I don’t believe Donald Trump can actually pivot to a run a centrist, dignified campaign—one that will make him look “presidential,” as his advisers have promised. But he’ll probably try, and it’s on the media to point out all the inconsistencies that would entail. I don’t have a lot of faith in the media, so I expect a general-election campaign between Trump and Hillary Clinton to be closer than it should be. We had a small foreshadowing of the problem on Thursday, when Trump recanted his earlier stands on tax cuts and the minimum wage, but got much more attention for an idiotic, borderline-racist tweet about tacos and Cinco de Mayo. By the end of the day, the media’s storyline was “Trump, Clinton spar over tacos.”
Trump’s tax-policy paper, released last September, is actually the most detailed plan he has put out during the campaign so far. It is big. It is brash. It adds $9.5 trillion to the deficit. It cuts taxes for the top .1 percent by an average of $1.3 million. When he announced the plan, Trump defended those tax cuts for the rich: “I fight like hell to pay as little as possible,” he told reporters.
Now, apparently, someone has told him that a vocal chunk of his base consists of angry, white, working-class men, and so Trump, for a day at least, ditched his own tax plan like it was an aging supermodel girlfriend. “I am not necessarily a huge fan of that,” he said. (“That” being his own plan, mind you.) “I am so much more into the middle class who have just been absolutely forgotten in our country.”
Likewise, Trump seemed to reverse himself on the minimum wage on Wednesday night. At a November debate he declared, “I hate to say it, but we have to leave it the way it is,” adding that “taxes are too high, wages too high, we’re not going to be able to compete against the world.” But the day he became the presumptive GOP nominee, he told CNN he was open to a hike. “I’m looking at that, I’m very different from most Republicans.”
This is Trump’s version of the Etch-a-Sketch moment Mitt Romney’s advisors promised in 2012—the point at which the nominee can ease up on the hard-right stands he took to win the nomination, and present a moderate persona for the general election. It didn’t work for Romney—actually, Romney never really made the pivot. Will it work for Trump?
With a little help from the media, it might.
For most of Thursday, cable news-beat reporters did note the contradiction between GOP-primary Trump and new general-election Trump on the minimum wage and tax cut. But both issues were overshadowed by Trump’s moronic “I love Hispanics” taco-bowl tweet, which dominated the afternoon news cycle. Yes, it was mostly mocked; a BuzzFeed reporter attempted to debunk Trump’s claim that Trump Grill served taco bowls—it doesn’t—but it turned out to have come from Trump Café in the same building. Trump probably doesn’t deserve any Pinocchios for that; he deserves scorn and revulsion for trying to do “Hispanic” outreach with a taco-bowl tweet on Cinco de Mayo, especially given the ugly things he has said about undocumented Mexican immigrants.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 5, 2016
When Hillary Clinton herself tried to point out that irony, though, she got into a little trouble with the media. Her tweet paired “I love Hispanics!” with a past Trump threat: “They’re gonna be deported.” Fox News Latino accused Clinton of “pandering,” while wags on social media complained that she’d implied all “Hispanics” are undocumented. CNN ran a segment that was headlined “Trump, Clinton spar over tacos.” Because #bothsides.
“I love Hispanics!” —Trump, 52 minutes ago https://t.co/b9mv7nUduN
“They’re gonna be deported.” —Trump, yesterday https://t.co/HzFWUT1XFl
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) May 5, 2016
This is just a small example of the big problem Vox’s David Roberts outlined in a brilliant and worrisome piece yesterday “Why the media will lift Trump up, and tear Clinton down.” It makes some of the same points I highlighted—the political media is invested in a horse race, and many don’t like Clinton—but with more specificity about how the process is likely to unfold:
The US political ecosystem—media, consultants, power brokers, think tanks, foundations, officeholders, the whole thick network of institutions and individuals involved in national politics—cannot deal with a presidential election in which one candidate is obviously and uncontroversially the superior (if not sole acceptable) choice. The machine is simply not built to handle a race that’s over before it’s begun.
There are entire classes of professionals whose jobs are premised on the model of two roughly equal sides, clashing endlessly.
We don’t have such a race—by any standard, Clinton is eminently more qualified to be president than Trump, who would be a disaster domestically and on the world stage. But once GOP leaders begin to close ranks around Trump, he will be normalized, and the “political ecosystem” can return to its comfortable stasis. “There will be a tidal pull to normalize this election, to make it Coca-Cola versus Pepsi instead of Coca-Cola versus sewer water,” Roberts observes, and he’s right. The only way to do that though, is to exaggerate Clinton’s (very real) flaws.
Roberts asks (rhetorically):
Will the Washington press corps chase after ridiculous personal attacks and conspiracy theories regarding Hillary Clinton, whispered into their ears by right-wing hacks?
And answers (correctly):
Ha ha. Have you met the Washington press corps? They have been doing that since the early 1990s, Clinton rules mean guilty until proven innocent, then and now. The Washington media is a machine that transforms crap about Clintons into headlines, and Trump is a bottomless supply of crap.
Thursday’s taco controversy was a (relatively trivial) microcosm of how it will all work. Trump’s Taco tweet revealed his stupendous racist ignorance—but media notions of “fairness” required that reporters note that Clinton’s tweet had issues, too. And so by the end of the day, the whole entertaining mess can be headlined “Trump, Clinton spar over tacos”—and we can forget about the news that Trump flip-flopped on the minimum wage and tax cuts.
It’s going to be a long campaign.