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Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In 2016, Donald Trump pledged to "build the wall." In 2020, he's promising to be the wall.

The big picture: The president's rhetorical imagery is shifting from big, physical barriers against illegal immigration to a show of force against threats to the suburbs.

  • In recent weeks, Trump has conjured images of Joe Biden inviting looters, rioters, radical leftists and unidentified thugs in dark uniforms to run wild.
  • Trump has suggested scenarios ranging from new public housing construction that lowers property values — to unbridled rape, or murder.

Why it matters: Trump's trying to say he is the wall between chaos and your community.

  • "The fact is that we've seen tremendous violence, and we will put it out very, very quickly, if given the chance," Trump said during his visit to Kenosha, Wisc., this week.
  • This imagery gives him an off-ramp to steer debate away from the coronavirus, which has taken more than 187,000 U.S. lives on Trump's watch, and make Biden sound dangerous — a tactic some Democrats worry could put Biden on the defensive.

Driving the news: The president painted multiple human-wall pictures in a speech this week in Latrobe, Pa.

On guns, he falsely asserted that he's holding back Democrats from taking away Americans' rights to keep guns.

  • "I am standing between them and your Second Amendment and that's it," Trump said. (Fact check: Biden has said repeatedly that he supports the Second Amendment.)
  • Trump visually underscored his message by making an up-and-down chopping motion with one hand, depicting a barrier between gun owners and Democrats.

On monuments, Trump figuratively deputized others who share his views to his human-wall cavalry.

  • Calling out to members of the Boilermakers Local 154 union in the crowd who had endorsed him, he asked: "How do you like the idea of taking down our statues to our great George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, all of them? I don't think the Boilermakers would — you'll do a ring around Washington, right?"
  • "They tried to take down Christopher Columbus statues in New York," Trump said. "You saw what happened, right? These Italians formed a little circle. They said, 'Come on!'" he said, raising a fist as if to fight. "The agitators decided to leave."

Between the lines: Immigration has slipped significantly from 2016 in terms of Americans' priorities heading into the election — and most Americans do not support the construction of a physical border wall or hard-line immigration policies, per an NPR-Ipsos poll from late July.

  • Immigration fell to 12th place in terms of most worrisome topics, the poll found. COVID-19 commanded a clear lead, followed by health care, political polarization, racial injustice and crime or gun violence.
  • Still, the generic idea of a barrier that can protect people from elements they fear can provide comfort to people, which could potentially be converted to loyalty and votes.

Go deeper

Updated Aug 18, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Axios-NewsWhip 2020 attention tracker library

Why migrants are fleeing their homes for the U.S.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios Photo: Herika Martinez /Getty Images 

Natural disasters in Central America, economic devastation, gang wars, political oppression, and a new administration are all driving the sharp rise in U.S.-Mexico border crossings — a budding crisis for President Biden.

Why it matters: Migration flows are complex and quickly politicized. Biden's policies are likely sending signals that are encouraging the surge — but that's only a small reason it's happening.

Cities' pandemic struggle to balance homelessness and public safety

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Addressing homelessness has taken on new urgency in cities across the country over the past year, as officials grapple with a growing unhoused population and the need to preserve public safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: It’s led to tension when cities move in to clear encampments — often for health and safety reasons — causing some to rethink the role of law enforcement when interacting with people experiencing homelessness.