WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — President Joe Biden wants Americans to grasp the extraordinary stakes of this year’s presidential election, as he sees them. As part of that effort, he’s revisiting some of the nation’s worst traumas to highlight what can happen when hate is allowed to fester.
On Monday, Biden heads to Charleston, South Carolina, to Mother Emanuel AME Church, the site of a 2015 racist massacre in which nine Black churchgoers were shot to death during Bible study. The event comes after a blunt speech by the Democratic president on the eve of the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, in which he excoriated former President Donald Trump for “glorifying” rather than condemning political violence.
It’s a grim way to kick off a presidential campaign, particularly for a man known for his unfailing optimism and belief that American achievements are limitless. But his campaign advisers and aides say it’s necessary to lay out the stakes in unequivocal terms, particularly after a few years without the cultural saturation of Trump’s words and actions. And it’s an effort to set up the contrast they hope will be paramount to voters in 2024.
“It shows the campaign meeting the moment,” former Biden communications director Kate Bedingfield said. “We’re facing a fundamental threat to our democracy in the form of Donald Trump, and rather than a cookie cutter launch — you know, here are my five policy platforms — he’s speaking to people in a way that connects that and that lays out the stark challenges that are coming down the barrel.”
It was June 17, 2015, when a 21-year-old white man walked into the church and, intending to ignite a race war, shot and killed nine Black parishioners and wounded one more. Biden was vice president when he attended the memorial service in Charleston, where President Barack Obama famously sang “Amazing Grace.”
Biden’s aides and allies say that episode was among the critical moments when the nation’s political divide started to sharpen and crack. Though Trump, the current Republican presidential front-runner, was not in office at the time and has called the shooting “horrible,” Biden is seeking to tie Trump’s current rhetoric to such violence.
Two years later, at the “Unite The Right” gathering of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, some carrying flaming torches, erupted in violent clashes with counterprotesters. Trump refused to condemn the white nationalists, saying “there is blame on both sides.”
Biden and his aides argue it’s all part of the same problem: Trump refused to condemn the actions of the white nationalists at that gathering. He’s repeatedly used rhetoric once used by Adolf Hitler to argue that immigrants entering the U.S. illegally are “poisoning the blood of our country,” yet he insisted he had no idea that one of the world’s most reviled and infamous figures once used similar words.
And Trump has continually repeated his false claims that he won the 2020 election, as well as his assertion that the Capitol rioters were patriotic. He’s called the long prison sentences handed down for some offenders — whom he calls “hostages” and were convicted of crimes like assaulting police officers on Jan. 6 or seditious conspiracy — “one of the saddest things.”
Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, said this year’s election “will determine the fate of American democracy, our freedoms, and whether this country will stand up against hate and vitriol embodied by Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans,” a reference to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
“Few places embody these stakes like Mother Emanuel AME – a church that has witnessed the horrors of hate-fueled political violence and a church that has spoken to the conscience of this nation and shown us the path forward after moments of division and despair,” Clyburn said in a statement.
In his Jan. 6 anniversary speech, Biden told people in his audience that Trump doesn’t care about their future. “Trump is now promising a full-scale campaign of ‘revenge’ and ‘retribution’ — his words — for some years to come,” Biden said. “They were his words, not mine. He went on to say he would be a dictator on Day One.”
Biden has repeatedly suggested that democracy itself is on the ballot this year, asking whether it is still “America’s sacred cause.”
Trump, who faces 91 criminal charges stemming from his efforts to overturn his loss to Biden and three other felony cases, argues that Biden and other top Democrats are themselves seeking to undermine democracy by using the legal system to thwart the campaign of Biden’s chief rival.
South Carolina is the first official Democratic nominating contest where Biden is looking to flex his political muscle this year, and it’s where his turnaround in 2020 began on his way to the White House.
Biden is expected to meet with the families of the victims of the church shooting, and it’s in these moments when his aides believe he’s most effective.
“This is a personal strength of his, and his ability to do this in an emotional way that connects with people is not to be underappreciated,” Bedingfield said. “Because these are hard things to talk about. And it’s hard to talk about them in a way that doesn’t make people feel defeated. And he can do that.”
Follow the AP’s coverage of the 2024 election at https://apnews.com/hub/election-2024.
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