Donald Trump is not just the front-runner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. He’s on the verge of becoming its presumptive nominee.
He has won nearly every primary or caucus, including most of the contests on Tuesday. He has money, loyal supporters and a commanding lead in the national polls. The GOP establishment is busy thinking up ways to keep Trump from getting the majority of delegates he’d need to clinch the nomination and then, at this summer’s convention in Cleveland, putting forward another candidate as the party’s standard bearer. It’s not out of the question they could succeed. It’s also not very likely.
Nobody knows that better than Trump. It was evident on Tuesday night, when he used an unconventional primary night setting -- a press conference, rather than a rally -- to offer a preview of his intended strategy for the general election. It will include more attacks on Hillary Clinton, and a sharper focus on the supposed failures of President Barack Obama over the last eight years. But Trump will also try to reposition himself -- to disown, or at least downplay, the most outrageous and offensive statements he made during the general election.
The big question is whether the American people will let Trump get away with it.
Trump has been signaling his intentions for a while now. Last summer, he told CNN's Anderson Cooper that he’d change his “tone” as he got closer to becoming president. In early February, after using an anatomical epithet during a rally, Trump assured NBC’s Lester Holt that he understood such behavior wasn’t appropriate for the potential leader of the free world -- and that as president, or a serious candidate for president, he “would act differently.”
On Tuesday night, Trump went further. He presented himself as a “unifier” -- not just of groups within the Republican Party, but of different racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. population. He said that he was disavowing the support of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan, making firmer statements than he did when asked about them by CNN’s Jake Tapper last Sunday.
On specific policy issues, he reiterated something he’s said previously but didn’t highlight: that some of his most outlandish proposals, including building a wall and deporting the 11 million undocumented people here already, are actually opening bids and up for negotiation.
It's hard to be certain, but this sure looks like Trump is signaling that some of his behavior has been an act -- an effort to win the Republican primary, or just to get some attention. He's implying that, deep down, he doesn’t believe all the awful things he’s been saying.
But even if that were true, it wouldn't change the fact that Trump has lent respectability to some pretty offensive views -- like the idea that it would be appropriate to exclude all Muslims from the U.S., or that the immigrants coming from Mexico were mostly rapists and criminals. He’s made threats against freedom of the press -- and, depending on how you interpret his taunts at rallies, he’s threatened the press itself.
He’s acted like a bully and condoned, if not encouraged, his supporters when they’ve done the same. Few moments from this campaign were as chilling as Trump’s response to news, last August, that some of his fans beat up a homeless Latino man in Boston. While acknowledging that assaulting a defenseless person on the streets would be a shame, Trump added that his supporters “are very passionate. They love this country.”
Trump’s willingness to exploit such prejudices hasn't kept hundreds of thousands of Republican primary voters from backing him. Come November, we’ll learn whether the rest of the American public feels the same way.
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