Cynics could claim that the extraordinary sit-in staged by U.S. House Democrats on Wednesday was meant to steal Donald Trump’s thunder. Shortly after the GOP’s presumptive candidate finished lambasting Hillary Clinton in New York, Democrats in Washington physically disrupted House proceedings and demanded a vote on gun control legislation. If the rules no longer apply, they seemed to be telling Republicans, we can also play this game.
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The irony, of course, is that the Democrats’ demonstration — which would merit barely a yawn in some parliaments, including the Knesset, but was a sensation on Capitol Hill — came on a day when Trump was trying to reformat his image as a responsible and disciplined candidate. In a speech at his own hotel in Manhattan’s Soho district, it was Trump 2.0, with controlled portions of poison and no shoving or cursing allowed. Trump was plainly trying to emulate many of his fellow Republicans who can say the craziest things in a restrained and sober manner.
Trump’s speech was made up of two main parts: How he, Donald the builder, will repair America’s crumbling infrastructure, make it great again and lead it towards a bright future and how she, Hillary the wicked, will bring it all to ruin. If you listened to Trump you could be excused for thinking that Clinton isn’t simply a failing or even corrupt politician but one of the greatest criminals in history, a Bloody Mary with Al Capone and Rasputin combined. She turned the State Department into a hedge fund that sold American interests for cash. She transferred millions of jobs to China. She wants to import hundreds of thousands of potential Islamic terrorists. She gave Iran the bomb, abandoned American diplomats in Libya and created ISIS, if you followed closely, with her bare hands almost. She is responsible for the deaths of “thousands” of Americans throughout the world, though at press time it was still unclear who these unknown casualties were, exactly.
And this was Trump at his “presidential” best, the one that is supposed to extricate his campaign from the deep morass that he sunk it in with his tirades against the Indiana-born “Mexican” judge trying his case, his claiming credit for farsightedness hours after the carnage in Orlando and his escalating attacks against Muslims, wherever they are. With Republicans retracting their support, delegates plotting Convention usurpations, his poll numbers plummeting and his campaign coffers running on empty, Trump was clearly in need of a reset.
His dismal failure in fundraising seemed to horrify Republicans the most, especially when juxtaposed against Clinton’s money-raking machine. He took in about a tenth of the $28 million she collected in May. He has thirty times less cash on hand. He employs 70 campaign workers, she has 900. And most embarrassingly — for his supporters if not for the possibly unembarrassable Trump himself — much of his campaign’s disbursements went to reimbursing him and his family for campaign expenses, and fifth of his expenditures in the year since he announced his candidacy went to companies that Trump himself owns.
The panic that swept through GOP ranks and his campaign staff finally reached Trump’s family and Trump himself, leading him to fire Corey Lewandowski, renowned for backing the “Let Trump be Trump” formula: it was good enough to win the GOP primaries and it’s the only way he’ll win the general elections as well. Henceforth, supposedly, the guiding philosophy will be the one crafted by Paul Manafort, who has advised six Republican presidential candidates in the past. His principle is that presidential elections are won by the book, with planning rather than improvisation, with discipline rather than devil-may-care outbursts.
The results were there for all to see in Soho. Trump alluded to previous controversial statements about Mexicans and Muslims but also seemed to recognize publicly for the first time that there are Muslims who want to live in peace, which might come as a surprise for some of his voters. He directed all of his fire at Clinton, of whom Republicans are willing to believe anything, rather than himself, as he has in the past. His supporters gave him positive reviews, but cagily: Trump has already tried to behave presidentially in the past few weeks but went back to his natural anything-goes demeanor at the first opportunity.
The main problem is that the man who took to the podium in New York on Wednesday wasn’t really Trump. He certainly looked like him, but he sounded completely different: his tone was mechanical, like an android politician reading a speech written by a computer algorithm. This model of Trump could comfort many Republicans, calm potential donors and even pave the way for an unfettered victory celebration at the party convention. But without his insults and tirades, Trump could suddenly be cast as a run of the mill politico who bores journalists first and voters later. At this price, the GOP could have settled on one of Trump’s 16 Republican competitors, most of whom were far less exciting than he is but some of whom were more experienced, more knowledgeable and certainly more responsible than Trump will ever be.