Don’t Expect Trump to “Tone It Down” but to Shift to a More Inclusive Populism

Yesterday Hillary Clinton took the first step in trying to prevent Donald Trump from tacking to the center:

If Donald J. Trump starts to soften his image, Hillary Clinton has a warning for voters. Don’t believe it.

“Trump,” she said at a rally here on Saturday, “keeps saying things like, ‘Well, you know, uh, I didn’t really mean it. It was all part of my reality TV show.’”

“Well, you know what?” she added. “If we buy that, shame on us. Because he’s already showed us what he believes and he’s already said what he wants to do, and he wants to go after every one of the rights we have.”

On Saturday, the Clinton campaign also released a video that amounted to a highlight reel of Mr. Trump’s incendiary comments. The video said that Mr. Trump “is getting ready for an extreme makeover.”

The Clinton campaign is right to begin this inoculation process, but I think it mistakes what Trump is likely to do. Assuming he wins the nomination, Trump will indeed attempt to redefine his image approaching the general election–but he won’t do it by disavowing his past statements on Republican hot button issues like immigration or Islam. Indeed, just yesterday Trump insisted that he would not be “toning it down.”

Instead, he’s likelier to simply shift the focus of his populist rhetoric away from hardcore Republican issues to more universal popular ones.

While the left has often caricatured the Trump campaign as based purely on authoritarianism, racism and xenophobia, Trump’s appeal extends beyond just those uglier emotions. His message is also a direct assault on elites of all stripes, especially those that have been responsible for the downwardly mobile direction of the middle class. While Trump’s focus in the Republican primary has predictably been on the “other” in society–an approach that has paid him great dividends and won him a plurality of the national primary vote–in a general election we are likely to see Trump adopt a more universal sort of populism that incorporates Sanders-style critiques. Among the targets we can expect to see Trump hit would be:

  • Wall Street
  • Trade
  • The military-industrial complex of foreign intervention
  • Corporate inversions and job outsourcing
  • Universities and tuition charges

And that’s just a start. Trump’s rhetoric won’t cool down to a more statesmanlike approach. Instead he’ll just turn his heat on different targets. That still likely won’t be enough to win him a general election, but it could be enough to upend traditional electoral college expectations in some ways.

And once again, the expectation in some quarters that Trump will try to negotiate a traditional Romneyesque path to center both underestimates the guile and sagacity of Trump as a politician, and also fundamentally mistakes the populist sentiment of this cycle that has delivered such unexpected success to anti-establishment candidates on both sides.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.