How Donald Trump plays the politics of fear

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: Donald Trump's embrace of the politics of fear echoes a dangerous tradition
  • Other Republican candidates need to explain where they stand on the issues that Trump has raised

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)When Republicans gather for their next debate Tuesday, one of the main issues all the candidates should be required to address is what each thinks of the controversial statements and arguments that Donald Trump has made about how to fight ISIS.

Trump has a habit of taking campaign rhetoric to more dramatic places. In response to the horrific series of attacks conducted by ISIS, Trump kept saying things that led observers to ask whether he had finally reached the tipping point of going so far that there would be an electoral backlash.
Julian Zelizer
Last week, Trump said that he would ban all Muslims from traveling to the United States. He has called for a federal registry of Muslims, while also promising to "take out" the families of terrorists. Trump says he would bring back the use of waterboarding. If it didn't work, well, "they deserve it anyway," he said. Trump has complained that Americans are too politically sensitive about profiling people who could be potential terrorist threats and "that's part of the problem we have with our country."
    There has been a noticeably tough response from Republicans. "We need to aggressively take on radical Islamic terrorism but not at the expense of our American values," said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus. "This is not conservatism," said House Speaker Paul Ryan.
    But some are skeptical about where the GOP stands. The New York Times editorial board published a blistering piece about Trump's influence, writing, "The Republican rivals rushing to distance themselves from his latest inflammatory proposal ... have been peddling their own nativist policies for months or years. They have been harshening their campaign speeches and immigration proposals in response to the Trump effect."
    Trump's embrace of the politics of fear is not that surprising. There is a long tradition in campaigns of candidates who have played to the worst sentiments of the electorate during times when there are serious national security threats.