Writing for a Jewish publication, it is tempting to cast Donald Trump’s speech at AIPAC as a purely Jewish story. It was, after all, delivered at the annual gathering of the world’s premier pro-Israel organization. But whatever the reception to Trump’s speech says about Jews and AIPAC—little of it good—it pales in comparison to what the speech tells us about Trump as a viable politician and presidential candidate. And what it does tell us should frighten every American.
This is not because of the speech’s specific contents. The address, which you can read here, consisted of traditional Republican pro-Israel talking points. Rather, what was so disturbing about the speech was that it demonstrated that Trump can comport himself like a traditional politician—and do so very well. Reading a political address off a teleprompter for the first time, Trump jettisoned his race-baiting and incitement for boilerplate bromides on Israel, Iran, and the Middle East. Drawing on his years of television experience, he came across like any other talking head, adeptly delivering his text without a single serious stumble. In other words, it was Trump’s first presidential campaign speech that sounded remotely presidential.
Until today, it was possible for Trump opponents to console themselves with the notion that he lacked the discipline to truly run for president. The mogul’s unwillingness to familiarize himself with even the basics of policy, it was thought, would be exposed in a one-on-one debate with Hillary Clinton, much as Marco Rubio had humiliated Trump earlier by drawing attention to his lack of knowledge on healthcare. But at AIPAC, Trump showed that he was willing to master a speechwriter’s words and hold forth on specifics, from missile ranges to U.N. resolutions.
Until today, it was possible to believe that Trump was incapable of refraining from offering ugly asides that would alienate much of the electorate. But at AIPAC, Trump demonstrated that he “can be the most politically correct person you have ever seen,” as he has famously insisted. After a convention which celebrated AIPAC’s new female president, Israel’s aid to Syrian refugees, and Latino and African-American pro-Israel activism, Trump dropped his usual misogyny and bigotry, and instead pandered effectively to the crowd on policy positions.
It doesn’t matter that most of those positions were diametrically opposed to what Trump had been saying for weeks, going from “neutral” on Israel to ultra-hawkish. It doesn’t matter that Trump contradicted himself on the Iran deal, first claiming he’d abrogate it, then claiming he’d enforce it stringently. What matters is that Trump executed these political ploys with the savvy and sangfroid of a skilled operator.
It is easy to treat Trump’s antics as entertainment. We did some of this ourselves when we produced our annual AIPAC bingo cards and replaced every space with “Trump.” But Trump’s candidacy is not a joke. It is deadly serious. With every primary that passes, an unprincipled demagogue, who stokes racist fears and boasts of intent to undermine America’s ideals and its institutions, is one step closer to power.
And as Trump showed at AIPAC, he’s in this to win, and he knows how to do it.