When Jeb Bush famously described Trump as the "chaos candidate" in late 2015, the former Florida governor meant it as a pejorative. But the truth is that chaos, uncertainty and anxiety will work in Trump's favor over the final 50 days of the presidential camipaign.
Remember that the central idea at the heart of Trump's appeal — once you peel away all the rhetorical excesses and the skin-deep policy proposals — is that politicians are failures. That they are dumb, that they are clueless and that, worst of all, they don't know it. The only antidote, of course, is Trump — someone who doesn't look, sound or act like a politician or anything close to it.
To get voters to sign onto that message and, more challengingly, that messenger, Trump needs external events to affirm his diagnosis of the current state of politics — that it is an utter failure and, not only that, but that the failures of politicians have made the average person less safe.
The events of the past 72 hours — and the wall-to-wall coverage they have occasioned — ensure that lots and lots of people will suddenly be thinking a lot more about their safety and that of their loved ones in the coming weeks. And, anything that happens this close to an election has a potentially bigger effect because more people are paying attention to politics and wondering how the two people who are running to be their future leader would handle unforeseen events.
What Trump promises is, at its root, both tremendously simple and tremendously powerful, politically speaking. The Islamic State is bad. We are going to "knock the hell out of them," in Trump's own words from an appearance on "Fox & Friends" on Monday morning. Trump's positions — such as they exist — on national security issues can be essentially boiled down to: We are going to get tough again, and we are going to win.
Liberal elites roll their eyes at what they believe to be a badly oversimplified (and uninformed) view of the United States and its role in the world. Things are complex, they argue. It's nuanced! You can't just say we are going to knock the hell out of them!
And, from a policy perspective, they are correct. After all, if destroying the Islamic State were as simple as knocking the hell out of them or being tougher, it stands to reason that President Obama already would have done that. That he hasn't tells you that the things promised in a political campaign aren't always deliverable in office. (See wall, Mexico.)
But, but, but. Most people — Democrats and Republicans — share Trump's alienation from politics and politicians. They are convinced, as Trump is, that politics is broken, and none of the people in office right now have any idea how to fix it. Given that, when they turn on the news and are presented with the chaos we have seen over the past three days, the Trump message — "We have to make a change. No choice." — hits home in a way that it wouldn't if most people feel safe and secure.
The most basic dynamic of this race is Clinton as safe, capable and status quo, and Trump as risky, unpredictable and change. The more chaos people see in the country and the world, the more they are willing to throw over Clinton's experience and swallow their doubts about Trump's readiness for office. He truly is the chaos candidate.