Disasters serve as the crucibles in which leaders are tested, and the disappearance of EgyptAir 804—though less than 24 hours old—is already serving that purpose in the presidential race.
Early Thursday morning, before Egyptian authorities (or anyone else) had made any statements about possible causes for the airplane’s disappearance over the Mediterranean, Trump tweeted this:
Looks like yet another terrorist attack. Airplane departed from Paris. When will we get tough, smart and vigilant? Great hate and sickness!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 19, 2016
Trump’s tweet is at once totally irresponsible and politically wily. Speculating on the cause of a crash that killed 66 people, in the absence of any particular information—and Trump makes no claim to have inside information—is bad practice. A president shooting from the hip this way could have catastrophic consequences in international diplomacy or management of the economy. (See, for example, Trump’s apparently unconsidered assertion that he’d meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without preconditions, which rattled foreign-policy hands and which even Trump’s closest allies struggled to defend.)
On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine that Trump’s speculation will help him. Since he tweeted, Egyptian officials have said that they can’t rule anything out, but that terrorism is one plausible explanation for the crash. If that turns out to be the case, Trump will look both tough-talking and clairvoyant—willing to offer uncomfortable truths while others were reticent to speak out. And if it’s a simple mechanical failure? For one thing, many voters may be so desensitized to Trump’s antics that they will just shrug. Besides, Trump is essentially a media creature, and has grasped what pundits realized years ago: Successful predictions earn prestige, and unsuccessful ones carry almost no penalty. Obama may have spoken (clumsily) in the language of gambling, but Trump really is a gambler, which is why he’s made a lot of money and also lost tremendous amounts of it in his business career. Now he’s gambling on international terrorism. This doesn’t even touch on the fact that Trump’s proposed solutions to terrorism involve blatantly unconstitutional bans on Muslims and policies that even he can’t differentiate from Nazism.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, who has real expertise in the Middle East and international relations—her national-security background is one of her major talking points—has been prudently silent. That won’t help her much in political terms, though; she’ll appear tentative and cautious, confirming all the standard critiques. Trump gets to dominate another news cycle, which is presumably his goal.
However unwise speculation is from a leader, the general election looks like a good test of whether Trump’s theory of politics—that all publicity is good publicity—works in a general election, or if it was only good enough for the Republican primary. On the one hand, there’s a sheaf of quantitative structural explanations for why Trump is a serious underdog. On the other hand, there’s a new Fox News poll putting Trump slightly ahead of Clinton. Can this strategy still work for him? At this stage, it'd be irresponsible to speculate.