On Monday, Joe Biden travelled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for what was, in this pandemic year, a rare campaign speech delivered outside the confines of his Delaware home. “We’ve had a lot of talk about who is going where,” Biden said, “and how I’ve decided to come to Pittsburgh to talk about what’s going on right now.” This past week, during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon, four people were shot and three of them were killed. In Kenosha, where a police officer recently shot a Black man named Jacob Blake, a white seventeen-year-old named Kyle Rittenhouse, who came to town armed with an assault rifle and intent on patrolling the protests, has been charged with two murders. The details are sketchier in Portland, which has been roiled by protests, riots, and draconian law-enforcement actions since the spring, but reports have suggested that a man wearing a hat associated with a far-right group was shot dead by a protester. These bleak deaths were quickly absorbed into the Presidential campaign, turned into questions of positioning and tactics. Politico wrote that the shootings were “redefining the contours of the presidential race—shifting the immediate debate over how to quell the clashes, who should own the unrest and which candidate is better suited to lead the nation through strife.”
Less than two weeks ago, accepting the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination at its Convention, Biden gave a soaring twenty-five-minute address that referred to the current occupant of the Oval Office by name exactly zero times. “I will be an ally of the light, not of the darkness,” was the payoff line. On Monday, in a blunter speech of roughly the same length, Biden deployed the President’s name thirty-two times. “Donald Trump looks at this violence and sees a political lifeline,” Biden said. “Having failed to protect this nation from a virus that has killed more than a hundred and eighty thousand Americans, Trump posts all-cap tweets screaming ‘LAW AND ORDER’ to save his campaign.” There’s plenty of evidence for this argument. Just last week, Kellyanne Conway, the outgoing White House adviser, said on “Fox & Friends,” “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.” Three years ago, Conway, whose reputation is that of a savvy communicator, helped shape the public’s understanding of Trump’s first term in office by confessing to its preference for “alternative facts.” Now, with her “violence reigns” argument, she may have performed a similar service to Trump’s reëlection effort.
Clearly, Trump would prefer to spend the next two months parading around with the police-union officials and sheriffs’ associations who have backed him rather than touring hospitals and P.P.E. factories, or addressing the tens of millions of Americans out of work and facing unpaid bills, eviction, hunger, and desperation as a result of the economic collapse brought on by the coronavirus. But it’s not at all clear that he’ll be successful in making this election about looting, or that a contest which turns on what has happened in America’s streets since the killing of George Floyd, in May, would even be good for him. In the lead-up to Monday’s speech, Trump and his campaign had challenged Biden to denounce the riots and looting that have been seen in Kenosha, Portland, Chicago, and elsewhere. Biden did so unequivocally. “I want to be clear about this,” he said. “Rioting is not protesting, looting is not protesting, setting fires is not protesting.” And then he turned the question around and accused Trump of refusing to “stand up to any form of violence.” This was a fight that Trump had picked, and yet at a White House press conference just a few hours later, when he was asked about the Kenosha shooter, Trump replied, “He was trying to get away from them, I guess, it looks like, and he fell. And then they very violently attacked him.” (The criminal complaint against Rittenhouse alleges that the crowd rushed him after he shot his first victim, Joseph Rosenbaum, who was unarmed.) The Trump campaign wants to make the election a referendum on street chaos, and yet there was the candidate, at a lectern inside the White House, excusing alleged murder because the killer supposedly supports him. This is a closing argument in a Presidential election?
It is difficult, at this moment, to properly frame the state of the race because of two seemingly contradictory facts that are allowed to coexist in America’s electoral system. On the one hand, Trump has almost no chance of winning the popular vote, which he lost to Hillary Clinton by nearly three million votes, in 2016. The margin may well be even bigger in November. At the same time, Trump still has a chance of being reëlected, thanks to the Electoral College. His campaign looks at the map of the country and thinks, if it can hold on to the Republican-leaning states Trump won in 2016, it needs only to win one of the three key Midwestern swing states—Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, or Michigan—to top two hundred and seventy votes in the Electoral College. This presupposes that Trump can hang on to Arizona, North Carolina, and Georgia (not to mention Florida), where Biden currently looks strong, but it does help explain the campaign’s narrowly crafted rhetoric in statements and advertisements. Last week, the Republican Party turned over much of its Convention to making the case that the President wasn’t racist. Over the weekend, Trump approvingly retweeted speculation that he could win as much as sixteen per cent of the Black vote in November. This is a President playing for the margins in a few key states, not the majority across the country.
Biden is thinking about the map, too. As he alluded to in his remarks, there had also been a question of whether he would travel to Wisconsin this week to see things for himself. Trump planned to travel to Kenosha on Tuesday, over the objections of the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers. Biden opted instead for western Pennsylvania, where, in a speech dedicated to addressing racial violence, he found time to assure local residents that he had no intention of banning fracking, the fossil-fuel-extraction process that helps the regional economy, even as it helps doom the planet. (Neither campaign seems eager to travel to the electorally irrelevant state of Oregon.)
The shootings in Kenosha and Portland were awful evidence of how much worse things can get at a time when they are already historically bad. (Eighty-four per cent of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, according to the latest Gallup poll.) But the pattern of the Trump era, from the beginning, has been that each development greeted as unthinkable and indelible is inevitably forgotten a week or two later, when another astounding development presents itself. Why wouldn’t the pattern repeat itself again with these shootings? What horrors have Americans not eventually forgotten in recent years? Biden, in his remarks on Monday, seemed aware that the challenge between now and Election Day will be as much to hold people’s attention as it will be to win arguments. “Ask yourself,” Biden countered. “Do I look to you like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?” Look at me, Trump constantly says to America. On Monday, Biden responded,