There appears to be a general consensus – met with glee by Trumpites and frustration by Democrats – that the atrocity in Orlando will be a boon to the campaign of Donald Trump. It will ‘change the narrative’ and play to Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration and general claim to be the only one tough enough to protect Americans.
Put me down as skeptical about that assumption.
As we’ve already seen today, this attack brings more than national security to the fore. It brings temperament just as much. That’s a problem for Trump because while polls suggest the public sees the two as comparable on ‘toughness’ and leadership, it sees a huge gap between the two candidates on temperament.
Climates of fear and threat do frequently, though not always, buoy parties of the right. This pattern is not unique to the United States. But we know it from the way it defined American politics in the years after the 9/11 attacks. Another Republican candidate might be buoyed by the climate of threat and fear inevitably generated by this kind of horror. But to assume that will happen in this case is, I think, to misjudge both candidates.
Trump’s tweets this morning were slashing but they were also preening, self-congratulatory and manic. There are ways to effectively politicize a tragedy. Trump appears psychologically incapable of doing so. He does sound ‘tough’ at some level. But far more he seems unsteady, erratic and self-obsessed.
Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 12, 2016
Trump was already scheduled to give a speech tomorrow to serve as a response to Clinton’s speech calling him unfit for the presidency. It was supposed to be an epic oppo dump on every claim real and imagined about Clintonian corruption. It is reportedly now being retooled as an equivalent fusillade now focused on terrorism.
I suspect this will hurt him rather than help him. Because Trump is Trump. Most people have little appetite for a self-congratulatory and wildly politicized screed the day after a horrific attack.
Some of you might be saying, You’re being naive: fear sells. You’re missing my point. Of course it does. But Trump’s emotional instability, his temperament largely prevents him from effectively selling it. More than benefiting from a climate of fear, I suspect he is driving home what already worries voters, what is already his singular vulnerability: he lacks the temperament and emotional stability to be president.
The other part of equation is Clinton.
We know that both Clinton and Trump are unpopular. Trump is significantly more unpopular than Clinton. But on her own Clinton is at historically high levels of unpopularity for a presidential nominee. But the details are critical. Clinton’s big liability is voters’ perception of her honesty and integrity. When pollsters ask whether she has the temperament to be president and whether she is ‘tough’ and a leader she consistently and even today gets very high marks. That means she’s well positioned to withstand hard attacks on this front. The same polls show that voters overwhelmingly believe Trump lacks the temperament to be president. If he acts now like he always acts he will confirm doubts and fears that are already at the forefront of the public mind.
I suspect she will make the expected broad statements about combating terror, mass violence and hate and then explicitly restate her charge that Trump is too unhinged and erratic to entrust with the presidency. Then she’ll sit back and allow him to make her case.
Of course, Trump could surprise us and present a forceful case about national security that signals a readiness to handle the responsibilities of the presidential office. But if we’ve learned nothing else over the last year, Trump will always be Trump. So that seems unlikely.