Grief counselor in chief.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Dallas Tests Candidates' Presidential Mettle

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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In a misguided effort to be fair, the headline in the Sunday New York Times, “Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Struggle to Be Unifying Voice for Nation,” made it seem as if the two candidates were equally unsuited to the task. This is dead wrong.

Trump and Clinton have some of the highest unfavorable ratings of any would-be presidential nominees in modern history. Yet if you need evidence that bad candidates are not all alike, take a look at the way they grappled with the outburst of racial tension and violence -- the great unsolved problem of our time. 

The Republican standard-bearer, Trump, has inflamed the country’s racial divide. Since he tested the power of racial politics by supporting the birther movement and found it potent, he hasn’t stopped blowing the dog whistle.

QuickTake Q&A on Police Shootings and Race

He deliberately inflames hatred of one group toward another, and it’s no accident that angry white men have found a home with him. He takes their justified resentment at a world of globalization and technology that’s left them behind and redirects it at Mexicans, blacks, Muslims and “others” he doesn’t need to get elected if he drives enough of his base to the poll. He stokes this fury at his rallies (punch a protester in the face, send him out on a stretcher, Trump will pay the legal fees). Trump may eventually disown racists such as David Duke but slowly enough that it looks as if he’s doing so reluctantly.

Make the worst case you can about Clinton’s failures from Whitewater to now: her justification for separate rules (a private e-mail system) because the right wing is out to get her, loose standards for the Clinton Foundation because the family is doing good, and a general slipperiness when anything she does is questioned.

Sure, until Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed her on Tuesday, his backers made much of Clinton’s big mistake in 1996, when she supported a crime bill that targeted young black men. In doing so, she was in the company of most black office-holders at that time. She’s in similar company working hard to make up for that. Yet there’s no denying that Clinton has spent her professional life working to close the racial divide.

Trump has no such mission and has rushed to take advantage of tragedy. He had a chance to show empathy after the killings at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Instead, he congratulated himself for predicting the violence, pushed his ban on Muslims, and questioned President Barack Obama’s loyalty to America. 

It’s amazing that anyone is going to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland to support him given that the city’s police force is bracing for the arrival of white supremacists who believe Trump shares their views.

Trump was mercifully quiet after last week’s horrific killing of five police officers ensuring the safety of a protest in Dallas last week, which was preceded by the shooting by police of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota He stopped campaigning, as did Clinton. But he came roaring back in Virginia Beach on Monday. In his worldview, there’s always one side that can do no wrong, and it’s not the victims of unjustified police violence. 

“We must maintain law and order at the highest level or we will cease to have a country, 100 percent,” he said. “I am the law and order candidate.” That’s a dog whistle of its own. His wingman, Governor Chris Christie, blamed Obama, questioning whether the president gives the police “the benefit of the doubt, not always believe that what they’ve done is somehow wrong.”

Then there’s Trump’s ongoing war against Black Lives Matters, which, as he once told Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, promotes “hate” and is “looking for trouble.” He repeats the simplistic mantra of all lives matter endlessly, as if black lives haven’t historically and still don’t matter less. Just as the authoritarian admires murderous dictators who “don’t read anyone their rights,” he is willfully ignorant about our racial past. The U.S. has a dark legacy: blacks as property transported in chains, sold, beaten and killed with no consequence. Blacks tried to convince whites that the killings still happened, but it wasn’t until cameras started recording it that we saw it. Trump has not.

As Trump was predicting that the violence will only get worse, the president was in Dallas to speak at a memorial service, the 11th such speech of his presidency. Who could watch without weeping as Obama tried to staunch the grief of the families of the officers who lost their lives running into gunfire to protect the protesters?

“I’m here to insist that we are not so divided as we seem,” Obama said. “I say that because I know America. I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds. I know we’ll make it because of what I’ve experienced in my own life.”

At the same time, Obama also had to comfort grieving black Americans, who know that most policemen are there to help but don’t know when one will not. It can happen when a mother and child are in the car. It can happen when leaving a convenience store. It can happen if your registration has lapsed. It doesn’t take a reason. 

Despite the horror of the last week, America continues to evolve as a racially diverse and tolerant society, but there remains a lot of work to be done. Watch and think whether Clinton could rise to the occasion in Dallas and know that nothing Trump has ever done tells us that he could, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net