WASHINGTON — When Joe Biden talks about his decision to run against President Donald Trump in 2020, the story always starts with Charlottesville. He says it was the men with torches shouting bigoted slogans that drove him to join what he calls the “battle for the soul of America.”
Now Biden is facing the latest deadly manifestation of hatred after a white supremacist targeted Black people with an assault rifle at a supermarket in Buffalo, the most lethal racist attack since he took office.
The president and first lady Jill Biden are to visit the city on Tuesday.
Biden was the first president to specifically address white supremacy in an inaugural speech, calling it “domestic terrorism that we must confront.” However, such beliefs remain an entrenched threat at a time when his administration has been preoccupied with crises involving the pandemic, inflation and the war in Ukraine.
“It’s important for him to show up for the families and the community and express his condolences,” said Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP. “But we’re more concerned with preventing this from happening in the future.”
It’s unclear how Biden will try to do that. Proposals for new gun restrictions have routinely been blocked by Republicans, and the racism that was spouted in Charlottesville, Virginia, appears to have only spread in the five years since.
The White House said the president and first lady will “grieve with the community that lost 10 lives in a senseless and horrific mass shooting.” Three more people were wounded. Nearly all of the victims were Black.
Biden was briefed about the shooting by his homeland security adviser, Liz Sherwood-Randall, before he attended church services on Saturday near his family home in Wilmington, Delaware, according to the White House. She called again later to tell him that law enforcement had concluded the attack was racially motivated.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, told a Buffalo radio station that she invited Biden to the city.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, it would be so powerful if you came here,’” Hochul said. “’This community is in such pain, and to see the president of the United States show them the attention that Buffalo doesn’t always get.’”
On Monday, Biden paid particular tribute to one of the victims, retired police officer Aaron Salter, who was working as a security guard at the store.
He said Salter “gave his life trying to save others” by opening fire at the gunman, only to be killed himself.
Payton Gendron, 18, was arrested at the supermarket and charged with murder. He has pleaded not guilty.
Before the shooting, Gendron is reported to have posted online a screed overflowing with racism and anti-Semitism. The writer of the document described himself as a supporter of Dylan Roof, who killed nine Black parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, and Brenton Tarrant, who targeted mosques in New Zealand in 2019.
Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said Gendron is “someone who has hate in their heart, soul and mind,” and he called the attack on the store “an absolute racist hate crime.”
So far investigators are looking at Gendron’s connection to what’s known as the “great replacement” theory, which baselessly claims white people are being intentionally overrun by other races through immigration or higher birth rates.
The racist ideology is often interwoven with anti-Semitism, with Jews identified as the culprits. During the 2017 “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, the white supremacists chanted “Jews will not replace us.”
In the years since, replacement theory has moved from the online fringe to mainstream right-wing politics.
Tucker Carlson, the prominent Fox News host, accuses Democrats of orchestrating mass migration to consolidate their power.
“The country is being stolen from American citizens,” he said Aug. 23, 2021.
He repeated the same theme a month later, saying that “this policy is called the great replacement, the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries.”
Carlson’s show routinely receives the highest ratings in cable news.
His commentary reflects how this conspiratorial view of immigration has spread through the Republican Party ahead of this year’s midterm elections, which will determine control of Congress.
Facebook advertisements posted last year by the campaign committee of Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., said Democrats want a “PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION” by granting amnesty to illegal immigrants. The plan would “overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.”
Alex DeGrasse, a senior adviser to Stefanik’s campaign, said Monday she “has never advocated for any racist position or made a racist statement.” He criticized “sickening and false reporting” about her advertisements.
Stefanik is the third-ranking leader of the House Republican caucus, replacing Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who angered the party with her denunciations of Trump after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Cheney, in a tweet Monday, said the caucus’ leadership “has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism. History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse.”
Replacement theory rhetoric has also rippled through Republican primary campaigns.
“The Democrats want open borders so they can bring in and amnesty tens of millions of illegal aliens — that’s their electoral strategy,” Blake Masters, who’s running in the Republican Senate primary in Arizona, wrote on Twitter hours after the Buffalo shooting. “Not on my watch.”
A spokesperson for Masters did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A third of U.S. adults believe there is “a group of people in this country who are trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants who agree with their political views,” according to a poll conducted in December by The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Although Biden has not spoken directly about replacement theory, his warnings about racism remain a fixture of his public speeches.
Three days before the Buffalo shooting, at a Democratic fundraiser in Chicago, Biden said, “I really do think we’re still in the battle for the soul of America.”
