How Donald Trump Is Using the Orlando Shooting to His Advantage

June 14th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

The Orlando mass shooting is the latest in a series of deadly attacks, which presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has attempted to exploit for political gain.


In speeches and statements, Trump has repeatedly claimed that his policy proposals — a ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S. and a return to political incorrectness, for example — would bolster national security and prevent future attacks. The first piece of evidence that Trump saw the Orlando attack as a political opportunity came in the form of a self-congratulatory tweet posted hours after reports emerged about America's deadliest mass shooting.

"Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism," Trump wrote, "I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!"

Pay attention to the language Trump uses — the emphasis on "radical Islamic terrorism," "toughness," and "vigilance."

As editor David Remnick wrote on Sunday for the New Yorker, "With every month, it has become clearer that Trump is a makeshift politician, whose rancid wit resides in his willingness to say whatever it takes to arouse the fears of a political base." This comes into sharp focus in Trump's responses to attacks like the one that tore through Pulse on Sunday.

"Since Trump has ascended, it’s been clear that his demagogic instincts could be tested precisely by the sort of tragedy suffered in Orlando," Remnick pointed out. "And, when faced with the path of modesty and the path of dark opportunism, he has chosen the latter."

This "dark opportunism" was on full display in a Monday speech, which touched on both foreign policy and the Orlando tragedy.

"The bottom line is that Hillary supports policies that bring the threat of radical Islam into American and allow it to grow overseas, and it is growing," Trump said during a speech on Monday. "In fact, Hillary Clinton’s catastrophic immigration plan will bring vastly more radical Islamic immigration into this country, threatening not only our society but our entire way of life. When it comes to radical Islamic terrorism, ignorance is not bliss. It’s deadly — totally deadly."

This isn't the first time Trump has used terrorist acts to heighten his platform and undermine his opponents. (To be fair, Clinton has also questioned Trump's leadership in the context of tragedies such as the Orlando massacre.) But he is distinctly aware of the political opportunity this kind of event represents — even acknowledging that his numbers went "way up" following the December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino.

"I'm gonna get people jobs and I'm going to protect people," Trump told CNN after the San Bernardino shooting. "And that's why whenever there's a tragedy, everything goes up — my numbers go way up because we have no strength in this country, we have weak, sad politicians."

Whether or not Trump's strategy will be effective is another matter entirely.

The extent to which Trump's response to the Orlando shooting will actually help him is yet to be seen, of course. He rose three points in national polls in the first two week after the San Bernardino shooting, according to RealClearPolitics, but it is difficult to differentiate between causation and correlation in that respect.


Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo comes from another perspective that's worth reading in full here. While "[c]limates of fear and threat do frequently, though not always, buoy parties of the right," he argues that Trump's temperament (as well as his national security policy) will inform how voters respond to the presumptive Republican presidential candidate post-Orlando.

Here's Marshall's argument in a nutshell:

"Some of you might be saying, You're being naive: fear sells. You're missing my point. Of course it does. But Trump's emotional instability, his temperament largely prevents him from effectively selling it. More than benefiting from a climate of fear, I suspect he is driving home what already worries voters, what is already his singular vulnerability: he lacks the temperament and emotional stability to be president."

What's more, Marshall continues, Clinton is widely believed to have the right temperament for the presidency in polling. She's also consistently viewed as "tough," which means "she's well positioned to withstand hard attacks on this front."


"Of course, Trump could surprise us and present a forceful case about national security that signals a readiness to handle the responsibilities of the presidential office," Marshall writes. "But if we've learned nothing else over the last year, Trump will always be Trump. So that seems unlikely."

Beyond Trump's ability to effectively wield fear as a political tool, he also has another road block: broadening the base that he sells to. Politico's national political reporter Eli Stokols explained the issue with Trump's rhetoric on KPCC's "AirTalk" on Tuesday morning.

"Trump seems to be — even though he's had this nomination wrapped up for six weeks — seems to still be be playing to the Republican base and people who come to his rallies," Stokols said. "He remains in this bubble."

Trump, Stokols points out, turned 70 on Tuesday, and is likely stuck in his ways. This makes changing his rhetoric and how he delivers it difficult. While there are voters in Rust Belt states that might be swayed by Trump, there are others who are being alienated by him.

Stokols pointed out that while Trump's rhetoric may "hearten support with his base," it is also "probably making it that much tougher for him to broaden beyond that base."

RELATED: The Big Problem With Donald Trump's Orlando Tweets