In recent weeks, there has been an effort to make Donald Trump more attractive with a broader audience. This is not first time this has been tried. After Trump secured the nomination in May, it was said Trump would “pivot” to a more appealing general-election persona. That didn’t really happen then, but in the month leading up to Monday night’s debate, Trump had been more disciplined than he had been at any other time during the long presidential campaign. The most recent effort seems to have paid some dividends: He’s been running almost even with Hillary Clinton in many polls over the past two weeks.
The core of the current pitch from Trump campaign officials is that their candidate is actually a run-of-the-mill Republican. Trump’s new campaign team has convinced him in recent weeks to do his best impersonation of Jack Kemp. He has announced the formation of a committee of pro-life supporters, proposed a new block grant to the states to promote school choice for low-income households, promised to increase spending on the military, and released a revised version of his economic plan focused on tax cuts, deregulation, and more-rapid energy exploration. In public remarks using a teleprompter, he has sounded more like a composite of the 16 Republican candidates he defeated earlier this year than the candidate we had all come to know. And in case all of this was too subtle, last week he added Utah senator Mike Lee, a favorite of many Washington conservatives, to his list of possible Supreme Court nominees.
It is one of the many ironies of this election cycle that Trump prospered in the GOP primaries by willfully trampling on many traditional Republican themes, and is now trying to improve his general-election prospects by sounding more like a traditional Republican. While selling Trump as a traditional Republican may work to some degree, it is also clear that the pose does not come naturally to him. Trump has agreed to wear the clothes, but they don’t really seem to fit.
Which is why, during Monday’s debate, Trump sounded like Trump again. When he speaks without a prepared text, he reverts without fail to the same populist themes that helped him secure the nomination: That U.S. workers have suffered under terrible trade deals negotiated by incompetent government officials, and that legal and illegal immigration are wreaking havoc in our communities.
Trump has sometimes compared himself to Ronald Reagan. But it is hard to imagine Reagan sounding anything like the Republican candidate who debated Hillary Clinton on Monday. Trump never mentioned reining in an activist federal government or cutting back on wasteful spending. He never talked about the power of free markets, or individual liberty, or the importance of the Constitution. On foreign policy, he spoke of American weakness and showed no interest in continuing the U.S.’s post-war role as the leader of the democratic West. When he talked with real conviction, it was about how trade agreements such as NAFTA were broken and he alone could bring the lost jobs back to the U.S., without offering any kind of explanation (even when invited to do so) of how he would accomplish this.
Trump’s supporters sometimes admit that he is not guided by any coherent belief in limited government, social conservatism, or free markets. But then they go on to say that, even so, he has committed to govern as a fairly typical Republican in order to win the White House, and could thus be expected to pursue the same kinds of policy goals that other Republican candidates would have pursued. There’s plenty of reason to question this assumption, too. Trump has changed positions during this campaign far more often than a typical politician, which is saying something. Among other things, during the primaries he often mentioned his willingness to raise taxes, cut defense spending, and borrow liberally to pay for infrastructure or other federal spending, positions he has now abandoned while seeking to consolidate support from traditional Republican voters.
Advancing a genuinely conservative policy agenda is a difficult undertaking under the best of circumstances. There will always be powerful forces pushing in the opposite direction. It would take committed leadership to enact pro-growth tax reform, place a conservative on the Supreme Court, pass stronger pro-life laws, or rein in government spending and regulation. Given his lack of a clear, steadfast, and longstanding commitment to these goals, it is not hard to imagine Trump shifting his positions again if elected, so as to devote his energy to implementing the policies he is most closely associated with, including restrictions on immigration and re-negotiation of trade agreements.
Trump has sometimes hit on traditional conservative themes during the past year, but those themes do not come naturally to him because he spent much of his adult life supporting a very different worldview. What animates him is a determination to disengage America from the world through changes in immigration, trade, and foreign policy. A lot can be said about this agenda, including that it has the support of many Americans. What cannot be said is that it is consistent with what Reagan would propose if he were running for president today.