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Biden Offered No Alternative to Trump’s Pro-Policing Authoritarianism in Debate

Biden did not put forth a progressive or convincing counterweight to Trump’s xenophobic and authoritarian tirades.

U.S. President Joe Biden participates in the CNN Presidential Debate against Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 2020, the U.S. experienced some of the largest protests in its history focused on police violence and demands to restructure public safety. Unfortunately, the CNN moderators at Thursday night’s presidential debate saw no need to directly ask candidates about these issues. And while some of them did arise in the context of the opioid crisis, border enforcement and the overall well-being of Black America, the answers offered by both candidates lacked a clear political program.

Donald Trump’s overarching narrative for the debate was that Joe Biden has diminished U.S. power by opening the border and allowing millions of “illegal immigrants” released “from prisons, jails and mental institutions” to come into the country to “take our jobs,” overwhelm our health care and Social Security systems, and rape and kill us. This narrative of declining American strength and safety absolves the multinational corporations and Wall Street of poisoning us, creating massive inequality and destroying the planet — the true sources of middle- and working-class insecurity. Trump’s solution is ever more resources for police, prisons and the deportation state. In response to this powerfully toxic narrative, Biden touted the fact that he has put more police on the streets and made a few weak claims that police and the Border Patrol support him — hardly a progressive or convincing counterweight to Trump’s xenophobic and authoritarian tirades.

When asked about the fentanyl crisis, Biden focused on interdiction issues, such as blocking precursor chemicals and machinery needed to process fentanyl from coming into Mexico. There was no mention of expanding health care and harm reduction services or exploring controlled safe distribution of opioids, which would immediately reduce the presence of fentanyl and dramatically reduce the likelihood of drug overdoses. Trump failed to even answer the question, using his time to hammer home his core messages about migrants as threats and Biden’s overall incompetence. Rather than pointing out Trump’s utter lack of concern for people’s well-being, Biden’s rebuttal fell into the trap of trying to respond to Trump’s tirades, allowing the former president to control the agenda and tone of the debate.

The candidates were asked a generic question about the stubborn racial disparities in economic, criminal legal and social outcomes for Black Americans. Trump used this as an opportunity to point out how little progress has been made under Biden and that Biden helped drive these disparities through his embrace of the “superpredator” myth in the 1990s. Trump also had the audacity to claim to support “police reform,” though he failed to define what that is. Biden rightfully pointed out the employment gains experienced by Black Americans under his administration and a variety of social and educational programs he supports that would have a disproportionately positive impact on the Black community, such as expanding child care tax credits, Pell Grants, and support for historically Black colleges and universities. But he did nothing to address the enormous disparities in the criminal legal system, despite the fact that his administration has taken a few concrete steps in this direction, such as funding community-based violence reduction initiatives. Biden’s lack of a clear response on this issue may be tied to his perception of it as a losing position. While many in the Biden administration and its key constituencies favor dialing back criminalization, they feel that it is politically impossible to state that clearly and openly, leaving the president to quietly support some good programs, while publicly leaning into a police-centered crime control strategy that will never be able to compete with Trump’s undiluted authoritarianism.

As long as Democrats from Biden to local city mayors lean into pro-police policies in an effort to triangulate their way into gaining the support of the few remaining independent voters, they will fail to produce either electoral victories or any semblance of justice. By validating the idea that police are the central institution for producing public safety, Democrats empower a narrative of authoritarian crime control that they will never obtain, because the right wing will always take things one step further. Their efforts at “sounding reasonable” merely shift the Overton window to the right. Democrats will not be able to energize their base without a bold vision of public safety that is clearly distinct from Trump’s racist rants.

We need a completely different vision of the overdose crisis rooted in values of care and compassion as well as the science of drug treatment, harm reduction and safe supply that would save lives, restore families and communities and disempower violent international drug cartels.

We must embrace the incredible value of immigration, legal or otherwise, which has played a huge role in revitalizing whole sectors of our economy and regions of our country. We must categorically reject the politics of xenophobia and articulate values of solidarity and directly address our own role in creating the conditions that have driven people from their homes in desperation. A program of true racial justice would go beyond kneeling with Kente cloth and appointing a few nonwhite people to highly visible positions. Such a program need not be constructed as a racial zero-sum game in which one group’s advancement comes at the expense of another. A broad anti-poverty program that lifts wages and essential services like education and health care would particularly benefit communities of color and would help break down racial barriers rather than reinforce them. At the center of such an effort would have to be an across the board reduction in our reliance on policing and prisons to address problems of poverty, social dislocation and differential access to essential services.

Trump’s debate responses reflected his allegiance with the most reactionary forces in our society — those that want to demonize migrants, unleash unregulated corporate power and “free the hands” of police to use whatever forms of violence and humiliation are deemed necessary to restore some fanciful notion of order at the expense of the most vulnerable among us. Biden’s weak policies and incoherent responses during the debate may give us another four years of Trump and his drive to turn the U.S. into a despotic kleptocracy.

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