Terror, Trump and the polls

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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A flurry of recent polls show that the presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has become a toss-up. National polls never mean much, but some polls had Trump leading in Florida and Pennsylvania and tied in Ohio. If he wins all three in November, and the rest of the map stays the same, he is the next president.

Most commentators cited Clinton's bad week of news stories surrounding FBI Director James Comey's harsh criticism of her handling of emails while Secretary of State. I hope they are right, but I doubt it. Voters are already suspicious of Clinton's trustworthiness, so throwing more mud at her that score has little effect: She is already covered in mud and it just blends in.

My fear is the Trump's rising poll numbers had more to do with the sense of anxiety in the country that attended the killings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas. Not for nothing did Trump proclaim himself the "law and order" candidate. The more people are anxious, the more they begin to think like conservatives, and while a case can be made that Trump is the least conservative candidate to seek the presidency in the nation's history -- conservatives, like liberals, are called such because they adhere to certain principles -- I suspect that people view him as a strongman, and every time there is a terrorist attack or mass murder, the nation's democratic impulses are dimmed and the desire for a strong leader grows exponentially and, frighteningly, irrationally.

Last night, Trump was relatively muted in his response to the terrorist attack in Nice, France, announcing he was postponing his announcement about his vice presidential selection. This may be a former reality star's sense of how you create drama, although ABC News caught Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, not to be confused with Peter's Pence, entering a Manhattan hotel room, so there is not much suspense left. Trump called into Bill O'Reilly and said if he were president he would ask Congress for a declaration of war. I generally support the idea that Congress should reclaim its constitutional power to declare war, but I am not sure how many Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists would be killed on account of such a vote.  

Still, the response was better than what Trump has managed previously. After the killings in San Bernardino, Calif., he said, "Whenever there's a tragedy, everything goes up, my numbers go way up because we have no strength in this country. We have weak, sad politicians." These are the words of a narcissist: He takes a tragedy and thinks first of its effect on his poll numbers, he equates "everything" with "my numbers," and sweepingly condemns all politicians as weak and sad. Newsflash: If all of our politicians were strong and happy, there would still be terrorism.

Trump's response to the killings in Orlando was even worse. He tweeted: "Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!" Congrats? Again, we see the narcissism of this man right up front. And, the promotion of the idea that he is tough and vigilant and smart and that is what is needed to defeat ISIS.

In fact, there is not a whole lot any U.S. president can do to defeat ISIS in the near-term. The fight for the souls of Muslims in the Mideast will be determined by Muslims themselves. (And there are other problems besides terror that inhibit the emergence of stable, democracies in the Mideast.) It is far, far easier to imagine ways the U.S. can make things worse: The more we intervene, the more we feed the Islamicist radicals' idea that this is a war between Islam and the West when, in fact, it is a war between nihilistic thugs dressed up in Islamic garb but having no more real claim to the mantle of their religion than the gay-hating Westboro Baptist Church is the epitome of Christianity. And, in a perverse way that could benefit Trump, the more success on the ground in Iraq and Syria driving ISIS out of its strongholds, the more likely they are to pour their attention and resources into attacks in the West. 

Clinton, on the other hand, must walk a tightrope, avoiding the war-mongering darkness of Trump, but also avoiding the imperturbable, hyper-cool, no-drama Obama approach, which leaves people thinking the president doesn't identify with their fear. I suspect she is up to this task, in part because the essence of Clintonism as a governing doctrine is to split the difference. In foreign affairs, this is sometimes the best way to proceed, but it can frustrate a coherent military strategy and, when applied to domestic issues, completely misses the opportunity Democrats have to reshape the social contract. For example, Clinton's response to Trump's call to build a 10-foot wall on our southern border cannot be, "No, we can't do that but how about a 5-foot wall?"

That said, having watched Clinton and Trump in the debates I suspect it is more likely she will get under his skin than the other way round. And, I can imagine her drawing him into a trap by repeating the one word journalist/moderators seem unwilling to press: How? Trump says he will do this and do that but never explains how. She should simply stand there repeating the word, mocking him ("You don't know, do you?"), point out that while the difference between good and evil is not complicated, the world is complicated, and if you want the good to win, you need to be smart about the ways of the world, not a boorish ignoramus with the temperament of a fifth-grade bully. His GOP opponents could not provoke him into a meltdown, but they hit with kid gloves, terrified of alienating Trump's voters. Clinton can go for his jugular the way President Obama did brilliantly and brutally at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011. (See the video below, at 3:08 when Obama plunges the dagger.) If Clinton can make Trump look weak on stage, the way Obama did, she will win in a landslide. Indeed, that is the only way she can win in a landslide.

And, if she doesn't, and ISIS understands the value of mounting a string of attacks in the days before the election, the landslide could go to Trump.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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