The Coming Clash on Race at the First Biden-Trump Debate

Some of the biggest debate fireworks in Joe Biden and President Donald Trump's first debate battle could come on the issue of race, amid a backdrop of a nation roiled by the killing and shooting of black men by police, and dueling visions of what constitutes safety in America.

The 90-minute debate on September 29, moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, will likely leave certain major topics in domestic and foreign policy out, coming in shorter than the two- to three-hour debates that were commonplace during the Democratic primary. But after the killing of George Floyd by police led protests to spill onto the streets nationally, race will most likely be front and center, along with the pandemic and a sharp economic downturn.

"Trump is clearly trying to run a 1968 Nixon 'law and order' campaign," Democratic donor Steve Phillips, author of 'Brown Is The New White,' told Newsweek. "The danger for Biden is to fall into that trap, particularly since this isn't the U.S. of 1968. People of color were 15 percent in 1968, but they're 40 percent today."

There is more consensus around a progressive view of law enforcement, Phillips added, "that is not simply jail or defending cops patrolling, if not killing, black people."

In quieter settings like Zoom virtual conferences with teacher's unions, Biden has had a raw emotional response to the killing of George Floyd, or in showing empathy for a black teacher who lost her son to gun violence, likening it to the loss of his son to cancer. His challenge will be to voice those feelings in the glare of possibly the most high-stakes moment left on the calendar this fall. An average of 74 million people watched each debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Biden has tried to offer full-throated support to victims of police violence while saying he backs police as well, but Trump has staked his campaign on a law and order approach in the wake of the protests.

Jeffrey Lord, a Trump supporter and political commentator, knows about law and order election messaging. He was a page at the Republican National Convention in 1968, and watched as Richard Nixon delivered his speech on the topic.

Lord said Trump should first say that what happened to Floyd was wrong—"there's no question that it's wrong"—before pivoting to a laser focus on suburban voters, whom he argues are uncomfortable with protests that have occasionally turned violent over the summer.

"I live in suburbia and I have black neighbors," Lord said of his home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. "The assumption that suburbia is white America is wrong. What it is, is safe, which gets to the law and order issue. People want to feel safe in their own neighborhoods."

After Floyd's death, The New York Times deemed "Black Lives Matter" one of the most popular movements in American history, based on the thousands of people who marched in every state. But since then, some research shows that support for Black Lives Matter has gone down among white Americans.

According to an August analysis by the election data website FiveThirtyEight, unfavorable views of police are trending back to pre-protest levels among whites and "white respondents are also becoming somewhat less likely to say that African Americans face 'a lot' or 'a great deal' of discrimination.

Ian Haney Lopez. a University of California Berkeley professor and author of "Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class," said those figures play into Trump's hands, because he is skilled at "using rhetoric that purposely triggers intense fears rooted in racist stereotypes, but doing so in a way that makes people understand their fears as common sense, rather than racism."

Haney Lopez cited not just law and order messaging to suburban voters, but also words like "thugs," "terrorists," and "illegals" as terms the president uses to raise fear among Americans, that may be part of the language he uses on the presidential debate stage.

For his part, Biden has argued that the "battle for the soul of the nation" is a rationale for his candidacy since his announcement video more than a year ago, when the first words out of his mouth were "Charlottesville, Virginia." Biden then sought to tie the founding of the nation there to the march of white supremacists with tiki torches that left a woman dead in 2017.

But a debate appeal to the soul of America is not enough for Biden on its own, Haney Lopez said, according to the research he has done for progressive group Way to Win on messaging to Americans around race. He said a message of "coming together" isn't enough for voters, because Trump is saying come together in his own way, in his case against dangerous, un-American forces.

"'Come together' by itself is a half-melted vanilla ice cream," he said. "Biden is right to understand Americans are sick and worried about division, especially racial division. But the message has to be 'Come together against those people that are dividing us, not by building a wall, but by building bridges.'"

Bryan Lanza, a former Trump campaign and transition official, told Newsweek that the protests that have included violence, like those recently in Kenosha, Wisconsin, have only increased voter "anxiety" around who is the best person to solve the current mess.

"When you look at law and order, it's a lane the president owns," he said, arguing that Biden has ceded the territory to Trump.

But while Trump has tried to blame Democrats and warn that a future Biden administration would be a haven for violence spilling into the suburbs, the inflamed racial tensions in the country have happened under his watch, with recent polling showing issues of crime are not a slam dunk for the president.

A post-conventions Morning Consult/Politico showed 47 percent of voters trust Biden more to handle public safety, compared to 39 percent for Trump. A Quinnipiac University poll, which also came after the conventions, showed 50 percent of likely voters said Trump made them feel less safe, while 40 percent said the same of Biden.

In an effort to avoid the perception fanned by the Trump campaign that he was ignoring flaring violence, Biden launched a $45 million week of television and digital ads last week with the former vice president saying things like, "Rioting is not protesting, looting is not protesting, and those who do it should be prosecuted."

But Phillips said this is exactly what worries him about Biden in a debate against Trump: that he will allow the debate clash to be fought on Trump's terms, not his own.

"I'm worried that he'll be taking the bait when it comes to Antifa," he said of the loosely connected leftwing agitators that Trump has sought to blame for violence. If Biden is disavowing Antifa during the debate, instead of focusing on issues of race and policing, he will be losing, Phillips argued.

"That could become the debate," Phillips said. "His ability to define the terms is a concern I have. Is he going to get pulled into Trump's game and Trump's turf, to scare as many white people as possible?"

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From Left: Mandel Ngan/AFP, Saul Loeb/AFP Getty