Us Versus Him

With Biden in a basement, the story of the 2020 campaign revolves around Trump’s opposition to the American people

Graeme Sloan/AP Images

Here comes Trump. He wears a navy suit, a white shirt, and a patterned blue tie. Cameras follow him as he makes his way across the White House lawn, in the shade of a tree, and then through a gate. He does not wear a mask, though the world is fighting a deadly disease that spreads through respiratory droplets. He walks with his attorney general, his chief of staff, his secretary of defense, his press team, his daughter, and his son-in-law. They are not wearing masks either. Trump approaches St. John’s Church, an Episcopal congregation just off Lafayette Square. He stops in front of the church’s sign, whose black and white lettering reads “Sunday Services Online.” The services are online because covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has by this point killed more than a hundred thousand Americans. A disproportionate number of the deceased are Black. Trump’s posse is entirely white. It is the first day in June, and the sun shines in Washington. Someone hands Trump a Bible, which he turns over in his hands like a box he isn’t sure how to open. His eyes are narrow—the look of a man who wants to look determined; the look of a man with sun in his eyes, so perhaps he cannot see.

Moments before he arrived at this spot, officers cleared the square of a crowd that had been protesting peacefully as part of an uprising against systemic racism, in particular police brutality targeting Black people. That story is long—both complicated and simple (Black people are dying, by white violence and by covid-19). A coalition was gathering to say that Black lives matter. In Lafayette Square, they had set up outside a church, one known for its commitment to social justice. But that day, the Congressional Budget Office projected that, over the next decade, without serious help from Washington to confront the losses caused by the pandemic, the US economy could become $15.7 trillion smaller; now Trump wanted to do his photo op; the protesters had to go. The federal park police descended, in riot gear, firing off rubber pellets and spraying the area with tear gas. Puffs of smoke filled the air; legs went spiraling in all directions, arms waving. Fear, shouts, coughing. Empty space for Trump to fill. The cameras rolled.

This is a snapshot of a presidential campaign season that has been unlike any other. The coronavirus has disrupted the usual election cycle routines—the bus rides, the stump speeches, the canvassing, and all the accompanying coverage. Joe Biden, a man of seventy-seven, secured the Democratic Party’s nomination and then hunkered down in his basement, in Wilmington, Delaware, saying little. With nobody to brawl with on TV, and a pileup of national crises, Trump, the incumbent, age seventy-four, still had to run. He has since waged a campaign that is not so much against his political opponent as it is against the American people. In press coverage, Trump’s response to the anti-racism protests has often been presented as a facet of the 2020 elections. But in truth, the uprising tells the campaign story. 

 

Jose Luis Magana/AFP via Getty Images

 

While officers in Washington met demonstrators with tear gas—a chemical agent so harmful that it was banned from warfare by signatories of the Geneva Conventions—the same was going on in Portland, Oregon. People had started protesting there a day after George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, was fatally pinned to the ground by Derek Chauvin, a white policeman—Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck. Portland’s public spaces bloomed with outrage: in Lownsdale Square, Chapman Square, and Terry Schrunk Plaza. On May 28, someone tossed a Molotov cocktail in the direction of the Portland field office for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The next day, the Portland Police Bureau began teargassing the crowd. Officers also beat up protesters and shot projectiles their way. Trump told Americans, “We have the greatest country in the world. Keep it nice and safe.” During a speech in Philadelphia, Biden criticized Trump for deploying chemical agents. “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,” he said.

At the same time, the Washington Post reported, “Joe Biden is facing growing pressure from activists and party leaders to lead a racially balanced ticket in the wake of explosive incidents involving African Americans and police violence that have stoked widespread outrage.” The idea that he ought to choose a Black woman as a running mate, it seemed, was driven by a strategic motivation to quell so-called racial tensions with a symbolic gesture, rather than by a genuine interest in equitable policy. Various outlets chimed in. (“He hears the concerns of folks across this country who have asked for an African-American woman vice president running mate,” Symone Sanders, Biden’s senior adviser, told ABC.) Biden demurred on questions of police violence; instead, he affirmed his support of departments in op-eds for the Los Angeles Times (“Most police officers meet the highest standards of their profession, which is all the more reason that bad cops should be dealt with severely and swiftly”) and USA Today (“Every single police department should have the money it needs to institute real reforms”). In an interview on the CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell, he assured Americans that he did not support “defunding the police.”

