Trump subdued his scrappy, junkyard dog campaign style last night for and engaged the teleprompters to mark the end of his primary campaign. Subdued or not, though, it was still Trump behind the podium, somehow remaining the gruff populist—a man standing on a car talking through a bullhorn rather than a presidential candidate at a podium—despite being tied to a teleprompter.
Trump started by reassuring Republicans that he understood the responsibility of being the nominee, effectively telling them not to worry. It’s almost a pointless exercise at this point. For most Republicans in office, the decision to endorse Trump or not is going to come down to a tactical analysis of which choice is more likely to keep them in office. Trump’s reassurances about his own behavior are immaterial because by now we all know—if not what he believes—what he is willing to say.
But lest the GOP forget who’s in charge, couched in Trump’s words of reassurance was a statement that he would make Republicans proud of “our movement”—a cautionary reminder that a large share of his support isn’t beholden to the GOP and to keep them they have to keep Trump. Trump’s own association with the party is a marriage of convenience—one-sided though it may be. Regardless of what he needs from the GOP in a logistics and infrastructure capacity, Trump is happy to run his train right over the odd Republican politician if need be.
The meat of the speech started with an attack on politics in general. He borrowed from Bernie Sanders’ playbook and lambasted a rigged political system. When he asks why politicians would “want to change a system that’s made them and their friends very, very wealthy” and asserts that “we can’t fix the rigged system by relying on…the very people who rigged it,” his disagreements with Republicans lend him a perverse credibility. In a naked bid to aggrieved Sanders supporters he appealed to disaffected Democrats by recycling the complaint about a rigged system of superdelegates—a fallacious charge Sanders never grew tired of spouting. Then he tied President Obama into this argument, reminding the audience that the president promised change but that the system remains the same.
“The Clintons have turned the politics of personal enrichment into an art form.” Easily the best line of the speech, this led into Trump’s Clinton-specific attacks and played right into underlying concerns about Hillary Clinton: that she’s beholden to people who give her money; that she sells access; that she cares about herself and uses politics as a means to an end. As much as this is red meat for Republicans, it is not far removed from Bernie Sanders’ case against Clinton as a politician who takes expensive speaking gigs and big fundraising dollars and whose judgment is corrupted by that money. Trump ties the personal enrichment charge in with Clinton’s email server—something there’s as yet no evidence to back up—and basically accuses President Obama, “a president in a corrupt system,” of keeping her from being indicted.
This line of attack—and variations on it—is probably Trump’s best bet in the general election. In what is sure to be a scorched earth total war campaign that will make Sherman’s March to the Sea look like a square dance, Clinton will hit Trump with everything she can (and certainly he won’t pull any punches). Trump’s erratic statements, penchant for insults, and stoking of racial animus offer Clinton quite the grab bag to choose from. Clinton’s trust issues, though, give Trump the perfect opening to assert that she will say and do anything to be elected president because she is only out for herself; it’s an effective shield against her attacks if he can make his case.
The speech rounded out with much ado about nothing on Trump’s America First platform. He spoke in broad generalities, never nailing himself to a specific platform. He came the closest I’ve yet seen to tying together opposition to illegal immigration and reclaiming jobs for Americans out of work. What little he’s made (sort of) clear about his policies suggest these would be natural companions—and maybe his best bet at winning some goodwill among the minority voters he continues to alienate—but he never quite connects the dots.
The America First section of the speech also brought the most awkward moment when he said “we’re going to take care of our African-American people.” Trump too often refers to minorities in a way that sets them apart as a kind of “other”—a distinct subset that’s not quite part of the whole. At the very least it’s a clumsy example of the patronizing that all politicians engage in when they play identity politics. At its worst this is more evidence to back up a racism charge.
This is the kind of performance Trump probably should have sprinkled in earlier. Even on teleprompter Trump let fly little extemporaneous burps. He was still Trump—just a Trump less likely to get into trouble. The question is whether he can balance performances like these with the big rallies that are his bread and butter—where he can tell it like it is and punch the establishment in the nose. As a standalone performance this wasn’t his best. But as a taste of things to come it hints toward a more formidable than expected general election candidate.