The New Trump as New Coke
WASHINGTON — If authenticity is your calling card, how do you become authentically inauthentic?
Welcome to the New Donald Trump, a marvel of the Twitter-Cable-Facebook Non-Industrial Complex and the age of minuscule attention spans.
It took Richard Nixon prodigious feats of hard work between 1962 and 1968 to create the New Nixon who got himself into the White House. But in an era when “brand” is both a noun and a verb and when “curating” is the thing to do, why should it surprise us that the New Trump took less than two weeks to fabricate?
After the wild, undisciplined and offensive period leading up to his April 5 loss in the Wisconsin primary to Ted Cruz, Trump decided he needed to curate his brand big time.
Shoved aside were key staffers, including his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who had reveled in the, shall we say, forceful approach to politics that was supposed to be part of Trump’s authenticity. He’s trying to banish offensive talk about women, the gratuitous fights with television anchors, the uninformed comments about abortion.
Trump is going as establishment as he can. He’s even forgoing opportunities to hawk his product line, including Trump-blessed slabs of red meat, on primary nights. He bizarrely indulged in this in early March after his victories in Michigan and Mississippi.
Trump’s restrained victory speech Tuesday night after his New York primary blowout led Bloomberg News’ John Heilemann to offer an eloquent three-word obituary on “Morning Joe” for the Old Trump: “No Steaks Sold.”
But any doubts about The Donald deciding that being himself is overrated are erased by a visit to what has been sacred Trumpian space, his Twitter account. Consider this message that crossed my screen at 8:42 a.m. Wednesday: “Ted Cruz is mathematically out of winning the race. Now all he can do is be a spoiler, never a nice thing to do. I will beat Hillary!”
What’s shockingly extraordinary about this was how thoroughly ordinary it was. “Mathematically” is not an adverb we are accustomed to seeing from @realDonaldTrump. The Trump Show’s recurring villain, Lyin’ Ted, was gone, replaced by a boring guy named Ted Cruz.
So jarring was this cast change to many of the 7.7 million of us who faithfully follow Trump’s Twitter drama that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, senior campaign adviser, appeared on CNN’s “New Day” to offer comforting words. “I wouldn’t be so sure to erase that,” she said of “Lyin’ Ted,” using language suggesting that Trump is trying to “erase” a lot of other things. She added: “My guess is it’ll still pop up from time to time.” Happy day.
Her efforts to reassure the fans may have been the most significant post-New York pronouncement from Team Trump, which has simultaneously created a long-running, highly rated TV show — it might be called “Celebrity Candidate” — and manufactured a durable niche product.
The campaign must know that altering a story line abruptly in the middle of a television season unsettles viewers who hate to see their favorite themes ditched. Changing a well-known brand is risky business because customers start thinking that their preferences are being ignored.
Many devotees of “The Good Wife” never recovered from the murder of Will Gardner, the tough lawyer/love interest played by Josh Charles, who disappeared from the show. The New Trump may prove to be as problematic a commercial gambit as New Coke was three decades ago.
It’s true that the Trump product is lucky enough to be in a space where the competition is weak. Cruz may yet bump up his market share when the race moves to Indiana and California, but his negatives rival Trump’s. John Kasich can be appealing, but in a goofy way, and he is selling a moderate spirit to a GOP customer base whose dominant preference is ferociousness.
But there is another major brand to worry about, Hillary Clinton, who immensely strengthened her hand in the Democratic race with a 16-point victory over Bernie Sanders in New York.
It’s practically written into the news scripts that Clinton has an authenticity problem. The paradox, as one Clinton partisan argued to me recently, is that she has been unwilling to go full-bore in competing with Sanders’ visionary big offers because she just doesn’t believe that’s the way the world works. She can’t be anything but a practical pragmatist, this supporter insisted, and that’s how she’ll run.
It would be a lovely irony if the retooled, restrained, professionalized New Trump made the same-as-always Hillary Clinton into the true representative of authenticity.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne. (c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group