Fear, a complex web of neurological responses designed to aid survival, may well be the most powerful of human emotions. The reactions inspired by fear may not be entirely rational. Indeed, they may be the opposite: a suite of thoughtless, primal, survival-of-the-fittest impulses that aided humankind thousands of years ago, when our ancestors were as much prey as predator, but which make holding together a modern civilization more difficult.
Donald Trump has a canny, gut-level appreciation for the power of fear, as he has shown through his reckless and noxious tactics since the terrorist atrocity in an Orlando nightclub that left 50 people, including the accused terrorist, dead. Trump has hurled about the most vile and mendacious charges, suggesting, with barely a wink, that President Barack Obama is in league with Islamist terrorists. He has congratulated himself for his smears against Muslims. He has reveled in rejecting basic American values and constitutional restraints.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee is betting that even decent Americans are so frightened by the latest terrorist assault that they will abandon their previous reservations about him and go with the guy who promises security. Is he right?
There are encouraging signs that Americans are more honorable, rational and resilient than that. Following Trump's rancid repetitions of his earlier call for a ban on Muslim immigration and his insistence that the president comprises a fifth column (and that came after a week of racist rants against a Latino federal judge, Gonzalo Curiel), Trump's unfavorable ratings have soared and Clinton has gained support. A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in the immediate aftermath of the Orlando massacre shows that 70 percent of voters view Trump unfavorably, an unprecedented unpopularity for a presumptive nominee. Clinton no doubt takes comfort in that -- as do I.
But she shouldn't bet that Trump's latest outbursts will automatically consign him to defeat in November. After all, her husband, Bill Clinton, perhaps the most astute politician of his generation, once said: "When people are insecure, they'd rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who's weak and right."
Many mainstream, middle-of-the-road voters know they ought to reject Trump, but that doesn't mean they will. That's especially true because of the nature of the threat presented by homegrown lone wolves, people who are born in this country and who present themselves to most observers as law-abiding and patriotic.
Clinton will have to find a campaign footing that is more anchored in voters' concerns about national security than her Democratic primary campaign was; in response to a sharp challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders, she focused largely on economic issues. For the general election, she will have to devote more of her energy to confronting Americans' insecurities and fears of terrorism -- overblown though they may be.
Obama hasn't done that as well as he might have. The president has done much to improve actual security; he not only sent U.S. Navy SEALs after Osama bin Laden, he has also commanded a drone program that has killed far more terrorists than his predecessor did. But Obama, a committed rationalist, has eschewed the role of Daddy-in-Chief -- the fierce protector who makes his charges feel safe by attending to their emotional needs. He believes that American adults ought to know better than to freak out over remote risks. Yet, it is part of his job as a politician to consider his constituents' feelings, including those that are not entirely rational.
(In his defense, Obama remembers that the invasion of Iraq was driven, in large part, by the irrational fears and outsized anger that followed 9/11, when the pursuit of bin Laden was abandoned for the pursuit of Saddam Hussein. Never mind that Saddam was no holy warrior or fan of al-Qaida. He was Arab and, therefore, suspect. The consequences of George W. Bush's decision to depose Saddam live on in the widespread destabilization of the Middle East and the rise, ironically, of ISIS.)
Still, Clinton might take a lesson from Obama's latest rebuke of her rival. In a speech a few days after the Orlando attack, the president -- clearly upset by Trump's outrageous assaults on American values -- abandoned his customary reserve to denounce Islamophobia, reiterate his commitment to fighting terrorism, and brilliantly defend diversity, pluralism and freedom of religion. His passion radiated strength; his righteous indignation reinforced his ideals.
The American public will clearly stand behind strong and right.