Take a look at this chart of The New York Times' use of the word "pivot":
Not since 1861 has the word gotten worked so hard. It's exhausted, and we should take stock of what it's done.
The word "pivot" became one of the great generators of suspense in this presidential campaign. As The New York Times' Mark Leibovich explained, the word "pivot" named "the expectation that at some point a leading presidential candidate will transform himself into a more suitable version of a likely nominee. He will 'pivot' his attention away from his hard-core base of loyalists in favor of the broader general electorate."
"When will Trump pivot?" analysts asked. Eager to justify or explain to readers why Trump's offensive behavior in the primaries was working, campaign surrogates, journalists, pollsters, and strategists latched onto the word like a life raft: Trump's outrageousness was just a performance for the primaries, everyone decided. When it came to the general election, Trump would "pivot" toward a broader base and evolve into something that more closely resembled a normal candidacy.
Trump said as much himself: "As I get closer and closer to the goal, it's gonna get different," he told Greta Van Susteren in February. "I will be changing very rapidly. I'm very capable of changing to anything I want to change to."
Alas, by August, he'd pivoted back to not pivoting. He told a Washington television station: "I am who I am. It's me. I don't want to change... I don't want to pivot... If you start pivoting, you're not being honest with people."
This concept isn't entirely new, of course. Presidential candidates have long played to their party's base with more extreme ideas and rhetoric during the primaries, only to "pivot" to softer, more mainstream positions in the general election. As a Romney adviser infamously said in 2012, "Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."
But in 2016, the idea of the pivot took on a new power. And it made it all but impossible for Trump's rampant dishonesty to disqualify him from the presidency.
The "pivot" normalized political lying by repackaging it as a legitimate and even responsible campaign strategy. Everyone was waiting for Trump to pivot. Many were even recommending that he pivot, begging him to pivot. Treating the pivot as something worth waiting for implicitly conceded that lying — constant, intensive, rabble-rousing lying — was acceptable during a presidential campaign. It wasn't a disqualifying attribute but a superficial problem you could "fix." A candidate's insults and threats could be wiped away, could be completely overwritten, could be covered up like wallpaper, if he would just behave normally for a second to let us make sense of things.
Everyone bought into a model of American politics that handwaves away every expectation of honesty. The media did so by flattering readers and viewers. Many of us have watched TV shows about political scandals and sympathized with the fixers trying to manipulate the candidate's public image. By treating the public as cynically complicit in the project of "fixing" a campaign that's off the rails and as the targets of that fix — as total amnesiacs who won't remember anything that was promised them — the "pivot" became a potent double-edged explanatory tool. Anyone targeted by the pivot who happened to be smart enough to spot it as a manipulative tactic would smile knowingly: That's for the amnesiac rubes, that's not for me.
I'm hardly the first person to point this problem out. Scott Simon wrote about the word's troubling omnipresence back in June, and conservative commentator S.E. Cupp criticized the media's use of the term for Trump's eventual transformation in August because of the acrobatic amnesia it authorized:
Most presidential candidates have to shift somewhat after courting their base voters to courting undecideds, independents, and moderates. But those shifts typically look more like a slight broadening and softening of message. What those shifts do not entail is an expectation of some kind of mass amnesia, whereby general election voters forget about the inexcusable, offensive, alarming things the candidate has said or done for the past year. [CNN]
One of the outstanding questions of this election is simply "Why?" Why didn't Trump's lying matter? After all, per Politifact, only 4 percent of Trump's claims they checked were true. Another 26 percent were "mostly true" or "half true." The remaining 70 percent were "mostly false," "false," or "pants on fire."
It didn't matter. It's remarkable how little it mattered.
One reason is that voters no longer trust the media. Rasmussen reports that only 29 percent of voters trusted fact-checking by the media; 62 percent thought news organizations skewed the facts or "played favorites" when checking candidates' statements. Gallup found that Republican trust in the media took a particularly heavy hit: Only 14 percent say they have trust in the media now, down from 32 percent a year ago. This is easily the lowest confidence among Republicans in 20 years. There is no ignoring Facebook's role in making it all too easy for people's media diets to narrow to their preferred lies, or the success conservative outlets have had in convincing their audiences that nothing in the "mainstream media" is true.
But it's also the case that the "pivot" was immune to partisan differences; it showed up everywhere, from CNN to RedState. It became so widely accepted that it came to seem like conventional wisdom about how campaigns work.
The pivot was a godsend. When Trump did something objectionable, surrogates would promise that the pivot was imminent. "You're going to see Trump pivoting," Ben Carson promised. And when — after all that corrupt-sounding speculation about how candidates will pivot to please the broader base — Trump refused to do so, he struck some as being supremely honest.
Many people who belong to groups Trump explicitly threatened with deportations and bans are taking his threats seriously now that we've elected this man to lead us. Many Trump supporters have suggested such fears are hysterical. Though it might seem odd for Trump's backers to ridicule people for believing the president-elect means anything he said, really, they've just extended the logic of the pivot a little further. He said what he needed to say to get the job, they say, with some hauteur. It's absurd to believe any of it. Their assumption is that literally nothing said during the election mattered. He will finally "pivot" and become presidential, they say, he surely will.