The Donald Trump campaign would like a do-over.
That disastrous first month of the general election — the news cycle–hijacking inflammatory statements; the self-obsessed, tone-deaf response to the Orlando shooting; the pathetic fundraising haul; the firing of loyal campaign manager Corey Lewandowski? Those, apparently, should be dismissed as teething pains.
It’s Wednesday’s speech in New York that pundits are referring to as Trump’s "first speech of the general election." And while chronologically that’s not true, it certainly reflects the hopes of the Republican Party: Wednesday’s speech was the first evidence that Trump could actually make the much-hyped "pivot" to the general and start trying to appeal to Americans beyond his devoted fan base.
On Sunday, pundit Mark Halperin tweeted, "What would happen if Trump...started talking only abt need to change DC, middle class, Hillary=status quo?" Twitter mocked him mercilessly; it was fanfic, not punditry.
But on Wednesday, Trump delivered on that script. He painted a reasonably coherent (if factually challenged) picture of Clinton as a corrupt liar who is beholden to the big-money interests rigging the American economy against its workers, and presented himself as a champion for all Americans.
This is exactly the pivot that Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chair, has been promising he’ll make for weeks. And with Lewandowski gone — or at least off the payroll — it’s possible that Manafort has finally won the prolonged intra-campaign power struggle. With him at the helm, Wednesday’s speech could be an accurate reflection of what Trump will look like between now and November.
The thing about a "pivot," though, is that you can’t ever pivot back. For the first time since the last of his primary opponents dropped out in early May, Donald Trump has given Republicans reason to believe that he could be a better general election candidate than any of the 16 people he so famously beat. But that will only be true if he manages to keep acting like a normal candidate for five long months — even after "Trump acts like normal candidate" becomes no longer newsworthy.
Trump had a script, and he stuck to it
You can always tell when Trump uses a teleprompter. Trump gives teleprompter speeches with bonus commentary, as if he’s reading a book aloud and commenting on it as he turns the pages. ("This is important," he often interjected when he was making an allegation against Clinton he found particularly damning.)
But on Wednesday, with the exception of an odd ad lib in which he boldly predicted the death or retirement of up to five Supreme Court justices during the next president’s administration, even when Trump went off script it was in an on-message way.
He managed to resist his biggest applause lines — keeping the speech tailored to a broader audience than the one he’s used to greeting at his yuuuge rallies.
During an entire speech about Hillary Clinton, Trump’s preferred epithet of "Crooked Hillary" — one that, when unfiltered, he appears particularly proud of himself for coming up with — was never once uttered. It was simply "Hillary Clinton" all the way.
Trump often treated facts with the same indifference he’s shown throughout the campaign; plenty of the things he said were either unproven or simply false. But even his falsehoods seemed to fall within the bounds of accepted politics. Trump exaggerated the effects of his opponent’s policies? Nothing Clinton hasn’t done to Bernie Sanders. Trump insinuated his opponent was in the pocket of her financial backers? Nothing Sanders hasn’t done to Clinton, and nothing congressional Democrats aren’t doing to congressional Republicans this week.
Trump relied on quotes to make the strongest claims against Clinton: It wasn’t him calling for her to be put in jail, but rather the mother of a police officer killed by an unauthorized immigrant whose letter Trump happened to be quoting. This suits Trump’s style; his willingness to repeat whatever he’s heard has often led him into conspiracy theory.
A version of Trump that could be better than most GOPers
Wednesday’s speech took some of the Trumpery out of Trump. But it didn’t leave him sounding like a generic Republican — he sounded like something much more interesting.
Trump made a full-throated case for economic protectionism, encouraging domestic manufacturing and discouraging imports and trade. His foreign policy, while less explicit, was recognizable as Cold War–style realism: Governments that are opposed to our enemies (in this case, Islamist extremists) should be supported, regardless of how they treat their own people.
Both of these ideas are familiar, even mainstream. But they’re not currently fashionable in either major party. They’re a sketch of what the GOP could look like after a Trumpian realignment — the party of globalization’s losers.
The lines that got the biggest cheers out of Trump’s supporters were still about culture war (promising to look after "our police" and let in only immigrants who share "our values"). But the bulk of the speech was about how the system is rigged against you and Hillary Clinton is one of the people doing the rigging.
"Her campaign slogan is ‘I’m with her,’" Trump said. "I’m with you, the American people."
Watch: Trump attacks Clinton over email server
This was the easy part for Trump
This is the Trump that Halperin and other pundits have fantasized about: a Trump who could represent people who feel unheard by either major party in America, without turning off everybody else.
Wednesday’s speech was proof that such a candidate existed. But that’s all it was. It was by no means proof that this is the self-discipline Trump will bring to the remaining four and a half months of the campaign.
In some way, Wednesday’s speech was the easy part.
When no one can predict what Trump will say next, everything he says is newsworthy. That’s true even when he sticks to the script — as long as sticking to the script is rare. But if Trump really does manage to rein in his Trumpiest instincts day in and day out, eventually it will become harder for him to dominate the news cycle. (He knows this; he’s written as much in his books.)
To reinforce all this, Trump needs to start running a conventional campaign in other way as well: assiduously courting donors, helping down-ballot Republicans, investing in a data operation. He would have to spend much of his time and money doing things he appears to believe, as a business principle, to be a waste of both.
It’s one thing to get Donald Trump to pivot in front of the cameras. But to pivot away from them? Who knows.