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What Happens When Trump Dials Back the Crazy?

His TV ads, at least, have become more “presidential.” But highlighting the saner side of Trump risks diluting his brand.


In early January, Donald Trump rolled out his first televised campaign ad in Iowa and New Hampshire. It introduced his blanket ban on Muslims entering the United States with footage of airport security lines, the San Bernardino shooters, immigrants scurrying across the border from Mexico, and an eerie aerial shot from a drone. “He’ll quickly cut the head off ISIS,” the narrator said. “And take their oil.”

Even at a time when many Republican candidates were stoking fears about immigrants in their ads, this one was unusual. Traditionally, candidates use their first TV spots to introduce themselves to voters in the most flattering way. Early ads aired last year for Marco Rubio and Rick Perry were classic examples. “My father was grateful for the work he had, but that was not the life he wanted for his children,” Rubio said from behind a brightly lit podium. “He wanted all the dreams he once had for himself to come true for us.” Perry used a similar story about his humble roots to introduce himself to Iowans. “In a farmhouse with no indoor plumbing, a boy named Rick Perry learned lessons of strength, resilience, and faith,” the narrator said, as idyllic vistas of dusty rural Texas flash by.

Trump, true to form, eschewed their examples in his first ad. As NBC’s Perry Bacon Jr. wrote at the time, “He could have used his first ad to emphasize his business successes, his family or his policy plans on cutting taxes and improving health care for veterans, less controversial issues. Trump didn’t take the safe course.” 

Steering clear of the “safe course” has fueled Trump’s campaign all along—and now it’s boosted him to the Republican nomination. But his erratic, “I’ll say anything” persona could be more of a liability than a boon in the general election. In the coming months, Hillary Clinton and her allies will do everything in their power to paint Trump as dangerously unhinged. They got started on Wednesday, just hours after Ted Cruz abandoned the race and cleared the way for Trump to become the nominee, releasing a witty, highly shareable video that shows prominent Republicans like Mitt Romney calling him a “con artist,” “phony,” “bully,” and “the most vulgar person to ever aspire to the presidency.”

Trump needs to show that he has a softer and more rational side, and he’s been assuring supporters—and skeptical Republicans—that he can, and will. But there’s a hitch, as he well knows: The more Trump sounds like a traditional politician, the more he risks losing the fervent support of people who like him because he’s anything but a traditional politician.

Trump is clearly conflicted about all this. Two weeks ago, at a rally in a Connecticut gymnasium, he addressed the reports that he was planning to become a more decorous, disciplined figure on the campaign trail. “I can do presidential, folks. Believe me,” Trump told the crowd that had gathered in Waterbury. But then he straightened his shoulders, gazed mockingly into the distance, and told the truth: “I sort of don’t like toning it down.”

Since then, Trump has continued to ridicule his rivals on the campaign trail. “In the case of Lyin’ Ted Cruz. Lyin’ Ted. Lies. Ooh, he lies. You know Ted. He brings the Bible, holds it high, puts it down, lies,” Trump said at a rally in Indianapolis late last month. But he has begun to tone it down in his campaign ads. The television spots Trump rolled out in Indiana this past week, prior to the primary win that clinched his nomination, could not have been more conventional—or, frankly, more boring.

The first shows Trump in his Manhattan office, with skyscrapers looming in the background and traffic inching along on the street below. “We’ll cut taxes for the middle class, negotiate new trade deals, bring back jobs, save Social Security and Medicare without cuts, end illegal immigration, build the wall, strengthen our military, knock out ISIS, and take care of our great veterans,” Trump says as upbeat music swells behind him. “We’re going to make America great again.”

Granted, Manhattan is an unconventional backdrop for a political ad. As I wrote several weeks ago, politicians most often use New York City as a symbol for corporate greed and excess. But otherwise, the Trump spot is straight out of a mainstream playbook: He’s one more politician talking directly and soberly to the camera for a full 30 seconds.

His second ad presents the softer side of Trump—sort of—with his eldest son talking adoringly about his dad. “Growing up, my brother, sister, and I had to really know what we were talking about before bringing him any kind of proposal,” Donald Trump Jr. says as the commercial cuts to a photo of his father smooching one of his grandsons. “He may be a little less tough on his grandchildren right now, but it’s that toughness that I want renegotiating trade deals with China and Mexico. It’s that toughness that I want keeping me and my family and your family safe.”

These ads may go a little way toward dispelling the notion that Trump is an egomaniacal tyrant who should never be trusted with the nuclear codes. Progress! But they also dilute the persona Trump has built up for himself—as an outsider who eschews political orthodoxy and the Washington cartel—because they employ the same tactics that conventional politicians have been using for years.  

It’s easy to see why the Trump campaign is trying to steer in a “safer” direction. How, after all, does he woo the skeptical voters he’ll need to beat Clinton without convincing them that he can be at least reasonably “presidential”? But if the Indiana ads signal the campaign’s strategy going forward, there’s a risk that it could backfire—and not just because he may lose fervent supporters who like the unhinged, non-traditional version of Trump.

Throughout the campaign so far, Trump has had an almost supernatural ability to deflect criticism on the campaign trail, because he could say: I’m a Washington outsider. Naturally, the Republican elite is going to gang up on me. Just ignore them. They’re lying, like all politicians. But the more he adopts the mainstream Washington playbook in his ads—and in the rest of his campaign—the more he looks like a political insider himself. That’s when he has to watch out, because that will make him just as susceptible to criticism as the average politician.


Most of the new ads that aired this week were in Indiana, as Ted Cruz mounted a last-ditch effort to stop Donald Trump before Tuesday’s primary. Below, we’ve analyzed four new ads that aired this week. You can see every presidential campaign ad that’s run during this cycle at the New Republic’s 2016 Campaign Ad Archive

Ted Cruz: “Coin” and “Same” 

Type: Attack ads 

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

Reach: Aired in Indiana

ImpactOf all the attacks thrown at Donald Trump over the course of this election, these two ads are perhaps the most outlandish: The Cruz campaign claims that Trump and Hillary Clinton are “two big government liberals,” with the same positions on everything from gun control to raising taxes. “Coin” and “Same” are perfect examples of ads—Like Jeb Bush’s “Vane” and John Kasich’s “Muddier”—that latch on to a metaphor and take the imagery just slightly too far. Not only are Clinton and Trump “two sides of the same coin,” but they are actually on a coin, together, looking like glowering Roman emperors. 

Ted Cruz: “Pence for Cruz”

Type: Endorsement ad

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

Reach: Aired in Indiana

Impact: In any other election cycle, a popular Republican governor of Indiana stepping in at the eleventh hour to endorse a candidate—in this case, Ted Cruz—in a televised ad might have had an impact. But Republican voters seem to have decided they want an outsider as their nominee. Calling in an elected Republican official to endorse Cruz only aligned the Texas senator more firmly with political insiders. It’s the same problem Marco Rubio faced back in early March, when one of his last campaign ads featured Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson telling voters, “It’s time to unite behind the conservative who will win in November. That’s why I am endorsing Marco Rubio.”

Ted Cruz: “Lying”

Type: Attack ad

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

Reach: Aired in Indiana

Impact: This spot punches back at Donald Trump after the media mogul released an ad last week claiming that Cruz “voted for Obama’s job-killing trade bill” and “supported amnesty for 11 million illegals and would have welcomed more Syrian refugees.” In “Lying,” the announcer tries to set the record straight, saying, Cruz voted against TPA and is fighting to stop TPP.” But given that ads focused on arcane policy points have failed to rebuff Trump’s outlandish claims throughout this election cycle, this ad, like all the others, was likely doomed to fail from the start.