Meanwhile, at the beginning of June, the Portland police were stocking up on military gear. KATU, an ABC affiliate in Portland, obtained records showing that the city’s police bureau spent nearly $50,000 on tear gas, pepper spray, and related items. “We ordered munitions to ensure we have an adequate supply for future incidents,” a spokesperson said. Then officers started spraying demonstrators with chemicals every night. By June 5, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported, protesters filed a class action lawsuit against the city of Portland for “indiscriminate use” of tear gas. “We’re out screaming for justice for Black people and asking the state to stop its violence against us, and the City responds by using tear gas when we’re in the middle of a pandemic of respiratory disease,” Teressa Raiford, of an advocacy group called Don’t Shoot Portland, said in a statement. Ted Wheeler, Portland’s mayor, declined to comment for the article; OPB reported that he visited a demonstration and said, through a bullhorn, “I do not like the tear gas, I think it’s ugly—it is not focused enough.” Soon, Wheeler was nicknamed “Tear Gas Teddy.” 

But Portland was not yet a national story. Confirmed cases of coronavirus infection in the United States were now surpassing two million; an autopsy report showed that Floyd had been infected before he was killed. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a report stating that the pandemic was on track to cause the worst recession outside of wartime in a century. Black and Latino people—many of them deemed “essential” in their jobs—faced the greatest risk of medical emergency and financial collapse. The humanity of those workers could not be ignored by the rest of the country as their daily struggles—which largely predated the pandemic—now became news. Early coverage of the protests, which leaned on terms such as chaos and rage and rampage, shifted in tone, turning increasingly sympathetic. USA Today ran the headline “I Can’t Breathe: Dying Words Gasped by Dozens Restrained by Police in Past Decade.” According to Civiqs, an online survey research firm, public support for Black Lives Matter, a movement that formed in 2013, rose as much in the two weeks after Floyd’s death as in the previous two years; a majority of Americans now believed in the cause. “Many nonblack protesters have reasoned that black people should not have to risk their lives alone in taking to the streets demanding that the state not execute its citizens without consequence,” Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in a sweeping essay for the New York Times Magazine. “These protests not only give Americans who are not black a moral reason to leave their homes after weeks of social isolation; they also allow protesters to vent anger at the incompetence of the man in the White House, himself a product of this nation’s inability to escape its death pact with white supremacy, who they sense is imperiling this terribly flawed but miraculous country.”

 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo

 

As June progressed, Americans, spurred to action by the uprisings, were learning about a Black holiday that had, until this year, been ignored by most non-Black people: Juneteenth, celebrated annually to commemorate the liberation of the last remaining enslaved Black Americans on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas—two years after Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months after Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, surrendered. News outlets published primers: “So you want to learn about Juneteenth?” (the New York Times), “What to know about Juneteenth and why people are talking about it now” (CNN), “What to know about Juneteenth” (USA Today). The sudden press interest paired with a shameless corporate rush to honor Juneteenth—by Nike, Postmates, Twitter, the NFL, and many others with questionable-at-best, indefensible-at-worst track records regarding racial equity. (CBS reported that some 40 percent of Black-owned businesses are not expected to survive the pandemic.) White executives made hurried gestures to observe Juneteenth, amid calls to make it a national holiday; while Black people appreciated the recognition, however belated, they also feared the inevitable: co-option, dilution, theft. News organizations took company holidays, too—including Vox Media, BuzzFeed, the Times, and CJR. The front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer that Friday ran both “Juneteenth: What You Need to Know” and “Police Budget Will Lose Money.” (By Monday, the lead story was “Being Black vs. Being Blue in Phila.”)

Juneteenth had been on the books for a Trump rally in Tulsa, where, in the summer of 1921, a white mob burned down a neighborhood known as Black Wall Street. Some three hundred residents were killed in the massacre; others were hauled off and imprisoned for as long as two weeks; local police pressed no serious charges against the assailants. “The relationship between Tulsa police and the black residents they are bound to protect was poisoned,” Victor Luckerson wrote for The New Yorker. Toxicity remained. Did Trump know this? When asked the question on Fox—if he chose Juneteenth, in Tulsa, on purpose—he said no. But Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, told reporters that Juneteenth was “meaningful” for Trump. “At these rallies he often shares the great work he has done for minority communities,” she said. Trump resolved the matter simply: “Think about it as a celebration.” The Democratic National Committee’s Black Caucus released a statement to the press: “The Trump campaign knows exactly what they’re doing,” it read. “They don’t care.” 

