In response to Donald Trump’s most recent unhinged outburst, his still-campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said something she intended to be uninteresting. “I think he’s great when he pivots,” she told MSNBC. “I would encourage him to do even more pivoting.”
Pivot is a basketball term, describing a player who keeps one foot planted on the ground while swinging around to face a different way. My main relationship to the term before this campaign has been through my fervent promotion of the use of pivoting as a volunteer youth basketball coach. Indeed, there are many children in my neighborhood who will remember me only as the man who frantically shouts “Pivot! Pivot!” when they find themselves trapped with the ball and hounded by defenders.
Pivot is also a clichéd campaign metaphor to describe the standard campaign tactic of switching from one theme to the next. The end of the primary suggests a pivot to the general election; alarming news overseas might mean pivoting from the economy to foreign policy; and so on. But the phrase has attached itself ubiquitously to the Trump campaign. It appeared in 2015, and has recurred constantly — sometimes to describe a thing that has supposedly happened, and more frequently to describe something that might happen or that other observers would say has happened. “Google ‘Trump pivot’ and you get about 707,000 search results,” wrote conservative pundit S.E. Cupp in August. “That’s because reporters, political strategists, pundits, many voters – and presumably members of his own staff – have for this entire election cycle been collectively wondering if Donald Trump is ever going to become a smart, serious and disciplined candidate.”
The nature of a pivot, as implied by its metaphor, is a reversible swing. A basketball player can pivot to the right side of the court, and if a passing angle does not appear, can pivot back to the left, and back again, if needed. The normal use of the cliché roughly follows the metaphor. The Trumpian meaning has stretched the notion so far beyond its original meaning as to sever any real connection. A Trump “pivot” does not mean a temporary change of emphasis. It means suppressing his persona. A Trump “pivot” means we can all start acting normal and stop contorting ourselves around the reality that a major party has nominated a deranged racist imbecile for president.
Virtually the entire Republican professional class understands at some level that their presidential candidate is wildly unfit for the presidency. They have all made the professional decision that they cannot say so in public. Instead, their plan is to conceal Trump’s unfitness through the elections and hope for the best, without much regard for what would happen if they succeed in handing control of the Executive branch to an unstable bully. It is one of those moral decisions so awful it can’t be described in plain terms. Pivot is their euphemism of choice.