Have we ever seen a presidential campaign be so open about trying to unveil a candidate makeover the way we’ve seen Donald Trump’s team tip off his new look in recent days?
Huddling with nervous Republican elites, Trump’s senior aide Paul Manafort recently assured them the candidate’s “image is going to change,” according to a New York Times report. "You'll start to see more depth of the person, the real person. You'll see a real different way," Manafort stressed, according to the Associated Press. Trump to date has been “projecting an image" and "the part that he's been playing is now evolving,” the aide guaranteed members of the Republican National Committee.
No equivocation here: Trump’s changing gears, and the person you’ve seen up to now has been putting on an elaborate act.
The attempted image makeover comes as Trump battles historically awful favorable ratings heading into the general election season.
But the brazenness -- the openness -- of the move is startling simply because the Trump campaign seems to fear no backlash from the press for orchestrating an image makeover. And so far, Trump aides appear to be right. Because unlike previous instances when pundits and reporters thought they caught prominent candidates trying to change their stripes (especially when Al Gore and Hillary Clinton were the media targets), most of the press hasn’t erupted to denounce Trump for being a would-be charlatan. They haven’t cried out about his lack of genuineness.
The fact is, much of the political press has spent the last nine months touting Trump’s supposed authenticity and praising his allegedly candid campaigning style. But now faced with evidence to the contrary, and faced with evidence coming directly from Trump’s campaign, the same press corps seems unwilling to puncture the previous Mr. Authentic storyline. The press seems unwilling to admit that perhaps they’ve been duped by Trump and the “image” he projected.
Even after noting the candidate’s pending image change, National Public Radio stressed, “Still, a subdued, presidential Trump will likely continue to be a unique brand of presidential candidate.”
So even if Trump transparently sheds a new political skin, he’ll still be a “unique brand.”
All of this runs contrary to the Beltway press’ well-established rules: If you attempt an image makeover during the campaign season, you will be ridiculed as a phony and a fraud and as someone who’s surrounded by so many overeager handlers that you’re incapable of understanding who you really are.
For the campaign press, there really is no greater sin than being a phony; than being out of touch with your core beliefs. (Even Mitt Romney got singed by the press in 2012 when he was seen as trying to pull off a costume change mid-campaign.)
Those have been the clearly marked ground rules. But for Trump? Apparently those rules don’t apply the same way, because his campaign is trying to retool the candidate’s image, yet the move hasn’t received instant and outraged pushback from the press.
In fact, the media subtext I’m picking up is that Trump is smart to try to alter his image; that it’s a savvy move on his part to better position himself for the general election.
“The change in tone is absolutely necessary,” wrote the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, who noted the new Trump incarnation on display during his New York primary victory speech “was markedly more disciplined, gentler and more appealing than the version of Trump we've seen for much of the last year.”
So there’s no denial that an attempted makeover is underway. Everyone sees it. What’s missing is the outsized mockery.
It's true that Trump’s new image has sparked some media denunciations, sprinkled around in recent days if you go looking for them. And yes, some members of the media have claimed Trump’s makeover is a bogus one and that the loudmouth candidate won’t be able to suddenly become presidential. But that’s different than calling out Trump for being inauthentic and for being a phony for trying on a new look.
In contrast, when it came to Gore and Clinton image denunciations, you didn’t need to search them out. They arrived in buckets, scooped up from tidal waves of media condemnations.
For instance, during the 2000 campaign the press spun a tall tale about how Gore had supposedly been counseled to start wearing more “earth tone” colored clothing, and then laughed and belittled the candidate about it for weeks and months. For the press, it was a perfect example confirming their hunch that Gore just didn’t know who he was. (And don’t get me started on the media’s insane pile-on when, post-campaign, Gore grew a beard.)
As for Hillary Clinton, there’s an entire press canon on the topic of her supposed lack of authenticity. The Beltway press for years has worked in unison with Republicans on this theme, working to depict Clinton as a calculating fraud.
Remember when she teared up and let some emotion show on the eve of the New Hampshire primary in 2008? The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd responded with one of the meanest, most spiteful columns of that campaign season. (Headline: “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back To The White House?”)
Late last summer there was another wave of Clinton’s-not-authentic coverage. The Wall Street Journal suggested so much of what she does sounds "scripted and poll-tested." Politico declared she's a White House hopeful "with an authenticity problem." The Washington Post insisted, "Her campaign has struggled to present her as authentic and relatable." And McClatchy Newspapers asked "Is Hillary Clinton Authentic Enough for Voters," and likened her to Richard Nixon.
Or you can just Google the evergreen topic:
So where are the judgmental denunciations of Trump’s attempted image makeover? Where’s the media finger wagging about how Trump doesn’t really know who he is?