With his long-touted anti-Clinton speech on Wednesday morning, Donald Trump came closer than ever to becoming the polished and restrained candidate that the Republican elite have been longing for. What the world saw was, if not a new Trump, at least a more restrained Trump, sticking to the prepared remarks with occasional ad-libs (which often amounted to just repeating some key words for emphasis.) Thematically, the script was tight. It hit hard on the argument that Hillary Clinton “may be the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency.” The recycled allegations of corruption—Benghazi, email, Chinese money—were deftly linked to a populist nationalist message about how America is being betrayed by the corporate elite through trade deals that hurt workers. This is a theme that Trump clearly hopes can bring together not just Republican partisans, but also the wider public that remains deeply suspicious of Clinton. At one juncture, he pointedly invited “Bernie Sanders’s voters to join our movement.”
But this new-and-improved Trump is still dragged down by the baggage of the existing Trump. In trying to be “presidential,” Trump is competing with the far more vivid—and convincing—version of himself that was on full display just last week in his speech about the Orlando massacre. Simply put, the more polished he is, the less Trump sounds like himself. And when Trump sounds scripted, he becomes boring.
The free-range Trump is a disorderly but electrifying speaker, hard to ignore. The polished Trump is simply an amateur politician, and a rather inept one at that. He delivered a few good, pithy, prepared lines—none better than, “She gets rich making you poor”—but his longer discussions of Middle Eastern policy and the alleged Clinton Foundation corruption could only be comprehended by an audience of hardcore Clinton haters, the people who adore Sean Hannity and Alex Jones’s InfoWars and view the world as one big conspiracy. The notion that the Obama administration is in league with the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, is usually found only on the nuttier fringes of American politics, but Trump gave full vent to it, claiming, “She helped force out a friendly regime in Egypt and replace it with the radical Muslim Brotherhood.”
For those who don’t track far-right websites, Trump’s line of logic—on so many subjects—can only mystify. He may be trying to break out of the insular right-wing reality of “the shows,” but he still assumes his audience will be intimately familiar with a view of history that only gets aired on the Republican right. (Jesse Lehrich, who works on rapid response for the Clinton campaign, had some fun with Trump’s conspiracy mongering by tweeting, “I’m Alex Jones, and I hope you’ll make me your president. Thank you.”)
The audience that understands Trump is the one he already had. And given the extremism of some of the accusations—another hinted suggestion that Clinton and Obama favor ISIS, to name just one—his “presidential” speech was guaranteed to turn off anyone outside the Fox News bubble.
But Trump isn’t just trying to speak to just two audiences at once. Thanks to the disaster his general-election campaign has been so far, and the renewed push for a convention coup to deny him the nomination, he is caught in a trap of trying to reach three at once. The speech was mostly aimed not at potential voters outside the fold, but at placating the GOP elite (especially the donor class) while simultaneously holding on to his populist base.
Trump needs to convince the GOP elite and donor class that he can be a smooth candidate, that he can look and sound like presidential material. But in doing so, he’s cutting himself off from the demented energy that he gets from rallies where he throws red meat at the base—energy that fuels his performances. And it’s not just a matter of style and performance: Substantively, to keep that base enthusiastically behind him, he has to keep hammering home not only conspiracy theories, but that populist message of trade protectionism, all of which is anathema to the donor class.
This dilemma of having to appeal to differing audiences made Wednesday’s speech confusing and ultimately enervated. To reassure the elites, Trump tried to temper his Islamophobia: “ISIS also threatens peaceful Muslims across the Middle East, and peaceful Muslims across the world, who have been terribly victimized by horrible brutality.” But this was offset by repeating his opposition to accepting refugees, and his calls for only “admitting people who share our values and love our people.” This is one more way that Trump’s primary campaign has painted him into a corner: He has to be careful not to go too far in sounding humane toward Muslims, Mexicans, and all the “others” he’s spent the campaign lambasting.
Teleprompter Trump is dull Trump, low-energy and lacking the crackpot conviction that makes regular Trump hard to avoid. Boring Trump might be able to wrangle some more money off the donor class, but in the process, he stops speaking in their own language to the enraptured audience that won him the primaries. And while he tries to balance those two forces within the party, he cannot reach the audience that he really needs: voters outside the GOP fold.