The political world is all atwitter following Donald Trump’s statement last Thursday in Charlotte, North Carolina that, “believe it or not,” he regrets having said “the wrong thing” in the past, “particularly where it may have caused personal pain,” a list which might include Heidi Cruz, Megyn Kelly, and Ghazala Khan.
I was less astonished than most, however, because I noticed a substantial and important change in Mr. Trump’s campaigning more than week earlier. Although I mentioned it during my radio show, it seemed to go mostly unnoticed in the broader media, perhaps because of justifiable initial skepticism.
In Abingdon, Virginia on Wednesday, August 10, Donald Trump gave nearly an hour of remarks in a tone entirely different from what he had offered in public before. No yelling, no venomous rasping in the back of his throat, and, although he was as strong as ever in his positions on issues (several of which, most particularly trade and NAFTA, I strongly disagree with him on), the seething anger and divisiveness which had characterized so much of his campaign to date was simply gone.
It was the first Trump speech I could watch, again putting aside my policy disagreements with him, without his tone and shouting and demeanor and sheer disagreeableness making my teeth itch. Until then, he had been almost as hard to listen to as Hillary is, and that’s saying something.
While Trump had been on good behavior briefly in the past only to return to “Trump being Trump” mere hours later, the Abingdon speech felt different. It felt as if someone — at this point I suspect it was Kellyanne Conway — had gotten him to realize that the path he was on was doomed to fail and that a possible road to victory did not involve forsaking policy positions but simply abandoning a poisonous rhetorical style.
I thought to myself — and said to my wife — “If Trump had been doing this for the past couple of months, he’d be beating Hillary right now.”
Trump’s public demeanor and speech delivery have only further improved since then even if keeping him on message has meant more use of Teleprompters, allowing his critics to ignore this important evolution and focus instead on his occasionally slightly stilted delivery.
On one hand, I’m surprised in the change because it seemed that Mr. Trump believed his prior high-volume braggadocio and antagonistic style to be responsible for his success earning the Republican nomination. It was only partially so, and it hurt him as much as it helped him toward the end of the primary season. Trump’s bad behavior accompanied his victories but did not cause them. He has long seemed to have confused correlation with causation and for weeks it didn’t seem that even dramatically worsening poll numbers could change that.
On the other hand, I’m not surprised by the change because of the number of people whom I have spoken to, including “Tig” and “Oz” from the battle in Benghazi (as chronicled in the book and movie 13 Hours), Colorado Republican Party Chairman Steve House and The American Spectator’s own Jeff Lord who have said that Donald Trump is an entirely different person in private or with small groups than he is in front of large audiences.
We can debate the merits of having different personas in different environments (such as Barack Obama’s habit of lapsing into a fake Southern accent in front of black audiences). But if you were going to guess which one represents the real man, wouldn’t you think it’s the more private one rather than the one on stage in front of TV cameras and thousands of fans, which, as a friend recently reminded me, is short for fanatics?
If you buy the argument, then, that Trump’s real persona, while hardly demure, is not the incorrigible blustery demagogue of recent months but rather a man who is at least occasionally capable of quiet thoughtfulness, respectful disagreement, and even a soft side, the rapid change in campaign style over the past two weeks may be less of an act than it is better coaching urging him to drop the tiresome and divisive shtick.
Since Abingdon, Trump has given several major speeches — on preventing terrorism in the United States, on law and order and appealing to black voters, and Thursday’s mea culpa in Charlotte, each one better than the last. (Don’t you hate it when people say “each one better than the next,” which implies that the series is getting worse over time?)
Of course, after months of being bludgeoned by an angry thin-skinned man yelling at us while responding to every perceived slight, it’s going to take some time for Americans to believe that the current version of The Donald is not simply a veneer masking a far more unpleasant reality. But the public has a short memory and a consistently well-behaved Donald could start to drag voters, especially moderates and women, his way, particularly if the drip, drip, drip of the utter corruption of Hillary Clinton continues to rain down on us daily.
The big question is not whether the change is too little — because it could hardly be bigger — but whether it’s too late. Has Donald Trump cemented himself in the minds of voters or does there remain some emotional and electoral wiggle room?
On Friday afternoon, speaking in Dimondale, Michigan, Trump gave arguably his best speech yet, including his continued appeal to black voters with an attractively simple argument: Given the complete failure of years of Democratic leadership to improve the lives of inner-city African-Americans, “What do you have to lose by trying something new, like Trump?”
The speech followed Mr. Trump’s Friday morning visit to the suffering people in a flooded Louisiana, itself also boosting his first days of seeming truly presidential. It had the added benefit of shaming Barack Obama off the golf course, though not for several more days, and reminding us of Obama’s glaring hypocrisy given his aggressive criticism in 2008 of George W. Bush’s actions immediately following Hurricane Katrina. (Former Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu thanked Trump for bringing attention to the scale of the disaster though, to be fair, the governor of Louisiana has asked Obama not to visit immediately because security measures could disrupt rescue and recovery activities.)
My policy differences with Donald Trump remain enormous. He still has not earned my vote and he may never do so.
But as I said to my wife on Friday, while watching the under-new-management on-script even-keeled Trump, “Where has THIS guy been for the last six months?!?”
Because THIS guy could beat Hillary Clinton.