Biden said he hadn’t planned to run for president in 2020 — he had already fallen short in two previous campaigns, served as vice president and then stepped aside as Hillary Clinton consolidated support for the 2016 race — and was content to spend some time as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
But he said he was disgusted “when those folks came marching out of the fields in Charlottesville, Virginia, carrying torches” and repeating the “same anti-Semitic bile chanted in the streets of everywhere from Nuremberg to Berlin in the early ‘30s.”
And he recalled how Trump responded to questions about the rally, which resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, a young woman who was there to protest the white supremacists.
“He said there are very good people on both sides,” Biden said.
He added, “We can’t let this happen, guys.”
Johnson, the NAACP president, said the country needs to “finally chart a course so we can as a nation begin to address domestic terrorism as we would foreign terrorism — as aggressively as possible.”
He added, “White supremacy and democracy cannot coexist.”
The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 hit 1 million on Monday, a once-unimaginable figure that only hints at the multitudes of loved ones and friends staggered by grief and frustration.
The confirmed number of dead is equivalent to a 9/11 attack every day for 336 days. It is roughly equal to how many Americans died in the Civil War and World War II combined. It’s as if Boston and Pittsburgh were wiped out.
“It is hard to imagine a million people plucked from this earth,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, who leads a new pandemic center at the Brown University School of Public Health in Providence, Rhode Island. “It’s still happening and we are letting it happen.”
Some of those left behind say they cannot return to normal. They replay their loved ones’ voicemail messages. Or watch old videos to see them dance. When other people say they are done with the virus, they bristle with anger or ache in silence.
“’Normal.’ I hate that word,” said Julie Wallace, 55, of Elyria, Ohio, who lost her husband to COVID-19 in 2020. “All of us never get to go back to normal.”
Three out of every four deaths were people 65 and older. More men died than women. White people made up most of the deaths overall. But Black, Hispanic and Native American people have been roughly twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as their white counterparts.
Most deaths happened in urban areas, but rural places — where opposition to masks and vaccinations tends to run high — paid a heavy price at times.
The death toll less than 2 1/2 years into the outbreak is based on death certificate data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. But the real number of lives lost to COVID-19, either directly or indirectly, as a result the disruption of the health care system in the world’s richest country, is believed to be far higher.
The U.S. has the highest reported COVID-19 death toll of any country, though health experts have long suspected that the real number of deaths in places such as India, Brazil and Russia is higher than the official figures.
The milestone comes more than three months after the U.S. reached 900,000 dead. The pace has slowed since a harrowing winter surge fueled by the omicron variant.
The U.S. is averaging about 300 COVID-19 deaths per day, compared with a peak of about 3,400 a day in January 2021. New cases are on the rise again, climbing more than 60% in the past two weeks to an average of about 86,000 a day — still well below the all-time high of over 800,000, reached when the omicron variant was raging during the winter.
The largest bell at Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital tolled 1,000 times a week ago, once for every 1,000 deaths. President Joe Biden on Thursday ordered flags lowered to half-staff and called each life “an irreplaceable loss.”
“As a nation, we must not grow numb to such sorrow,” he said in a statement. “To heal, we must remember.”
More than half the deaths occurred since vaccines became available in December of 2020. Two-thirds of Americans are fully vaccinated, and nearly half of them have had at least one booster dose. But demand for the vaccine has plummeted, and the campaign to put shots in arms has been plagued by misinformation, distrust and political polarization.
Unvaccinated people have a 10 times greater risk of dying of COVID-19 than the fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
“To me, that is what is just so particularly heartbreaking,” Nuzzo said. Vaccines are safe and greatly reduce the likelihood of severe illness, she said. They “largely take the possibility of death off the table.”
Angelina Proia, 36, of New York, lost her father to COVID-19 in April 2020. She runs a support group for grieving families on Facebook and has seen it divided over vaccinations. She has booted people from the group for spreading misinformation.
“I don’t want to hear conspiracy theories. I don’t want to hear anti-science,” said Proia, who wishes her father could have been vaccinated.
Sara Atkins, 42, of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, channels her grief into fighting for global vaccination and better access to health care to honor her father, Andy Rotman-Zaid, who died of COVID-19 in December 2020.
“My father gave me marching orders to end it and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Atkins said of the pandemic. “He told me, ‘Politicize the hell out of my death if I die of this.’”
Julie Wallace and her husband, Lewis Dunlap, had cellphone numbers one digit apart. She continues paying to keep his number. She calls it just to hear his voice.
