One of the more remarkable things about Donald Trump’s landslide victory in his home state of New York last night was how he celebrated it: with a controlled speech that clocked in at around seven minutes, hit campaign themes like creating jobs and building up the military, and steered away from the billionaire’s more incendiary rhetorical tropes.
The hard edges were still there, of course. The Republican primary system is still “rigged” in Trump’s view, by elites trying to undermine him. “And you watch, because the people aren't going to stand for it,” he warned. “It is a crooked system.”
But there were no insults leveled at his competitors. “Lyin’ Ted” was just “Senator Cruz” on Tuesday night. And while Trump took time to point out that his nearest competitor has been all but mathematically eliminated from the hunt for a first-ballot primary victory, he said it almost matter-of-factly, rather than verbally rubbing Cruz’s nose in it.
The prevailing wisdom about Trump’s recent change in tone is that he is listening to his new, more seasoned advisers, including attorney and veteran lobbyist Paul Manafort and former Scott Walker campaign director Rick Wiley, who are working to turn Trump’s home-grown campaign into a more conventional national operation capable of contending for the White House.
The shift, whether driven by the new blood on Trump’s staff or not, is a distinct pivot away from the “let Trump be Trump” strategy that the campaign used in the early going. Trump has now gone two weeks without appearing on any of the Sunday talk shows, where his bomb-throwing made him a welcome if unpredictable guest. His speech Tuesday night was vastly different than, for example, his rambling remarks and subsequent press conference after he won in Florida last month. It was after that speech that campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, the author of the “let Trump be Trump” strategy, was accused of manhandling a female reporter.
There are two big questions that this apparent shift in tactics raises. First, can Trump be tamed? And second, will a more cautious, more presidential Trump be able to retain the loyalty of the masses of supporters who loved him precisely because he was willing to stand up on a stage and say the things about immigrants, Muslims, and minorities that they were too scared or embarrassed to say? Neither one seems like a sure bet.
On the first, the idea that Trump can be turned into a conventional, plain vanilla presidential candidate is dubious at best.
For example, presidential campaigns are full of nasty innuendo and highly personal attacks. Can a man who has -- literally -- spent decades grousing about a magazine article mocking the size of his fingers, all the while apparently insensible of the fact that he was just prolonging the joke’s effectiveness, be taught not to lash out at critics?
Can a candidate who has repeatedly used his huge social media bullhorn to amplify tweets from white supremacists and religious bigots, despite the predictable uproar, be taught to rein himself in?
Second, if they are successful in corralling Trump’s id, his handlers face a second problem. It’s plain that the billionaire’s unpredictability and willingness to throw rhetorical hand grenades at his opponents have been key drivers of his success so far. Trump supporters are constantly citing his lack of political correctness and his willingness to speak his mind as what they find appealing about him.
It’s going to get harder and harder for Trump to fill airplane hangers and small stadiums with supporters if he switches to dry policy speeches and attempts constructive engagement with his hecklers rather than shouting “Get ‘em outta here” from the podium while bemoaning the fact that beating up protesters is no longer acceptable.
This election has been anything but predictable, so perhaps we will see Donald Trump the entertainer morph into Donald Trump the statesman. But it seems about as likely to happen as Trump just smiling politely the next time someone calls him a “short-fingered vulgarian.”