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There is no "real" Donald Trump

Why does everyone think they know what Trump secretly believes?

When it comes to Donald Trump's tax plans, "huge" is actually an understatement. (Ty Wright/Getty Images)
It's showbiz.
Ty Wright/Getty Images

Ted Cruz, the only serious remaining challenger to Donald Trump, wants you to know: Donald Trump is not what he says he is.

"I think Donald is taking advantage of his voters," particularly "low-information voters" who are "not that engaged," he said on Thursday in an interview with a Christian TV network. "Where we are beating him is when voters get more engaged and they get more informed. When they inform themselves, they realize his record."

The conservative movement, with Cruz as its standard-bearer, doesn't see Trump as a true conservative. But more than that, conservatives worry that Trump is secretly a liberal who's deliberately conning his supporters into voting for him, only to inevitably sell them out on immigration or the sanctity of marriage.

Cruz is giving some oxygen to this theory. He thinks he can convince voters that he knows who the "real" Donald Trump is: a candidate whose past support of liberals, not his current rhetoric, is a reflection of his true beliefs.

But he's no wiser than anyone else. The theory is based on a fantasy: that it's possible, or important, to know the "real Donald Trump."

Donald Trump start

This is deeper than the typical hypocrisy argument

It's tempting to think Cruz is simply mounting a hypocrisy or flip-flop attack on Trump. A hypocrisy attack would be, Candidate X said one thing and did another thing, so clearly she believes nothing and just does what's expedient. A flip-flop attack is only slightly different: Candidate Y said one thing, then said another thing, so you shouldn't trust him because you can't know what he really believes.

Both of these arguments are the kind that many Bernie Sanders supporters make about Hillary Clinton: that she's not a centrist ideologue, just someone who cares more about power than about doing the right thing.

And that argument would certainly make sense when applied to Donald Trump. After all, that's the implication of his promise that he "can be the most politically correct person you have ever seen" after he is elected president. He will be whatever is required of him.

And Trump himself encourages the idea that there is a "real" Trump, and it's not the one you see. During his endorsement by Ben Carson on Friday, Trump said it himself:

But when Trump says it, he's referring to his personality. Trump wants you to believe that the difference between the "real Donald Trump" and the public one is that the real Trump is kinder, gentler, more polite.

That's not exactly what Cruz and other conservatives are saying. They think the difference between the "real Donald Trump" and the public one is that the real Trump is ideologically moderate, and possibly even liberal.

The furor over the secret New York Times immigration tape

The specter of the "real Donald Trump" has been invoked most prominently in the controversy over the New York Times's secret immigration tape.

The backstory, in brief: Donald Trump had an off-the-record conversation with the New York Times editorial board, which is something a lot of politicians do. The New York Times editorial board then talked about what Trump had said in that meeting to their co-workers (which is against the spirit of "off the record"), and circulated the audio recording of the meeting (which is definitely not kosher).

The resulting rumors, because of course there were rumors, gave the impression that Trump told the New York Times editorial board something about his immigration views that caused the editorial board to believe he is not in fact serious about fulfilling his core campaign promises: to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it; deport 11 million unauthorized immigrants from the US; and prevent Muslims from entering the country.

Trump hat
Is the hat a cheap disguise?
(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

When BuzzFeed broke the news of the secret tape a few weeks ago, Cruz and other anti-Trump conservatives seized on it as evidence that Donald Trump's true colors were secretly more aligned with the Times' views on immigration that the ones he's shown in his campaign — and that he would reveal those true colors once nominated.

Sure, they could have interpreted the story differently. They could have assumed that the liberal Times was engaging in wishful thinking to warp a conservative perspective. They could even have assumed that Trump was lying not when he talked to supporters, but when he talked to the Times. (Honestly, whether or not he's lying when he tells supporters what they want to hear about immigration, it seems pretty likely he was telling the Times what he thought they wanted to hear.)

But they didn't. They chose to believe that the Times, not Republican voters, got to see the real Trump.

The fear of a "real Donald Trump" comes from frustrations about socially conservative views not being taken seriously

Trump has given campaign contributions to Democrats for years, and this is usually the thing conservatives point to as evidence that he is "really" liberal. But Trump himself has a plausible explanation for this: He made donations to whomever was needed in order to continue to accrue wealth and power. And besides, the fear of the "real Donald Trump" comes up less in concerns about, say, his support for single-payer health care than it does in controversies about his views on immigration and same-sex marriage.

