We’ve heard so many times about the possibility of Donald Trump “pivoting” to the center now that we’re in the general election that the idea has become something of a punch line. Whenever Trump says something that indicates he’s trying to expand his base of support, within a day (or even just a few hours) he’ll move in exactly the opposite direction, leading a hundred commentators to say, “So much for that pivot.” The implication is that Trump considered changing his strategy but then decided against it in favor of appeals to the base Republican voters who are already with him.
But it’s time we stopped assuming that Trump has something we could call a coherent strategy — or ever will. It’s increasingly apparent that both the man himself and his campaign have a competing pair of impulses, one of which is much stronger than the other, but both of which will continue to be expressed from here to election day.
Look at what has happened in just the past few days. Trump gave a speech expressing “regret” for some of the things he has said over the course of the campaign — but didn’t say which things, and also added that it was only because he was being so honest. He made an explicit appeal to black voters, which involved telling them that they’re all poor, uneducated, and miserable. He apparently told a group of Latinos in a private meeting that maybe he wouldn’t try to round up and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants after all. Then his campaign insisted that none of Trump’s immigration policies have changed.
This came after his campaign aired its first general election ad, which paints a dystopian picture of America turned into a nightmare by immigrants. Trump surrogates are out promoting a bizarre theory that Hillary Clinton has some kind of brain condition that threatens her ability to function as president; Trump himself is reinforcing this idea by alleging that she lacks the “stamina” to serve. “Go online and put down Hillary Clinton illness, take a look at the videos for yourself,” Rudy Giuliani told Fox News Sunday (though I’m pretty sure that if you typed “Rudy Giuliani bestiality” into Google you could find some interesting stuff too, and it would be no less reliable).
Finally, Trump’s new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, went on TV and said in defense of her candidate, “He doesn’t hurl personal insults.” For some reason she failed to add that Trump also never wanted to be rich and is a man of uncommon modesty. I could have sworn I saw a small trail of smoke rising from the back of Conway’s head, as the last remnants of her soul ignited before crumbling to ash.
Conway herself is at the heart of the contradictory impulses of Trump’s campaign. Last week, after a series of revelations about his work for pro-Russian forces in Ukraine (and millions of dollars in cash payments he may have received), campaign chairman Paul Manafort was pushed out of his job. Critically, Manafort was supposed to be the person who could professionalize the Trump operation, and there were reports that he tried to rein in Trump’s worst instincts. To give you a flavor, as Howard Fineman reported, when the infamous taco bowl incident occurred on Cinco de Mayo, “Manafort politely suggested that this might be seen as condescending and cautioned against it. The tweet went out. Trump himself was delighted by the resulting controversy. ‘The people who were offended were people we wanted to offend,’ he later said.” If tens of millions of Latinos were the people Trump wanted to offend, then mission accomplished.
We might have looked to Manafort’s replacement for a clue as to Trump’s strategy for the remainder of the race. But look at what Trump did: he hired two people with diametrically opposed approaches, both of whom now seem to be sorta kinda in charge of the Trump campaign. You have Conway, a longtime Republican pollster who clearly wants to find ways for Trump to reach across the middle so that he might actually win 50 percent of the vote; she’s officially the campaign manager. Then you have Stephen Bannon, chief of the white nationalist Breitbart News web site, who has made his name by stirring up controversy with outrageous provocations and absurd lies; he’s the campaign CEO.
Conway is a Republican establishment figure who’s surely smart enough to realize that winning a general election requires something more than keeping base Republicans angry and excited. Bannon is a media provocateur who, like Trump, has never worked on a campaign before but who has achieved success in his narrow world through ugly appeals to the worst instincts and prejudices of the worst people. The idea that these two could agree on a single course for the campaign is absurd.
You might think of it as a tug of war between these two individuals and their approaches. But that implies that one will win and one will lose. I’m not sure that’s what’s going to happen. Instead, I think we’ll continue to see what we’ve seen in the last few days. It’s not a cycle in which Trump moves toward the center and then moves back, because that implies a concerted movement in both cases. Instead, we’ll see incongruous steps toward the middle that are are accompanied, often on the same day, by vulgar appeals to the kind of people who read Breitbart. For each one of the former we’ll get five or six of the latter.
There are disagreements within every campaign about what the strategy should be (and you could say the same about any corporation, non-profit, or other large organization). But there’s ultimately a decision-maker who chooses a strategy, whether it’s a good one or not. What distinguishes the Trump campaign is that those disagreements are so evident in the organization’s outputs — the ads, the media appearances, the speeches, and yes, the tweets. Because the candidate himself has no idea what he’s doing and the campaign is such a disorganized mess, every fleeting impulse finds expression in some kind of communication that is blasted out to the public.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some part of Trump himself that understands that in order to win, he’d have to do something radically different from what brought him so much success in the primaries. But he doesn’t have it in him, and the chaotic mess that is his campaign can’t force him to alter course — at least not for more than a moment, before he goes right back to being himself.