Donald Trump

Donald Trump Is Exactly Who He Seems to Be

New campaign manager suggests the candidate's persona is an act.

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Foter / Gage Skidmore

One of the recurring questions about Donald Trump over the last year is whether he has been essentially playing a carefully and intentionally crafted role, or whether he really is as abrasive as he often appears in his campaign.

On Thursday, Trump's new campaign manager, Paul Manafort, insisted to GOP officials that the former is true, and that Trump's demeanor so far has largely been an act. In a leaked recording obtained by The New York Times, Manafort said that Trump has been playing a part: "That's what's important for you to understand: That he gets it, and that the part he's been playing is evolving." 

Manafort was attempting to reassure members of the Republican National Committee that the Trump we've seen so far won't be the Trump we see in the general election. "The negatives are going to come down," he said, "the image is going to change, but Clinton is still going to be crooked Hillary." 

Let's take Manafort at his word for a moment, and suppose his characterization is accurate in saying that Trump "gets it" and that the candidate has been playing a part all along. Essentially, Manafort is saying that his candidate has been pretending to be awful for strategic purposes. It's an attempt to excuse Trump's behavior by insisting that it is just a put-on, and in some ways it is worse than the alternative, because it implies that Trump knew better than to behave as he has but did it anyway. 

Manafort's position, basically, is that the candidate isn't actually an obnoxious, offensive, know-nothing jerk who excuses violence at his rallies—he's just cynically choosing to play an obnoxious, offensive, know-nothing jerk who excuses violence at his rallies in order to win the support of Republican party voters.

That this is the Trump campaign's defense of their candidate's comportment in the race suggests how difficult the candidate's behavior is to defend. (Obviously this does not reflect well on the portion of the GOP primary electorate that supports Trump either, regardless of whether or not Trump is really playing a part.)

In any case, Manafort's characterization of Trump as a savvy, strategic political actor is difficult to believe, given the evidence, which mostly suggests that Trump is basically who he seems to be: His misogyny has been well documented over many years, since long before his presidential run, and willingness to jump into high-stakes, high-profile situations with essentially no knowledge or preparation goes back to at least the 1980s, when he declared that he should be mediating nuclear arms negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and that he could do so with a mere 90 minutes of prep. The former director of a pro-Trump Super PAC recently wrote a tell-all letter saying flatly that when Trump entered the race, he didn't intend to win—he just wanted to assert himself in the public eye. Trump's rallies and speeches have mostly been improvised at length; it's not a persona that's on display, it's his personality.

There's little reason to believe that the Trump we've seen in the race so far is some carefully crafted persona cleverly designed from the outset to exploit the GOP; it's just who he is.