As Political Violence Rises, Biden To Host Unity Conference : The NPR Politics Podcast Rates of political violence, armed protest, hate crime and white supremacist activity all became more prevalent during the Trump administration. Can a campaign by a broadly unpopular Democratic president turn the tide? Is there another option?

This episode: political correspondent Susan Davis, White House correspondent Asma Khalid, and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

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As Political Violence Rises, Biden To Host Unity Conference

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TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey there. It's Tamara Keith from the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. And I am so excited because we are getting ready to go back out on the road. And Houston, you're up first. Join Susan Davis, Asma Khalid, Ashley Lopez, Domenico Montanaro and me at Zilkha Hall on Thursday, September 15. You can find more information about tickets, including for students, at nprpresents.org. Thanks to our partners at Houston Public Media. We hope to see you there.

JOE CAMPOS: This is Joe Campos (ph) from Des Moines, Iowa, where I am watching my son practice soccer on a beautiful Midwestern late summer night. It's just cool enough to wear a jacket in the shade. This podcast was recorded at...

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

10:43 a.m. on Tuesday, September 13.

CAMPOS: Things might have changed by the time you hear this, but hopefully I won't have to be shoveling snow any time soon. Enjoy the show.

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DAVIS: I don't think I've ever enjoyed Des Moines' summer. I've only been freezing in Des Moines'...

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: In Des Moines' winter.

DAVIS: ...Winter, covering caucuses.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Well, I'm definitely looking forward to some cooler weather.

DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

KHALID: And I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House as well.

DAVIS: President Biden is hosting a unity summit at the White House later this week. It's supposed to combat what they are calling hate-fueled violence on democracy and public safety. This has, of course, been the central mission of Joe Biden's presidency. He said he was motivated to run for office after the racist violence in Charlottesville, and he campaigned as a uniter.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We will be a nation of unity, of hope, of optimism, not a nation of anger, violence, hatred and division.

DAVIS: Asma, you've been doing some reporting about this. What have the folks you've been talking to saying, and how do they feel about this idea of unity?

KHALID: Yeah. I mean, Sue, as you mentioned, unity has probably been the most consistent through line, I think, we've heard from President Biden, more so than even, perhaps, the economy or COVID, right? It's just been the constant message that we've heard from him in terms of why he ran for office. And so months ago, when I was going out in the country, I started asking voters what they thought of the president's promise. And I will say there is a sense of confusion - often I hear from voters - as to what exactly unity means and how any president could obtain that. I met Jennifer Griffin (ph) on a recent reporting trip last month in Florida, and I talked about why she believes the country is so divided.

JENNIFER GRIFFIN: It's impossible to unite the country right now.

KHALID: Why is that?

GRIFFIN: Because white people refuse to discuss racism openly.

KHALID: She went on to say that, in her view, this is really an intraracial conversation in which, quote, "good white people need to talk to the crazy white people and have that conversation." And she just doesn't really think that that's happening right now.

DAVIS: This is a good point, and it's also one of the things I've been thinking about where this is just such a complex idea - right? - like, unity and violence, because the causes of violence are so widespread in the country. You have, obviously, some of the racially fueled violence that Biden has focused a lot on, but then you also have political violence, thinking of things like the attack on the Capitol on January 6. And they come from sort of different root causes (laughter), right? I mean, the order before the president is a rather tall one.

KHALID: You know, one thing I'll hear from voters is that this is sort of an impossible task. There's a guy I met out in Michigan back in April. He voted as a Democrat. He tends to vote for Democrats. But he said that ultimately, the clearest indication to him that this was not going to be something any president could do - in his words, the country is just not unitable - is by looking at how many, many voters saw Donald Trump's rhetoric and ultimately chose to go with him and continue to support him.

DAVIS: Do you all have a sense of what exactly Biden is trying to do with unity? I mean, Franco, I can't help but note that we are just weeks out from an election, and I think there is a cynical political point you could make that maybe Biden's idea of unity is just voting for more Democrats.

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, certainly that appeared to be the case he was making recently in Pennsylvania...

DAVIS: Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: ...You know, when he held a rally raising concerns about, you know, in his words, MAGA Republicans, you know, the faction of Republican leadership that supports or continues to support former President Donald Trump. And, you know, he ended a speech, a presidential speech, you know, basically saying, vote, vote, vote and said, you know, the main concern was, you know, against extremism. I would not characterize that speech as a uniting speech.

KHALID: Right?

ORDOÑEZ: It was more of a, you know, warning, a watch-out type speech. Now, the White House says that there are moderate Republicans as well. But, you know, certainly the message from the president and Democrats are more Democrats need to be in office in order to counter those Republican factions that have excited the Republican Party.

DAVIS: So what is known about the Unity Summit that's going to be happening at the White House this week? I know we don't have all the details, but what are you all expecting?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, the president, you know, says that he was inspired to run after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., you know, and there have been more or a number of hate-fueled attacks during his administration, including in Buffalo, where 10 African Americans were killed in a supermarket. You know, and that led a number of groups calling for Biden to kind of use the power of the presidency to, you know, address hate crimes and extremisms. So there are going to be a bunch of different groups coming to Washington, to come to the White House and - you know, from the federal level, from the state level, from the advocacy level - you know, to get together, hold panel discussions, all with the idea of trying to get together to find a way to prevent radicalization, encourage unity.

