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dallas shootings

A Dallas police officer, who did not want to be identified, takes a moment as she guards an intersection in the early morning after a shooting in downtown Dallas on Friday, July 8, 2016.LM Otero/The Associated Press

After a week of violence that plunged America into grief and rage, an unsettled nation is asking what could possibly happen next.

It was already a summer of bloodshed and division. Not even a month has passed since the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, in which a gunman walked into a nightclub and killed 49 people in Orlando. And it has been just days since the shootings of two African-American men by police were captured on video and a lone black gunman killed five police officers in Dallas.

Attack on Dallas police: The latest and what we know so far

The killings unfolded against the backdrop of a presidential campaign marked by inflammatory rhetoric and bitter protests. That combination of political turbulence and deadly race-related violence has left a country grasping for answers.

At this tense juncture, much depends on how politicians, law enforcement authorities and activists navigate the days ahead. Whether they calm tensions or instead provoke them will have lasting consequences for race relations, policing and the presidential election.

Some commentators invoked the spectre of 1968, also an election year, and a period of deep turmoil in the United States. While such comparisons are overblown, they speak to the unease Americans feel faced with a situation that at times feels out of control, both at home and abroad.

"All crazy periods are crazy in their own way," said Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology at Columbia University. But the sense of fear, the loss of faith in the establishment, and the bewilderment at daily news events form a distant echo of 1968, Dr. Gitlin said. "For several months now, I've been waking up with the sense that it's unbelievable – that every day, the main story that's actually unfolding is beyond belief."

On Friday, leaders called for calm. Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney General, implored Americans not to "let this week precipitate a new normal in this country." Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, appealed for the nation to unite. "There will be a temptation to let our anger harden our divisions," he said. "Let's defy those predictions."

For U.S. President Barack Obama, the resurgence of tensions around racism and gun violence – two persistent American ills he has sought to mitigate – must be particularly bitter. This week, he once again tried to bring together people with differing perspectives.

"When people say 'black lives matter,' it doesn't mean 'blue lives' don't matter, it just means all lives matter," Mr. Obama said on Wednesday as the nation recoiled from the videos of black men dying after being shot at point-blank range by police. "But right now, the big concern is the fact that data shows black folks are more vulnerable to these kinds of incidents."

The following day, a 25-year-old U.S. army veteran opened fire in downtown Dallas, causing the greatest loss of life among U.S. police officers since September 11, 2001. "Our police have an extraordinarily difficult job and the vast majority of them do their job in outstanding fashion," Mr. Obama said in response to the Dallas shootings. "Today is a wrenching reminder of the sacrifices they make for us. We also know that when people are armed with powerful weapons, unfortunately it makes attacks like these more deadly and more tragic."

Despite the tragic events of recent weeks and the heightened political turmoil, the current environment remains calm in comparison to 1968. By mid-summer of that year, two towering figures of U.S. politics – Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy – had been assassinated. Deadly riots had broken out in nearly all major U.S. cities. More than 500,000 U.S. soldiers were fighting an unpopular and unwinnable war in Vietnam. And the sitting Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, had stunned the country by announcing he would not seek re-election in November.

1968 "was probably the craziest year in American history post-Civil War," said Michael Cohen, the author of American Maelstrom, a recently published book on the enduring legacy of the 1968 presidential election. "Nothing that's happening this year approaches that level."

In July 1968, police clashed with thousands of antiwar protesters outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It's an event that has become a symbol of political disorder and police brutality. While no one expects a repeat of such scenes later this month when the major parties hold their nominating conventions, there is unease about what might unfold, particularly in Cleveland, where Donald Trump is set to become the Republican nominee.

"The real wild card here is Trump," said Philip Klinkner, a political scientist at Hamilton College and the co-author of a book on the history of race relations in the U.S. "We've never had a major-party nominee who's been willing to fan these flames" using nativist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. "In many ways, how bad this gets depends largely on him."

Both Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presumptive nominee, cancelled campaign appearances on Friday, just as they did after the murders at an Orlando nightclub in June. The grim political reality in an increasingly polarized society is that this week's killings hold little, if any, political downside for Donald Trump.

The Republican real-estate magnate has already called for Muslims to be banned from entering the United States and accused Black Lives Matter activists of being trouble-makers and fomenting hate. In a statement on Friday, Mr. Trump focused on the slain police officers in Dallas and played down the black victims in Louisiana and Minnesota from earlier in the week.

He incorrectly described them both as "motorists" – only one of them was driving a car – and made no reference to those who fatally shot them. In sharp contrast, Mr. Trump decried the "horrific execution-style shootings" of law enforcement personnel as "an attack on our country … [and] a co-ordinated, premeditated assault on the men and women who keep us safe."

Mr. Trump's Virginia campaign chair, Corey Stewart, blamed Ms. Clinton for stirring up hatred of police. "Liberal politicians who label police as racists – specifically Hillary Clinton and Virginia Lt. Governor Ralph Northam – are to blame for essentially encouraging the murder of these police officers tonight," Mr. Stewart said on Facebook.

Mr. Trump's electoral bedrock is with white voters, especially white males with lower-than-average education and incomes. His support among African-Americans is vanishingly small and he fares only slightly better with Latino voters.

Ms. Clinton, however, must walk a political tightrope. She can expect overwhelming support among African-Americans, and turnout among minorities will be crucial, just as it was for Mr. Obama in 2008 and 2012. If African-American and Latino voters flock to the polls, then Ms. Clinton should win key swing states like Florida, Virginia and Colorado. But to energize minority voter turnout without alienating whites – especially working-class whites in rust-belt states like Ohio and Pennsylvania that Mr. Trump could win – Ms. Clinton may tread delicately.

Her carefully calibrated response to the killing of Dallas police was to "mourn for the officers shot while doing their sacred duty to protect peaceful protesters."