In the days leading up to the event, however, the optics got bad enough that his team decided to push it back a day, to June 20. But there was another reason not to hold the rally, which had been communicated to those making the arrangements: “Health experts believe this weekend’s indoor rally could result in a super spread that will leave each of us vulnerable to exposure and potentially tax our health system in an unprecedented way,” Susan Savage, a healthcare executive and former mayor of Tulsa, wrote in a planning email. The Tulsa World later reported how much more was known about the spread of covid-19 than was reflected in the action of local leaders: “There were about 50 emails—a few from public officials—opposing or expressing concern about Trump’s campaign rally taking place.” The week of the event, Tulsa set a record for coronavirus cases. On CNN, Karen Keith, the Tulsa county commissioner, told Wolf Blitzer, “Nobody is wearing masks, and you know, people are coming in, Wolf, from all over the country—so they could be coming in from hot spots.” Nothing would deter the Trump campaign, which spent $2.2 million on the whole affair, even as it wound up playing to a lot of empty seats. Facing a crowd of just 6,200 people (in an arena built to seat 19,000), Trump took aim at protesters—some of whom filled the streets just outside—and tried to malign Biden by linking him to the uprising. “Joe Biden and the Democrats want to prosecute Americans for going to church, but not for burning a church,” Trump said. “They believe you can riot, vandalize, and destroy, but you cannot attend a peaceful pro-America rally.” That evening, CNN and MSNBC flipped back and forth between Trump’s speech and the demonstrations surrounding him. Fox covered the whole thing, drawing 8.2 million viewers at its peak—the highest Saturday prime-time rating in Fox history. “Big numbers,” McEnany later told the press.

The same could be said of the coronavirus cases in Tulsa. About two weeks after the event, Dr. Bruce Dart, the executive director of the Tulsa Health Department, reported a surge—nearly five hundred positive tests in a two-day period. He believed the rally and several other large-scale events recently held in the city were to blame. “I guess we just connect the dots,” he said. Trump’s staff disputed the doctor’s conclusion, as they had been wont to do over the past months. Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, told CNN that “the media” was obsessed with Trump rallies. “There were literally no health precautions to speak of as thousands looted, rioted, and protested in the streets and the media reported that it did not lead to a rise in coronavirus cases,” he said. “Meanwhile, the president’s rally was eighteen days ago, all attendees had their temperature checked, everyone was provided a mask, and there was plenty of hand sanitizer available for all.” Never mind that every campaign staffer who attended the rally was instructed to quarantine after coming into contact with several colleagues who had covid-19. Two Secret Service officers at the rally also tested positive.

Amanda Voisard via Getty Images

June ended with an executive order from Trump and a press conference with Biden. The order, on “Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence,” instructed federal law enforcement officials to prosecute vandals and withhold money from local governments that declined to confront “mob rule.” (The word “mob” appeared repeatedly throughout the order; it’s also commonly heard on Fox News.) “The president has argued that protesters have gone too far,” CBS reported, citing the removal of a couple of Confederate statues and a failed attempt, before police intervened, at toppling one of President Andrew Jackson, who enslaved Black people. (Other monuments were being taken down at the behest of local governments—John C. Calhoun in Marion Square, in Charleston; Jefferson Davis in the Kentucky Capitol Rotunda; Christopher Columbus in Tower Grove Park, St. Louis. In Richmond, Mayor Levar Stoney ordered the removal of all Confederate statues from city land.) “In an attempt to punish those governments that the president claims have looked the other way during monument destruction, the order directs officials to consider holding back funding and grants,” the Times observed. “But it is unclear whether the Trump administration could actually follow through on that threat.”

Biden made his first appearance before the press in about three months, at a high school a short drive from his house. His focus was the coronavirus—he outlined his plan to curb the spread, and denounced Trump’s efforts. Then he did something weirdly normal, Politico reported: “The presumptive Democratic nominee made what now amounts to news in this bizarre election: He opened the floor to questions from reporters, waving off aides when they tried to cut him off and marveling at how strange this has all become.”

