The perpetual desire for a Donald Trump pivot is like a Rorschach test: If Republicans squint hard enough, then maybe, just maybe, they can see the shades of a Trump evolution there.
Since Trump emerged the GOP nominee, there have been confident assertions, desperate pleas and dire warnings that if Trump did not abandon his bombastic ways and extreme proposals, he would cost Republicans not just the White House, but seats down the ballot. After a campaign shake-up last week that installed a far-right media figure and a well-respected pollster on the top of Trump’s staff, it appears that the cycle is underway again.
Trump, for the time being, is back on the teleprompter. He’s giving speeches that in theory reach out to minority communities. And his campaign is even sending mixed messages on whether he actually intends to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants.
But to ask whether this is the long-awaited pivot — and ignore the wealth of evidence to the otherwise — perhaps misses the point. Republicans just need a Trump that is plausibly softening his rhetoric, seemingly taking sound political advice, or giving them some other evidence, however scant, that they can point to that shows he gets it. Whether he actually gets it is almost beside the point. They just need him to give them some political cover, enough to keep their support of him from being a continuing embarrassment.
“Even if he reinvents himself today, it wouldn’t matter, we’re less than 100 days from the election,” Ryan Williams, former spokesman for Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, told TPM. “He is who he is, and the best that Republicans can hope for is that he cuts down on the seemingly hourly self inflicted disaster that he has burdened his campaign with that Republicans have been forced to respond to.”
Republicans need Donald Trump just to give them something–anything–that they can glom on to to claim he is shoring up the damage he has done among even their own constituencies. It’s not a matter of mending fences with minority voters, which in 2013 the GOP vowed to make a play for. They’re already lost, and maybe lost to the party for another generation. The GOP is now being squeezed on the support of voters they normally could woo — like married women and college educated voters — and Republicans are grasping to make the case that Trump is on a path to contrition.
“The Trump campaign’s outreach to minorities is more about reassuring suburban voters you can vote for Donald Trump and not be a racist,” said Michael Steel, who worked on Jeb Bush’s campaign, said on MSNBC Monday.
Both Trump’s campaign and those Republicans who, from an institutional standpoint, need the nominee to succeed are playing up the narrative that a pivot is underway.
Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), told CNN that “you’re going to see this campaign in the days and weeks ahead speak directly to Americans in every community about what our plan to make America great again is going to mean for them and mean for their families.”
“These changes are just all part and parcel of seeing this campaign come together,” Pence continued.
RNC chair Reince Priebus said on Sunday’s “This Week” that Trump “had a great week.”
“I think he’s been on message. He’s — he’s shown maturity as a candidate,” Priebus said, “I think that he is getting into a groove.”
Trump, of course, is being graded on a curve that includes picking a fight with a federal judge, smearing a Gold Star family and crudely mocking a reporter’s disability. But his latest attempts towards minority outreach come off as superficial at best.
“His meeting with Latinos seemed to me to be purely window-dressing for Latinos, as was the speech to African Americans,” Luis Alvarado, a GOP consultant, told TPM. “I don’t see anything that he can ever do to convince any of those voters that he would be sincere with anything he says or does from here to election day.”
The campaign is already backing away from its plans for a big immigration speech that had been slated for Thursday. Meanwhile, Trump’s supposed appeals to black voters have been delivered from overwhelmingly white suburbs, and included assertions such as, “You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting and it is safer than living in some of our inner cities.”
Trump supporter Ben Carson, questioned Saturday by CNN on the locations of the speeches, explained, “Well, it’s relevant to everybody,” before adding that Trump “will be going to some predominantly black areas.”
Which is probably the greatest Trump “pivot” device of all: the promise by his surrogates that his best is yet to come.
After reports that, behind closed doors with Hispanic leaders, Trump signaled he was considering softening his stance on mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said his deportation policy is “to be determined.”
“As the weeks unfold, he will lay out the specifics of that plan that he would implement as president of the United States,” Conway told CNN on Sunday.
Trump has pushed back on the idea that he was “flip-flopping” and claimed the campaign was working on a “a really fair, but firm answer” to the presence of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Perhaps the greatest evidence against a Trump pivot is that much of the behavior that put Republicans in a panic continues. Trump on Monday went on a Twitter tirade bashing Morning Joe that labeled host Mika Brzezinski “off the wall, a neurotic and not very bright mess!”
And beyond Trump’s personal outbursts, the campaign is now on a crusade peddling fringe conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health — a baseless attack that is being pushed by some of its top surrogates like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The question now is whether Trump has thrown the GOP enough of a life raft for them to justify their continued support. Williams, the former Romney aide, warned his fellow Republicans against taking the bait.
“We’ve already been punked enough times, so no sense in buying it now,” Williams said.