Here we go—Trump 2.0. A softer, gentler Trump

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump
Carlo Allegri | Reuters
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump

After Donald Trump campaign brought in Breitbart co-founder Steve Bannon and conservative pundit and pollster Kellyanne Conway this week, political experts were almost all in agreement that this would only result in an increase in Trump's erratic, sometimes offensive statements.

Many sage political observers were also sure that the campaign shake-up was a tacit admission from the Trump forces that they knew they couldn't win and were just looking to go out in a blaze of nasty glory. Some overly excited and snarky mainstream media types were even calling the Bannon and Conway hires the Trump campaign's "hospice-care stage," insisting that Trump knew it was over and just wanted to surround himself with people who would make him most comfortable.

So much for conventional wisdom.

Anyone who saw Trump's speech in Charlotte, North Carolina, Thursday night knows that those expectations were way off. As if by magic, Trump gave a more focused address that included apologies for some of his past hurtful comments and announced that he will visit the flood-ravaged state of Louisiana. He even vowed to make sure his campaign would fight bigotry and delivered the following positively liberal-sounding statement: "We are one nation. When one state hurts, we all hurt."

That doesn't sound much like Breitbart-style flame-throwing to me.

"So far, Team Hillary has underestimated Trump by allowing her campaign message to become almost completely about attacking and framing Trump as a bad and scary person. That’s a trap, because what if Trump suddenly isn’t as bad and scary for the next 80 days?"

But no one should be surprised that bringing in a messaging master like Bannon has immediately resulted in a better Trump message. I predicted that right away when the news of his hiring came out. But even I'm impressed that this new campaign team has moved quickly enough to get Trump to Louisiana, when both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama haven't even been there yet.

And now with the news that Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort has resigned, the story becomes even stronger. For all we know, Manafort engineered a lot of the recent changes in the Trump campaign himself. But having the "old" campaign chief doing that doesn't fit the most potently persuasive narrative.

Now, Manafort is out and the legend of "Trump's big change" can move forward. Trump doesn't have to work hard to prove he's made an apparently dramatic pivot. The news flashes about Manafort and the headlines about Trump's "regrets" are doing it for him. Pulling off a personal change and what looks like some form of contrition is hard in politics. Trump is well on his way to achieving just that.

Of course, no one should get ahead of themselves and now conclude that this new Trump team and strategy will win him the election. But here's one very important thing this move should teach everyone who's been following Trump's campaign, especially most of the news media: Donald Trump is smarter than you.

That's right, the not-so-hidden message behind the media's scorn and ridicule for Trump has been that they all think they're a lot smarter than he is. Why they were ever convinced of that, considering Trump's longstanding ability to get more public attention than all the journalists covering him combined, is a bit of a mystery. But now that his campaign is executing a pivot that all the supposedly smarter experts didn't see coming should spark a little more humility among those who have peppered their coverage of him with ridicule.

It doesn't mean Trump is better than those journalists as a person or better than anyone else as a potential candidate. But anyone who can pull off this kind of change of tone as plausibly as he's done in just the last 12 hours is no fool.

Sun Tzu's Art of War sagely advises: "He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them." Most of the news media, predictably acting as the auxiliary to the Clinton team, has been mistakenly making light of Trump for more than a year now and has been virtually captured by him time and again. Now it's time for the Clinton campaign to come out of its recent hiding mode and prove it won't make the same mistake.

So far, Team Hillary has underestimated Trump by allowing her campaign message to become almost completely about attacking and framing Trump as a bad and scary person. That's a trap, because what if Trump suddenly isn't as bad and scary for the next 80 days? Can the Clinton folks suddenly pivot to positive messages about Hillary herself?

And what about all the preparations Clinton has been making for the debates, which have reportedly been focused on countering the blustering and firebrand Trump persona? It's one thing if the Clinton campaign convinces the voters that Trump is frightening and foolish. It's another if the campaign itself gets convinced of it, too. That leaves Clinton hopelessly unprepared to take on a different kind of opponent too many of the self-assured pundits never saw coming.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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