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No, The Terrorist Attacks In Belgium Don't Mean Donald Trump Will Be President

Donald Trump waves Monday after addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's policy conference in Washington, D.C.
Saul Loeb
AFP/Getty Images
Donald Trump waves Monday after addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's policy conference in Washington, D.C.

In the immediate aftermath of the Brussels bombings, Donald Trump mentioned something he likes to talk about — polls.

"Well first of all, this is a subject that is very near and dear to my heart, because I've been talking about it, certainly much more than anybody else, and it's why I'm probably No. 1 in the polls, because of the fact that I say we have to have strong borders," Trump said Tuesday morning on NBC's Today show.

That was hours after it had become clear that at least a dozen people were killed in the attack on the Belgian capital's transit system and airport. When pressed on what he would do as president in response to such an attack, Trump said he would not allow "certain people to come into this country without absolute perfect documentation."

It was Trump once again turning to protectionism as a way of dealing with the world. Back in December — following the Paris terrorist attacks and the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., by a husband-and-wife team sympathetic to ISIS — Trump proposed a controversial ban on Muslims entering the United States.

Trump has said he would "bomb the s***" out of ISIS, but he also flirted with isolationism Monday in a trip to Washington, D.C. In an editorial board meeting with the Washington Post, he questioned whether the U.S. should continue to be involved with NATO, the military alliance formed almost 70 years ago as a way to respond to the potential threat posed by the former Soviet Union. NATO is headquartered in Brussels.

Though Trump has a selective reading of polls — ones he likes, he trumpets, ones he doesn't, he ignores — he's certainly No. 1 in the GOP primary. And his appeal-to-the-gut campaigning following Paris and San Bernardino has helped him vault to the lead.

But does that mean a focus on terrorism will help Trump become president? That's far less likely. It's dangerous to draw parallels between what you see in a primary and what you will see in a general election.

Trump is the clear Republican front-runner.

No doubt. Trump is certainly "No. 1" in the polls that matter most to his immediate political future — voting in the GOP primary. Trump has gotten the most votes on the Republican side of the race by far, helping him accumulate the most delegates. He is the only candidate with a clear path to winning the most delegates heading into the Republican convention in Cleveland this summer. His campaign got a shot in the arm after Paris and San Bernardino. Just look at the poll numbers after Nov. 13 (when Paris happened). They jumped almost 50 percent by Christmas in national polls, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average:

There's a big reason for this. Republican voters have been ranking terrorism as a top issue since the campaign began more than a year ago. They believe President Obama's handling of foreign policy and terrorism have been disastrous for the country, and are frustrated that he could be re-elected twice when it is so painfully obvious to them how wrong Obama is on national security. (Think: ISIS, Iran, Libya.) And along comes Trump, channeling what the base feels in a way no other candidate can quite articulate.

This didn't start with Trump. Look back to the debate over "profiling."

It's hard to remember, but this isn't the first time there's been an argument in this country over what to do about — and who's to blame for — terrorism. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, George W. Bush tried to calm Americans' fears, especially as they related to fellow Americans who were Muslim. He went to a mosque shortly after Sept. 11 and declared solidarity. (Still, the FBI began to monitor some mosques and cities like New York landed in controversy after its keeping tabs on Muslim neighborhoods and listening in on mosques.)

Along came the 2008 election, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. After the Fort Hood shooting in 2009, it was all thrown out into the open when Palin, John McCain's 2008 vice-presidential pick, said on Fox, "I think it was quite unfortunate that, to me, it was a fear of being politically incorrect to not, I'm going to use the word — 'profile' the guy."

The day after Trump called for his Muslim ban, Palin wanted to be sure to remind everyone what she had called for back then. "Trump's temporary ban proposal is in the context of doing all we can to force the Feds to acknowledge their lack of strategy to deal with terrorism," Palin wrote in a Facebook post in December.

It became a hot topic in the GOP primary in 2012. Rick Santorum, among other candidates, endorsed the idea. During a November 2011 primary debate, talk show host and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, who is black, said bluntly: "If you take a look at the people who are trying to kill us, it would be easy to figure out exactly what that identification profile looks like."

Of course, not everyone agrees that "profiling" works. And Obama was re-elected handily in 2012.

Banking on it becoming a top issue

Since the rise of ISIS, and for the first time since Sept. 11 according to some polling, fears over terrorism have overtaken other concerns, like the economy (which has been steadily improving).

According to Gallup, a week after the San Bernardino attacks in December, 16 percent of Americans rated terrorism as their top concern. That was the highest level in a decade — when Iraq was descending into civil war and the threat of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden still loomed.

Democrats are generally satisfied with the direction of the country and President Obama, and concerns over terrorism have largely been fueled by Republicans. But Democrats are increasingly expressing concerns about it, too.

A question of message and competence

/ ABC/Washington Post
ABC/Washington Post

Still, back in November, after Paris, with the broader electorate, Hillary Clinton — for all the criticism of her handling of the consulate attack in Benghazi — was still viewed as more trusted to handle issues of terrorism than Trump by a 50-42 percent margin, according to an ABC-Washington Post poll. Clinton is trying to make the case that she's to the right of Obama, who's foreign-policy approval has suffered since the rise of ISIS, and to the left of saber-rattling Republicans.

As for Trump's actual policies, more recent polling might tell the story of the divided electorate — and the difference between GOP primary voters and the wider general-election voters.

/ ABC/Washington Post
ABC/Washington Post

A March ABC-Washington Post poll found that 59 percent of Republicans think Trump's ban is the right thing to do. But the same number of Americans overall (60 percent) and independents (59 percent) say it's wrong.

It's impossible to predict the future. Republicans hope concerns over terrorism will finally start to resonate more with independents and Democrats and move the electorate in their favor. But the debate hasn't even been had yet between the Democratic and Republican nominees.

And Trump is a wildcard. He hopes Americans will side with his blunt talk and emotional "common sense" appeals. But Clinton, if she's the nominee, is betting she can win the temperament and competence argument when it comes to foreign affairs — and will try to strike out a middle road.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.