For a change, Donald Trump has been a model of restraint. Instead of stirring things up on Twitter, the Republican nominee struck the right tone after five police officers were killed in Dallas. Every American should be able to live in safety, he said — thus implicitly including black victims of police shootings. Now was the time for unity, prayer, love and leadership. His words could have been uttered by Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Having evoked every racial division in the book — and adding some pages of his own — could Mr Trump have turned a new leaf?
America should hopethat he has. In political terms, 2016 is a racial tinderbox awaiting a match. On any sober measure, US society is more racially polarised at the end of Mr Obama’s term than at the start. A hundred days after he took office, 59 per cent of black Americans said US race relations were “generally good”. Six months before he leaves office that number has fallen to 34 per cent. Much of the pessimism stems from the spate of police shootings and the viral impact of incidents captured on video. But the disdain with which Mr Obama has been treated by his enemies has undoubtedly fed it.
It could hardly be otherwise. No president in US history has had his legitimacy questioned like Mr Obama. Mr Trump’s 2011 campaign to force Mr Obama to release his birth certificate proving that he was born in the US, not Kenya, petered out after the White House published the long-form document. But the echo of Mr Trump’s “birther” campaign carried by a broader crowd of Obama doubters was one of the reasons behind his decision to run for the presidency last year. It was a trial balloon in other words, which by Mr Trump’s measure was a success.
Yet it was just one in a litany of challenges to Mr Obama’s credentials. They began long before he became the Democratic nominee in 2008 when someone noticed he was not wearing a stars and stripes flag pin on his lapel. Thus began the trope that Mr Obama did not love America — that he was in fact anti-American. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, was speaking for many last year, when he said: “I do not believe that the president loves America … He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”
It is a line repeatedly disseminated by anchors on Fox News and a thousand Greek choruses. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, whom Mr Trump is considering as his running mate, has been among the most prominent. In 2012 he called Mr Obama the “food stamp president”, in reference to the growth of the nutrition assistance programme for the poor.
One of the striking things about Mr Trump’s Dallas statement is how few of his supporters agree. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, there is now aBlue Lives Matter campaign for the police. A number of Republican figures, including the lieutenant governor of Texas, have blamed the killings on Black Lives Matter, at whose protest they took place. The internet is awash with invented stories of how the group incites its supporters to attack the police. Instead of viewing it as a civil-rights protest, it is depicted as a black separatist movement.
Mr Trump’s strategy in November will be to maximise white turnout and minimise the rest
Mr Trump has the power to subdue these sentiments or to stoke them. So far he is doing the right thing. Will he continue to do so?
The nature of Mr Trump’s rise suggests that would be a rash bet. But even if it holds, the 2016 presidential election is taking place against the most racially divided backdrop in years.
It will also be the first since Mr Obama was a child to take place without the full protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That was the historic bill that finally ended a century of “Jim Crow” laws that disenfranchised the black electorate in the south.
In 2013 the US Supreme Court struck down key elements in the law. Since then, 17 states, including key battlegrounds such as North Carolina, have introduced tough new voter ID laws that will disproportionately suppress black turnout.
Many such laws were already in place in2014, which had the lowest turnout for midterm congressional elections since before Mr Obama was born. In essence, Mr Trump’s strategy in November will be to maximise white turnout and minimise the rest.
It is tempting to believe that America could never turn the clock back on the dramatic racial strides it has made during Mr Obama’s lifetime. But this year appears to be a bad one for conventional wisdom. Few would have believed that Britain could reject the benefits of multiculturalism — a key element of its prosperity. Fewer still would have believed a figure such as Mr Trump could win the Republican nomination.
For those who subscribe to America’s model of an open society, its turn against immigration has been sobering. For the last two generations, Americans and other western nations have been fed on a diet of ever-rising progress. We are learning the painful way that nothing should be taken for granted.
The lesson from Dallas is that responsible leadership is indispensable. Britain seems to have mislaid that basic truth. The US is toying with whether to follow suit.