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What is Donald Trump even running on anymore?

His “Muslim ban” shift sells out his core constituents.

Missed me? (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Missed me? (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

This is an awkward thing to admit: I actually took Donald Trump at his word about something.

Not much, mind you. Just two things. As much as he might flip-flop with abandon, and lie with ease, about most campaign issues, I figured that two things would remain: He would promise to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it, and he would promise to ban Muslims from entering the US "until we figure out what's going on."

But the minute he sewed up the GOP nomination in early May, he started showing signs of softening on the Muslim ban — telling interviewers that it was "just a suggestion", that "it hasn’t been called for yet." By June 14, in a speech after the mass shooting in Orlando, the ban would apply to "areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe, or our allies."

By late June, the Trump campaign officially admitted that President Trump wouldn’t ban Muslims from entering the US unless they came from one of the "terror states." A few days later, Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson was insisting that the candidate had never called to ban all Muslims at all.

Of course, that is exactly what Trump did. Explicitly and repeatedly. For pete's sake, it was the focus of his very first television campaign ad.

It's not that I'm surprised Trump is lying about something. (If I were, I should probably be either checked for memory loss or fired.) But I'm really surprised that one of the two things I thought he'd never back down on is one of the first things that, as he "pivots" to the general election, he's signaling a willingness to move away from.

And I'm left to wonder: Who is Donald Trump even running as anymore?

Trump has successfully marketed himself as a bold, un-PC truth teller

It is clear to me that Donald Trump accidentally fell into a serious presidential run. The truest statement you can make about his campaign for the Republican nomination is that he micromanages his communications strategy — his marketing — and leaves his staff and surrogates scrambling to fill in the rest, if it gets filled in at all.

He flip-flops with abandon (on issues like taxes) and breaks gleefully with GOP orthodoxies (like George W. Bush "keeping us safe") because, as much as anything, he just doesn't give a damn about policy.

Donald Trump
Policy, feh, who needs it?

But for all this, he managed to stumble onto a constituency. His comments about Mexicans during his campaign speech did exactly what political communications consultants tell their clients to do. It provoked the opposition (liberal and mainstream media) and galvanized a base: people who felt repulsed by immigration and oppressed by "political correctness."

That wasn't Trump's base when he said it. But it became his base. And that base has stuck with him throughout the campaign, as the rest of the Republican Party failed to find an alternative to him and then talked themselves into more or less actively supporting him.

Trump's willingness to speak bluntly on delicate subjects is core to his appeal. When I spoke to Trump voters in the northern suburbs of Boston, it was the most common theme I heard. "A lot of things that American families say behind closed doors, he's willing to say out loud," one Trump supporter told me.

And the particular truths they cherish Trump speaking are about immigrants and Muslims. When one Trump supporter told me Trump was "actually saying things that we probably would not be comfortable doing ourselves," I asked him what sort of things he meant; his reply was, "The whole thing with the Muslim issue. That we should be screening them. I support that."

I figured that Trump understood that. I figured it was why his campaign always seemed one step more developed on immigration than it was on any other issue. I figured that's why those had been the issues he featured in his primary ad. (For more on Trump's proposed Muslim ban and its history, read our previous coverage.)

Even when Trump put a wrecking ball to a core pillar of his candidacy last month by agreeing to accept outside funding in the general election (after months of saying that he was uniquely trustworthy because he didn't let anyone give him money), I was amused but not alarmed — Trump's supporters care about his independence, sure, but not as much as they care about Trump's "hard truths."

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

With the "Muslim ban" no longer a Muslim ban, Donald Trump is running for office promising to do exactly one thing: to build a wall on the US-Mexico border and make Mexico pay for it.

Except that Trump has already signaled, on a couple of occasions, that he only needs the wall built along about half of the border — which is barely more security than his Republican competitors were calling for or, for that matter, than the US has now.

With five months left in the campaign, what else might Trump promise to do, or even try to do, once elected president? What is he asking his voters to trust him for? What is left to Donald Trump?

A "negotiating" stance is an easy way to avoid commitment — but avoiding commitment diminishes the Trump brand

In fairness, Trump has been admirably forthright about the flexibility of his policy proposals. He's said over and over again that he's a dealmaker, a negotiator, and that therefore any policy he proposed should be taken no more seriously than an opening bid — a "suggestion."

Many of the Trump supporters I talked to either weren't aware of this or didn't care. They believed fervently that Trump's bluntness meant he was unusually sincere. "He's not a politician. He's not a smooth talker. What he says is what he's going to do," one said. "There's a lot of similarity between Trump and Reagan," said another, "because they say what they're going to do and they do it."

That's not necessarily Trump's fault. As the candidate himself likes to say on the stump (albeit referring to immigrants, not to himself), "You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in."

It's not at all clear that Trump is actually backing off his Muslim-ban proposal so much as bringing it in line with the rest of his policy proposals: an opening offer to get someone (Congress? other countries? Paul Ryan?) to the table and hash things out.

That saves Trump's skin with political reporters who care about policy: The best way to avoid getting accused of flip-flopping is never to say anything specific enough to be reversible. But that's not the constituency Trump cares about anyway, or else he would, you know, flip-flop less.

donald trump 2011 book
(Trump)
(Trump)

But the thing about being a "negotiator" is that you don't cut a deal just to cut a deal. That's a good way to cut a lot of bad deals. It is, in fact, exactly what Donald Trump is accusing President Obama of when it comes to his 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

When you negotiate, you can't just have an opening bid in mind. You have to have a closing one, too. And while Donald Trump is just speaking out of a best-business-practices playbook when he refuses to tell anyone what his actual goals are in negotiation, because he doesn't want to tip his hand to the competition, at this point there is simply no way of knowing what he would actually go into a negotiation hoping to get out of it, what his top priorities and deal breakers for America would be.

If the Muslim ban isn't that, what is?

This gets to the other problem with the "negotiation" framework. There are plenty of Donald Trump supporters who don't think of the Muslim ban as a policy promise first and foremost; they think of it as an uncomfortable truth about the danger of the modern world. They support Donald Trump because even when the Republican "establishment" wants him to stop speaking out about these truths, he refuses to do it.

That’s not about policy as much as it is about communications. And communications is what is most important to Trump anyway. But over the last couple of weeks, it appears that the political insiders — the Republican establishment — have finally taken over the Trump messaging machine.

Trump’s Twitter account has started to read like a campaign account (at least sometimes). He gave an entire speech about Hillary Clinton without calling her "Crooked Hillary" once.

The candidate still overrules his handlers to let reporters tag along with him on a golf course, and the things he says over 18 holes might sound like vintage Trump — but they’re not. Trump still goes on Sean Hannity’s show and talks about how Muslim Americans aren’t assimilating, but he’s not willing to back it up with action. In other words, he’s taking one of his boldest, harshest truths, and treating it as something that might not be such a big deal after all.

It is, quite literally, an act of political correctness.

Watch: Islamophobia in America goes much deeper than Donald Trump.

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