The Islamic State’s bombing of an airport terminal and subway station in Brussels, Belgium on March 22 horrified the world. But Donald Trump saw a silver lining in the latest terrorist atrocity.
During an interview a few hours after the bloodshed in Brussels, Trump announced that foreign threats benefited his presidential campaign. He proudly observed that “every time we have a problem in the world, I do better” in the polls. The reason, he asserted, was because voters view him “as much stronger” than his opponents.
Sickening though Trump’s cynicism is, it’s important to ask whether he’s right. Will voters' fear of terrorism propel Trump to the White House?
GOP’s year of fear
Trump is certainly right about what works with many Republican voters. Since his presidential announcement speech in June, when he warned that America is “becoming a third world country,” he has ruthlessly exploited the xenophobia and bigotry of a large segment of the GOP electorate. To that end he has stoked prejudice against Mexicans, African Americans and immigrants in general.
Lately, however, he has focused on exploiting the public’s fear of terrorism by calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, by proposing to kill the families of terrorists, by advocating waterboarding of detainees and by declaring that “Islam hates us.”
Trump’s fear-mongering has worked so well that he currently possesses a 250-delegate lead in the GOP nomination race. He has driven 14 candidates from the race and leads his final two Republican opponents – Ted Cruz and John Kasich – by a comfortable margin in most national polls.
Fear of terrorism is one of the major reasons why Trump’s strategy of divide-and-conquer has worked so well in the GOP primaries. Polls show that 58 percent of Republicans list terrorism as their top election concern. A New York Times poll found that support for Trump directly correlated with GOP voters' anxieties over terrorism.
The March 22 Arizona primary, which was held just hours after the Brussels attack, provided a perfect example. On the eve of the election Trump had a 13-point lead in Arizona polls. But on election day – as the story of the terrorist attacks led the morning news in Arizona and across the country – Trump won by a far bigger margin than expected, beating Ted Cruz by 22 points and more than 100,000 votes.
Arizona is thus the latest example of how a toxic mix of fear, prejudice and hatred has made Trump the GOP front-runner.
Democrats' painful history
But will the same dynamics hold true in the general election? Will global crises clear a path to the Oval Office for Trump?
It is certainly true that overseas events and foreign threats have determined the outcome of past presidential races.
Trump is no Eisenhower
Yet, there is compelling reason to believe that even if terrorists strike during the fall campaign, the ensuing public fear won’t benefit Trump in the general election as much as he thinks it will.
The reason is because of two crucial features of the 2016 election that distinguish it from the 1952, 1968 and 1980 elections.
First, in each of those historic campaigns, general election voters chose candidates with long experience in the military or government. World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower won in 1952; former Vice President Richard Nixon won in 1968; and former California Governor Ronald Reagan prevailed in 1980. Each had proven track records in public life, each had served in the military and each had distinguished teams of highly experienced foreign policy advisers.
Trump, in contrast, has zero experience in public affairs. He has never held elected office and he has never served in the military. During the Vietnam War, he received draft deferments and eventually was declared medically disqualified.
Yet, despite Trump’s lack of military credentials, the lifelong civilian criticized American prisoners of war during a campaign event last summer. “I like people who weren’t captured,” he explained. Trump’s insult of POWs only serves to underscore his ignorance of national security issues.
Nor can Trump boast of a top-notch foreign policy team. No prominent experts have signed onto his campaign, and he has admitted that he gets most of his information about the military from watching television shows.
Not surprisingly, therefore, two weeks ago more than 100 top Republican defense experts wrote an open letter warning that a Trump presidency would be a national security disaster. Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden told the BBC that he would be “frightened” by a Trump presidency because it would be “destructive” for America.
And just last week retired four-star general and former CIA director David Petraeus implicitly attacked Trump in a Florida speech. Although he didn’t mention Trump by name, there could be no doubt as to which candidate’s views General Petraeus sought to repudiate. In his speech, Petraeus condemned waterboarding, praised America’s close relationship with Mexico and adamantly rejected the notion that America was in decline. The United States, Petraus insisted, “is better positioned than any other country for the next 20 to 30 years and perhaps longer.”
In short, with the nation’s most respected defense experts lined up against the foul-mouthed reality TV star, it is highly unlikely that general election voters will mistake Donald Trump for Dwight Eisenhower.
Trump’s bigotry will backfire
Equally important, the Trump campaign is operating in a far different America than existed in the past.
Trump’s bigoted appeal to the worst instincts of working-class white voters might have been a winning general election formula 50 years ago when 88 percent of Americans were white. But not today when nearly 40 percent of Americans are minorities, an all-time high. America’s diverse electorate means that Trump will enter the general election with nearly four in 10 voters already dead set against him.
And it only gets worse for Trump. Polling data suggest that Trump’s crude, patronizing and misogynistic style has profoundly alienated women, a crucial demographic that constitutes more than 50 percent of the general electorate. Even Republican women can’t stand Trump. Recent polls reveal that 47 percent of Republican women say they won’t vote for him if he’s the party’s nominee.
And many men agree. According to the latest national polls, 67 percent of Americans view Trump unfavorably. Those numbers do not portend well for his chances in November.
The bottom line is Trump’s candidacy is a disaster for the GOP and the party’s leaders know it.
That’s why they are so desperate to stop him. They realize that Trump is so obnoxious to general election voters that it’s likely he will not only suffer a crushing defeat in November but will also cost Republicans control of Congress.
The GOP leaders are right. If Trump is the nominee, no amount of fear-mongering will save him or his party from an election catastrophe in November.