By now, you might have thought that Donald Trump would quit pretending to be a conservative. It has never been a good fit for him, and the performance act gets him into more trouble than it’s worth. Besides, the reality television star has almost crossed the finish line, and he really doesn’t need to continue to mimic American conservatives anymore. His victory in New York will be followed by victories in a number of dark blue New England and mid-Atlantic states. At the end of the day, Trump may clinch the nomination with the support of voters in places like California’s Bay Area. And yet, Trump still clings to the conservative performance he has failed to perfect even after ten months of a national campaign.
Trump’s new fixer, Paul Manafort, lobbyist for repressive and illiberal regimes around the world and now Trump’s ambassador to respectable Republicans, has all but admitted the celebrity candidate’s “persona” is just a work designed to fool the credulous. He is “projecting and image” on the stump, and he’s a different man in private rooms. Trump’s evolution into a reasonable centrist with conventional and predictable views has long been anticipated. “I just don’t know if I want to do it yet,” he told a Pennsylvania Crowd on Thursday. To this, conservatives should say, “What evolution? When was he ever one of us?”
For nearly a year, this candidate has done little but insult the intelligence of conservative voters. The pattern is by now clear: In response to this or the other fleeting national controversy that dominates a news cycle or two, Trump issues the conventional liberal view on the matter. Only after conservatives react poorly to it does Trump realize he has stepped on a landmine. Then, he reverses course, and the forgiving souls who cover his campaign in media pretend to buy his sincerity.
This pattern played out perfectly following Trump’s comments over a controversial bill in North Carolina that would bar those who identify as a certain gender from using the public restroom of their choice. When Trump said “leave it the way it is” to the hosts of NBC’s Today after he was asked about the new law and its negative effect on local businesses, it was clear what he meant. “There have been very few complaints,” Trump said of the status quo ante this new law.
These comments prompted conservatives ranging from the celebrity candidate’s rival, Ted Cruz, to Trump-friendly radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh to unload on the real estate mogul. “That’s not a responsible position,” Cruz said. “It is simply crazy.” Anyone familiar with Trump’s pattern of behavior after he lets the veil drop should have expected an 180-degree pivot. It materialized in less than 24-hours. Employing all of his trademark depth of insight, Trump said he still believes the North Carolina law is “causing a lot of problems.” He now believes, however, that the law is perfectly within the bounds of constitutional federalism. “[L]ocal communities and states should make the decision,” he told Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity. “The federal government should not be involved.” All is forgiven.
The merits of the North Carolina law aside, and they are certainly debatable, what this incident reveals is Trump’s instinct to tell his interlocutors whatever they want to hear in the moment. If he’s standing before a crowd of red-blooded conservatives, they get red meat. If he’s on the set of an NBC News program, those effete Manhattanites get the all the nuance they can handle.
Much of this phenomenon can be explained if one presumes that Donald Trump doesn’t truly know what conservatives believe, and he’s only doing his best to ape what he thinks are conservative views. More often than not, the caricature of conservatism he embraces offends the very people to whom he’s trying to appeal.
Last month, the formerly “very pro-choice” Donald Trump told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that he favored punishments not just for those practitioners who violate the law by performing late-term abortions but the women who receive the procedure. The pro-life movement was aghast. Here was a man running to lead the nation’s pro-life party embracing the distorted stereotype promoted by their ideological opponents. Trump realized he had stepped in it because, less than 90 minutes later, his campaign issued a retraction.
And all true conservatives are tough on terrorism, right? So tough, in fact, that they must think that only sissies would be bound by the static international laws of warfare. “I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” Trump insisted. When Trump was asked how he’d react if his commanders refused to obey this illegal order, he insisted caudillo-like that “they’ll do as I tell them.” Only later was Trump informed that his position imperiled individual servicemen and women and that these are acts for which they would be personally liable. What’s more, he would be inviting a civilian-military conflict without precedent in American history, and the resolution of which is by no means preordained to be a peaceful one. True to his inelegant form, Trump issued a statement retracting his position. In it, he insisted that he would be bound by the laws that preserve not only the nation’s republican character but protect American men and women in uniform.
Trump has insisted that he’s the toughest guy in the room on immigration, and his wall of cartoonish proportions along the Mexican border gets 10 feet higher every time someone dares to question his bona fides on the matter. That’s the act of a man who has no intention of pursuing his most oft-cited policy proposal, but that’s of no concern to his fans. In his first white paper as a candidate, Trump insisted that not only does the nation need a new Manhattan Project to resolve the issue of illegal immigration but that legal immigration must also be curtailed. Woe to those who believed him. In an early March debate, Trump told Megyn Kelly that he was walking back his proposal to curtail work visas for high-skilled immigrants because “we absolutely have to be able to keep the brain power in this country.” Shortly after this comment, however, his campaign released – you guessed it – a statement walking back his walk-back. Maybe he was just telling Kelly what he thought she wanted to hear?
“I hate the concept of it, but on a humanitarian basis, you have to,” Donald Trump told Bill O’Reilly regarding the importation and resettlement of Syrian refugees. “Look, from a humanitarian standpoint, I’d love to help. But we have our own problems,” Trump said less than 24-hours later in retraction.
Trump’s hurried proposal to ban all Muslim entry into the U.S. originally applied to “everyone,” according to Trump campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks; no exceptions. It applied even to American citizens and Muslim officials from abroad. Of course, this nonsensical and counterproductive position was soon amended so that it wouldn’t apply to citizens or Trump’s “many Muslim friends” overseas.
“I like the mandate,” Trump said of ObamaCare. “I don’t want people dying on the streets, and I say this all the time.” There may be no better example of Trump’s embrace of conventional liberal points of view than his espousal of the notion that Americans were dying in gutters for want of health insurance before March of 2010. This assertion fit with Trump’s infatuation with universal health coverage in places like Canada and Scotland. When Trump finally released his woefully insufficient “health care plan” online in March, however, analysts discovered the plan would cost $270 billion over ten years and leave 21 million without coverage. Choose your own adventure.
This is but a small sample of Trump’s hapless efforts to appeal to conservatives. His every utterance reveals that this is a group of people he doesn’t truly understand, save for the parodic version of them promoted by the liberals with whom he has surrounded himself his whole life. Trump is no conservative, but it’s hard to blame him for attempting to pass himself off as one given the success he has had in the effort. Those who truly deserve condemnation are those who know better and yet still facilitated this stunt every step of the way.