To Hillary Clinton, racial division is a generations-old problem best tackled with honest, open-minded conversations that don’t force people to pick sides.
“White Americans need to do a better job of listening when African Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers,” Clinton said late last week.
To Donald Trump, the division is largely the fault of President Obama and could be solved with more jobs and stronger law enforcement.
“We must maintain law and order at the highest level or we will cease to have a country,” Trump said Monday. “I am the law-and-order candidate.”
The past week of violence — which left two black men dead after encounters with police in Minnesota and Louisiana and five officers dead in retaliatory killings in Dallas — has only sharpened the contrast between the two presumptive nominees and their starkly different leadership styles.
Both candidates have presented themselves as the more compassionate leader for the country, and both of their campaigns have acknowledged that a driving force in this election is excessive division along economic, political and cultural lines. But the similarities end there.
For Clinton, the remedy for the ills that have plagued the country often boil down to a call for more “love and kindness” coupled with policy prescriptions aimed at targeting elements of the problem, such as more training for police. Clinton is scheduled to deliver an address Wednesday morning about bringing the country together in Springfield, Ill., at the Old State House — the site of Abraham Lincoln’s famous 1858 “House Divided” speech.
Trump’s solutions, by contrast, bear echoes of Richard Nixon’s successful presidential campaign amid the turbulence of 1968, emphasizing “law and order” and appealing to a “silent majority” unsettled by the tumult around them.
“This election is a choice between law, order & safety — or chaos, crime & violence,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “I will make America safe again for everyone. #ImWithYou.”
Roger Stone, a former Nixon staffer and one of Trump’s longtime advisers who has no formal role with the campaign, tweeted out the iconic photo of Nixon exiting a helicopter and flashing peace signs but replaced the former president’s face with Trump’s face. Stone wrote: “@realDonaldTrump is the law and order candidate who represents the Silent Majority.”
Stone expanded on the theme in an email Tuesday: “The touchy-feely political correctness has bred a culture of hate and violence in which police, rather than criminals, are blamed for the mayhem engulfing the country. Trump will make our streets and neighborhoods safe again.”
Trump was initially restrained after Thursday’s slayings in Dallas, offering support for law enforcement and decrying the “senseless” deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota. But by the weekend, he was blaming Clinton and Obama for “weak” leadership that has divided the country.
For Clinton’s allies, Trump’s uneven response has again revealed him to be intemperate, while they characterize Clinton as strong but calm in the face of pressure.
“In a crisis, people want strength, unity and stability. Hillary has all three. Trump lacks all three,” said Paul Begala, a Clinton ally and adviser to a pro-Clinton super PAC, Priorities USA Action. “Whereas Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon were seen as strong leaders during the unrest of the ’60s, they also showed calm and experience. Trump lacks Reagan’s fatherly strength and Nixon’s experience.”
For both candidates, their approach to these tensions in American society mirrors the differences at the core of their candidacies.
Trump’s audiences are overwhelmingly white, even when he holds rallies in diverse cities, while Clinton has relied heavily on her ties to the African American community to broach difficult conversations in American politics, especially on issues of race, tolerance and even gun control.
Trump’s supporters loudly cheer as he describes protesters as “thugs,” accuses Obama of worsening racial divisions and promises to be the best option for “the blacks,” “the Hispanics” and other minorities. Whenever a Black Lives Matter activist interrupts one of his rallies, Trump’s audience will chant: “All lives matter! All lives matter!” Sometimes the candidate joins them.
Trump regularly accuses Obama of not fully supporting police officers and of stoking racial tensions. He repeatedly says the quality of life for African Americans has deteriorated with a black president. At a rally in South Carolina in February, Trump said he “will do more for the African American people than Barack Obama has ever done.”
Meanwhile, Clinton has often leaned on the nation’s first black president to find the right tone on contentious issues of race. Most recently, she echoed Obama in declaring that the country can bend the “arc of history toward justice.”
Clinton has also devoted some of her biggest speeches in this campaign to issues of race. In one of her first major addresses as a candidate, she called for an overhaul of the criminal-justice system. At a historically black college in Texas last year, she also called for a restoration of the Voting Rights Act.
Often, Clinton’s gatherings take on a church-like feeling as she delivers her message as a sermon. The audience — often predominantly African American — responds with a chorus of “Amen!” and “Yes!”
But Clinton has gone further — in some cases doing what Obama cannot — especially when it comes to talking to white Americans about racism.
“Ending systemic racism requires contributions from all of us, especially those of us who haven’t experienced it ourselves,” Clinton said in a speech in Harlem in February, using herself as a case study. “We need to recognize our privilege and practice humility, rather than assume that our experiences are everyone’s experiences.”
Trump has focused less on the issue of racism and more on good-paying jobs, which he portrays as the solution needed to reverse generations of poverty and violence that has plagued many African American communities.
“When you look at the Ferguson problems and the Baltimore problems and the Detroit problems, and, you know, there’s a lack of spirit,” Trump said in an interview with The Washington Post editorial board in March.
Trump also insists that his core credential is his negotiation skills, which he says will allow him to bring together opposing parties in a way that no other candidate can do. But many of his controversial comments about minorities — especially Muslims and illegal immigrants from Mexico — have sparked angry protests at many of his campaign rallies, raising questions about his ability to win over all Americans.
That pattern of controversy has given the Clinton campaign ammunition to make the case that, by contrast, she is a more credible unifier.
Still, she faces the added hurdle of being one of the more polarizing figures in American politics. And there is a risk that while voters seem to be clamoring for “change” and voicing anger and frustration with the status quo, Clinton’s call to remain calm won’t resonate.
“Every strong political leader is divisive to one degree or another. President Obama is [seen as] divisive. In his own time, FDR was really divisive. At different moments in his presidency, JFK was really divisive,” said Neera Tanden, a former Clinton aide and president of the Center for American Progress, who dismissed what she called the “false equivalency” of comparing Clinton to Trump when it comes to who is more divisive. “It’s not how people see you, it is what you actually do.”
Dante Barry, the executive director of the New York-based Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, said he wasn’t satisfied by either of the candidates’ responses.
“I don’t want to have another conversation about race, quote-unquote. I don’t want to have a conversation about ‘why can’t we all get along,’ ” Barry said. “That’s not the issue. It’s not necessarily about interpersonal issues, it’s more of a structural issue. And black people have been saying the same thing for generations and the question is: Are we ready, yet, to listen to the black people in this moment?”
John Wagner in New York contributed to this report.