Donald Trump can still surprise. A full year into his bid for the White House, after all the insults, not-so-veiled threats and intemperate vows—mass deportations, high border walls, enhanced tortures and expanded assassinations—he somehow finds fresh ground to scorch. And a way to make every debate and issue all about him.
This week’s attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which killed at least 49 and wounded at least 50 more, ranks as the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. A combination hate-crime and act of terror, carried out by a mentally troubled, self-loathing, American-born Muslim man, it gives rise to all sorts of dark fears and justifiable concerns. But only a figure like Trump could find reason to revel in the mayhem and give himself licence to erase yet another set of social and political boundaries.
In the hours after Sunday’s massacre, which targeted a well-known gay and lesbian bar, Trump initially seemed to be playing by the familiar rule book for American gun tragedies; taking to social media to express horror, along with prayers for the victims and their families. But the self-restraint soon disappeared. “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” he tweeted to his more than nine million followers a couple of hours later. “I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart.” He followed it up with a call for Barack Obama to “resign in disgrace” for failing to characterize the attack as “radical Islamic” terrorism. (The U.S. President and other Democrats prefer terms like “jihadism,” seeking to draw a distinction between a violent ideology and the religion it claims as a cloak.) And by Monday morning, the soon-to-be Republican nominee was busy insinuating that Obama might not just be “soft” on the issue, but somehow complicit. “We’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind,” Trump told Fox News. “And the something else in mind, you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot—they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the ways he acts . . . There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable.”
However, the Trump train really left the rails during his first address on the tragedy, at a campaign rally in Manchester, N.H., that afternoon. Standing before a blue backdrop and a pair of American flags, the billionaire’s prepared remarks—delivered, uncharacteristically, with the aid of Teleprompters—started off with a defence of diversity. “This is a very dark moment in America’s history,” he said. “It is an assault on the ability of free people to live their lives, love who they want and express their identity.” But Trump quickly returned to more familiar ground, renewing his call for a “temporary” ban on Muslim immigrants and visitors. And then he proposed to broaden its already mind-boggling scope—there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world—to cover other parts of the globe “where there’s a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe and our allies.” Dancing around the fact that the Orlando shooter, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, was born in New York, he departed from his script, either by mistake or on purpose, and called him “Afghan.” Trump also suggested his ban should be retroactive. “The bottom line is that the only reason the killer was in America in the first place was because we allowed his family to come here,” he declared. “That is a fact, and it’s a fact we need to talk about. We have a dysfunctional immigration system which does not permit us to know who we let into our country, and it does not permit us to protect our citizens.”
Trump’s speech was rife with exaggerations and falsehoods, from the “tremendous flow of Syrian refugees” (1,285 were admitted over a six-month period ending in March) to his claim that there is “no system to vet” refugees—dismissing the multiple security checks by the United Nations and American agencies that take more than two years. But to date, his commitment to truthfulness and accuracy has hardly mattered. After coordinated attacks by Islamic State killed 129 in Paris last November, he blamed France’s strict gun-control laws. And following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 dead, he claimed other Muslims knew about “bombs all over” but said nothing. On both occasions, his poll numbers went up versus his Republican challengers.
This time, the stakes are higher. With four and a half months to go until the general election, Trump is trying to push the campaign onto his chosen battlefield. “Handling terrorism,” is one of the categories in which voters consistently rate the presumptive Republican nominee higher than his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton—by 12 points, according to a Fox News poll last month, or four per cent, according to Gallup. And 15 years after Sept. 11, 2001, it remains a core issue at the ballot box, with 45 per cent of Americans ranking “national security” as the most decisive factor in whom they support for president.
What happened in Orlando was indisputably tragic and terrifying. But was it scary enough to propel Donald Trump to the White House?
In 240 years of American history and 57 elections, there has never been a presidential candidate like the Donald. He not only lacks the usual prerequisites, having never held public office, attended law school or served in the military—Trump received four draft deferments during Vietnam, then was medically disqualified for foot problems—he also ignores all the other conventions.
David Zarefsky, a specialist in presidential rhetoric and U.S. public discourse at the Northwestern School of Communication in Illinois, says Trump’s nativist appeals to fear foreigners and religion have precedents—the schism within the Federalist party in 1800, the anti-Irish Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s and the backlash against Chinese and Slavic immigrants in the 1920s. But never before have they been put forth by a major-party candidate. “There’s been this sense of decorum that minor parties could violate, but major parties couldn’t. They strived to create the biggest tent possible.”
Related: Three hours of terror in Orlando
And in a country that has an unusual reverence for its highest office (if not the office’s holder), Trump displays few of the qualities that are usually described as “presidential.” “We like a certain sense of dignity and gravitas, someone who speaks carefully and preferably thinks first, and embodies a national spirit that unites, rather than divides,” says Zarefsky. “And so far, we haven’t seen that from Trump.”