These are issues where social conservatives have pretty austere positions — positions that might, to outsiders, seem cruel. (After all, both support for more immigration enforcement and opposition to same-sex marriage open people up to the criticism that they "want to tear apart families.")

And they're positions where conservatives can feel under siege by cosmopolitan elites — that the culture is ramming undesired values down America's throat.

Ted Cruz
Ted Cruz will never sell you out. Those other guys...
Xinhua/Yin Bogu via Getty

This isn't limited to distrust of Republicans. Many social conservatives are very concerned that Republican politicians use their votes to get into office and pass business-friendly policies, but will happily sell them out on social issues to stay in the good graces of their elite friends.

And Trump, possibly inadvertently, plays into this when he says the "real Donald Trump" is kinder and more polite. To some social conservatives, that may seem like dogwhistling: an acknowledgment that Donald Trump agrees with liberals that conservative positions are unkind and impolite, and since he's a good person he doesn't really agree with conservatives.

The fear is real. The best example of it I've seen this cycle comes from labor Democrat turned Trump fan Mickey Kaus. Kaus isn't among those convinced that Trump will inevitably sell out the cause, but he's watching very closely for any signals of sellout — and carefully calibrating his level of "paranoia" accordingly.

And that fear creates an opening for attacks from other candidates.

Cruz is using the specter of a softer, kinder Trump to make his rigid positions seem more appealing

Ted Cruz has some pretty strictly conservative views. He may be a Canadian-born Texan, but his positions on most issues have a thread of puritanical New England to them.

That makes him the perfect messenger for the anti-Trump message. History is full of dour men of God warning the populace not to fall for the glittering promises of rich men. Cruz is trying to cast Trump as Italian Renaissance magnate Lorenzo de' Medici, who used his family's great wealth and showy public works to maintain political power in Florence — and himself as Savonarola, the friar who warned of the time's nefarious influences on morality.

Ted Cruz

The promises that Trump is making to his supporters are far, far more attractive than Cruz's martial vision of American politics. But those promises are unrealistic. In this regard, Cruz is in a similar position to Hillary Clinton, as she tries to reckon with the appeal of Bernie Sanders.

But while Clinton's attack on Sanders is just that his plans are unrealistic, Cruz takes a different tack — he is trying to persuade voters that Donald Trump doesn't really want to do the things he's promising. Trump is promising to give them what they want because he doesn't respect their intelligence — and he doesn't respect their intelligence not because he's a huckster, but because he's a liberal.

The aspersions cast on the "real Donald Trump" are a way for Cruz to buff his own bona fides as an uncompromising social conservative: "I am just as extreme as you think he is."

Many liberals are also guilty of assuming they know the real Trump

The funny thing about the fantasy of the "real Donald Trump" is that many liberals also buy into a version of it.

They may not agree with Ted Cruz that Donald Trump is secretly a liberal Manchurian Candidate. But they think the real Donald Trump is ultimately a dealmaker — and therefore he must like things like bipartisanship, compromise, and moderation.

Sometimes this gets expressed in the belief that the minute he's secured the nomination, Trump will immediately disown all the supporters who made him a force, and run to the center for the general election. Sometimes it's expressed in the idea that a President Trump would be more open to compromise with congressional Democrats as a way of proving that he can make a good deal.

(Johnny Louis/FilmMagic/Getty)
Johnny Louis/FilmMagic/Getty Images

This theory has the virtue of being straightforward: It doesn't presume that Donald Trump has a hidden agenda. But it does presume that he cares more about making deals than about anything else. Which is to say it, too, relies on a version of Trump that isn't the version he's currently showing off on the campaign trail — where most of his criticisms of Obama have been that Obama is too willing to negotiate and compromise where he should be holding the line.

Trump invites accusations of insincerity with his bluster and his inconsistency, and his relative lack of ideology. So both sides have tried to fill in the blanks, and figure out what kind of man would be revealed under all that gilding if he were elected to the presidency.

But Trump has been a showman all his life. What if this is the real Donald Trump? What if what he says is what he means, and what we see is what we get?

UPDATE: Updated to include Trump's own claim that there are "two Donald Trumps" at his endorsement by Ben Carson on March 11 — a clever line, but also, just what you'd expect a showman to say.