"Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?"
Biden accesses a powerful weapon: his appearance.
By Phillip | 9/3/20
Not “Do you think I’m a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?”, but rather “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?” That was the question that Joe Biden rhetorically asked in a recent speech attempting to rebut Trump’s argument of establishing law and order across America. Biden, whether consciously or subconsciously, emphasized his cosmetic appearance. In a climate filled with minefields for the Democratic candidate, Biden uses both his appearance and moderate views to reassure persuadable voters.
Biden’s appearance juxtaposes him directly with the last Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, and much of this year’s historically diverse primary field. Many people who don’t follow politics closely will judge a candidate based off of the slightest of impressions, one of which is appearance. In many ways, Biden represented the “safe” pick following the disastrous 2016 election: an old, friendly, white man.
Clinton should have won in 2016, but ran up against several unfair deficits: the electoral college, James Comey’s righteous hubris, Russian interference with Trump’s assent, social media’s irresponsibility, and sexism. Biden will have to deal with most of these same disadvantages, except for sexism. The 2020 Democratic Convention was almost exclusively devoted to how kind and likeable Biden is. In contrast, Clinton was dogged by her history, double standards, and contradictions. Biden’s lengthy record of bad votes has faced little scrutiny after the primary by either party compared to “Benghazi” and Clinton’s emails. Deborah Tannen writes in TIME, “While the requirements of a good leader and a good man are similar, the requirements of a good leader and a good woman are mutually exclusive. A good leader must be tough, but a good woman must not be. A good woman must be self-deprecating, but a good leader must not be.” It was impossible for Clinton to be likeable and presidential to a large segment of the American people.
Many Democrats believed that Clinton lost because she focused too much on “identity politics,” which led them to choose Biden over other, more diverse candidates. However, in the wake of killings of black people, today the Democratic party is united primarily on racial equality, as opposed to the economic equality that Bernie Sanders predicted. With the corresponding leftward shift that Democrats have taken on race that has united and expanded the party, it appears that many Americans were only uncomfortable with identity politics coming from a woman. Republicans are enraged and inspired to vote when Trump uses identity politics to rail against minorities and protect white people. Democrats are hopeful and united when Biden talks about racial equality.
Although some of the most prominent progressives are old, white men (Ed Markey, Bernie Sanders), Biden’s age and race help communicate his moderate leanings. Of course, he also is a moderate Democrat, staying nearly at the median of his party over all his years in the Senate. However, he would probably be perceived as more liberal if he were younger or a person of color, as both these groups tend to be more liberal.
The media narrative coming out of Kenosha is that violence will hurt Biden’s election chances. Biden has been forced to make racially moderate comments such as, “most cops are good.” Even while on the defensive, Biden has stayed steady in the polls. Imagine if a minority or progressive was the presidential nominee instead.
With his speech in Pennsylvania, Biden aligned himself with Trump’s view that law and order is just and right. This position is probably the safest in order to ameliorate the white suburban voters that Trump has made plays to regain — first using dog-whistle messaging and now being remarkably overt. However, in these prominent remarks, Biden’s lack of condemnation for the lawlessness of unmarked federal officers in Portland and teenage far-right vigilantes highlight law and order as a racialized phrase: we only need law and order when Black people or their supporters are making a fuss.
“Law and order” as a widely used political phrase dates back to Nixon’s presidency. However, the policy of putting incarceration and policing above social welfare spending began with Lyndon B. Johnson. After the Kerner commission concluded that black and white societies were becoming more and more separate and unequal, which was causing the social unrest of the 60’s, Johnson doubled down on countering the symptoms, rather than the root causes, with violence.
Urban crime and inner city violence have both been coded phrases used to refer to young, black violence in cities. In 1989, Donald Trump called for the Central Park 5, accused of assaulting a women, to receive the death penalty. They were later exonerated by DNA testing after serving time for thirteen years. Lately, Trump’s dog whistles have become more and more bold, with overtures to suburban women on twitter. These voters launched the “blue wave” in 2018 that flipped the house and are essential to the outcome of the election.
Biden has attempted to counter Trump’s description of him to “suburban housewives” as a destroyer of the suburbs by condemning violence on all sides. Trump, on the other hand, feeds on violence incited by some liberals and some conservatives. Kellyanne Conway remarked, “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who's best on public safety and law and order.” The hypocrisy of this statement and Trump’s reelection campaign is that Joe Biden is not the president, and yet Trump blames the problems of the country on him. Biden’s rebuttal to Trump is to use his words and appearance to remain squarely in the middle of the Democratic establishment: so far it appears to be working.