Donald Trump’s puzzling pivot

Political observers had expected Donald Trump, after sewing up the Republican party nomination, to ‘pivot’ towards the center in an attempt to attract voters who might be feeling doubtful abut voting for the Democratic candidate. Trump indeed pivoted but in the opposite direction, away from the center.

It seems like he is still unsure of his support among conservatives and evangelicals and has begun courting them even more in earnest. One attempt was his providing last month of a list of the people whom he would choose as potential Supreme Court justices in the event that he becomes president. This list seems to have been specifically designed to appease the extreme right wing.

The list includes several judges often found on conservative wish lists, including Diane Sykes, William Pryor and Joan Larsen. Several of the judges were appointed by President George W. Bush, and many serve on state supreme courts.

The issue took on added urgency after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, who had been a fixture of the court’s conservative wing.

Seeking to counter those attacks, Trump in March promised he would release a list of potential Supreme Court nominees. He consulted with the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, to come up with the names.

Then just yesterday, Trump had a closed door meeting with a slew of Christian evangelical leaders and seemingly wowed them with some blatant pandering.

Donald Trump won a standing ovation from hundreds of Christian conservatives who came to New York City on Tuesday with a somewhat skeptical but willing attitude toward a man who has divided their group with comments on women, immigrants and Islam. In his comments, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee said he would end the decades-old ban on tax-exempt groups’ — including churches — politicking, called religious liberty “the No. 1 question,” and promised to appoint antiabortion Supreme Court justices.

Throughout the talk Trump emphasized that America was hurting due to what he described as Christianity’s slide to become “weaker, weaker, weaker.” He said he’d get department store employees to say “Merry Christmas” and would fight restrictions on public employees, such as public school coaches, from being allowed to lead sectarian prayer on the field.

The audience included leaders and founders of many segments of the Christian Right, the evangelical movement that began in the 1970s under people including the late Jerry Falwell. Among those present and involved in the program Tuesday were Focus on the Family founder James Dobson (who is no longer with that group), former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed and evangelist Franklin Graham (son of evangelical icon Billy Graham).

He then named an ‘evangelical executive advisory board’ that includes many of the usual suspects and even the wacky Michele Bachmann.

Former Republican presidential candidate and Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann leads an alphabetical list of names announced by Donald Trump’s campaign on Tuesday as the presumptive Republican nominee’s evangelical executive advisory board.

Along with Bachmann, the campaign announced the additions radio host and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr, Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed, among more than two dozen names.

I must admit that I am puzzled by Trump’s strategy. I had thought that Trump’s calculation would have been that, apart from the neoconservatives, the conservatives and evangelicals had nowhere to go other than support him since the anti-Hillary Clinton sentiment has been whipped up so strongly among them. His goal would have been to attract those who thought of him as being less religious, less conservative, less militaristic, and more even-handed on the Israel-Palestine issue than the Republican party in general and thus be willing to risk voting for him over Clinton, despite his incoherent policies and unpredictability.

But the above moves plus his recent calls for more airstrikes in Syria and Iraq and his endorsement by the extreme right-wing and rabidly anti-Palestinian Sheldon Adelson would seem to erase that possible edge. He seems to becoming more and more your standard-issue Republican nominee with the added baggage of being blatantly misogynistic and xenophobic.

No doubt all this makes some kind of sense in his own mind. And there are those who see him as some sort of strategic and tactical genius, rather than as someone who just has a highly developed skill at self-promotion combined with a populist instinct that is attuned to picking up on people’s resentments. Let’s see how well these moves work out for him.


  1. says

    He said he’d get department store employees to say “Merry Christmas” and would fight restrictions on public employees, such as public school coaches, from being allowed to lead sectarian prayer on the field.

    Only one of your constitutional amendments is sacrosanct among conservatives in your country, it would seem.

    That first part is the most horrifying. Forced speech by the government. That’s a good precedent to set.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    I must admit that I am puzzled by Trump’s strategy

    To be fair, this isn’t a new thing.

    Bear in mind Trump is only the presumptive Republican nominee. There is, incredibly, still noise about a revolt and a possible alternative GOP candidate when the convention comes. I wouldn’t anticipate Trump pivoting until the nomination is fully and irrevocably in the bag… which it isn’t, yet.

