/Trump and Biden offer starkly different visions with nation at a crossroads

Trump and Biden offer starkly different visions with nation at a crossroads

The existential choice facing America was laid bare on Tuesday, as Donald Trump and Joe Biden set out radically contrasting visions for a nation convulsed by seven nights of protests over police brutality and racial injustice.

The president visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, after threatening to deploy the American military against the American people and being eviscerated by church leaders for using the Bible as a political prop.

Biden, the former vice-president and presumptive Democratic nominee for president in November, delivered a sombre speech at Philadelphia’s city hall, suggesting the US is at one of the most important crossroads in its history.

A week of demonstrations were triggered by the killing of George Floyd, an African American man who died when a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes, even after Floyd stopped moving and pleaded: “I can’t breathe.”

Those words are still “echoing across this nation”, Biden said in his most high-profile public appearance since the coronavirus pandemic forced him to campaign from home.

Joe Biden speaks about the unrest across the country from Philadelphia City Hall on Tuesday.

Joe Biden speaks about the unrest across the country from Philadelphia City Hall on Tuesday. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

“They speak to a nation where too often just the colour of your skin puts your life at risk,” he said.

“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 the black and minority communities.”

He added: “It’s a wake-up call for our nation. For all of us.”

Biden promised police reforms to deal with systemic racism. He also forcefully condemned Trump, who has a long history of sowing racial division.

“We can be forgiven for believing that the president is more interested in power than in principle,” he said, adding that Trump “is part of the problem, and accelerates it”.

He compared the president to notoriously racist officials from the 1960s, adding: “I promise you this. I won’t traffic in fear and division. I won’t fan the flames of hate. I will seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued this country – not use them for political gain.”

Biden’s criticism came a day after Trump threatened state governors that he would deploy the military if they did not stamp out the protests. If governors do not use the national guard in sufficient numbers to “dominate the streets”, the president warned, the military will step in to “quickly solve the problem for them”.

‘A wake-up call for the nation’: Joe Biden addresses the killing of George Floyd – video

Democrats called it the language of a “dictator” and “fascism”.

As Trump spoke in the White House Rose Garden on Monday evening, US park police and national guard troops used teargas and flash-bangs to chase away peaceful protesters and journalists outside. This was so the president could walk from the White House to the historic St John’s church, which had been damaged by fire and graffiti.

“The president held up a Bible,” Biden said. “I just wished he opened it once in awhile instead of brandishing it.”

The presidential photo op also angered religious leaders. Mariann Edgar Budde, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, told CNN: “I am outraged. The president did not pray when he came to St John’s nor … did he acknowledge the agony of our country right now.”

More than 5,600 people nationwide have been arrested over the past week for offences such as stealing, blocking highways and breaking curfew, according to a count by the Associated Press, which puts the death toll as at least nine.

Monday night witnessed more peaceful protests punctuated by violence in Atlanta, Nashville, New York, Philadelphia and other cities. An SUV ran over a group of officers at a demonstration in Buffalo, injuring three, including a state trooper who suffered a broken leg and a shattered pelvis. Manhattan’s flagship Macy’s store was among many looted.

The situation in Minneapolis appeared to de-escalate after Floyd’s brother made an impassioned plea for peace at the spot where he died. Former officer Derek Chauvin, who put his knee on the handcuffed Floyd’s neck, has been charged with murder.

In Washington, the joint chiefs of staff chairman, Gen Mark Milley, and the attorney general, William Barr, walked the streets of Washington while military helicopters flew overhead. On Tuesday Trump tweeted: “DC had no problems last night. Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination. Likewise, Minneapolis was great (thank you President Trump!).”

President Donald Trump walks from the White House through Lafayette Park to visit St John’s church in Washington on Monday.

President Donald Trump walks from the White House through Lafayette Park to visit St John’s church in Washington on Monday. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

He has cast himself as a strongman and “your president of law and order”, previewing a likely electoral strategy to portray Biden as soft on crime. In 1968, Richard Nixon ran as the law-and-order candidate in the aftermath of riots following the assassination of the Martin Luther King Jr, beating Hubert Humphrey for the White House.

Using capital letters, Trump posted a phrase popularised by Nixon: “SILENT MAJORITY!”

The president has received backing from Republican allies. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas tweeted: “Anarchy, rioting, and looting needs to end tonight. If local law enforcement is overwhelmed and needs back-up, let’s see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they’re facing off with the 101st Airborne Division. We need to have zero tolerance for this destruction.”

In deeply polarised Washington, Democrats warned of a moral leadership vacuum. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, said on Tuesday: “We would hope that the president of the United States would follow the lead of so many other presidents before him to be a healer-in-chief, and not a fanner of the flame.”

Unrest over Floyd’s death has rocked a nation already in crisis over the coronavirus outbreak and economic shutdown that has left 105,000 dead and more than 41 million filing for unemployment benefits.

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