Robert Gehrke: Our country needs empathy and leadership, but Trump simply isn’t capable of that

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

We’re in the midst of a difficult time in the United States, when racial divisions are stark and raw, and protests for justice have turned violent in several cities.

It’s a time when, historically, we have looked to our leaders to at least attempt to speak to our shared values, unite the country and pray for peace.

Unfortunately, our current president is incapable of any of that.

He has done just the opposite, exploiting racial tensions, empowering quasi-militias and vigilantes, and inflaming violence and hatred nationwide.

Ignoring the requests of local and state officials that he stay away, fearing his presence would inflame tensions, Trump traveled to Kenosha, Wis., and did just that.

In an interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham on Monday, he spun more outlandish conspiracy theories, claiming Biden is controlled by “People you’ve never heard of, people that are in the dark shadows” and that planes full of black-uniformed “thugs” are controlling the streets.

He likened police officers shooting unarmed civilians to a golfer missing an easy putt.

He repeats a favorite line of segregationist Gov. George Wallace: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” and his administration has rationalized 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse’s killing of two people in Kenosha as an understandable act if governments can’t maintain order.

He uses thinly veiled racial and class antagonism to promise those “living the suburban lifestyle dream” that they won’t have to fear low-income people moving into their neighborhoods and hurting their property values.

And, as we’ve come to expect, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney appears to be the only Republican member of Congress with the decency to denounce the divisive, inflammatory rhetoric.

“The comments and tweets over the past few days, including a retweet of a 2019 video clearly intended to further inflame racial tensions, are simply jaw-dropping,” Romney told The New York Times. Romney was referring to Trump retweeting a post that blamed Black Lives Matter and Antifa for an unrelated 2019 incident in which a Black man pushed a white woman into a subway train.

Trump promises to be the “law and order” president — just like Richard Nixon did when he fanned racial tensions in 1968 — perhaps assuming voters won’t recognize that this lawlessness and disorder comes more than 3½ years into an administration that has only exacerbated the problems.

He divides people against each other because he can’t put the good of the country above the idea that feeding hate might help salvage his sinking reelection hopes.

A Yahoo News and YouGov poll released Wednesday asked the same group of suburban voters in July, and again in August whom they would vote for. In that month’s time, Biden’s 7-point suburban lead vanished and he now trails by two points. His approval rating fell from 49% to 42%, and he is now tied with Trump.

Or maybe not. A Quinnipiac poll found that half of voters said Trump made them feel less safe, compared to 40% for Biden. The only group in which Trump outperformed Biden was among non-college-educated whites.

Ultimately, the politics shouldn’t matter as much as being presidential. Condemn the violence and murder — as Biden has done — and then seek to deescalate tensions, bridge divides, bind wounds and focus on solutions.

Trump can’t do that, though, because his entire political existence is the result of exacerbating racial divides — whether it’s demanding the death penalty for Black teens falsely accused of a 1989 rape in Central Park, spreading the Obama “birther” conspiracy, or coddling white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va.

For my money, one of the greatest speeches in U.S. history was given in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968. Robert Kennedy was on the presidential campaign trail when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and spoke to a mostly Black audience, future Congressman John Lewis near his side.

“What we need in the United States is not division,” Kennedy told the crowd. “What we need in the United States is not hatred, what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country.”

That is exactly what we need now in the United States, and we also need real leaders at the local, state and federal level who are willing to aspire to those goals and appeal to our better angels, especially in troubled times — and it should be painfully clear by now that we will never get any of that from the current president.