Supporters could walk away from a ‘presidential’ Trump

Donald Trump arrives for a town hall meeting on NBC’s “Today” show in New York, April 21, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Harold Meyerson

The central dilemma confronting Donald Trump’s campaign is that the candidate is having an identity crisis.

In his election-night speech following his victory in New York’s presidential primary, Trump was almost unrecognizable.

The hair was familiar; the speech was strange. Instead of “lyin’ Ted,” Trump talked about “Senator Cruz.” His flights of free association seemed to have been grounded. Most remarkably, the Republican front-runner got on and off the stage in just eight minutes, the amount of time he normally lavishes on recounting his lead in the polls over his GOP opponents and fabricating the leads he claims to hold over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the general election.

Donald Trump reads from notes at a campaign rally in Hartford, Connecticut, April 15, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The unveiling of the new model Trump was plainly a calculated effort by his new model campaign managers to win the support of the GOP delegates whose backing he’ll need if the voting at this summer’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland goes beyond one ballot.

In many states, party rules stipulate that the candidates’ campaigns can’t select their own delegates. Which means that many who will be pledged to Trump on the first ballot, as a result of their state’s primary election or caucus results, will be — oh, the horror — regular establishment Republicans who plainly pine for a regular establishment presidential nominee.

Hence: Trump’s makeover. The tough talk, the threats, the stream-of-consciousness assaults on opponents and the scapegoating of minorities, which combined have rendered Trump the most unpopular political leader since President Richard M. Nixon in the final days of his presidency, have been reined in by newly hired campaign capo Paul Manafort. He apparently has a keen eye — as Trump’s previous campaign strategists did not — on reality.

Yet, minus the talk, sans the slander, is Trump really Trump any longer? Suppose it’s Trump’s manner, as much as his substance, that’s been the basis of his appeal to his supporters?

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In fact, there’s no need to suppose. As an in-depth survey of Trump’s white working-class supporters makes clear, the secret of his success is his bumptious, his uncensored podium manner.

In January, Working America, the AFL-CIO’s massive canvass operation of non-union working-class whites, released a report on its findings from doorstep discussions with nearly 1,700 likely voters in the white working-class suburbs of Cleveland and Pittsburgh. From conversations that ranged up to 15 minutes, the canvassers found that 38 percent of the people they engaged favored Trump, 27 percent the other GOP candidates, 22 percent Clinton and 12 percent Bernie Sanders. (The interviews took place in December and January, just before the actual voting in Iowa and New Hampshire began.)

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in West Allis, Wisconsin, April 3, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

The most revealing aspects of the discussions were the reasons that Trump’s enthusiasts gave for supporting him. Only 8 percent cited any of his policy positions — deporting undocumented immigrants, building the wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, renegotiating trade deals. Far and away, the leading reason they cited for their support was that Trump “speaks his mind.” Fully 43 percent said that was the key to their backing.

Running second, at 13 percent, was a close cousin of his uncensored-ness: the fact that he came off “tough and angry.” In aggregate, then, 56 percent of his supporters basically responded to his manner.

In descending order, 11 percent cited his business experience, 10 percent his anti-establishment posture and 9 percent his freedom from the pressure of major campaign contributors.

These numbers shouldn’t come as a total surprise. Trump’s campaign, after all, has been lighter on policy than any in modern memory. What passes for policy in Trump-land is often impulse, better left unexplained because any explanation would sound preposterous. The idea of building a wall on the border to be paid for by Mexico clearly appeals to Trump’s supporters’ emotions. But it’s by no means clear how many of them actually believe it’s a plausible policy and how many think it a splendid metaphor for the kind of direction the nation and its president should pursue.

But now, with the July convention looming, Trump is scaling it back. Therein lies his dilemma.

Trump’s rants have been the very basis of his appeal to his base. He’s giving voice to its rants, fears and biases, which find no such uncensored expression elsewhere on the political spectrum. At least not at the level of presidential campaigns, though they’re all over talk radio.

Endeavoring to reassure the GOP establishment, Trump has periodically vowed to become “presidential” and “boring.” Tuesday night gave us a sense of what that might be like.

But can Trump act “presidential” and still be Trump? Can he woo the Republican establishment, which he must to nail down the nomination, without disenchanting his base?

For now, he’s oscillating between these two modes: Ted Cruz is “senator” in primary-night pronouncements, but still “lyin’ Ted” when Trump is on the stump. If there were a middle ground that could satisfy both his base and Republican regulars, Trump would have found it already. But then, as the travails of the entire Republican Party make clear, the middle ground between the new breed of zealots and the traditional Republicans has long since ceased to exist.