The media has spilled gallons of ink diagnosing the national mood and how it explains the rise and rise of Donald Trump. The consensus view is that Trump is capitalizing on American’s fears (and their bigotry) to stoke his support. But what if that diagnosis is wrong? What if Americans aren’t afraid, but angry?
USA Today published an editorial this week titled “Trump, fear-monger in chief.” The thrust of their argument is that Trump is channeling “Americans’ worst impulses and their greatest fears.” The editorial board says it’s understandable Americans are shaken by the San Bernardino terror attack but that doesn’t justify “an ever-escalating flood of fear-mongering.”
If you look around the media landscape the idea that Americans are reacting in fear is a pretty common conclusion. The Arizona Republic‘s editorial board took it a bit further writing, “Donald Trump is not the problem. The problem is the popular wind behind him…” In other words, the problem is Americans. And the problem with Americans is their fear.
The only problem with this sweeping national psychoanalysis is that it’s not true. In fact, it has the national mood exactly backwards. Americans are not afraid, they are angry.
A CNN/ORC poll published the same day as USA Today’s “fear-monger” editorial found 53 percent of Americans support sending ground troops to fight ISIS. That was a 7-point increase from last month.
Not surprisingly, there was a noteworthy partisan divide on the question with 75 percent of Republicans supporting ground troops versus 39 percent of Democrats. That latter figure should be a wake-up call to editorial boards everywhere. Americans are in a belligerent mood if nearly 40 percent of war weary Democrats are ready to send troops back to Iraq.
Americans aren’t afraid of Muslims, they are fighting mad at ISIS. They are angry at the loss of life in San Bernardino and Paris and they are sickened by the wanton brutality on display in ISIS propaganda videos. Let’s recall that we’ve seen multiple beheadings of Christians, burning a captive prisoner alive and the routine sexual slavery of young girls. Given the provocation, it’s surprising only 75 percent of Republicans want to send troops.
The Wrong Man for the Moment
Another finding in that CNN poll is that 64 percent of the country disapproves of how President Obama is handling ISIS. Here again there was a wide partisan split with the President getting just 7 percent approval from Republicans versus 63 percent approval from Democrats.
President Obama has seemed increasingly ill-suited to the recent shift in the public’s mood. He suggested at a press conference in Turkey that all his critics offer in the fight against ISIS is tough talk. What he seems to be missing is the majority of Americans who want not only tougher talk but tougher actions to follow. Instead, President Obama keeps offering a measured, slow-and-steady approach that many military experts and even supporters of his administration say is failing and insufficient.
It’s not just the President’s actions that don’t suit the current mood, it’s also his bloodless tone. It was noted by many observers that the only time he seemed truly upset when speaking about the bloodbath in Paris was when discussing Republicans. That’s a fight the President’s emotions seem to be engaged in, the one with ISIS terrorists is one he has been downplaying from the beginning.
Recall that two years ago the President was referring to ISIS as the JV team. And in a major address on ISIS last September he suggested ISIS was only an imminent threat to the region. More recently he claimed that threat was contained. The President always seems to be a day late and a dollar short when it comes to dealing with ISIS.
Given the shift in the national mood is it any surprise that Donald Trump is doing well in the polls? Trump’s problems as a candidate have been cataloged extensively but one thing he is not is a shrinking violet. It may not be clear what his plan is for dealing with ISIS but the tone is clear. Like a lot of Americans he seems to be tired of watching the school bully brutalize and threaten everyone on the playground while the largest adult on campus stands back at a safe distance and promises gradual change.
It’s certainly fair to question the wisdom of Trump’s pronouncements about keeping Muslims out of the country but it’s a mistake to take this as a sign of public fear. A better word for it might be impatience. Trump is getting support from voters who want America to be less circumspect and more aggressive in dealing with our enemies. As the poll above shows, that doesn’t mean shutting the gates and hiding. It just means stepping up to the threat wherever it exists.
To sum up, half the country thinks President is doing a poor job in projecting American power to deal with ISIS. Into that vacuum of leadership steps Donald Trump, a candidate who seems to possess some of the fighting spirit they feel themselves after watching one outrageous terror attack after another. Americans aren’t afraid of ISIS; they wish ISIS to be more afraid of us.