There always has been something surreal about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. But nothing quite like Friday, at least not for me.
It was high noon in an office in Melville, and Trump’s disembodied voice was spilling out from a small gray table speaker. He was calling in to Newsday’s editorial board, and we were discussing the vaunted pivot that supposedly is taking place. This is the one where the loud, obnoxious Republican front-runner starts acting more presidential as the campaign moves into its final stages.
And Trump has been a little different lately, in tone, at times, some days. “I needed a tough tone because I started out having to fight 17 people that were looking for the nomination,” Trump said through that speaker. Then, a little later, he conceded, “I’ve said things that were a little bit too tough.”
And I stared hard, as if that speaker might somehow provide the visual cues you get from a normal conversation. Trump’s regret sounded sincere. But what do you do with that?
Is this really a change of heart, or is it only transactional? Do you believe what you’re hearing, or what you’ve heard? Because the antipathy to Trump certainly has been about tone, but it’s been more than tone. It’s been actual words, and they have been, to use his own word, tough.
It’s the Mexicans here illegally being rapists and bringing drugs and crime. It’s the desire to punch a protester in the nose, and the longing to see one carried out on a stretcher. It’s the blood coming from Megyn Kelly’s whatever. It’s the cursing and the names and the insults and double entendres.
And now it’s Trump saying on the phone that essentially he was only playing a part.
“I felt, and especially initially, until we get the word out, and now the word is out . . . I felt that the tone had to be a strong tone, it had to be a tough tone, and you’re right, I am making somewhat of a change,” he said.
He lamented that he has been blamed by some teachers for an increase in bullying of Muslims, and says he’s going to talk to his supporters. “They take it very literally and I don’t want that to happen, I will stop that,” he said.
He said he’s nicer and warmer than portrayed in the media and likes to help others, which is what people who know him well say. But he hedged when asked whether he bears any responsibility for his supporters’ reactions to his incendiary comments.
“I do,” he said, “but I think a lot of times I’m inaccurately covered.”
And, he said, changing his rhetoric “doesn’t mean changing my ideas.”
So he might continue to read “The Snake” at rallies, as he did in Bethpage earlier this month. The 1968 Al Wilson song is about a woman fatally bitten by a wounded snake she had nursed back to health. Trump practically shouts the final line: “You damn well knew I was a snake before you took me in!” He sets it up by referring to his opposition to accepting Syrian migrants. Trump said it’s about the importance of being vigilant, but it’s impossible to miss the implicit denigration. His rationale for possibly continuing his readings?
“People love that,” he said. Giving ’em what they want is not exactly leadership. But he wants to be a unifier.
When the phone call was over, I kept looking at that speaker and started thinking.
We cheer someone who sees the light, criticize another whose thinking evolves, blithely remark that the tiger never changes its stripes, distrust the politician who changes positions like suits, applaud the deathbed conversion.
So who is Donald Trump?
Look hard, he’s like a Cubist painting. You see the parts, but they’re jumbled. Is it art, or artifice? And who, in the end, puts the parts together? Him or us?
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.