The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From ‘Sleepy Joe’ to a destroyer of the ‘American way of life,’ Trump’s attacks on Biden make a dystopian shift

President Trump zeroed in on his likely 2020 competitor former vice president Joe Biden during a lengthy media event on July 14. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump has launched a slash-and-burn campaign against an exaggerated caricature of his Democratic opponent, casting former vice president Joe Biden as a destroyer of basic freedoms and a threat to voters’ safety who would “let terrorists roam free” and “abolish the American way of life.”

His new dystopian vision, with militant and extreme language not typical in American politics, marks a sharp departure from Trump’s previous effort to cast Biden as “Sleepy Joe,” an establishment politician with deteriorating mental abilities. It marks the latest effort, orchestrated by Trump’s advisers, to shift the conversation from rising coronavirus infections and deteriorating public support for the president’s pandemic response.

In new advertising, tweets and public statements that began to appear earlier this month, Trump has argued that the presumptive Democratic nominee is a harbinger of chaos and destruction, depicting a fantastical scarecrow largely divorced from reality.

“Joe Biden and the Radical Left want to Abolish Police, Abolish ICE, Abolish Bail, Abolish Suburbs, Abolish the 2nd Amendment — and Abolish the American Way of Life. No one will be SAFE in Joe Biden’s America!” Trump tweeted Wednesday. In fact, Biden opposes calls to abolish police or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, seeks new gun regulations under current judicial interpretations of the Constitution and sees the nation’s suburban voters, especially women, as a core part of his political base.

Rancor between scientists and Trump allies threatens pandemic response as cases surge

Trump’s tweeted language, along with similar comments by him Tuesday in the Rose Garden, appear to be lifted directly from an internal White House document officials said was circulated in the building days earlier. In two concise pages, the document sent by White House senior adviser Stephen Miller laid out dozens of bullet-pointed attacks on Biden, along with a brief summary of positive points that describe Trump’s “vision for the future.”

The author of many of Trump’s most pugilistic public statements, Miller has raised concerns to other White House aides that the campaign’s messaging has not been tough enough on Biden, officials said, and a cadre of White House officials have begun working on campaign issues through their private email accounts and text message chains.

Speaking on July 9, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden contrasted his economic plan with President Trump’s work while in office. (Video: The Washington Post)

In the talking points he distributed, Biden’s elevation to the White House was described as an event that would “surrender America and its citizens to the violent left-wing mob,” “import terrorists,” and “allow left-wing fascists to destroy America.” In an echo of the speech Trump delivered at Mount Rushmore on July 3, the talking points alleged that Biden will empower “the mob to rip down every statue, vilify our heroes, erase our history” and let radicals indoctrinate our children. (Biden launched his campaign with a video quoting the Declaration of Independence and has condemned the removal of statues that do not commemorate the Confederacy.)

The document also includes false, and even contradictory, policy attacks that have long been a staple of the Trump campaign’s digital advertising.

“Biden will impose a socialist takeover of health care,” the talking points document reads. “He will massively cut Medicare and Social Security.” (Biden, who has fought against Medicare-for-all, supports adding a public Medicare option for those without private health insurance and increasing funding for Social Security.)

Miller himself pushed the harsher line in an appearance Wednesday on Lou Dobbs’s Fox Business show, where he spoke about the Central American gang MS-13 and charged that Biden and former president Barack Obama “unleashed these killers into our communities” and “never apologized.” The Obama administration prioritized deportation of undocumented criminals and gang members.

Miller framed the election in nearly apocalyptic terms. “That’s the choice everyone faces: Public safety under this president or lawless mayhem under the radical left,” he said.

The White House declined to comment on the document and the president’s rhetorical shift.

Similar talking points have since been broadly embraced by federal officials and Republican operatives in their public comments, bringing a broader audience to an argument that was previously confined to conservative media, like Tucker Carlson’s prime-time Fox News program, where Democrats are regularly described as people who “hate” and “despise” their own country.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has begun arguing that Democrats want to “deface, destroy and dismantle our country,” in a clear signal to House campaigns. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday in a speech that “the very core of what it means to be an American, indeed the American way of life itself, is under attack” from within the country.

The effort recalls some of the controversial rhetoric that Trump embraced in his 2016 campaign, when he made calls for imprisoning his opponent, Hillary Clinton. But advisers to Biden don’t believe such a strategy can work again in a time of such acute national crises. They said the claims are so obviously false and outlandish as to not be credible, and they point to the fact that Biden begins the general election with higher approval ratings than Clinton.

“Predicating this ‘new,’ incoherent nonmessage on ‘safety’ or ‘radicalism’ isn’t strategic — it’s unstable projection and desperation incarnate,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said. “This is another tragic reminder that in a moment of unprecedented crisis, when we need real leadership more than ever, we are saddled with an unhinged commander in chief.”

