There's No Such Thing as Nice Trump

As the general election gets under way, the Republican nominee is straining to rein in his outrageous persona. But is it too late to change?

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

RICHMOND, Va.—You could tell how much the effort to control himself pained Donald Trump.

He was trying to do what the consultants and D.C. stiffs had told him to do: stick to the script. But his whole being practically strained against the restriction.

He had to tell them—had to let the crowd that had come to see him Friday night in Richmond, at his first rally since the primaries concluded, in on the joke. They had to know what he was working so hard not to say. For example: General-election Trump, New and Improved Trump, Kinder Gentler Trump, Presidential-edition Trump, Censored, Sanitized Trump would never, never use the word “screwed.”

“We are being taken advantage of,” he said from his lectern on the floor of the downtown coliseum. “Usually I would have used a different word”—a word beginning with “S.” But his critics would “go crazy,” so he was minding his manners. “So instead of using that word, that our country’s been—with an ‘S,’ right? I won’t say it!—our country is being taken advantage of.”

The implication was obvious: Facing a brand-new Republican-establishment freakout—approximately the 3,486th such spasm over the past year—Trump was trying to clean up his act.

The past week had been perhaps the roughest yet for Trump. Republicans, even those nominally supporting him, had widely decried his race-based attacks on a Mexican American judge. Senators had withdrawn their endorsements; House Speaker Paul Ryan had called the comments “racist.” It had dawned on these normally restrained politicians that Trump didn’t owe them anything, so they didn’t have to pretend they owed him anything, either.

Donors were in a tizzy; even Trump’s allies allowed that he needed to dial it back. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly urged Trump to “get on script” and “start acting like a serious presidential candidate.” It was a potential make-or-break moment for Trump’s roller-coaster campaign, one that would prove he could act like a politician—or show that he couldn’t.

And so, on script Trump was trying to get. But over the course of three events in two days, his resolve would gradually weaken, until he was back to his old tricks. And as the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history unfolded on Sunday, Trump was busy tweeting that he ought to be congratulated for “being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” On Monday, he was scheduled to give a major speech about the issue.

Before the rally in Richmond on Friday, Trump was trying to play it safe. He had read a brief speech off a telepromter at a Washington conference of evangelical Christians, the Faith and Freedom Coalition. On Tuesday night, celebrating the end of the primaries, he had also used a prompter, eyes darting back and forth between the transparent screens as he enunciated each canned, lifeless word. The speeches were boring, and Trump—the consummate entertainer, skilled at taking the pulse of a crowd—looked miserable giving them.

Here in Richmond, there was no prompter, but Trump, working from a few pages of handwritten notes, was relatively subdued. He aimed his attacks at Democrats, not Republicans, save for a stray, irresistible jab at Jeb Bush. He highlighted a damning new report about Hillary Clinton rather than dredging up scandals from the 1990s. He didn’t bring up Judge Gonzalo Curiel; he insisted he was “the least racist person.” He even complimented the media, however sarcastically. (“The press—aren’t they wonderful?”) He talked about the kinds of things Republicans would like him to talk about, like cutting taxes and appointing conservatives to the Supreme Court. He announced he was unveiling an addendum to his famous slogan: “Make America great again—for everyone!”

Reined-in Trump was like a caged lion, a thoroughbred straining at the halter, a bird beating its wings against the bars of its cage. There was something else odd about the rally: Though it was held in a venue that could fit 12,000, only about 2,000 people had showed up. To explain this, Trump kept emphasizing that the event had been thrown together on just a day’s notice, though in fact it had been in the newspaper three days ahead of time.

Later in the speech, Trump was tempted to rail against the Republican establishment, but again, he checked himself. He was bemoaning the influence of Washington lobbyists, many of whom he’d just glad-handed at a golf fundraiser up the road. The lobbyists controlled Hillary Clinton, as well as—Trump caught himself. “I don’t want to use the names of these other people, because I’m supposed to be getting along with them now,” he said. “We’re all Republicans. So I won’t use them.” It was left to the crowd to imagine what Trump would have liked to say.

I spoke the other day to a Republican member of Congress who was holding out hope that Trump would change. This member, who would not allow me to use his name, was in the same position as many of his colleagues: He had endorsed Trump, but considered his comments about Curiel “indefensible.”

The congressman predicted Trump would heed the firestorm around the comments. It would, he said, prove to be a crucial learning experience for Trump: “He just has to touch the hot stove,” he said optimistically.

The Republicans who oppose Trump are rather bearish on this prospect. To them, the judge controversy proved conclusively that there will be no new-and-improved general-election Trump, and showed they were right all along about his divisive tendencies.

“I am getting I-told-you-so delivered to my house by the truckload every day,” Rick Wilson, the Florida Republican consultant who has vocally opposed Trump from the beginning, told me. “I am eating up the I-told-you-so like a fat kid eats cake.”

Wilson had little patience for the idea that Trump might still turn it around. “He’s 70 years old. He’s a narcissistic sociopath. He’s not going to change,” he said. “There is no better version of Donald Trump, no mindful, serious, presidential version, only the reality-TV, con-man, pro-wrestling dipshit Donald Trump.”

