Aug 27, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Trump and Biden ready to refight 1968

Photo illustration of Donald Trump and Joseph Biden in a vintage-looking televised debate
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Win McNamee/Getty Images and Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump and Joe Biden are waging 2020 like it’s 1968, but they come at it with radically different views about this country's evolution over the past half century.

Driving the news: Jacob Blake's shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has become the latest flashpoint on race, policing and violence. A string of incidents have spurred street demonstrations from DC to Portland and framed an election-year debate about racial justice versus law and order.

  • Blake, a Black man, was paralyzed after police shot him point blank on Sunday with his children watching as he tried to enter his car.
  • Protests and unrest followed, including a civilian shooting into a crowd Tuesday night that left people dead.
  • Officials on Wednesday arrested and charged 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse of Antioch, Illinois, who reportedly idolized militias and law enforcement.
  • All three NBA playoff games that had been scheduled for Wednesday night were postponed in protest of Blake's shooting, in a movement led by the Milwaukee Bucks.

Why it matters: Trump wants to appeal to his base's instincts and convince white, suburban voters on the fence that their safety is at risk. Biden is talking to those same suburban voters and trying to convince them that a second Trump term would impede racial progress and encourage violence.

What they're saying: Trump hasn't mentioned Jacob Blake's name, but tweeted on Wednesday that, "TODAY, I will be sending federal law enforcement and the National Guard to Kenosha, WI to restore LAW and ORDER!"

  • Vice President Mike Pence echoed that message in his convention speech Wednesday night: "Let me be clear: the violence must stop — whether in Minneapolis, Portland, or Kenosha ... We will have law and order on the streets of America."

Biden said he's spoken with members of Blake's family, and that Blake's shooting "makes me sick. Is this the country we want to be? Needless violence won’t heal us. We need to end the violence — and peacefully come together to demand justice."

  • Biden had already released a statement in the hours after Blake's shooting, saying, “These shots pierce the soul of our nation" and that “we are at an inflection point. We must dismantle systemic racism. It is the urgent task before us.”
  • Trump has been more keen through this and other shootings to focus on the protests rather than allegations of police misconduct. In interviews and rallies, Trump accuses Biden and Democrats of ignoring violence and letting lawlessness prevail.

Flashback: Axios' David Nather saw back in June how 1968 might be repeating itself — but the rhetoric around both parties' presidential nominating conventions have only underscored the parallels.

Behind the headlines: In their own ways, both presidential campaigns are seizing upon the troubling events to validate their theory of what a majority of Americans believe and want.

  • “The big question is whether the Republicans can pull together a 'law-and-order' message that actually works in 2020 rather than 1968,’” says Teddy Goff, Democratic strategist and cofounder of Precisions Strategies.
  • Goff asserted that such an approach “is their only play at this point," but said it relies on swing voters being swayed by "racist propaganda."
  • Andrew Clark, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, countered that "Joe Biden does not want to talk about law and order at all."
  • "Biden blamed law enforcement for the violence in Portland, failed to stand up for public safety in Seattle’s CHOP, and is somehow always the last person in America to condemn the rioting unfolding in America’s Democrat-controlled cities," Clark said.

The bottom line: Neither campaign can control the events — or root causes — driving America’s summer of unrest. But they both want to control the narrative.

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