The outlier was President Trump.
Of course, Trump has long zigged when his four living predecessors zagged, and proudly so. But rarely has the dichotomy been clearer than this week, when Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter injected their voices into the national discussion of race and justice following last week’s death of George Floyd.
Though each weighed in separately and in his own distinctive voice, the four former presidents were measured and compassionate in tone and conveyed an urgency in their lengthy messages. It presented a sharp contrast with the incumbent’s hard line and unemotional leadership.
“They’re all saying, essentially, that Donald Trump is not doing a very big part of his job, and we have to stage an intervention, even if that intervention is not coordinated,” historian Michael Beschloss said. “Foremost in the president’s job is to try to unite the country, especially in crisis. . . . These statements and gestures are saying, ‘Donald Trump is not carrying out these essential functions of the presidency, so we have to step in.’ ”
Trump this week declared himself the “president of law and order” and sought to project absolute strength. Although he has expressed dismay at Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis and offered condolence to his family, he has not demonstrated that he is listening to and sympathetic with the many Americans who say they have experienced systemic racism, nor has he proposed concrete steps that can be taken to address the problem.
“He provokes defiance, and defiance speaks volumes at a time we need a reconciling message,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a longtime civil rights leader.
Trump — who cuts a loner figure in the president’s club and has complained about feeling ostracized by elites generally — long ago set out to transform the role of president and to create his own definition of presidential.
“When I’d be a little bit wild, and we’d have a lot of fun, they’d say, ‘He’s not acting presidential,’ and I’d say, ‘Well, it’s a lot easier to act presidential than to do what I do. Anybody can act presidential,’ ” he told supporters at a 2018 campaign rally in Florida.
Trump’s predecessors this week made their case, at least implicitly by example, for a president serving in a more traditional way — expressing empathy and driving toward unifying the country, even if he or she makes mistakes along the way.
The centerpiece of former vice president Joe Biden’s campaign to unseat Trump is a return to normalcy, which frames a choice for voters in November about what they think the role of a president should be.
Those divergent visions for the presidency came into sharp relief on Wednesday. Consider how the 45th and 44th presidents spent their days.
Trump bragged about authorizing “substantial dominant force” to quell protests in Washington; attacked the media as “sick”; mocked former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, for wearing a mask, which his own government recommends; and claimed, “I’ve done more for Black Americans, in fact, than any President in U.S. history, with the possible exception of another Republican President, the late, great, Abraham Lincoln.”
Trump often cites job growth and the enactment of criminal justice reform in assessing his achievements for black Americans as historic. Yet black and brown people have suffered more than whites from the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying economic collapse, and Trump has made racist comments and used segregationist imagery and tropes throughout his presidency.
Obama, who issued a lengthy statement on the topic Monday, convened a virtual town hall discussion on Wednesday about racial injustice and community solutions.
In the meeting, Obama acknowledged the pain and uncertainty so many Americans are feeling; explained what he sees as “structural problems” in the country, from the history of slavery to continuing institutional racism today; and sounded a call to action, for mayors to review and reform their use of force agreements with police and for activists to mobilize in elections and hold officials accountable.
“You’ve communicated a sense of urgency that is as powerful and as transformative as anything that I’ve seen in recent years,” Obama said.
He added, “I’ve been hearing a little bit of chatter in the Internet about voting versus protest, politics and participation versus civil disobedience and direct action. This is not [an] either/or. This is a both/and. To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that can be implemented.”
Though Obama and Clinton attacked Trump aggressively as campaign trail surrogates in 2016, they have sought largely to avoid day-to-day criticism of the incumbent, out of respect for the office and norms of decorum. Bush, the only Republican among the four living former presidents, has been a far more infrequent critic of Trump, only weighing in sporadically and limiting his public appearances.
It was striking, then, for all four to speak out so strongly this week, as America’s cities pulsated with anger, frustration and fear over what they called the nation’s original sin of racism and the failure of leaders to root it out.
“You realize that they are on the exact same page, which is they’re anti-Trump at heart but they try not to use Trump’s name in their rhetoric,” historian Douglas Brinkley said. “If you erase the ‘D’ or ‘R’ next to these former presidents’ names, they each represent the traditional, magnanimous American approach to a domestic crisis, and Trump is in a weird place where he wants to be George Patton or Douglas MacArthur, with a couple of political pages taken from Richard Nixon.”
Bush wrote in a statement Tuesday that he and his wife Laura were “disturbed by the injustice and fear that suffocate our country” and that it was time the United States examine its failures “through the eyes of the threatened, oppressed and disenfranchised.”
“There is a better way — the way of empathy, and shared commitment, and bold action, and a peace rooted in justice,” Bush wrote in what could be interpreted as a rebuke of Trump’s approach to race relations.
Clinton, meanwhile, wrote in a statement Monday that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that no American would be judged by the color of his or her skin seems impossibly out of reach today, and that Floyd’s death was “a painful reminder that a person’s race still determines how they will be treated in nearly every aspect of American life.”
“We can’t honestly answer these questions in the divide and conquer, us vs. them, shift the blame and shirk the responsibility world we’re living in,” Clinton added. He said people in power should “expand who’s ‘us’ and shrink who’s ‘them,’ accept some blame, and assume more responsibility.”
And on Wednesday, Carter issued as direct an indictment of the moral state of the country — and of the character of its leadership — as any of the three.
“People of power, privilege, and moral conscience must stand up and say ‘no more’ to a racially discriminatory police and justice system, immoral economic disparities between whites and blacks, and government actions that undermine our unified democracy,” Carter wrote. He added: “We need a government as good as its people, and we are better than this.”
In their statements, however, was an implicit recognition that they had failed during their own tenures as president to solve the problem of systemic racism in America.
“All of these presidents, who are very different people with very different ideologies, have come to the same place, which is, not enough has been done, and implicit in that is an admission that they were a part of the problem in the past in not doing enough,” Beschloss said. “They are all implicitly saying, ‘If I were president today, I’d do it differently than Donald Trump — and I would almost certainly do it differently than I did it myself.’ ”