From the earliest days of his career, Donald J. Trump has cultivated a very particular image of himself and of his business endeavors. Emblazoned across high-rise hotels and real estate developments across the country, the Trump name is synonymous with glitz, glamour, and American high society. From his reality television career came the trademark catchphrase—”You’re fired”—which established Mr. Trump as an American cultural icon: the quintessential sharp businessman cutting through the B.S. to get the job done.
That all changed, however, when Mr. Trump entered the Republican presidential race. His policy knowledge appeared woefully inadequate. Every speech gave birth to controversy; every rally loosed a new flood of negative press. His website, with its near-total focus on immigration reform, had nothing to say on important issues such as taxation, entitlement reform, and terrorism. Any other candidate, even a seasoned politician, would have collapsed under the carnival wheel of missteps that characterized Mr. Trump’s primary campaign.
But what separated Donald Trump from the 17-person Republican field was his branding talent. The first to fall victim was “low-energy” Jeb Bush, the capable yet utterly uncharismatic Florida governor whom old-guard establishment Republicans had anointed as the heir to the party’s nomination. A surging Ted Cruz, fresh off a big upset in the Iowa caucuses, became “Lyin’ Ted,” a label which dogged him until the bitter end of his candidacy. And in the most fetid stage of the vicious primary campaign, Senator Marco Rubio tried to beat Mr. Trump at his own game, slinging insult after insult at the brash businessman, but to no avail. The Florida primary came and went, and “Little Marco” was Trumped in his home state and forced out of the primary race.
For a Republican electorate boiling over with anger at the political establishment, the Donald Trump of the primary season—bold, tough-talking, and unapologetic—was irresistible. Here too, Mr. Trump put his branding skill to use, leveraging his iconic business success story to craft the persona which voters wanted to see. Though his hard-charging personality played well with primary voters, it has proven much less popular among the national electorate, three-fifths of whom currently view Mr. Trump unfavorably according to a recent Wall Street Journal survey. The candidate’s December proposal to “ban all Muslims” from entering the U.S., though likely more a P.R. stunt than a serious policy stance, as well as racially-charged comments which Mr. Trump made recently in reference to a federal judge, have led many to question his temperament and his suitability for the presidency.
But by positioning himself as a lightning rod of controversy, Mr. Trump has taken complete control of the media and has captivated the national electorate. Every day brings a new profile of Donald Trump or a leading member of his staff. An innumerate rotation of pundits scrutinizes every word and every public appearance, trying in vain to predict the actions of a man for whom the only constant is unpredictability. In the meantime, Mr. Trump’s fascinating public persona has produced historic levels of interest in this year’s election. A Pew Research survey conducted in December found that nearly seven-in-ten voters had watched one or more of the televised primary debates this election cycle. In 2008, barely more than four-in-ten had done the same.
Coupled with his branding talent, Mr. Trump’s hold upon the public consciousness will enable him to convert the negative public image which he has amassed over the course of the bloody primary season into a powerful positive narrative about his candidacy. Thus far, Donald Trump has presented himself as the physical manifestation of voter’s anger with the dysfunction of government and Washington politicians. Emotion, not policy, has driven his campaign, and as a result, his detractors say he is unprepared to deal with concrete policy matters as president. This narrative is the core of Hillary Clinton and other Democrats’ critique of Mr. Trump as the general election campaign enters its early stages.
But if Mr. Trump rebrands himself, overplaying this criticism could backfire. Mrs. Clinton and others have repeatedly called Mr. Trump “dangerous” and have identified his lack of concrete policy knowledge and his undisciplined message as the primary evidence of his unsuitability for the presidency. But if the Donald retools his campaign to focus on policy and pivots away from the haphazard emotional messaging of the primary season, the Democrats’ critique looks more like alarmism and partisan rhetoric than legitimate concern for the future of American democracy, and Mr. Trump will rebrand himself as a knowledgeable and reasonable centrist politician.
Whether this transformation will in fact occur is anyone’s guess. However, the Trump campaign is rapidly professionalizing, embracing big data and building a formidable national fundraising infrastructure. And as the campaign changes, Mr. Trump is changing as well. His fiery rhetoric about conducting mass deportations and ending Muslim immigration has vanished, replaced by much more moderate proposals, such as implementing more stringent immigration controls upon nations with strong ties to terrorism. His political instincts have sharpened—the flood of unforced errors on the stump has been reduced to a trickle—and he has begun to frame his speeches in terms of concrete policy proposals, not pure emotion.
If these changes are evidence of a lasting shift, Hillary Clinton ought to be terrified. If Mr. Trump can prove himself to be articulate and knowledgeable on the debate stage, her central argument against his candidacy—that he would be dangerous and destructive as president—will collapse.
But the ball is in Mr. Trump’s court. If the Republican nominee fails to put in the work to become knowledgeable and well-versed in policy matters, he will lose the opportunity to rebrand himself in the minds of voters and to win over the independents which he needs to take the White House this November.