In his victory speech after last week’s Florida primary, Donald Trump pinpointed the key moment in his meteoric political rise: “Paris happened.”
Trump said that after the November terrorist attacks that left 130 dead in the French capital, soon followed by a terrorist massacre in San Bernardino, California, his campaign “took on a whole new meaning … And all of a sudden the poll numbers just shot up.”
Now many national security specialists fear that further attacks like the bombings that killed at least 30 people in Brussels on Tuesday will fuel Trump’s further rise, drawing more voters to his clenched-fist approach of closed borders and retribution killings — and could ultimately pave his unlikely path to the White House.
“In a climate of fear, Trump’s semi-authoritarian, unilateralist approach may be more appealing,” said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written about Trump’s strongman political style. “I don’t think so. But I might be wrong. It may be that people are so frightened that they’re willing to endorse policies that nobody over the last 50 years has even raised as remote possibility.”
Democrats insist that their presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton, can harness public fear to her own advantage, saying voters will reward her long hours of experience in the White House Situation Room — something Clinton underscored during a Tuesday appearance on CNN when she recalled her role in the planning of the May 2011 raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
“Moments like these remind the American people of the importance of having someone in the Oval Office who has experience and the willingness to take on hard international challenges like terrorism,” said Jeremy Bash, a Clinton campaign adviser who served as chief of staff at the CIA and the Defense Department in the Obama administration.
Anti-Trump Republicans echoed the point. “This is not a person prepared to lead the country in these dangerous times, and Hillary will expose that in the general election,” said Tim Miller, a former spokesman for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign now affiliated with an anti-Trump Super PAC.
Not so fast, argue a pair of academics who have studied the effect of terrorism on public opinion for more than a decade. Their research finds that in times of fear, voters become more open to candidates with positions similar to Trump’s such as hostility to perceived outsiders, tightened borders and fewer foreign entanglements.
“All of these issues are, in fact, pillars of the aggressive response we have seen by Donald Trump in response to the news today,” said Elizabeth J. Zechmeister, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. She is the co-author, with University of California Riverside professor Jennifer L. Merolla, of the book Democracy at Risk: How Terrorist Threats Affect the Public.
Warning that more attacks in the U.S. are likely, Trump on Tuesday renewed his calls for a return to the waterboarding of terror suspects — which Congress outlawed last year — and warned that radical Muslims are infiltrating the U.S.
In a cautionary note for Democrats, Merolla said that their research showed that frightened voters do not necessarily look for traditional leadership qualities such as Clinton’s long tenure in government. She added that female politicians “are typically at a disadvantage” when terrorism is a dominant issue.
There was some evidence on Tuesday of pro-Trump sentiment emerging from unlikely quarters. “Hate Donald Trump all you like, but at least he seems to recognise the magnitude of the threat and at least he has firm proposals for how to try to defeat it,” the former CNN prime-time host Piers Morgan, generally considered a liberal, wrote in the Daily Mail. “[H]ow many more scenes like this morning’s appalling images from Brussels are we going to tolerate before we try a non-PC option to beat these disgusting excuses for human beings?”
Some Democrats still have bad memories of the 2004 election, when then-Senator John Kerry failed to unseat a vulnerable incumbent in President George W. Bush thanks in part, former Kerry aides said, to voter fears about terrorism.
Robert Shrum, a political advisor to Kerry at the time, conceded that Kerry was harmed by a focus on security, particularly in the race’s closing days when bin Laden released an audio message that dominated pre-election news coverage.
But Shrum rejected parallels between 2004 and 2016, saying that Trump will have none of the standing of an incumbent like Bush. If Clinton is the nominee, he said, “people will say she knows what she’s doing, she won’t do something crazy—and he might.”
“If enough Americans decide this is about open borders and Islamophobia then the ugly strain of populism that Trump has already tapped into may find some xenophobic traction,” added David Wade, also a senior aide to Kerry’s 2004 campaign. “Islamophobia would be the vermouth that mixes one toxic cocktail alongside the bathtub gin of Trump’s immigration bombast.”
“But none of that can change the fact that there aren’t enough of those voters out there to elect a president,” Wade added. “It’s an angry coalition but not a winning one.”
Clinton herself cautioned against giving in to anger on Tuesday. “We can be strong and smart without advocating torture or bigotry,” she tweeted soon after the attacks. “We will not let fear dictate our foreign policy.”
Jeremy Rosner, a Democratic pollster who specializes in public opinion about foreign affairs and a national security council aide in Bill Clinton’s White House, argued that terrorist attacks will focus voters on a wider range of foreign policy issues on which Trump has staked out unpopular ground — including his recent suggestion that the U.S. might take a dramatically reduced role in NATO and end its 60-plus year military presence in Korea.
“There has always been a share of Americans who want to withdraw [from world]. It may be that Trump has expanded that neo-isolationist electorate but it’s hard to imagine it’s anywhere near a majority,” Rosner said. “I think the share who want an engaged president and an engaged foreign policy continues to outnumber those who want to withdraw.”
Whatever their private anxieties about the unpredictable nature of Trump’s campaign to date, Democrats professed confidence that even a moment of mass panic will not land him in the White House.
“Experience shows right now,” said former Rep. Jane Harman, a former top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “And lack of experience shows.”
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