  3. Dunc says

    I actually think this makes sense. His negative ratings are astronomical -- there is no way that he can persuade “moderates” to vote for him in meaningful numbers. His only path to victory is to get the right wing extremists out solidly (particularity the non-voting right wing extremists), and hope that there are enough of them to tip the balance. If they stay home, he’s toast no matter what he does.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    there is no way that he can persuade “moderates” to vote for him in meaningful numbers

    This time last year you’d have said that about Republicans… and this time last year I’d have agreed with you, and so would basically everyone else.

  5. Sam N says

    I disagree with the reasons so far put forth. I think it’s a simple matter of more career republican right-wingers getting closer and closer to him day to day. When he started they didn’t take him seriously, now that he is presumptive nominee they are stroking his ego and telling him how great their ideas are, with less and less of an outsider balance (not that Trump’s outside advice was all that great to begin with). Naturally, Trump ends up shifting that direction himself. I don’t think this is strategic plan by Trump, but instead the bias of his changing bubble of current advisers.

  6. Holms says

    The extreme conservative contingent is the part of the spectrum most prone to predicting the end of civilisation (and a multitude of other hyperbolic claims) should a Democrat win, the most prone to rabid hate of foreigners, and hence the most effusive in their praise of any candidate that appears to view the world in similarly black and white terms. By stoking up anti-gay, anti-muslim, anti-Mexican, anti-[etc] sentiment, he is playing directly into the hands of those that believe America is under seige, and hence is being hailed as nothing less than the saviour of America (and hence the entire world, since America = the world to these braggarts).

    I think what this implies is that Trump isn’t really interested in making a coherent plan to win the presidency, but rather he is looking for self-aggrandisement; praise like that is his ambrosia.

  7. tueplo says

    With marketing as his only actual skill and perhaps seeing no practical path to winning the Presidency he chose the very lucrative alternative of building a lifetimes worth of far right cred. Saying vile shit loudly could well be worth a fortune in speaking engagements, book sales, doomsday survival food buckets and the like. And certainly he could reemerge every election cycle like a cicada of stupid to bilk the hateful faithful all over again.

  8. doublereed says

    I don’t really understand. There has been no pivot at all. He started out his campaign praising japanese internment camps and believing that the 14th Amendment doesn’t grant birthright citizenship.

    People have been wanting him to pivot but he’s simply doing the things he’s been doing for a while now.

    There’s no strategy there. He’s said himself that he doesn’t consult with others, and we know his campaign team is a bunch of loons. And there’s not that many. They don’t have any strategy other than don’t ever apologize, and make as brazen statements as possible for maximum press coverage. That’s what has been working.

    I think that the real difference is that the media has suddenly turned on Trump in a meaningful way. The cynical part of me wants to say it’s because Clinton campaign is focusing their media forces now on Trump rather than dismissing Sanders. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Trump University stuff actually stuck to him and it happened to occur after Clinton won the rest of the primaries. If the media had been this diligent before, more stuff would have hampered him.

  9. lorn says

    “Donald Trump won a standing ovation from hundreds of Christian conservatives ” …

    No big surprise there.

    These people have conditioned themselves to avoid asking questions or thinking too deeply about what is said. A lack of skepticism and willingness to credulously accept anything said with a firm voice by a well-dressed man as undoubtedly true, even if it contradicts what was said previously, is considered to be the proper mindset. They call it “faith” and declare that all proper Christians “walk by faith, not reason”. They have conditioned themselves to be easy pickings for holy-rollers and Bible thumpers. Pushovers for a talented con man like Trump.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    @Holms, 6:

    Trump isn’t really interested in making a coherent plan to win the presidency

    It’s amazing to me that this “Trump doesn’t really want to be President” line is still a thing. I honestly think that even after he wins there’ll still be a substantial constituency of people claiming he didn’t want the job and won’t attend the inauguration.

    @doublereed, 9:

    I don’t really understand. There has been no pivot at all.

    Why do you expect one?

  11. Mano Singham says

    Dunc @#3,

    There is some evidence to back up your point in that some have suggested that there is a pool of untapped angry white voters that he could draw out. But it works both ways. The more extreme he gets to attract them, the more that apathetic voters on the other side get alarmed and decide to come out too.

  12. Dunc says

    Man @13:

    Yes, it certainly a perilous strategy (if it is a strategy), but it’s entirely in keeping with both his approach so far and the general trend of the GOP for as long as I’ve been watching US politics.

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