 

Alex Brandon/AP Photo

 

The spring had been marked by a series of tragedies and responses to them, all linked by their display of what had for too long gone unseen. Trump’s response, as the summer dawned, was to scream, to lean further into the absurd. Independence Day—a celebration that for some has always carried an asterisk—bore its contradictions more visibly this year. Many Americans prepared to loudly reject the lies inherent in celebrating freedom for all. On July 3, indigenous treaty protectors gathered in South Dakota’s sacred Black Hills, on the road leading to Mount Rushmore. Press reports described their protest as a “culture war.” The indigenous demonstrators demanded their land back. The Black Hills had been part of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, signed by the US government and a collective of peoples native to the area. In the 1870s, however, gold was discovered; the US broke its part of the deal and systematically seized the land; it was 1927 when workers began to carve the faces of four white men into the earth’s flesh. Native news outlets covered this year’s protest: more than a hundred people blocked the road, waving signs and chanting. A nonprofit advocacy organization called NDN Collective parked white vans across the highway and deflated the tires. Local law enforcement, outfitted in riot gear, arrived; the officers ordered the protesters to clear the area, directing them to a “free speech zone.” The protesters refused. “We don’t need them to give us permission to do this on our land; we intend to stay here indefinitely throughout the night,” Nick Tilsen, who is Oglala Lakota and works with NDN Collective, told Indian Country Today. “Mount Rushmore is a symbol of white supremacy.” That evening, twenty people were hauled off to jail.

On July 4, Trump showed up. He wore a navy-blue suit, a white shirt, and a red tie. Whereas protesters were seeking the removal of monuments to Confederate traitors, colonizers, and other brutal men responsible for the pillage of Native land and Black bodies in the name of American glory, Trump and his cast of apologists accused the demonstrators of aiming to erase history. With the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln rendered in stone behind him, Trump stepped onto a stage festooned with Americana. He then delivered a speech. “As we meet here tonight, there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for, struggled, they bled to secure,” he said. “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.”

Trump continued, “The violent mayhem we have seen in the streets of cities that are run by liberal Democrats, in every case, is the predictable result of years of extreme indoctrination and bias in education, journalism, and other cultural institutions.” He refused to be “tyrannized” or “demeaned” by “bad, evil people.” In press reports, the speech was described as lacking in self-awareness and, in the context of a nation failing to address the worst health crisis in recent memory, beside the point. The New York Times characterized it as “appealing to a subset of Americans to carry him to a second term by changing the subject and appealing to fear and division.” Foreign Policy noted the irony of a speech that railed against so-called left-wing fascism using fascist rhetoric. Conservative and right-wing media praised the event. One outlet, the US edition of The Spectator, ran a column, “Donald Trump teaches history.” The Supreme Court did not agree: days later, a decision was handed down ruling that about half of Oklahoma belongs to Native Americans.

In Portland, protesters continued taking to the streets; police kept on spraying them with tear gas. Between May 29 and July 4, according to a data analysis by a graduate student at Portland State University, officers attacked protesters with chemical agents more than a hundred times. In a special session, Oregon’s state legislature passed a bill banning choke holds and tear gas, but an exception was carved out for “circumstances constituting a riot”—which, according to the state’s rules, could involve as few as five people. Jason Kafoury, a civil rights lawyer, told the Willamette Week, “I’m not sure how that’s going to decrease tear gas use.” Around the same time, the Trump administration launched “Operation Diligent Valor,” which brought yet more tear gas to Portland. Per Politico, a hundred and fourteen federal agents were deployed, in full military gear, carrying rifles longer than their chests. Led by the Department of Homeland Security, they assembled a “Rapid Deployment Force” of officers from ice, the Federal Protective Service, and Customs and Border Protection; US Marshals joined, too. Gathering around Portland’s buildings and filtering into the crowds, they chased people away from the demonstrations and snatched others up. One man, Mark Pettibone, a twenty-nine-year-old, was approached by men in green military fatigues—they hopped out of a van and ran him down. He fell to his knees. “I was terrified,” Pettibone told the Washington Post. “It seemed like it was out of a horror/sci-fi, like a Philip K. Dick novel. It was like being preyed upon.” The officers drove him to the federal courthouse and placed him in a holding cell; then they let him go, with no explanation. He was not charged with a crime, nor did he know who, exactly, arrested him. 

