In Depth

Reaction: Donald Trump and Joe Biden lay out ‘starkly different visions’ in response to US protests

Biden urges voters to build ‘the America we know we can be’ as Trump attacks his ‘weakness’

The US president and the man who wants to replace him each spoke from the heart last night, setting out their responses to the police killing of George Floyd.

Their “radically contrasting visions” laid bare the “existential choice facing America”, says The Guardian, following a week of protests against racism and police brutality, some of which have led to looting and riots.

“Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be?” asked presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in a speech delivered at Philadelphia City Hall (pictured above). “Or do we want to be the America we know we can be, the America we know in our hearts we could be and should be?”

Meanwhile, Donald Trump was on Twitter castigating the “lowlifes and losers” on the streets - and the “weakness” of Democratic governors who have declined to call in the National Guard.

He also turned directly on his challenger.

“Sleepy Joe [Biden] has been in politics for 40 years, and did nothing,” Trump tweeted. “Now he pretends to have the answers. 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!”

The last phrase, along with another tweet reading “SILENT MAJORITY!”, invoked Richard Nixon’s successful 1968 presidential campaign, which also took place against a backdrop of racial injustice and sometimes violent protest.

It’s a risky strategy for a man who has “built his entire political persona around discord and disruption”, says Jamelle Bouie in The New York Times.

“Whereas Nixon’s ‘law and order’ was a contrast with and rebuke to Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party, a Trump attempt to play the hits and recapitulate that campaign would only be an attack on his own tenure,” Bouie writes.

“You can’t promise ‘law and order’ when disorder is happening on your watch.” 

Oh yes you can, says former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich - and Trump must.

“Every person will have to choose between defending America and defending those who would destroy America,” Gingrich argues in an opinion piece for Fox News. Trump’s “serious, powerful” speech outside a church near the White House on Monday night made it clear that the president will stand firm against “enemies of American civilisation” who must be “defeated decisively and permanently”.

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That uncompromising message worked well during the 2016 election, but may find fewer takers now, says Clare Malone of political analysis website FiveThirtyEight.

“While many will still roundly condemn looting, it’s perhaps easier for a greater number of us to imagine the kind of jagged anger - grief, if we’re being concise about it - that causes it than it was four years ago,” she writes.

Biden, too, has evolved over the years. Back in 1994, he was a principal author of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which has “long been criticised for unfairly impacting minorities for its ‘three strikes’ rule, which expanded the death penalty and increased incarcerations”, says Fox News.

But now, Barack Obama’s former vice president is making it clear “that the demonstrations are pushing him to rethink some parts of his agenda”, says The Washington Post.

The bigger change, though, may be in tone. “Biden probably did just as much, if not more, sympathising with the protesters and their plight than even Obama did during Ferguson,” Jon Favreau, a speechwriter for the former US leader, told the newspaper.

Trump, too, wants to change, according to Elizabeth Bruenig in The New York Times. “He seemed to know, as he positioned himself as the defender of the Christian faith, that he needed to imbue his presidency with some renewed moral purpose,” she writes.

However, his shows of force against protesters seem to “emphasise only that his legitimacy has shrunk to the point that he feels moved to dominate his own people with military power”, Bruenig adds.

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