Terror and the election: What does it mean?

In an election year that has already passed the abnormal and entered the zone of the surreal, the June 12 terror attack in Orlando, Fla., throws even more uncertainty into the mix.
June 15, 2016

In an election year that has already passed the abnormal and entered the zone of the surreal, the June 12 terror attack in Orlando, Fla., throws even more uncertainty into the mix. What does it mean for the election? Can we say anything with confidence in a season that has turned predictions upside down?

Presidential elections normally feature a battle between two competing visions of government’s role — one more liberal, the other more conservative. This year is different. This interruption in our political life is because of the rise of Trumpism, a phenomenon more similar to radical right-wing parties in European democracies than to any in the United States. It once seemed inconceivable that the leader of such a movement (without even an actual party behind him) could win the nomination of one of America’s two leading political parties. But here we are. And in the wake of a major terror attack that took 49 innocent lives at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the dynamic of the election may shift yet again. The September 11, 2001, attacks, only eight months into President George W. Bush’s first term, pretty much guaranteed his re-election in 2004. Will terror do the same for Donald Trump’s prospects?

Organizationally, a normal campaign season features two massive party organizations, get-out-the-vote drives, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. One party’s candidate, Hillary Clinton, will have those assets. Trump is going in a completely different direction. Either because he does not have access to raising big money, or is not as wealthy as he claims, Trump seems on the verge of trying to run without an Electoral College state-by-state strategy, nor a voter database, nor money for grass-roots operations, but rather with a message delivered in a combination of rallies, the occasional formal speech and many tweets. It’s an experiment without precedent. (As a side note, Trump is continuing to pursue his business life, including taking off for Scotland at the end of the month to mark the opening of one of his golf courses.) 

The Democrats are largely united in their fear and loathing of Trump. Republican leaders and many Republican voters, as well, are being torn into pieces over what they should do about this takeover of their party by someone both so appealing to their electoral base but potentially horrifying to the rest of the electorate and also to many of them.

Trump’s campaign may very well turn all of traditional U.S. politics in its head, and continue providing his own sort of late-night running commentary on the news of the day and the failings of our political leaders in both parties, mixing sarcasm and rage. Most campaigns are a mixture of message, organization and money. What if Trump’s campaign ends up being just pure message? That kind of campaign he could do part time, in the hope that his message conquers all. It would explain his avoiding “battleground states” and instead focusing on big media markets such as California and New York. Being all message with no campaign machinery enables him to respond instantaneously to changing events like the recent terror attack.

For Republican leaders, however, especially those currently in tough re-election races, Trump’s method is a high-wire act, because it leaves little campaign money or effort flowing from the presidential race to down-ballot contests. And who knows what Trump will say or do on any given day? So Republican Party leaders are holding on for a wild ride, balancing their endorsements of Trump with reservations and criticisms, or in some cases trying to painfully differentiate between “support” and “endorse” — two words that mean pretty much the same thing (see Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire).

If a climate of fear and chaos were to emerge over the next five months, it could tilt the electorate toward Trump.

Can Trump win the presidency? Never underestimate the power of a message crisply and engagingly delivered. It can move electoral mountains. Crisis and chaos are the best arguments for Trump and his chaotic and crisis-ridden campaign. He wins only if chaotic times speak so loudly that they override all the normal cautions that voters apply in this most important of job interviews. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the normal vetting and evaluation processes are too cumbersome to save us.  

And that brings us back to the horrifying shooting in Orlando. Events have a way of reframing and reconceptualizing what political candidates and leaders say, and we may then see them in a new light. Trump certainly thinks so; he immediately sent out two tweets, congratulating himself on his prescience and calling for President Barack Obama’s resignation for not referencing “radical Islam” in his speech in the immediate aftermath of the attack. At this moment, Trump’s Republican “frenemies” are frozen in place, not sure whether or not his words will strengthen him.  Here’s a further complication: The victims were LGBT. There is evidence that the killer was driven as much by homophobia as by his proclaimed allegiance to ISIS. How will Trump and the Republicans deal with the fact that men kissing may have helped drive him to homicide?

If a climate of fear and chaos were to emerge over the next five months, it could tilt the electorate toward Trump. Israelis have certainly turned rightward in recent years, although the differences between the two countries and their voters are instructive. For decades, Israel has faced an existential threat from its neighbors. Little by little, the progressive wing lost its support, and Israelis have moved right, not as a result of an individual terrorist attack, but because of a much wider and continuing assault on the nation’s very survival. Even the most horrific terror attacks, like 9/11 and the one in Orlando, have not placed the United States as a whole in jeopardy of its very survival.  

Reducing or preventing a sense of chaos and fear will be critical to Democrats’ success against Trump.  That’s why the violent protests against Trump, which have even included physical attacks on Trump supporters, are supremely self-destructive. The only defense against demagoguery is democracy itself, which requires faith that arguments can be won without violence. 

Obama has his own challenges. After the San Bernardino shootings, he wanted to show that his policy against ISIS was working, and thereby missed an opportunity to explain to the American people how defeating ISIS’ strategy to acquire a physical kingdom had, in fact, caused it to undertake terror worldwide. The current attack by an avowed ISIS believer offers the president another chance to be the explainer in chief. We want to understand what we can expect to face, and why, and what the government is going to do about it. The president can be the most reliable source of information, given his access to intelligence and military advice, and when he shares what can be made public, it provides some reassurance. 

It was striking that Hillary Clinton, in her response to Orlando, slightly distanced herself from the president by openly referring to “radical Islamic terrorism.”  Long sought by conservatives, this terminology sends a subtle signal that she will carve some of her own territory. This degree of separation may help her with foreign policy experts who have expressed skepticism about Trump and had their own reservations about Obama’s foreign policy.

For Trump, the fear engendered by the attack provides a fresh opportunity to reach voters with his message. However, the close attention to terrorism that an attack engenders could just as easily show him in the worst possible light. His one-man show of tweets and off-hand comments runs the risk of revealing even more of his limitations in the glare of the public eye. In this case, his veiled suggestion that Obama is in league with terrorists contrasts starkly with the images of the president’s news conference, his consultations with leaders and with Clinton’s comments.

Were he a more “normal” challenging candidate, Trump would have had respected military and intelligence advisers at his side to bolster his comments. He has already alienated many of the foreign policy intellectuals in his party who might have come to his defense. By his own choosing, he is on his own on a matter that benefits from the best and widest advice. He may not be ready for prime time.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles.

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