WASHINGTON — For Republican nominee Donald Trump, Monday was supposed to mark a reset. In the week following both parties’ national conventions, the real estate mogul was as intense a controversy magnate as he’s ever been — criticizing the family of a fallen US soldier, refusing to immediately endorse top GOP leaders facing primary challenges, kicking out a baby who cried at one of his rallies.
The fallout was swiftly reflected in the polls: A Washington Post-ABC News survey found Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton suddenly leading by eight points; a Wall Street Journal-NBC News survey found her winning by nine; and a McClatchy-Marist survey had her topping the businessman by 15 points. (The Real Clear Politics average now has Clinton with a 7.7 point advantage, ahead 48.0 percent to Trump’s 40.3.)
Perhaps most telling, however, was that 73 percent of Americans disapproved of Trump’s handling of his feud with Khizr and Ghanzala Khan, the Muslim parents of US Army captain Humayun Khan, who died while fighting in Iraq in 2004.
So it is hardly a surprise he seemingly responded to the counsel from many of his Republican colleagues to stay on message and avoid generating — and prolonging — negative news cycles, especially when they could instead be directed at his rival.
Trump’s experiment with staying on message lasted only a single day, though, quickly giving way to yet another scandal in a long string of ‘worst-yets,’ this time surrounding comments that seemed to suggest violence against Clinton.
Even before his Second Ammendment comments had many gasping anew, and drawing parallels to rhetoric ahead of the assassination of Israeli prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, there were reports circulating that GOP insiders were planning an intervention that would implore Trump to refine his tone and moderate some of his stances if he wanted any chance of winning.
For months, certain party members have publicly speculated that their nominee could change at some point. It’s getting change to stick, however, that’s the challenge.
“A lot of us, we still hope — hope springs eternal — that between now and November he’ll change some of his positions,” said Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake in June. “Not just the tone and the tenor, but some of his positions need to change.”
And changing his approach was also the recommendation that came from Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt in a statement last week: “My advice to Donald Trump has been and will continue to be to focus on jobs and national security and stop responding to every criticism whether it’s from a grieving family or Hillary Clinton.”
That is, for the most part, what Trump did on Monday with a disciplined policy speech at the Detroit Economic Club. The address was intended to cast the candidate as a plausible president who could deliver prosperity by simplifying the tax code, abrogating longstanding trade agreements and overhauling America’s energy policy by placing a moratorium on new regulatory measures.
There was no mention of the Khans, no personal insults. He read from a teleprompter and managed to politely ignore more than a dozen interruptions by protesters; and his repeated excoriations of the former secretary of state were for her economic agenda. “Every policy that has failed this city, and so many others, is a policy supported by Hillary Clinton,” he said.
It was a new Trump, but one apparently not made for this world.
Just a day later, on Tuesday, Trump returned to creating controversy in his inimitable way, and this time crossed a rubicon many found surprising even for him.
Inside a packed basketball arena in Wilmington, North Carolina, Trump was speaking about his claims that Clinton intends to strip Americans of their constitutional right to bear arms. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do about it folks,” he said, before adding: “Although, the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
As a firestorm ignited over what critics said was violence being incited against his challenger, some saw analogs to the rhetoric in Israel before the 1995 assassination of Rabin.
Connecticut governor Dan Malloy, a Democrat, told MSNBC Tuesday night he “instantly thought about Rabin in Israel” when he heard Trump’s comments, and that he was “infuriated” by his “sick bravado.”
Prominent New York Times columnist Tom Friedman drew that same connection in his weekly op-ed, published in Wednesday’s paper, describing the vitriolic language used at the right-wing rallies that preceded Yigal Amir’s murder of the former Labor Party leader, as the incitement then is often cited as an ingredient of what created the environment that led to the killing.
“And that, ladies and gentlemen is how Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin got assassinated,” Friedman said. “His right-wing opponents just kept delegitimizing him as a ‘traitor’ and ‘a Nazi’ for wanting to make peace with the Palestinians and give back part of the Land of Israel … But there are always people down the line who don’t hear the caveats. They just hear the big message: The man is illegitimate, the man is a threat to the nation, the man is the equivalent of a Nazi war criminal.”
“Well, you know what we do with people like that, don’t you? We kill them,” he added. “And that’s what the Jewish extremist Yigal Amir did to Rabin. Why not? He thought he had permission from a whole segment of Israel’s political class.”
But such censure did not come exclusively from left-of-center figures. Former GOP congressman and host of the Morning Joe news program Joe Scarborough published a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post, saying the party must abandon Trump “after he suggested that one way to keep a conservative Supreme Court after Hillary Clinton got elected would be to assassinate her or federal judges.”
Indeed, the Secret Service said Wednesday it has conferred with the Trump campaign over his remarks, with an official telling CNN, “There has been more than one conversation” on the matter.
Trump, for his part, rushed to defend his comments, saying he had no intention of encouraging violence and that there can be “no other interpretation.”
Doubling down on his contentious statements — just as he did with his spat with the Khans — it appears Trump’s experiment with rebooting his campaign style and following the advice of his concerned supporters is already over.
It’s now the same cycle that’s ensued with each controversial episode since he launched his campaign a year ago. Hope for change may spring eternal, as Flake said, but Trump is showing him and the rest of the GOP they may have to wait that eternity.