If Donald Trump had really gone too far with his statements about banning Muslims from America’s shores, we’d know what that would look like. Instead, the reaction from his GOP rivals has pretty much looked like what we’ve seen: Trump says something no politician would dare say, his opponents declare it out-of-bounds, the press covers it all, and Trump gets stronger. J.K. Rowling says Trump is worse than Voldemort, the GOP party chairs in South Carolina and New Hampshire have spoken out against him, but his rivals have only mildly escalated their rhetoric from what they've said before.
The Republican foreign policy response to the threat from ISIS and the Obama years has been a call for strength, conviction, and clarity—everything they think President Obama lacks. Trump has been presenting himself as the anti-Obama. He says that when Americans are scared, his poll numbers go up. So Trump is showing he’s the strongest one out there—making the boldest move. Sen. Ted Cruz is pitching in his latest campaign ad that “we won’t cower in the face of evil,” but Trump is going well beyond that to offer an aggressive vision of what not cowering could look like.
Are bedrock American values being trampled by locking Muslims out of the country? Dick Cheney thinks so. He said Trump’s plan “goes against everything we believe in.” The former vice president is no weakling in the rhetorical strength game Trump is playing. But in a competition of values versus security, Trump’s supporters will go with security, judging from the reaction he got Monday night at a rally in South Carolina and from the conversations I have had with them. “These others are boys,” Dennis Beck, a Navy veteran who patrolled the waters off of Cuba during the missile crisis, said to me referring to Trump’s GOP rivals. “He is a man.”
Jeb Bush called Trump “unhinged.” Sen. Marco Rubio disagreed with the proposal and said, “His habit of making offensive and outlandish statements will not bring Americans together.” Gov. Chris Christie called it “a ridiculous position and one that won’t even be productive” on Michael Medved’s radio show.
In the Republican national security debate, all GOP candidates have defined linguistic critiques of their strong rhetoric as a sign of weakness. So when Trump’s opponents respond to his words, he dismisses them as politically correct and ignorant of the realities facing the world. When Trump’s opponents condemn him, they offer his supporters proof that Trump is right. He’s doing what they like about him in the first place—he’s speaking his mind.
If Trump had really gone too far, his opponents would do more than swap out adjectives. They’d give a speech devoted to the topic—or several of them—making an argument in defense of the bedrock American values they say Trump is destroying. Or, they’d make the case that this kind of policy shreds American values in just the way ISIS would like, turning the fight into one between the West and Islam. Privately, the strategists to these campaigns worry that there’s already a cost to Trump’s rhetoric. The cheers Trump gets for his no-Muslims policy send the message overseas that there is a virulent anti-Muslim feeling in America. Forget what the leaders say, goes the thinking, the cheering is the real truth of American sentiment. It will always have sway in a democracy.
Graham has been the candidate most loudly making this case. “He is helping the enemy of this nation. He is empowering radical Islam. And if he knew anything about the world at all, you would know that most Muslims reject this ideology and they have died in—by the thousands trying to combat his radical ideology. You are slanting their sacrifice. You are marginalizing what they are trying to do to make the world a better place. Do you know how you win this war? You side with people in the faith who reject this ideology, which is 99 percent.”
Trump’s rivals pay a price for having been in such constant conflict with him already. When Sen. Lindsey Graham tells Trump to go to hell, it sounds new but not that new from the guy who called Trump a jackass several months ago. When House Speaker Paul Ryan criticizes Trump it gains some weight from its novelty. Ryan hasn’t weighed in on the presidential campaign. “This is not conservatism,” said Ryan. “Some of our best and brightest allies in this struggle and fight against radical Islam terror are Muslims.”
Every GOP presidential candidate has pledged to support Trump if he’s the nominee. No one has changed that view, despite their condemnation of his remarks. I asked a strategist for one of Trump’s rivals why that person’s boss, after heaping so much condemnation on Trump, didn’t announce a refusal to support Trump’s nomination. “What’s to be gained from saying it?” the adviser asked. In other words, there would be no political gain to be made by going that far. Sure, there is a moral case to make that would be amplified by refusing to support Trump if he were the nominee, but the calculation is that in the GOP primary, that would cost too much with voters. But if the political risk of responding to Trump doesn’t embolden them to do anything beside pull out the thesaurus, then voters are apt to think that the underlying offense can’t really be that great.
This would be considered weakness by the definitions used in the primary this year. On the other hand, Trump’s opponents might be practicing tactical restraint. Trump could fall by the accumulation of his dramas. Voters in key voting states might turn away from him as they evaluate candidates based on their temperament and qualifications, not their excitement. Also, given the anxiety created by the San Bernardino, California, attacks, any opponent is at a rhetorical disadvantage when voters are edgy. A full-throated confrontation with Trump could get away from them. He’s better at this than they are. Better to wait, when the emotional turf favors your skills. This is Cruz’s strategy. He said in response to Trump that it was “not my policy.”
Donald Trump takes risks. His opponents are risk-averse. What his actions convey—and it seems to be working for him—is that he’s willing to court chaos in the name of what he believes. If that’s the actual way the electorate works, anyone unwilling to take a similar risk is sending the opposite signal. In this battle of strength, as the campaign has so far defined it, he is winning.