But, you know, as we were just talking about, you know, it is midterm election season. Some of these kind of topics kind of run parallel to what the president has been saying. I should also just note that President Biden is going to give a keynote address during the summit.

DAVIS: All right. Let's take a quick break, and we'll talk more about this when we get back.

And we're back. And as I'd said before, you know, the White House is just talking about a lot here. There are so many different types of violence. There are so many different drivers of violence. But in this context, I think one thing they're focused on, too, is political violence, the kind that is meant to disrupt the government or target elected officials. Obviously, this country has a very long history of political violence. Political violence is not a new phenomenon in America. But, Franco, do you have a sense of sort of the state of political violence in the country right now, in this moment?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, I think there are definite reasons for concern. There's no question there have been a rise in threats. I mean, very recently, there was the high-profile threats against FBI agents who, you know, searched the Mar-a-Lago home of former President Donald Trump in search of classified documents. And you'd be able to talk about this probably better than I is, you know, all the threats against members of Congress being up.

DAVIS: Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which just did a big report on this, threats against members of Congress are up more than 10 times where they were just five years ago. You know, there's also an increase in armed demonstrations across the United States. And, you know, before the break, we were just talking about hate crimes. In 2020, there were more than 8,000 hate crimes reported by the FBI. That's the highest number since 9/11. And I didn't even mention the increase in white supremacist propaganda, which is also up in very high numbers.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, the threats to elected officials, at least on the federal level, is clear. I mean, the Capitol Police has publicly said that they're dealing with more incoming threats to members. They deal with the security for members both at their homes and here in the Capitol. Just over the summer, they recently approved giving members more money so they can actually beef up security in their homes. There's been some pretty aggressive attempted attacks against officials. I'm thinking of Lee Zeldin, who's a Republican member of the House who's running for governor who - you know, there was an attempt - knife attack on him.

So I, at least - both, I think, in the data and in the anecdata, like, when I talk to members of Congress, they are much more aware of their safety. They're much more aware of the safety when they do public events, when they do - especially things that are, you know, sort of notified public, like town hall meetings or any other kind of events they do. Local police and local security has, I think, definitely been beefed up and almost beefed up across the board. I think both Democratic and Republican lawmakers are seeking more security around themselves and their families these days.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah.

KHALID: You know, I think when we talk about unity, it feels like a really amorphous idea. And I felt that myself, you know, just in terms of asking this question to voters, that there was no concrete agreement on what it really means to be a unified nation. And so one of the things that I was trying to do in some of my reporting is get a quantifiable sense of how polarized we are.

And I spoke with this political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. His name is John Geer. He oversees a survey called the Vanderbilt Unity Index. And it is an attempt on a scale of 0 to 100 to quantify just how polarized the country has been. And I know one thing I will say that's interesting is he told me that most of the low points that he saw recently took place during President Trump's time in office, and the lowest point in their index was right around the far-right rally in Charlottesville that took place back in 2017, where this index dropped down to 35 points.

So, you know, I mean, I think we all kind of knew that in the abstract, but he's actually trying to put data behind this. And one thing he did point out is like, look; a lot of people still feel like the country is not that unified, but, in fact, their index has bumped up a bit since President Biden took office.

JOHN GEER: Biden, while he's not any more popular than Trump was, or, at least, you know, not really noticeably different - Trump had many more people who strongly disapproved than does Biden. So Trump is more polarizing.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, talking about Trump is relevant here, too, because he might run again. And to that point that the voter you talked to who said, you know, half the electorate saw how Trump led, they saw how they used racial resentments and they liked his style - right? - like, this idea that the whole country is hungry for this Biden version of unity, I think, is really suspect. I mean, there's a lot of people in this country who actually kind of prefer the Trump approach.

KHALID: I mean, I think it's worth remembering, though, that even when the country was most unified - this is what John Geer, the political science professor, told me - that, you know, those moments happened, say, around the first Gulf War and right after 9/11 - that even when the country was most unified, it still wasn't 100% unified, right? Like, you had numbers that were in the 70s. So I think that that context is important to remember that, really, ultimate unity is not something we've ever seen in our political history.

DAVIS: Franco, I know that this has obviously been very important to the president. It's been a central theme of his presidency. But I go back to this idea of sort of how unifying can any leader be when their own personal popularity is pretty low?

ORDOÑEZ: I think you're right. I mean, there's no question about that. He's talking about unity. He's talking about combating extremism. He's pointing to certain factions of the Republicans as supporting some of this extremism, you know, kind of looking the other way when it comes to political violence. And, yes, I do feel that he certainly is hoping to grab more unity to kind of lower the temperature from the Trump years. But it is also a tactic to differentiate himself from the former president and kind of show a different way.

It is also a way for the president not to talk about things that he's vulnerable about. He can talk about Trump instead of talking about concerns about the economy. He can talk about Trump and, you know, his supporters instead of talking about immigration. He can talk about that instead of crime, areas that Biden is vulnerable politically. So this is an opportunity to kind of change the narrative, asking voters, which way forward do you want? Do you want a way that is kind of a little bit more extreme that Trump is kind of running, or do you want something a little bit more moderate like Biden?

DAVIS: All right. Let's leave it there for today. I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

KHALID: And I'm Asma Khalid. I also cover the White House.

DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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