The two presidential candidates didn’t just disagree on solutions to the deadliest shooting in American history, they disagreed on what the problem was.
In rival speeches Monday about the mass shooting at an Orlando gay bar, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump largely talked past each other, showing vastly different understandings of the underlying causes.
For the presumptive Democratic nominee, the Orlando shooting was a time to come together in the kind of unity shown after Sept. 11, another argument in favor of gun control and support for the LGBT community. To the extent that Islam was a factor, she said it involved a radicalized misreading of a religion in which most oppose terrorism.
“Millions of peace-loving Muslims live, work and raise their families across America,” Clinton said in an industrial park on Cleveland’s East Side. “They are the most likely to recognize the insidious effects on radicalization before it’s too late. They are in the best position to help us block it. We should be intensifying contacts in those communities, not scapegoating or isolating them.”
For the presumptive Republican nominee, the Orlando shooting was a time for Americans to draw bright lines on immigration, another argument in favor of a blanket ban on Muslim immigration (though the suspected shooter was born in America) and a reason to question “political correctness.”
“Can you imagine what they will do in large groups?” Trump asked his audience at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire.
Clinton had planned Monday as the kickoff to her general election, scheduling a rally in Cleveland that was morphed into a policy speech with unusual overtones. Campaign signs were ditched for American flags, and the audience was clearly on edge the day after largest mass shooting in U.S. history left the country in shock and sorrow.
“Today is not a day for politics,” Clinton said as she began her remarks.
Trump had zero interest in that tactic. He ripped into his remarks with typical bravado and said the deaths were the fault of the political establishment.
“They have put political correctness, above common sense, above your safety,” Trump said. “ I refuse to be politically correct.” He said Clinton was beholden to “politically correct special interests” and cast himself as an above-the-mix outsider.
The lopsided approach is a cue for how the balance of this campaign will play out. Clinton is a thoughtful, cautious leader; Trump shoots from the hip and trusts his gut. The imbalance, especially at this moment when the country is rightfully anxious about terrorism, is an untested proposition in national elections. When four Americans died in a 2012 attack on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney were offering symmetrical rhetoric. Eight years before that, when Osama bin Laden released a video just before President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign, he and Democratic rival John Kerry were mostly working off the same script.
Not this year.
Clinton is typically careful, with an ear to how the world will hear her words. She broadly vowed to dismantle terrorism, but noted that “we have to see what the investigation uncovers.” She added of Islamic extremism: “We cannot contain this threat. We must defeat it.”
Trump, by contrast, already knew what he knew. Though the shooter was born in New York, immigration, as Trump saw it, was the core of the problem, just as he sees it on the country’s reduced manufacturing base and stagnant wages. “We can’t keep bringing people who add to the problem,” Trump said. “Why would we admit people who support violent hatred?”
At the same time, Trump took a moment to note that the killer targeted the nightclub because he wanted to kill gays and lesbians, “an assault on the ability of free people to live their lives, love who they want and express their identity.” He argued that gays and lesbians should support him because he wants to stop terrorism.
Still, Trump’s words on Muslims and immigration earned him criticism. “The bigotry, the hate that is spewed by Donald Trump, the words that incite and encourage violence,” said Representative Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat who backs Clinton. “Now, more than ever, the United States needs a steady hand.”
The dueling visions for the 2016 battlefield offered a preview of the two often disconnected fights happening in real time. The two sides couldn’t even decide on the terms of the fight: religion, extremism, immigration, guns. The only term they agreed on was terrorism, and even there they took strikingly different approaches.
Trump, who has repeatedly criticized Clinton and President Obama for not using phrases like “radical Islamic terror” bragged that he had swayed her, as Clinton had debated the most diplomatic phrasing during morning interviews. “Whether you call it radical jihadism or radical Islamism, I’m happy to say either. I think they mean the same thing,” Clinton said.
Meantime, Trump was hinting darkly that President Obama somehow has ulterior motives to not fight terrorism. “Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind,” he told Fox News. “There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.” And a Trump ally, Roger Stone, was elsewhere suggesting the vice chair of Clinton’s campaign was a “terrorist agent” and a “Saudi spy.”
The differing reality is shaping a campaign that could test Americans’ patience for competing narratives. Clinton has made her bet that Americans’ anxiety will lead them to her deep experience. Trump is wagering that their uneasiness will prod voters, frustrated with years of worry over terrorism, to his side. Voters at the moment might be torn as to which promises a greater feeling of safety, even if the reality of security is more elusive.