From the cynical perspective of campaign tactics, Donald Trump gave away a chance this past Sunday. After a week in which even Paul Ryan, the highest-ranking Republican, accused the presidential candidate of “textbook racism,” the massacre in Orlando offered Trump the opportunity for a grand gesture. He could have hung giant American flags from his skyscrapers, for example. Or he could have slightly altered his slogan to present himself as the man with presidential gravitas who guarantees security – Make America Safe Again! After all, Omar Mateen, self-proclaimed avenger of the Islamic State, killed 49 people in a gay bar.
Instead, Trump followed his instincts in one of the nation’s most bitter moments and tweeted spite. President Barack Obama should resign, because he will not talk about “radical Islam,” according to Trump. He expressed gratitude for the congratulatory messages he received following the bloodbath, because his dark predictions had come true. He stoked the fear. He said that there are thousands of shooters who share Mateen’s mentality. And that they are being protected by America’s Muslims. “And people that are around him, Muslims know who they are, largely. They know who they are.”
Obama and his would-be successor Hillary Clinton want to ship more terrorists into the country, according to Trump. The flood of refugees from Syria to America – in truth, more of a trickle – is supposedly a “Trojan Horse.” Accordingly, one would have to extrapolate the disaster that the lone assailant Mateen wreaked in Orlando: “Can you imagine what they’ll do in large groups, which we’re now allowing to come here.” The terrorists could destroy America. “We’re not going to have our country anymore,” Trump prophesized. “There will be nothing, absolutely nothing, left.”
The Party Continues Walking on Eggshells
Repeatedly, the candidate suggested that Obama might be too weak and too dumb to stop the apocalypse, but that he might accept the jihad out of “political correctness,” or might even have still darker motives. Maybe the President “gets it better than anybody understands,” Trump predicted, but that he “has ‘something else’ in mind.”
Trump had already behaved similarly disgracefully concerning Obama’s refugee policies: “A lot of people think it’s evil intentions.” The President doesn’t want to solve the problem of terror, because there’s something there “that we don’t know about.” With that, Trump rekindles his favorite conspiracy theory: that Obama is an African Muslim. After the attack in Orlando, the Republican reiterated that the Democrat had “prioritize[d] the enemy over the American people.”
Trump kept being Trump. And his party kept pitifully walking on eggshells: Paul Ryan condemned the idea of a travel ban for Muslims, conservative members of Congress rolled their eyes or fled from reporters – but nobody of rank recanted their support for Trump. So much the louder, Democrats were outraged that Trump exploited the Florida tragedy for political gain. It was just a misunderstanding. Trump was not speaking as a Republican. “Just shut up,” he advised his party’s leadership. “Our leaders have to get tougher.” It might even be too tough to do it alone. “But you know what? I think I’m gonna be forced to. I think I’m going to be forced to.”
A Slap in the Face
One month before the Republican Convention in Cleveland, Trump is not so much trying to broaden the gap between Democrats and Republicans as trying to drive a deeper wedge between elites and politics. With that, he has proven himself to be a “textbook populist,”* according to Paul Ryan. In order to fortify his claim to be the only true, literally ruthless representative of the people, Trump crossed two more red lines in the Republican dogma.
First, he showed solidarity with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, the “great people” who were the target of Mateen’s attack. He commended himself as a patron of homosexuals, because “radical Islam” threatens their way of life. This argument is known to Europeans from politicians like the Dutch Geert Wilders. In America, evangelicals took the turnaround as a further slap in the face. Just two days prior to the attack, Trump had reassured the Christian right that he shares their values “100 percent.”
Then Trump got ready to unabashedly admit to the gun lobby: Terror suspects should no longer be allowed to buy weapons. The candidate did not lose any words over the fact that there are already bills in the Senate from Republicans and Democrats that would serve this end, and that the NRA has already approved the (weaker) version by the conservatives. Trump does not want to forge compromises; he wants to celebrate his arm-wrestling. And he claims to do it for Americans of every color, as he emphasized in the middle of last week: “Make America great for everyone!” Except maybe for Muslims and illegal immigrants.
Hillary is Dependent on Obama
It is too early to say whether the mix of agitation, machismo, and fraternization among the masses has helped Trump in the days since America’s worst terror attack since 9/11. On the one hand, he reinforced the doubt that he has the stuff to be a statesman. On the other hand, he proved himself to be more flexible than most party politicians over the course of the week. Trump profits in that many Americans have lost all faith in Obama in the face of jihadism. The President is careful in both word and deed. He wants to prevent panic, because looking at American history he fears the political missteps that spring from fear. By keeping a cool head, he has given the impression that he is ignoring the danger and not realizing the unrest in the population. He may have thus increased the risk of disagreeable consequences.
Clinton is trying to meet those who are worried halfway. Where Obama speaks only of “extremism” and hard-to-define “radical tendencies,” she is now using the term “radical Islam.” She calls the “barbarism” of jihadists by its name and promises new vigor in the fight against “lone wolves.” As the former secretary of state, she cannot distance herself any more clearly from Obama, upon whose campaign support she is dependent. And Clinton has no simple panacea against the undertow of jihadism. Trump makes it easier for himself. He does not seem to be interested in real solutions. He wants to unite Americans in fear – of terror and of the alleged defeatism of “political correctness.”
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quote could not be independently verified.