Trump vs. Biden on George Floyd protests show why so many Republicans dislike the president

The likely Democratic presidential nominee describes an America I want to live in. The head of my own party doesn't.
Image: Donald Trump Joe Biden
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have offered dueling visions of America in response to the death of George Floyd.Brendan Smialowski; Jim Watson / AFP- Getty Images
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By Sarah Longwell, Republicans for the Rule of Law

Within 24 hours, both of the men who have a chance of being the U.S. president come January made speeches addressing the protests and riots roiling the nation in response to the unwarranted killing of George Floyd. And the contrast in their messages couldn't have been starker.

President Donald Trump, the nominal heir to the party of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, made only a passing reference in his speech Monday evening to the outrage at Floyd's death and legitimate peaceful protests before turning his attention to his favored topic: violence. After recounting a litany of offenses he said were perpetrated by rioters, he urged governors around the county to use the National Guard to "dominate the streets" with an "overwhelming presence."

Contrast that with former Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke Tuesday morning about what America is and means, rather than just what's wrong with it. He rightly admonished, "There's no place for violence," but he also lauded the First Amendment's protection of the right to assemble and the history of American self-improvement and reinvention. He invoked Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass as examples of patriots who saw the country emerge from crisis better, fairer, stronger.

If I had to boil it all down, the main difference, for me, as an anti-Trump Republican, is that the America Joe Biden describes is a place I'd like to live. Trump's ... not so much.

Republicans have long taken pride in our unapologetic patriotism. When I came of age, the GOP was the party that talked about American exceptionalism, a "thousand points of light," freedom and opportunity. So often, those on the left seemed to blame America, to find U.S. imperialism, racism, chauvinism or some other vice at the root of every problem around the world.

None of the Republican presidents in my lifetime — Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43 — ever pretended that America was perfect, especially when it came to issues of ethnicity and race. But they knew that America was strong enough to be bighearted, and they were, too.

I'm not the only Republican for whom Biden sounds, in some ways, more like the Republicans I admired growing up.

Biden talks about America this way. Trump does not. His idea of America can best be summed up in the infamous photo of the blacked-out White House from the weekend.

I'm not the only Republican for whom Biden sounds, in some ways, more like the Republicans I admired growing up.

The stereotype of "Never Trump" Republicans goes something like: "They could all fit in the MSNBC green room, and often do." But this caricature overlooks the millions of Republicans and former Republicans around the country who have either left the party since Trump won the nomination or don't plan to vote for him in November.

Despite all of Trump's boasting about his great numbers with his party, even Rasmussen Reports, a generally Trump-friendly pollster, finds that about a quarter of Republicans would prefer another nominee in 2020. Analysis from The Washington Post finds that about 9 percent of 2016 Trump voters plan to vote for Biden, and 30 percent of those are Republicans. If those numbers are correct, that's more than 3.4 million more net votes for Biden from Republicans alone based on Trump's 63 million-vote-showing in 2016.

Many of these voters contributed to the dramatic Democratic victory in the 2018 midterms. They're the same college-educated suburban voters who turned out in droves to vote for Biden in the Democratic primaries.

Trump's response to Floyd's death and the protests around the country are only likely to accelerate that trend, with his unpresidential performance outside the White House on Monday night Exhibit A as to why he's turned off lifelong Republicans such as myself.

Willing to see peaceful protesters tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets so he could have a photo op, in which he used a Bible as a prop, Trump threatened Monday, "I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property."

Remember: This is the same man who called the Chinese massacre of peaceful students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 a "show of strength" against a "riot." Trump has shown no inclination to order tanks to roll over innocent people, even if he could. But in his rhetoric, he's closer to the Chinese Communists and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev than Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Biden, for his part, condemned the violence before focusing most of his remarks on America's ability to better itself through crisis, our capacity to overcome injustice and our history of uniting in tough times.

He didn't embrace the radical parts of the left wing that condone theft, arson and vandalism. Importantly, he maintained that there is "no place for looting or destroying property or burning churches or destroying businesses — many of them built by the very people of color who were for the first time in their lives beginning to realize their dreams."

And then Biden pivoted to the kind of patriotic, optimistic vision of America that I used to associate with the Gipper and the Bushes: "The history of this nation teaches us that in some of our darkest moments of despair we've made some of our greatest progress," he said, noting that the civil rights and voting rights acts of the 1960s "came in the tracks of Bull Connor's vicious dogs."

Biden's admirable approach to our national turmoil — and the sharp distinction it makes with our current president — is why Republican Voters Against Trump, a new project from my organization, Defending Democracy Together, is attracting so many supporters. Since the project officially launched last week, hundreds of voters have submitted testimonial videos, explaining why their political, religious and moral compasses are leading them to reject Trump in 2020, while thousands are following us on social media.

It's too bad Biden has already chosen a campaign slogan, because Reagan's "Morning in America" could hardly be more fitting.

These dissident Republicans range from suburban moderates to rural evangelicals. Some are becoming politically active for the first time in their lives; others have donated to or volunteered with Republican campaigns for decades. Most will vote for Biden in November.

Listening to the candidates respond to the recent unrest, it's not hard to see why. Biden understands America, what it stands for and what it means in a way Trump does not, never has and never will. It's too bad Biden has already chosen a campaign slogan, because Reagan's "Morning in America" could hardly be more fitting.