It isn’t just the nation’s credulous Trump voters who appear to want nothing more than to be lied to convincingly. The political press, too, seems to get a thrill out of it.
“Spin” is not synonymous with untruth, but nor is it entirely sincere. It’s more like selective honesty, and its sophisticated execution is often the mark of a slippery if skillful negotiator of the political landscape. Not only does that kind of competence excite, but also the dissemination of plausible half-truths at least pretends to respect the intelligence of their intended recipients.
“Cruz beats Trump in delegates 102 – 6,” asserted Ted Cruz campaign rapid response director Brian Phillips. “So if Trump sweeps tonight, he’s only keeping pace.” That’s no lie, but nor is it the whole story. It’s more like putting the best face on an ugly situation, and, for the Cruz campaign, buffing the results of the night’s primary in New York required a lot of polish. Cruz finished in third place in New York, winning just 14.5 percent of the vote and zero delegates. John Kasich beat Cruz by 10 points and secured five bound delegates. These results pale in comparison to the performance of Donald Trump, native son of the Empire State, who won over 60 percent of the vote (his first majority in any state that has voted so far) and 90 of New York’s 95 delegates.
Such a victory doesn’t require spin, but the Trump campaign deployed some anyway – perhaps if only to demonstrate the candidate’s growth over the last two weeks. That display of maturity was foreshadowed by the influx of establishmentarian GOP campaign operatives who joined the celebrity candidate’s campaign amid a spate of stories involving the campaign’s organizational incompetence. Even as the Trump campaign continues to betray signs of instability behind the scenes, this public relations strategy seems to have worked. Those who fancy themselves arbiters of political refinement were floored by a modest display of competence from the reality television star.
“Trump stayed on ‘rigged’ message again. And kept his remarks short,” observed “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd. “The discipline is holding. The #stopTrump folks are in DEEP trouble.” Todd was hardly alone in this observation. “That version of Trump was markedly more disciplined, gentler and more appealing than the version of Trump we’ve seen for much of the last year,” the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza noted. “[T]hat fact should scare the hell out of establishment Republicans…” Trump’s victory speech was brief, remarkably short on insults or barbs, and lacked the media baiting that has come to characterize his candidacy. If this is sophistication, the bar for such things has been lowered dramatically.
Trump is graded on a curve because his past performances have been so boorish, so perhaps holding the real estate heir to such low standards of conduct is excusable, if not forgivable. The Trump campaign has been a font of untruths for the better part of a year. To cover for this liability, its preferred tactic has been to intimidate and cajole skeptics into either suspending disbelief or keeping their pangs of conscience to themselves (if they know what’s best for them). Last night maybe marked a new stage of the campaign; a stage in which the candidate can spin convincingly. That more than anything – even more than Trump’s dramatic victory — might have impressed the political press.
“We don’t have much of a race anymore, based on what I’m seeing on television,” Trump said in his brief address. “Senator Cruz is just about mathematically eliminated.” Remarkably for Trump, this was an example of the candidate holding the line on to a crafted narrative. “The Cruz campaign is going to be mathematically eliminated a week from tonight,” said campaign-manager-in-name-only Corey Lewandowski just hours before the polls closed in New York. This is some premium grade spin. It’s true that, following last night’s results, Ted Cruz no longer has a pathway to the 1,237 delegates he needs to win the nomination. Trump, meanwhile, still needs more than 50 percent of the remaining bound and unbound delegates available to become the nominee outright. If Cruz is “eliminated,” Trump’s uphill climb remains a steep one.
To bask in this assertion from the Trump campaign and declare it complex and nuanced erudition is to lower the bar. It requires the grader wipe their memory of the last two weeks of Trump campaign behavior. Here is a candidate who spent the last two weeks insisting that his campaign and his supporters were entirely ignorant about the process of amassing pledged delegates beyond competing in and winning races at the ballot box. Trump himself has spent the week declaring the nomination process “rigged,” a theme on which he touched even during his allegedly terrifying debut as a mature and palatable candidate. Now, following a fortnight of assurances that he and his supporters were generally ignorant of math, Trump emerges as the reincarnation of Pythagoras.
The next two weeks will be brutal for the anti-Trump forces. The celebrity candidate will rack up a series of wins in the Northeast and creep ever closer to the delegate threshold needed to win the nomination outright. If Trump had spent the last two weeks leading the press by the nose to focus on New York and the rest of New England and the Mid-Atlantic, he might have been able to convincingly contend that the race is over, and Trump has won it. Instead, the candidate and his campaign played directly into Cruz’s narrative by focusing on the delegate process and whining about its unfairness – all the while reminding media and the public that Cruz was winning the race behind the curtain. This is not a sophisticated campaign, no matter how badly some would like it to be.
The reality is that Trump is not inevitable. Like every other candidate still in the race, Trump’s most likely path to the nomination is the same today as it was last week: to win it on the convention floor. A rather complicated estimate performed by MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki puts Trump at 1,199 bound delegates at the end of the day. If the reality television star is 38 bound delegates short of the nomination, he most certainly could still win the fight on the first ballot. That, however, will require that Trump engage in all the shady, backroom deal making about which he has been braying for weeks; calling them unjust and anti-democratic. The fact is that, if Trump is the nominee, he will have secured that honor by marshaling all the supposed deal-making skill at his disposal in order to become the same anti-republican creature he has accused his rivals of being.