"I actually think because this is getting cast as terrorism, his response will work with a lot of people," said one Democratic pollster, echoing a sentiment that I have heard a lot over the past 24 hours.
And, judging from Trump's tweets and public statements over the past 24 hours, it's clear that he believes empathy isn't really what people are looking for anymore. "Look, we're led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he's got something else in mind," Trump said on Fox News on Monday morning. He had previously called for Obama to resign over his handling of the Orlando terrorism incident. And his Twitter feed is filled with lots of this sort of rhetoric:
What has happened in Orlando is just the beginning. Our leadership is weak and ineffective. I called it and asked for the ban. Must be tough— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 12, 2016
Why? Because Trump believes that if past is prologue, then zigging while all other politicians (including everyone in his party) zags is the right thing to do. That conventional wisdom about this election and what voters want remains wildly off and only he truly understands that people want strength and leadership, not empathy.
It's worked once before for Trump. Just as his campaign appeared to have lost momentum in late 2015, the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., happened in rapid succession. Most pols' reactions were to offer sympathy and support for the dead and wounded while insisting that good will always be stronger than evil in our world.
Trump? He proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. That plan was greeted by the political world with reactions ranging from eye-rolling to outrage. Politically speaking, however, it worked. Trump experienced a surge in the polls that he never relinquished.
And there is some polling evidence that suggests people want unapologetic strength and decisive action when it comes to terrorist attacks. In the aftermath of Orlando, Trump had repeatedly seized on President Obama's unwillingness to say America is at war with "radical Islam" as a sign that the current commander in chief misunderstands — whether intentionally or unintentionally remains a question mark — the threat posed by the Islamic State and other groups like it. Trump is on solid polling ground there. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted after the Paris attacks but before the San Bernardino shooting last winter found that 6 in 10 Americans said we are at war with radical Islam while 37 percent said we were not. Almost two-thirds of Republicans (63 percent) and independents (62 percent) agreed with the idea that the United States is at war.
If Trump is right, it marks a total 180 from conventional wisdom about how politicians need to react in the face of national tragedies. Rather than trying to bring the country together — an impossible task but a sentiment that all politicians including Hillary Clinton usually express post-tragedy — Trump is using what happened in Orlando to make a broader point about the failure of leadership in the country.
Trump's lack of empathy, which I wrote yesterday could doom him in his attempts to reach out beyond his coalition of most-loyal supporters, will only doom him if people are looking for empathy out of their political leaders. They almost always have. But someone like Trump has never existed before in modern presidential politics — a person willing to not only break the rules of political discourse but do so with pleasure and success.
Count me as (still) skeptical that such an approach works beyond Trump's already committed base of support. But Trump hasn't done much that made conventional political sense in this campaign. And politically speaking, he's been right more times than he's been wrong.