When President Trump began laying the blame for unrest occurring in a few cities at the feet of the Democratic presidential nominee, referring to the alleged horrors of “Joe Biden’s America,” many found it odd. After all, Biden is not president at the moment; if we’re living in anyone’s America, surely it’s Trump’s.

But what if he was unintentionally telling the truth? What if Trump is, in some crucial ways, not the president at all, and Biden is stepping in to fill the void where a normal president would be?

Obviously, Biden can’t do the practical things Trump is failing to do. But he is taking on some aspects of the presidency that we might call emotional or spiritual, the ones Trump has steadfastly refused from the moment he took office.

You can see it in both men’s reactions to the events in Kenosha, Wis., where Jacob Blake was shot by police, touching off protests that turned violent and then deadly when a 17-year-old Trump supporter came from Illinois with his AR-15 and has now been charged with killing two people.

The president went there on Tuesday, and from beginning to end, it was clear that he viewed the events there not as a wound that needed healing but an opportunity to bash his opponents and exacerbate the divisions he believes provide him political benefit.

“The state of Wisconsin has been very good to me,” Trump said — always the measure of whether a state or city has earned the consideration of the federal government. He went on to attack “reckless far-left politicians,” explaining that “It’s all Democrat, everything’s Democrat. All of these problems are Democrat cities.”

Meanwhile, he reserves his sympathies for the vigilante charged with murdering two people.

Biden is going on Thursday to Kenosha, where he’ll meet with Blake’s family and hold a forum with law enforcement and community members. Asked Wednesday what he would be doing if he were president, here’s part of what he said:

I would make sure everybody understood, if I were president, that any violence, any violence, protesting is a right and free speech is a right, but to engage in violence, burning, looting, the rest, in the name of protesting is wrong, and that people should be held accountable for their actions.
What I’d be doing is I’d be bringing people together in the White House, right now. I’d be having that police commission set up. I’d have law enforcement at the table. I’d have the community at the table. I’d have people and saying, “How do we get through this? What do we do to deal with this?” Because I believe the vast majority of the community writ large, as well as law enforcement, want to straighten things out, not inflame things, but this president keeps throwing gasoline on the fire, every place he goes.

There’s nothing earth-shattering about Biden’s words. It’s a pretty simple message meant to find a common ground that nearly everyone can or should agree on: that violence is wrong, that police and community members need to communicate more, and that some way forward can be found.

There’s plenty that message doesn’t address. But it’s what we expect of a president at moments like these: to be a voice of calm and solace. When there’s a natural disaster or a mass shooting or a situation like we’ve seen in Kenosha, he’s supposed to act as a representative of the country as a whole, to give voice to our feelings and call upon our better angels. Presidents have to perform those rituals of comfort and conciliation all the time.

Trump has never been able to carry out that role. Despite the GOP’s effort to convince us at their convention that he is secretly a caring and empathetic human being, we know it’s not true. He just doesn’t have it in him.

If you’ve suffered through a natural disaster, he might throw some paper towels at you, but don’t expect anything more. And today, in a moment of collective anxiety and grief like nothing any of us have lived through, he almost never mentions the staggering loss or tells the stories of the victims.

While some hoped the weight of the office would force Trump to become serious and thoughtful, if anything he has shrunk, becoming more petty, more juvenile, more hateful, and more corrupt. As the election approaches, there is literally nothing he does that is meant to unify and comfort the country. His strategy is to divide, incite and enrage, so that’s what he’ll do with his office.

Trump is now less the manager of a government than the head of an election campaign who involves himself in the work of running the country only when it can be twisted and warped to help his reelection.

He throws insults at governors who fail to bow down to him. He tries to cut off funds to cities run by Democrats. Agencies that had been resistant to political influence are now utterly infected by it, from the Justice Department to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Food and Drug Administration.

We now take it as a given that, just before the election, Trump will announce some kind of major development on the pandemic, probably related to a vaccine. Indeed, the CDC has issued a guidance to states telling them to prepare for the release of a vaccine “by early November,” a date whose significance no one misses.

We also take it as a given that the announcement will be fraudulent, like so many other supposedly dramatic announcements Trump has made on pandemic developments. Either it won’t actually be ready, or the “blockbuster” news will be a minor step on a very long road whose end we are nowhere near. But whatever it is, we know that Trump will lie about it and he won’t actually give the country much of anything.

And this is the worst abdication of presidential responsibility of all: Trump has essentially given up fighting a pandemic that has now killed 182,000 Americans and continues to kill nearly 1,000 of us every day.

It is fair to say that not a single one of Trump’s 44 predecessors, among them giants and rogues, would have been so homicidally negligent. As he famously said about the weaknesses in our testing system, “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

Biden isn’t president yet, but at least he’s trying to act like one. And he’s the only one doing it.

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