is complicated in that sense. On the one hand, thanks to “The Apprentice,” there’s no American more famous for firing people than he is. On the other hand, the point of “The Apprentice” is that people get fired for not being up to snuff in a competition, not because they’re “redundant” or because stock prices might move if a few thousand expendable jobs are cut. Trump’s reputation for layoffs is more tolerable than Romney’s because it’s easier to justify in terms of meritocracy. In terms of personal affect, meanwhile, it’s no contest. Trump’s unscripted barstool New Yorkese works the same way Perot’s unscripted southern twang did: They may not look like the guy you work with but they sound like him. Romney, always polished and carefully scripted, could never pull that off. (Neither could John Kerry.) In fact, my hunch is that lots of Trump’s fans wrongly believe that he’s a self-made man and would be surprised to learn that his dad was a fantastically wealthy real-estate magnate. He sounds like a self-made man. He acts like one too, slapping the family name all over his buildings to tout his own seemingly nouveau-riche greatness. He’s Al Czervik at the country club, not Judge Smails.
The last reason is a combination of the first two. Because he’s a populist and because he has charisma to burn, he has a robust cult of personality surrounding him that can and will strain to justify everything he says and does. It’s a forcefield. Nothing will get through it apart for some sort of grand cultural heresy, like if Trump suddenly called for gun confiscation, which he wouldn’t. Economic heresies, like single-payer health care or eminent-domain boosterism, aren’t strong enough to get through, nor are petty tone-deaf gaffes like this one. In nine and a half years of blogging about conservative politics every day, the only person I can recall whose cult of personality matched or exceeded his in its heyday was Sarah Palin’s, but even she doesn’t quite match him anymore. That also partly explains, I think, why Ted Cruz and talk radio are reluctant to call Trump out for being a gigantic RINO: If you have good reason to think that that criticism’s not going to penetrate the forcefield, why would you bother with it? It’ll fail and then Trump’s supporters will end up being mad at you, not him. This is why I’m not convinced that Trump voters are suddenly going to stampede towards Ben Carson or Ted Cruz if Trump were to drop out. Only Trump is Trump. He’s a superhero. How do you go from backing Superman to backing Ted Cruz?