“I was just trying to be a little bit more understated and statesman-like.”
— Donald Trump, on Wednesday’s “Today” show
This reminds me of a mean thing that Conan O’Brien once said about Carrot Top. Courtney Thorne-Smith, who co-starred in Carrot Top’s film “Chairman of the Board,” was being interviewed on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and told the host that Carrot Top used no props in the movie: “They took his props away.”
“That’s a bad time to suddenly take away everything you know about comedy,” O’Brien observed.
I feel similarly about this new Trump direction. Right before New Hampshire seems an odd time to ditch your entire persona. Stick to what you know, Donald.
What would we do with an understated, statesman-like Trump? What would such a thing even look like? Would it be fish, flesh or fowl? What would it say?
Already we are getting inklings of what Bizarro Trump (the sedate, understated twin of the one we have dealt with up until now) might betoken, and they’re not exactly inspiring. This week, he actually used the term “ground game.” It’s odd to watch Trump start to campaign, instead of just assuring everyone that things will be huge and great and the polls (many wonderful polls) show it.
Has it finally happened? Is he, at last, ceasing to be Donald Trump (The Man, The Phenomenon, Panama!) and becoming … just another candidate?
I once entered a beauty pageant to see what it was like. “Who cares who wins?” I said to myself. “This is just an experience. The whole thing is an antiquated ritual with no apparent point or application in actual life!” And then I placed fourth out of four in the Photogenic category, and suddenly I was out for bear, feverishly practicing my talent routine and asking everyone for pointers on how to Walk better.
I suspect something similar has happened to Trump.
It’s all a joke until you aren’t winning.
But New Trump is a problem for a couple of reasons. His indifference was what initially drew us to him. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, okay, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?” is Classic Trump. But New Trump seems visibly worried about losing voters. What if, next, he starts caring what we think? What then?
New Trump’s first move was to accept his second-place finish in Iowa with relative humility (admittedly, relative humility for Trump is not saying a great deal), which baffled everyone. He took to Twitter the next day to announce that Ted Cruz was an Election Thief and another election was called for — but then on TV he said that he was fine with the results. (“I’m so much into this, into New Hampshire, that I just — I don’t care about that anymore,” Trump said, on CNN. “This is the place I’m focused on now.”) There is some sort of Jekyll & Hyde-style struggle going on here before our eyes.
Whichever one wins, what lingers is the sense that Trump is no longer quite so apparently indifferent to people’s opinion.
The pursued is now the pursuing. And a Trump who cares what we think is a very different animal.
If I learned anything from reading Proust (if you read Proust but do not manage to work it constantly into conversation, does it even count?), it is that the second the beloved starts to reciprocate and care about your feelings, your feelings vanish. What appeals is the unattainable and the indifferent. Once you possess a thing, you could not care less. After all those hundreds of pages, you feel that surely this insight must be unique to Proust. but you can also get it in three minutes from any Sondheim song. Buddy’s Blues does it in one line: “I got those God-why-don’t-you-love-me?-oh-you-do?-I’ll-see-you-later! blues.”
That’s where Trump is.
And the polls back it up. Trump is down — a new Public Policy Polling survey puts him at just 25 percent nationwide, a drop of 9 percentage points.
This is the ending of “Grease,” where you change and it turns out that wasn’t what the other party actually wanted at all.
“Understated and statesman-like?”
Donald Trump courting us feels wrong. We liked him because he was a scoundrel and there were not enough scoundrels in our life. He can’t start caring now.
Statesmanlike? Ground game? Ad buys? A routine candidacy?
That’s the kiss of death.