What Does It Mean to Ask Donald Trump to Change His Tone?

As Republicans fall in line behind Donald Trump, despite their misgivings, many of them are urging him to “change his tone” as he moves toward the general election. But is a change in tone sufficient or even honest?

Last Thursday, announcing his endorsement, Speaker Paul Ryan said, “It is my hope the campaign improves its tone as we go forward and it’s all a campaign we can be proud of.” Former Republican nominee Bob Dole says, “I can already see sort of a shift with Trump. He needs to start talking (like) he is about to be president.” Asked about Trump’s repeated comments that offend Hispanic voters, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell says, “I hope he’ll change his direction on that.” Republican chair Reince Priebus says, “I think there’s work to do, and I think that there’s work on tone to do. I’ve been clear about that…. I think he gets it…I think you’re going to see the change in tone.”

But what does “change his tone” mean? These pleas don’t ask him to change his policies. He has proposed, among other things, building a wall on our southern border, deporting 11 million Mexican-Americans, banning Muslims from entering the United States, blowing up U.S.-China trade, forcing American companies to stop manufacturing products overseas, torturing suspected terrorists and killing their families, not touching entitlement benefits, ending our 200-year-old policy of birthright citizenship, “loosen[ing] up” libel laws to make it easier to sue newspapers, and much more. He has also supported, in the recent past, single-payer health care and the largest tax increase in world history. Are Republicans OK with those policies as long as Trump changes his tone?

He remains, as George Will puts it, an “impetuous, vicious, ignorant and anti-constitutional man.” He insults Mexicans, women, disabled Americans, Muslim Americans, and so on. Are Republicans comfortable with that man having the nuclear codes, as long as he tones it down?

For the past 11 months Donald Trump has been making his character, temperament, and egotism very clear. I wrote in January that “not since George Wallace has there been a presidential candidate who made racial and religious scapegoating so central to his campaign,” and that “he’s effectively vowing to be an American Mussolini, concentrating power in the Trump White House and governing by fiat,” and I have seen no reason to change that assessment. Indeed, I don’t think Trump’s endorsers disagree with it. They just seem to value party above the future of the republic and their own complicity.

There’s a folk tale that goes something like this: A scorpion asks a frog to carry him across the river. The frog is reluctant because he’s afraid the scorpion will sting him. The scorpion assures the frog that he would do no such thing, pointing out that then they would both drown. The frog agrees. As they are crossing the river, the frog feels a searing pain in his side. “What did you do that for?” the frog demands. “Now we’re both going down!” The scorpion replies, “You knew what I was when you picked me up.” 

When Republicans say that Trump must change his tone, they are saying that they want him to conceal his character for the duration of the election. But he’s a scorpion, and they knew that when they picked him up.

Footnote: If anyone reads this as an endorsement for Donald Trump’s principal opponent, they should check out my references to her in The Libertarian Mind.