The Trump You Get Depends on the Audience

The New York Times got ahold of the script Trump’s advisors have written for when he is interviewed by a Black pastor in Detroit tomorrow. I agree with something Greg Sargent wrote about that.

Everyone had a good chortle about this, but really, it isn’t all that different from the sort of standard issue talking points that candidates and surrogates employ regularly.

What’s interesting about all this is that, as Greg goes on to say, the script written by his staff “advises Trump to stick to standard conservative boilerplate:”

The Republican agenda is color-blind. The best hope for enhancing opportunity for African Americans is cutting regulations and getting government out of the way to unshackle the power of free markets to “expand options for people who want to be independent of government.” The major thing holding African Americans back is the “horrible progressive agenda that has perpetuated a permanent underclass in America.”

And yet Wednesday night, when Trump gave what was by all accounts a scripted speech, he went off the rails and engaged in what Josh Marshall calls “hate speech.” What gives? Why is Trump scripted to give standard conservative boilerplate in one instance and hate speech in another? The one thing we can automatically dismiss is that he has less antipathy for African Americans than he does Latinos. His personal history alone makes that argument implausible.

The really big difference between these two appearances is the make-up of the audience. Just as Trump was more restrained and diplomatic when he appeared with the President of Mexico in front of the Mexican press, he will apparently do the same thing when he appears with an African American pastor. But when he speaks in front of an audience of his (mostly white) supporters, he gives them large doses of the red meat they crave.

I would suggest there are two reasons for these differences. First of all, it is standard fare that demonstrates the cowardice of bullies. Trump is all bluster when he is in front of an adoring crowd. But put him in front of people who have the capacity to stand up to him, and he suddenly becomes accommodating.

But more than that, it is about the “appearance” that Kellyanne Conway wants to create for Trump. He can’t be seen as avoiding events in front of African American audiences – which has been the main challenge to his so-called “outreach” lately. That looks weak. But who knows what might happen if he faced real challenges from such an audience/questioner? That has the potential to go horribly wrong in more ways than we can probably imagine. So obviously they’ve lined up a compliant questioner and given Trump a bland script to read from. Check that one off the list and move on.

In light of all that, I think that the first debate between Clinton and Trump will be fascinating to watch. According to what was released today, it will take place on Monday, September 26th and will be moderated by Lester Holt. Unlike the Republican primary debates, Trump will face Clinton one-on-one without the benefit of a sympathetic moderator or audience. While he says that he’s not doing any prep, I’m sure his campaign team will script all kinds of responses for him. Will he use them? That will be the one big moment where Trump wants to appear presidential. But if he gets pressed with tough questions by Holt or Clinton, how will he respond? Can Trump not be Trump? We’ll know soon enough.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.