Batting aside criticism from Democrats and other Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Donald Trump has repeatedly since Monday offered a slashing critique of Muslims, including U.S. citizens.
Donald Trump has slipped markedly in polls against Hillary Clinton amid a cascading series of self-inflicted controversies, culminating with his heated call after last weekend’s massacre in Florida for a crackdown on Muslim immigration and for stricter scrutiny of Muslim communities in the United States.
Pollsters caution that it is too soon to know the precise impact of Trump’s response to the attack in Orlando, Fla., in which a gunman declaring allegiance to the Islamic State group killed dozens in a gay nightclub.
But Trump has plainly faltered in his attempts to seize the upper hand over Clinton at the start of the general-election campaign. His fiery speeches targeting Muslims have discomfited Republican Party leaders in Washington, only days after elected officials in both parties chastised him for his denunciations of an Indiana-born federal judge for his “Mexican heritage.”
Batting aside criticism from Democrats and other Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Trump has repeatedly since Monday offered a slashing critique of Muslims, including U.S. citizens. He has argued, without evidence, that many Muslim communities in the United States had advance knowledge of terrorist attacks and declined to report them.
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On Wednesday, Trump renewed his call for surveillance of American Muslims. “We have to go and we have to check, respectfully, the mosques,” he said at a rally in Atlanta.
Trump, who was effectively even with Clinton after becoming the presumptive Republican nominee in May, has trailed by varying margins in the most recent round of polls.
A CBS News poll conducted after the Orlando attack found that 51 percent of Americans disapproved of Trump’s response to the shootings, while only a quarter approved. Clinton drew split marks for her response.
Yet a poll by Bloomberg News also found that by a slim margin, voters said they would trust Trump over Clinton to handle an Orlando-like attack a year from now.
The Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, an adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said Trump might yet tap into Americans’ unease about national security and described the electorate as “frustrated and anxious about security issues.”
“There’s no question that many Americans are ready for something other than standard political patter,” Newhouse said. But he added that Trump had gone “too far” with his conspiratorial rhetoric after Orlando.
Former Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, a Republican who led the state after the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City by domestic terrorists, said Trump had not met the traditional expectations of political leaders responding to violent events.
“Frequently, Trump’s tone is hysterical, and there is simply no reason for that,” Keating said. “Leaders, whether they’re governors or presidents, need to make sure they don’t create a blood-lust hysteria.”
Keating said that some of Trump’s ideas were sound, like scrutinizing people who enter the country, but that he was unsure if he could support the presumptive Republican nominee. In a crisis, he said, “The one thing you don’t do is shout fire in a crowded theater.”
The stakes for Trump in how he responds to a national crisis may be higher than those for a more typical political candidate. Having won the Republican nomination with a combative populist campaign, Trump entered the general election widely seen as a tempestuous figure with none of the conventional seasoning for the presidency.
In polls, voters have consistently questioned whether he has the right temperament to be president, and he is intensely unpopular with most voting groups other than white men.
Clinton has sought to amplify voters’ concerns about Trump, describing him both before and after the Orlando attack as a loose cannon who lacks the judgment to be president.
Campaigning Wednesday along the Virginia coast, Clinton pilloried Trump for his “Twitter rants and conspiracy theories” and called his approach to national security entirely unserious.
“Not one of Donald Trump’s reckless ideas would have saved a single life in Orlando,” she said.
There have been scattered indications that Trump understands that he must, to some degree, adapt his approach for the general election. Even as he has publicly dismissed suggestions that he revise his policy proposals and campaign style, he has seemed, at times, to seek a wider audience for his message.
In his speech Monday in New Hampshire, while warning ominously about Muslim immigration, Trump also pitched himself as a champion of gay and lesbian Americans, whom he described as acutely menaced by the rise of radical Islam.
While he did not abandon his call for a full stop to Muslim immigration to the United States, Trump described his proposal in somewhat more clinical language. Instead of explicitly demanding a religious test for all migrants, he said he would favor cutting off entry from countries with a history of exporting terrorism.
And in a nod to the growing calls — from Democrats and a handful of Republicans — for new gun-control measures, Trump said he would meet with National Rifle Association officials and reiterated his past support for restricting gun purchases by people on terrorism watch lists.
Still, Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and explosive personal style have overshadowed those comparatively modest concessions to mainstream politics. In the tenor of his speeches and his most consequential policy demands, he has hewed closely to the model of his insurgent primary campaign, in which he strung together victories by appealing to a zealous faction of the Republican base that applauded his rejection of political norms.
Despite his comments over the last week, Trump is unlikely to lose any support from that constituency. In the general election, however, he must win over a much larger and more diverse collection of voters who have, so far, rejected his signature proposals.
In the primaries, exit polling showed that strong majorities of Republican voters supported Trump’s suggested ban on Muslim immigrants. But in the CBS and Bloomberg News polls this week, more than three-fifths of voters said they either opposed the ban or were troubled by it.
Professing indifference to the rebukes he has received from his own party, Trump said at his rally Wednesday in Atlanta that Republican leaders should “be quiet” and support him, and raised the prospect of essentially running a one-man campaign if they do not.
“Our leaders have to get tougher,” he said. “This is too tough to do it alone, but you know what? I think I’m going to be forced to.”