Trump's "reinvention" could be Hillary's worst nightmare: Why the GOP frontrunner could do real damage

It seems like a foregone conclusion that Trump's attempt at a makeover will fail. Don't be quite so sure

Published April 25, 2016 9:57AM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (Reuters/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (Reuters/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)

Shortly after the New York primaries last week, a “senior Clinton aide” was in a celebratory mood that apparently inhibited his or her self-awareness, and scoffed at Sen. Bernie Sanders' tone (which has become scandalous in Hillaryland):

“We kicked ass tonight. I hope this convinces Bernie to tone it down. If not, fuck him.”

While it is still unclear what exactly is so disagreeable about Bernie’s tone (if Sanders was truly running a negative campaign, the FBI investigation and dubious dealings at the Clinton Foundation wouldn’t be off limits, as they have been), it is unlikely that he will just shut up about Clinton’s history of political expediency or her financial ties to Wall Street, because these are real and troubling issues for progressives. Though Clinton and her supporters make light of her ties to Wall Street, the corruption of American politics is systemic — and real progressives understand this. As David Dayen writes in the New Republic on Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speeches, and why seeing the transcripts is ultimately unnecessary:

“The actual transcript is unnecessary because we already have enough in the public domain to know the real issue with these speeches: the rapport and camaraderie between political leaders and financial institutions, which results in a frame of mind that accepts their arguments and privileges their views.”

As long as Clinton accepts millions of dollars from Wall Street, Sanders has no reason to “tone it down.” These are important matters, and as the likely Democratic nominee, Clinton’s feet should be held to the fire.

But there is one candidate who absolutely must tone it down if he expects any shot at winning the general election, and according to his new campaign chief, Donald Trump plans on doing just that. The New York Times reports:

Donald J. Trump’s newly installed campaign chief sought to assure members of the Republican National Committee on Thursday night that Mr. Trump recognized the need to reshape his persona and that his campaign would begin working with the political establishment that he has scorned to great effect.

Addressing about 100 committee members at the spring meeting here, many of them deeply skeptical about Mr. Trump’s candidacy, the campaign chief, Paul Manafort, bluntly suggested the candidate’s incendiary style amounted to an act.


“That’s what’s important for you to understand: That he gets it, and that the part he’s been playing is evolving,” said Trump’s new campaign chief, Paul Manafort, in front of a crowd of Republican National Committee members. “The negatives are going to come down, the image is going to change, but Clinton is still going to be crooked Hillary.”

As many of us concluded a while ago, Trump has been more or less acting like a bigoted blowhard to rile up a large segment of the Republican electorate, and it has worked wonderfully so far. Trump’s populist persona has given him a strong lead in Republican delegates, and though his nomination isn't guaranteed at this point, he is most likely the Republican Clinton will be facing in November.

But while Trump has garnered diehard support from a plurality of Republican voters, he has alienated a majority of the general population. As Manafort mentioned, Trump has horrific favorability ratings. According to the HuffPost Pollster, Trump’s average favorability rating is 63.7 percent unfavorable, 30.3 percent favorable. No presidential candidate has ever been elected with those kind of numbers.

Not only that, but Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric has inspired Hispanic voters across the country, according to a recent poll by America's Voice and Latino Decisions, to come out and vote against the candidate. 48 percent of registered-voter Hispanics are more enthusiastic to vote in 2016 than they were in 2012, and 41 percent attributed their enthusiasm to a desire to vote “against Trump.” Furthermore, 79 percent have a “very unfavorable” view of the billionaire and 87 percent overall find him unfavorable. And according to the same poll, Trump would only get about 11 percent of the hispanic vote against a Democratic challenger — the lowest ever for a Republican.

Can the Trump campaign really undo the damage that has been done in order to get ahead in the GOP primaries? Americans do have notoriously short memories when it comes to politics, but it seems unlikely that voters will forget Trump calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals,” or advocating for a complete ban on Muslims entering the country, or defending the size of his junk. (Was that a part of his act too?)

Of course, Trump's likely opponent is not exactly well liked among the populace, as his campaign chief indicated. Hillary Clinton’s favorability ratings are almost as bad as Trump’s — 55.6 unfavorable, 38.7 percent favorable, according to HuffPost Pollster — and a large part of the electorate, on both the left and right, simply do not trust the former Secretary of State. Some of this distrust is well earned, and some of it is unfair — but politics is not about what’s fair, and Trump will undoubtedly push the “crooked Hillary” image. “Fixing personality negatives is a lot easier than fixing character negatives,” said Manafort, implying that Trump’s negative ratings are due to his vulgar personality, which can be mended (Trump has even hired speechwriters and will now be using a teleprompter like Obama!), while Clinton’s negatives are due to her questionable character.

If Trump tone’s down the divisive rhetoric he has run on thus far — e.g. scapegoating minorities and immigrants, insulting women, mocking the disabled, inciting violence, championing torture, etc. — can he defeat Clinton? It seems unlikely -- but so has his entire campaign. On average, Clinton is currently about 10 points ahead of Trump in national polls (while Sanders bests the billionaire by about 15 points).

The anti-establishment ethos of 2016 has propelled Trump within his own party, but it is hard to imagine a country that elected Barack Obama twice, which is becoming more socially liberal, tolerant and diverse, appointing a man who has run on white resentment and fear their head of state. But then again, this is also the country that brought us the Ku Klux Klan, Rush Limbaugh, climate change denialism, and the birther movement. In other words, one should never underestimate the power of demagoguery.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

MORE FROM Conor Lynch

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Dem Primary Donald Trump Elections 2016 Gop Primary Hillary Clinton