Paul Spella / The Atlantic*

No other major-party nominee in history has called the political forces whipped up by a sitting president of the United States enemies of America. But that’s what Joe Biden did today.

“My fellow Americans, we’re facing formidable enemies. They include not only the coronavirus and the terrible impacts to the lives and livelihoods, but also the selfishness and fear that have loomed over our national life for the last three years,” Biden said, speaking from inside Philadelphia’s city hall. “I choose those words advisedly: selfishness and fear.”

Biden has warned for almost three years, since Donald Trump equivocated about the Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, that Americans are in the middle of a battle for the nation’s soul. That’s been the theme of his presidential campaign too. In speaking with advisers after watching the protests across the country last night, Biden was shaken. This wasn’t a metaphor anymore. This was a battle with batons and tanks and Molotov cocktails and hammers, going on in the streets.

He didn’t get to today’s speech easily. Biden is so much an institutionalist that he had to be pushed into supporting impeachment last fall. He’s spent his whole campaign so far saying that he doesn’t want to talk about Trump, that he wants to talk about America instead. That was before the president had peaceful protesters tear-gassed to make way for a photo op of him holding a Bible in front of a church.

Today, Biden said that Trump has declared war on his own country, that he “has turned this country into a battlefield driven by old resentments and fresh fears. He thinks division helps him. His narcissism has become more important than the nation’s well-being that he leads.”

Representative Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania, an ally of Biden’s, told me that as he watched the speech, he was reflecting on how much he “missed having a presidential address from a normal, empathetic person trying to bring us together.”

“I wrote a piece over four years ago that I thought Donald Trump was unique in American history in that he was the first presidential nominee who was a clear and present danger to the country,” said Boyle, who was one of only a handful of people who heard Biden speak in person today. “Unfortunately that has proven to be the case.”

He added, “The longer we go and we don’t have someone playing the role of head of state trying to bring us together, the harder it’s going to be.”

Or as Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky tweeted last night: “The President just declared war on millions of Americans and the 1st Amendment. He is the greatest threat to the American way of life in our history.”

Biden’s speech had the requisite Twitter-friendly zingers. Regarding the Bible the president held in his bizarre photo op, “I just wish he opened it once in a while instead of brandishing it.” There were a few legislative proposals, like calling on Congress to pass a law banning chokeholds, plus a solid dose of feel-good Americana that name-checked, among others, Jonas Salk, Frederick Douglass, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Neil Armstrong, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. But it was centered throughout on trying to portray this past week as a turning point for America.

In a country torn apart, Biden said, “this president today is part of the problem.” Trump took an oath was to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” but Biden said that after last night’s display, “we can be forgiven for believing the president is more interested in power than in principle, more interested in serving the passions of his base than the needs of the people in his care.”

The response from the Republican National Committee was standard politics: It referred to Biden’s “long record of bigoted comments and policies that have disproportionately hurt the black community.” The response from the Trump campaign was standard Trumpian I’m rubber, you’re glue tactics: “He has obviously made the crass political calculation that unrest in America is a benefit to his candidacy.”

Meanwhile, the response from Republicans in Congress to Trump’s crackdown suggests that most have taken their cues from the Westworld robots. “I didn’t really see it,” Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said of Trump’s photo op. “I didn’t watch it closely enough to know,” said Utah Senator Mitt Romney. “Sorry, I’m late for lunch,” Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi told NBC’s Kasie Hunt. 

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, meanwhile, said, that last night “was not the America that I know.”

After the speech, I asked Cedric Richmond, the Louisiana congressman and a Biden-campaign co-chair, whether, with his candidate describing the president as at war with his own nation, there could be peace between the parties ahead.

“Normally you would get that leadership from a president,” Richmond said. “It’s clear as of yesterday that the president will not do it. So I think the country will do it on its own.”


*Photo-collage images: Callaghan O’Hare / Bloomberg / Yasin Ozturk / Anadolu Agency / Getty / Shutterstock

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