The President, by choosing to incite division rather than to heal it in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and by setting federal security forces on protestors, is signaling no limits to his bid to retain power. He is tearing at social scars to revive a presidency humbled by a pandemic and an economic disaster, and he seems set on creating the dystopian fight between order and chaos he has long evoked.
Until now, the national presidential campaign of the 77-year-old former vice president Biden had seemed like a placeholder. He had even referred to himself as a bridge to a new generation of Democrats and there was not much aspirational about a bid rooted almost exclusively in kicking Trump out of the White House.
But the suddenly critical political circumstances offer him the chance to give a lifelong quest for the presidency the more soaring meaning that it has always lacked.
The presumptive Democratic nominee has reacted to the changed dynamic of a campaign previously kept in hibernation by lockdowns, warning that citizens cannot “let our rage consume us.” Energizing a campaign initially based on the uninspiring prospect of an old order restoration, Biden Tuesday presented himself as an avatar of racial justice and national healing.
Both candidates understand that presidential campaigns turn on sudden, unexpected events that embed themselves in America’s story. The aftermath of Floyd’s death is now among them and has given new clarity to the 2020 election campaign that is suddenly in full swing.
The somber implication of Trump’s campaign theme is that for it to work, he needs to keep the country on a constant hair-trigger of fear, acrimony and confrontation during a long, hot summer ahead of the final run-in to November’s election. So there will be every incentive for him to further rip at society’s wounds for political gain, meaning that his “law and order” crusade will be even more overt than similar racially suggestive themes used by Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
For Biden to prevail and turn Trump into a one-term President, he must now become the vehicle for across-the-board national revulsion over Trump’s rhetoric and tactics.
He will need to informally corral voices of tolerance and turn his campaign into a cohesive national movement for change. That means encouraging peaceful protests and emerging as the leader of Americans like those who quietly gathered on the Lincoln Memorial on Tuesday and went home before a 7 p.m. curfew. He must open his tent to those attracted by former Republican President George W. Bush’s moving and above partisan politics call on Tuesday for “America to examine our tragic failures.”
The themes that have burst into life in the week since Floyd was killed mean the election could turn on how a majority of Americans perceive the true definition of “law and order” and the country’s attitude to its own racial legacy a fifth of the way into the 21st Century.
Trump this week could have given the Oval Office address to soothe tensions and preach the common destiny of all Americans.
But his presidency suggests that he lacks the words and empathy to play such a consoling role and he stays true to his instincts of exploiting discord to consolidate power. By vowing to be the “law and order” President, he set the stage for five contentious months likely to contain more stunts like his trip to a fabled church across from the White House on Monday.
The President also threatened to send federal troops into the states to quell violence and in foreboding tones his Defense Secretary Mark Esper spoke of American cities as “battle space.” Against this backdrop, his expressions of sympathy for Floyd and protestations that he stands with peaceful demonstrations seemed like lip service. His campaign is more defined by his warning that “vicious dogs” would greet protestors who breached the White House complex and condemnation of “professional anarchists, violent mobs … arsonists, looters, criminals, rider rioters.”
The President’s play is clear. He is betting that suburban voters disgusted that he ignored the coronavirus pandemic until it was too late, will swing right as he invokes the specter of lawlessness and race riots and social turmoil.
“Now (Biden) he pretends to have the answers,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday. “He doesn’t even know the questions. Weakness will never beat anarchists, looters or thugs, and Joe has been politically weak all of his life. LAW & ORDER!”
Trump and his conservative propagandists will relentlessly drive home the message that Democrats appease crime and disorder in a bid to restore voters to Trump’s coalition who deserted him in the midterm elections in 2018. The implication is that the times call for a strongman not a conciliator.
A law and order crisis also offers Trump a chance to reestablish the dynamic of his 2016 campaign – that he is the outspoken bull in a china shop who slays political correctness but who, unlike the media and East Coast elites, understands heartland instincts. As a recent Trump campaign video put it: “President Trump’s not always polite. Mr. Nice Guy won’t cut it.”
The other political lesson of recent days is that Trump has all but given up leading the fight against the pandemic that is still killing a staggering 1,000 Americans every day.
He has arguably benefited as the disaster was pushed out of the news by America’s perennial struggle with race. The White House has not bothered to hold a briefing with public health officials for days that would contradict Trump’s false claim that he has “prevailed.” His refusal to wear a surgical mask in public is meant to show the danger has passed. And he has relentlessly pushed for a packed crowd at the Republican National Convention in North Carolina despite fears he could ignite a viral wave.
Trump said Tuesday in a tweet that the GOP will be “forced” to find a new state to host their convention as North Carolina’s Democratic governor stands by his demand that party leaders provide him with plans for a scaled down event amid coronavirus concerns. And three Republican officials tell CNN the President will not accept the 2020 Republican nomination in Charlotte, though some formal portion of the convention will be held in the city because of contractual agreements.
Trump’s ostentatious march to St. John’s Church in Washington on Monday, moments after security forces drove protestors away, also contained a play to social conservative and evangelical voters. Establishment clergy in Washington accused Trump of using the Bible as a prop. But Tony Perkins, a top social conservative and president of the Family Research Council, channeled Trump’s warnings about looters and rioters, warning their acts were “an offense to humanity and a crime against God.”
Biden’s sudden opening
Biden’s speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday pleased Democrats beginning to worry he was not meeting the moment that could define 2020.
“I won’t traffic in fear and division. I won’t fan the flames of hate. I’ll seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued our country, not use them for political gain. I’ll do my job and I’ll take responsibility – I won’t blame others,” Biden said.
In anchoring his campaign on the turmoil of recent days, Biden can honor the African American voters who revived his almost failed primary campaign in South Carolina and the moderate Democrats and independents seeking peace and freedom from the bedlam of presidential tweeting.
Suddenly, a national father figure projecting empathy distilled from his own searing personal tragedies might be the man for moment. Biden is now promising specific legislation to address the lack of racial equality under the law, giving his potential presidency a generational and reforming purpose – and possibly an issue that could unite the Democratic left fully behind him and lance suspicion over his role in 1990s crime legislation.
Recent events have also made Biden’s pick of a vice presidential nominee even more consequential. Pressure is now intense for an African American partner. He has already said he will choose a woman.
The assault from Trump’s well-funded campaign and his conservative media supporters will be relentless. But successful candidates create a narrative that fits the times. With his speech on Tuesday, Biden made a start on that process.
“‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’ George Floyd’s last words. But they didn’t die with him. They’re still being heard. They’re echoing across this nation,” Biden said.