Here is what Donald Trump said one day before Iowans handed him a historic victory on Monday: “These caucuses are your personal chance to score the ultimate victory over all of the liars, cheaters, thugs, perverts, frauds, crooks, freaks, creeps, and other quite nice people … The Washington swamp has done everything in its power to take away your voice. But tomorrow is your time to turn on them …”
Now, here was Trump 24 hours later, after winning a majority of votes in a multi-candidate field and coming within one (!) measly vote of sweeping all 99 counties in the Hawkeye State: “I want to congratulate Ron [DeSantis] and Nikki [Haley] for having a good time together. We are all having a good time together … We’re going to come together, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, or liberal or conservative. We’re going to come together. It’s going to happen soon.”
Reaction to his surprisingly (shockingly?) gracious victory speech was not dissimilar to that of Cousin Eddie in the iconic movie Christmas Vacation after Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) announced that Santa Claus had been spotted on his sleigh by an airplane pilot: “You serious, Clark?” Even famed Democratic strategist David Axelrod observed on X that Trump’s remarks were “very un-Trump like.” It is also noteworthy that Trump spoke about the 2020 election without claiming it was stolen, an assertion that has consistently driven down his approval among uncommitted voters, and he pivoted immediately to the election ahead. These are the exact things so many of his supporters have been begging him to do for years. As one Trump voter told this writer during the 2020 election cycle in expressing a widespread sentiment among conservatives and many independents, Trump gets an A for policy and an F for personality. If that failing grade on his persona can simply be raised to a D or even a C- in the eyes of voters who appreciate his record, it will add to his building momentum and increase his already bright prospects in the pivotal battleground states.
Beyond Bombast: Trump the Magnanimous
It might be hard for anyone to believe that the man who ascended to the presidency on a wing and a prayer with bombastic rhetoric that would have sunk literally any other politician has now suddenly gotten religion on the issue of verbal restraint. It was just one speech on one night, but might it signal a change in tone, if not political and/or legal strategy, for the Trump campaign?
Everyone already knows about Trump and his plans to drill baby drill, close the border, finish the Wall, crack down on crime, and empty the Swamp of faceless unaccountable bureaucrats. He is, to say the least, a well-established and unique brand. It’s not like toning down his rhetoric would cause anyone to seriously wonder if Trump had suddenly gone soft. So what, then, does he have to lose by being at least somewhat warmer and fuzzier? Would it not be worth it in order to be more appealing to those famously fickle suburban women and independents writ large who abandoned him in droves and cost him the election four years ago? Would it not serve him better as a defendant – presenting as the victim, not the perpetrator – in those multiple court trials he faces?
Sure, it would be foolish to expect a 77-year-old man, especially one who has experienced such spectacular success, to change his ways. But it would be just as foolish to write off the possibility, if only because of Trump’s overwhelming desire to secure his legacy as a winner. He has won one presidential election and lost another. The tie will be broken in November, and the outcome will determine whether Trump will be seen for generations as a radical change agent who permanently altered the paradigm of governance in Washington, or the beneficiary of an unrepeatable black swan event who won in a fluke and then brought his party low in subsequent election cycles.
One crucial factor distinguishes this year’s campaign from Trump’s first two runs for the White House. His campaign team, headed by veteran operatives Susie Wiles, Chris LaCivita, Jason Miller, and James Blair, is by all accounts far more organized, disciplined and professional than his helter-skelter on-the-fly organizational structure in 2016 before Kellyanne Conway righted the ship, or the crisis-laden re-election effort of 2020, doomed by a pandemic out of nowhere and a violent racial reckoning in the wake of the George Floyd affair. Given that it was Trump’s temperament that evidently turned off enough voters in 2020 to hand the election to an enfeebled career politician who rarely left his basement, perhaps Trump is now finally willing to accept advice about being more magnanimous and less confrontational if he believes it will increase his chances of victory. Indeed, it seems clear that, if he had moved on from the election of 2020 and January 6 instead of re-litigating them, his lead over Biden would likely be substantially larger than the one-point advantage he currently enjoys in the RealClearPolitics average.
Is Trump Capable of Being Kinder and Gentler?
When George H.W. Bush was elected president in 1988, believing he had won on his own merits rather than effectively serving as a stand-in for a third Ronald Reagan administration, he called for a “kinder, gentler nation.” Nancy Reagan, fully understanding how Bush had captured the presidency by simply capitalizing on the continuing popularity of her husband, famously and derisively remarked, “kinder and gentler than what?” Bush had misinterpreted his mandate and disappointed wary conservatives, and four years later paid the price with an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton.
Those Bush-inspired words, kinder and gentler, were misguided 35 years ago, but maybe, just maybe, they actually represent the opposite for Donald Trump. In Bush’s case, there was already belief among conservatives that he was the quintessential establishment figure – and he did little to disabuse them of that notion. Trump’s case is the opposite. With his personality set in stone, Trump will experience similar deficits as the last time around. But by surprising everyone by presenting as an experienced statesman with more equanimity than anyone expects – a quasi-Rose Garden strategy – he would turn many a head, have little to lose and perhaps much to gain. Add it all up, and it would appear wise for Trump to carry the kinder, gentler persona north to New Hampshire for next Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary and all the way to November.