A week or so ago, in Charlotte, N.C., Donald Trump walked through a wormhole, and, for the most fleeting of moments, was transported into a parallel world.
“Every day,” Trump told the audience, adopting a humble-ish mien, “I think about how much is at stake for our country in the upcoming election.” “I refuse,” he vowed, “to let another generation of American children be excluded from the American Dream. . . . Our whole country loses when young people of limitless potential are denied the opportunity to contribute their talents because we failed to provide them the opportunities they deserved.”
Without digression or qualification, Trump continued in this vein. “Our whole country,” he proposed, “loses every time a kid doesn’t graduate from high school, or fails to enter the workforce or, worse still, is lost to the dreadful world of drugs and crime.” If he were elected president, he promised, he would ensure “jobs, safety, opportunity,” and “fair and equal representation” for “every single citizen in our land” — all “Republicans, Democrats, independents, conservatives, and liberals.” “I will not rest,” Trump pledged, “until children of every color in this country are fully included in the American Dream.” “African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and all Americans,” he concluded, should give him a chance.
In part because the press is desperate for a real race, and in part because even the most fleeting adherence to message discipline is now newsworthy in and of itself, these pronouncements invited all of the usual inquiries. “Is this a pivot?” asked the morning shows, for the tenth week in a row. “Is he finally getting serious?” demanded the pundits, as if being paid by the question. “Is this,” wondered the wonderers, “the handiwork of his new team of advisers?” The meta question lurking behind the specifics: “Has Donald Trump changed?”
The answer, alas, was a flat “No.” In his Charlotte address, Trump had acknowledged not only that he needed to “choose the right words,” but that “in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues,” he had said “the wrong thing.” “I have done that,” he conceded, “and I regret it, particularly where it may have caused personal pain.” And yet, the very next morning, as if pushed to self-destruction by the sharp fingers of a ubiquitous and invisible hand, Trump first picked a fight with the New York Times and then went disastrously off-message. Almost as soon as it had started, the volte-face was declared dead. One more for the grave, Mr. Coroner.
But what if it hadn’t been? What if, instead of reverting to type, Trump had stuck to the script? What if it had been different this time?
What, in other words, would a genuine “pivot” look like?
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I do not ask this question solely in order to dwell on Trump’s temperament. A Trump 2.0 would certainly have to give up his Twitter Dadaism, agree to stick faithfully to the teleprompter, and comprehend at long last that he — and not the nefarious scheming of kulaks — has been the cause of his recent electoral swoon. And yet, while necessary, a move toward decency would not be sufficient to usher in a renaissance. To achieve that, Trump would have to shift his message. And in searching for somewhere to run, he could do an awful lot worse than to cast his eyes across the Atlantic.
By their nature, counterfactuals are always shaky. Still, one cannot help but wonder how different this race would look if Trump had selected his words more carefully from the start.
Suppose that Trump had hit a similar note on trade. “I like trade,” he could have said. “I’m a businessman. I get trade. I do great trade deals. But I look around at people who have lost their jobs — white, black, Hispanic Americans, and their kids — and it’s not good enough. I go to Ohio and Michigan and Wisconsin, and I know we can do better. I know that I — and only I — can fix the American Dream for everybody.”
Suppose that his crusade against the media had tallied with the public’s growing skepticism rather than with his strange desire to brawl.
Suppose that, in an attempt to tap into the mainstream, Trump had made clear his skepticism toward Wall Street, his mistrust of Wilsonian interventionists, and his opposition to Social Security reform, and that he had done so without seeming ignorant or unstable. Suppose that his criticisms of the Republican party had been driven by political calculation rather than by personal slights. Suppose that his crusade against the media had tallied with the public’s growing skepticism rather than with his strange desire to brawl. Suppose that his law-and-order jeremiads had been tailored to address ignored concerns and not to establish a strongman image.
Suppose, that is, that Trump had elected to campaign as a creedless, populist, pragmatic, “One Nation” Tory — as the unencumbered maverick who wanted to Make America Great Again for everybody. Suppose that, from the first moment he stepped off that escalator, he had taken the we’re-all-in-this-together approach that he tested in Charlotte, and that he had glued it to his current offering. What then?
Such an approach would not have pleased me, of course. I’m an ideologue, and I’m proud of it. I think Trump is wrong on a host of issues. I think that America needs retrenchment, not ataxia. But — and this is Trump’s one great insight — most Americans are not ideologues like me, and they are not especially thrilled by coherent political philosophies either. On the contrary: Most Americans are charmed by the notion of “centrism” and thrilled to consider themselves “independent.” They are seduced by the claim that everybody in Washington is incompetent, and that there is no difference between the two major parties, and they are intrigued by the prospect of a captain of industry who can come in and “sort things out.” Had Trump been smarter — and, let’s be honest, had he not been Trump — he could have walked right through an open door.
He didn’t. Instead, he chose to run a bizarre, fitful, upside-down campaign, in which wanton bridge-burning was the favored technique. Traditionally, politicians begin their pitch by appealing to as many voters as is humanly possible and then narrow down their offering as Election Day approaches. Trump has done the opposite. Within a few weeks of announcing his candidacy, he had squeezed himself into the slimmest part of the funnel; now, 70-or-so days away from the first Tuesday in November, his team is scrambling to remedy the mess. The comedian Eddie Izzard once suggested that Britain’s Prince Phillip had an unusual diplomatic style: Phillip, Izzard noticed, “has a habit of” introducing himself “by saying things like: ‘You’re all a bunch of bastards! Was that bad?” For a while at least, Trump did exactly the same thing, and with the same results. “Why don’t they like me? Because I said that?”What to do between now and November? Cut the nonsense, for a start. And then? Keep that Charlotte vibe going. Run — as thoughtfully as is possible — as a Disraelian Tory. Sew together the disparate themes, and stride straight down the middle. Exemplify the inchoate, mix-and-match anti-politics of the man at the bar. Disappoint conservatives and progressives alike, and enjoy it. Avoid putting labels on each and every “outreach” attempt. Justify every policy with an explanation of what it does for the worker or the man on the street. Include all Americans under the nationalist umbrella. Acknowledge past mistakes, without dwelling on them. And then . . . pray. Pray that there are indeed second chances in American life. Pray that Hillary Clinton continues to surprise. And pray that the ghost of Ross Perot still haunts enough dissatisfied houses to give an old-fashioned clientelist a last-gasp outside shot.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is the editor of National Review Online.