Behold the kinder, gentler Donald Trump.
The latest of Trump's purported pivots is more far-reaching than a stab at greater message discipline. It is an effort to make him more appealing to minorities and college-educated whites by adopting a more inclusive message and recalibrating his hard-line position on immigration. It is nothing short of an attempt to engineer on the fly a "compassionate populism."
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Someone at the campaign clearly has run the numbers and figured out-belatedly-that Trump's demographic base is too narrow to win the national election. Trump's theory of the case in the primaries was that he had to light up white working-class voters, and his theory of the case for the general election was that he had to keep doing it, only more so.
The new iteration of Trumpism is a last-minute adaptation awkwardly grafted onto the existing campaign and candidate. Trump's still-evolving shift on immigration and his play for black voters recalls the Samuel Johnson gibe (well before the days of political correctness) about a woman preaching: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."
On immigration, Trump appears at sea on a signature issue. If he cares about immigration (which he had given very little indication of prior to running for president), Trump obviously has no idea what he really thinks about it, besides the most obvious clichés.
His most distinctive positions on immigration in the primaries were wholly impractical political symbolism. Now that the electoral calculation is different and there is a little more of a premium on realism, they are dropping like flies. The Muslim ban has become "extreme vetting." Mass deportation is getting deep-sixed. Trump still insists that he will build a wall and Mexico will pay for it. There are only two problems: 1) The wall isn't going to be built; and 2) Mexico isn't going to pay for it.
The dodging on deportation has been very public. On the "O'Reilly Factor" on Monday, Trump sounded like he was adopting President Barack Obama's policy of emphasizing the deportation of criminal aliens. Incredibly, he favorably cited Obama's deportation of "tremendous numbers of people," apparently unaware that those deportation figures have been artificially inflated by an accounting gimmick. On "Hannity" the next night, he talked of "softening" his position "because we're not looking to hurt people" (who is?).
Kellyanne Conway, Trump's new campaign manager, is a pro who is trying to land the Trump plane safely after two pilots have ejected and the instrument panel has gone haywire. It has fallen on her to spend days dancing around these questions. On Tuesday, CNN's Anderson Cooper asked her about the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here. She replied, "We need to find the mechanism that works and that is fair." Of course, someone could have thought of this before launching a campaign that is, in part, a crusade on immigration.
Conway tried to make Trump's current lack of a discernible position a virtue: "On this, I think he deserves tremendous credit. So many typical politicians, Anderson, don't bother figuring out the details, how will we execute? How will we implement?" Trump didn't seem very focused on the details of implementation last year when he went around assuring people, "You're going to have a deportation force and you're going to do it humanely."
While adapting on immigration, Trump is making a new pitch to black voters. This is welcome and sensible. It behooves a Republican candidate to make an appeal to every voter in the country, and Hillary Clinton doesn't have the same deep connection to black voters that her husband, Bill, did.
Theodore R. Johnson, who studied black voting behavior closely in his doctoral work, thinks it could have been possible for Trump to get up to 15 percent of the black vote. Johnson's research suggests that middle-class black males, in households with income of roughly $60,000 to $80,000 a year, might find Trump's unfiltered, macho personality appealing, as well as his tough-minded message of self-reliance. But Trump's rhetoric has been so off-key-arguing that blacks are so desperate that they have nothing to lose by taking a wild flyer on him-that he is almost certainly going to underperform among African-Americans.
George W. Bush got 16 percent of the black vote in Ohio in 2004, after years of concerted courting of African-Americans. For Trump to show up one day after running a consistently incendiary campaign and say, "Oh, by the way, I'd like to win black voters," is to invite charges of insincerity.
That said, anything Trump can do to take the edge off minority opposition to him is a good thing, and seeing what he's doing, some suburban white voters might find him more palatable.
Trump's turn is an implicit acknowledgment that the Republican Party can't just be a Trump party and hope to win. It has to have broader reach than working-class whites, and avoid positions and rhetoric that convince people already inclined to believe such things that the GOP is thoughtless and retrograde. In other words, the party needs the likes of Paul Ryan-so scorned by Trump allies-who has invested the time in coming up with a serious anti-poverty policy agenda.
If Trump loses, one of the tragedies of the campaign will have been that a more populist Republicanism could, in theory, have won over working-class voters of all races. This is something that should have been a focus of the campaign many pivots ago, if not when Trump first descended his escalator.