Of late, the media has become convinced that Donald Trump is going to reinvent himself as a sensible moderate. The evidence is twofold. First, Trump dismissed the North Carolina bill that would bar transgender people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity, a sharp contrast with Ted Cruz, who says the very idea is proof that America has "gone off the deep end." (On that note, read this piece to see how cruel Cruz's position ends up being in practice.)
"Trump's comments appear to signal a more moderate shift, and some are asking is it a sign of things to come," NBC's Lester Holt said.
The second piece of evidence is that Trump and his campaign keep promising to execute a clean pivot to the center. Trump aide Paul Manafort recently told Republican National Committee members that "the part that [Trump's] been playing is now evolving." Trump knows his negatives need to fall, Manafort assured them, and after the primary, his "image is going to change" in ways that will comfort the general electorate.
This isn't Manafort wandering off the reservation. Trump has been saying this kind of thing for months now. "When I'm president, I'm a different person," he told a crowd back in January. "I can be the most politically correct person you've ever seen."
No, he can't.
There will be no pivot to the center. There will be no sharp change in image. There will just be Trump. There can only ever be Trump.
People say Donald Trump is authentic. They're right.
In 1990, Donald Trump gave an interview to Playboy magazine. Read today, it stands as an astonishing testament to Trump's consistency. Nearly every sentence of it is something Trump could have said today. But that's not to say it's devoid of insights. Toward the end, Trump offers his philosophy of life, of governance, and of international competitiveness.
"People need ego, whole nations need ego," he told Playboy. "I think our country needs more ego, because it is being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies; i.e., Japan, West Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, etc. They have literally outegotized this country."
Trump has spent decades learning to project wealth, ego, bluster, confidence. For him, projecting ego is more than mere personality, it has attained the status of ideology.
Trump is a man who puts his name on buildings, on steaks, on board games, on books, on bicycle races, on golf courses, on bottled water, on cologne ("Success," by Trump), on eyeglasses. He became a reality television star through sheer force of personality. He was a bit character in the WWE, where he body slammed Vince McMahon and shaved his head. In 2006, Donald Trump was a guest on The View, where he told the nation, "If Ivanka weren't my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her."
Donald Trump has been powering a global brand by doing and saying outrageous things for decades now. He has built up an immunity to outrage and backlash. This personal fortitude is why Trump was able to take his wealth and turn it into personal, persistent celebrity. This deep — and continually rewarded — belief that flamboyance pays off is why Trump says what other presidential candidates won't and does what other presidential candidates can't. It's why he can retweet white supremacists and play insult comic on the stump and encourage violence at his rallies and shrug off the brickbats of the Republican, Democratic, media, and cultural establishments.
Most human beings could not stand the assault on their reputation, the abandonment by friends and business partners, the opprobrium of the media. But Trump can, because Trump has been this person, existing amidst constant controversy and ignoring the side eyes of the elites who think him gauche, for decades now.
If Trump really could be politically correct — if his superego had truly been in control this whole time — he wouldn't be on the stump, in the middle of a Republican primary, promising to be "a different person" the moment he was elected. If Trump could play the sober statesman, he wouldn't have just told Fox News, "I can tell you that if I go too presidential, people are going to be very bored." This weekend, amidst all the talk Trump would reinvent himself as a moderate, he tweeted:
Shows how weak and desperate Lyin' Ted is when he has to team up with a guy who openly can't stand him and is only 1 win and 38 losses.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 25, 2016
This is who Trump really is. This is who he has spent decades becoming. These are the patterns worn into his day, the grooves scratched into his record, the neural pathways reinforced in his brain. None of it is changing.
Moderation isn't just about policy, particularly for Trump
If moderation were merely a matter of kinder, gentler policy, no one would think reinvention necessary for Trump.
He's drawn a hard line on immigration, sure, but compared to Ted Cruz or even to Marco Rubio, his rhetoric veers toward the center on virtually everything else. He's promised to protect Social Security and Medicare from cuts, increase taxes on the rich, make the government cover the uninsured, renegotiate (or rip up) the nation's trade deals, abide by Obama's deal nuclear deal with Iran, and so on.
These statements are often contradicted by subsequent comments Trump makes, and by the policies he releases. But they get more coverage than the reversals and the revisions. Trump's heterodoxies are a more interesting story than his orthodoxies. Even so, they have not made him a moderate in the eyes of either the public or the press.
For better or worse, what codes as moderation in American politics is temperamental more than substantive. Politicians who win the coveted label tend to be cautious, compromising, collaborative. They tend to be institutionalists who play a consistent predictable role sanding the edges off of big policy projects.
Sen. Olympia Snowe was a moderate. Sen. Arlen Specter was a moderate. Sen. Mary Landrieu was a moderate. Moderates can take policies that are ambitious and extreme, so long as they also exist comfortably within the consensus of American politics. In 2003, for instance, most congressional "moderates" supported America invading and rebuilding the nation of Iraq, albeit with some reservations. Flatly opposing the war — though a more cautious, humble, and incrementalist policy — was seen as a bold statement of liberalism.
Trump is the opposite. He frequently takes positions that are more cautious, humble, and incrementalist than his challengers, but he takes them in aggressive, uncompromising, and offensive ways. He gleefully mocks institutions, brags about his own unpredictability, and violates existing standards of decorum.
To reinvent himself as a moderate, in other words, Trump would need to discover not simply gentler policies, but a gentler temperament. Perceptions of Trump's extremism do not stem primarily from his proposals but from his personality. He is brash, erratic, egotistical, aggressive, funny, fearless, insulting, proud, unpredictable, and compulsively entertaining. As I have written before, he is a reality television star, through and through. His success wouldn't have been possible if his courage, mania, and braggadocio were not truly integrated into his personality.
But for those same reasons, he cannot escape his reputation, because he cannot escape himself.