New York Times
By Patrick Healy and Thomas Kaplan
June 14, 2016
It was one of George W. Bush’s most viscerally powerful commercials against John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race: a pack of wolves lurking in a forest as a narrator accused Mr. Kerry of slashing intelligence gathering against terrorists. “Weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm,” the ad warned, as the wolves started running toward the camera.
Turns out the metaphor was subtle, at least by Donald J. Trump’s standards.
In his apocalyptic speech on Monday warning that terrorism could wipe out the United States — “There will be nothing, absolutely nothing, left,” he said — Mr. Trump substituted Muslim immigrants for the wolf pack. A single gunman carried out the Orlando massacre, he said. “Can you imagine what they’ll do in large groups, which we’re allowing now to come here?”
Exploitation of fear has been part of the American political playbook since colonial pamphleteers whipped their neighbors into a frenzy over British misrule. It took on new potency in the nuclear age with Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad against Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Jimmy Carter’s warnings about Ronald Reagan’s finger on the button in 1980.
But Mr. Trump — who drew harsh condemnation from President Obama on Tuesday — has intensified the power of fear in presidential politics by demonizing an entire religious group. And he has expanded the use of that power by stirring up fear in the aftermath of national traumas, like the San Bernardino, Calif., attack and now the Orlando shooting, that traditionally elicited measured and soothing responses from political leaders.
President Obama strongly criticized Donald J. Trump for his comments about Muslims and the Islamic State in the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando, Fla., that killed 49 people at a gay nightclub.
No more. Judging from his speech on Monday, his statements throughout the campaign, and interviews with historians and psychologists, Mr. Trump has committed himself to denigrating, if not steamrolling, the conditioned responses that have long served to help unite the country in times of crisis and offer Americans a chance to grieve and heal, and regain a sense of safety.
At a time when other leaders would avoid divisive language and seek to unite both their admirers and detractors, as Mr. Bush did by visiting a mosque after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Trump appears wholly focused on the idea that America has reached an existential moment and that only he can save the country, a classic tactic of demagogy. The Orlando gunman, who was born in New York to Afghan immigrants, has given Mr. Trump his biggest opportunity yet to ask his own version of Reagan’s famous question from the 1980 presidential debates: Are you safer now than you were eight years ago?
Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton, said Mr. Trump was using the attack as an I-told-you-so moment. “He would see this as a confirmation of all the things he has been saying about the threat the United States faces and the need to be more aggressive,” he said.
Professor Zelizer cast Mr. Trump as part of a political strain dating at least from the 1950s. “When the United States is faced with national security threats or national security crises, you play to fear, you play to the anger of the electorate and you offer promises of military might as the solution,” he said.
In the jittery aftermath of a terrorist attack, people find themselves leaning on “emotional reasoning, as opposed to thinking through these kinds of issues rationally,” said Samuel Justin Sinclair, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of “The Psychology of Terrorism Fears.”
In his first campaign event since the attack in Orlando, Donald J. Trump continued to advocate a tough anti-immigration platform.
“It’s dangerous to think about making major policy decisions reactively and from a position of fear,” Dr. Sinclair said.
He added: “Whether you agree with his politics or not, I think Mr. Trump’s more aggressive tactics may be one attempt at trying to assert some level of control in a situation where people feel scared and a loss of control — as a means of helping them to feel safer. The dilemma then becomes whether supporting these more extreme policies justifies the ends — particularly in terms of how it changes us as a society.”
The 36 hours after the Orlando attack showcased a stark divergence between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton in going about an essential presidential task: leading in a time of crisis.
Mr. Trump wasted no time in casting the massacre as evidence of the accuracy of his warnings about the threat America faced and the Obama administration’s ineptitude. “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” he wrote on Twitter on Sunday. Though he also said he did not want to be congratulated, he issued a statement again patting himself on the back: “Because our leaders are weak, I said this was going to happen — and it is only going to get worse.”
And on CNN the next morning, he warned that Syrian refugees were going to cause “big problems in the future,” adding, “I’ve been a pretty good prognosticator as to what’s going to be happening.”
Mr. Trump relied on a prepared text for his speech on Monday, and he lightly struck some of the more familiar notes often heard after tragedies: He said that the United States needed to respond to the attack “as one united people” and that it would remain “a tolerant and open society.”
But he also argued that the determination of Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton not to use phrases like “radical Islamic terrorism” — which would surely antagonize Muslims — was tantamount to minimizing or ignoring tough truths about the enemy facing the United States and much of the West.
“The current politically correct response cripples our ability to talk and to think and act clearly,” he said. Later, he added about Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton: “They have put political correctness above common sense, above your safety, and above all else. I refuse to be politically correct.”
While Mr. Trump assailed Mrs. Clinton in his speech, Mrs. Clinton did not mention him by name in her own address on Monday.
Laying out her plan to combat jihadists, Mrs. Clinton spoke of the gravity of the threat facing America but refrained from predicting doom. “I have no doubt we can meet this challenge if we meet it together,” she said.
Senator Bernie Sanders called the presumptive Republican nominee Donald J. Trump “unfit to be president” after Mr. Trump’s comments on barring Muslim immigrants.
She warned against “scapegoating” and “eroding trust.” She pointedly said that the United States was “not a land of winners and losers.” And in calling for unity, she reached back to the Revolution, recalling how “13 squabbling colonies” managed to join together.
“As I look at American history, I see that this has always been a country of ‘we,’ not ‘me,’” she said. “We stand together because we are stronger together.”
To punctuate her point, Mrs. Clinton cited the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, recalling that Mr. Bush had warned against mistreating American Muslims.
“Let’s make sure we keep looking to the best of our country, to the best within each of us,” she said.
Michael Signer, a Democratic activist and the author of “Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy From Its Worst Enemies,” lamented that the Orlando attack had afforded Mr. Trump a new opportunity to stoke fears. “This was what we were all worried about, that some kind of national disaster would come along that would give him what he wants,” he said.
But some voters, after listening to Mrs. Clinton as well as Mr. Trump, said both of them were seizing on the massacre in Orlando for political purposes.
“I think those two are just using this as a way to push their campaigns ahead,” said Rob Stecz, 34, who works in the health care industry in Chicago and is not planning to vote for either candidate.
Clinton advisers argued emphatically that Mrs. Clinton was not exploiting Orlando but rather approaching the attack with nuance and avoiding simplistic conclusions or easy answers.
Trump advisers, for their part, said Mr. Trump was simply leveling with the American people after eight years of mushy national security policy from Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama.
But leveling with the American people can mean different things. The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recalled that the “aroused demagogic fear” after Pearl Harbor had led to the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II — something Mr. Trump has said that, while he hated the idea, he might have supported at the time.
Ms. Goodwin recalled the words of a young Japanese-American man from Seattle who had expressed shock at America as he was being herded off to a camp. “If we continue down this demagogic path,” she wrote in an email, “millions of our citizens may well be asking a similar question: Is this the same America we have known?”
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