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Right-wing protesters hold wooden shields while clashing with anti-police demonstrators on Aug. 22, 2020 in Portland.Nathan Howard/Getty Images

The battle for the White House is emerging as a reflection of the battle on the streets of the United States, where protests have mixed with violence and where two approaches to politics – the pastoral and the provocative – are colliding this week.

It isn’t even Labour Day – the traditional start of the American general-election campaign – but already some of the defining contours of the presidential election are apparent.

On Monday, former vice-president Joe Biden came to Pittsburgh to charge that his rival “can’t stop the violence – because for years he has fomented it.” On Tuesday, President Donald Trump travels to Kenosha, Wis., where a police shooting of a Black man provoked protests, new shootings and clashes between demonstrators and vigilantes and where the Democratic Governor, Tony Evers, told Mr. Trump he was “concerned your presence will only hinder our healing.”

On Monday morning, Mr. Trump defiantly reaffirmed his intention to visit the beleaguered southeastern Wisconsin city, tweeting: “I will see you on Tuesday!”

Not in more than a half-century has an American election been conducted against the backdrop of such domestic upheaval, violence, high drama and contentious campaign rhetoric. The only analogue in modern times is the 1968 election, when former vice-president Richard Nixon mounted a “law-and-order” campaign with dark racial undertones against vice-president Hubert Humphrey, whose own nominating convention was marred by street violence.

That time the law-and-order rhetoric was aimed at political combat primarily in the South, a once-solid Democratic region that Mr. Nixon targeted. This time the focus is on a handful of swing states that Mr. Trump won four years ago but where the Democrats believe they have a chance to prevail in 2020. None is more critical than Pennsylvania, where Mr. Biden spoke, and Wisconsin, where Mr. Trump plans his Tuesday remarks.

“Pennsylvania is the key to the election, and the Pittsburgh area may be the key to Pennsylvania,” county executive Rich Fitzgerald of Allegheny County, centred on Pittsburgh and, next to Philadelphia, the second most-populous county in the state, said in an interview. Political professionals of both parties agree that Mr. Trump would have lost Wisconsin if his 2016 opponent, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, had campaigned there even once.

Mr. Biden’s visit here was designed to open a new front in his battle against Mr. Trump, who has portrayed him as a dangerous radical who is an ally to socialists and anarchists. Having been battered as a threat to American domestic tranquility, a phrase so important to the psyche of the country that it appears in the preamble of the Constitution, Mr. Biden sought to shift the blame for the tumult in the streets to Mr. Trump himself.

“He may believe mouthing the words ‘law and order’ makes him strong, but his failure to call on his own supporters to stop acting as an armed militia in this country shows you how weak he is,” Mr. Biden said, adding, “Does anyone believe there will be less violence in America if Donald Trump is re-elected?”

The Pittsburgh area has had its share of incidents of police violence that have injured and killed Black people, including Jonny Gammage, who died under the weight of a number of suburban officers in 1995; Jordan Miles, who came away bruised and bloodied after he encountered three Pittsburgh officers outside his home in 2010; Leon Ford, who was paralyzed after being shot multiple times in his own car in 2012; and Antwon Rose II, who was shot in the back and killed as he ran from police in suburban East Pittsburgh two years ago.

“We have made efforts as a community to react, to change our police approaches and to demand justice,” said David Harris, the University of Pittsburgh Law School professor known as one of the country’s leading experts on police violence. “Our situation is not anything like perfect. But we also know that a candidate for office who applauds any kind of violence is a danger to all of us.’'

Mr. Biden said that Mr. Trump “sees a political lifeline” in violence, that the White House is “rooting for chaos and violence,” and that the President “adds fuel to every fire.” He condemned the setting of fires and said “violence will not bring change.”

For his part, the President on Monday defended his insistence on activating the National Guard and deploying it in Kenosha, asserting that if he had not done so “there would be no Kenosha right now” and “there would have been great death and injury.”

Mr. Biden’s team chose the backdrop for the candidate’s speech with an eye toward blunting another of Mr. Trump’s campaign themes, jobs production. Mr. Biden spoke at a site in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighbourhood known as Mill 19, which beginning in 1943 produced munitions for the Second World War. The mill since has been torn down, but the venue was the site for the last industrial initiative that the Obama-Biden administration undertook, a US$250-million enterprise involving 123 companies.

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