Word on the street is that Donald Trump wants to hire a serious campaign team and give some serious policy speeches – 10 months after his presidential announcement and just as he has nearly secured the Republican nomination.
A consistent plurality of GOP primary voters has found such establishment credentials – a campaign with actual content – to be unnecessary. Trump’s disdain for outsiders and his air of authenticity have been enough.
But now, according to campaign adviser Paul Manafort, Trump will demonstrate “more depth,” show that he is “evolving” and change “the part that he’s been playing.” The campaign has promised to hire speechwriters, and Trump is practicing on a teleprompter in his office. “At some point,” says Trump, “I’m going to be so presidential that you people will be so bored.”
In the Trump pivot, he may move right, or left, or some incomprehensible combination of the two. (How many supporters of Planned Parenthood have the immediate instinct to punish women who have abortions?) Lacking a political philosophy, the reactions of any given day are uncertain. Trump is the quantum candidate: You can know his position on an issue, or the date on a calendar, but it is impossible to predict both at once.
Any rebranding effort must honestly confront the problems of the brand. Trump has a disapproval rating of 70 percent among women and the highest overall disapproval rating recorded by Gallup since it began tracking this measure in 1992. Among voters 18 to 24, Trump loses to Hillary Clinton (who is notoriously weak among younger voters) by 25 points. A recent poll found Trump with 11 percent support among Latinos, the lowest support for a Republican presidential candidate since polls began tracking Latino votes. In Florida – which was won by Jeb and George W. Bush as governor and president – Trump is losing to Clinton among Hispanic voters by 51 points. Fifty-one points.
A recovery from these problems would require spectacular and sustained political skills that Trump has never demonstrated. Trump has only shown one skill: displaying the Trump persona in public. His campaign is crippled by a technology developed by Thomas Edison – the ability to record the human voice. Trump can’t be the candidate who didn’t call for the systematic exclusion of Muslims at the border; the candidate who didn’t call for the mass expulsion of 11 million undocumented workers; the candidate who didn’t call women bimbos and fat pigs and attack the looks of an opponent’s wife.
Trump has spent years purposely cultivating an image that is misogynist and “politically incorrect” on racial issues. There are limits to a speechwriter’s ability to make his cruel and cold creed seem warm and lifelike – as there are limits to the taxidermist’s art.
In fact, Trump has been so vitriolic, so irresponsible, so far over the line that he would need a commensurate repudiation of his previous views in order to be persuasive. He would need to reverse himself on immigration, on religious bias and on a national security policy consisting of war crimes. Rebranding Trump would require the repudiation of Trumpism, thus undermining the appeal of authenticity at the heart of his candidacy.
GOP leaders such as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus are trying to pretend this is a normal political moment, in which the party should forget its disagreements and unite against the Democrat. “We can’t win,” he says, “unless we rally around whoever becomes our nominee.” This is a dangerous delusion. If Trump is chosen in Cleveland, the Republican Party is headed toward electoral disaster, all the way down the ticket. Many if not most Republican candidates at the state and local level would need to run in revolt against their party’s presidential pick.
It was under Priebus’ leadership that the 2012 Republican “autopsy” was produced, a document calling for accelerated outreach to women, the young and Latino voters. Trump represents the reversal of everything Priebus had planned for the Republican future. If Priebus ends up blessing the Trump nomination, the results would reach far beyond 2016. It would turn the sins of Trump into the sins of the GOP. And Priebus would go down as the head of the party who squandered the legacy of Lincoln, the legacy of Reagan, in a squalid and hopeless political effort.
If Trump wins in Cleveland, Priebus should think beyond the current election and demonstrate the existence of a party better than its nominee. The head of the RNC should resign, rather than be complicit as his party is defiled.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.