September 1, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Biden destroys Trump’s ‘law and order’ message
The only way that message survives is with the press corps' help.
In normal times, Joe Biden’s speech Monday would have punctuated the end of the debate. We don’t live in normal times, however, so the “debate” goes on and on, long after facts are established, long after points are conclusively made. Such is the effect of a president holding himself above everything, especially the authority of the truth. Such is the effect of a Washington press corps unable or unwilling to act morally.
Biden’s Pittsburgh address wasn’t an ordinary stump speech. It was a direct attack on the president’s latest reelection gambit—tying the Democratic nominee to flare-ups of riots, looting and violence occurring in some cities. Or as Amanda Carpenter wrote recently in The Bulwark, it’s “scaring the ever-living crap out of the Republican base.”
Joe Biden’s coup de grace: “You know me, you know my heart, you know my story, my family story. Ask yourself, do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?”
I won’t go into every detail of the speech, which you can read here or watch here, but I will say it destroyed Trump’s “law and order” message. Biden was unequivocal in his condemnation of violence in all forms while making clear Americans have a right to protest legitimately the injustice of white cops shooting Black people and never being held accountable. Biden went on, though. He said the president himself doesn’t want law. He doesn’t want order. He’s encouraging lawlessness, cheering on vigilantes, and hyperactivating chaos. And by the way, Biden said, I’m not the president. Trump is. All of this is on his watch. Then came what I thought was the coup de grace. Biden said:
When I think of the presidency, I don’t think about myself. It isn’t about my brand. It’s about you, the American people. We can do better and we have to do better. I promise you this. We will do better. The road back begins now in this campaign. You know me, you know my heart, you know my story, my family story. Ask yourself, do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really? I want a safe America, safe from COVID, safe from crime and looting, safe from racially motivated violence, safe from bad cops. Let me be crystal clear, safe from four more years of Donald Trump. I look at this violence and I see lives and communities and the dreams of small businesses being destroyed and the opportunity for real progress on issues of race and police reform and justice being put to the test. Donald Trump looks at this violence and he sees a political lifeline. Having failed to protect this nation from the virus that has killed more than 180,000 Americans so far, Trump posts an all caps tweet, screaming, “Law and order,” to save his campaign.
With that “Ask yourself” bit, Biden demonstrated why pragmatic Black Democrats wanted him to be the party’s next standard-bearer. He was using his long record of supporting cops. He was using his status as elder statesman. He was using these and his immense white privilege to shield himself, his campaign and his supporters against the president’s offal-flinging, and it seems to be working so far. Few can look at Biden’s bald pate, noble squint, and high-beam smile, and think he’s Antifa’s patsy.
This president, long ago, forfeited any moral leadership in this country. He can’t stop the violence because for years he’s fomented it. He may believe mouthing the words law and order makes him strong. But his failure to call on his own supporters to stop acting as an armed militia in this country shows how weak he is. Does anyone believe there’ll be less violence in America if Donald Trump is reelected?
As I said, this should have been the end. It wasn’t. The president went on Fox last night to deliver pretty much the same message, totally ignoring Biden’s destruction of that message, which is what you can do when you have zero fidelity to the truth. Making matters worse is the apparent befuddlement of reporters. They don’t know what to make of Trump’s double standard. He says Biden should condemn violence but he won’t do the same when it involves a supporter. This is worse than hypocrisy, but the press corps does not see the danger. This is saying violence by my enemies is bad but violence by my allies is good. The law restrains them, but it does not restrain me. On Monday, when Trump defended Kyle Rittenhouse, the Kenosha shooter, what he was really saying, as he has said many times before, is the law does not apply to him.
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What we’re seeing is a repeat of the same rhetorical strategy that made “birtherism” powerful. After Trump lies, he’s proven wrong. After doubling down, he garners more attention for having doubled down, thus amplifying the lie. When challenged again, he triples down, supercharging a vicious cycle. There is no end to it without action by the press. The press, however, never wants to. It’s too direct. It’s too courageous. Yet it’s simple. To get the president to stop lying so much, ask why he’s lying so much. On rare occasion when reporters asked that, it was then, and only then, that Trump shut up.
Amanda Carpenter said Trump’s fear-mongering is chasing voters into Biden’s arms. Given what we know about him, and what we know about the press corps’ inability and unwillingness to act morally, I fear that’s too optimistic. Biden destroyed the president’s “law and order” message. It cannot survive—unless reporters help it.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.