Commentary: Can exploiting fears work for Trump? We’ll find out.

The nation’s establishment appears to have reached a judgment about presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump: His appalling behavior after the Orlando, Florida, nightclub tragedy has discredited him and rendered him unfit for the White House. 

Do voters agree? It’s not clear yet. 

Leading Republicans are expressing shame and embarrassment over Trump’s remarks.  After Trump addressed the terrorism threat on Monday, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, one of Trump’s few supporters in the Senate, , “It wasn’t the type [of speech] one would expect a person who is wanting to lead the greatest nation in the world to make.”

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, recognized as a leading authority on national security, , “I don’t think he has the judgment, the temperament or the experience to deal with what we’re facing.”

It was  shocking to hear Trump congratulate himself after the Orlando tragedy. He , “I’ve been a pretty good prognosticator as to what’s going to be happening.” Trump’s about President Barack Obama’s loyalties were viewed by many analysts as outrageous:  “President Obama claims to know our enemy and yet he continues to prioritize our enemy over our allies and, for that matter, the American people.” 

How’s this for an insinuation: “We’re led by a man that is either not tough, not smart or has something else in mind.” Something else? “There’s something going on,” Trump hinted ominously.

“Even in a time of divided politics,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Trump’s prospective Democratic opponent, , “this is way beyond anything that should be said by someone running for president of the United States.”

Of course, Trump doesn’t care what the establishment thinks.  Voters are aware of that.  In a , taken just before and just after the Orlando massacre, nearly two thirds of the public said they expect Trump “to say more things that upset Republicans” rather than  “tone down what he says to be less inflammatory.”

The Bloomberg poll shows Clinton leading Trump by 12 percentage points (49 percent to 37 percent). But the poll also reveals some potential problems for the Democrat.  When asked which candidate would better “combat terrorist threats at home and abroad,” Trump edged slightly ahead of Clinton (50 percent to 45 percent). When voters were asked which candidate they would have more confidence in to deal with “a situation similar to the Orlando shootings,” the same thing happened: 45 percent said Trump and 41 percent said Clinton. 

Trump knows exactly what he is doing. He is exploiting fear. He on Monday, “Can you imagine what [Muslim immigrants] will do in large groups, which we’re allowing now to come here? . . . There will be nothing, absolutely nothing, left.”

If, sadly, there are more deadly terrorist incidents in the months before Election Day, or another attack close to it, it’s hard to predict how voters would respond. 

One expert on the psychology of terrorism  that people could rely on “emotional reasoning, as opposed to thinking through these issues rationally.” Inhibitions against voting for a demagogue could weaken. Fearful voters might declare, “We can’t go on like this.” And then vote for Trump as the candidate of change.

There is another ominous sign for Clinton in the polls: a rising level of dissatisfaction with the choice between Clinton and Trump. A , which also shows Clinton leading Trump by 12 percentage points (45 percent to 33 percent), finds 22 percent of likely voters saying they won’t support either major party candidate. An has Clinton ahead by 7 percentage points, but when offered the unnamed choice of “another candidate,” 20 percent take it, and Clinton’s lead shrinks to just one point. 

What other candidate?  Both the NBC News poll and the Bloomberg poll show 9 percent voting for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian contender. The NBC poll also shows 9 percent for Johnson and another 5 percent for Green Party candidate, Jill Stein. Neither Johnson nor Stein can win. But right now, they seem to be taking more votes from Clinton than from Trump. In the NBC poll, Clinton’s lead drops from seven to four percentage points when third-party candidates are offered as options.

The 2016 general election is likely to be extraordinarily harsh and negative. The best issue Trump and Clinton may have is who their opponent is. When a campaign is overwhelmed with vicious negative attacks, voters often look for new alternatives. 

Suppose Johnson’s support grows to 15 percent in the polls. Then he would be invited to participate in the debates this fall. He may be seen as a new face and an equal contender with Clinton and Trump. Johnson may start drawing more support. That’s what happened in 1992 after Ross Perot, an independent candidate, was included in the debates.

Johnson would become a wild card, like Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in the 2000 election. Nader took more votes from the Democrat, Vice President Al Gore, and ended up throwing Florida — and the election — to George W. Bush. Johnson could become the Nader of 2016.

Trump traffics in fear. This week, Clinton urged Americans to reject the politics of fear and , just as the country did after Pearl Harbor and 9/11. The country did come together after those attacks. But they had other consequences as well.

After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government interned Japanese-American citizens. After 9/11, many Americans ended up supporting something they had never supported before — a pre-emptive war. When the Bush administration argued that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was somehow implicated in 9/11, the United States invaded Iraq. It was the worst foreign policy blunder since Vietnam. 

When politicians exploit fear, it can have dangerous consequences.

About the Author

Bill Schneider is a visiting professor in the Communication Studies Department at the University of California — Los Angeles.

The views expressed in this article are not those of News.