Politics / July 11, 2024

Donald Trump’s New Strategy: Act Normal

With the opposition in disarray, Trump and his campaign have begun exhibiting unusual restraint in hopes of expanding his support.

Chris Lehmann
Donald Trump Campaigns In Florida

Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign event at Trump National Doral Golf Club in Miami, Florida, on Tuesday, July 9, 2024.


(Eva Marie Uzcategui / Bloomberg)

Our great summer of political derangement is conspiring to create one of the most unlikely outcomes of all: Donald Trump cosplaying as a disciplined candidate. As President Joe Biden adopts the jury-rigged persona of a heroic national savior besieged by elites and running against polls and pundits, Trump is trying to execute a corresponding move toward at least the image of statesmanlike self-restraint.

It’s all bullshit, of course. Trump continues to speak warmly of extraconstitutional power grabs, to lie flagrantly about election fraud and immigrant crime, and to talk about using the presidency to visit revenge on his enemies. He’s sought to downplay right-wing abortion bans and the detailed authoritarian policy briefs in the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 playbook for his second term, but the xenophobic, paranoid, and antidemocratic particulars of his agenda are all on lavish display in the GOP’s 2024 platform.

At the same time, the mere existence of such a document is a significant Trumpian concession to normie politics. During the 2020 election, the Republican Party punted on assembling a platform at all, since its plain raison d’être was just to do whatever the hell Donald Trump wanted—and the incumbent president had made it abundantly clear by then that there was no reliable way for anyone to predict what that would be.

Like any major party nominee, Trump won’t be bound by the platform—which is one reason the mainstream media’s disquisitions on its “softened” language on abortion are so nonsensical. Trump himself said in the June debate with Joe Biden that he was adopting ambiguous language on the issue “because you have to get elected”—probably his only truthful statement that evening—which was a massive disclaimer to his hard-right base that they could safely disregard most of his faux-centrist rhetoric. The message clearly landed as intended, since most of the party’s ardent culture warriors fell promptly into line with the platform’s calculated evasions on abortion. Yes, Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, has protested the platform’s silence on a national abortion ban—but he doesn’t exactly loom large in the MAGA pantheon.

Since the great windfall of Biden’s debate performance and the ensuing Democratic agita over his suitability as the party’s presidential standard-bearer, Team Trump has embarked on a series of small but significant adjustments to its campaign messaging under the expansive mandate contained in that simple campaign formula “because you have to get elected.” Headlining that shift was Trump’s clumsy disavowal of Project 2025 on Truth Social. Like his pseudo-pivots on abortion, the candidate’s claim to “know nothing” about the far-reaching plan to remake the executive branch into a permanent MAGA franchise was a complete falsehood—Republican strategists themselves called the maneuver “preposterous.” Yet this lie, too, is meant to broaden Trump’s electoral appeal in a campaign now tilting dramatically in his favor. Here, too, the proof is in the party’s swift and eager capitulation: lickspittle vice presidential hopefuls J.D. Vance and Marco Rubio rushed to assure an electorate justly repelled by the provisions of Project 2025 that Trump will be in no way bound by its strictures. If you believe that to be the case for an endeavor that involves more than 200 former Trump administration officials, then I’ve got some bootleg DVDs of Hillbilly Elegy to sell you.

Still, the truth value of Trump’s utterances is less revealing than the political logic behind them. Even with Trump’s post-debate surge in the polls, he and his advisers are well aware that his base isn’t big enough to deliver him the presidency. Trump’s overtures toward the center, however strained and utterly insincere, are meant to broaden and solidify his appeal beyond the MAGA cult. According to The Cook Political Report, Trump is already enjoying a historic surge of support among traditional Democratic constituencies; Black voters poll 21 percent for the 45th president, and Hispanics and young voters each show 41 percent support. As Cook analyst Dave Wasserman said on Twitter (or, if I must, X), these numbers are “incompatible w/ any plausible Dem win scenario.”

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To keep such trends in line, Trump has to be sure not to scare off these pivotal voters—and to bring more like them on board. “Trump knows he needs to win over more men, especially Black and Hispanic voters, without scaring off more women,” write Axios politics fanboys Jim Van De Hei and Mike Allen in a breakdown of the new Trump initiatives. That’s the central mandate in nailing down the leads he already enjoys in the seven swing states likely to decide the election—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, Nevada, and Arizona. And that’s why, for all the traditional MAGA bluster about immigration and trade, the GOP platform is also narrowcasted to the constituencies likely to move the needle Trumpward in swing states.

Here’s how Van De Hei and Allen lay things out in their trademark semaphoric prose style: “The Trump-orchestrated platform adopted this week by the Republican National Committee targets very specific groups in these states—most notably Rust Belt, working-class, white voters … plus security-focused moms who are skeptical of Trump’s style but care about the border and crime … Hispanic, working-class men … and Nevada bartenders angered by high taxes on tips.”

These changes have been accompanied by notable shifts in Trump’s rhetorical style. While his Truth Social entries still occasionally pop off on Biden’s “incompetence,” Trump hasn’t waded directly into the raging controversy over Biden’s viability as a candidate. He’s mostly posting fawning interviews with the right-wing press, strong poll numbers, and (since he’s still Trump, after all) complaints about how Fox News polls shortchange his actual appeal. In his recent Doral, Florida, rally he delivered some standard WTF Trumpisms—callouts to Hannibal Lecter, broadsides against electric cars, and the inflation-themed gripe that “we don’t eat bacon anymore.” But he didn’t fulminate at length about his legal martyrdom, threaten violence, or otherwise present as Steve Bannon’s intellectual understudy. He also teased his pending selection of a vice-presidential nominee—something that a garden-variety presidential candidate would also be doing ahead of his nominating convention. None of this is to say, obviously, that Trump is any less the unhinged authoritarian menace he’s been over the past nine years—but he’s clearly heeding the counsel of advisers to take a creditable stab at playing a normie candidate on TV.

And the sad truth is, with the prodigious advantages gifted to him by a Democratic leadership caste in free fall, that’s likely all that’s required for a runaway Trump victory in November. As Hannibal Lecter might well have said, Donald Trump is poised to eat Joe Biden for breakfast.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the DC Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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