In the “Metamorphoses,” his compendium of classical mythology, the Roman poet Ovid recounts the tale of Pygmalion, the sculptor who made a statue so beautiful he fell in love with it and prayed for it to come to life. Two millennia later this legend, by way of George Bernard Shaw, became the basis of “My Fair Lady,” the Lerner and Loewe musical about the linguist Henry Higgins’ quest to transform Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a lady by teaching her to speak properly.
Sixty years after that, the Pygmalion drama is being re-enacted once more. This time the players are the Republican Party and its presidential nominee, the blowzy New York real estate tycoon Donald Trump. The curtain rose on the latest version when Trump capped a campaign’s worth of inflammatory rhetoric with a week-long diatribe against Gonzalo Curiel, the judge presiding over a lawsuit against Trump University, whom Trump impugned on the ground that Curiel’s Mexican heritage renders him hostile to Trump.
Alarmed that Trump’s calumnies could do lasting damage to the party’s already troubled relationship with Hispanics, GOP leaders denounced his statements and implored him to leave the case to his lawyers and focus on the hard work of getting ready for the general election. Apparently taking to heart criticism even from his own allies that his attacks were “inexcusable,” a chastened Trump took the stage at his victory rally after winning the last primaries on June 7 and, reading from two teleprompters, promised he would make Republicans “proud of your party and our movement” and would not “let you down.” Establishment figures were relieved and praised the speech. After the worst week of his campaign, it was the speech Trump had to give. The party could only hope it wasn’t too late.
Lateness wasn’t the real problem, however. It was that this was the third time Trump had offered such a pledge in as many months. As he has so often, instead of paying Trump rolled his obligations into a new promissory note. Trump will gladly act presidential Tuesday to keep playing the Hamburglar today. Yet when Tuesday comes, all thought of recidivism will be forgotten, and generous terms will be agreed upon again. Such is the dilemma of the Republican Party’s courtship of its putative presidential nominee. It is full of Henry Higginses, but its betrothed is no Eliza Doolittle.
Act I: Why Can’t the Trumpish Learn to Speak?
The first act of the new “Pygmalion” took place in early March, when it became evident Trump was the frontrunner. At this stage various figures in the party and the conservative movement, realizing Trump might become their standard bearer, began to wonder whether he could “act presidential.” Or as Rex Harrison might have put it, they pondered “Why Can’t the Trumpish Learn to Speak?”
Trump may be a “prisoner of the gutter / Condemned by every syllable [he] utters,” but at the beginning of March his Republican brethren were confident that with the right training they could in ten months pass him off as president at an inaugural ball. (But not as “a lady’s maid or a shop assistant.” Some things are beyond any mortal power.)
Trump sounded an eager pupil, swearing he “could be more presidential than anybody” except Abraham Lincoln. (For once Trump was willing to settle for second best. A generous concession, surely.) An eager nation beseeched Trump to unveil his new persona. Later in March the lessons seemed to be taking hold, and one of Trump’s former rivals took credit for his improved comportment.
“I’ve had talks about being presidential, about toning it down a bit, appealing to a broader group of people,” Ben Carson said. The result was a less “caustic” Trump at the latest debate. “It’s a matter of cultivating and capitalizing on that.” True, this was right after Trump had spent several days mocking Ted Cruz’s wife. But a neurosurgeon of Carson’s caliber knows that Frankenstein’s monster doesn’t become Fred Astaire overnight.
Frankenstein’s monster, however, may have an altogether different view of the matter. He may believe he’s successful because he got the abnormal brain. He may not need to speak a new language; maybe everyone else has to understand his. Maybe “presidential” merely means whatever the frontrunner says and does. In that case, there’s no point telling him to tame his tongue, especially when doing so would be “boring as hell.” So what if Trump’s “curbstone English” should “keep [him] in [his] place”? His place, after all, is first.
Act II: Why Can’t a Trump Be More Like a Man?
By mid-April the GOP was venting its frustration with its “exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening, and infuriating” charge. Why, the party lamented, can’t Trump be more like a man? “Men are so honest, so thoroughly square; / Eternally noble, historically fair.” Why can’t Trump be like that? Oh, but I can, came the answer from a student eager to prove he was still willing and able. Acting presidential is “easy” and I can do it anytime.
