Trump's chance to reboot

As the Republican National Convention kicks off, Mr Donald Trump has a tremendous opportunity to rebrand and reboot his campaign to make it look and feel more professional and less petulant.

Even for the people who loathe him - and there are many - the intensity of outrage inevitably wanes. This says less about those people's commitment to their principles or the veracity of their objections, and more about the very human propensity towards fatigue.

Sustained outrage can be exhausting. Some folks eventually succumb to resignation or tacit acceptance. That's just the way people are built.

Outrage is a beast that needs constant feeding and, over the past few weeks, after the killing of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the police officers in Dallas, Mr Trump has been noticeably more in control and controversy-free.

It seems almost certain that someone has got through to him, convincing him that he needs to tamp down the tweets and pump up the scripted speeches.

None of this changes the essence of the man. The intolerance, bigotry and narcissism are not easy to alter. But public personas are protean. And that's why a convention offers a huge opportunity for a candidate.

All Mr Trump has to do is to move a relative few of the people who now say "I could never..." towards a position of "I could possibly..."

Conventions offer the most unfiltered visions of parties and presidential candidates during a campaign. They are about shaping a message and conveying it. They allow candidates to completely reframe the conversation and to remake people's perceptions.

These are big-money, high-stakes, focused-attention affairs. Voters who don't follow every machination and who don't stay glued to the television are likely to tune in just for the pageantry and spectacle of it all.

And these conventions usually are great shows. When the political parties concentrate on their candidates and put the totality of their attention into a single message, they can even doll up the devil.

But something tells me Mr Trump does not have the constitutional restraint and self-interested prudence to allow this to happen. One of Mr Trump's greatest flaws - putting aside for the moment his utter vileness and ignorance of virtually every issue - is that he simply can't stop being himself. He can't coast; he must careen. He doesn't trust drift, only drive.

This instinct may have served him well in business (although the bankruptcies and lawsuits, as well as the unreleased tax returns, suggest his business acumen and wealth may be partly an illusion) but it creates conditions that are prime for a cascade of errors.

Unconventional campaigns can handicap what a political convention is great at providing - clarity.

Mr Trump seems allergic to clarity.

Just take the roll-out of his vice-presidential pick, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, about as drab and boring a public figure as one could imagine. Of course this all disguises a man who is rabidly opposed to things like gay rights and a woman's right to choose, but the political minds inside the campaign were apparently able to convince Mr Trump that boring was the perfect balance to his own bombast.

First, he orchestrated the selection like a reality show. It was hard to know if one was watching the final decision of a candidate or the final episode of The Bachelor. In the end, Mr Pence prevailed, although there were rumblings and reports that Mr Trump still had trepidations up until the last minute.

Was this Mr Trump's preferred choice or simply a bow to pressure? Both, according to the meandering, sleep-on-my-sofa-because-you-may-be-drunk speech he gave to introduce Mr Pence. The tycoon said the governor was both his "first choice" and a choice for "party unity". Yes, there are many in Mr Trump's own party who still have serious misgivings about him, who no doubt wake up occasionally like I do in a cold sweat, with the realisation that this man actually will be the Republican Party's nominee.

Mr Pence is meant to assuage those fears.

In a way, Mr Trump picked Mr Pence, a man who presents as an adult, so that he himself can continue to behave like a child. The vice-presidential pick has the presidential disposition on the ticket. Go figure.

But this arranged marriage looks as uncomfortable as it sounds and signals a precarious prelude to a convention that holds the potential to catapult Mr Trump into greater acceptability before the Democrats and their all-star line-up of heavy hitters pick him apart at next week's Democratic National Convention.

It would not surprise me one iota if Mr Trump squanders this opportunity. He is proving to be a horrible general election campaigner. The man seems tragically prone to self-sabotage. For instance, after Sunday's killing of police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Mr Trump was back to sending incendiary tweets calling America a "divided crime scene" when he should have focused on Cleveland and unity.

I will pay close attention this week to see if this candidate transforms an event that has always served as a moment of ascendance into a moment of collapse. If I were a betting man...


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline 'Trump's chance to reboot'. Print Edition | Subscribe