Sunday morning, most Americans woke up (myself included) to hearing about a gunman opening fire on a crowded gay nightclub in Orlando. The death toll currently stands at 49. Not content to merely slaughter members of the community, the gunman took hostages and held out for 3 hours until he was killed by SWAT members.
The gunman, positively identified as Omar Mateen,was college educated, an American citizen and Muslim. He had twice been investigated by the FBI for having terrorist ties but both times was deemed no threat. The firearms he used, a pistol and a semi-auto AR-15 (the media thinks any rifle is a full-auto) were both purchased legally and he passed background checks with flying colors.
By all accounts, Mateen was clearly radicalized at some point (his father disagrees). He made a call to the Islamic State during the attack and posted supportive posts of ISIS on Twitter and Facebook before the attack. It has come out he visited Saudi Arabia twice before the attack.
Such a heinous attack could not be left alone by talking heads or politicians and sure enough the two biggest headliners of 2016, Clinton and Trump, waded in. Clinton took to issuing a statement of condolence and waiting for more of the facts to come out. Trump, well, he was Trump.
Trump used his Twitter to congratulate himself on the fact he was right that terror attacks by Muslims will continue. Soon after though, he issued several follow-up tweets focused on sounding tough on national security and terrorism. Ironically, the President agrees with Trump for once and said, “Although it’s still early in the investigation, we know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate and as Americans, we are united in grief, in outrage, and in resolve to defend our people.”
Unsurprisingly, the media condemned Trump’s self-congratulatory comments and came down on the side of Clinton. Trump’s lack of empathy seemed to be many outlets primary concern. They appreciated Clinton’s nuanced statements vs. the Donald’s “reckless” calls for banning Muslims and saying the President should resign for not saying this attack was due to Radical Islam.
Here’s the thing. I don’t think the media has the faintest clue what the public wants or how it will react. They can read polls and interview people until they are blue in the face but there is limited precedent for what the public will do or how it feels.
However, some observations can be gleaned. More likely than not the public will gravitate towards the candidate that sounds tougher on terror and Radical Islam (Trump wins there). A cool and calm approach, manifested over and over by Obama, has been praised by the media but rarely has the public given him high marks on handling a crisis.
This is not an assumption made in a vacuum. Political scientists have studied the impacts of terrorist attacks on elections and discovered it makes the public act in 3 relevant ways. First, the public becomes less trusting of each other. Second, they rally around a sitting executive (witness Bush and 9/11 and Clinton and the Oklahoma City Bombing). Lastly, they tend to become more hawkish at the expense of civil liberties.
This should benefit the bombastic Trump despite the overwhelmingly negative perception of the media regarding his response. Empathy is great and all, but empathy does not keep the public safe from external threats. Nor does it make the threats go away.
Another observation, perhaps more obvious than the first, is that the tragedy will be used as a political tool by both pro-gun and pro-gun control groups. The Daily Mail, New York’s hometown newspaper, printed a paper with the headline, “Thanks NRA. Because of your continued opposition to an assault rifle ban, terrorists like this Lunatic can legally buy a killing machine and perpetrate the worst mass shooting in US history.” Never-mind, he passed background checks and used a semi-automatic rifle, not a full out assault rifle making the Mail’s rant of an article irrelevant.
Pro-gun advocates have not been as stupid in their responses and have kept a low profile since the incident. At least as of yet they have not blamed the nightclub being a gun-free zone as the culprit.
The Daily Mail is not widely representative of the media but combined with the responses of the many media elites (like Chris Cillizza here) it does form a pattern. A pattern where their personal opinions bias their responses and their judgement. In turn, they show they have no idea what the public thinks, will do, or respond when the time comes to vote due to tragedies like Orlando. As I said before, empathy is great and voters want their leaders to have it, but they also want their leaders to be strong and able to defend them and their loves ones.