On Wednesday, August 24th -- with ten weeks left until Election Day – not one column inch of The New York Times front page was devoted to the Presidential race. The names “Trump” or “Clinton” were nowhere to be found.
For The New York Times to lose interest even momentarily in the Presidential race is like Ryan Lochte turning down a Tequila Sunrise or actually urinating into a toilet; it may have happened once or twice in the past few decades, but never when so many of us happened to be paying attention.
Could it be that Trump had navigated an entire news cycle free of mean-spirited, misogynistic, or ignorant bile? Of course not. He had a nasty twit-for-twat with Mika and Morning Joe, but The New York Times does not hold itself to the standard of printing “all the news that’s neat to tweet.”
No, the real explanation for Trump’s temporary disappearance from page one of The Times was the need to take him back into the shop for retooling so that he could re-emerge as Donald Trump 3.0.
When software companies announce a major new release, it’s because the product has been armed with new and powerful features. Donald Trump 3.0, however, refers to the third change in his campaign’s leadership in the span of six months, and to the fact that he now moves effortlessly between three wildly different personalities depending on his audience, the venue, the time of day, and, for all we know, whether he had tacos for lunch.
Ever since that quiet Trump Hump Day, we’ve been treated to a ferocious onslaught of three dissonant incarnations of Donald Trump, each aligned with the id, ego, and superego of his campaign management troika.
Personality Number One: The egregiously disingenuous “softer and gentler” Donald. The reality TV star finally collided with reality in the form of polling that indicates he might lag behind “Pond Scum” among African Americans and Hispanics. This version of Trump is now so desperate to recover lost ground with these constituencies that he is willing to backpedal on the defining stance of his candidacy: immigration. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s new campaign manager, is the superego urging Trump to appear to care and pretend to repent. It is strategically unwise: suddenly changing your position on your core brand message is a marketing mortal sin. More importantly, his sudden embrace of “humanity” in response to negative polling is morally bankrupt.
Personality Number Two: Donald Breit-Heart. This emerging version of Trump is essentially a character assassin shooting buckshot at Hillary Clinton. What’s most startlingly about this fusillade is that it is so badly aimed. At the very moment when newly released emails show suggestions of influence-peddling between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department, it appears that Trump's new campaign CEO Steve Bannon has opened an entirely different front, charging that Hillary Clinton is a bigot who misleads African-Americans into thinking that Democratic policies are helpful. If this is truly Bannon’s work, he should be arrested for practicing campaign strategy without a license. He is burying coverage of a real Clinton liability as he manufactures an implausible theory that lacks any basis in reality. Bannon feeds Trump’s basic instinct that lies told loudly and often become truth. The two connect in a perverse id pro quo.
Personality Number Three: Trump Classic. Trump’s new handlers can teleprompter him, cut off his Twitter feed, and send out legions of surrogates, but once Trump has his hand on a microphone, all bets are off. Alone and unfiltered on a stage, Trump is a protean blob of gelatinous content, changing his mind in the moment depending on his sense of the energy in the crowd. In the end, Trump being Trump means doing or saying whatever feels good to him in that exact moment, invariably to stoke a crowd into a frenzy of adulation or to demonize an opponent. It is all and only about ego.
How can we lead an orderly discussion of a candidacy sliding into multiple personality disorder?
Surely we begin with the flagrantly dishonest pretense of New Donald # 1, who was hastily reprogrammed by Conway, herself just installed as campaign manager. A pollster by trade, Conway surely divined that Trump’s candidacy was on the same downward trajectory and as far off-target as your average Kim Jong-un missile test.
Her diagnosis: that the election is lost unless Trump can at least approximate the levels of support among women, blacks, and Hispanics that Mitt Romney achieved in 2012. So Conway has instructed Trump to “soften” his positions on some of the most defining aspects of his candidacy.
Toward this goal, the Trump campaign first let it be known that it was rethinking its entire approach to the immigration issue. A campaign speech on the subject was cancelled, and when asked whether Trump was changing his mind about assembling a “deportation force” to deal with undocumented aliens, Kellyanne tersely replied, “to be determined.”
We’ve been saying for months that it is expected that candidates “pivot” once their nominations are secure. They realize that to orient their campaign toward “undecided” voters, they must retreat from some of the more extreme rhetoric often required to secure the votes of the "base" -- the ideological purists who are deeply involved in the nominating process.
But there is a difference between a seamless pivot on a secondary issue -- which deft candidates execute with the light elegance of a waltz progressive step at the Viennese Opera Ball – and Donald Trump’s decision to “soften” his position on immigration, the bedrock of his candidacy. If you want a really great example of a candidate pivoting with grace and ease, take a look at how Hillary Houdini magically glommed on to an array of Bernie Sanders’ ideas in order that she could make peace with his progressive wing. Free college? No problem!
