Trump was making his latest move in a successful effort to mitigate perhaps the greatest impediment to his candidacy: the fear factor. That is, the deep concern and worry that even many Republicans have about Trump.
Though he has his charms, Trump has been an often rude, mercurial and poorly informed character whom many voters do not trust with the keys to the Oval Office and the codes to the nuclear arsenal.
But now, the fear factor may be moving in the other direction. The polls are tightening, and Trump is even moving ahead in several swing states.
In the month since Trump fired Paul Manafort as his campaign chairman, the Republican standard-bearer has shown discipline few thought the real estate developer was capable of. He is seeking to dilute acid personality into a more palatable brew.
Trump’s public rejection of the “birther” label is part of that process of normalization. Whether he truly believed Obama was born in Kenya, or was raising the claim in a classic Trump effort at self-promotion, his failure to acknowledge Obama’s Hawaii birth even after the president produced his long-form birth certificate was a fringe position that could make voters wary of Trump.
Trump, as usual, couldn’t just change his position and leave it at that. Instead, he also asserted, “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy.”
Though some reports indicate the birther idea started with Clinton supporters, there seems no evidence that Clinton or her 2008 campaign launched or promoted it.
But Trump’s unequivocal statement that Obama is American-born is a change and a clear part of a strategy of elevating voters’ comfort level with him.
Trump’s public appearances are no longer a string of boasts, insults and poll recitations. Instead, he delivers speeches with increasing skill from a teleprompter and backs up his remarks with potent doses of policy and proposals.
At times, the former flame-thrower seems almost avuncular. While Obama vacationed and Clinton kept to her schedule, Trump jetted decisively into storm-battered Louisiana and handed out toys. During an appearance in Flint, Michigan, last week, when a pastor demanded that he lay off attacking Clinton and instead focus on the city’s problems, he politely complied.
“Oh, oh, oh, OK, OK, that’s good. And I’m gonna go back onto Flint,” he said.
Even so, he couldn’t just let the pastor’s admonishment go. The next day, he was suggesting the preacher had ambushed him.
He also continues to throw some classic Trump shtick into his speeches — an insult here, an anecdote there. But now they punctuate his speeches rather than define them. In addition to campaign stemwinders, he is giving individual addresses tailored to specific proposals.
Like a normal, unscary candidate.
Clinton, meantime, has begun to seem like a riskier choice in some ways.
Seeking some equality in the “scary” category is probably one reason why the Trump campaign and its allies began a few weeks ago spreading unsubstantiated rumors that Clinton was plagued by hidden illnesses that would fell her in office. These irresponsible claims were even gaining some traction, fueled by the mistrust people already have for Clinton.
Then, Clinton fell. And not for the first time. But this time, catastrophically for her, her fall was at a public event and captured on video.
The sight of a presidential candidate collapsing as she sought to enter her vehicle was a frightening moment. Her campaign later revealed she had pneumonia.
As the video of her stumble is replayed from now through Election Day, it will strike viewers in a primal spot where they need their leaders to appear strong, even invincible. Particularly in such an increasingly dangerous world, and one in which the American president’s most visible antagonist rides horses with his shirt off and pets tigers.
Accusations of corruption and potential illegality against Clinton and her cohort continue to escalate. Last week, contractors who handled her private email system while she was secretary of state pleaded the Fifth Amendment before a congressional committee. A former aide failed to even respond to a congressional summons.