Fredericksburg, Virginia—In the early ’80s, things looked pretty grim for the Coca-Cola company’s flagship product. Diet soda, including Diet Coke, was booming. But Coke’s market share was down to 23 percent, less than a third of what it had been four decades earlier. Most people seemed to want something sweeter than Lt. Col. Pemberton’s celebrated patent medicine. Meanwhile Pepsi, the Georgia brand’s slightly younger competitor (it was introduced in 1893 to Coke’s 1886), was on the move, edging out Coke in supermarket sales and marketing itself as "the Choice of a New Generation": Michael Jackson burned his hair and made a million dollars hawking it in 1984.
What were the boys in Atlanta to do? In 1985, it was announced that the 99-year-old secret Coca-Cola formula would be altered. Cans and bottles of the revamped beverage went on sale in April. The successor was sweeter, easier on the throat, and the packaging was different too: the staid cursive font and even the word "Cola" were out and a brash serif font and exclamation point were in. The company invited the country to "Catch the Wave" and dubbed its product "America’s Real Choice." Everyone else called it "New Coke."
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Something similar is happening with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. For months now we have heard whispers of a "pivot," an overhaul, a change of ingredients—a New Trump, smoother, more sugary, stripped down and brightened up, rebranded to compete with Hillary Clinton in the general election.
For good or ill, I think New Trump may have arrived. Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort have been shown the door, replaced by Kellyanne Conway, a longtime GOP hand known for her support of comprehensive immigration reform and for having compared Todd Akin to David Koresh. Last week in Charlotte Trump shifted tone. In "the heat of the debate," he said, he had caused "personal pain." From now on he was going to "choose the right words." From a headlines perspective, the change in tactics seems to have worked. Maggie Haberman in the New York Times said Trump had "gone where he had never gone before," and compared him to Marco Rubio. She even used the word "soothing." And Trump beat Hillary and President Obama to Louisiana, handing out relief packages—albeit of Play-Doh—and winning praise from Mary Landrieu for bringing "attention to our state."
I decided to sample the new product on Saturday at a rally in Fredericksburg, Virginia. As a reporter, the first thing I noticed about New Trump was that the candidate and his staff seemed to be friendlier to the media. The last time I attended a Trump event a dark-suited goon escorted me from the press sign-in area to a designated media section, from which I was not allowed to stray except to use the bathroom.
On Saturday, however, after showing my belongings to security and spinning for the metal detectors, I was allowed to find my own way into Exhibit Hall A of the Fredericksburg Convention Center, where I went in search of some water. Hundreds of people were in line at both concession stands, so I turned around and went out for a cigarette instead. I had exited the arena before I realized that technically, according to the advisory email we had received, media were not supposed to be allowed back inside the building after 5:30. I showed up at 5:20. As I was pondering how I would go about covering the speech from the parking lot of the Wegmans grocery store across the street, I saw someone with a campaign badge and a dolly full of bottled water struggling with the door, which I grabbed.
"Thank you," the woman said. "I really appreciate it."
"Would it be possible for me to have one of those waters, please?" I asked. "It’s awfully hot out here."
"Sure thing, honey," she said, handing me a bottle.
Sweet and refreshing, to be sure.
After that I decided to have my cigarette anyway. Was I pushing my luck? A volunteer lit up next to me. We were puffing away when a guy in suspenders came out, pointed to a Rent-a-Fence, and said, "Hey, guys, I’m going to close this barricade but not bolt it. When you want to come back in, just pull it apart and then push it back together."
I did just what he said. When I returned to the exhibit hall, I noticed that in the media section the risers for TV cameras and photographers were in front of the filing desks and that that there was no monitor back there. In fact, there were no screens anywhere. Deciding to see whether the Trump campaign’s legendary vigilance about segregating attendees from press would be enforced, I strolled into the front of the room and started chatting with Robin, from nearby Westmoreland County. She told me that she backed Sanders during the Democratic primary and remains apprehensive about Clinton. Is the New Trump catching on? "I came to be part of history," she said. "I want to see everything without the filter of the media."
Not everything ran against type. The playlist was almost identical to the one I heard the night before Trump lost the Wisconsin primary to Ted Cruz. It is still Stones-heavy—"Time is on My Side," "Let’s Spend the Night Together," "You Can’t Always Get What You Want"—and the crowd would not have been out of place at an event like this one five months ago. In front of me a teenaged boy was wearing shoes, socks, shorts, and a hat in matching red, white, and blue, pumping his fist and giving the thumbs down every time Clinton’s name was mentioned. To his left was a guy in a Dodge Ram t-shirt. When Trump called out Obama for referring to climate change as the greatest threat America faces, everyone near me shouted "Islam!" in spontaneous unison. I also suppose it is possible that the man I saw hold his right arm out a slight angle with his fingers together was only mimicking the Oath of the Horatii.
I was very surprised when Trump began his speech eight minutes early. I waited for his snarling references to his enemies in the media and the sea of turning heads in the audience. But he did not attack anyone other than Clinton and Obama. He talked about agriculture and cited a Heritage Foundation study. Even the famous wall was mentioned only once, off hand. When Trump brought up the fact that he owned businesses in Virginia, Ram Guy almost made me drop my pen by saying, in a higher register than I would have suspected, without a hint of a drawl, "Let’s go get some wine!"
Clearly there are some kinks that need to be worked out. I was not the only person in the audience who seemed confused when Trump referred to Virginia as "the largest exporter of coal in the United States." (It does not even rank among the top five coal producers.) When he spoke at length about the importance of increasing opportunities for African Americans, a guy in a UVA shirt and salmon shorts standing in front of me laughed contemptuously.
Only a few hours after the speech it was reported that Trump is discussing the possibility of granting legal status to illegal immigrants as part of a "humane and efficient" solution to the border-control problem. A spokesman for the campaign, while quick to denounce the apparent news as "click bait journalism," said Trump’s most recent conversation with his Hispanic advisory council—yes, he has one—had been "productive and enlightening."
Thirty-some years ago, after 79 days and millions of phone calls and angry letters, Atlanta relented and brought back the original formula as Coca-Cola Classic. As I left Fredericksburg I could not help wondering just how long New Trump would last.