(CNN)There’s a tradition of not injecting political comment into terror incidents, out of deference to those affected. But let’s not be naïve. The wave of attacks that occurred over the weekend are the context to this presidential election. They are one of the reasons why Hillary Clinton’s politics seem out of date and Donald Trump’s seem more relevant.
We still don’t know who was behind the bombing in New York, explosion and abandoned devices in New Jersey, or the stabbings in Minnesota — but even if officials have been reluctant to speculate, Americans will be connecting dots and arriving at their own conclusions.
In short, Trump sounds like he understands the public’s concerns. Clinton sounds bureaucratic. Worse, it’s the bureaucratic tone of a foreign policy establishment that has presided over the apparent decline in American security. Some voters feel that Clinton and her ilk put the US on the frontline of the terror conflict by voting for the Iraq War. That she helped expand that conflict with the bungled removal of Gaddafi from power in Libya. And that the US’s vacillating involvement in Syria both weakened dictator Bashar al-Assad yet failed to remove him, stoking a civil war that gave rise to ISIS. All of these readings of history are highly subjective and questionable. But they are believed verbatim by a significant rump of voters and have bled into wider public opinion. It can be summed up as: “Hillary’s been around ever since this trouble started. Trump wants to end it.”
Security is his strongest issue. His economic protectionism appeals mostly to those affected by foreign competition in the declining rustbelt and won’t be what he wins on if he wins. His pledge to build a wall along the Mexican border, however, might be couched as a defence of American jobs and sound like xenophobia — but it subconsciously taps into concerns about security. A nation that can’t control who comes in or out isn’t a nation at all. Nativist campaigns against immigration in the past have often accused arrivals of importing foreign conflicts. Italians were thought to bring the mafia, for instance. So by linking the threat of Islamism to open borders, Trump is articulating ancient fears of “the other”.
Liberals may condemn Trump for exploiting such worries, but they would be fools to dismiss the concern itself. It is real. It is justified by the Islamist campaign. And liberals might need to rethink how they articulate their own response to the situation. Technically, Clinton’s was correct — thoughtful, authoritative. But in the present circumstances, Trump’s was emotionally more apposite. The context to this election is terror in every meaning of the word. Trump has understood that from the very beginning.