On the eve of the first major debate between Republican presidential candidates, real estate tycoon and reality television star Donald Trump sits comfortably at the top of every poll with double-digit leads, his brash, bellicose manner and flippant disregard for the niceties of the political process only seeming to elevate his stature.
Indeed, any GOP candidate who tries to take Trump to task, for the casino mogul’s behavior, remarks, or stated policies, finds himself on the receiving end of a juvenile prank or playground rebuke. His habits of name calling and taking cheap potshots don’t usually exist in the political debate arsenal — it’s like inviting a grizzly bear to a chess tournament — and it’s forcing other Republicans to rethink their strategies.
But there is one political player who actually could stand a chance against Donald Trump. He’s less likely to get a podium at Thursday’s big-kids debate than Jim Gilmore, but he may be the only one who could put up a real fight. That would be… the old Donald Trump.
Trump is a shapeshifter, you see. The man who wrote The Art of the Deal is willing to distort and roll back his political positions by any degree necessary to, as the negotiating maxim goes, “get to yes.” “Yes,” in this case, being the nation’s highest office. And the born-again conservative before us today, sucking all the media oxygen out of the first act of this campaign cycle, bears little resemblance to The Donald of elections past. Winds of change can’t ruffle a strand of his immaculate yellow pate, but they apparently can demolish any political conviction he ever had.
Here are just a few topics on which we’d like to see New Trump square off against Old Trump.
New Trump’s sudden appeal to Republican voters is based heavily on his bigoted, nativist attitude toward undocumented immigrants. Having infamously referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” in announcing his candidacy, emphasizing their alleged criminality, Trump said he would build a huge new wall at the border, and promised to deport all of the estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented back to their home countries.
But listening to Old Trump instantly reveals that he would be appalled by any such heartless (and mindless) approach to immigration issues. Back in 2010 on Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor, O.T. praised many of the undocumented as “great workers,” adding: “The biggest problem is you have great people come in from Mexico working crops and cutting lawns that I’m not sure a lot of Americans are going to take those jobs.”
And in 2012, he told Fox News: “For people that have been here for years that have been hard-workers, have good jobs, they’re supporting their family — it’s very, very tough to just say, ‘By the way, 22 years, you have to leave. Get out.’…. I’m one of the world’s very conservative people, but I have to tell you on a human basis, how do you throw somebody out that’s lived in this country for 20 years?”
New Trump has said repeatedly that he would get rid of “Obamacare” and replace it with “something terrific.” At his announcement speech, he touted his own success at getting successful websites off the ground for a mere pittance, while the healthcare.gov site was a notorious, and expensive, failure when it initially launched. Old Trump, on the other hand, said in 1999 that he was for universal health care, and held up Canada’s single-payer health care system — in which the government finances its citizens’ care — as a model to be adopted in the U.S.
“We need, as a nation, to re-examine the single-payer plan, as many individual states are doing,” Old Trump said in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve. “I’m a conservative on most issues but a liberal on this one. We should not hear so many stories of families ruined by healthcare expenses.”
So far, presidential candidate New Trump hasn’t said much about the federal tax system, except to boast that he pays “as little as possible” himself. But in the recent past he has excoriated President Obama’s taxation policies, supported the Bush tax cuts that mainly benefited the wealthy, called for lower taxes on capital gains and dividends, and the abolition of all corporate taxes — all fairly standard GOP coddling of the rich.
Old Trump had a very different approach to taxation — promoted while he was seeking the Reform Party’s independent presidential line in 2000. He proposed a one-time, 14.25 wealth tax on net fortunes of individuals and trusts over $10 million. He was slightly ahead of his time in targeting a certain tiny fraction of the population. According to O.T., “By my calculations, 1 percent of Americans, who control 90 percent of the wealth in this country, would be affected by my plan.” His calculations, disputed by actual economists, also predicted that his plan would raise almost $6 trillion, which he promised would pay for middle-class tax cuts and a major infusion of financing for Social Security.
New Trump has been pretty pompous in his assertion that he will beat Hillary Clinton, if they both get the nomination for their respective parties. N.T. has also been awfully harsh reviewing her tenure as Secretary of State, calling her the worst one the country has ever had. Old Trump is having none of that: He praised Clinton in her first presidential run in 2007, and in 2012 said of her competency and work ethic: “I think she really works hard and I think she does a good job.”
What party is he in, anyway?
It’s not just Clinton. Old Trump has a long affinity for the Democratic Party and its candidates, giving the lion’s share of his considerable political contributions to Democratic candidates including Sen. Harry Reid, Chicago mayor and former Obama aide Rahm Emanuel, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY), and the late Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy — basically, a who’s-who of conservative foes.
And then of course there’s the $100,000 he gave to the Clinton Foundation, so if New Trump is going to attack Clinton for accepting largesse from allegedly shady donors, we’re going to assume Old Trump is one of the first people on his hit list.
“I’m pro-life,” New Trump explained to the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2011, affirming that he had changed his mind.
A position that might surprise the pro-choice advocate Old Trump, who a short decade earlier had said: “I believe it is a personal decision that should be left to the women and their doctors.” But New Trump knows that Old Trump could never win the GOP nomination with that attitude, and so such sensible beliefs must be discarded.
Now, of course, everybody has to play the “game,” and flip-flopping is nothing new — although the contrasts here are particularly stark. But Trump has proven himself to be a formidable force in the congested GOP field, the Jupiter of that sad little system. And when he takes the center podium at the Fox News Thunderdome on Thursday night, viewers and primary voters might reasonably wonder: Just who exactly is it standing on that stage?
Photo: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a news conference near the U.S.-Mexico border outside of Laredo, Texas on July 23, 2015. REUTERS/Rick Wilking