Rhetorical Recap: The Pivot

Donald Trump's stump speech pivots may pay off on the debate stage, explains George Washington University's Michael Cornfield.

The New Trump Stump Speech, including Des Moines, IA August 27, 2016; Clinton Speech on Trump and the “Alt-Right,” Reno NV, August 25, 2016.

“Pivot” has returned in insider reactions to a series of Donald Trump speeches delivered in the past fortnight in Charlotte, Dimondale (a suburb of Lansing MI), Jackson (with special guest Nigel Farage), Tampa, and Des Moines. The discussion topic centers on whether the Republican nominee has finally turned away from what worked for him during the primaries to a general election strategy.  He’s seen the recent polling numbers forecasting his defeat, replaced his campaign managers for the second time, and stuck to a speech text that is improving in quality. These may be signs that Trump has shifted his strategy.

I want to focus here on pivoting as a tactic, specifically as used in debates. Trump and his team have been laying out language that set up debate pivots: one-sentence answers to dangerous questions that enable a candidate to say in effect “I’ve answered that” and then shift into a preferred speech module.  Trump’s tactical pivots are similar to what the Hillary Clinton campaign has been preparing for lately in everything except her speeches to treat that email server/Foundation/ stain that hasn’t come out in previous verbal washes.

THE ANKA/SINATRA PIVOT: Trump continues to talk trash, but he expressed a bit of bada-bing “My Way” remorse in Charlotte on August 18:

TRUMP: “Sometimes, in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that. And believe it or not, I regret it. And I do regret it, particularly where it may have caused personal pain.” 

He stopped well short of apologizing to anyone and everyone. He gave no examples. This allowed Clinton, in Reno, to tear into him with a specific instance, involving the “Mexican” judge presiding in the class action suits against Trump and Trump University:

CLINTON: “To this day, Trump has never apologized to Judge Curiel.  But for Trump, that is just par for the course.”

However, Trump has marked out a pivot point for himself on the debate stage, where he can say “As you know, I’ve expressed regret for some of the words I’ve used.”

THE RACIAL WAGER PIVOT: Trump has added a segment to his stump speech ostensibly addressed to African-Americans.  As stated in Dimondale on August 19:  

TRUMP: “Look at how much African American communities are suffering from Democratic control. To those I say the following: What do you have to lose by trying something new like Trump? What do you have to lose?…You live in your poverty, your schools are no good. You have no jobs. Fifty-eight percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?" 

This is a crazy strategy if aimed at winning black votes.  Trump’s percentage of support among polled registered African-Americans is about the same as the Federal Reserve’s interest rates.  But it is crazy like a fox if it is pitched at those in his white base (most of the audience in Dimondale) who want to believe that “50 years of Democratic misrule” is the main cause of today’s African-American woes.

The Clinton campaign quickly released a video with an ironic ice-bucket of an answer to his rhetorical question: “Everything.”  She scorched him for drawing a uniformly grim picture of African-American communities in her Reno speech. By Saturday in Des Moines, however, Trump’s campaign had inserted a concession line:

“There are millions of African-Americans in this country who have succeeded so greatly and who deserve a government that protects and honors their incredible contribution.”

And the rest of the module sounded better:

TRUMP: “Failed Democratic policies – the policies of Hillary Clinton – have created this high crime and crushing poverty.

“In so many communities under Democratic control, we have bad schools, no jobs, high crime, and no hope. It can’t get any worse. To those suffering, I say: vote for Donald Trump and I will fix it. What do you have to lose?

“Let me also tell you what you have to gain: millions of jobs, better schools and safe communities.

“By the way, how quickly people have forgotten that Hillary Clinton called black youth “super-predators,” and how insulted they were.”

From there Trump segued (yes, pivoted) smartly into a reframed section on his signature issue:

“There is another civil rights issue we need to talk about, and that’s the issue of immigration enforcement.

Every time an African-American citizen, or any citizen, loses their job to an illegal immigrant, the rights of that American citizen have been violated.”

To be sure, Trump has also begun calling Clinton a bigot.  It’s a disorient-by-insult blast we’ve come to expect from him.  But pairing the plight of some not all African-Americans to illegal immigration under the rubric of civil rights was a smart and sober bit of positioning.

THE BORDER SECURITY TRIAD PIVOTS: On temperament and race, Trump established a means of pivoting away from topics.  There’s no pivoting away from his promises to build a wall, impose a ban, and deport non-citizens.  So the question that has arisen as he started modifying and befogging his language on these signature initiatives is what does he intend to pivot toward?  In other words, when the subject comes up during debates, how will he elaborate?

The Trump campaign has delayed a “major speech on immigration” multiple times.  It is currently scheduled for Wednesday August 31 in Phoenix, a state no Democratic presidential nominee has won since 1948 except when Clinton’s husband carried it in pursuing re-election.  Meantime, trial balloons have launched.  On August 24, Trump floated a gigantic qualifier on deportation: “No citizenship. Let me go a step further — they’ll pay back-taxes, they have to pay taxes, there’s no amnesty, as such, there’s no amnesty, but we work with them.” 

Deportation would seem to be the toughest of the triad to elaborate, since it will cause highly visible disruptions to family life inside the United States unless Trump opts for a program of self-deportation inducements, an option he characterized as too harsh after Romney lost in 2012.  Families are a cornerstone of Clinton’s campaign and life work.  So Trump has turned to emphasizing his opposition to sanctuary cities, which directs listener attention to those who run them instead of those who seek protection within them.  He has also added a qualifier to those who will be deported first (in the first hour of his presidency), criminal illegal immigrants.  This suits a favorite pivot into talking about victims of violent crimes, sometimes with family members on stage with him.

There have been no signs of pivoting on the wall, now described with protections against tunnels.  The ban, “temporary” from the start, has morphed into “extreme vetting,” which could be compared to the process undergone by persons who apply for government jobs which require security clearance.

We may gain further clarity on Wednesday.


For their part (and yes, this is a double speaking part) Hillary and Bill Clinton have a debate pivot in the works regarding the family Foundation: he will resign the board and they won’t accept corporate or foreign money if she wins.  In an August 24 interview with Anderson Cooper, the candidate also reiterated in non-lawyerly plain prose that she made a mistake, apologizes, and takes responsibility for the private server.  But that was an exception.  Clinton continues to refuse to answer questions about anything from more than one interviewer at a time (as in a news conference), and the absence of detail as well as availability assures the scandal story will continue.  No strategic pivot is apparent.


Pivots are old-school political moves of a kind Trump has made a brand out of defying.  But the composition of these recent speeches, along with his willingness to deliver them relatively intact, as he did in his nomination acceptance speech, suggests Trump will pivot tactically in the debates.

He has to, given his strategy.  Trump cannot build or borrow a campaign organization to approach let alone match Clinton before election day.  His operation remains dependent on free media, social media, and what a New York Times reporter aptly dubbed his concert tour.  As such the first debate, when favorites have often been caught complacent or surprised, and for which a big audience is primed, is his biggest and best chance to close polling and expectation gaps.

When Trump does pivot during a debate, Clinton may well pivot her gaze from him to the camera and reprise this line from her Reno speech:

“And now Trump is trying to rebrand himself as well. But don’t be fooled.There’s an old Mexican proverb that says ‘Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are.’ “

And then we will be at a dramatic flash point, a confrontation of wits and wills that can be scripted, rehearsed, but not won through a pivot.

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