“To be determined.” That was the response of Trump’s new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway during an interview Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” when asked whether Trump still wants “a deportation force removing the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants.” One day later, Trump denied allegations of flip-flopping on what has been the heart of his campaign platform, after insisting for more than a year that all illegal immigrants have to go. “I’m not flip-flopping. We want to come up with a really fair but firm answer,” Trump told Fox News. This proposal had excited many of his core supporters at the onset of his campaign, who loved his brash and unapologetic solutions to xenophobia. While the media questioned whether Trump was again trying to come to terms with the traditional campaign elements the Republican establishment believes he needs in order to win, Trump was back to his old tricks on Twitter Monday morning, calling MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” host Mika Brzezinski, an “off the wall, a neurotic and not very bright mess!”
These conflicting images of appearing to consider moderating his policies coupled with his relentless tendency to “speak first and apologize later” show a man who has lost his way. Pushed into the corner by an unforgiving media climate and losses in the polls, Trump is sweating and confused about his strategy moving deeper into the general election round of campaigning. He is clearly wrestling with his desire to be his combative, uncompromising self amidst the pressure from his campaign staff to appear more open-minded in order to attract a wider base. Political experts understand the difference between a primary campaign and a general election campaign, and his newly appointed campaign leaders know that in theory, generating new support and new votes means Trump has to moderate and soften policies that have— up until this point—only resonated with a distinct demographic. With the general election drawing closer, Trump’s recent inconsistencies have highlighted the challenging task he faces of capitalizing on the anti-trade and anti-immigration message that carried him through the primaries while finding a way to connect with a more moderate general electorate. Unfortunately for Trump, his campaign was simply not created for moderation.
However you feel about Trump and his campaign, it is undeniable that his support has stemmed from a tidal wave of emotion, not ideology. “Trumpism,” which has been defined by The Washington Post as a “personality-fueled movement that has proven to be in tune with the frustrations of a significant slice of the electorate,” allowed Trump to emerge victorious from the primary season by tapping into the fears and frustrations of Americans not targeted by many traditional politicians as of late. He branded himself as the candidate who will fight for “the little guy,” and who will say the things no one else was willing to say. The attempts of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort to lasso Trump into an establishment-mold was a well-intentioned effort, but it backfired for one simple reason: Trumpism has eclipsed Donald Trump. His supporters are not voting for the man—they’re voting for the movement. The real estate mogul has thrived on staying vague on most policy positions, but the more he shifts from the few positions that have been hallmarks of his campaign, the more he undermines the image he created of a relentless warrior fighting against the politically correct.
Chalking up his slide in the polls to Manafort’s advice to tone it down, his new campaign shakeup desperately needs to decide on a closing strategy. The attempt by Conway to paint Trump as “fair” on immigration was immediately followed by allegations of Trump softening his position in an act of desperation. As a candidate who has run on practically one concrete policy—the building of a wall—this move will be seen as a sign of weakness and an indication that Trump has lost himself to the strategies of politics. So far, every forced attempt of the Trump campaign to appeal to a wider demographic has backfired. Trump looks uncomfortable, his supporters are confused, and he ultimately ends up overshadowing all campaign efforts with yet another public gaffe aimed at the wrong target, such as the Gold Star family who lost their son, an Army captain, in Iraq. This is because if Trump has proven anything this election season, it is that he is unapologetically—if not foolishly—true to himself. His love of theatrics, off-the-cuff remarks, and aggressive demeanor are undoubtedly controversial, yet we’ve come to realize they are, for better or worse, extraordinarily authentic. When Trump attempts to play the part of a practiced and polished politician it not only seems fake, but also counters everything he has run on up to this point.
Over the last few weeks it’s clear that Trump has lost himself and in the midst of trying to find his way to a semblance of normality, he targeted his vitriol at the wrong subjects. Like slash-and-burn agriculture gone horribly wrong, Trump’s fire has been misdirected as of late, which has sent him on a nosedive in the polls. With Election Day quickly approaching, it is too late for Trump to rebrand himself as a moderate candidate. One way or another, America has already decided how they feel about him. His best hope is to keep his fiercest supporters behind him and be remembered as the candidate who smashed political norms, challenged the status quo, and went down fighting. A return to Trumpism will not widen his support, but it’s his only chance at making a name for himself in history.
LEVICK Fellow Kelsey Chapekis contributed to this post.