“Protesters and journalists have documented a litany of human rights violations perpetrated by federal agents,” The Appeal reported. In the month after federal forces arrived in Portland, they made ninety-four arrests; local police fielded at least a hundred more. Some officers fired shots. One protester, Donavan LaBella, age twenty-six, was hit in the head with an impact munition. He lost some cognitive function; his overall prognosis remains unknown. The Times obtained an internal memo from the Department of Homeland Security revealing that the federal agents sent to Portland hadn’t been trained to handle mass demonstrations. The US attorney in Oregon announced federal charges against seven protesters, who stood accused of defacing a courthouse and assaulting officers. Thousands more people came out; in a Fox interview with Chris Wallace, Trump called them “anarchists.” But the scene also had moms: the Wall of Moms, who locked arms in yellow shirts, crooning an eerie lullaby (“Hands up / Please don’t shoot me”) that quickly went viral. The moms were written up everywhere—in BuzzFeed, USA Today, and Mother Jones, which declared, “The Portland Moms Are Giving Trump a Headache.” The Associated Press covered the “divided” story of Portland: “The Federal Protective Service, U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents were tired and frustrated,” the article observed. “They didn’t want to confront the crowd; they just wanted to go home.” The Atlantic argued that the abuses in Portland were “working” for Trump: “Apparently powerless to stop the chaos, Trump has now decided to embrace it, hoping that if he was unable to deliver the security he promised, perhaps heightened fear would motivate voters nearly as well.”

Then again, CNN found, “With just four months until Election Day, the Trump campaign is struggling to deploy what was supposed to be a chief feature of the president’s reelection effort—the signature Trump rally.” One was scheduled for New Hampshire, then called off. “Three weeks after the poorly attended Tulsa event, the hangover is still being felt inside the campaign.” CNN went on to describe discontent within the Trump ranks, much of it directed toward Brad Parscale, the campaign’s manager. When Trump’s friends get mad, he gets mad. “He does not like Brad,” an adviser is quoted as saying. “I think Parscale probably needs to go,” a donor chimed in. Within two days, Parscale was demoted. For the Times, Maggie Haberman reported, “The president at times berated Mr. Parscale over real and perceived transgressions, sometimes screaming at him and once threatening to sue him.” With that settled, Trump and Mike Pence, his vice president, set off on a tour to besmirch a shadow Joe Biden—a figure far more progressive than the real man—who “would set America on a path of socialism and decline” and abolish the police. But in the Fox interview with Wallace, Trump was corrected. (“The White House never sent us evidence the Bernie-Biden platform calls for abolishing the police, because there is none,” Wallace said.) A few weeks earlier, Politico had published a story, “Why Trump’s attempt to tag Biden as a tool of the radical left isn’t working,” pointing out that Trump had been running an ad highlighting Biden’s work on the 1994 crime bill, which “destroyed millions of Black lives.” Here was a mixed message—destroying Black lives was, apparently, supposed to be Trump’s wheelhouse.

So Trump announced that he would send more federal agents into American cities. “Mr. Trump, who has sought to make ‘law and order’ a campaign theme and has denounced ‘Democrat-run cities’ as he seeks re-election,” per the Times, gave remarks at the White House vowing never to defund the police, and “to make law enforcement stronger, not weaker.” William Barr, Trump’s attorney general, stood beside him. Trump told reporters that his administration would send some two hundred officers to Chicago, and dozens to Albuquerque; more would be deployed to Kansas City, and elsewhere. The same day, during a virtual town hall organized by the Service Employees International Union, Biden commented on Trump’s racism: “The way he deals with people based on the color of their skin, their national origin, where they’re from, is absolutely sickening,” he said. “No sitting president has ever done this. Never, never, never. No Republican president has done this. No Democratic president. We’ve had racists, and they’ve existed, they’ve tried to get elected president. He’s the first one that has.” The press, incredulous, leaped: “Biden says Trump is America’s first ‘racist’ president” (the Washington Post); “Joe Biden calls Donald Trump America’s ‘first’ racist president” (The Guardian). PolitiFact got in, too: “Historians say this is wrong,” the article deadpanned. “Various presidents since the country’s founding can be considered racist, whether because they enslaved Black people, held racist beliefs, or used racist rhetoric.” Reporters asked Trump for his take, and he gave it: “I’ve done more for Black Americans than anybody, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln.”

