Media figures have been predicting Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s imminent “pivot” towards acting “presidential” for months, and they're at risk of making the same mistake again after Trump’s July 21 nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. The proclamation has consistently backfired and it whitewashes Trump’s racist, slanderous, and conspiratorial rhetoric.
Throughout Trump’s presidential campaign, media outlets and figures have obsessively looked for the Trump “pivot.” Each time the candidate has momentarily abandoned his usual vitriolic rhetoric for a teleprompter-driven speech, media figures rushed to claim that Trump was “pivoting” toward the general election and acting more “presidential,” whitewashing all of the racist, sexist, slanderous, and conspiratorial attacks he regularly doles out.
With three disastrous days so far at the convention -- and given Trump’s past speeches leaning toward the dangerous and extreme -- media must avoid the trap of setting a low bar for Trump’s acceptance speech and refrain from allowing a seemingly tame speech from being praised by the media as a pivot.
Following Trump’s April victory in the New York primary, Fox’s Megyn Kelly and ABC’s Tom Llamas said Trump was becoming “more presidential” and “trying out a more presidential style” because he did not call his opponent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) “Lyin’ Ted.” Trump returned to using the phrase immediately the next day. In June, after Republican leaders beseeched Trump to “get on message” following his multiday racist crusade against the federal judge presiding over lawsuits against Trump University, Trump delivered a teleprompter speech devoid of any attacks. Media figures immediately proclaimed it looked like a “new, more presidential Donald Trump” and that Trump had “acted presidential,” but less than a week later, the candidate suggested President Obama was sympathetic to terrorists.
This pattern has whitewashed many of Trump’s past actions and comments, such as doubling down on his proposed Muslim ban, accusing Cruz’s father of being involved in the John F. Kennedy assassination, and questioning the faith of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. In the past month Trump has praised former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, claimed without any proof that moments of silence were called for the murderer of police officers in Dallas, and speculated Obama was giving subliminal support to the shootings of police officers though his “body language.”
The tendency to praise Trump after he shows restraint in his speeches, as CNN analyst David Gregory noted, gives Trump “credit for kind of campaign 101.”
Some media figures have called on their colleagues to stop grading Trump on a curve. CNN political commentator Marc Lamont Hill noted the whitewashing means “we’re not talking about something controversial” and instead, “We're talking about Trump changing the direction of his campaign.” NBC’s Nicolle Wallace pointed out that any Trump “pivot” comes right before his tendency of “trotting out conspiracy theories.” And former Jeb Bush communications director Tim Miller pointedly said on MSNBC, “How stupid can we possibly be to keep getting fooled by this guy? And every day I get a call from a reporter who says now is he going to pivot? Now is he going to pivot? No, this is Trump.”
Media have another chance with Trump’s speech to learn from their mistakes. Regardless of what Trump says in his likely teleprompter-guided speech, they must not fall back on this tired and false narrative. As Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Trump’s book The Art of the Deal, aptly explained to The New Yorker, “‘There is no private Trump’” that “he is keeping in reserve for after the campaign.”
It’s time media finally accept that.