Can Donald Trump become more 'presidential' and still win?

Donald Trump has acknowledged that he might need to tone down his style a bit going forward. But he doesn't appear to want to.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
A Donald Trump supporter holds up his finger as he listens to the Republican presidential candidate speak during a campaign rally Saturday in Tucson, Ariz.

Donald Trump is brash and boastful, profane and confrontational. He is unlike any of the 44 men who have already held the job that he wants, president of the United States. Mr. Trump’s supporters love that in him and say, for the most part, they don’t want him to change.

And therein lies a conundrum for the Republican front-runner. His current style is working for him, setting him on a path to the nomination. But the general election is a different story. Fully 63 percent of American voters view him negatively, according to Gallup.

Forces friendly to Trump want him to change his ways. Trump’s wife and daughter Ivanka have encouraged him to be more “presidential,” he said at a rally last week. It may be no coincidence that the two women closest to him are advising him this way. Women, in particular, have a problem with Trump

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who has a friendly relationship with Trump, has also taken to coaxing him toward a less abrasive style. But Trump is resisting.

“Do you have to become more statesmanlike?” Mr. O’Reilly asked him last Wednesday, the day after Trump won four out of five primaries. 

“Well, I dunno, Bill,” Trump said. “I mean, we’re doing pretty well the way it is.”

As Trump considers his next moves, he faces another consideration: If he dials back the rhetoric and starts sounding more like a conventional candidate, some of his supporters may lose interest – particularly the first-time voters he needs to make up for the Republicans who say they’ll never vote for him.

“If he moves to being more presidential to attract more people, does he demobilize those voters who are being drawn to his candidacy but don’t have a history of voting?” asks Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

What is 'presidential'?

Defining “presidential,” in the conventional sense, isn’t hard. Presidents are expected to be dignified and polite, at least in public, and communicate carefully and consistently. Especially in the modern, globalized era, with 24/7 news coverage, the actions and words of American presidents travel fast and often with consequence. Presidential words can spark wars and move markets. Loose language as a businessman or a reality TV star is one thing; loose language as president is another.

Trump’s rhetoric and bearing also matter to the future of political discourse in America. If he succeeds, and reaches the White House, he could permanently alter the way the American presidency is viewed, both inside and outside the US.

Trump himself clearly knows the importance of language – and when to be careful. He usually doesn’t use a TelePrompTer, even when giving a big speech. But when Pope Francis appeared to criticize him last month over illegal immigration, Trump didn’t respond off the cuff, instead reading a statement aloud from a piece of paper.  

Still, Trump has been the most unconventional of presidential candidates – a first-time office-seeker who seems to operate more on instinct than the counsel of advisers (of which there are few). And in breaking the “rules” over and over – providing scant policy details, belittling his rivals, seeming to encourage violence at his rallies, smearing ethnic and religious groups with a broad brush, making a crude bodily reference at a debate, appearing to welcome the support of white supremacists – he has shocked the political world to its core. And so far, he has come out on top.

Experts assume that as the Republican nominee, Trump would tone down the rhetoric – and tone it down even more if he wins the presidency. Still, a Trump presidency would be like no other.

Looking back to the beginning of the Republic, presidential experts see no one like Trump. Plenty of presidents have behaved in an undignified way, but in private. Public examples are few, and therefore memorable, such as the time President Lyndon Johnson lifted his shirt to show a surgery scar. 

When Andrew Jackson, the seventh president and the first from a non-elite background, threw open the White House for an Inauguration Day party, as was the custom, the crowds trashed the place. Guests stood on the furniture in muddy boots, and were seen climbing out the windows.

“Andrew Jackson had a very individualistic personal style, but he saw himself as certainly first among equals,” says Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “Trump is different. He does not see himself as first among equals, he sees himself as a savior of sorts, as a singular individual.”

The essential Trump

The question, then, is what elements of Trump’s rhetorical repertoire are “essential” – that is, required for him to maintain and perhaps build his support – and what can he ditch. Does he need to come out more forcefully against supporters who behave violently at his rallies? Does he need to stop trashing Fox News host Megyn Kelly via Twitter? Does he need to drop the references to “lyin’ Ted” whenever he discusses his top rival for the GOP nomination, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz? 

Speaking with O’Reilly on Fox News last Wednesday, Trump suggested that he would begin to behave in a more statesmanlike manner.

“So we’re not going to hear ‘lyin’ Ted’ anymore?” O’Reilly replied.

“Well, I can’t say that,” Trump responded, suggesting he wanted to finish off Senator Cruz first.

O’Reilly also tried to counsel Trump on not reacting to provocation, because “you get in trouble when you react” – such as saying, of a protester, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” 

“I’m not gonna be provoked,” Trump said. “But at the same time, you have to take tough actions when this happens. You can’t let them get away with it.”

At Trump’s recent rally in Boca Raton, Fla., attendees said they liked Trump in spite of his inflammatory rhetoric, not because of it. Some excused him as a novice politician. So it may be that Trump can tone down the language and still thrive. What may be most important is his passion, and his ability to reflect the anger and frustration of voters, while avoiding language that strikes most people as inflammatory.

“He can’t continue to speak this way in the general election, or he will lose,” says Professor Jillson. But he has to hold on to some of that style, “because people are intrigued. He has captured something out there that people are responding to. But in a general election context it’s a different group of voters, so you can’t simply live in the moment.”

Members of the Republican “establishment” are starting to come to grips with the fact that Trump may well win the nomination. Even Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, is offering The Donald advice. In a column last week, his list of 10 suggestions started with this: “Change your tone.” 

“Nothing justifies the disruptions at your rallies by protesters from MoveOn and Black Lives Matter,” Mr. Rove writes. “But before you again urge your fans to ‘knock the [expletive] out of them,’ ask yourself if any president you admire would say that.”

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