In January, conservatives promised that if Donald Trump made it to the general election, he would “pivot” to the center. “You can see [Trump] saying, ‘We had to do what we had to do to win the primary, but now’s the general and we’ve got to beat Hillary,’ ” Alex Castellanos, a Republican ad man, told the Washington Post. “You can see him pivot on a dime.”
“Pivot”—literally, a machine part around which another spins—has done a lot of work in Washington. Its current usage comes from basketball, describing a whirling power move to the hoop, and implies a turn made from a position of strength. President George W. Bush declared after his 2003 “mission accomplished” speech, rather hopefully, that his administration would pivot from foreign to domestic concerns. A decade later, Barack Obama proclaimed his “pivot to Asia” to confront China in the Pacific.
In electoral politics, a pivot has also indicated strength—a candidate pivots to the general once the nomination becomes a foregone conclusion.
Recently, the pivot has been devalued, most powerfully by Trump, who seems unable to execute it, despite the urging of his supporters. In July, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell hoped aloud that Trump would be “more serious and credible,” though McConnell said he’d settle for “having a prepared text and Teleprompter and staying on message.”
Trump’s resistance might stem from a sense that “pivot” has gained a whiff of “flip-flop.” The change dates to 2012, when a Mitt Romney aide implied that positions taken in the primaries were “like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.” To Trump, “pivot” has all the dignity of “low energy.” Speaking of Texas governor Rick Perry after the former rival endorsed him, Trump said, “This politics is a dirty business, I have to tell you. And I’ve never seen people able to pivot like politicians.”
With that, win or lose, Trump may have ensured that no one in Washington can say “pivot” with a straight face again.
This article appears in our September 2016 issue of Washingtonian.