The latest of Trump’s “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. It is an attempt to engineer on the fly a “compassionate populism.”
Someone at the campaign clearly has run the numbers and figured out — belatedly — that Trump’s demographic base is too narrow to win a 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. 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 is 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 in the primaries were wholly impractical political symbolism. Now that the electoral calculation is different and there is 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.
In an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News, Trump sounded at times like Jeb Bush as he floated an amnesty — although he didn’t call it that — for otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway about the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here and she replied, “We need to find the mechanism that works and that is fair.” Someone probably should have thought about this before launching a campaign that is, in part, a crusade on immigration.
Trump is also making a new pitch to black voters. This is welcome and sensible. It behooves a Republican candidate to try to reach every voter in the country, and Hillary Clinton doesn’t have the same deep connection to black voters that her husband, Bill, did.
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.