After several particularly tumultuous weeks in Donald Trump’s always turbulent presidential campaign—a stretch that included a humiliating loss in a key state and credible reports that his campaign is in "disarray"—Trump's paid advisers and his many media boosters seem to agree on the best bet to bring order out of chaos. It's time to get serious. Get ready, they suggest, for Donald Trump, policy wonk.
Two days before the Wisconsin primary on April 5, a confident Donald Trump suggested he might win the state in a blowout. "We're having unbelievable response in Wisconsin," he said during a stop at a diner in Milwaukee. "And it feels very much like New Hampshire to me, where we started off where, you know, Trump wasn't going to win New Hampshire, and then all of a sudden, we win in a landslide."
That didn't happen. Ted Cruz dominated Trump, beating him by 13 points (48 percent to 35 percent) and nearly 150,000 votes. Trump boosters would try to explain away those results with the spurious claim that Wisconsin was always going to be a tough state for their man. That's not true.
Handicappers at Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight website projected Trump would win more than half of Wisconsin's 42 delegates. Two days before the vote, Dan Balz and Philip Rucker of the Washington Post wrote that a Trump loss in Wisconsin "would be an embarrassing setback for the front-runner . . . because it would demonstrate weakness in a place where he should be strong. The state's blue-collar demographics, along with party rules allowing independent voters to cast ballots in the primary, have been expected to work in his favor."
Exit polls from Wisconsin confirmed this. Compare the Dairy State to its neighbor to the east, Michigan. Seventy percent of GOP primary voters in each state earn less than $100,000 a year. Non-college graduates make up 55 percent of Wisconsin voters and 53 percent of those in Michigan. Self-identified conservatives are 75 percent of the GOP primary electorate in Wisconsin, 74 percent in Michigan. And there are fewer evangelicals in Wisconsin (43 percent) than in Michigan (54 percent). Trump won Michigan by 12 points and lost Wisconsin by 13—a 25-point downward swing.
In a bizarre postelection statement that included baseless accusations about Cruz campaign law-breaking, Trump blamed his loss on "the onslaught of the establishment." It's worth pausing to appreciate the inanity of that claim. The "establishment" in this case is Governor Scott Walker, elected in the Tea Party-fueled 2010 midterms and responsible for some of the boldest conservative reforms in the past decade; the movement conservatives who dominate Wisconsin talk radio; and the Club for Growth, among others, founded to challenge the Republican establishment in Washington. All were supporting Ted Cruz, arguably the most antiestablishment member of Congress.
Team Trump, though, has a plan to end this flailing. Trump "plans to shift gears in the coming weeks, and give a series of policy speeches in settings more formal than the freewheeling rallies that have become his political signature," according to a report in the Washington Post. Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told the paper that the coming shift represents "the natural maturation of the campaign."
Trump enthusiasts are on board with the strategy. In an election-night discussion on Sean Hannity's program on Fox News, talk-radio host Laura Ingraham agreed with Hannity's claim that Trump needed a "course correction" and suggested a turn to policy is in order. "It's substance, hit the substance, hit the issues, and hit the issues that are gold for you, globalization, trade, immigration." Former senator Scott Brown, who has endorsed Trump, said it's "critically important" that Trump begin "talking about policy and really putting forth, you know, where he stands on positions."
Trump senior policy adviser Stephen Miller told Lou Dobbs that Trump will be "doing a series of policy speeches getting into more detail about the issues that have animated the campaign and have been at the center of this election," including foreign policy, trade, and immigration. Other likely topics: education reform, the Supreme Court and the rule of law, and strengthening the nation's military.
Anything that moves Trump from his current campaign of narcissism and paroxysm would be a welcome change. But will the shift be the panacea Trump supporters seem to assume? That's unlikely.
Two reasons. A campaign that shifts to policy will invite focus on the many areas where Trump has supported policies anathema to GOP primary voters and will allow his opponents to highlight his dramatic reversals on issues that, for many conservatives, are matters of conscience or conviction. But more problematic for Trump is the fact that on most matters of policy, he has no idea what he's talking about.
Consider trade, an issue that has indeed animated Trump's campaign, and one with which he might be assumed to be conversant. In January, Trump told the New York Times that he favors enormous new tariffs on Chinese goods. "The only power that we have with China is massive trade. I would tax China on products coming in," Trump said. "I would do a tariff, yes—and they do it to us." Then he got specific: "I would do a tax, and the tax, let me tell you what the tax should be. . . . The tax should be 45 percent."
