How Trump Turns Unpopular Outbursts Into Political Winners

The president has already backed down from his most strident attacks on athletes and adopted a less controversial celebration of the American flag.

Donald Trump throws a Pittsburgh Steelers "Terrible Towel" at a rally in Pennsylvania in November 2016.
Donald Trump throws a Pittsburgh Steelers "Terrible Towel" at a rally in Pennsylvania in November 2016. (Mark Makela / Reuters)

After spending the weekend picking fights with the two best basketball players in the world, President Trump woke up Monday morning in a more contemplative, jingoistic mood—shifting both his emphasis and his tone.

These missives fit with the way Trump often handles his many feuds and crises, starting from an extreme position and then slowly groping toward one where he can find popular support. While the fights that the president picks are often comically unpredictable—if you had “Twitter fight with Steph Curry and LeBron James” on your presidential bingo card for the weekend, step up to the table to take your winnings—but the way that he conducts himself, having chosen a fight, seems to display a pattern.

As in so many things, Trump the president is little different from Trump the businessman. His impulse is to start from a big, splashy, gaudy place—say, calling players who kneel for the National Anthem “sons of bitches,” or claiming he was revoking an invitation to the White House from Curry, who’d already rejected it. (You can’t quit, you’re fired!) These decisions seem to stem from the gut, no Clintonian polling about it. Trump sees something and he says whatever comes to mind about it.

The problem is that often those views are unwise or politically hazardous. For example, Trump’s condemnation of violence “on all sides” in Charlottesville was poorly received, and his comment a few days later that there were “very fine people” walking alongside neo-Nazis and white supremacists was even worse. Likewise, taking a potshot at Colin Kaepernick may be relatively risk-free—he’s an unsigned free agent, and polling shows that majorities disagree with his protest—but LeBron James and the NFL writ large are popular.

So Trump has recalibrated, like the good salesman he is, reading his audience and recognizing that a message isn’t quite landing as expected. Trump started the feud off as hand-to-hand combat with athletes, a stance that is likely unpopular, or which at the very least shows little upside, and he has now changed the thrust of his argument into a defense of the flag, patriotism, and probably Mom and apple pie, too. (That tweet will land any moment now.) Wrapping oneself in the flag is hardly a novel or risky political maneuver, but it’s a shrewd improvement on feuding with James.

This is more or less the same move Trump made after Charlottesville. It took days of agonizing back-and-forths, condemnations by top Republicans, and the dissolution of two business councils, but Trump eventually veered away from defending neo-Nazis, a politically dubious stance, and toward a defense of monuments qua monuments and warnings that they were coming for statues of Jefferson and Washington, a far more politically salubrious view.

The same pattern applies to Trump’s travel ban, which began as a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. (possibly including citizens, it seemed briefly) and has evolved, through a series of political calculations and court curtailments, into a far more tailored, narrow policy, with the latest iteration announced on Sunday.

It helps that Trump has few fixed ideological principles. He has a gut sense of patriotism and jingo, but beyond that he’s happy to be flexible. Even better, he will claim that he’s never actually changed his position. This is true on health care, where he has rotated among three major positions even while insisting he is totally consistent. After Charlottesville, Trump delivered a thunderous rally in Phoenix in which he denied ever having blamed both sides for violence, and supported the claim by carefully eliding those portions of his remarks.

Rallies offer a great opportunity to watch Trump readjusting in real time. Last summer, he admitted that he often resorted to mentions of his border wall if he felt the energy lagging during a campaign rally. Watch a rally, and see Trump gauging the reaction to certain riffs, and either pivoting away from them if the reaction is poor or expanding and elaborating on them if the audience is feeling it.

Groping toward a position like this, live and on a high wire, is not without its costs. Even when he lands on a position that has majority support, the process of getting there can take a political toll. After Charlottesville, for example, Trump hit his lowest levels of approval yet. Eventually softening his rhetoric won’t erase the stain of having endorsed white supremacy. But the emerging pattern illuminates Trump’s peculiar brand of crisis management. The president never apologizes, and he insists that he stands strong in his views, but one reason he manages to move on from crisis after self-inflicted crisis is his steady maneuvering away from his most incendiary stances and toward more anodyne, or at least more mainstream, ones.