By PATRICK HEALY, JULY 9, 2016, New York Times
No moment in the 2016 presidential campaign has cried out more for a unifying
candidate than the police shootings of two black men last week and the ensuing
national uproar, followed by the shocking sniper ambush that killed five police
officers in Dallas.
And no other moment has revealed more starkly how hard it is for Donald J.
Trump and Hillary Clinton to become that candidate.
Never have two presidential nominees been as unpopular as Mr. Trump and
Mrs. Clinton, and they are not fully trusted by their own parties nor showing
significant crossover appeal in the polls. Mr. Trump, the self-described champion of
law and order, is also the political figure many people blame for sowing division and
hatred with his attacks on illegal immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans and others. Rather
than defuse tension, he electrifies crowds and vanquishes rivals through
provocations that he delights in calling politically incorrect.
Of the two, Mrs. Clinton would seem more able, and driven, to try to bring the
country together. She has a large following among black voters and speaks ardently
about the need for “respect” and “love and kindness.” After Dallas, she called on
“white people to understand how African-Americans feel every day.” Yet many on
the right and some on the left dislike her intensely, and even her admirers say she
lacks the public emotion, oratorical skills and reputation for honesty to persuade
large numbers of Americans to see things her way.
The need for a reassuring and healing voice has come at a particularly bad time
for the two presumptive presidential nominees. For many Americans, Mrs. Clinton’s
credibility was further damaged last week as the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey,
sharply criticized her for being “extremely careless” about her use of private email as
secretary of state. At the same time, Mr. Trump alienated many voters with his
mixed comments about Saddam Hussein and his defensiveness over a Twitter post
that many people regarded as anti-Semitic.
“Trump is 100 percent saying the right things about police and respecting
authority, but then he says these other comments that are too weird for voters to
ignore,” said Fred L. DeLuca, a Trump supporter and former police officer who owns
a graphic supply store in Youngstown, Ohio. “And Hillary — I don’t trust what she
says about law enforcement, not at all.”
Traumatic events have at times become opportunities for presidential
candidates to step up and grow in the eyes of the American public, such as when Bill
Clinton went to Los Angeles in 1992 in the aftermath of the riots there, or when
Barack Obama pushed for aggressive, bipartisan action from the federal government
to stem the banking crisis and protect taxpayers.
Mr. Clinton’s new-generation image and empathic personality appealed across
party lines, as did Mr. Obama’s historic candidacy. And in moments of national
crisis, presidents have shown ability to unify the country, if fleetingly, like George W.
Bush did after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
These candidates did not have to sell themselves to voters against such an
intense combination of terrorism, mass shootings, police and gun violence, social
unease and free-floating fear. Still, the current run of crises has, in the view of many
Democrats and Republicans, served only to spotlight the shortcomings of both Mr.
Trump and Mrs. Clinton.
“The sense of alienation and estrangement is so great today that it’s hard to
unite people, and these candidates haven’t done it,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a
The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin compared the current political climate to
the Civil War era and recalled Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, during his 1858
Senate campaign, in which he analyzed the deep divisions between the North and
the South and predicted that the country would become more united — but first
slavery had to be eliminated or made the law of the land. She said Lincoln proved to
be a president who would go to war to unify the country, and credited President
Lyndon B. Johnson and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with mobilizing forces
around the country and in Congress in the 1960s to pass civil rights legislation that
— while highly divisive — also brought greater equality for Americans.
“If Trump was a more disciplined, focused candidate, this could be his moment
to win over Americans because the desire for a strong leader is great in moments of
turbulence,” she said. “But look at his record. After ‘Brexit,’ he talked about the weak
currency helping his golf course. After the Orlando shootings, it was, ‘I told you so.’
After the F.B.I. report on Hillary, he couldn’t focus on that. Voters want candidates
to show we can trust them, and both candidates have this problem.”
In several recent polls, roughly two-thirds of Americans said that Mrs. Clinton
was not honest and trustworthy; Mr. Trump drew similar numbers on the question.
These polls were conducted before the F.B.I. director rebuked Mrs. Clinton over her
private email and handling of classified material.
Mr. Trump, whose poll ratings grew after his forceful responses to terrorist
attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., tried to sound similarly resolute on
Friday evening, saying in a video that law enforcement was “the force between
civilization and total chaos.”
And, he said, “Now is the time for prayers, love, unity and leadership.”
These remarks were relatively restrained for him, and his advisers hope that he
can build on his image as a powerful, no-nonsense executive and attempt to unify
voters. He is the choice of most voters who say they are particularly interested in
electing a strong leader — a little over one-quarter of the electorate, according to a
recent Bloomberg Politics survey. A Gallup poll conducted in May showed that six in
10 Americans consider him a strong and decisive leader.
Vernita Blocker, a retired social work administrator from Lindenwold, N.J.,
supports Mrs. Clinton but said she worried that Mr. Trump might be better suited to
capitalize on Americans’ concerns about fraying social order.
“The more people are afraid, the more it plays into Trump’s hands because they
will want a strongman-type president,” Ms. Blocker said. “Hillary has to find more
ways to persuade people that she could really unite the country despite all the people
who don’t like her.”
Yet Mr. Trump is still having trouble uniting his own party, while Mrs. Clinton
appears further along with Democrats.
The conventions this month will be huge opportunities for the nominees to
galvanize the faithful, but also a chance to reach out to the other side with
traditionally positive speeches about their hopes for the country.
On policy, Mrs. Clinton is also eager to find common ground on gun control and
criminal justice reform — issues that resonate with many voters at a time of
seemingly endless violence. While new gun laws are opposed by many on the right,
she wants Americans to at least talk about finding solutions — if not uniting behind
“I think ‘unity’ is the wrong goal, and what we need can’t be achieved by lofty
oratory alone,” said Wendy L. Wall, an associate professor of history at Binghamton
University. “Often in our past, unity has meant burying disagreements rather than
solving common problems. What we need now is someone who can work across
differences, not erase them.”
“I think there is no way Trump could do this,” she added. “I think the jury is still
out on Clinton.”