Christian Whiton: Donald Trump's two most recent speeches could mark a turning point
Trump seems to be trying to expand the circle of those to whom he appeals, Whiton says
Editor’s Note: Christian Whiton is a former deputy special envoy for human rights in North Korea for the George W. Bush administration. He is president of the Hamilton Foundation; a principal with DC Advisory, a public policy consultancy; and the author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.” The views expressed are his own.
When he began prepared remarks last week about the mass killing in Orlando, Donald Trump noted, “This was going to be a speech on Hillary Clinton and all of the bad things and we all know what’s going on. …” On Wednesday, he finally delivered that speech while also presenting his broader agenda. He did it in an unusually orderly, measured manner. If there is indeed a Trump presidency, these two set-piece performances could end up being seen as a turning point in his communications style and campaign management.
Both speeches were remarkable, whether one agrees with their content or not. Discussing the Orlando attack, in which the perpetrator pledged allegiance to ISIS, Trump said: “Many of the principles of radical Islam are incompatible with Western values and institutions,” and added, “The bottom line is that Hillary supports policies that bring the threat of radical Islam into America and allow it to grow oversees, and it is growing.” This was a watershed: No presidential nominee has been so blunt on this topic.
In Wednesday’s speech, Trump attacked Clinton as promised but also refined his populist message in tones intended to appeal to disgruntled voters across the political spectrum, including an explicit appeal to supporters of Bernie Sanders. “Hillary Clinton has perfected the politics of personal profit and theft,” he said. But he also inveighed that “it’s not just the political system that’s rigged. It’s the whole economy” – rare words for a major presidential candidate, especially a Republican.
Trump then methodically outlined how he believes donors, bureaucrats and big business have screwed the little guy. He also provided a long list of Clinton’s lapses of ethics and judgment.
This was a somewhat different Trump style than the one displayed over the last year: ad-lib remarks and interviews that bordered on stream of consciousness, and which infuriated opponents because they were indelicate and inspired supporters because they were genuine. Trump has not gone “kinder and gentler,” but he does now have a clear communications plan that stems from a clear political plan.
For now, that plan appears to be to retain the agenda and arguments that won him the Republican nomination against all odds, while expanding the circle of those to whom he appeals. In addition to his shout-out to Sanders supporters, Trump also repeatedly expressed sympathetic concern in both speeches for gays – a constituency Democrats have taken for granted and that elite Republicans have intentionally alienated.
This appeal is cleverer than it seems. Gay votes aren’t likely to make a difference in the presidential election, and Republicans must accept that gays, like Jewish voters, will remain stubbornly Democratic for the foreseeable future. But by sounding unlike any major Republican in history, Trump hopes to appeal to a different coalition of voters than either party has contemplated before. And speaking differently about gays may attract far more than just gay votes – Trump’s appeal is emotional and stylistic more than it is policy-based. This may be true of any modern presidential candidate, but for Trump it is more so.
Will this new approach continue? Much has been said of recent staff changes in the Trump campaign, especially the departure of manager Corey Lewandowski. Perhaps as important, but less reported, has been the recent hiring of Kevin Kellems, a communications and policy pro with deep experience at the Pentagon, White House and on Republican campaigns – including Newt Gingrich’s anti-establishment presidential campaign in 2012. The theory goes that this evolution in staff could mean that Trump’s new tack will continue.
It probably will, but only up to a point. Trump did not get this far in life and politics by reading off a teleprompter, and his confidence in his instincts likely remains unfettered. Like him or not, part of Trump’s political appeal is that he is entertaining, and part of what makes him entertaining is his unscripted spontaneity.
That won’t end, but the watershed of the last two weeks suggests a much clearer link between Trump’s political strategy and his communications. The latest Jacksonian wave to shake the foundations of American politics – the essence of Trump’s populist insurgency – has gotten more organized.
Christian Whiton is a former deputy special envoy for human rights in North Korea for the George W. Bush administration. He is president of the Hamilton Foundation; a principal with DC Advisory, a public policy consultancy; and the author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.” The views expressed are his own.