Way back in June, in the speech officially announcing his entrance into the Republican presidential primary, Donald Trump came out strongly against illegal immigration using language that shocked many. “When Mexico sends its people, they are not sending their best. They are not sending you. They are sending people that have lots of problems, and they are bringing those problems to us. They are bringing drugs and they are bringing crime, and their rapists.” Predictably, many in the mainstream media tried to portray this as a racist rant. Trump’s remarks were clearly inflammatory but they were not racist and he wasn’t accusing all Mexican immigrants of being rapists and criminals — though his implication that a large percentage are was factually wrong. He stood up to the attacks in the media and refused to back down. In a crowded Republican field, suddenly a hero was born — a champion for many frustrated people. Here, finally, was someone who didn’t care about political correctness, but would “tell it like it is.” Trump vaulted from near the back of the pack to the top of the Republican field, and has pretty much stayed there ever since.
Trump has said lots of “politically incorrect” things since — many of which veteran political analysts thought would sink his campaign. You had his derision of John McCain’s heroism enduring years of torture as a POW, the comment regarding Carly Fiorina’s face, the comment about Megyn Kelly “bleeding from wherever,” his accusation (later retracted) that George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and had prior knowledge about the 9/11 attacks. Some of these comments caused Trump’s campaign temporary damage, but in each case it recovered as Trump supporters were willing to forgive such comments as the price one pays for not being afraid to say what’s on your mind — and that was the important thing about Trump. He was not your typical politician who carefully weighed what he said so that he wouldn’t offend anyone, or merely provide rehearsed, canned answers.
So, what happened last week with the abortion flap and why could this be a more harmful gaff? After telling Chris Matthews that women getting abortions “if they were illegal” should face punishment, he backtracked after receiving criticism from both pro-choice and pro-life groups. Trump was flummoxed and later had a revealing “clarifying” exchange with John Dickerson on Face the Nation. First, he explained his initial comment about punishing women by saying: “I’ve been told by some people that was a older line answer, and that was an answer that was given on a, you know, basis of an older line from years ago, very — on a very conservative basis.”
So did Trump just admit that what he said is what he thought was the “conservative” position — what he thought conservatives wanted to hear?
After Dickerson asked if Trump wanted to change the current abortion laws, the conversation proceeded as follows:
Trump: At this moment, the laws are set and I think we need to leave it that way.
Dickerson: Do you think it’s murder, abortion?
Trump: I have my opinions on it, but I would rather not comment on it.
Dickerson: You said you were very pro-life, pro-life views that abortion is murder.
Trump: Yeah, but I do have my opinions on it, but I’d rather — I don’t think it’s an appropriate forum.
What? It would not be appropriate for a leading presidential contender to give his opinion on abortion on Face the Nation? (A Trump spokesperson would later offer another tortured “clarification” that when Trump said that we need to leave the abortion laws the way they are, Trump meant only until he became President).
Conservatives have long complained that Trump is no conservative and that his claims to have transformed from being a liberal on many issues (particularly social issues) has been a superficial one simply to win over conservatives in a Republican primary campaign. Now, not only has Trump appeared reticent to divulge his views on abortion out of fear of offending some voting block, he also appears to have admitted to crafting his messages not based on his beliefs but on what he thinks will sell politically. In other words, the fearless speaker of truth is just a typical politician who says what he thinks people want to hear in order to get elected.
Lost in all the fuss about abortion, the arrest of Trump’s campaign manager, and his comments on nuclear proliferation was Trump’s disaster of a performance at CNN’s town hall. When Anderson Cooper asked Trump to name what he thought were “the top three functions” of the federal government, Trump responded with “security for our nation. I would also say health care, I would also say education.” Unlike Trump, himself, Cooper recognized an inconsistency here and asked if he really thought health care and education should be provided by the federal government. Trump obliviously responded, “Yeah, sure. There are obviously many things. Housing, providing great neighborhoods.” Cooper then told Trump what his previous position had been, asking wasn’t he “against the federal government’s involvement in education? Don’t you want it to devolve to states?” Trump then corrected himself, sort of. “No, I want it to go to the states. Yeah, absolutely.” So, asked Cooper, education wasn’t a federal concern? “Well,” responded Trump, “the federal government. But the concept of the country is that we have to have education within the country.” Got that? Does this sound like a guy who courageously tells it like it is, or does it sound like somebody who doesn’t have a clue what he believes and is doing all he can to straddle the fence?
It is not his confused views on abortion (or on any number of other issues — remember, he’s done a complete 180 on H-1B visas, twice) that will likely trouble Trump supporters, but rather these revelations that Trump may not be the “tell it like it is” candidate that they thought. The perception that he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and didn’t care about being politically correct, after all, was what made Trump so different — and so appealing to many voters. For many, it was this quality that served to cover up most of Trump’s warts. If it turns out that that quality was just an illusion, then he’s just one big pile of warts.