Trump Rises on a Perfect Storm of Public Fear
Policy + Politics

Trump Rises on a Perfect Storm of Public Fear

Rick Wilking

A fresh batch of polls indicates what for Trump is a perfect storm of raging public sentiment over fighting ISIS and what needs to be done – with a surprising number of voters supporting Trump’s views. Here are main points:

  • Americans are freaking out over possible terrorist attacks in this country.
  • They’re sorely disappointed in President Obama’s leadership dealing with ISIS.
  • They’re struggling to come to terms with the controversy within the Republican presidential campaign – all for good reason.

In the span of just nine days, 14 people were killed in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California—the third radical Islamic terror attack on American soil this century. Republican governors and lawmakers as well as some Democrats want to deny Syrian refugees entry into the country. GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump called for a total ban on non-U.S. citizen Muslims attempting to enter the U.S. And Obama continued to offer tepid reassurance that the government was on the case in a 14-minute address from the Oval Office.

Related: Trump, Cruz Are Denounced in Senate for Shutting Out Muslims

Voters are alarmed in ways that haven’t been seen since the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and are polarized on topics ranging from national security and constitutional rights to the traits most needed in the next president to lead the country through this crisis. Despite the outrage vented by many Republicans and Democrats over Trump’s xenophobic rants against Muslims, including his calls for watch lists and mass deportation of illegal immigrants, the national fear and loathing continues to play into his hands.

A fresh batch of polls indicates what for Trump is a perfect storm of raging public sentiment on the crisis at hand and what needs to be done – with a surprising number of voters supporting Trump’s views.

A new Gallup survey shows a sharp decline in the public’s confidence in the government’s ability to protect its citizens from the actions of terrorists. Just 55 percent of people interviewed trust the Obama administration to protect them from terrorists, down 12 percentage points since June and 33 percentage points below what it was in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

Americans are more fearful of another terrorist attack than at any time since 9/11, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll released Thursday; many of them are focusing sharply on the presidential candidates’ leadership qualities to deal with the ongoing crisis. Indeed, more than four in ten likely Republican primary voters say that strong leadership is the most important quality in a candidate—and those voters heavily favor the bellicose, unrestrained Trump.

Related: It’s Not just Trump Playing Fast and Loose with the Facts

The poll found that Trump now has the support of 35 percent of GOP primary voters, a substantial spike in support since late October when he was the choice of just 22 percent of Republicans and trailed retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

The survey was conducted largely before Trump set off an international uproar with his call for temporarily blocking Muslims from entering the country until the government gets a better handle on the terrorist threat to the homeland. But 40 percent of Republican voters said they were very confident in Trump’s ability to handle the threat of terrorism and another 31 percent said they were “somewhat” confident he could handle the job, followed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) who had similar numbers.

The public is jumpy, with more than four in ten saying another attack is very likely to happen in the next few months. And many have lost confidence in Obama and are looking for tough new leadership to address national security threats. Some 57 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of ISIS and seven in ten say the fight is going badly for the U.S.

While Trump has shocked and enraged many in his own party with his call for banning millions of people based on their religion, that proposal nonetheless has gained support from a substantial share of the GOP electorate.

Related: Why Ted Cruz Is Surging in the Polls

According to a new Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, 57 percent of all Americans oppose Trump’s plan to bar Muslims from the U.S, while 25 percent said they favored it. But among likely GOP primary voters, just 39 percent oppose it while 38 percent support the idea. The survey also showed that many Republicans share Trump’s anti-Muslim sentiment. Half of the Republican voters said they have an unfavorable view of Muslims.

The polls validate Trump’s campaign tactics in which no statement he makes– no matter how outrageous or contrary to national values – dampens the ardor of his solid support among some Republicans.

According to the latest cumulative average of national presidential polls by Real Clear Politics,  Trump leads the crowded GOP field of candidates with 30.4 percent, compared to Cruz with just 15.6 percent and Carson and Sen. Marco Rubio with 13.6 percent each. He also leads in a new WBUR survey of New Hampshire GOP voters with 27 percent to 12 percent for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The more his critics denounce him as a dangerous fascist, the harder Trump’s supporters dig in their heels.

That dynamic was well illustrated by a Wednesday focus group of 29 Trump supporters that was organized by GOP media consultant Frank Luntz. Over three hours, Luntz bombarded the Republicans with a series of attack ads – including one likening him to Hitler – and other negative information and arguments against Trump’s candidacy, according to the Washington Post.

Yet the harder Luntz pushed, the harder Trump’s defenders pushed back and blamed the media for distorting his record.

“You know what Trump does?” said Teresa Collier, a 65-year-old retiree. “He says something completely crazy, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God! Then he dials back and starts explaining it and saying how he’d do it and it makes sense.”