Michael M. Santiago / Pool Photo via AP

From the Center

There was a day last week in which the two most prominent stories about the 2024 presidential election were about one candidate accusing his opponent of wanting him assassinated and the other candidate suggesting that his rival was a Nazi. And we wonder why expected voter turnout this fall is predicted to be so low.

For those who have not yet tuned into the back-and-forth on the campaign trail (and for those of who you have already tuned out), a few more details may be useful. First, Donald Trump’s campaign seized on boilerplate language included in an FBI authorization for its agents to search Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence for confidential documents in response to a judicial warrant back in 2022.

The FBI’s standard policy statement, which is included in all search-related documents and is posted on the Justice Department website, is designed to limit the use of deadly force and reads as follows:

"Law enforcement officers of the Department of Justice may use deadly force only when necessary, that is, when the officer has a reasonable belief that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to another person."

Trump’s attorneys, however, wrote in a court filing that the order stated: 'Law enforcement officers of the Department of Justice may use deadly force when necessary', leaving out the word “only” and omitting the second half of the policy (which included the FBI’s prescribed restrictions on the use of force) altogether.

The Trump campaign used this to send out a fundraising email claiming:  "Biden's DOJ was authorized to shoot me. Joe Biden was locked & loaded ready to take me out & put my family in danger." And Trump’s allies quickly began to accuse Biden of authorizing Trump’s assassination.

The same day, the Biden campaign seized on an imaginary headline in a Trump video that referred to a “unified Reich” that had been taken from a Wikipedia entry on World War I regarding German industrial policy of that era. The term is more commonly associated with the Nazis’ use of the term "Third Reich" to describe Adolph Hitler’s totalitarian dictatorship. The Trump campaign took down the video the next day, but not before Biden attacked his predecessor for using "Hitler’s language."

Trump has used language very similar to Hitler in the past, but this instance seemed like an overreach from an overly zealous campaign just a little too eager to go on the attack. The more frequently this type of attack is used, the less impactful it is likely to be with swing voters, who seem willing to factor in Trump’s excesses as they weigh them against policy considerations that affect their daily lives more directly.

This is the manner in which Trump has always run his campaigns, and the vicious nature of his assaults represent both one of his greatest strengths in the eyes of his supporters and an equally primeval motivator for his opponents. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who tried to ignore Trump’s feverish conduct, and unlike Trump’s 2016 primary opponents, who tried to match it, Biden seemed to strike a workable balance in 2020 that allowed him to call out the most Trump’s most intemperate behavior without allowing himself to be caught in the type of mudslinging contest in which Trump excels.

Biden and his campaign are understandably focused on framing the race as a choice between the two men, rather than an up-or-down referendum on the incumbent. They have been talking for months about how the nature of the debate will change when voters come to terms with the binary choice they will be facing in November. But neither Trump's securing the Republican nomination nor his New York court appearance over the last few weeks have changed much, and Democratic strategists are now looking at the first debate in June or the GOP convention in July as the next opportunities to increase their opponent’s visibility.

But in the meantime, Trump says or does something every day that his foes find objectionable, appalling or worse. Biden and his team will need to learn to resist the temptation to follow him even further down the low road. For leaving the voters with a choice between two feral candidates will not work to the current president’s benefit.

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar "Politics In The Time of Coronavirus." Or read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).

Photo Credit: Michael M. Santiago / Pool Photo via AP