In the wake of the assassinations of five police officers in Dallas, and the deaths of two black men at the hands of police in Minnesota and Louisiana, a dirge-like pundit lament has arisen across the land: Neither of the presidential candidates is capable of uniting our deeply divided country!
This is probably true, as far as it goes, if you accept that our country is as divided as some of the hyperbole has suggested. But I’d like to submit that asking which candidate can unite the country is insufficient. The additional question that must be posed is: Which candidate is actually trying to unite the country, and which is actively trying to divide it?
The worry that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump has what it takes to bring the country together, amid the searing scenes of violence and mayhem that have overwhelmed us, has been voiced far and wide. On Meet the Press, Chuck Todd asked: “Can either of these candidates, among the least popular, least trusted and most divisive in history, somehow become the President that heals a nation desperately searching for unity?” In the New York Times, Patrick Healy lamented that both were failing a crucial test: “No moment in the 2016 presidential campaign has cried out more for a unifying candidate.” The Post’s Dan Balz, in an interesting piece about how the current tumult is testing our politics, argued: “Neither of the two major candidates has found, if there is a way to find it, a message that bridges the two worlds that remain apart.”
And this is all true. But our inquiry shouldn’t end there.
The problem with limiting our line of questioning in this fashion is that it does not permit for a genuine evaluation of the two candidates’ performances in trying to meet the very challenge it articulates for them. It is probably accurate to say that neither candidate can unite the country. But there are many reasons for this: Deep polarization, negative partisanship, a fractured media, and — yes — legitimate disagreement. It may be true that both candidates lack the personal attributes to bridge these divides. But it’s more likely that those attributes would not be enough to prevail over them, for profound structural and historical reasons.
And so, limiting our inquiry in this way — and throwing up our hands in despair when we conclude that neither candidate is up to the challenge — is unnecessarily defeatist and, in the end, counter-productive. There is an additional step we can take: We can evaluate the relative quality of their efforts in this regard, and, by extension, evaluate whether each is actually trying to achieve this end.
If the phrase “trying to unify the country” at this particular moment has any meaning, one such theoretical effort might reside in trying to acknowledge, and speak to, the grievances on both sides of this divide. Thus far, Clinton has clearly tried harder to accomplish this than Trump has, though Trump has not completely punted on it, either. In speeches and interviews (see this one and this one), Clinton has repeatedly spoken out forcefully for the need for greater respect for police, and for recognizing the good intentions of the vast majority of them and their vital role in protecting peaceful protest. She did this while simultaneously calling for greater respect for the legitimate grievances of protestors who believe that African Americans are disproportionately targeted by lethal force wielded by police (see Wesley Lowery’s terrific piece running through the data confirming this.)
By contrast, while Trump has generally called for unity, as Clinton has, his responses have clearly tipped towards giving more weight to the grievances of police. His responses thus far, in a statement, a video, and, today, a speech in Virginia, called for the need for a restoration of “law and order” and cast the attacks on Dallas police as an attack on our country, while making only the most tangential references to those killed by police in Minnesota and Louisiana. While his reference to those deaths was a good thing in and of itself, he hasn’t gone nearly as far as Clinton has in calling for sustained action to address the problem of lethal force disproportionately targeting African Americans.
Now, one could legitimately believe Clinton tilted too far in favor of the protestors at the expense of police. But even so, she is by any reasonable measure trying much harder to strike a balance in recognizing the grievances of both sides than Trump is. Since this is directly relevant to the question of whether the candidates are capable of unifying the country — or even trying to do so at all — it should perhaps be acknowledged by observers interested in that question.
Meanwhile, if the candidates’ efforts to unify the country now are seen as a key test, surely the campaign that Trump has waged for the last year is also relevant. Trump has insulted Mexican immigrants, called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., falsely claimed American Muslims celebrated 9/11, and — in a moment that deserves renewed attention right now — even suggested that Americans should arm themselves to combat the internal Islamic terror threat. In his big national security speech, Trump said that he planned to consult with the NRA “to discuss how to ensure Americans have the means to protect themselves in this age of terror.”
For months, the idea that Trump is running a presidential campaign designed to sow division and capitalize on white backlash has not been seen as an even remotely controversial observation, even by nonpartisan commentators. Now that the debate over which candidate is better equipped to handle racial division has been thrust to the forefront in the context of police-community violence, all of that should be newly relevant, not relegated to the forgotten background.
The point is not that Trump is destined to continue running a divisive campaign or that he is certain to fall short in addressing grievances over police conduct. Perhaps he will surprise us. Rather, the point is that, going forward, if current events force upon us the question of whether each presidential candidate is rising to the challenge of addressing the divisions that they have produced, we should ask ourselves which candidate is actually trying to bridge those divisions. We are not helplessly trapped at the point of despairing that neither is likely to succeed in getting the nation to transcend them. We can decide which is actually making a serious effort to do that, and, if it comes to it, conclude that one isn’t actually trying to do that at all, and may even be trying to do precisely the opposite.