Wednesday, July 22, 2020


Ten days ago, I mocked this Fred Barnes column in the Washington Examiner:
I’ve argued that Trump should (and probably has plans to) clean up his act for the final three or four months of the campaign. By this, I meant that he would, in effect, alter his personality. He’d cool down and no longer spend large amounts of time acting self-centered, obnoxious, and defensive.

He did exactly that in the closing weeks of the 2016 race after the Hollywood Access tape appeared to have ruined his chances of winning. He became disciplined. His speeches were mostly prepared, and he read them. He curbed his habit of ad-libbing constantly.

It worked, but not by magic. Trump changed into a more likable person, or at least a less unlikable one.
Now it reads as if it was written for an audience of one. It comes off as a plea to Trump from people who desperately want him to change the direction of his campaign: We're only suggesting this because you did it four years ago in your glorious upset win! Please try it again!

Yesterday, many of us mocked this tweet:

When the tweet appeared, Trump hadn't really begun changing his tone. Oh sure, he'd worn a mask once. But he was still the same angry, aggrieved man-child he's always been.

But he was about to position himself differently. ABC's Rick Klein wrote about it as if it had already happened because he'd clearly been told by Truvmp insiders that it was about to happen.

We saw the repositioned Trump in yesterday's coronavirus news conference. Some in the media took the "new tone" seriously. There was this in The New York Times:
Mr. Trump’s comment urging Americans to wear masks was a stunning departure from his past comments on wearing them. In recent weeks, he has disparaged masks as unsanitary and suggested that people who wore them were making a political statement against him.

Mr. Trump’s less dismissive comments about the pandemic reflected a dawning realization within his team that the virus not only is not going away but has badly damaged his standing with the public heading into the election in November.
And we know that Trump intends to continue being a Serious, Concerned Pandemic President because he's about to do an interview with a doctor:

Siegel has sometimes been dismissive of the virus, but it's obvious that the plan here is for both of them to say we should take masks and social distancing very, very seriously, after which they'll discuss the near certainty that vaccines and great treatments are just around the corner, thanks to Trump's brilliant leadership.

Can Trump keep this up? It's hard to imagine that he can fake being a reasonable, empathetic, serious-minded human being for more than three months. I assume we'll see plenty of the old Trump between now and November.

But he might have finally grasped that he shouldn't be dismissive of the pandemic (even though, at yesterday's news conference, he repeated his assertion that "the virus will disappear"). Remember, he seemed semi-serious about the pandemic for a couple of weeks in March (and his poll numbers rose as a result), then he abandoned this approach because the shutdowns were hurting his precious economy, which he sees as his ticket to a second term. But now the economy has been bad for months (though Trump can persuade himself that it's getting better). At the time, he thought he could either revive the economy or acknowledge the pandemic -- not both. Now he knows he can just urge mask-wearing and hand-washing and social distancing and the economy will (he believes) revive because he won't actually propose that we do anything else to stop the spread of the virus -- he won't call for businesses or schools to shut down again, no matter what. He thinks he can have his economy back and be seen as serious about the virus.

I worry that his phony new tone will be welcomed by some voters. I've been watching the polls, particularly FiveThirtyEight's Trump approval average. It never goes below 40%. Much of white America still likes Trump and the Republican Party, which suggests to me that even some of the voters he's lost to Joe Biden, especially the older voters who are terrified of the virus, are looking for any sign that he's serious about their health concerns. They might respond to this phony new tone by coming home to their preferred party.

So while I won't predict a full comeback, I expect Trump to get a poll bump from this repositioning. But I also expect him to return to trash talk and off-putting vendettas, because he can't help himself. Unless, at age 74, he's finally learned self-discipline. If so, he might win.

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