As you may have seen, Donald Trump’s new campaign chief Paul Manafort made a presentation to Republican insiders in Florida yesterday with a pretty stunning set of claims. Members of the RNC shouldn’t be worried, he told them: Trump’s not against the party or the people who run it. He’s just been putting on an act, playing a part to win the nomination. He’ll now shift gears to playing a different, more congenial role (a new ‘persona’) that party regulars will be more comfortable with. In his new role, his historic unfavorable ratings will also fall rapidly.
This is all a fairly striking thing to say out loud – or, technically, in private setting but meant for public consumption – since it amounts to saying that Trump has just been playing his supporters for rubes and he’s really a friend of the insiders after all. But the audaciousness of the claim and even the improbability of Trump’s ability to sell a dramatically different version of himself aren’t even the biggest issues.
The more salient question in my mind is whether Trump can even make the attempt. Remember, this is the second or third time that Trump or those around Trump have tried for the pivot to the center. The last time he tried things immediately lurched into the series of violent incidents at rallies and the protests in Chicago. And as I wrote at the time, what seemed most telling is that it was clearly in Trump’s interest to shift gears and he’d signaled he wanted to shift gears. This is when he started saying he could be the presidentialist guy around. Just everyone watch! Trump may have wanted to leave the primaries behind. But the primaries followed him. He’d kicked up or rather given voice to too many electoral demons. Beyond that, there were and are things within Trump that made the transition hard and quite possibly impossible. At some basic level, it’s really not an act.
This all might be more plausible if the GOP spontaneously decided not only to fall in line but do so enthusiastically. But obviously they won’t. I’ve been saying for months that it will be far harder to deny Trump than most Republican regulars seem to imagine. But that doesn’t mean they won’t try. It will be very hard for Trump to stay in character as the new ‘presidential Trump’ in the midst of that confrontation.
Beyond that, Manafort’s argument about why Trump’s ‘persona’ switcheroo will work is close to comical. It amounts to ‘Trump’s negatives are a perception problem; Hillary’s just a bad person.’ Maybe Hillary’s awful. But this is just wishful thinking, something that no one who’s actually run campaigns is going to buy unless they’re paid to or need to do so to block out thoughts of an electoral disaster.
We’ve seen this movie before. Even if it’s the sequel or another production from the same script, I’m very, very dubious that Trump can pull this off. Set aside for the moment that we’re living in the age of videotape and the implausibility of what Byron York memorably called a ‘personality transplant.’ His personality, his relationship with his supporters who have brought him this far, make it very unlikely he’ll even be to make the attempt. Trump may be full of it. He may be BSing on the margins. But at a basic level, it’s not an act. He can’t control it.