Donald Trump has changed the rules of campaigning. In no area has he done more pioneering work than in the field of insults. He has insulted countries, political opponents, senior Republican leaders, and entire classes of people—from Mexican immigrants to POWs. So it would be reasonable to expect that when he takes the center lectern next week for the first Republican debate, he’ll continue true to form—a knee to the groin here, a sweeping denunciation there. The word stupid is no doubt already limbered up and bouncing around his verbal ready-room.
But isn’t the obvious gambit restraint? Shouldn’t we expect the Republican front-runner to show up and behave like a choir boy? That possibility rewards imaginative analysis. I only wish I could speak as well as Jeb does about my love for immigrants. Gov. Christie reminds me of myself. Trump could bring everyone plush bathrobes from one of his resort properties.
That Trump is likely to be on his best behavior is the conclusion of several advisers working for Trump’s challengers. Next Thursday’s debate will be the first great test of his capacity to bridle his natural inclinations in the service of a tactical goal.
Trump is running on the No Restraint ticket, so why start biting his tongue now? There’s a practical reason and a political one. The practical reason is that he will get more notice in the debate from being polite than from offering the predictable string of zingers. Anyone watching Thursday night who has heard only about Trump the self-promoting blowhard who is ruining the GOP will be pleasantly surprised. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s not that bad, it’s just the media,’ ” says one top strategist, who’s advising another candidate who will be on the stage that night. The next day Trump can go back to throwing elbows.
As a political matter, Trump has to find a way to shed some of the Louis Vuitton cast-iron baggage he carries around with him. He is at the top of the polls, but those same polls show that he isn’t likely to stay there. The recent Quinnipiac poll highlights the dilemma. In the political horserace among candidates, Trump gets 20 percent of the support of GOP voters. The only other competitors in double digits are Gov. Scott Walker (13 percent) and Jeb Bush (10 percent). But Trump also has the highest unfavorable rating: 59 percent. Only 27 percent of voters polled have a favorable view of him, and 30 percent of Republicans say they will never vote for Trump. That’s the highest of any candidate. By comparison, Christie, the competitor with the second-highest score on this scale, turns off only 15 percent of voters. Hillary Clinton has a terminal problem with only 9 percent of voters. As a result, when those Quinnipiac respondents are asked about the general election, Trump loses to Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Vice President Joe Biden in head-to-head match-ups.* That’s not true of any other Republican candidate.
Carrying this gambit would take some skill, especially for a candidate who believes so thoroughly in his own instincts. When people regularly praise you for telling it like it is, it will be hard to stow that trait for a full 90 minutes. On the other hand, Trump is selling himself as a great negotiator. Then he is no doubt familiar with the black-hat/white-hat approach, whereby a negotiator moves from tough and unyielding to generous and compromising. Pull this off and the person on the other side winds up feeling a little gratitude for you giving him what he wants.
Trump has been downplaying expectations for a few days, saying that he’s never really been in a debate. Presumably there is some debate in negotiation, but never mind: That rare bit of modesty is proof he has the capacity to play-act for effect. If Trump can pause his natural, driving impulses for the good of a larger strategy, it might be the first time in this campaign that he’s elevated himself by making himself smaller.
*Correction, August 1, 2015: This article originally misstated that Trump lost to Martin O’Malley in a hypothetical general election match-up. The third Democratic opponent against whom Trump was tested and lost was Joe Biden. (Return.)