Donald Brand is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
During the primaries, Donald Trump’s insults drove out substantive policy debate and initiated a race to the rhetorical bottom. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as this behavior was perfectly consistent with Trump’s earlier promotion of the birther movement and his vulgar clash with Rosie O’Donnell. Vulgarity and innuendo have always been one path to dominating the National Enquirer news cycle, and Trump loves to be the center of attention. His fellow Republicans have urged him to act more “presidential” as he pivots to the general election, and Trump has, on occasion, reassured them that they will see a new persona in the coming months. Don’t hold your breath.
Creating a new persona is more easily said than done in the pressure-cooker environment of a presidential campaign. Just last week, Trump delivered a blistering attack on Hillary Clinton from the Trump SoHo hotel in Manhattan, calling her a “world-class liar” who put her self-interest above the interest of the American people. Flanked by teleprompters, Trump’s scripted speech presented a sharp contrast to his more characteristic extemporaneous diatribes and has given hope to Trump allies that he’s becoming a more disciplined candidate. Like other candidates, he can read a speech off of a teleprompter and, when he listens to advisers, his team can craft a more traditional campaign message. But none of this changes the fact that Trump is a reality TV star-turned nontraditional presidential candidate. The Trump we’ve seen in the primaries is the real Trump, and we shouldn’t expect anything different in the general election.
Why should Trump pivot, anyway? The professional politicians and savants who are urging him to change his approach in the general election are in the same political class as those who dismissed him as a flash-in-the-pan candidate early in the primaries. He proved them wrong, so why should he listen to them now? Trump’s unorthodox style allowed him to best 16 Republican opponents in the primaries. He doesn’t play by the rules and he believes, with some justification, that voters have rallied to his cause for that reason. Politicians pivot as they move from the primaries to the general election, but Trump is not a politician.
A politician would not fly to Scotland the day after his Manhattan speech to promote a recently purchased golf course. Serious presidential candidates have traveled abroad to burnish or highlight their foreign policy credentials (Barack Obama traveled to Berlin in 2008, and Mitt Romney went to England, Israel, and Poland in 2012), but they have used these trips as opportunities to meet with foreign leaders and address the major foreign policy issues of the day. Trump traveled to Scotland on the very day that Great Britain was deciding whether it would remain within the European Union, an immensely consequential decision. But Trump didn’t use the trip as an opportunity to become better informed about the issue (he has admitted that his cavalier judgment in favor of Brexit should not be taken seriously because he had not followed the issue). Rather, he used the trip for Trump. Is his charge that Clinton puts her self-interest above the interests of the American people going to be persuasive when he takes time from his campaign to promote his business interests?
Clinton, on the other hand, will pivot in the general election. She has run to the left in the primaries to counter the challenge posed by Bernie Sanders, but she will almost certainly moderate and run to the center in the general election. Voters will question her authenticity, as they should. Authenticity is not the strong suit of the Washington elite, and Clinton is a member in good standing of the Washington elite. Voters crave authenticity, but they will have second thoughts when they look more closely at Trump. Authenticity doesn’t guarantee good political judgment. It is no substitute for being well-informed about the world we live in. Trump’s authenticity will be his undoing because it will undermine his capacity to stay on message and run as a disciplined candidate.