 

On July 17, John Lewis, who represented Georgia’s Fifth District in the House of Representatives and was known to colleagues as “the conscience of the Congress,” died, at the age of eighty. The son of Alabama sharecroppers and a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis was a moral beacon in the fight for civil rights, during which he survived bloody beatings and a fractured skull. He succumbed to pancreatic cancer. “When he revealed his condition, last December,” Jelani Cobb wrote, for The New Yorker, “hope persisted despite those odds, in part because, for many people, the thought of confronting the reactionary, racist, and antidemocratic realities of the Trump era without one of the nation’s most potent symbols of decency was too difficult to countenance.” Lewis was a persistent critic of Trump, and Trump expressed only disdain for Lewis. Trump did not attend the funeral. (“I don’t know John Lewis,” he later told Axios. “He chose not to come to my inauguration.”) The Trump administration sent yet more federal agents to Portland. NBC questioned what right he had to do so: “Trump and Barr cannot dispatch federal agents to take over local law enforcement activities simply because they might think local police are doing a poor job.”

Biden gave a speech in New Castle, Delaware, not far from his home. He wore a blue suit and a blue-and-white striped tie. “Families are squeezed emotionally and financially,” he told a small crowd. “They need help, but too often they can’t afford it.” It was the third of four economic policy rollouts he planned to make before the Democractic convention, this one focused on caregiving and education; “racial equity” would come next and last, his campaign said. NPR observed, “After months of mostly focusing on Trump’s actions and statements, Biden is now focusing more on highlighting his own proposals and possible presidential agenda.” The Biden campaign was proceeding under a banner of “empathy”; at the event, he spoke about his own collapse into tragedy—when his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash and, in an instant, he became a single father. Around the same time, news outlets were covering the story of Black mental health; per the Post, “The rate of black Americans showing clinically significant signs of anxiety or depressive disorders jumped from 36 percent to 41 percent in the week after the video of Floyd’s death became public.” Some protesters began to suffer from physical maladies, too—Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that women and trans and nonbinary people in Portland were experiencing strange side effects from the tear gas, including disruptions to their menstrual cycles. The extent of the environmental damage would be unknown, however, “because no other U.S. city has ever been subjected to such a sustained barrage of tear gas.”

At the end of July, Barr appeared at a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. The room was dimly lit; staffers spread out among the seats; the session was carried live on cable news and covered by every major outlet. Barr wore a gray suit. He confirmed to the committee that, when protests poured into America’s cities and towns, Trump moved down to the White House bunker. “There was unprecedented rioting around the White House,” Barr said. Plus, he continued, “the crowd was very unruly.” Jerry Nadler, the committee’s chair, took his turn to address Barr about the deployment of federal forces in Portland. “Mr. Attorney General,” he said. “Would you agree with me at least on principle that it is improper for the Department of Justice to divert resources and law enforcement personnel in an effort to assist the president’s reelection campaign?” Barr replied, “No.”

In early August, Ibram X. Kendi suggested in The Atlantic that, in one respect, Americans should be thankful to Trump. “He has held up a mirror to American society, and it has reflected back a grotesque image that many people had until now refused to see: an image not just of the racism still coursing through the country, but also of the reflex to deny that reality,” Kendi wrote. “Though it was hardly his intention, no president has caused more Americans to stop denying the existence of racism than Donald Trump.”

 

Chip Somodevilla/AP Photo

 

By now, at least 150,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus. Another study made the rounds in news reports, adding evidence that the rate of covid-19 cases has been significantly greater among minority and poor families; this time, the research focused on children. Biden announced that he would not fly to attend the Democratic National Convention, in Milwaukee; he’d accept the nomination from home. He called off other travel plans, too. The headline in the Times read, “Biden’s Milwaukee Trip Is Canceled, and So Is a Normal Presidential Campaign.” The Republican National Convention was slated to be held in Charlotte; Trump threatened to pull out when that state’s governor insisted on basic health precautions; Trump wanted to move the whole thing down to Jacksonville, but then covid-19 cases skyrocketed in Florida, so he backtracked. On Fox & Friends, Trump mentioned that he might deliver his convention speech from the White House. “I think it’s a beautiful setting, and we are thinking about that,” he said. On MSNBC, Andrea Mitchell discussed the news with Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker. “He has floated the idea today of doing it on the south lawn of the White House,” Mitchell said. “Our reporting is also that he has suggested monuments as a backdrop, like the Lincoln Memorial. Is that appropriate?” Pelosi curled her mouth into a frown. “It’s very wrong,” she said. “It won’t happen.” The AP interviewed Jordan Libowitz, of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group; he said that “a separation between governing and campaigning is fundamental to democracy.”

