27 April 2016

Donald Trump: the making of a Presidential candidate


From the ornate curtains of The Mayflower Hotel in Washington, to the picture-perfect row of American flags behind him, Donald Trump’s speech meant more than just foreign policy. Speaking just half a mile from the White House, his podium reading a more mature slogan ‘In the National Interest’, changed from the usual tabloid ‘Make America Great Again. 

For the duration of the primary race, Trump has tried his hardest to distance himself from the usual portrait of a Washington-clique politician. Reserved, politically-correct, well-rehearsed and polite. The businessman has been the antithesis of a usual GOP frontrunner.

Today, though, represented a step change, his speech markedly different from those which have come before. Usually it’s an off-the-cuff speech to a rally of adoring fans, with his staffers clueless as to what will come out of their candidate’s mouth. This time, he used a teleprompter (after saying he doesn’t believe in them) and structured his speech carefully.

While Trump was giving away very little in terms of detail, he listed what he sees as the “five main weaknesses” of American foreign policy under President Barack Obama, including overextended resources and lack of respect abroad. This was followed by the presentation of a “new rational American foreign policy”, including being “unpredictable” against radical Islam, promoting stability and updating military technology.

With Donald Trump presentation is everything, but his success in the primaries is leading to huge changes behind the scenes too. As the North East has seen the billionaire’s lead surge to within a touching distance of the nomination, Trump’s campaign has had to adapt in two main ways: professionalising efforts to achieve a majority of delegates at the Cleveland convention; and to prepare for an increasingly-likely race in November.

As the notorious Republican lobbyist Roger Stone discussed on Politico, until the past few weeks, Trump’s campaign under Corey Lewandowski was “all communications” with big speeches, popular TV appearances and huge debate ratings. He rejected the usual formula of careful demographic research, polls and expensive adverts, and to great success. Recently, however, there’s been a shakeup in organisation, with Lewandowski taking a back seat.

Rich Wiley, once Scott Walker’s campaign manager, was brought in a fortnight ago to improve Trump’s haphazard ground game and secure the votes needed in remaining states for a majority. In case of a contested convention, the candidate could hardly do better than his convention manager Paul Manafort, a veteran strategist  who worked with Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, and respected Republican attorney William McGinley to work on convention rule processes.

Trump’s field director Stuart Jolly resigned amongst this radical change from a small group of devoted staffers to a political machine looking forward to November. After the New York primary, even Trump’s speech seemed more mature and conciliatory – referring to ‘lyin’ Ted’ by his proper title Senator Ted Cruz – but this change in tone soon gave way to the usual stabbing attacks on a “rigged” primary system and “crooked” opponents.

The long awaited speech on foreign policy was the perfect opportunity for him to present himself with a “dull”, presidential persona that he promised to eventually inhabit once the “leftovers” Kasich and Cruz were beaten. In his speech today, Trump’s rivals were no longer the target. He attacked “Obama-Clinton foreign policy”, and launched a thinly veiled strike at Clinton’s perceived hawkishness: “unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct”.

While Donald Trump revels in the scrappy battles of the Republican primaries, he has one eye on a much bigger war.

Jack Graham is a video journalist and political commentator who specialises in American politics.