At the Fox Business debate a week later, Neil Cavuto asked Trump about this. Trump first denied he'd said what the Times quoted him saying and then explained why he'd said what he'd just denied saying.
"That's wrong. They were wrong. It's the New York Times, they are always wrong. They were wrong." (The Times later released the audio recording of the interview that demonstrated Trump had said exactly what the paper had quoted.)
Here is Trump's debate answer, in full:
No, I said, I would use—they were asking me what to do about North Korea. China, they don't like to tell us but they have total control—just about, of North Korea. They can solve the problem of North Korea if they wanted to but they taunt us. They say, "Well, we don't really have control." Without China, North Korea doesn't even eat. China is ripping us on trade. They're devaluing their currency and they're killing our companies. Thousands of thousands—you look at the number of companies and the number in terms of manufacturing of plans that we've lost—50,000 because of China. We've lost anywhere between four and seven million jobs because of China. What I said then was, "We have very unfair trade with China. We're going to have a trade deficit of $505 billion this year with China." A lot of that is because they devalue their currency. What I said to the New York Times is that "we have great power, economic power over China, and if we wanted to use that and the amount—where the 45 percent comes in, that would be the amount they saw their devaluations that we should get." What I'm saying is this, I'm saying that we do it but if they don't start treating us fairly and stop devaluing and let their currency rise so that our companies can compete and we don't lose all of these millions of jobs that we're losing, I would certainly start taxing goods that come in from China. Who the hell has to lose $505 billion a year?
To which Cavuto, speaking for everyone listening, said to Trump: "I'm sorry, you lost me."
Trump tried a different but familiar approach, punctuating his gibberish with bromides and boasts. "I know so much about trading about with China. Carl Icahn today as you know endorsed. Many businessmen want to endorse me." And: "I have many friends that deal with China." And: "I have the largest bank in the world as a tenant of mine. I sell tens of millions—I love China. I love the Chinese people but they laugh themselves, they can't believe how stupid the American leadership is."
Cavuto, seeking to excavate some actual policy position from this steaming pile of bravado, tried again: "So you're open to a tariff?"
Trump, coming full circle, went well beyond the 45 percent tariff he'd proposed (and denied proposing) to the Times. "I'm totally open to a tariff. If they don't treat us fairly, hey, their whole trade is tariffed."
Their whole trade is tariffed.
Such incoherence is not the exception. It's the rule—in many ways, it's the defining characteristic of Trump's attempts to talk about policy. It's Trump being Trump. Hoping that Trump can be a policy wonk is like wishing your mule could become a thoroughbred.
So Trump says he'll rebuild the U.S. military and in the next sentence says he will cut military spending. He opposes entitlement reform and promises not to raise taxes but says he can eliminate $19 trillion in U.S. debt in eight years. He's been for and against amnesty, for and against changes to abortion law, for and against fighting ISIS, for and against outsourcing, for and against H-1B visas, for and against the Dream Act, for and against single-payer health care, for and against the Obamacare mandate, for and against gun control, and on and on.
Even if he delivers a series of well-written policy speeches, a turn toward substance will require Trump to spend more of his time in interviews trying to resolve these many differences and otherwise explain his newly developed positions. And he will be pressed for details. It won't be enough simply to declare that he'd eliminate ISIS, for instance. He'll have to explain how. And he'll have to do so in a way that's better than he's done in the past.
Trump was asked for specifics by the Washington Post editorial board last month. It didn't go well.
Fred Ryan, Washington Post publisher: You [MUFFLED] mentioned a few minutes earlier here that you would knock ISIS. You've mentioned it many times. You've also mentioned the risk of putting American troop in a danger area. If you could substantially reduce the risk of harm to ground troops, would you use a battlefield nuclear weapon to take out ISIS? Trump: I don't want to use, I don't want to start the process of nuclear. Remember the one thing that everybody has said, I'm a counterpuncher. Rubio hit me. Bush hit me. When I said low energy, he's a low-energy individual, he hit me first. I spent, by the way he spent $18 million worth of negative ads on me. That's putting [MUFFLED] . . . Ryan: This is about ISIS. You would not use a tactical nuclear weapon against ISIS? Trump: I'll tell you one thing, this is a very good-looking group of people here. Could I just go around so I know who the hell I'm talking to?
If we are, in fact, entering a new phase of the 2016 Republican primary, Trump's problem won't be not knowing who the hell he's talking to, it'll be not knowing what the hell he's talking about.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.