But in June, 2015 -- when Donald Trump descended an escalator in a presciently apt metaphor for the tenor of his candidacy -- he arrived at a cluster of microphones to utter the words that would define his very purpose and mission as a candidate:
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
He proceeded to spell out in no uncertain terms that the solution to this “problem” involved no shading and no gradation. “We are either a country of laws or not,” he would frequently say. His proposed course of action became as integral to his standard stadium speech as “Firework” is to a Katy Perry gig. “We are going to build a wall,” Trump exhorted, “and Mexico is going to pay for it.” The second essential component of his initial plan was to deport the approximately 11 million undocumented aliens currently living in the United States. This was the tough, uncompromising, tell-it-like-it-is talk that enabled Trump to blow away the traditional candidates – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz – who wrestled with the nuances and sounded timid and mealy-mouthed with each new pronouncement on the subject.
No matter how many people said the wall was impractical, unnecessary, and an ungodly expense, Trump stuck with it. No matter how many people – most famously, John Kasich – tried to explain the deporting eleven million people was a non-starter from a practical as well as humanitarian view – Trump stuck with it. For over a year of his campaign, immigration was the one piece of policy that Donald Trump had appeared to define and spell out, even if there were a million missing pieces.
Along comes Kellyanne Conway who now has Donald Trump suddenly raising the idea that such a mass deportation of men, women, and children might not be sufficiently humane. That is exactly what most of his Republican opponents and every Democrat in the country has been saying for years. For Donald Trump to appear to suddenly realize this ten weeks before the election may be the most naked and ethically compromised ploy for undecided voters since Richard Nixon promised that he had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War.
News that Donald Trump was rethinking his policy on immigration sent the Ann Coulters of the far right and “alt right” into toxic shock. Immigration was supposed to be Trump’s Alamo -- his bedrock, the essential reason for being for his candidacy.
If there is one true mortal sin of Republican politics, it is flip-flopping. Republicans used the charge of flip-flopping to sucker-punch John Kerry in 2004. Mitt Romney was a pin-cushion for friendly fire after his own flip-flopping in 2012. Well, there is flip-flopping, and then there is Donald Trump changing course on immigration, which is the policy equivalent of executing more twists and flips than you saw in two weeks on the uneven bars in Rio.
How can I convey the mind-blowing nature of this reversal? Imagine John F. Kennedy modifying his inaugural address:
“Generally, ask not what you country can do for you. But it is perfectly ok to change it up once in a while and ask, hey, what can my country do for me?”
Or perhaps Ronald Reagan on the Brandenburg Gate:
“Mr. Gorbachev, uh, that wall – that big one, right behind me? I think that you should consider dismantling a portion of it, ok? Just that part right over there, in front of the checkpoint, so, uh, people can come and go as they please. You can leave the rest of the wall; it works well to divide your east side from your west side, kind of like Central Park.”
Give Conway her due. She has convinced the Donald that Trump 3.0 must swing for the fences, or perhaps, more aptly, the wall. She actually accepted an invitation to appear on The Rachel Maddow Show, which was a bold signal of her intent to reach far beyond Trump’s base. But I believe that she has made a colossal error by urging Trump to “pivot” on immigration… this could easily cause a significant number of voters to throw up their hands in disgust and stay home, or -- worse still -- bolt for Gary Johnson and the Libertarians. Moreover, it causes the Republican faithful to now doubt everything Trump has said or promised.
Most significant to me? I wish I was seeing more outrage in the media at Trump’s hollow moral center and his transparent attempt to cloak a naked grab for votes in the garb of greater sensitivity and humanitarian concern. This episode, perhaps more than any other, illustrates that this is a man with no moral North Star. Rather, he navigates with his GPS set for expediency.
If Trump’s first face of evil was to invert his own persona in a desperate grasp to appear more “humane,” the second face of evil is an equally loathsome attempt to invert and “swift-boat” the humanity of Hillary Clinton. Since Wednesday, Trump has attempted to convince the African American and Hispanic communities that Hillary Clinton is a bigot, and that the economic and social programs of the Democratic Party are responsible for the poverty, crime, and unsatisfactory education that chronically degrade our inner cities.
In the sound-byte of the week as August drew to a close, Trump opined that our inner cities are worse off than their Third World counterparts. Given, he reasoned, that the horrific state of life in our inner cities could not possibly be worse, why wouldn’t African-Americans and Hispanics at least give Trump a try?
