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Trump's next move: Acting presidential?

Super Tuesday has come and gone. Supertrump continues to wreak havoc on the GOP's perception of itself, as he promises to transform the right into a mirror image of the left. The past few days confirm that each reflection of leftist values seems to increase his support among primary voters—while alienating those who have long seen themselves as the moral and intellectual leaders of the conservative movement.

On Sunday, Trump claimed—implausibly—that he lacked the information necessary to form an immediate opinion about David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan, though he did eventually disavow their support. Voters across the Super Tuesday states appeared to pay the incident little heed. Trump's best showing of the evening—by far—came in liberal Massachusetts, hardly Klan country even when the KKK was an important force in American politics.

In several southern states, such as Georgia, Trump won every key demographic, including those with the highest levels of education and income. Pundits and activists from across the political spectrum, on the other hand, were withering in their criticism. The differences between critiques from the left and the right were profound.

Donald Trump
Scott Morgan | Reuters
Donald Trump

Large parts of the right detest identity politics, decrying the race riots of the past few years and the segregationist campus "safe spaces." The right sees President Obama's embrace of Al Sharpton and his ilk, and the racial policies of the Holder Justice Department, as problems, not solutions. The right opposes the very categorizations that enable affirmative action or racial set-asides.

The narrowly focused condemnation from the right thus targeted Trump's coddling of bigotry. The right believes that history has relegated the KKK to a small fringe niche, and that only minimal effort is necessary to keep it there; it criticized Donald Trump for failing to exert even that minimal effort.

Large parts of the left see identity politics as a solution to structural racism and the persistence of "white privilege," promoting street riots to protest a widespread culture of racial injustice and creating safe spaces to shelter minorities from an enraged, despondent white majority.

The left enshrines racial categorizations, insisting that they are a corrective to past discrimination and an inoculation against its return. The broad and sweeping condemnation from the left thus targeted Trump's millions of supporters. The left sees the KKK as a sleeper movement set to awaken upon hearing the appropriately coded dog whistle; it criticized Donald Trump for whistling.

In short, the right condemns white supremacists because they are supremacist. The left condemns white supremacists because they are white. That difference has provided the GOP with a moral high ground. Any politician unable to condemn the KKK immediately and unequivocally has fallen deep into the abyss of identity politics. Trump's hesitance seemed to confirm the left's invidious stereotypes of "white America" and made the dream of a color-blind, character-based society that much harder to obtain.

Of even greater concern to the soon-to-be-former Republican thought leadership, identity politics is but part of a coherent program with a clear economic component. Free market capitalism promotes economic growth that enables optimism, tolerance, and greater social harmony as people become more willing to share the benefits of a growing pie.

Distributionist economics—whether based in explicit socialism, punitive taxation, cronyism, subsidization, or protectionism—promotes divisiveness and violent competition among groups clinging tightly to their meager pieces of a shrinking pie.

The Democratic commitment to economic distribution and identity politics is solid. The Trump campaign is bringing both into the Republican fold, where they have long been unwelcome. Rather than condemning the Democratic embrace of race baiters, Trump seems disturbingly content to wink at race baiters of a different complexion. Such a response is as troubling as it is predictable.

Writing as Republicans who had long hoped that January 20, 2017 might usher in a new era promoting economic growth, respect for traditional values, and a restoration of America's global leadership, we understand the increasingly vocal concerns of those who have shared those hopes. Will the Trump/Clinton race that appears increasingly likely after each new primary freeze out economic growth and individual character?

Come November, will we face the terrible choice of supporting the Democratic effort to lock in place the identity and distribution agenda it has developed over the years or acceding to the right's new embrace of these terrible leftist ideas?

Perhaps not. Perhaps, if nominated, Trump will turn out to be the con man he stands accused of being—in the very best way. As a consummate performer, Trump may realize that Republican primary candidate, general election candidate, and President of the United States are very different roles.

It remains entirely possible that Trump's governance will build upon the finest traditions of the right rather than reflect the basest instincts of the left. The very different tone Trump took in his press conference last night provided a glimmer of hope. Even Megyn Kelly of Fox News, whose differences with Trump have made headlines for months, noted that—for the first time—Trump sounded "presidential." Perhaps the evolution of his character has begun.

Commentary by Bruce Abramson, Ph.D., J.D. and Jeff Ballabon. Abramson is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, and director of policy at the Iron Dome Alliance. Ballabon is CEO of B2 Strategic where he advises and represents corporate and political clients on interacting with the government and media. He previously headed the communications and public policy departments of major media corporations including CBS News and Court TV. Follow them on Twitter @bdabramson and @ballabon.

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