Pushed to defend the various outrages perpetrated by his boss, Mike Pence took an interesting tack in Tuesday night’s debate. The GOP vice presidential nominee tried to invent a Donald Trump the likes of whom we have never seen.
To believe Pence, this imaginary Donald Trump has never lauded Vladimir Putin as a strong leader whom others should emulate, and he has never suggested that the United States might stand aside and let Putin invade NATO allies. This fictional Trump would never insult women or Hispanics or belittle just about anybody who dares to question him. He has also never promised to resolve our immigration problem by forcibly deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants, and of course has never said that the number of nations with nuclear weapons should be expanded.
This fictional Trump also has the temperament of an angel, the wisdom of a sage and the humility and sense of public service of a Mother Teresa.
Of course, it’s one thing for Pence to posit the existence of a rational, competent, self-controlled alt-Trump in a debate where Trump himself was only an off-stage presence. In Sunday night’s townhall debate with Hillary Clinton, we’ll get to watch Trump try to pull off the same illusion but in person, for a full 90 minutes, and that’s more difficult.
In their initial debate, Trump proved able to maintain a facade of rationality for the opening 15 or 20 minutes, the outer limits of his attention span. After that his focus faded, his discipline evaporated and the Trump familiar from so many rallies, speeches, interviews and Twitter storms angrily re-asserted himself. Republicans tried to deny the impact of what happened in the last hour of that debate— Newt Gingrich, for example, called Trump’s overall performance “an enormous, historic victory” — but as we’ve seen from the polls, voters came to a very different conclusion.
There’s a word for people such as Trump — he’s “protean,” after the Greek god Proteus. Like Proteus, Trump is a shape-shifter, able to assume whatever guise or stance best suits his purpose at the moment. It’s part of his great skill as a salesman. He demanded military intervention in Libya but now claims that he didn’t. He backed the invasion of Iraq but now claims to have opposed it. He rode the birther conspiracy to political gain, but now claims credit for killing it.
Most recently, Trump spent the past week promising voters that as a brilliant manipulator of the tax code, he would put the same “genius” that allows him to pay no federal income taxes to work in closing those loopholes. “I’m working for you now — I’m not working for Trump,” he says.
Yet when you look at his actual tax-reform proposals, Trump does absolutely nothing to close those loopholes. To the contrary, he proposes to expand those same loopholes for the wealthy and powerful and create new ones as well, to a degree that even conservative economists have said is irresponsible. On that issue too, he is protean, constantly shifting to whatever form suits his interests.
In Greek mythology, though, Proteus had a weakness: When trapped or cornered, with nowhere else to go, he would finally be forced to revert to his true self for everyone to see. The same is true of Trump: When given no avenue of retreat, his true self will always out itself.