All year, Republicans have been trying to convince themselves that Donald Trump would pivot to the general election once he got the nomination — cleaning up his act, professionalizing his campaign, and making appeals beyond his base.
In his first two weeks after the Republican National Convention, he’s basically done the exact opposite.
In late July, the day after grabbing the nomination, Trump went on a rant about Ted Cruz, reviving his bizarre accusation that Cruz’s father might’ve been involved in killing JFK. From there, things only got worse. Trump suggested offhand in a New York Times interview that the US shouldn’t honor its NATO commitments. This past weekend, he attacked Khizr Khan, the bereaved father of Army Captain Humayun Khan. He then pointedly refused to endorse Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who has already endorsed him, enraging Republicans.
It’s worth noting that Trump has often had controversies and bad weeks like this before, and they never seem to faze him much. But this time around, Republican leaders and politicians seem genuinely rattled.
NBC's Katy Tur reported that RNC Chair Reince Priebus was "apoplectic" over Trump's non-endorsement of Ryan and has reached out to the campaign to share his "extreme displeasure." NBC is reporting that Priebus, Rudy Giuliani, and Newt Gingrich are "plotting an intervention" with Trump — which Trump’s campaign chair Paul Manafort denies. Richard Hanna became the first Republican Congress member to cross party lines and endorse Clinton for president.
Before the convention, Trump was making an effort to persuade the GOP establishment that he was an acceptable candidate. He picked Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate. Manafort was brought in to professionalize the campaign. Trump's campaign speeches became more scripted.
But for Trump, a self-proclaimed dealmaking master, those negotiations with the GOP ended once he was declared the official Republican nominee. If the past two weeks are any indication, Trump is now free to do whatever he wants, and there's not much the rest of the party can do.
Since the Republican convention, Trump has gone completely off the rails
To recap: In the past two weeks, Trump has engaged in an extremely ill-advised feud with a Muslim Gold Star family, calling Khizr Khan a liar and asserting he was "bothered" by Trump’s plan to keep "radical Islam" out of the United States. His campaign staff has claimed Obama’s Iraq War policies were at fault for the Khans' son's death in 2004.
Trump has also said he would not necessarily defend the United State’s NATO allies if attacked by foreign powers and threatened to pull out of the World Trade Organization. On Wednesday, Joe Scarborough suggested that Trump had asked one of his foreign policy advisers "three times" why the United States couldn’t use its nuclear weapons.
Trump has also asserted that Hillary Clinton’s campaign would rig the November election against him. He’s warned Americans to pull out of the stock market. He’s said he would not endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan’s congressional run, and instead praised Ryan’s challenger. He’s refused to endorse Sen. John McCain, saying that McCain, a veteran, "has not done a good job for the vets." He’s also lambasted New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, claiming she has given him "zero support."
Earlier hints that Trump’s campaign would become more professional are long gone
To close watchers of the election, this recent Trump rampage is at least a little bit surprising. After all, in the weeks leading up to the GOP convention, it seemed like Trump’s campaign was going to rein him in.
For a while, Trump was giving scripted speeches — particularly after he fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski (who was known for letting Trump be Trump) and gave the reins to Manafort. It looked like Trump would at least try to control himself for the general election.
But that didn’t last. In the past two weeks, it’s clear something has changed. The media is rife with speculation: CNBC’s John Harwood reported that Manafort is "mailing it in," according to a close friend. Another anonymous Republican source told CNN that Trump's campaign staff, including Manafort, "feel like they are wasting their time."
Trump’s campaign, for its part, is furiously denying these reports. "The idea that Paul Manafort is mailing it in is completely erroneous," Trump spokesperson Jason Miller said in a statement to CNN. "Our campaign just finished up our strongest month of fundraising to date, we're adding talented and experienced staffers on a daily basis and Mr. Trump's turning out bigger, more enthusiastic crowds than Hillary Clinton ever could."
Manafort, for his part, told Fox News: "Well, first of all the candidate is in control of his campaign. That’s No. 1. And I’m in control of doing the things that he wants me to do in the campaign. The turmoil — and this is another Clinton narrative that’s being put out there and that the media is picking up on."
However, patterns throughout the election suggest a tale of two Trumps: one being the off-the-cuff bombast, unapologetic and controversial, who appeals to his voters. The second, a scripted, more "presidential" and curated Trump, meant ingratiate establishment conservatives.
When left to his own devices, Trump acts the way he is now. And with no Republican Party nomination left to win, there is no need to back down.
Trump is never going to change, and now the GOP is stuck with him
In the weeks leading up to the convention, many Republicans surmised that Trump would change for the general election and become more moderate. Some conservative pundits even thought the party could mold him to their liking.
But as Vox’s Ezra Klein explained in April, Trump has too long a history of being Trump to ever make that shift:
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.
Trump’s links to the GOP establishment, including Pence, are still trying to insist that Trump is with the Republican Party. But it has become increasingly clear that Trump has no interest in placating the GOP.
"It's almost, in some ways, like I'm running against two parties," Trump told conservative talk radio host Mike Gallagher in June. He’s still acting that way.
There was a brief period before the convention where Trump was essentially negotiating with the GOP establishment — trying to convince them to get behind him. (That was reportedly one reason he picked Pence.) But Trump has now won, and he can say and do whatever he wants.