By now, you’ve probably read Donald Trump’s statement on the Dallas shootings that killed five police officers and wounded a half-dozen more. My analysis isn’t about the horrific attack, nor the recent shootings or the protests. I have definite opinions on politics, race relations and gun violence, but I’m going to try, very hard, to keep them out of this missive.
A lot of the respondents to his statement on Facebook point out that he obviously didn’t write it. An alternative response points out that no typical politician writes his or her own material in events like this, and in fact shouldn’t. Well, no kidding.
But Donald Trump is no typical politician, or at least he hasn’t been until now. It is very clear to most readers that the statement is not his, not because he couldn’t write something so lucid and balanced, but because he wouldn’t.
As a nation, we were all wondering when Trump would finally shift to a ‘presidential’ mode, and start saying and publishing things that made a bit more sense than the statements he’s tended to produce during the primary season. It seems that the Dallas shooting has become his moment.
Putting aside the insidiousness of any politician using a tragedy as an opportunistic pretense to score political points, a few questions come to mind:
- Is this a deliberate attempt to shift from his off-the-cuff approach?
- Can he keep it up?
- How does it differentiate his vision from his opponent’s?
- What will his opponent do in response?
It seems that Trump’s brand, throughout his life as well as his presidential campaign, has been to ‘tell it like it is’. Clearly, that has worked up to a point, but his poll numbers have stalled in the past two weeks. Like a company’s stock values or quarterly sales numbers, the polls are the most immediate evidence that a political brand strategy is no longer working. For him to let somebody else write the copy for once must have been a very difficult decision for him: to let someone else in his organization handle anything major. That alone underscores that this was a monumental shift in Trump’s, and his campaign’s approach.
As for keeping up his new act, I suppose when building casinos or hotels, he usually had the upper hand in any deal, and was used to calling the shots. Most of us can’t simply ‘tell it like it is’ or we’d lose our jobs. Donald Trump has never been in that kind of situation, and his natural tendency is very likely to re-occur the second he gets behind a podium again. If I had to guess, I’d predict it will be three days before his new approach lapses into something more like his usual behavior. So no, I do not believe he will be able to keep this up.
As for differentiation, a brand in any genre can never be ‘Hey, we’re just like the other guy’. Despite the New York Times article stating the contrary, the two politicians made very similar statements after Dallas. They were both sensible, balanced, serious, and called for prayer, love, and a peaceful solution.
Does that sound at all like Donald Trump?
His statement on Dallas could have been pulled out of an archive of speeches made by any politician after any tragic event, going back fifty years. It is not the sort of thing that would have given him much separation from his primary opponents, and while refreshing, it isn’t going to separate him from Clinton. He has to produce statements that not only appear sane, but also match his typical forceful, hubristic brand, while establishing a vision that presents an alternative to his opponent. I think that’s a tall order.
(You may notice I’m ignoring other candidates like Gary Johnson and Bill Weld. While I think their bid is of course Quixotic, the threat of splitting the conservative vote is also a very likely factor in Trump’s new approach.)
Finally, what will Clinton do in response? Trump’s new look may present a threat to her apparent advantage in the race, but to me, her strategy should be easy: attack something about Trump or his policies, and just watch. He will revert to his usual tirades fairly quickly, shifting the focus back to what most people perceive as his obvious shortcomings in leadership and coherence.
Donald Trump has my respect for his statement on Dallas, and for the saner political strategy he may be attempting to jumpstart. It’s not too late for him, but this is only the first step in a very long climb toward being seen as a reasonable candidate by a skeptical nation.