Right after the New York primary, Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, told Republican nabobs Trump was playing a “part” on the campaign trail and would adopt a more appropriate “persona” for the general election. “The image is going to change,” Manafort declared, and Trump will “evolv[e] into the part that you’ve been expecting.” There was reason to believe him, as the Trump who proclaimed victory after winning New York “was markedly more disciplined, gentler and more appealing than the” Trump on display for most of the campaign. This new, more decorous, more presidential Trump was one to terrify his rivals and his foes in the GOP establishment hoping to deny him the nomination.
The establishment was terrified, alright—by how quickly the new Trump proved an apparition. Not three days later Trump was bellowing that he wasn’t interested in “toning it down.” He demoted Manafort, who had only recently been hired, and restored authority to his now-former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Manafort’s sin? Telling the party their man can be less like a Trump. That was a bridge too far. A Trump he was, a Trump he’d stay.
By now the Col. Pickerings of the world were expressing doubt that anyone could transform Trump. Trump wasn’t changing, they averred, because he can’t, any more than a leopard can alter its spots. In a brilliant satire, National Review’s Charles Cooke likened those espousing the notion Trump could change or be changed to a besotted woman protesting to the world that she can make over her ne’er-do-well boyfriend.
The New Yorker
Sometimes a man does prove a rotter. Not even Henry Higgins, champion of masculine virtue, denies it. That wouldn’t be honest or square. But very, very few. “One man in a million may shout a bit. / Now and then, there’s one with slight defects. / One perhaps whose truthfulness you doubt a bit.” One who is now the Republican nominee for president.
Act III: I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face
Six weeks thereafter the GOP’s Henry Higginses were still playing their parts. But something was different. They mouthed the lines about Trump changing, but lacked conviction. The performance was perfunctory. Little wonder, too. By the time Trump made his umpteenth promise to clean up his act, it had become evident to everyone that the “new Trump” was a no-show and would stay one.
Not a week before the party mounted its furious rear-guard action to relieve their candidate’s siege of the judge who had committed the high crime of lèse-Trumpesté, he swore he wouldn’t change. Nonetheless, the party again granted absolution. It did so not out of any will to believe in Trump’s impending metamorphosis—that had died, cold and alone—but from resignation and defeat.
Even as they repudiated his words and deeds, Republican official after Republican official refused to repudiate him. There was no heart in it, but they sang a common refrain: “I’ve grown accustomed to [his] face. / [He] almost makes the day begin. / I’ve grown accustomed to the tune that / [He] whistles night and noon. / [His] smiles, [his] frowns, / [His] ups, [his] downs / Are second nature to me now.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan justified his endorsement of Trump on the grounds that Trump “won fair and square.” Besides, he added, Trump has “a very even-handed temperament” and yes, I’m going to cling to any reed however thin. The alternative is Hillary, what do you expect me to do? Okay, he didn’t actually say the last bit, but he was thinking it.
So was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who at least paid lip service to the idea that Trump could yet become someone else. Trump’s June 7 victory speech was “a good start,” the Kentucky senator told CNN. Trump had had a bad week, and doesn’t know much about the issues, but McConnell wasn’t abandoning hope that the party could “get him to act and speak like a serious presidential candidate.” Would McConnell consider recanting his endorsement if it couldn’t? No: the voters have spoken and Trump’s “going to be the nominee.” Ryan and McConnell were leading voices; but the GOP chorus was singing along.
Nine months into the campaign, party leaders still harbor the modest hope they’ll be able to housebreak their nominee. When he accomplishes the meanest tasks (not denouncing someone for being “Mexican,” not lambasting rivals as “losers,” giving a pre-written speech) he is lavished with praise; when he stumbles (say by belittling a woman’s appearance) his conduct is excused on the grounds that he’s a political novice and is still “learning and growing.” As though a 70-year-old man were a child learning adult table manners for the first time; or a puppy in obedience school. (Or a grizzly bear.) Who’s a good boy? Not Trump.
That knowledge has come at a parlous cost for the Republican Party. The calamity and folly of it all is that there was no need to pay it. For the only lesson to be learned from this experience is one that was taught years ago: out of the crooked timber of Trump will no straight thing ever be made. Trump is who he has always been, contumacious and contumelious.