“It’s just so important to hear that sometimes,” she said. “It gives you a little bit of reassurance while also tearing your heart out.”
Some have offered solace in poetry. In Philadelphia, poet and social worker Trapeta Mayson, created a 24-hour poetry hotline called Healing Verse. Traffic to the Academy of American Poets’ poets.org website rose during the pandemic.
Brian Sonia-Wallace, poet laureate of West Hollywood, California, has traveled the country writing poems for hire. He imagines a memorial of a million poems, written by people who don’t normally write poetry. They would talk to those who are grieving and listen for points of connection.
“What we need as a nation is empathy,” said Tanya Alves, 35, of Weston, Florida, who lost her 24-year-old sister to COVID-19 in October. “Over two years into the pandemic, with all the cases and lives lost, we should be more compassionate and respectful when talking about COVID. Thousands of families changed forever. This virus is not just a cold.”
Standing with a group of her classmates and peers outside on North 10th street, Zai’kia Morris spoke about the importance of voting.
Morris is a 12th-grade student at Mathematics Civics and Science Charter School and stressed the importance of exercising the right to vote if you want to see change.
“Your vote matters, your voice matters,” Morris said. “This is a chance for you to positively impact these issues. So me and some of the other students are here to encourage you to vote, and some of them (students) are voting themselves tomorrow.”
Morris and her classmates collaborated with District Attorney Larry Krasner and Philadelphia City Commissioners Lisa Deely and Omar Sabir to discuss the importance of voting, how to report voting irregularities, and other election day issues ahead of Tuesday’s election.
Krasner called Election Day a “cherished and crucial aspect of our democracy that Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s office is vigorously protecting.
An election task force hotline will be open starting at 7 a.m. Tuesday when polls open. Voters can call 215–686–9641.
“Every Philadelphia vote is going to be counted, and every Philadelphia vote that wants to make its way into the ballot box is going to be cast. It’s going to be beautiful weather and a beautiful day to vote,” he said.
According to Deely, all 1,703 divisions will be open Tuesday for in-person voting. People who need to know their polling place can call 215-686-1590 or visit philadelphiavotes.com.
“Your vote is your voice; don’t silence yourself,” Deely said. “We encourage all Philadelphians to please exercise your precious right to vote. You have until 8 p.m. on Tuesday to vote in person at a polling location or drop off your mail-in ballot at any 16 secure boxes located throughout the city. The right to vote is the right to decide the direction of the futures of your loved ones and community. Please do not miss this incredible opportunity, and make a plan to vote by 8 p.m. tomorrow.”
Betty Drayton-Johnson is a longtime community activist in Philadelphia. The 84-year-old said it gives her so much pride to see the students advocating for voting.
“The main objective here is to vote, and that’s the most important objective we have,” Drayton-Johnson said.
Asia Moore, another 12th-grade student from Mathematics Civics and Science Charter School, said it was vital to speak because she is a part of the demographic most unlikely to vote.
“Young people from the inner city,” Moore said. “It’s one thing to hear from someone who doesn’t look like you, but hearing from someone who looks like you stresses the importance. So many people have fought for us to have this right, and as young people, we need to vote for our own future because, ultimately, the people who are going to be put into office will be the ones to shape our communities. So regardless of your age, I urge everyone to exercise their civic duty and vote. Let your voice be loud on the ballot.”
Krasner said that there would be serious repercussions for anyone found trying to steal votes or harass voters or poll workers.
“We will hold accountable those who are caught intimidating or threatening voters and election workers. Then they get to tell a Philly jury why it was OK to steal Philly votes.”
In his telling, President Joe Biden’s political philosophy is rooted in Pennsylvania, where the son of Scranton grew up watching families struggle to make ends meet.
But as Democrats in the president’s home state choose a nominee on Tuesday for a critical U.S. Senate seat, the moderate candidate long viewed as an heir to the Biden wing of the party is at risk of being trounced by a progressive once backed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
On the opposite coast, U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, the first candidate Biden endorsed this year, faces a spirited challenger from the left. And across the U.S., Democrats are grappling with questions about the party’s leadership, messaging and identity.
While much of the attention during the opening phase of the 2022 primary season has focused on former President Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party, the contests also serve as a referendum on Biden’s leadership of the Democratic Party. Few Democrats are openly criticizing the president and most are aggressively pledging support of his agenda. But there’s clear unease with the party’s direction.
In Oregon’s largely rural 5th Congressional District, Jamie McLeod-Skinner said she would “work my heart out” to support Biden’s agenda if she defeated his preferred candidate on Tuesday.
