Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The new old Donald in New York

THE MAN can’t help himself. The evening when Donald Trump won the New York Republican Primary, the candidate briefly assumed the personage of someone you could almost kind of imagine to be ready to pursue the presidency as a serious contender.

CNN was happy to accommodate him. The network had arranged to turn the Empire State Building red last night when Trump was projected the winner— a stunt that crosses the line from journalism to political promotion. It was all part of a signal strategy CNN had devised to immediately announce the winners of the primary, Deadline Hollywood reported.

Clinton got the same treatment when she locked up the primary a little later; the building bathed in regal blue. But Trump got the honors first, reflecting pollsters’ confidence borne out — a lopsided win, a straight-up blowout for Trump over his nearest challenger, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (60%-25%). And a humiliation for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (at 14.5%). And Trump made the most of it last night.

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“To the people that know me the best, the people of New York, where they gave us this kind of vote – close to 70 percent and more delegates than anybody projected in their wildest imagination, I want to thank everybody here,” Trump said in his victory speech Tuesday night.

“Like virtually every other state in the union, jobs are being sucked out of our state and taken out of the country,” he said. “We are not going to let it happen anymore. We are going to stop it. … We are going to keep jobs here, and you are going to be very proud of our country very soon… We will build our military bigger, better, stronger than ever before. Nobody is going to mess with us.”

It as all over in eight minutes — for Trump, an uncharacteristically brief time with his mouth open and his right index finger pointed skyward.

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THERE’VE BEEN other departures from the old script. In picking his spots for TV interviews (lately sending his surrogates to do battle on the air) and making some major changes in his campaign leadership, The Donald had been moving away from his trademark brash, deliberately confrontational style of politics. For a while there was less calling Texas Sen. Ted Cruz “Lyin’ Ted” and apparently fewer calls from the podium to forcibly remove protesters at his campaign events.

He’s been trying to make a pivot to something closer to a general election strategy, starting to make nice with former adversaries, showing the world a kinder-gentler Donald Trump ... just in time to be taken very seriously.

Then, of course, it all went to hell in a handcart, fast. The minty-fresh Trump surrendered to the sarcastic control freak of the past. At a rally in Indianapolis, hours after Tuesday’s big win in New York, Trump again invoked “Lyin’ Ted,” and singled out a protester: “OK, go, get him outta here,” he said as police bundled the protester out — a not-quite pantomime performed for the umpteenth time since Trump launched his campaign last June.

It didn’t stop there, of course. Never shy about using every weapon available, Trump rubbed it in on Twitter. "Ted Cruz is mathematically out of winning the race," he tweeted today. "Now all he can do is be a spoiler, never a nice thing to do. I will beat Hillary!"

All guns blazing all the time, win or lose. The man can’t help himself.

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Trump’s triumph in New York was as much a victory for regional politics and American primary-season realpolitik as anything else. He was expected to win, first on a favorite-son basis (childhood in Queens, longtime builder of businesses in NYC), and second because of the vacuum of candidates in any position to challenge him on his home turf. Cruz isn’t nearly well-enough known or liked there.

Kasich made the moderate-Republican noises that some secret Trump supporters wished to God they’d hear from Trump, but Kasich wasn’t doing well enough in the polls with moderate voters to be much of a challenge for Trump. Kasich’s second-place finish in New York, ahead of Cruz in a distant third, is another triumph for the same kind of regionalism that’s made Trump the bell cow, right now.

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BUT DON’T get it twisted. The Donald Trump we’ve been seeing for the last ten months is very much the @realDonaldTrump — the same persona we’ve encountered in the mediasphere for decades: the brusque, bullying buccaneer for whom an attack unanswered is by definition a defeat.

It’s the same belligerent showboat style we came to know watching Trump impresario his NBC reality show “The Apprentice” for seven seasons. It’s the same swashbuckling spirit that generated his ambition, his fortune and his reputation as a ruthless businessman who’s just fine with the lives left damaged in his wake.

And he’s the same Donald Trump who has imagistically reinforced the distinction between Us and Them, aggressively cultivated the great divide between haves and have-nots that persists — one of our two deepest wounds — in this broken nation today.

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"No shift in tone, message, or policy at this point is going to erase anyone’s memory of how Trump has been conducting himself and his campaign for many, many months now," said Liz Mair, Republican strategist and founder of Make America Awesome, an anti-Trump PAC, to USA Today.

From the gold-and-leather adornments on everything he designs to the regal, imperious embellishments of his own identity, inherited or his own idea — all hail “The Donald” — Trump is a symbol of everything a broad-based populist presidential candidate is not.

Donald Trump fired himself from any real, deep connection with the broadest sense of the American people, and its often precarious circumstances, decades ago, and he’s never sought re-employment since then. Why would we believe he speaks with any gravitas for those same American people now?

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DONALD TRUMP’S greatest political vulnerability is himself, his past, a public history that, in its totality, has as many weaknesses as strengths for the current Republican frontrunner. At its beating heart is the ethos of a businessman with the motive instincts of a shark; the author of an up by-the-bootstraps biography whose subject never really had to deal with bootstraps in the first place; a showman with a grasp of the size of the stage ... but not quite as sure a command of the size of the audience.

All the pivots in the world can’t change what Donald Trump has always been, what he’s tried to be relative to the people he considers his underlings: a man whose relentless self-identity as a hammer relegates everyone and everything around him to the status of a nail.

He won’t change that in himself in a year on the campaign trail; how he changes people’s perception of that in a country that is only partly a business, and never a dictatorship, is the open question.

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