Donald Trump is deeply, unshakably convinced that talking about terrorism plays to what he chooses to see as his strengths. Back in March, he explicitly said that his focus on the topic “is probably why I’m number one in the polls.” And his response to the Orlando shooting that claimed 49 lives – the deadliest mass shooting in American history, simultaneously an act of terror and a hate crime – was to unleash a blizzard of public statements congratulating himself for his own perspicacity in gauging the true nature of the terror threat.
“Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump tweeted, though he modestly added that “I don’t want congrats.” Trump also tweeted, “I called it,” and reiterated his support for a ban on Muslims. And Trump called on Obama to “resign in disgrace” because he won’t use the words “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Monday morning on Fox News, Trump went even further, seeming to insinuate that President Obama is somehow tacitly rooting for terrorist attacks on Americans. He also seemed to try to incite hatred toward Muslims in America.
It’s true that talking about terrorism helped Trump among GOP primary voters. But he appears to be incapable of even contemplating the possibility that a general election audience might take a dimmer view of this sort of response.
Here’s what Trump said on Fox: “We’re led by a man that either is, is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind. And the something else in mind, you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot – they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the ways he acts and can’t even mention the words radical Islamic terrorism. There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable.”
For good measure, Trump also said the following Monday morning:
“The problem is we have thousands of people right now in our country. You have people that were born in this country” who are susceptible to becoming “radicalized,” the billionaire real estate mogul told Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends.” He claimed that there are Muslims living here who “know who they are” and said it was time to “turn them in.”
As it was, Trump’s self-congratulatory tweets Sunday had already attracted scalding criticism, even from Republicans. As NBC News reports, “party operatives had hoped Trump would remain silent on the attacks so as not to politicize the tragedy,” but they were “likely disappointed.” Meanwhile, some news reports were already taking note of the vast differences in the ways that Trump and Clinton responded to the event. As the Post overview reports, Trump responded with “bombast,” while Clinton expressed sympathy with the victims, directly addressed the issues raised by the event, and called for a redoubled focus on defeating terror threats.
Monday this contrast only deepened. As Steve Benen notes, Trump’s latest insinuations about Obama’s intentions toward America may well put pressure on other Republicans to clarify whether they agree with their party’s standard bearer on this matter. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton went on NBC’s “Today Show” and rejected Trump’s semantic games over whether we should use the phrase “radical Islam.” Instead, she blasted Trump’s “demagoguery,” reiterated that she will not “declare war on an entire religion” and said Trump’s rhetoric “plays into ISIS’ hands.”
It is routinely suggested that the specter of terrorism helps Trump politically. But if anything, Trump’s response to this horrific event could end up raising further doubts about his temperamental fitness for the presidency.
As it is, the polling is mixed on whether Trump holds the advantage on these issues: While some surveys show Trump favored on the narrow question of terrorism, others show Clinton favored on foreign policy and on who would be a better commander in chief. Meanwhile, a Pew poll in February found that by 50-40, Americans say the next president should take care not to implicate all of Islam when talking about terrorism. So there is no particular reason to assume at the outset that the general electorate will respond well to Trump’s efforts to whip up xenophobia about American Muslims.
Indeed, if anything, Trump’s response calls to mind Mitt Romney’s handling of the Benghazi attacks in 2012. As you may recall, barely hours after the attacks, Romney rushed to blame Obama for allegedly making an “apology for American values,” insinuating vaguely that the president sympathized with anti-American interests throughout the Muslim world. That unleashed a torrent of criticism of Romney’s temperament and leadership abilities amid a crisis.
General presidential elections are brutally difficult: Without warning, they serve up moments that pose severe tests to the character and temperament of those vying for the Oval Office, and split-second decisions about how to respond to them end up creating lasting impressions that can prove unshakable. In retrospect, we may look back at Trump’s response to the Orlando shooting as his very own Romney/Benghazi moment – only far worse.
The Washington Post