"Our government has totally failed our African American friends, our Hispanic friends and the people of our country. Period. The Democrats have failed completely in the inner cities. For those hurting the most who have been failed and failed by their politician — year after year, failure after failure, worse numbers after worse numbers. Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing, no homes, no ownership. Crime at levels that nobody has seen. You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting and it's safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats. And I ask you this, I ask you this — crime, all of the problems — to the African Americans, who I employ so many, so many people, to the Hispanics, tremendous people: What the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I'll straighten it out. I'll straighten it out. What do you have to lose?"
As with all things Trump, the factual inaccuracy is breathtaking, and he once again offers no specific policy proposals, no concrete ideas, and not a single innovation to address the issue he has defined.
There, in a nutshell, appears to be the final rationale for a Trump presidency. If you think everything in America is as bad as it can get, then you know for certain that a vote for Trump won't make it worse. In a candidacy devoid of logic, tautology is king.
Many, of course, view Trump's supposed "outreach" to African Americans and Hispanics as a still more cynical ploy: that he is merely pretending to be sympathetic to the troubles in our inner cities as just one more way to "appear humane" to the undecided white voters in swing states that he really needs.
Before we depart the Breit-Heart of Darkness driving Trump persona #2, we should mention the alarming strain of misogyny that has flared up intensely since Bannon’s arrival. The conspiracy theories about her health and “stamina” were of course incubated and turned viral on Breitbart.com. The Times also revealed that Bannon himself was accused of domestic violence in the 1990s.
If, in total, you get the sense that Trump personalities "one" and "two" are more or less diametrically opposed, you've got a good grasp of the mess. If Kellyanne Conway is the campaign's Freudian "Superego" trying to pressure Trump to become a kinder, gentler guy, then Steve Bannon is the campaign "Id" stoking Trump's most base and vile instincts.
Of course, who does that leave in the Freudian role of campaign "Ego?" Oh, that's just too easy...
Finally, we arrive at Trump 3.0 Personality #3, which we will just call “Trump Classic.”
His new handlers are quickly discovering that they are simply the latest employees to be mis-tweeted by The Donald, and they are learning very quickly just how untrainable this bunking bronco truly is. Donald continues to say and tweet whatever it is that just reached the exit of his elementary canal; sadly, most of his character-assassination-in-140-characters is ready to drop just when his staff is fresh out of Charmin.
Trump’s twitter-fit against Joe Scarborough was typical; he could not hold back on the crude innuendo, implying that the Morning Joe team was doing more than just co-hosting. Trump tried to savage Mika Brzezinski, labeling her an “off the wall, a neurotic and not very bright mess!” In what universe does a pattern of misogynist attacks on strong news women make good sense for a Presidential candidate?
But by the week’s end – incredibly – he appeared to be back on track with back-tracking double-backing, suddenly telling CNN that he was actually sticking to his original position on immigration. You could spend a month at the International House of Pancakes and not see that many waffles stacked on top of one another.
Finally, reaching an epic level of tweetle-dumb, Donald Trump could not hold back when the wires reported that NBA star Dwyane Wade’s cousin had been killed by random bullets in Chicago. Donald Trump actually tweeted this:
“Dwayne Wade’s cousin was just shot and killed walking her baby in Chicago. Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!”
Yes, Donald Trump did spell Dwyane Wade’s name incorrectly, and yes, a candidate who is the midst of a massive effort to appear "kindler and gentler" actually used the horrible murder of an innocent victim as an opportunity to solicit votes.
What could possibly be lying in the road ahead; what cruel, self-involved, digitally improvised roadside device will Donald Trump heave to top that? For it is no longer a question of will it happen; it is only a question of what and when, and how far down this prolonged escalator ride to the ninth circle might last.
Yes, it did get worse last week and we must assume the trend will continue. For starters, we used to have only one Donald Trump, and now we appear to have three: “Kinder and Gentler Donald,” “Breit-Heart Donald,” and “Donald Classic.”
Fitting, perhaps, for me to close with three thoughts on Trump 3.0:
1. As a marketing professional and communications strategist, I am stunned at the rank amateurism of his communications team. Casually and hastily reversing field on your brand’s most bedrock message is the mark of someone who is in way over his -- and her -- head.
2. As someone who believes that our leaders should have certain deeply held and consistent beliefs and principles so that we know where they stand, I find Trump’s disingenuous and transparently-timed pandering flip-flops morally repugnant.
3. However, as an American, I am ecstatic that numbers one and two are happening.
Because with this level of strategy and this vacuum of principle, the all-new Trump 3.0 is just three faces of evil on a fast track to nowhere.
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