Swirling around the convention news was speculation over Biden’s vice presidential selection—a story that proceeded with minimal comment from his campaign. The focus was on Kamala Harris, a senator from California; Karen Bass, also from California, and the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; and Susan Rice, a former US ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser. (Another contender, Stacey Abrams, had already been discounted; some in the press dismissed her as overly eager—“her thirst borders on threatening,” according to the Washington Examiner, in a piece called “Stacey Abrams feels entitled to power, which is why she shouldn’t get it.”) Coverage of Harris, Bass, and Rice often made comparisons, instead of direct evaluations: “In many ways, Karen Bass is the anti–Kamala Harris,” according to Politico. On The Breakfast Club, a radio show, Charlamagne tha God, one of the hosts, asked Bass about that characterization. “I’ve never seen them do that with white women,” he said. Bass shook her head. “Why are you comparing me with her?” she replied. Harris was, in contrast with Bass, labeled “too ambitious.” During a livestream of the Black Girls Lead 2020 conference, Harris addressed that contention. “There will be a resistance to your ambition—there will be people who say to you, ‘You are out of your lane,’ ” she told viewers. “They are burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been, instead of what can be. But don’t you let that burden you.” The same day, the Sacramento Bee published an editorial: “Biden will likely pick Kamala Harris for VP. Here’s why Karen Bass is a better choice.” In anticipation of racist attacks on whomever Biden chose, a group of Democratic women sent a letter to the top editors of major newspapers and networks, urging them to avoid “stereotypes and tropes” and to “actively work to be anti-racist and anti-sexist in your coverage.”

Election coverage, even this year, has had its rhythms, its moods. The press finds it hard to resist following certain through lines, or creating them. An aberration of 2020, however, has been the story line of Breonna Taylor, a twenty-six-year-old African-American woman who worked as an emergency room technician in Louisville. Taylor was asleep at home one night with her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, when three white police officers entered, in plain clothes, with a no-knock warrant and a battering ram. Walker got up to see what was going on. Then came gunshots: the officers fired more than twenty times; eight bullets tore into Taylor’s body. She died on March 13. The officers—Jonathan Mattingly, Myles Cosgrove, and Brett Hankison—have not been charged with any crime; only the last of the three men was let go from the Louisville police. (Hankison had, as it turned out, a history of violating departmental policy and stood accused by several women of sexual assault.) Mattingly and Cosgrove remain on administrative reassignment. Joshua Jaynes, the detective who signed off on the warrant, was also placed on administrative reassignment. For months, even when there were no updates in her case to report, Taylor’s picture floated across the internet, as a cause and sometimes a meme; people spoke her name in the way of an incantation. “Justice for Breonna Taylor” became, on social media, the campaign slogan with which many Americans feel most connected—and around which they’ve centered their political identities.

The presidential candidates have not been able to avoid that fact. On Taylor’s birthday, June 5, Biden tweeted a message to her mother, Tamika Palmer: “Our country needs to act—now.” Trump did not say anything about Taylor—except when he threatened those who rallied around her family. Back in May, Trump tweeted that protesters were “thugs” and that “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” (He’d stolen that line from Walter Headley, the former police chief in Miami who uttered those words during a news conference in 1967, catalyzing an uprising in a Black neighborhood.) Twitter, for the first time in its history, blocked a sitting president’s tweet for violating its code of conduct; Trump’s message had broken a rule against glorifying violence. Then Trump tweeted again: “Looting leads to shooting, and that’s why a man was shot and killed in Minneapolis on Wednesday night – or look at what just happened in Louisville with 7 people shot. I don’t want this to happen, and that’s what the expression put out last night means…” But no one had been shot, nor had anyone looted, at the protests in Taylor’s name. Trump lied, which perhaps is not notable—except that the gravity of Breonna Taylor is what pulled him there, this time. In death, after a horrific murder, she became a driving force of American political life. Her cause subsumed the whole election cycle—whether or not the campaigns or political reporters realize it, fully—because her cause is that of a people demanding that they have a future, no matter who the president is. 

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Betsy Morais and Alexandria Neason are on the staff of the Columbia Journalism Review. Morais is the managing editor; Neason (@alexandrianeas) is CJR's staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.