Three weeks before the first votes are cast in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump is entering his Ready-for-Rushmore phase.
During his appearance Monday night on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon—the umpteenth visit the reality television billionaire turned politician has made to a late night talk show in recent weeks—Trump shed the Henny Youngman shtick of his campaign rallies (“Take my radical Muslims, please!”) and metamorphosed into a thoughtful, soft-spoken, unthreatening, dignified adult who aspires to occupy the White House.
“The people of this country are amazing!” gushed the thatch-roofed candidate, who wore his trademark navy suit and red tie, accented by the politically necessary American flag lapel pin. (Who knew that The Donald had such a sunny personality?)
As he settled into his chair beside Fallon’s desk, the 69-year-old Trump looked careworn and tired, especially in blotchy closeups. He also seemed to be suffering from a case of campaign bloat—a touch of cosmetic credibility for a real estate mogul and media hound who claims he wants to shoulder all the problems of the world and, as he likes to intone, “make America great again.”
Fallon—who got off a couple of mild Trump jokes during his monologue, to wit: “I’m not saying security is tight, but the Secret Service just put a giant wall around the building, and we paid for it”—went easy on his guest.
“You’re predictably unpredictable,” he complimented the candidate—“That’s good,” Trump replied—before asking about Trump’s ugly idea to ban all foreign followers of Islam from entering the United States.
“We’ve got to figure out what’s going on,” Trump said, repeating his oft-stated explanation for imposing an unconstitutional religious test on tourists, calling it just a “temporary” measure until the U.S. government can fathom the “tremendous hatred” that provokes Muslims to engage in terrorist attacks.
“A lot of people agree with me,” Trump declared.
“And some people don’t agree with you,” Fallon retorted, prompting Trump to equably concede the point.
“At minimum we’re getting a dialogue started so we can come up with a solution,” Trump said in reasonable-sounding, soothing tones.
At another point, he played the proud grandpa, crowing about the pending third child of pregnant daughter Ivanka—the one he once said he could see himself dating if they weren’t blood-related.
The candidate—in his previous incarnation a virulent birther who has never given President Obama the benefit of the doubt—repeated his defense of Obama’s tears (much derided by right-wing talking heads) during the president’s speech last week announcing an executive order to require increased background checks for firearms purchases.
“I thought that was heartfelt,” Trump said empathetically.
“Do you cry ever?” Fallon asked.
“Yeah. When I was 1, I cried,” Trump answered, to laughter.
Trump only brandished his rhetorical switchblade once, when Fallon asked for his insights into Hillary Clinton.
He sounded a theatrically insincere note of concern about the putative Democratic frontrunner’s inability to dispatch Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running neck and neck with her in Iowa polls and beating her in his neighboring state of New Hampshire.
“I think she’s having a tough time,” Trump said in a woeful tone. “He should be easy to beat. How can you lose like this? He isn’t even a Democrat. He says he’s a socialist—and maybe a step beyond socialist.”
“I thought I heard you say something that Bill campaigning for her...is not a smart idea,” Fallon said.
“Time will tell,” Trump replied. “She came out with a little bit of a statement about me, and I came out with a very big statement about her and Bill. And she stopped talking about me all of a sudden,” he gloated, to laughter from the studio audience, members of which alternately cheered and snickered at the candidate’s assertions.
“It’s gonna be interesting to see what happens,” Trump mused. “I think it’s gonna be one of the most interesting races. And they actually said if I win, a poll came out, if I win and she wins, it’s going to be the largest voter turnout in the history of the country. And that’s a good thing, because people don’t vote that much in this country.”
Fallon asked jokingly about the “conspiracy theory” that the Democratic Party hired Trump to run for president so that Clinton would win.
“I’ll set the record straight right now,” Trump answered. “The newest poll just came out today where I’m beating her easily and substantially, and I’m winning against Hillary one on one...And I haven’t even started on her yet, although last week I did a little bit”—a reference to his attacks on former president Clinton for quadrennially revived allegations of sexual misconduct and even rape. “But we haven’t even started.”
This was uttered in a casual tone of lighthearted bonhomie and almost sounded pleasant.
Unlike his previous appearance with Fallon, Trump didn’t participate in a comedy sketch—which probably would come off as unhelpfully unpresidential at this stage of the game—but he did submit to a supposedly rib-tickling fake job interview in his second segment, with Fallon adopting an officious mien to read questions off a clipboard:
Q: “Tell me a little about yourself.”
A: “Well, I’m an extraordinarily handsome person. I have a beautiful head of hair. I was always a good student. I always worked hard.”
Q: “Do you have a weakness?”
A: It’s “that I never forget, which is sort of interesting. I’m too nice too long…and when somebody takes advantage of a situation, I’m too bad too long.”
Q: “Is media attention something you would be comfortable with?”
A: “Not at all. I’d be very, very uncomfortable.”
It almost seemed, as he continues to confound the political establishment and throw the Republican Party into disarray, that Trump gets the joke.