The Cowardice of Donald Trump

He’s built his reputation on straight talk—but when the Republican candidate sits down with the groups he vilifies, he exhibits a striking change.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Crusaders against “political correctness” often portray themselves as brave. They deride others for knuckling under to left-wing orthodoxy, for being too afraid of African Americans, Latinos, feminists, and gays to speak the truth. They, on the other hand, speak their mind, come what may.

No presidential candidate has used this conceit more effectively than Donald Trump. His supporters love his willingness to say things about Mexicans, Muslims, and African Americans that ordinary politicians won’t say for fear of being called a bigot. That’s part of what they mean when they say he “doesn’t talk like a politician.”

But over the last couple of weeks, Trump has illustrated something important about the anti-politically correct. They’re most comfortable confronting PC orthodoxy when the people they’re confronting aren’t around. Once they actually encounter African Americans, Latinos, and other minority groups, they become a lot less brave.

In an effort to soften his image, Trump has recently begun doing something he previous avoided: talking to blacks and Latinos. Two weeks ago, he met with his Hispanic advisory council. According to media reports, he was “humble” and “conciliatory.” Did he call for deporting the undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., as he has repeatedly promised his overwhelmingly white crowds? Nope. According to Jacob Monty, who attended the meeting, Trump said “deporting them is neither possible nor humane.”

Then, last week, Trump flew to Mexico City to meet President Enrique Peña Nieto. Did he repeat the pledge that brings white crowds to their feet: that Mexico will pay for a wall along the two countries’ border? Nope. Beforehand, the two sides agreed not to discuss the subject. When Peña Nieto brought it up anyway, and announced that Mexico would never foot the bill, did Trump set him straight? Nope. Rudy Giuliani, who was attending the meeting on Trump’s behalf, reportedly declared the topic “off the table” and The Donald moved on to less controversial subjects.

When Trump appeared publicly with Peña Nieto after their meeting, he again “avoided direct confrontation,” in The Washington Post’s words. He called it a “great, great, honor” to be invited to the country he has repeatedly trashed during the campaign. And he declared that he had “tremendous feelings” for the “tremendous” Mexican American people, a group he famously derided as rapists and drug dealers in his announcement speech.

But once Trump left Mexico and addressed an overwhelmingly white, anti-immigrant crowd that evening in Arizona, the Post noted, he ditched his “subdued and cooperative tone” and “returned to the aggressive tenor that has defined much of his campaign. Repeatedly raising his voice to a yell, he said that ‘anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation.’”

The oscillation continued this weekend, when Trump addressed an African American congregation in Detroit. “Trump’s subdued rhetoric,” noted Politico, “was a jarring contrast to his typically boisterous rallies.” The Republican nominee said nothing about Black Lives Matter being responsible for the murder of police, as he had told Bill O’Reilly. He didn’t imply, as he has to white audiences, that African Americans are prone to voter fraud. He said nothing about Barack Obama not being born in the United States. He didn’t repeat his claims that blacks should vote for him because their lives are so miserable that they have nothing “to lose.” Instead, he flattered his audience, calling black churches “the conscience of our country,” which had inspired America “toward a better moral character, a deeper concern for mankind, and spirit of charity and unity that binds us all together.” Trump’s remarks, noted the Post, constituted a “jarring shift in tone and message.”

This isn’t surprising. Even more than most politicians, Trump lives for the approval of the crowd. His ego is so overdeveloped, and his ideological convictions so underdeveloped, that it’s hard to imagine him walking into a room and saying things he knows his audience doesn’t want to hear. But Trump isn’t alone. Put Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, or most of the other conservatives who have made a career of being anti-PC in a small room with Latinos, African Americans, or Muslims and I suspect their rhetoric would dramatically soften, too. It’s harder to speak bluntly and nastily about people when they’re staring you in the face. It’s also harder because when you actually listen to them, they often defy your stereotypes. Up close, their grievances become harder to dismiss.

I’m glad Trump is now speaking to more diverse crowds. I’m glad because, in so doing, he’s proving that when it comes to “political correctness,” conservative politicians and pundits aren’t more courageous than their liberal counterparts. They’re just more isolated from the ethnic and racial minorities about whom they speak. When the distance disappears, the “bravery” does too.