One of the most entertaining parts of covering this election is watching Donald Trump’s fans and sycophants talking themselves into reasons why this or that move by the candidate will be the game changer that finally turns him into a viable general election candidate.
So it was last week after the walking order of deep-fried orange chicken took to stages in Wisconsin and North Carolina and gave reasonably polished speeches that eminence grise Newt Gingrich declared “historic” and suggest he would now beat Hillary Clinton by a “surprising margin.” Other hopefuls compared him favorably to Ronald Reagan and pronounced themselves “cautiously optimistic” that the candidate has finally turned a corner after a tough August that saw him fall well behind his opponent.
Credit for the latest Trump “pivot” fell to Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, the newly hired chief executive and campaign manager, respectively, of Trump’s campaign. Presumably, this new team, which completely took over with the resignation of Paul Manafort on Friday, is trying to polish up Trump, to make him look more presidential, serious and worthy of the office he seeks.
They even got him to Louisiana so he could spend 39 seconds pulling supplies for flood victims off a truck while dressed like Judge Smails at the yacht club. Any headlines should have noted that this desultory effort was Trump’s first stab at participating in anything other than campaign rallies and came 14 months into the campaign.
Assuming Trump’s goal really is to win the presidency – no sure bet – there is zero reason to think this latest pivot into a softer candidate who will appeal to general-election voters will work out any better than any of the previous ones. And there have been several.
Trump was going to pivot to the general election after the Indiana primary in May, when he secured the delegates he would need for the nomination and knocked out Ted Cruz, who was his last major competitor. Instead he immediately sent out the infamous “taco bowl” tweet on Cinco de Mayo, against Manafort’s advice.
He was going to pivot in June when he fired former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and put Manafort, who had been hired at the end of March to work on wrangling delegates ahead of the Republican National Convention, in charge of his operation. Lewandowski was known to have a “let Trump be Trump” approach to the campaign and had made little to no effort to reign in the candidate’s insane Twitter rants and wandering, angry speeches, which had helped Trump’s favorability numbers to plummet.
He was going to pivot in July heading into the RNC, which was his and the party’s opportunity to showcase its platform and make a pitch to the general public that Trump and the GOP are the better choice in November. Instead, they put on a four-day pitch-black fantasia that would have sent Hunter S. Thompson screaming in terror out of the Quicken Loans Arena.
And now this latest pivot, which, despite all outward appearances of a normal candidate reading speeches from a Teleprompter instead of free-associating like a lunatic, is still being run by a pollster who has never managed a campaign before and a guy who runs a racist hate site and has long wanted to set the Republican Party on fire for the apostasy of not fully committing to white ethno-nationalism.
Pulling off a transformation into a general election candidate now requires a disciplined candidate. Has Donald Trump done anything in the last 14 months that would make anyone think he has any discipline? Is there any reason to think he can go for two and a half more months without sending out some of the crazed tweets that bring him the adulation of his biggest supporters? Is there any reason to think he can go until Election Day without insulting an interviewer? Any reason to think his allegedly newfound discipline will see him through three debates against Clinton, who can be a good debater?
Trump was already showing signs of cracking when he went off his prompter to ad lib some condescending lines aimed at African-Americans in a Friday evening speech in Michigan and pronounced that he would earn 95 percent of the black vote in November. (He’s currently polling around one percent with African-American voters.) He chafes at anyone who tries to keep him in line, as Manafort reportedly tried to do. What makes Conway and Bannon any different?
The answer is: nothing. At the end of the day, the problem with this campaign is the candidate, who is an undisciplined mess. Letting “Trump be Trump” results in unhinged behavior, insults and flat-out narcissism. Trying to rein Trump in upsets him until he lashes out with…unhinged behavior, insults and flat-out narcissism. If Conway and Bannon think anything they can do with Trump will alter the arc of this campaign, even to hold down the margin of his loss (assuming that is even the goal), I suspect they are mistaken.