On Tuesday morning, Joe Biden spoke about the protests and violence that have convulsed the country since George Floyd’s death. He depicted a post-Trump America that could unite progressives and disaffected Republicans. President Donald Trump has scorned, sabotaged, or betrayed basic American principles: compassion, freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. He has cast aside everything Republicans claim to stand for: constitutionalism, free markets, fiscal responsibility, national security, and religious virtue. These betrayals define, by negation, an alternative platform with broad appeal. “I ask every American to look at where we are,” said Biden. “Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be?”
For all his flaws, Biden fits the moment in this respect: He has always aimed for an expansive coalition. On Tuesday, he targeted Trump’s most universally repellant offenses: “sweeping away all the guardrails that have long protected our democracy,” “using tear gas and flash grenades” to clear out protesters for a photo-op, “using the American military to move against the American people,” and attacking “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” Biden reminded Trump that protest is part of liberty and democracy. “Mr. President,” he said, “That is America.”
In opposition to Trump’s incendiary rhetoric, Biden argued not for the other side of a divided nation, but against division itself. “He thinks division helps him,” said Biden. He lamented that Trump, who has promised to end wars abroad, “has turned our country into a battlefield.” Biden emphasized the first word in our country’s name—united—and appealed to moral principles shared by many faiths. “The president held up a Bible at St. John’s Church yesterday,” said Biden. “If he opened it instead of brandishing it, he could have learned something: that we are all called to love one another as we love ourselves.”
Biden didn’t sugarcoat the injustices some Americans have inflicted on others. He acknowledged “the racial wounds that have long plagued this country,” “generation after generation of hurt inflicted on people of color.” “American history isn’t a fairy tale,” he said. It’s “a tug of war between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh reality that racism has long torn us apart.” He called for legislation to ban chokeholds, tighten oversight of police, and create a model standard for the use of force.
But Biden, like President Barack Obama, implored his audience to understand these injustices as part of a story of progress. Out of our nation’s worst sins and crises, he noted, came many of its greatest reforms: the post–Civil War constitutional amendments, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act. America has always required “protests from voices of those mistreated, ignored, left out, and left behind,” he conceded. “But it’s a union worth fighting for.”
Trump stands against that tradition of progress. He doesn’t just quarrel with political correctness. He promotes bigotry and discrimination. Biden pointed out that the president, in his tweets about this week’s protests, repeated an infamous threat from one 1960s racist—“When the looting starts, the shooting starts” (Trump claims he didn’t know the origin of that phrase)—and evoked the violent tactics of another (threatening to unleash “the most vicious dogs” on anyone who came too close to the White House). This isn’t a fight about microaggressions. It’s about aggressions. It’s a referendum on the civil rights movement.
Trump wants the fight to be about “anarchists,” “looters,” and “law and order”—a subject on which he’s a rank hypocrite. Biden won’t give him that fight. “There is no place for violence,” the former vice president stipulated. “No place for looting or destroying property or burning churches or destroying businesses, many of them built by people of color.” Biden denounced “opportunistic” hooligans who “sow chaos” and “distract us from the very real and legitimate grievances at the heart of these protests.” And in contrast to leftists who have called for defunding police departments, Biden said the government should give these departments “resources they need to implement reforms.”
Biden reached out to Republicans, praising former President Dwight Eisenhower. And he ended with a list of elementary promises. “I won’t traffic in fear and division,” he said. “I won’t fan the flames of hate. I will seek to heal the racial wounds … not use them for political gain. I’ll do my job and take responsibility. I won’t blame others. I’ll never forget that the job isn’t about me.” In any other era, such promises would be absurdly trite. After three years of Trump, they’re just what we need.
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