Why the Paris Attacks Will Only Boost Donald Trump

His brand of nativism is exactly what GOP voters want right now.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump speaks at the Republican Party of Florida’s Sunshine Summit in Orlando on Nov. 13, 2015.

Photo by Kevin Kolczynski/Reuters

Donald Trump has an answer for Americans scared of a possible terrorist threat from ISIS and frightened by the attacks in Paris: shut down mosques. “I would hate to do it, but it’s something you’re going to have to strongly consider,” said the real estate mogul and Republican presidential candidate on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. He continued: “You’re going to have to watch and study the mosques because a lot of talking is going on at the mosques.”

It’s the latest in a stream of heated rhetoric from Republican candidates and lawmakers on the events in Paris. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz warned that the attacks demand less openness to Syrian refugees. It “makes no sense whatsoever” to bring them to the United States because “our intelligence cannot determine if they are terrorists here to kill us or not.”

“Our enemies are not tired of killing us,” Cruz continued. “ISIS plans to bring these acts of terror to America.” Jeb Bush called for new restrictions on accepting Syrian refugees; instead of taking Muslim and Christian refugees, we should “make sure that Christians from Syria are being protected,” even as the large bulk of ISIS’s victims are Muslims.

Following Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio announced opposition to taking new refugees and declared this conflict a “clash of civilizations” between the West and “radical Islam.” This rhetoric was a far departure from George W. Bush, who refused that language in favor of narrower terms—“terrorists” and “jihadists”—meant to avoid alienating the overwhelming majority of peaceful Muslims.

Trump goes further, though, than Cruz, Bush, or Rubio. It’s one thing to call for new limits and constraints. It’s very different to suggest and endorse action against American citizens. If Trump were irrelevant to the GOP primary—if he were George Pataki or Bobby Jindal, for instance—this wouldn’t matter. But he isn’t. A new Gravis Marketing poll in New Hampshire shows Trump ahead of the pack with 29 percent of the vote. His next closest competitor, Ted Cruz, has 12 percent. Likewise, the Real Clear Politics average of national polls shows Trump with a little more than 24 percent of the vote, followed by Ben Carson with a little more than 23 percent, and trailed by Rubio and Cruz, with 12 percent and nearly 11 percent respectively. Among likely Republican primary voters, says a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, Trump captures 42 percent support.

That’s all to say that what Trump says matters; it shapes expectations among voters and puts pressure on rivals to use even harsher rhetoric. That’s especially true on issues around ethnic and religious pluralism. In the same way that Republican voters like Trump’s position on immigration, there’s also evidence they back him on the mosque question. Eighty-four percent of likely Republican primary voters, for example, say they are less likely to vote for a candidate who is Muslim. And in Iowa, 30 percent of GOP voters think Islam should be outlawed, full stop.

Sober-minded Republicans want to believe that the Paris attacks will shift the GOP race for president. “This reframes the candidate choice in the eyes of many voters,” said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for and adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, in an interview with Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur. “This race could potentially swing away from candidates who were offering the outsider argument and instead swing toward those candidates touting a more serious and substantive agenda with regard to national security and foreign policy.”

“Trump is a candidate for people who think reality TV is reality,” says Danielle Pletka of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Perhaps when they see the faces of the dead, they will realize that in real life, slogans don’t save people. Sound policy does.”

This is wishful thinking. GOP voters are attracted to Trump for his bravado and belligerent rhetoric against real and perceived foreign threats. Far from undermining his campaign, the Paris attacks strengthen the atavistic nationalism that fuels his campaign.

Little new comes under the sun, and our current period in American life is an echo of times past. “An acrid odor of the 1920s is again in the air,” wrote the late historian John Higham on renewed nativist sentiment in the 1988 epilogue to his classic study of American nativism, Strangers in the Land. His survey reflects our decade as well: “It rises from vast fortunes accumulating around new technology; from a grasping individualism eroding traditional constraints on the market; from a reckless hedonism in popular culture and a resurgent religious conservatism mobilizing against it; from a profound distrust of the state, a reviving isolationism, a growing demand for immigration restriction, and a deadlock in race relations.”

These forces produce anxiety and that anxiety produces fear. Donald Trump understands and feeds that fear, which will redound to his benefit in the Republican primary as he positions himself as the deal-maker par excellence who can stand tall against America’s foreign enemies and their alleged internal agents. We can hope that the tragedy in Paris brings some  sanity to our political culture. But looking at where we are, and where we’ve been, I wouldn’t count on it.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Paris attacks.