At a raw moment in modern American political history, the rivals are emerging from conventions that offered starkly different visions of the future, with every day in the campaign increasingly crucial — as some states prepare to start sending out absentee ballots in the coming weeks.
The President is painting an inaccurate picture of a nation consumed by street violence as he seeks to repair his standing among White suburban voters. Far from calming the situation, he appears to be inciting unrest, for instance praising a convoy of supporters heading into restive Portland, Oregon, as “Great Patriots.” He also “liked” a Twitter post encouraging people to read a thread of tweets that in part praised Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old charged with allegedly killing two protestors in Kenosha. Biden is meanwhile accusing the President of fanning the flames of violence and dividing the country for political gain.
Biden is under growing pressure to mount a high-profile response to Trump’s searing attacks that brand him the tool of left-wing anarchists and “Defund the Police” activists during a summer of protest and unrest following the death of George Floyd with a police officer’s knee on his neck in May.
An effective speech and follow-up measures by Biden could allay Democrats’ fears that a hardcore Republican law-and-order campaign could eat into Biden’s polling lead, but also offer a glimpse into how he might lead as president. It’s an opportunity for him to display his capacity for empathy and bringing people together — and offer a possible route out of yet another crisis that Trump seems unable or unwilling to provide.
Trump campaign blasts protesters as ‘terrorists’ and Biden supporters
Exchanges between the two campaigns on Sunday talk shows shed light on how each candidate plans to respond to an extraordinary national moment in the tense days ahead — and where they see liabilities to exploit in their rivals.
Trump and his campaign are behaving as if they think they have Biden in a vise. The Democratic nominee has strongly sided with Black Lives Matter protests, causing Trump to argue that he is either promoting or is a tool of looters who have burned parts of American cities. Biden has condemned violence on all sides, and despite the efforts of Trump and his conservative media cheerleaders, there is evidence that the violence is not just the work of far-left groups and that far-right anarchist organizations are also involved.
But in the frenzy of a late-stage presidential campaign, such distinctions are ignored. “Make no mistake: These are left-wing terrorists and Joe Biden voters,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh tweeted on Sunday, after the President said in a wild rally in New Hampshire on Friday, “Today’s Democratic Party is full of hate … protesters, your ass. They’re not protesters … they’re agitators, they’re rioters, they’re looters.”
On Sunday, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Trump supporter and Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson declined the opportunity to specifically condemn the alleged vigilante who killed two protesters in Kenosha, repeatedly saying the “the entire situation” was a “tragedy.”
“I don’t want to see anybody lose their life. I don’t want to see the violence continue. I don’t want to see businesses burned down. I don’t want to see economic destruction. I condemn it all,” Johnson told CNN’s Dana Bash. Trump has still not condemned the police shooting of Blake, who survived but is currently partially paralyzed. The President has asked for an investigation.
At the GOP convention, the Trump campaign largely framed protests and violence as naturally occurring — rather than an outgrowth of the despair of African Americans amid repeated instances of police brutality. And on Sunday, he retweeted a video of Trump supporters in a convoy heading into the center of Portland, calling them “Great Patriots.”
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” White House chief of staff Mark Meadows made the odd claim that “Most of Donald Trump’s America is peaceful,” seeking to blame Democratic governors and mayors for failing to put a lid on unrest, but leaving the impression that the President is not leading the entire country.
But Biden answered that criticism in other ways. He used Trump’s encouragement of supporters who risk exacerbating unrest as an example of why he is unfit for the Oval Office and should be denied a second term.
“He may believe tweeting about law and order makes him strong — but his failure to call on his supporters to stop seeking conflict shows just how weak he is,” Biden said in his Sunday statement. “He may think that war in our streets is good for his reelection chances, but that is not presidential leadership — or even basic human compassion.”
Biden’s crucial test
The former vice president has a more subtle task than Trump, who is characteristically demagoguing the issue and deluging Americans with disinformation. Biden previewed his message on the road this week in his Sunday statement, piling pressure on Trump to condemn all violence and condemning the killing of the man in Portland amid fresh violence on Saturday night.
“Shooting in the streets of a great American city is unacceptable. I condemn this violence unequivocally. I condemn violence of every kind by anyone, whether on the left or the right. And I challenge Donald Trump to do the same,” Biden said. “It does not matter if you find the political views of your opponent’s abhorrent, any loss of life is a tragedy. Today there is another family grieving in America, and Jill and I offer our deepest condolences.”
The Biden campaign is seeking to insulate the former vice president from Trump’s attacks by painting the current tension and unrest as the inevitable result of a President rooted in division and cultural warfare.
“Who is on the side of justice? Who is on the side of constitutional policing?” Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, a co-chair of Biden’s campaign, said on “Meet the Press.”
“This is Trump’s America.”
CNN’s Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report.