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Politics: In split-screen display, Trump and Biden offer dramatically different approaches to protests backed by most Americans

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The nation has witnessed a daily split screen as two different presidential candidates take dramatically different approaches to a sweeping protest movement.

Joe Biden wearing a suit and tie: Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden speaks via video link as family and guests attend the funeral for George Floyd at The Fountain of Praise church in Houston on June 9. © Pool/Reuters Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden speaks via video link as family and guests attend the funeral for George Floyd at The Fountain of Praise church in Houston on June 9.

On Tuesday, President Trump suggested without evidence that a 75-year-old protester in Buffalo who was pushed to the ground by police may have been part of a “set up”coordinated by anti-fascist demonstrators. The man was severely injured and spent days in the ICU.

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Hours later, an address by Joe Biden was played at the Houston funeral of George Floyd, whose May 25 death after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck sparked the protests.

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“Why in this nation do too many black Americans wake up knowing that they could lose their life in the course of just living their life?” Biden asked. “We can’t turn away. We must not turn away. We cannot leave this moment thinking we can once again turn away from racism, that stings at our very soul — from systemic abuse that still plagues American life.”

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Last week saw the same stark contrast. Biden prayed with black clergy inside a church, listened and took notes on their sometimes combative questions, and then, as the group posed for a photo, took a knee. Hours later, Trump marched through Lafayette Square after largely peaceful protesters had been aggressively cleared out, and posed standing alone in front of a church displaying a Bible.

Biden and Trump have promoted those images as core to their political identity as they speak to entirely separate sets of voters in one fractured country. Where Trump supporters see strength in him clutching a Bible or standing with heavily armed police, Democrats see a tyrant who picks at the country’s racial wounds. Where Biden supporters see an empathetic healer, Republicans see a coward.

Both sides are betting that, whoever they may alienate, the approach they’ve chosen is their path to the White House.

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While Biden and other top Democrats believe systemic racism exists, Republicans from Trump on down have cast the Floyd killing as a more isolated incident. Trump has aligned himself with police officers, inviting them to the White House this week; one of Biden’s first public appearances since the coronavirus hit was at a protest in Wilmington, Del.

Their positioning reflects their political realities. Trump leads a party that is heavily white, older and conservative. Biden is steering one that is increasingly multiracial, younger and liberal. As they are navigating this moment, so is America — and so far public opinion seems to be on Biden’s side.

“This is a transformational moment,” said Frank Luntz, the longtime Republican consultant. “People aren’t expecting you to have an answer. But they do expect you to empathize, ‘Do you truly feel what people feel?’ And both Biden and Trump are empathizing with a different segment of society.”

“And if you ask,” he added, “I think the Biden segment is bigger right now.”

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a building: President Trump poses with a Bible outside St. John's Episcopal Church after law enforcement officials forcibly cleared a demonstration near the White House on June 1. © Shawn Thew/European Pressphoto Agency President Trump poses with a Bible outside St. John's Episcopal Church after law enforcement officials forcibly cleared a demonstration near the White House on June 1.

Biden over the past week took out $4.9 million in Facebook ads — nearly four times more than Trump — with contrasting images of Trump holding the Bible and surrounded by heavily armed police, and with Biden kneeling to talk to a young black boy.

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Trump has attempted to peel voters from Biden with Facebook ads claiming he has driven black poverty rates to record lows, secured record funding for historically black colleges and universities, and passed criminal justice reform. The images he projects, directed well beyond the black community, aim to invoke strength and resilience, and cast him as unwilling to bend to those calling for change outside the gates of the White House.

“He said, ‘Look, if you all don’t put this violence down, I will,’” said Darrell C. Scott, a pastor in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and an informal Trump adviser who once said Trump would be “the most pro-black president I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

“That’s leadership right there. It’s bold and courageous,” Scott added. “Everyone tried to get mad at him but he said if police can’t, won’t, or don’t stop this violence, then I’ll deal with it — up to and including using the military.”

Over the weekend, Trump retweeted a tweet of a state Senate candidate in Connecticut who showed photos of Trump walking through Lafayette Square, and another with Biden kneeling with the black pastors inside the church.

“Leaders lead,” the caption read. “Cowards kneel.”

But the president’s policy critique has meandered, as Trump has tried to simultaneously argue that Biden was wrong to write the 1994 crime bill, which led to more police officers and higher levels of African American incarceration, while also accusing him of wanting to “defund the police”— the slogan generated during the protests.

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Biden on Monday said he did not support efforts to defund the police — and his campaign pointed to his proposal to spend $300 million on community policing programs, money that would be withheld if local agencies fail to mirror the demographics of the cities they serve. And while Trump has falsely tagged Biden as wanting to defund the police, his own budget proposals have called for major cuts to the community policing program that Biden wants to increase.