Of course, that isn’t the only thing that will be different about the 2016 contest. Hillary Clinton, now all but guaranteed to wield the Democratic banner, will become the first female nominee for any major American party—96 years after the 19th amendment gave U.S. women the right to vote. A White House contest between 69-year-old Clinton and 70-year-old Trump will be the oldest matchup on record. And not coincidentally to either of those points, both candidates are historically unpopular. Clinton currently has an unfavourable rating of 56 per cent, according to RealClearPolitics polling averages, the second-highest ever for a presidential candidate, behind Trump at 59 per cent. And their net ratings—the percentage of voters who really like them, minus those who really loathe them—are both in the double-digit negatives; -20 for Clinton, -41 for Trump.
Yet all that antipathy doesn’t necessarily mean the November vote will be close. Trump’s poll numbers have been sinking back down to Earth since he wrapped up the Republican nomination late last month, while Clinton’s have been rising as the supporters of her last Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, reluctantly move over to her camp. A Reuters/Ipsos weekly tracking poll, released in the wake of the Orlando attack, showed Clinton down two points, but still with an 11.6 per cent advantage over Trump. A Bloomberg News poll gave her a 12-point lead. And whatever grudges voters hold against the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, they don’t argue with her qualifications.
In fact, Clinton’s resumé has blunted the traditional Republican advantage on issues like national security and foreign policy. Aided in no small measure by Trump’s erratic performance on the hustings, which has included promises to tear up trade deals, rethink military alliances like NATO, sit down with the North Koreans and perhaps use nuclear weapons against Islamic State. “Foreign affairs has long been an area of strength for Republicans, an issue they’ve owned,” says Stephen Craig, director of the University of Florida’s political campaigning program. “But the catch is they’ve got this unbelievably undisciplined and ignorant candidate.”
Trump’s bullying style and off-the-cuff pronouncements play well with his core supporters, the economically displaced and politically disaffected, but they scare almost everyone else—including a lot of traditional Republicans. Craig, who has written books on popular discontent, says voter distrust and ambivalence about politics is growing, but he doubts it can be harnessed to win a general election. “Can you get elected riding the cynical wave? No, because people are pissed off for lots of different reasons,” he says. “And no tent is big enough to hold both Trump and Sanders supporters.”
Clinton has learned a thing or two about Trump, as demonstrated by her own considered and calibrated response to the Orlando shootings. In the hours after the billionaire attacked Obama for failing to talk about “radical Islam,” she made a point of using the phrase herself, and letting it be known that she has no time for “semantic games.” She also delivered her own sombre speech on the tragedy and the wider struggle. “The Orlando terrorist may be dead, but the virus that poisoned his mind remains very much alive,” she told an audience in Cleveland, Ohio. “And we must attack it with clear eyes, steady minds, unwavering determination and pride in our country and our values.” Clinton talked in detail about initiatives to disrupt the flow of arms, money and fighters to Islamic State, and improve intelligence gathering by strengthening foreign alliances. And she proposed “common-sense” gun-control measures, like banning people on the FBI terrorism watch list from buying weapons, and halting the sale of military assault rifles to the general public. (Trump opposes such steps.) “That may not stop every terrorist attack, but it will stop some, and it will save lives and it will protect our first responders,” she proclaimed to warm applause.
Related: Trump’s Orlando speech, translated
Clinton never mentioned Trump by name, but the distinctions she was drawing with her opponent were crystal clear. “As I look at American history, I see that this has always been a country of ‘we’ not ‘me,’ ” she said, paying tribute to the generations who have fought “to widen the circle of dignity and opportunity.” It all fit nicely with her first explicitly anti-Trump campaign message, released just a couple of days before the Orlando tragedy. The TV ad features footage of Trump talking about punching protestors and mocking a disabled New York Times reporter. “Today, we face a choice about who we are as a nation,” Clinton intones in the voice-over. “Do we help each other? Do we respect each other?” The ad’s tag line is “Stronger Together.”
Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., says that terrorist attacks—especially those on domestic soil—have helped Trump play the fear card. But he argues that whatever advantage he’s gained has been undermined by questions about his own suitability for high office. “A lot of Americans—including me—object to his temperament,” says Nichols, a former Senate aide. He’s one of 121 Republican “security leaders” who signed an open letter to Trump in March outlining their grave concerns about his beliefs and judgment. “His vision of American influence and power in the world is wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle. He swings from isolationism to military adventurism within the space of one sentence,” it began. “Mr. Trump’s own statements lead us to conclude that as president, he would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe,” it concluded.
Nichols, whose new book, The Death of Expertise, will be released this winter, says Trump is the apotheosis of a worrying societal trend: “a Google-fuelled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen.” Facts, half-truths and full-on lies are all delivered with the same absolute and unshakable conviction, regardless of evidence. “Trump is the least self-aware person who ever walked through American politics,” says Nichols. “He’s a dysfunctional narcissist who is never wrong.”
