Joe Biden has, in so many words, been calling President Donald Trump an instigator of racist hatred and violence for more than a year now. But Biden often deals in euphemisms: “A battle for the soul of the nation,” he likes to say, the implication being Biden is good, Trump evil.
Biden made that argument in far more direct words Monday.
With the nation consumed by the coronavirus pandemic, the shooting of another Black man by a white police officer, and violence erupting between pro-Trump demonstrators and anti-racism protesters, Biden explicitly condemned Trump as a dangerous agent of injustice.
“I look at this violence and I see lives and communities and the dreams of small businesses being destroyed, and the opportunities for real progress on issues of race and police reform and justice being put to the test,” Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, said in remarks delivered in Pittsburgh. “Donald Trump looks at this violence, and he sees a political lifeline.”
The speech followed two shootings stemming from clashes involving Trump supporters who have responded to the nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality, and to Trump’s insistence that American cities are being overtaken by violent, anti-police mobs. In Kenosha last week, a teenage Trump fan allegedly shot and killed two people at a Black Lives Matter rally. In Portland over the weekend, someone was shot and killed while a caravan organized by hundreds of Trump supporters motored through the city’s downtown, provoking violent encounters with protesters. Armed militias have taken to the streets across the country, ostensibly to guard against the destruction of property but ratcheting up tensions.
Biden charged Monday that Trump “long ago forfeited any moral leadership in this country. He can’t stop the violence, because for years he has fomented it.” While Trump “may believe mouthing the words 'law and order' makes him strong,” Biden added, “his failure to call on his own supporters to stop acting as an armed militia in this country shows you how weak he is.”
The speech advanced a rhetorical attack from Biden: Do you feel safe under Trump?
“Does anyone believe that there will be less violence in America if Donald Trump is reelected?” the former vice president asked at one point. Trump, he added later, has “no problem with right-wing militias, white supremacists, and vigilantes with assault weapons — often better armed than the police, often in the middle of the violence at the protesters and aiming it there.”
Biden expanded the safety argument to critique other parts of Trump’s performance. He tied it into how Trump is handling the coronavirus pandemic he once downplayed. (“More than 100,000 seniors have lost their lives in the virus, more cops have died from COVID this year than have been killed on patrol.”) He tied it into Trump’s economic stewardship. (“Does he not understand and see the tens of millions of people who've had to file for unemployment this year so far?”) And he tied it into Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin. (“Never before has an American president played such a subservient role to a Russian leader.”)
Reporters received excerpts from the speech hours before, giving Trump’s reelection campaign and allies a head start in responding. A Republican National Committee spokesperson tweeted that Biden was threatening more violence. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, accused Biden of “literally dumping gasoline on the fire and justifying these violent leftwing riots.”
In his remarks, Biden applied similar imagery to Trump. “He keeps telling us that if he was president, you'd feel safe. Well, he is president, whether he knows it or not. And it is happening. It's getting worse and you know why: because Donald Trump adds fuel to every fire.”
Biden, who on Sunday issued a lengthy statement condemning the violence in Portland, also used Monday’s speech to unequivocally denounce rioters and looters.
“Rioting is not protesting,” he said. “Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It's lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted. Violence will not bring change. It will only bring destruction. It's wrong in every way.”
“You know me, you know my heart,” Biden said a bit later. “You know my story — my family story. Ask yourself: Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?”
In a statement afterward, a spokesperson for Trump’s reelection campaign falsely said that Biden “failed to condemn” the violence. A White House spokesperson, asked earlier Monday if Trump would condemn the alleged shooter in the Kenosha incident, said the president would not “weigh in on that.”
Biden has talked in recent months of making the fight against systemic racism a priority if elected. On Monday he noted how he’s spoken to the families of George Floyd, the Black man killed by Minneapolis police in May, and Jacob Blake, the Black man shot by a Kenosha police officer last week. He said he was optimistic he could bring activists for racial justice together with police leaders and that he would support mayors who ask for federal assistance.
“He advertises himself as a figure of order,” Biden said of Trump toward the end of the speech. “He isn't. And he's not been part of the solution thus far, he's part of the problem.”
Not once during his remarks did Biden utter the phrase “soul of the nation” — the theme that from the start has guided his presidential campaign and punctuated almost every speech. In its place was a new euphemism, rooted in the same idea, but with more urgency.
“Donald Trump has been a toxic presence in our nation for four years — poisoning how we talk to one another, poisoning how we treat one another, poisoning the values this nation has always held dear, poisoning our very democracy,” Biden said. “Now, there's just a little over 60 days [until the election]. We have a decision to make. Will we rid ourselves of this toxin? Or will we make it a permanent part of our nation's character?”