Even if Trump suddenly started acting like a different person, would anyone believe his new shtick? His opponents are working to make sure there will be no makeover. The pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA this week began airing an ad in eight swing states that shows a clean-cut white couple talking about their disabled child and lamenting Trump’s alleged mockery of a disabled reporter. (Trump denies he was mocking the man’s disability.) In the first week of airing alone, the group told me, it was spending $5 million on the ad, part of $20 million it planned to spend in swing states prior to the Republican convention in late July.

As Trump spoke in Richmond, a passel of elite Republican officials and donors were gathered in Deer Valley, Utah, at a conclave convened by Mitt Romney. Envisioned as an ideas conference,” the event had instead turned into an emotionally charged outpouring, like a family reunion that turns into a teary hashing-out of old grudges after a couple of beers.

Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman compared Trump to Hitler and Mussolini and demanded to know how Paul Ryan could in good conscience support him. Ryan joked that he wished he could disappear. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, defiantly declared that Trump would win with or without the people in the room. Romney welled up as he declared, “Seeing this is breaking my heart.”

Will Ritter, who directed logistics for Romney’s 2012 campaign, was there, watching the proceedings with resignation. An ardent Trump opponent whose Virginia-based consulting firm worked on behalf of Marco Rubio in the primary, Ritter had long ago concluded that there was nothing to be done.

He had, he told me, come up with a metaphor to describe the presidential campaign. “There’s a road trip you take every summer with your four buddies,” he told me. “But this year, as you were backing out of the driveway, you get T-boned, and the car is totaled.” Some of the travelers get up and walk back into the house, realizing the trip is over. But others insist on staying in the car and pretending nothing has gone wrong.

“We’re not going to sit in the wreckage, pretending the wind’s blowing through our hair,” Ritter said. “The trip’s over, guys.”

For Trump’s most loyal supporters, however, his unfiltered persona is nothing to apologize for, nothing that requires toning down; it’s a big part of what drew them to him in the first place. Over and over they tell me: He’s not a politician. He’s not politically correct. He speaks his mind. What happens to that appeal if Trump starts acting like a normal, boring, inoffensive candidate?

In Richmond, many Trump supporters told me they didn’t approve of his comments about Curiel but were willing to give him a pass. They didn’t think the statement made him a racist. “Should he have said that publicly? No,” John Shea, a 31-year-old from Chesterfield, told me. “But he doesn’t take shit, and I like that.”

“What got him to this point is saying what he thinks,” said Mark Goyne, an automotive consultant from Short Pump. “He’s not reading off a teleprompter. He’s saying the things a whole lot of people think but can’t say out loud.”

“I think people will come to their senses and realize it’s just words—that’s all it is,” said Ken Robberson, a building engineer and volunteer firefighter from King William. We fell into a discussion of race relations, and Robberson leaned over to whisper in my ear. “You know, there’s a difference between black people and niggers,” he said, perhaps referencing a classic Chris Rock routine. “There’s white niggers, too. It’s an attitude.”

On Saturday, Trump went on to hold two more rallies: one in a convention center in Tampa, Florida, and another in an airplane hangar in Pittsburgh. In an unusual move, the campaign sent multiple emails to its supporters across the country, urging them to attend. Yet both venues were notably under capacity; pictures taken at the events showed expanses of unfilled floor space at the time the rallies were scheduled to start.

Trump had seen what Romney was saying about him in Utah, and he was not having it. “I watched this poor, sad Mitt Romney this morning,” Trump told the crowd in Tampa. “‘He suffers from—misogynist!’ I don’t think he knows what misogynist is. ‘He suffers from—’ And he’s sitting like a real stiff. Don’t forget, this guy let us down, folks. He choked.” Romney, Trump went on to say, could have won Florida in 2012 if he had allowed Trump to campaign for him there. “But they weren’t smart enough.”

So much for the short-lived vow not to attack other Republicans—but of course, Romney had started it. “The Republican Party really should get their act together,” Trump said. “They have to come together.” He asked the crowd to shout out potential names for his running mate—“He says Newt! They say Sessions! He says Condi Rice! I’ve never done this before—this is fun!”

A few hours later, in Pittsburgh, Trump’s jet rolled into the hangar, and he walked out of it to the theme from Air Force One. “I’m not allowed to use any bad words,” he announced. “If I use it, these people, the dishonest media—the most dishonest people—horrible, horrible...” He proceeded to rip into Romney and to rehash Bill Clinton’s impeachment, with no mention of the new revelations about Hillary Clinton and her donors.

The core narrative of Trump’s speeches continues to be the story of his march to victory in the primaries. The way he came down the escalator a year ago, the way he proved the pundits wrong, the way he almost won Iowa and triumphed in New Hampshire and barreled through the rest of the states, even though the establishment tried to rig the system against him.

They tried so hard to stop him. But in the end, he pointed out, he came away with more votes than any Republican had ever gotten in a primary in the history of the party.

“Dwight D. Eisenhower, great guy—you know, he won the Second World War,” Trump proclaimed. “Though I think other people had something to do with it, in all fairness. But he was given a lot of credit for winning the Second World War; he runs for president—I beat him. Richard Nixon, we beat Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan, who we love—we beat Ronald Reagan. We beat Bush, we beat everybody.”

Had he just maligned as losers some of the historic greats of the Republican Party? He had. And the crowd was whooping and whistling, their cheers echoing in the hangar’s massive space, and Trump was having fun.

Trump was back, baby—the real Trump, the fun Trump, the only Trump there is—and he was headed like a torpedo for the general election.