Joe Biden’s moment in Kenosha

A beleaguered city gets visits from two presidential campaigns

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - SEPTEMBER 03: Democratic U.S. presidential nominee former Vice President Joe Biden arrives at General Mitchell International Airport with wife Jill in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Biden is traveling to Wisconsin to visit the family of Jacob Blake, whose shooting by police sparked protests in Kenosha. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - SEPTEMBER 03: Democratic U.S. presidential nominee former Vice President Joe Biden arrives at General Mitchell International Airport with wife Jill in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Biden is traveling to Wisconsin to visit the family of Jacob Blake, whose shooting by police sparked protests in Kenosha. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Joe Biden finally came to Wisconsin, visiting Kenosha hard on the heels of President Donald Trump’s spectacularly callous, divisive campaign stop here.

The Democratic presidential nominee had not yet set foot in the Badger State during this election season, despite the Democrats’ decision to hold their convention in Milwaukee — part of an effort to make up for failing to woo Wisconsin voters in 2016, after which Trump won by less than 23,000 votes, turning the state red in a presidential year for the first time since 1984.

Nothing has worked out as expected in 2020. So instead of holding a triumphant series of rallies, coffee klatches with dairy farmers, community forums with Black and Latino voters in Milwaukee and cameos in suburban Fourth of July parades, Biden was reduced to accepting his nomination virtually, from Delaware. 

When he finally came to Wisconsin it was to visit a city devastated by a brutal police shooting and a week of protests and riots followed by the murder of two people in the street by a white teenaged militia enthusiast. Trump’s divisive rhetoric, including his supportive remarks about Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager arrested for the shooting, has only poured fuel on the fire. So did Trump’s visit this week, in which he failed to mention Jacob Blake, the man who was shot in the back by Kenosha police, but praised the police, condemned the protesters as “looters” and “thugs” and pledged to crack down on behalf of citizens who long for “law and order.”

Poor Kenosha did not ask for two presidential campaign stops on top of all the community has endured over the last week.

Gov. Tony Evers specifically asked Trump not to come. Asked if he wanted Biden to come, the governor replied that he’d rather Biden skip it, citing the risk of spreading COVID-19.

It was a bit of a gamble for Biden to follow Trump. In the pandemic, it’s more responsible to limit campaign events, as Biden has generally done and Trump has not. But at some point the Trump campaign, with its continuous events in Wisconsin (Vice President Mike Pence will be in La Crosse on Labor Day) is making a fool of Biden.

He came because he has to do some in-person events, because Wisconsin matters, and because he wanted to answer Trump’s incredibly irresponsible, racially incendiary rhetoric — which is the reason Biden gives for getting into the race in the first place. 

One striking difference between Trump’s Kenosha law-enforcement roundtable on Tuesday and Biden’s visit to a local church on Thursday was that the first thing Biden did when he arrived was to meet with Jacob Blake’s family. Trump, by contrast, didn’t even mention Blake during his visit to Kenosha.

The next big difference was that everyone at the Biden event wore masks, including the candidate and the scattered, socially distanced group sitting in church pews.

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The optics of the two events were, predictably, totally different. Trump’s event was almost entirely white (with the exception of a local pastor and his wife, whom the Trump campaign misidentified as the Blake family pastor) and featured the police chief, the sheriff and Republican politicians and business leaders. Biden’s event was emceed by Tim Mahone, chairman of the board of a local family foundation that provides scholarships and mentorship to local youth. Mahone is Black and most of the speakers who addressed Biden at Grace Lutheran Church were people of color.

The whole vibe of the two events was dramatically different. 

After listening to community members talk about a variety of problems, from inequitable school funding to housing to job creation to living wages and health care disparities, 

Biden gave some meandering remarks in which he touched on all of these areas and outlined an array of policy proposals.

The Trump message is much simpler. It boils down this: They’re coming for you. Be very afraid. 

It’s reductive. But it also packs a punch.

Democrats have a tougher job, in part, because they are trying to address complex issues with care. They appear more hesitant, speak with more nuance, and lack the cocksure aggression of the other side. Watching Gov. Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes at their press conference in Kenosha immediately after the Blake shooting, you could see the strain on their faces.

Biden, like Evers, tried to balance condemning the genuinely shocking destruction in Kenosha — listening to a local business owner express her horror at seeing her building burn — with gently returning the focus to what started the rioting in the first place — the unconscionable shooting of a Black man in the back seven times in front of his children. 

The Trump campaign has an easier job, painting everything in black and white — literally. All of the protesters are rioters and thugs. The police are totally in the right. There is no such thing as systemic racism and no such thing as a legitimate, peaceful Black Lives Matter protest.

Biden did not rise to the moment with a memorable speech in Kenosha along the lines of other great speeches at times of national crisis. But at least he showed up and showed some concern about the deep pain the community is feeling. His rambling remarks included a long list of policy prescriptions some of which went pretty far afield of the visceral experiences of this traumatized community. 

It would have been nice to hear the kind of speech Obama gave on racism during his first campaign, which inspired and elevated listeners. But that’s not Biden.

There were some decent bits. Biden condemned Trump’s racism and coddling of white supremacists. He highlighted Trump’s failure to adequately respond to the pandemic, which has cost tens of thousands of American lives.

“There’s a reason this administration wants to only talk about dividing the country and about law and order,” Biden said. “They don’t want to talk about all those people who have died from COVID,” or “almost a million people who filed for unemployment and don’t have jobs.”

He condemned the president’s failed leadership and his encouragement of violence as “immoral.”

But then Biden rambled, stopping several times to acknowledge that he was making his audience restless as he moved from topic to topic.

“OK, I’m giving you too much, I can see you’re about to stand up,” Biden said at one point, before launching into a new topic: “Title I schools are able to get $15 billion a year  … well, guess what? We move that to $45 billion a year, it means we can put every 3, 4 and 5-year-old in school  … that increases by 58% the chances that child will get through all 12 years of school … “

He seemed winded, breathing audibly through his mask throughout his remarks. 

In a way, the sheer, unbelievable chutzpah of Trump and his supporters seems to have stunned the Democrats, as it has so many Americans, and left them flat-footed.

Biden was at his best and most genuine when, sitting down at the conclusion of the event, he wrapped up with a description of talking the Blake family: 

“I had an opportunity to spend some time with Jacob on the phone. He’s out of ICU,” Biden said. “He talked about how nothing was going to defeat him. How whether he walked again or not he was not going to give up.”

Video footage of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, and the police shootings that have followed, have caused “a real awakening,” Biden said.  “And the point is I don’t think we have any alternative but to fight.”

Slightly jarringly, he added, “I promise you, win or lose, I’m gonna go down fighting. … There are certain things worth losing over.”

Then he tried to buck people up again, telling the crowd that despite predictions that Trump would make inroads with voters with his law-and-order message after the convention, “He hasn’t,” Biden said in a stage whisper. “Not at all.”

The most recent Fox News poll shows Biden gaining in Wisconsin, with an eight point lead over Trump and greater voter confidence.

“This should give you a little bit of confidence in the American people,” Biden said. “They ain’t buying it. Of all the millions and millions of dollars being spent, they’re not buying it.”

Let’s hope he’s right.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.