Trump campaign advisers maintain that the president’s recent statements are accurate depictions of Biden, because they point out parts of his past record or the effective results of Biden’s policy push. Biden has supported cuts to Social Security and Medicare in the past. He supports less aggressive immigration enforcement policies, and he would change qualified immunity for police officers, which they argue would bankrupt law enforcement.

“I hate to break it to Joe Biden, but he has a 47-year record and I am afraid he is stuck with it,” said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, who also argued that Biden would be further manipulated in office. “Biden is an empty vessel here. He is a Trojan horse for Bernie Sanders and the radical left agenda because he cannot stand up to them.”

Bill Stepien, Trump’s newly appointed campaign manager, views a ramped up focus on attacking Biden as a primary goal, according to people familiar with his thinking who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private strategy discussions.

“There are two reasons an incumbent wins. One, you’re doing a good job. Two, the opponent has been discredited as a better alternative,” said Mike DuHaime, a GOP strategist and close friend of Stepien. “The first one is not really up to the campaign. It’s up to the president and the White House. Second, the campaign has some level of control over and needs to do a better job.”

Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller, no relation to Stephen, has also been pushing the messaging internally, sending out morning memos to Trump campaign advisers, supporters and surrogates to drive the message. A campaign official familiar with the effort said that both Millers participated in an effort in late June and early July to improve the campaign messaging.

The advisers seized on a July 8 joint policy statement by the Biden campaign and senior advisers to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to claim that Biden is abandoning his moderate record to become a tool for the left. They have also focused on a July 8 interview by Biden, where he said that surplus military supplies going to local police departments had the ill effect of making them “become the enemy” for communities they protect and said he supported redirecting some police funding.

Since then, the Trump campaign has earned the ire of fact-checkers by claiming that Biden wants to defund the police or that he considers police “the enemy,” neither of which is true. The Trump campaign has nonetheless spent nearly $14 million since July 2, according to a Democratic ad tracker, to air a television spot that suggests police departments won’t respond to 911 calls if Biden is elected.

Trump has occasionally struggled to deliver the new message. In an interview set to air on Fox News Sunday, the president claims that the Biden and Sanders statement included plans to “defund the police.” It does not, but Trump nonetheless called for a temporary stop to the interview to check the document.

“You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America. Your family won’t be safe, your job won’t be safe and even your words and ideas won’t be safe,” one recent Jason Miller internal email read.

The sharpened talking points have given the Trump campaign a more unified argument, after months of struggling with how to respond to the viral pandemic, the economic crisis and the nationwide protests against police brutality.

For much of June, Trump moved, often confusingly, between praising and condemning protests over racial injustice. His campaign’s television advertising praised his response to the viral pandemic, even as he prevaricated on wearing masks to prevent transmission and urged the country to reopen among rising infection rates in many states.

The talking points document distributed by Stephen Miller lays out a direct message on the coronavirus: “Our strategy is to shelter the vulnerable while allowing the young and healthy to return to work.”

In recent weeks, federal health officials have stepped up their warnings about infections among young and healthy people that has spread to more vulnerable populations.

“None of us really anticipated the amount of community spread that began in really our 18 to 35-year-old age group,” Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said on Tuesday. “We right now have really significant cases in people under 45.”

The document also claims the United States has a lower fatality rate from covid-19 than France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands, Japan, Denmark, Germany and Finland.

According to Johns Hopkins University Coronovirus Resource Center, the United States has the second highest number of deaths as a share of population among the 20 countries most affected by the coronavirus, behind only the United Kingdom. When measured by the number of deaths per confirmed cases, the U.S. has the ninth highest rate in the world.

Recent polling has shown a sharp deterioration in public approval for Trump’s handling of the pandemic, as the number of infections and deaths have begun to rise again nationwide. A July Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 38 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the outbreak, down from 46 percent in May and 51 percent in March.

Trump advisers have urged him to address the recent spike in cases more directly, and he recently pivoted on the question of wearing a mask, by wearing one in public and saying he did not mind the way he looked. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Friday on “Fox and Friends” that Trump should start appearing again at daily coronavirus briefings from the White House.

Those briefings stopped after advisers told the president that some of his comments, including his suggestion that doctors find a way to inject disinfectant into people to kill the virus, were hurting his public image.

Campaign advisers say the operation is still refining a positive case for Trump’s reelection. At recent events, the president has listed off a push for school choice, improved health care, a tougher stand against China, more conservative judges and continued focus on building the economy. The Stephen Miller document adds to several platforms that echo the negative case Trump is trying to make against Biden, including defense of police and keeping borders secure.

Among the Trump visions for the future, the document lists this one: “Defend our noble history and the American way of life.”