The “Never Trump” movement within the Republican Party never quite got off the ground. But there are signs of a more passive form of resistance. Last week, Trump slashed his fundraising goal for the coming campaign, saying he doesn’t need to match the billion or more dollars that Clinton is expected to haul in. “I just don’t think I need nearly as much money as other people need because I get so much publicity. I get so many invitations to be on television. I get so many interviews, if I want them,” he told Bloomberg News. But that appears to have been an attempt to transform a negative into a positive, as Republican strategists are openly admitting that their nominee will struggle to hit the $300-million mark—a third of what Mitt Romney raised in 2012. A gathering of top party donors in Park City, Utah, last weekend, hosted by the former candidate, turned into a mini-mutiny, with Meg Whitman, the billionaire CEO of Hewlett-Packard, comparing Trump to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, according to a report by Politico. And another high-profile female Republican donor, Ana Navarro, called him a “racist,” “vulgarian” and “pig.”
During the primaries, Trump eschewed traditional organizing principles, putting his faith in his celebrity and media profile to bring out voters rather than canvassers and operatives on the ground. But his reluctance—or inability—to spend money is already showing in the general campaign. By the end of April, Clinton had 10 times as many salaried employes, 732 versus his 70, and Trump’s expenditures of $57 million were about a third of her $182 million. And as of last week, the billionaire still hadn’t hired state directors for battlegrounds like Ohio and Colorado.
In the wake of their 2012 drubbing at the hands of Barack Obama, the Republican Party commissioned a post-mortem. Not only did they put up a divisive and unlikeable candidate, the report found, but they were driving down a demographic dead end. Hispanic voters, who made up 10 per cent of the electorate in 2012, voted against Romney in massive numbers, with 71 per cent supporting Obama. And among African-Americans, who made up 13 per cent of the electorate, it was even more one-sided, with the Democrats taking 93 per cent of their votes. The only category that Romney carried was white men, 52 per cent to Obama’s 45 per cent. The consensus was that Republicans need to widen their base, desperately.
The 2016 electorate will be the most-diverse in U.S. history, with 31 per cent of voters being Asian, black, Hispanic or another minority. Yet under Trump, there is no indication that the party will make any advances at all. In fact, they might well go backwards. The demonization of Mexicans as criminals and rapists, along with the promise to build a border wall, isn’t going to bring in many Hispanics. Ditto for Muslims and the immigration ban. A recent NBC News poll found 86 per cent of African-Americans have a negative view of Trump.
But the billionaire’s success in driving out his vote for the Republican primaries has given rise to a new theory: that his plan is to push the Republicans over the finish line by running up its totals among the one group it reliably wins—working-class whites.
Sean Trende, an analyst for RealClearPolitics, looked at the exit-poll numbers and concluded that the biggest difference between George W. Bush’s 2004 victory and Romney’s 2012 loss was not increased diversity, but the millions of white people who stayed home—their turnout was 6.2 per cent below projections. Trende concluded that the people who didn’t get off the couch for Romney were “largely downscale, northern, rural whites. In other words, H. Ross Perot voters.” These people are also the types once known as Reagan Democrats: blue-collars who have been alienated on cultural issues. A patrician eastern elitist like Romney couldn’t appeal to them. But Trump, who shares their suspicion of immigration and free trade, is a different matter. “I think Trump has a visceral feel for these politics,” Trende told Maclean’s.
But even if he was to maximize the Republicans’ share of that angry, reality-TV-loving demographic, Trump will have a tough time forging a path to victory. “It’s pretty clear he’s running a campaign straight out of the 1970s New York ethnic Democrat/rust-belt Democrat playbook,” says Trende. “I’m just not sure he understands how much the country has changed.”
The complicated math that underpins America’s Electoral College system is also stacked against the Republicans. There are 19 states that the Democrats have carried for the past six elections. Throw in the District of Columbia and that totals 242 college votes, just 28 short of victory. Florida, where Clinton currently enjoys a slim lead, has 29 and could easily make her president.
Trump, on the other hand, has a much steeper climb. The 13 states that the Republicans have won since 1992 bring in just 102 college votes, meaning he needs to find 168 more in parts of the country like New Mexico, where Latinos make up 40 per cent of the electorate, or Arizona, where they are 22 per cent.
Trump’s gamble in focusing on terrorism and Muslim immigration is that he can leverage the fact that America’s makeup is changing. But it might well be a final hurrah. A 2015 study by a University of New Hampshire demographer found that while whites made up 62 per cent of the U.S. population, they accounted for 78 per cent of deaths. An aging white populace and falling birth rates mean that the current majority will be a minority within 30 years. Jane Junn, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California, who studies immigration and public opinion, says she thinks she understands Trump’s appeal. “People feel like they’re losing their dominance. They want it to be like it was 50 years ago, when whites were on top.”
Trump may well push buttons on immigration—it’s easy enough to manipulate opinions on the subject, says Junn, since the public knows little about government policy or how the system actually works. But in seeking to ban all Muslims simply on the basis of their religion, the billionaire has probably already gone too far. “The American people can be reactionary, but they’re serious about rights like religion and free expression,” says Junn. Might they overlook such constitutional concerns to elect Donald Trump as president? “We might be stupid, but we’re not that stupid,” she says.
Even after Orlando, the conventional wisdom remains that the November election is the Democrats’ to lose. “If their nominee was anyone but Hillary Clinton, the Trump candidacy would be over by now,” says the Naval War College’s Tom Nichols. “But Trump’s floor is set by the loathing people have for her.”