Biden released a digital ad last week that aligns him with the protesters. The camera at one point shows a cardboard sign bearing the words “Love over Hate,” with the White House as a backdrop.

“I’ll seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued our country,” Biden says in the ad, a clip from a speech he gave last week in Philadelphia. “Not use them for political gain.”

Biden has only lightly criticized some of the damage inflicted by protesters — “We can’t allow the protesting to overshadow the purpose of the protest,” he said — while Trump has repeatedly criticized looting.

Biden also has largely avoided discussing his role in the 1994 crime bill. Instead, he has focused on his support for legislation that would ban chokeholds by police, set national training standards for them, and collect data on police misconduct. He has also promoted ideas to make it easier for black-owned businesses to get a loan, to make homeownership easier for minorities, and to help communities combat gentrification.

In a Monday interview with “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell, Biden said that he believes there is “absolutely” systemic racism in policing, as well as in housing, in education and “in everything we do.”

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“It’s real. It’s genuine. It’s serious,” Biden said. “Look, not all law enforcement officers are racist. My lord, there are some really good, good cops out there. But the way in which it works right now is we’ve seen too many examples of it.”

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden visits a site of the protest over the death of George Floyd in Wilmington, Del., on May 31. The photograph was supplied by the Biden campaign. © Handout/Reuters Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden visits a site of the protest over the death of George Floyd in Wilmington, Del., on May 31. The photograph was supplied by the Biden campaign.

Trump has focused more on the damage done during the protests than on whether the country needs to address racism and police brutality. He has repeatedly said that he is for “law and order,” tweeting the phrase numerous times. While he has expressed sympathy for Floyd’s family, he also retweeted a tweet that raised questions about his character.

During a roundtable on Monday with law enforcement officials, Trump focused most of his time on praising them for keeping crime rates low. He also suggested that the Floyd killing was a fairly isolated incident.

“We want to make sure we don’t have any bad actors in there. And sometimes you’ll see some horrible things, like we witnessed recently,” Trump said. “But 99 — I say 99.9, but let’s go with 99 percent of them are great, great people.”

Attitudes toward police treatment of black Americans have shifted significantly in the aftermath of the Floyd killing. Sixty-nine percent of Americans said it represents a broader problem with law enforcement, compared with only 29 percent who say it is an isolated incident, according to a new Washington Post-Schar School poll.

That is a major shift from six years ago, following killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York, when 43 percent described the deaths as indicative of broader problems in policing while 51 percent saw them as isolated incidents.

The biggest shift is among Republicans. While 19 percent saw the killings as part of a wider problem in 2014, now 47 percent of Republicans see the killings as a broader issue.

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“The ability to scare middle-white America, to scare those suburban moms about the protester, is lessened by the fact that their kids are in the protest. And guess what? Mom’s joining them in the protest,” said Cornell Belcher, who was a pollster for Barack Obama and has been critical of his party’s outreach to young black voters.

“There are more Americans on the side of the protesters right now than on the side of police,” he added. “That is a profoundly different place. That makes the ‘tough guy crushing this’ approach more problematic.”

Biden campaign advisers believe the shifts could help rebuild the Obama coalition by animating the young and black voters who are in the streets protesting, but who Hillary Clinton struggled to drive to the polls in 2016.

“I think voters are reacting to two different things,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. “One, to the police mistreatment of African Americans on the one hand. But they’re also reacting to President Trump himself and the way he’s dealt with this. Which is different from where we were in 2016.”

Tim Murtaugh, the communications director for the Trump campaign, said that Biden “has sided with the rioters” and “has watched as his entire party has become engulfed by the ‘Defund the Police’ movement.” (Not only Biden but many other party leaders have said they opposes any such efforts).

“President Trump stands for law and order while Biden can’t even stand up to extremists in his own party,” he added.

Matt Hill, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, said that “the wounds of racial injustice have been ripped open again” and that Biden was showcasing leadership that is lacking in the White House.

“While Donald Trump focuses on fanning the flames of racism, speaking to his base and dividing the country, Joe Biden has stepped up to show how to address systemic racism head on, empathize with all Americans, and heal our nation,” Hill said.

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Trump makes remarks during a meeting with law enforcement officials in the State Dining Room of the White House on June 8. © Doug Mills/New York Times President Trump makes remarks during a meeting with law enforcement officials in the State Dining Room of the White House on June 8.

The verdict will ultimately be delivered in places such as Macomb County, a swing area outside Detroit that voted twice for Obama and then for Trump in 2016, where several thousand people marched over the weekend.

“Joe Biden — I disagree with him on a lot of votes he’s taken,” said Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), who represents the area.

“But basically what this moment does is sweep away the concerns with imperfections with someone’s record and says, ‘Constitutionally who is fit to unify the country on a next level of racial justice,’ ” he said. “It’s just patently obvious that Donald Trump isn’t that person.”

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