The two new leaders of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign sought Thursday to reassure nervous Republican Party leaders that there is a path to victory in November and that the divisive billionaire mogul will be able to transform his image to win over the general electorate.Trump’s chief strategist Paul Manafort told members of the Republican National Committee in a closed-door briefing here Thursday afternoon that his candidate has been playing a “part” on the campaign trail, but is starting to pivot toward presenting a more businesslike and presidential “persona.”“He gets it,” Manafort told RNC members. “The part that he’s been playing is now evolving into the part that you’ve been expecting. The negatives will come down, the image is going to change, but ‘Crooked Hillary’ is still going to be ‘Crooked Hillary.’” …Manafort argued that Clinton’s negative favorability ratings are caused by “character” issues, whereas Trump’s are fueled by “personality” concerns.“Fixing personality negatives is a lot easier than fixing character negatives,” Manafort said. “You can’t change somebody’s character, but you can change the way a person presents himself.”
I think Manafort is getting a little too cute with that distinction — Trump has an awful lot of character negatives — but the frankness on display here is stunning. It isn’t the first time we’ve heard something like this — Trump himself has said, “I’m very capable of changing to anything I want to change to.” But when was the last time you heard a candidate’s top aide say in public that he’s been “playing a part,” and now he’ll just be playing a new part?
If you listen to Trump’s supporters, one of the things they cite for their attraction to him is that unlike every other politician, he’s authentic. He “tells it like it is,” they say again and again. He’s not like those candidates whose every word is crafted and rehearsed. He’s real.
And yet the truth is that Trump is the most inauthentic candidate there is. He has spent decades manipulating the press to advance his business interests and is obsessed with his public image to an almost psychotic degree. To take just one colorful example, for years, reporters would get phone calls from a Trump associate named John Barron, who was often quoted defending Trump’s wisdom and extolling his achievements. But “John Barron” didn’t exist — it was Trump himself making the calls. Perhaps it was inevitable that he would become a star of reality TV, an entertainment genre built on presenting artfully crafted and edited presentations as “reality.”
What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail
If Trump was an ordinary candidate, he would get positively savaged for the kind of shameless reinvention he and his aides are promising. Let’s remember that for a couple of decades now, the political press has been obsessed with the idea of authenticity. I’ve long argued that what it really values is not so much authenticity itself but the most convincing portrayal of the authentic; while every politician presents a persona to the public, the ones rewarded for being “real” are simply the better actors. Candidates such as Mitt Romney or Al Gore, on the other hand, both of whom were uncomfortable enough with the performative aspects of politics to make it evident to all that they were indeed acting, get skewered by reporters for their inadequate performance.
Just try to imagine for a moment what the reaction in the media would be if Hillary Clinton — another politician who is constantly criticized for being insufficiently “real” — had her campaign manager say in public that she would be transforming her personality for the general election, because it’s all an act anyway. Would the reaction be, “Well, this is interesting”? Of course not. She’d be eviscerated by every reporter and pundit in the land.
Yet the rules seem different for Trump. Maybe it’s because he was a celebrity before coming to politics, so reporters don’t expect anything different from him than an entertaining show; they’ll criticize him for his indifference to policy details, but not for the inherent fakery of his campaign. Whatever it is, Trump can get credit from his supporters for being authentic and at the same time be as blatantly inauthentic as he wants.
So what does a Donald Trump who tries to be a serious candidate look like? It’s hard to imagine. What we know at this point is that Trump will be the most ignorant, unqualified major-party nominee in modern times, if not all of American history. He’s trying to be the first president who never worked a day in government, and over the course of the campaign it has become clear that he knows and cares as much about public policy as your average sixth-grader. The magic of his primary campaign, however, is that the force of his personality and the emotions he channels have been powerful enough that it didn’t matter. The people supporting Trump don’t want someone who’s qualified in any traditional sense. They want someone who’s angry, who’ll stick it to the people they hate, who’ll talk like the Shock Jock in Chief and say the things they say in private and wish they could say in public.
So now Trump is saying to them that he isn’t going to be that person anymore. He’s going to act more “presidential,” a word he uses frequently but seems to think resides solely in not swearing in public, or maybe talking less about whom he’d like to punch in the face. I suppose the idea is that the Republican voters who back him precisely because of those features of his personality that the rest of the country finds repugnant won’t forget why they were attracted to him in the first place, while the rest of the electorate will give him a clean slate.
Who knows? Maybe it’ll work. But it would be a pretty sad commentary on the American people’s judgment if it did.