Now his ways are those of the GOP. Even more so, perhaps, for the party tried and failed to change them; and because, having failed to change them, remained willing to turn over America’s nuclear arsenal to him despite believing him utterly unfit for the burden. The GOP knew Trump was a scorpion. That it was stung is its fault alone; the scorpion, after all, can’t help his nature. What effect the venom will have is unclear; the victim’s bloodstream was already rife with toxin.
How the GOP found itself acting out this travesty of “My Fair Lady” should be obvious by now. It was willing to be Henry Higgins, but Trump had no intention of being Eliza Doolittle. That it insisted on playing the part after knowing it had no audience will redound to its eternal discredit. Every party figure will be made to answer for his conduct, those who embraced him first, but thereafter anyone who wears the same mantle Trump purports to, that of the Republican Party. In the eyes of the American people it is already a soiled, tattered garment, one which may become unsuitable for wearing in public.
Trump promised on a Tuesday to make the party proud. By the weekend he was back to making it cringe, with rallies full of the usual Trumpian bluster and invective and his tweets about the Orlando terrorist attack. The worst week of Trump’s campaign is always this week.
New Disciplined Trump, Week One:
•Congratulated self for terror comments
•Doubled down on Muslim ban
•Misstated terrorist's nationality— Kilgore Trout (@Beer__Wolf) June 15, 2016
•Insinuated Obama is in on terror plots
•Revoked WaPo credentials
•Suggested American servicemen of walking off with cash— Kilgore Trout (@Beer__Wolf) June 15, 2016
Six weeks after party and candidate both reiterated he would change for the general election, the same pattern was repeating itself. The price of six more weeks of Trump being Trump? A wasted head start on Clinton, no campaign, no money, and no support. Even the apologists were reduced to silence.
‘My Fair Lady’ Encore
With four months left in the season, the players have plenty of time to perform encores. They played one last month, when Trump fired Lewandowski, his pugnacious campaign manager. The move was framed the same way previous Trump decisions were: as an attempt to instill order in his campaign and place it on a more professional, disciplined footing. It was Trump’s latest “pivot,” and by now he knew his lines so well he could recite them by heart.
Skeptics politely observed once more that, the sacrifice notwithstanding, the volcano still belched flame and ash. The hardy villagers living down slope responded by insisting, as they had for three months, that they weren’t quite as hot and fiery as before. Ryan remained by the volcano’s edge, unable or unwilling to move as the lava closed around him. McConnell, experiencing déjà vu all over again, ordered the volcano to become dormant.
Trump fired Lewandowski on a Monday morning. That night came news of his horrendous May fundraising. The cycle of stories about Trump’s campaign being a mirage resumed. This time, though, they did not start after a few days’ hesitation to see if Trump had finally stopped being Trump; they began after a few hours. Trump’s worst week yet is now being compressed into the span of a day.
Does the pundit class get tired of this fabricated emotional roller coaster? I sure do.— Noah Rothman (@NoahCRothman) June 22, 2016
To meld, at the end, the two versions of the story: the GOP got to the church on time, but when it lifted the bride’s veil it found not a beautiful statue brought to life but Medusa. Trump turned Republicans to stone; and now they must watch in mute horror as he destroys all for which they have fought. The party deserves no less for courting Trump for nine months and refusing in the face of bitter reality to admit that not only would he not change, he had no reason to.
There is no changing Trump. He cannot change and no one can change him. Nice Trump does not exist and never will. There is only Trump. And Trump will never fetch your slippers (although you may fetch his Big Macs). He will, however, tweet anti-Semitic images created by white supremacists, then pretend he did no such thing and blame the media for his indiscretion, thereby negating what should have been a terrible weekend for his opponent.
Republicans married Trump in haste; those down the ballot whom he leads to defeat will enjoy plenty of leisure to repent. They dreamed that with a little bit of luck they could “have it all and not get hooked.” Having been impaled instead they now ask, wouldn’t it be loverly if we could find “a room somewhere / Far away from the cold night air”? From now to November will be one long, cold night. The party took the plunge. Now it will find out just how long a way it is to the bottom.