Can Donald Trump turn himself into an actual politician?
We ask that question because Mr. Trump seems to have launched a self-renovation project as the crucial end of primary season nears. His press conference following Tuesday’s New York primary victory was atypically restrained, causing many pundits to opine that The Donald was pivoting to general election mode. And on Thursday he struck a more inclusive tone during a town hall event on NBC’s “Today” show.
At one point Thursday, Matt Lauer asked Trump whether he could “unsay” some of his provocative statements about immigration and ethnic and racial groups to try and appeal to the broader general electorate. Trump sort of waved them away.
“A lot of that was entertainment,” he said.
Literally speaking, Trump is already a real politico, of course. It’s a job where one foray makes you a pro, like journalism. Running for president counts.
And purposefully or not, he’s shown great political skill in the way he’s navigated the maze of Republican Party factions, pointed out Georgetown University associate professor of political science Jonathan Ladd in a much-discussed post on Vox last week.
Trump may think the nuclear triad involves a big fork but he’s done a great job appealing to cultural conservatives while eschewing libertarians and foreign policy hawks. This has divvied up the GOP electorate in a way favorable to Trump’s chances, according to Mr. Ladd.
“Trump acts like he has a precise plan. This is his true gift – what has brought him to the cusp of the Republican presidential nomination,” Ladd writes.
Plus, he’s readjusting as needed. Faced with the fact that his cheapskate free-media-based campaign was going to fall short of a delegate majority, he’s hired experienced top staff and switched to a more traditional (and expensive) approach. Trump’s going to aggressively court delegates in upcoming primaries, wooing them with the promise of rides on his jet and conferences at Mar-a-Lago.
That said, Trump’s got two yuuge problems if he’s going to try and rebrand himself as presidential for the end of the primaries and the general election, if he gets that far.
The first is tone. Sure, he’s sounding a bit more subdued for the moment. But he’s already resumed talking about “Lyin’ Ted” on the stump. During an Indiana rally this week he said of waterboarding, “I love it.”
Trump is Trump and it’s very hard to see him not reverting to attention-grabbing provocations at some point. In a general election, the Democrats won’t let him. If they can’t goad him into saying something outrageous they’ll just spent lots of cash on ads replaying his greatest hits of 2016, including his reference to Mexicans as “rapists” and his many appearance-based insults of women.
Trump’s second problem is counterintuitive: money. Traditional politicians have fundraising networks and are skilled at wooing contributions. The Donald doesn’t seem to have any of that. His campaign has been relatively cheap so far, with about 70 percent financed by loans from Trump himself and 30 percent donations. But a general election effort costs around a billion dollars. Trump’s indicated in the past that he wouldn’t finance a general election campaign himself. If he doesn’t, where’s he going to get that much cash?
The federal government offers public financing for general elections, but it isn’t much, relatively speaking, and it comes with strings. Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney took public funds for their 2012 efforts. The Republican Party has lots of big donors, of course. But it doesn’t seem like they’re all that enthusiastic about the rise of Trumpism.
The Hill reported this week that a survey shows Trump is deeply disliked in the donor community.
“A victorious Donald Trump coming out of the Republican National Convention would have a hard time raising the money he needs to beat the Democratic presidential nominee in November,” writes the Hill’s Jonathan Swan.
A billionaire who boasts of his wealth, the poorest candidate? That would be true irony, Alanis Morissette.