Donald Trump's riding high in the Republican primary not because of some previously undiscovered political genius so much as some seriously good luck. Last week demonstrated this truth once again when the Trump campaign completely and hilarious botched their initial attempts to pivot to the general election by portraying the candidate as more moderate and reasonable than he has been portraying himself so far.
Not that there was ever really a good path that Trump could take to portray himself as suitable for occupying the White House. Without his bombast as a distraction, his utter lack of experience and qualifications will quickly become the story. He's painted himself into a corner where the headlines will either be about what an asshole he is or what an idiot he is, and right now, there's just no good way for the campaign to fix the situation.
Once they give up the bombast, if Trump is even capable of that, the Trump campaign is probably doomed. His only real skill as a politician is getting attention, something he'll have to give up if he's going to start pretending to be a serious person.
In order to delay that moment, the campaign seems to have landed on a bizarre strategy: Continue with the bombast-as-usual campaign style, but promise that soon the shift will be taking place.
Trump unveiled the promise-it's-coming-someday strategy last week.
"The campaign is evolving and transitioning, and so am I," he told the Wall Street Journal. "I'll be more effective and more disciplined."
"I will be so presidential," he told NBC, "you will be so bored. You'll say, 'Can't he have a little more energy?'"
The campaign tried a similar move, promising Republican National Committee members that Trump's bombastic act is just that, an act, and that the "image is going to change".
It's a weird move, because there's already a high level of skepticism regarding Trump's ability to act like a reasonable person instead a scary, honking clown who alienates literally everyone who isn't already in his cult. Making a bunch of bold promises just sets up a situation where, if you fail, you confirm everyone's worst opinion about you.
And sure enough, that's exactly what is happening with Trump. His Twitter feed continues to be the same garbage dump it's always been, with him crowing about the New York Times hitting hard times and sneering obnoxiously at his opponents.
Wow, just announced that Lyin' Ted and Kasich are going to collude in order to keep me from getting the Republican nomination. DESPERATION!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 25, 2016
If Trump and his campaign are actually interested in making him seem more presidential, it would seem like the strategy should be for him to start acting more presidential. Promising it's coming and never delivering just sounds like telling more lies, i.e. the kind of behavior that is sending Trump's unfavorability ratings to record-breaking levels.
But then again, what choice does the campaign really have? Acting "presidential" and trying to conduct himself like a reasonable person who deserves an honest hearing for his ideas is a really bad move for Trump. It's near-certain that his opponent in the general election will be Hillary Clinton. Trying to compete with her to seem capable and intelligent is like challenging Steph Curry to a game of HORSE. Cruz or Kasich might have been able to hoodwink some voters into thinking they're Clinton's intellectual equal, but Trump doesn't have a chance.
Like most trolls, Trump is annoying because he can't get attention any other way. He's not smart or talented or charming or savvy. All he has is an ability to say outrageous things and get attention for it. That was made evident in those few GOP debates where he was clearly under orders to act like a grown-up. Deprived of the opportunity to entertain people with his big mouth, he had nothing to offer and the other candidates ended up getting a much bigger share of the media attention.
Without the armor of his insult comedian act, Trump is exposed for what he is: A lightweight who has coasted his whole life on privilege and who doesn't understand what a moron he is because he pays people to shield him from the truth. But Clinton won't be paid to go away.
Right now, with the nomination still insecure, Trump is retreating quickly from those promises to act presidential, instead flinging mean nicknames at his opponents and having his campaign walk back statements about his supposed upcoming pivot to being more reasonable-seeming. The nuttiness is the only thing he's got going for him in the primary race and to give it up now would make it that much harder to win.
Trump's only skill is being a jerk and his hope of getting the nomination depends on it. But that shows that he has no real chance against Clinton in a general election. He has no good choices when it comes to a general election campaign. If he doesn't act like a braying ass, everyone will get bored and start wondering why this dummy is in the race to begin with. If he decides to roll out the one skill he does possess, getting attention through crazy statements and off-the-charts bigotry, then that will just run every voter who isn't already a hateful person into Clinton's welcoming arms. Heads he loses, tails she wins.