But on Monday, he did speak to the nation. And on Tuesday, Joe Biden gave his own speech addressing the protests sweeping our cities. Viewed in tandem, the two speeches cast in vivid relief the nature of our current divisions and the choice we face in November.
Let’s begin with Trump’s speech. After mentioning George Floyd briefly at the outset and nodding to the need for justice for his family, Trump moved quickly to criticisms of the protesters, without ever mentioning the thing they’re protesting against. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that Floyd was the first person ever killed or harassed or brutalized by a police officer, and there’s no larger problem at issue.
In fact, you wouldn’t know Floyd was killed by police at all. You might think he was killed by some random murderer, or a pack of wolves. Trump made no attempt to link Floyd’s death to any broader question.
Compare that with the beginning of Biden’s speech:
“I can't breathe. I can't breathe."George Floyd's last words. But they didn't die with him. They're still being heard. They're echoing all across this nation.They speak to a nation where too often just the color of your skin puts your life at risk.They speak to a nation where more than 100,000 people have lost their lives to a virus — and 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment — with a disproportionate number of these deaths and job losses concentrated in black and brown communities.And they speak to a nation where every day millions of people, not at the moment of losing their life but in the course of living their life, are saying to themselves, “I can’t breathe.”
Biden did condemn looting and violence, but he did it after pointing to the broad problems that gave rise to the protests in the first place. Trump, on the other hand, said, “I am your President of law and order, and an ally of all peaceful protesters,” but he never said what the protests are about. Instead, he discussed his goals in weirdly discordant terms:
These are not acts of peaceful protest. These are acts of domestic terror. The destruction of innocent life and the spilling of innocent blood is an offense to humanity and a crime against God.America needs creation, not destruction; cooperation, not contempt; security, not anarchy; healing, not hatred; justice, not chaos. This is our mission, and we will succeed. One hundred percent, we will succeed. Our country always wins.
That last part seemed like an ad-lib, because framing this challenge in the form of “winning” is so jarringly out of place that it’s hard to imagine even Trump’s incompetent speechwriters putting it in on purpose. But then he moved on to his threat to send in the military if cities and states failed to quell violence.
Both men pointed toward the future. But for Trump it meant tossing in a perfunctory “By far, our greatest days lie ahead” after talking about how unrest would be crushed.
Biden, on the other hand, talked at length about using his term in office to address systemic racism and police misconduct, including listing a number of concrete reform proposals he supports.
This may be the clearest contrast that emerges in listening to Biden and Trump. The president sees this unrest as a short-term problem of a bunch of troublemakers; put them down with sufficient force (“dominate the streets”) and the problem will be solved. Biden, on the other hand, places the problem in a broad historical context that stretches far into the past and far into the future.
Biden made multiple explicit criticisms of Trump in his speech, but near the end he offered an argument for his candidacy that has particular resonance right now:
Look, I look at the presidency as a very big job. Nobody will get it right every time, and I won't either. But I promise you this. I won't traffic in fear and division. I won't fan the flames of hate. I’ll seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued our country, not use them for political gain.I’ll do my job and I will take responsibility. I won’t blame others. I’ll never forget, I promise you, that this job isn’t about me. It’s about you. It’s about us.
In 2016, Trump made a bet that the story of America that Barack Obama used to tell — one of slow, halting but inexorable progress toward the realization of our ideals — was not what people wanted to hear. His bet was that voters wanted to nurture their anger, lift up their resentments, give voice to their hatreds and drag America backward. He was right (at least enough for an electoral college victory), and we’ve sure as hell been dragged back.
Biden is offering a vision that is more complicated, more difficult and more optimistic. You can doubt whether he’ll be able to accomplish what he claims or how vigorously he’ll pursue the commitments he’s now making.
But one thing you can say for him is that he’s trying to point us toward the light. It certainly would be a change.