ON THE FOURTH day Donald Trump arose from the bowels of the convention arena he never really left and assumed the formal nomination of his tribe. For him it was a validation of everything he’d done to get there, a confirmation of the rightness of his message, proof of its purchase on the national culture.
For many, many of the rest of us, Trump’s ascendancy to the Republican nomination confirms that coded language still speaks loudly in a racially and ethnically divided America, that dog-whistle politics can be tweaked and redeployed for a digital age ... that playing the rage card still works.
What’s-next time: With the primaries history, with the various convention dramas behind them, Trump and the Republicans now face the challenge of pitching to the American people in the aggregate. That may be a bigger challenge than they’re prepared for.
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First, Team Trump is going up against experience. The Republican challenger, who didn’t know what a ground game was until well after his own campaign had started, faces an opponent well-versed in the machinery of a serious presidential run.
Experience matters, despite Trump’s rejection of experience as a reason for backing Clinton. Trump trumpets his “outsider” status as a plus, as a benefit, but the value of that neophyte persona is undercut when you (hypothetically) ask Trump some simple questions:
No? Then why should the American people be asked to do with their government what you wouldn’t do with your own business?
The moment the United States elects an outsider to run the country, the outsider becomes the person presiding over or in control of the very levers of government that were previously despised. The outsider becomes the person constitutionally predisposed to work with the very same government functionaries the outsider once had no use for.
At that moment, the outsider becomes both the ultimate insider (as the head of the government) and the still-outsider, a rookie, a newcomer at the mercy of those who know intimately how the federal government functions. That’s why experience counts.
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SECOND, TEAM TRUMP faces what could be a more formidable adversary. The Trump campaign is going up against itself.
For more than a year, Trump has rhetorically targeted whole layers of the national demographic mosaic, including African Americans, women, Muslims and Latinos. There was no bar too low for him to get under if it meant reaching and holding the ardent supporters of the conservative base, the ones whom racial resentment is an almost palpable trigger for action in the voting booth.
And spouting off repeatedly about making “America first,” Trump’s also done his best to poison fragile relationships with other countries, thundering on about cancelling trade agreements that don’t suit him, proposing to reduce relationships with NATO members to the purely transactional, and waxing pugnacious about how he’d deal with trading partners like China and geopolitical adversaries like Russia.
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For more than a year, this was the Donald Trump that Americans were compelled to believe in, the only Donald Trump there seemed to be. Now, after a long acceptance speech that showed Trump pivoting to somewhere closer to the center; now, with the general election campaign soon to be in full swing — after the Democratic National Convention, which started today in Philadelphia — we’re being advised to be on the lookout for another, more populist Donald Trump.
It might be possible in quantum physics, but political science isn’t that complicated: When you’re pitching to the whole nation and not just preaching to the choir, you can’t be in two places at the same time. This basic dilemma, part of the physics of politics, is what confronts Trump today.
In the weeks and months to come — and despite the inevitable “evolution” Trump will make in that time — he’ll find that there’s no way to put the poisonous genies he’s unleashed back in their respective bottles. As he pivots to making new and presumably more anodyne statements about the roles of women, Latinos, African Americans and Muslims in his America, he’ll discover that the memory of the American public, short as it is much of the time, isn’t so short that it can’t look back to see what Trump said 407 days ago.
Or nine months ago.
Or 200 days ago.
Or 120 days ago.
Or last month.
Or last week.
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QUESTION: WHICH is — to borrow his ridiculously ubiquitous Twitter handle — the real Donald Trump? Is it the angrier, nastier primary-season edition or the one we haven’t really seen yet, the one he’s making up, improvising on the fly, A/B testing on the wider American public right now?
In a typical defensive crouch that will be advertised as strategic, Trump will reach for commonalities that aren’t there. For example, because of his fractious relationship with minorities, as a businessman and as a candidate, Trump’s efforts to turn black voters in his direction will utterly fail, despite the eye-rollingly predictable addition of Omarosa Manigault as Trump’s director of African American outreach.
He’s likely to be just as disappointed and frustrated with attempts to punch up numbers of women, Latino and LGBTQ Americans willing to vote for Trump, for many of the same reasons. The immediate compare-and-contrast of Trump statements available on social media and online research sources — the Google search page is a great place to start and finish your hunt — will reveal Trump’s dilemma. Once again, it’s political physics; you’re hard-pressed to function effectively on the campaign trail when you assume two opposing positions at the same time.
And he can’t hold on to the conservative-base voters who helped him win the nomination by abandoning the positions they supported. And he can’t win over those other vital electoral constituencies, and more besides, by doubling down on the bellicose, divisive, xenophobic rhetoric that found favor with the conservative base.
And he can’t win the presidency by walking away from any of them.
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Now, with his possession of the nomination no one (including yours truly) thought he’d win, we’re invited to watch how this media chameleon, the greatest carnival barker who ever lived, will “evolve” between now and November 8th.
We’re invited to watch the emergence of @theNEXTrealDonald Trump. The rest of this reality show should be pretty good.