S.E. Cupp: There's nothing conventional about the way Donald Trump has run his campaign
Trump has done little to indicate he is capable of, let alone interested in, changing his penchant for "telling it like it is," she says
Editor’s Note: S.E. Cupp is the author of “Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity,” co-author of “Why You’re Wrong About the Right” and a columnist at the New York Daily News. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Google “Trump pivot” and you get about 707,000 search results. That’s because reporters, political strategists, pundits, many voters – and presumably members of his own staff – have for this entire election cycle been collectively wondering if Donald Trump is ever going to become a smart, serious and disciplined candidate.
The speculation over whether the campaign is leaving its old ways behind has bubbled up again with Paul Manafort’s replacement as campaign manager with a seasoned pollster, Trump’s vague but still surprising expression of regret last week for his hurtful words and the seeming effort to walk back a promise to employ a “deportation force” to physically remove 11 million illegal immigrants.
Predictably, the mainstream media narrative has started to fall into line, with headlines like: “Regretful Trump Pivots 107 Days Late,” “Trump Goes Mainstream – But Will it Last?” and “Donald Trump (Maybe) Finally Pivots! It (Probably) Won’t Work.”
But while the focus now seems to be the durability or otherwise of this latest “pivot,” few are asking the much more important question: When did we construct this new version of the political pivot, whereby a year’s worth of garbage is erased or forgiven, and why do we apply it only to Donald Trump?
From the moment Trump descended on the Trump Tower escalator last year, and proceeded to call Mexican immigrants “rapists,” to just this Monday, when he tweeted out tabloid gossip about a pair of MSNBC hosts, there’s nothing conventional about the way Trump has run his campaign.
Some have found that exciting – indeed, enough to elect him the Republican nominee. But many others, including most other Republicans, have found it disturbing or even disqualifying.
Trump himself has offered conflicting takes on a so-called pivot. Back in April he promised that the hiring of the likes of political “expert” Manafort was proof that “the campaign is evolving and transitioning, and so am I. I’ll be more effective and more disciplined.”
Of course, under Manafort’s tenure, Trump tweeted out a pandering Taco Bowl message, attacked a Gold Star family and called on Russia to hack us. And after his New York primary win he said that he would be “so presidential, you will be so bored.”
We’ve yet to feel bored, and as recently as last week, he told a Wisconsin television station, “I am who I am. It’s me. I don’t want to change. …I don’t want to pivot. …If you start pivoting, you’re not being honest with people.”
Clearly, Trump has done little, save for occasionally reading from a teleprompter, to indicate he is capable of, let alone interested in, changing his penchant for “telling it like it is” – or, what psychologists call blurting.
But as GOP strategist Rick Wilson noted, with exasperation, the media falls for the pivot talk every time. “It’s the 87th pivot this year. And every time this happens you know that there’s a clock running. And that clock is, when does Donald Trump get his phone back and start tweeting again? When does Donald Trump start letting his verbal dysentery spray out all over the world again?”
Of course, most presidential candidates have to shift somewhat after courting their base voters to courting undecideds, independents and moderates. But those shifts typically look more like a slight broadening and softening of message.
What those shifts do not entail is an expectation of some kind of mass amnesia, whereby general election voters forget about the inexcusable, offensive, alarming things the candidate has said or done for the past year.
Those that have mulled a more dramatic repositioning have learned that you cannot, as Mitt Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom suggested in 2012, treat the general election pivot as an “Etch A Sketch” where you can “kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”
Why? Because we don’t live in the era of the Pony Express, when news took forever to reach us. There’s no un-seeing or un-hearing what someone – especially someone as loud-mouthed as Trump – has been saying for a year. Even a voter who isn’t tuning in during the primary will have heard about his antics.
Yet this reality doesn’t seem to stop the media offering the Trump campaign the privilege of the pivot treatment. No one suggested, for example, that after Hillary Clinton admitted keeping a private server at her house was a bad idea that she was somehow pivoting toward becoming a more truthful person or accountable person. Yet, we are discussing on an almost daily basis whether Trump can pivot toward becoming a less extreme person.
What is particularly disturbing about all this is that we in the media are feeding into this idea that what a candidate says over the course of an election is somehow meaningless, malleable, temporary and transposable. In doing so, we are telegraphing to voters the exact opposite of how to hold a person seeking public office accountable. If we’re not, why should they?
Ultimately, if Trump really were pivoting, it would either mean he said the things he did – from banning Muslims to use of nuclear weapons – because he believed them, or because he was only using them to win. Neither should be an acceptable excuse.
Words matter, and they should stick. Let’s ban the word pivot, until it can be used appropriately and responsibly again. Because in the era of Trump, there’s no such thing.