22 April 2016

The winning Trump might carry on winning


Imagine a scenario in which you’ve just returned from a long voyage. Perhaps you’ve been counting penguins or measuring icicles aboard the UK’s newest Antarctic research vessel. Life has been busy on RRS Boaty McBoatface and, for a year and a day, you have been out of contact with the rest of the world. Yet you arrive back in warm waters just in time to witness Donald Trump give his victory speech after the New York primary. What, I wonder, would you make of this prodigal of the permatan with hair by Frank Gehry?

Not knowing any of Trump’s recent history you would perhaps think that here is a man of the people; a political moderate of undetermined allegiance. He could be Republican or Democrat but you suspect the latter given the number of times he gripes about the GOP. He obviously knows how to handle a crowd but he is no orator. There’s no clever turn of phrase or any striking examples of rhetoric or wit. There are, however, unforced smiles and a sometimes roaring confidence in front of the cameras. He has mastered that plain speaking favoured by the best communicators. ‘I’ll do this’. ‘I’ll make them stop doing that’. Yet in details, he’s vague. He talks a little about the economy and what he says about trade sounds protectionist but not unreasonably so. He praises veterans, lauds businessmen, and shouts about his love for the city and the country. None of that, perhaps, surprises you. It’s typical of what politicians do during the election season. Most of all you would probably think it unsurprising that this charismatic, confident, yet plain speaker has just enjoyed a landslide victory in the most confident but plain speaking of cities.

Only when you relay these opinions to friends waiting for you at the dockside do you realise your error. That, apparently, was the most dangerous man on the planet; the demagogue who encourages violence among his supporters. Trump is the presidential hopeful who would sing the praises of Putin and whose policies would force ISIS and Mexico into a frightening alliance with China bankrolling the whole ungodly deal. With that, you immediately sign up for the next research cruise. The world has clearly gone mad and you’d feel happier back measuring penguins and their icicles.

Except, of course, your error was no error. It was really a benefit of viewing Trump’s New York victory without the evidence of the past ten months to colour your judgement. Donald Trump enjoying a victory is not the same as Donald Trump wallowing in defeat. The beaten Trump, you remember, makes no gracious campaign speeches. The beaten Trump releases late night press releases, tersely complaining about Trojan Horses, Super PAC millions, electoral theft, and even conservative talk shows. None of that was evident in the immediate aftermath of New York. Lyin’ Ted Cruz was not even mentioned once. Instead, Trump concentrated his fire on a previously unknown rival called ‘Senator Cruz’. Meanwhile, John Kaisch became ‘Governor Kasich’. It was all so polite that Trump ran the risk of sounding affable.

Yet, perhaps for one night only, this was the Donald Trump that only those beaten by Donald Trump get to see. This is the Trump that stopped talking about ‘Little Marco’ once Rubio conceded defeat. It is the Trump identified by Ben Carson back in March, after he had himself gone from bad guy to reformed sinner.

“There’s two different Donald Trumps. There’s the one you see on the stage and there’s the one who is very cerebral. [He] sits there and considers things very carefully. You could have a very good conversation with him and that’s the Donald Trump you’re going to see more and more of right now.”

We didn’t see ‘more and more’ of that other Donald Trump through March or even into the first weeks of April. We saw, rather, the usual Trump standing before adoring crowds, telling them about the ‘stupid’ people running the country. That was the Trump we saw again last night as campaigning resumed in Indianapolis and Maryland.

Yet it is the winning Trump we saw briefly in New York who the Republican Party fear might become their candidate. He is also the reason why parts of the media have subscribed to the wrong narrative. Republicans fear not the bombastic, arrogant Trump who talks of walls, immigration, and Islamic fundamentalism. They fear the moderate Trump who periodically emerges between battles and (say this quietly) might even harbour heretical thoughts about abortion, healthcare, and gun control. Yet if you could only pause a moment and be less selective in your viewing, you’d notice there has always been that second Trump lingering at the periphery of the story. When speaking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper during a Republican Town Hall in March, Trump was strikingly different: affable, at ease, and less like the risible cliche of gold-on-gold excess. The gilded bombast was gone. Instead, he was calm, more proud of his family than he was of his business. He explained why he has never drank alcohol, never taken drugs, and how he has passed the lesson on to his children. It was, whether his critics like it or not, a good approximation of simple honest decency.

It might seen deliberately contrary to speak of Trump’s decency but, I think, there’s something about the Trump candidacy that the caricature fails to convey. Many of his critics are blind to this or succumb to the narrative that Trump himself wishes to see in the media that endears him to the Republican base. The media are often willing stooges in this deception. They enjoy black and white morality and intensely dislike anything that is complex or nuanced. When Channel 4 recently made a documentary about Trump, The Mad World of Donald Trump, Matt Frei did what so many commentators have done and continue to do: he cherry picked the very worst stories with no context given, no explanation offered, no counter argument made. It’s why so many hit pieces end up working in Trump’s favour. (In fact, an unspoken truth about Trump that many character assassinations unwittingly make is that despite spending the vast majority of his life in the public eye, no real dirt has yet emerged that has really damaged him).

None of this is to eulogise Trump, merely try to inject a degree of shade into the debate. Trump is far from perfect and has made missteps that would have severely damaged more traditional candidates. Standing over his shoulder at his New York victory speech was Carl Paladino, a former candidate to become Governor of New York and who, to put it mildly, has a troubled political history involving racist and sexually explicit e-mails. Such an association gives credence to critics who accuse Trump of veiled messages and sinister political calculations disguised as naivety. Yet Trump, himself, can dismiss such claims because he knows that his appeal has little to do with party dogma. It isn’t even about hard facts. People are trusting the character of the man and that is extremely potent force in a political climate where character is severely lacking. People wonder why Trump is winning but where are the conservative votes meant to go in this election of diminishing choice? To Ted Cruz who is aloof, odd, and deeply uncharismatic? To the apparently affable but clumsy John Kaisch, who often stumbles on imaginary obstacles lying somewhere between his brain and his mouth? It is easy to overlook the obvious, which is that Trump connects with people in a way that simply eludes the two other candidates. In Maryland, last night, he mocked Hillary’s reliance on teleprompters. Dropping his arms to his side, he stiffly looked right. ‘We’re going to do this.’ Stiffly turning to his left. ‘And we’re going to do that.’ His body loosened into that now trademark shrug. ‘You’ve got to get up without the teleprompter some times, don’t ya? Really? Right?’

The Trump we saw in New York – the winning Trump – should make the Democrats worried. The Trump we glimpse beyond the rallies suggests that he could make a more than credible claim for moderate ground. ‘Critics say he’s not a true conservative’ he says about himself at nearly every rally. ‘But you gotta make deals, folks’. That, you might notice, is not a denial because it is the fundamental truth about Trump: he is not a conservative. Nor is he a Democrat. He plays a unconventional political game because he is unconventionally apolitical. He flits around the issues, making bold pronouncements that say very little at all. ‘We’re not going to do that anymore’ is one of his favourites along with ‘we’re going to do it better’. That is an astonishing ability in a politician operating in a media-obsessed world. It’s astonishing that for the best part of a year he has effectively given the very same campaign speech every single day with nobody calling him on it. He still speaks about the Paris attacks as though victims will continue to succumb to their wounds.

In the time between now and the election in November, Ben Carson’s prediction might well be proved right. We will see more of that other Trump, the winning Trump, and we will learn that there is nothing about the catchphrase ‘Make American Great Again’ that will offend those that would once have been called the old Reagan Democrats. Americans love a winner and Hillary Clinton should be already worried that the winning Trump might carry on winning.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.