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Donald Trump’s most WTF moments happen when he tries to speak conservative

Why Trump’s comments on subjects like guns and abortion end up sounding monstrous.

Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty
(Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

What the hell is a “Second Amendment person”?

It’s not a phrase gun rights supporters typically use to describe themselves. As often as not, it’s used by gun control advocates to characterize their opponents as wackos.

But in the way Donald Trump used it on Tuesday, you might think he intended it as a compliment. He was immediately accused of implying that someone should shoot Hillary Clinton and/or whomever she might (if elected) appoint to the federal bench — what amounted to a threat of violence against public officials.

Except that Trump didn’t outright say anything so coherent as that. His comments were less a call to arms than a verbal Salad Shooter:

This isn’t to diminish the seriousness of what Trump said — or rather, what his followers may have inferred he said. To quote former CIA head Michael Hayden, “You’re not just responsible for what you say. You’re responsible for what people hear.”

It’s just ironic that Trump is being attacked for validating an extremist right-wing, pro-gun view in a speech in which he demonstrated (not for the first time) that he doesn’t really understand gun rights supporters.

Or maybe it isn’t. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened: Donald Trump, trying to express an orthodox conservative view, ends up saying something that lots of Americans find brutal and extreme.

Think about when he answered a question about outlawing abortion by saying that women who sought abortions should receive “some form of punishment.” Think about when he answered a debate question about raising the minimum wage by protesting that wages are too high.”

These aren’t Trump’s own core issues, or the issues of his base. But they’re important to swaths of the Republican Party. As the party’s nominee, he’s tried to learn how to speak their language. But he speaks it with a heavy accent — and woeful miscommunication ensues.

Trump’s first language is populism, not conservatism

Donald Trump is generally not the world’s most careful speaker. His greatest appeal, and one of his greatest liabilities, is that he deals poorly with talking points.

That doesn’t mean he’s impossible to control — it just means it’s difficult for him to be directed without controlling what he says completely.

If you give him a fully scripted speech and a teleprompter to deliver it on, he won’t go off script; he’ll ad lib for good measure, but he’ll say what he’s supposed to. If you don’t, he’ll speak totally off the cuff — and, inevitably, return to his favorite topics (like how many people he beat in the primary) even when they’re totally irrelevant.

One of the side effects of this is that it’s difficult for Trump to learn how to reach out to different constituencies of voters by speaking their language. He doesn’t dog-whistle; he foghorns.

For the most part, this isn’t a huge problem for the campaign: They’re not trying to win over people who don’t already like what Trump is doing. But at some point during the Republican primary, it became clear to someone in the Trump campaign that the party wasn’t going to unify behind Trump, no matter how many delegates he won, if he didn’t do something to reassure the conservative movement that he was a conservative himself.

Donald Trump is not a conservative — it’s no secret that he came to Republican Party politics after decades as a Democrat. He’s a populist, and so are his core fans. The people who supported Trump in the GOP primary cared about same-sex marriage, for example, much less than other Republicans. Many of them were even pro-choice — as Trump himself once was.

Trump managed to do this, in the wake of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia and the decision by Senate Republicans to block Obama nominee Merrick Garland, by promising to appoint orthodox conservatives to the Supreme Court. That’s become the key point in Trump’s favor in social conservative circles.

But Trump still hasn’t really learned how to speak conservative. At best, he just repeats key phrases; at worst, he unleashes some mutated monstrosity, like a conservative talking point that had survived and evolved for generations underground.

Trump caricatures conservatives in the same way some liberals do

Every time something like this happens, you can count on at least a few liberal pundits to erupt in shouts of triumph. Aha! they say. That’s the logical conclusion of the position held by “reasonable” conservatives. Donald Trump just made the subtext text!

When Trump called on “Second Amendment people,” people argued that what he said was no different from pro–gun rights tropes like “you can have my guns when you take them from my cold dead hands.”

When he talked about “punishment” for women who sought abortions, his opponents used it as a refreshing admission that the real motivation of anti-abortion conservatives is to punish women for having sex.

The problem with treating Donald Trump as the conservative id, though, is that Trump isn’t a conservative. He’s not saying things he believes because he doesn’t know he’s not supposed to say them; he’s saying things he doesn’t believe because he thinks other people do.

Maybe in some cases, for some people, he’s right. But for other people, he’s wrong. There are plenty of conservatives who’ve thought hard about the implications of their positions and drawn principled lines.

The pro–gun rights groups who’ve pushed for a broader interpretation of the Second Amendment in recent years have done so by filing lawsuits on behalf of people whose guns were illegal where they lived — not by encouraging those people to try to fire on officers if they confiscated their weapons.

Many pro-life conservatives see women who seek abortions not as would-be murderers but as victims themselves, or even try to provide support to make it easier for women to keep their pregnancies.

And pro-business conservatives, whatever policies they’re blocking in the federal government, never say they think people are getting paid too much money. The arguments, rather, are about pushing back against shorter hours or keeping employment up.

But Trump doesn’t know any of this. He’s new to conservatism, and when he tries to appeal to these voters, it shows.

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