“We respect President Biden, but he simply got it wrong in this case,” she said in an interview, offering warm words for the president’s policies even as she was less complimentary of the party.
“Democrats have been very weak on our messaging and establishing a sense of focus,” McLeod-Skinner said. “This is one of the things I’m hoping to help out with.”
The White House is downplaying concerns about Biden’s leadership and intra-party divisions.
The president’s advisers note that Democrats have largely avoided the nasty and expensive personal attacks that have defined Republican primary elections across the country in recent weeks. And they point to Biden’s successful endorsement of congressional candidate Shontel Brown, who defeated a vocal Biden critic in Cleveland this month.
The stakes of this year’s primaries, meanwhile, are different for each party. While Democrats are debating their ideological and policy future, Republicans are considering some candidates with a history of racist and anti-democratic behavior. In Pennsylvania alone, the Trump-backed candidate for governor worked to overturn the results of the 2020 election. A GOP candidate gaining ground in the Senate primary once linked Islam to pedophilia.
Still, Biden will be tested this week in primary elections across five states: Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oregon and Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania, a Biden loyalist and establishment favorite, Rep. Conor Lamb, has struggled to find his footing in a crowded Senate primary that will determine what kind of Democrat will represent the party this fall in one of its best Senate pickup opportunities.
Lamb, a fresh-faced former Marine prosecutor, became a political celebrity in 2018 by winning a special election in a working-class western Pennsylvania district long held by Republicans. Celebrated as the kind of Democrat who can appeal to voters in the middle, he enters primary day looking up in the polls toward Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a tell-it-like-it-is progressive.
In one closing campaign ad, Fetterman casts himself as, “a different kind of Democrat, candidate, campaign taking on every politician.” The 52-year-old suffered a stroke just days ahead of the primary, though his campaign said he was on his way to a “full recovery.”
Still, in style — and substance, in some cases — Fetterman is Biden’s opposite.
The 6-foot-8 former mayor has tattoos down his arms, a clean-shaven head and a goatee. He curses on social media and wears shorts practically everywhere, even in the winter.
On the campaign trail, Fetterman is more likely to criticize Democratic moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia than Biden. But in January, Fetterman initially declined an invitation to appear with the president in his Pittsburgh hometown. And he’s consistently called on Senate Democrats to to abolish the filibuster to adopt Democratic priorities on gun violence, abortion and voting rights, which is something Biden’s White House has largely resisted.
Despite bold campaign-trail promises and a Democratic-controlled Congress, the vast majority of Biden’s domestic agenda is stalled.
Fetterman’s supporters see his aggressive style and progressive politics as more likely to help Democrats break through the gridlock.
“He’s so refreshing because he is so candid,” Barbara Orr, 63, said of Fetterman ahead of a recent campaign stop. “If you saw him on TV, he’s just bold-faced saying, without couching or mincing his words, what he stands for.” Biden’s approval ratings have hovered in the mid-40s for much of the year. Those numbers are in line with, or slightly better than, Trump’s for much of his presidency. But in contrast with Trump, Biden is showing some weakness among his party’s base.
Public polling suggests that nearly all Democrats approved of Biden when he first took office. For much of this year, however, his approval ratings among Democrats have dipped closer to 80%. While a 20-percentage-point drop doesn’t mean his party has abandoned him, Biden’s allies concede that core groups in his political coalition — including young people, voters of color and independents — are frustrated.
“You have Democrats out there telling other Democrats that Biden hasn’t done anything. And they believe it,” said veteran Democratic strategist James Carville. “We need to be more consistent and more united.”
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said that Democrats would be in a better position heading into the fall if there was clearer leadership from Washington Democrats, who have struggled to coalesce behind an agenda or a message in the weeks since Biden’s domestic agenda stalled.
“It hasn’t been crystal clear up to now, but I think they’re starting to understand,” Rendell said. “I actually don’t think it’s quite as bad as everyone says it is. He’s been coming back slowly in the polls. But obviously it’d be easier if the president was popular.”
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Republicans have been too focused on their own divisive Senate primary to pay much attention to Democrats so far. But Trump-backed GOP Senate hopeful Mehmet Oz said he’s “giddy” about the prospect of a potential head-to-head matchup against Fetterman in the November general election.
“He’s basically a tall Bernie Sanders,” Oz told The Associated Press. “Everyone understands there’s a clear contrast between what a far-left liberal leader would look like and what a conservative leader who’s ‘America First’ will be able to offer.”