Hillary Clinton was the clear winner of the first presidential debate. She was confident, positive, and presidential, while Donald Trump appeared nervous, irritated, and at times disoriented. But let’s focus for the moment on the segment of the debate wherein the candidates talked about race and “law and order,” because that revealed quite a bit about both of them — especially Trump.
It began when moderator Lester Holt asked about the state of race relations in America. The fact that this was the setup to the whole entire segment is important to keep in mind. “Race has been a big issue in this campaign, and one of you is going to have to bridge a very wide and bitter gap,” Holt asked. “So, how do you heal the divide?”
Clinton responded by talking about racial inequities in criminal justice and education, the importance of good relations between police and the communities they patrol, and the disproportionately high rate at which black Americans are killed in guns.
“The gun epidemic is a leading cause of death of young African-American men, more than the next nine causes put together,” Clinton said. “We have to restore trust, we have to work with the police, we have to make sure they respect the communities and the communities respect them, and we have to tackle the plague of gun violence which is a big contributor to a lot of the problems that we are seeing today.”
That was Clinton’s answer to the question of how to heal race relations in America. Trump, though, had a very different take.
“Secretary Clinton doesn't want to use a couple of words, and that’s ‘law and order,’” Trump said. “And we need law and order. If we don't have it, we’re not going to have a country. And when I look at what's going on in Charlotte, the city I love — the city where I have investments — when I look at what's going on throughout various parts of our country, whether it's. I can keep naming them all day long — we need law and order in our country.”
To recap, Trump was asked how to heal America’s racial divide, and his response was that police need to crack down on protesters — specifically, protesters who speak out against the shooting deaths of black Americans. In other words, he immediately equated race with crime without a moment of hesitation. He implied that people who speak out against racial inequality are responsible for America’s “racial divide,” and that the solution is more aggressive law enforcement. Trump essentially said that the solution to racism is a stronger police force.
He reiterated this general worldview with the rest of his remarks, in which he talked about “gangs roaming the street” and bemoaned that police “are afraid to do anything.” Keep in mind, again, this was in response to a question about race.
Some conservatives believe that people who point out racism are somehow responsible for the worsening of race relations in the country. This is nonsense — it ignores the fact that flatly racist policies have been the law of the land for the vast majority of America’s existence and instead shifts the blame to the victims of that racism. Trump has struggled mightily to win over black voters, and while only time will tell, it seems unlikely that his performance at the debate will help in this.
Perhaps the most clear distillation of Trump’s views on these matters came later in the race segment, when Holt took Trump to task for spending the last five years suggesting that President Obama wasn’t born in America.
“What do you say to Americans, especially people of color —,” Holt began.
“I say nothing,” Trump interrupted.
And that more or less sums up Trump’s views on race, at least insofar as he expressed them in this debate. If there’s a racial divide, it’s because police aren’t tough enough against people who speak out against racial inequality. And to the people of color who take issue with this position, Trump says nothing.