Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential candidate, with his extended family in 2007.
Mitt Romney may not have officially clinched the Republican nomination, but his victory has never really been in doubt. Nor has his viability in November: the most fanatical Tea Partiers are not about to withhold their votes and risk allowing President Obama to be re-elected.
Pundits have already begun the endless debate over whether Mr. Romney’s wealth and religion are hindrances or assets. But there has yet to be any discussion over the one quality that has subtly fueled his candidacy thus far and could well put him over the top in the fall: his race. The simple, impolitely stated fact is that Mitt Romney is the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory.
Of course, I’m not talking about a strict count of melanin density. I’m referring to the countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways he telegraphs to a certain type of voter that he is the cultural alternative to America’s first black president. It is a whiteness grounded in a retro vision of the country, one of white picket fences and stay-at-home moms and fathers unashamed of working hard for corporate America.
In this way, Mr. Romney’s Mormonism may end up being a critical advantage. Evangelicals might wring their hands over the prospect of a Mormon president, but there is no stronger bastion of pre-civil-rights-America whiteness than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Yes, since 1978 the church has allowed blacks to become priests. But Mormonism is still imagined by its adherents as a religion founded by whites, for whites, rooted in a millenarian vision of an America destined to fulfill a white God’s plans for earth.
It’s true that Mr. Romney’s opponents are all white as well. But each is tainted in his own way. Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich appear soft on Hispanic immigration, and Mr. Gingrich is hardly the standard-bearer for the invincible nuclear family.
Rick Santorum is an Italian-American Catholic, while Jon Huntsman, though a Mormon himself, wears his cosmopolitanism too brazenly. (Does he really think it’s an asset, in the eyes of a Republican primary voter, to speak Mandarin?) And Ron Paul’s isolationist conspiracy-mongering recalls, if anything, the radical-right fringe of the ’50s and ’60s, of the John Birchers and the followers of George Wallace, a manic moment even most evangelicals would rather forget.
Contrast that with Mr. Romney’s meticulously cultivated whiteness. He is nearly always in immaculate white shirt sleeves. He is implacably polite, tossing off phrases like “oh gosh” with Stepford bonhomie. He has mastered Benjamin Franklin’s honesty as the “best policy”: a practiced insincerity, an instant sunniness that, though evidently inauthentic, provides a bland bass note that keeps everyone calm. This is the bygone world of Babbitt, of small-town Rotarians.
Mr. Romney does not merely use the past as an inspirational reference point, as the other candidates often do. He conjures it as a total social, cultural and political experience that must be resurrected and reinhabited. He speaks of the founding fathers and the Declaration of Independence as phases of national creativity that we are destined to live through again. He frequently accompanies his recitative with verses from “America the Beautiful.”
And while Mr. Romney may, in some people’s eyes, be a non-Christian, he is better than any of his opponents at synching his worldview with that of the evangelicals. He likes to present, with theological urgency, a stark choice between, in his words, President Obama’s “entitlement society” and the true American freedom of an “opportunity society.” By the time he intones the Puritans’ alabaster ideal of America as a “shining city on a hill,” you wonder if he is not also asking us to choose between two different types of mountaintops.
In this way, whether he means to or not, Mr. Romney connects with a central evangelic fantasy: that the Barack Obama years, far from being the way forward, are in fact a historical aberration, a tear in the white space-time continuum. And let’s be clear: Mr. Obama’s election was not destiny, but a fluke.
Despite a general revulsion against George W. Bush and his policies, despite John McCain’s lack of ideas and his remoteness from contemporary American problems, the Republican ticket was ahead of Mr. Obama byseveral points in September 2008. Then came the fall: Lehman Brothers, the stock-market plunge and skyrocketing unemployment (not to mention Sarah Palin).
By the iron law of elections, the country threw the bums out and rejected anyone even remotely tied to them. The result? America’s first black president.
And yet, as became immediately apparent in 2009, millions of Americans were unwilling to accept the basic democratic premise that Mr. Obama legally and morally deserved to sit in the White House — and that was before they confronted his “socialist” and “un-American” policy agenda.
Mitt Romney knows this. He knows that he offers to these people the white solution to the problem of a black president. I am sure that Mr. Romney is not a racist. But I am also sure that, for the many Americans who find the thought of a black president unbearable, he is an ideal candidate. For these sudden outsiders, Mitt Romney is the conventional man with the outsider faith — an apocalyptic pragmatist — who will wrest the country back from the unconventional man with the intolerable outsider color.
Lee Siegel is the author, most recently, of “Harvard Is Burning.”