If Donald Trump’s political campaign ever gets re-told as an appropriately cheesy biopic, this current moment will be the crucial makeover scene, where the flawed hero finds a mentor who gives him a new polish needed to win. It’s easy to imagine how the scene would play out in an inspirational movie: The Trump campaign is in chaos as they realize he might not get a majority of delegates and his crude antics might alienate so many in the party as to hand over a contested convention to Senator Ted Cruz. As defeat looms, Trump turns to a grizzled political veteran in the form of Paul Manafort, who schools the roughhewn candidate on the necessity of being tactful. The refurbished Trump then goes on to win the Republican nomination and the general election.
This is certainly the scenario Manafort is trying to sell to Republican Party leaders. In a meeting in Hollywood, Florida, he tried to convince GOP bigwigs that Trump’s transformation was well underway and that the candidate was ready to pivot to the center by adopting a more moderate campaign persona. “The part that he’s been playing is evolving into the part that now you’ve been expecting, but he wasn’t ready for, because he had first to complete the first phase,” Manafort said. “The negatives will come down. The image is going to change.”
There are ambiguous indications that some sort of pivot to moderation is happening. Yesterday Trump came out against North Carolina’s anti-LGBT law, which targets transgender people who want to use public bathrooms in keeping with their gender identity. But, as is his wont, Trump waffled on the issue Friday when he said that it should be left up to local communities.
Trump’s flexibility, some argue, would make him a formidable candidate in the general election. After all, he’s not anywhere as beholden to existing Republican constituencies as Cruz, who has deep ties to evangelical Christians, or Senator Marco Rubio, who never allows himself a thought that would alienate the donor class. So in theory Trump can afford to jettison unpopular GOP positions such as opposition to LGBT rights or tax cuts for the rich. This would make him a more viable candidate in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where the party has been shut out for nearly a generation. A Trump surge in those states would change the electoral map and give him a chance to win in November.
But the idea that Trump could reinvent himself mid-campaign has always been implausible. Aside from his core issues—a draconian immigration policy and mercantilist trade policy—Trump has already been a chameleon, saying whatever he thinks an audience wants to hear. On abortion, he moved in a matter of three days from saying women should be punished to saying there should be no change in the legal status quo. On an appearance on Fox and Friends, Trump embraced the flat tax and then condemned it within a few minutes.
In terms of his persona, Trump’s ability to re-make himself seems minimal. Despite criticisms of his tweeting habits from even his wife, Trump continues to re-tweet white supremacists. And after briefly trying to be polite to “Senator Cruz,” Trump has reverted to his favorite nickname, Lyin’ Ted.
These wild shifts haven’t hurt Trump with his base, who apparently love his stance on immigration and trade so much that they are willing to forgive his ideological heresies. Conversely, though, Trump’s intermittent adoption of moderate positions hasn’t helped him with the general public, where Trump enjoys a near-record level of unpopularity.
Given this enduring unpopularity, any further shifts are unlikely to help. But Trump might still have a legacy for future Republicans who want to adopt a more centrist politics. Trump has shown that a Republican presidential nominee can win a plurality of the vote while being unorthodox on many issues (in Trump’s case, going against the party line on the Iraq war and free trade as well as flirting with abandoning social conservatism).
Even if Trump fails, it might still be possible for a future Republican to win with a streamlined version of his strategy. A successful Trumpian of the future would be anti-immigrant, but express it in less overtly racist ways that alienate mainstream opinion. Such a candidate might also avoid Trump’s blatant misogyny. In effect, the candidate would be Trump Lite—and thus, would be much more palatable to the general public in November.