In President Biden’s increasingly stark telling, an America led by former president Donald Trump in 2025 would be a dystopian dictatorship with American values constantly on the brink of collapse.
“The greatest threat Trump poses is to our democracy,” Biden said earlier this month at a fundraiser in Bethesda. “Because if we lose, we lose everything.”
Trump, who has used terms like “vermin” to describe his enemies and called 2024 “the final battle,” has said if Biden wins a second term, Americans would “no longer have a country” and the globe would quickly descend into a third world war.
“As long as Joe Biden is in the White House, the American Dream is dead,” Trump said during a rally in Durham, N.H., where he also accused migrants of “poisoning the blood” of the nation.
As the two leading candidates trade depictions of doom, the 2024 race for president is increasingly dominated by dark sentiments and appeals to fear — a phenomenon experts and pollsters say is reflective of the country’s broadly pessimistic and apprehensive mood.
As Democrats often point out, while Biden’s warnings repeat Trump’s explicit promises about what he would do if he wins, Trump’s predictions often reflect baseless hyperbole. But the result is that if either man wins next November, nearly half of the country could be primed to believe it spells the end of the nation and its values.
White House officials and Biden campaign aides have said they feel compelled to respond to the former president’s growing use of hateful, bleak messaging. As recent polls have shown Trump with a commanding lead in the Republican primary and a consistent, if smaller, lead in a general election matchup with Biden, the president and his aides have increasingly invoked ominous language as they seek to raise an alarm about the potential return of his predecessor.
“What’s at stake in 2024: Donald Trump and his MAGA Republicans are determined to destroy American democracy,” Biden told donors in Weston, Mass., this month. “And that, again, is not hyperbole. That’s a fact. The former president makes no bones about it. Don’t take my word for it. Just listen to what he has to say.”
He went on to read a list of some of Trump’s most incendiary quotes.
For Biden’s allies, repeating and responding to Trump’s rhetoric — and at times using stark language of their own — represent a key component of the messaging strategy for next year’s election. While some Democrats worry about elevating their opponent’s rhetoric, at the core of much of the president’s reelection pitch is a warning that if Trump returns to power, Americans’ democratic values, fundamental freedoms and physical safety would be under threat.
“Trump’s America in 2025: More Guns, More Shootings, More Deaths,” read one Biden campaign statement last month, part of a series of messages aimed at describing what life under Trump would be like if he takes office 13 months from now.
Other messages have portrayed a second-term Trump as “coming after your health care,” rounding up immigrants into detention centers and attempting to be a “Day One Dictator.” The latter moniker was derived from Trump’s claim, in an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity, that he would only be a dictator on the first day of his presidency.
The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
But the former president has only escalated his apocalyptic descriptions of America and its ostensible future under another Biden term. “Our border has been erased. Criminals are running wild in our Democrat-run cities. And thanks to crooked Joe’s breathtaking weakness, the world is going up in flames,” Trump said at a rally in Iowa. “The whole world is up in flames.”
He also told his audience that “the communists, Marxists and fascists are going hard after Catholics” and that Democrats “want people to take your children and do things with your children that are not even speakable.” Biden and “the far-left lunatics,” he said, are “willing to violate the U.S. Constitution at levels never seen before,” adding that “we’re very close” to World War III.
While candidates have always embraced negative messages to some degree, the increasingly harsh tone of this race stands in contrast to the rhetoric of candidates such as John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, who built their campaigns largely around soaring language and uplifting visions for the future, said Barbara Perry, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. If Trump secures the Republican nomination, warnings about his return could make it difficult for voters to hear an affirmative reason to vote for Biden rather than simply an appeal to defeat his opponent, Perry said.
“Biden has positive things to say, but the things that Trump is saying are so destructive that he can’t ignore them,” she said, adding that it “cuts against type” for the typically optimistic Biden to spend so much time focused on dystopian themes.
The president heard from historians last year about the importance of not letting violent or extreme rhetoric go unchallenged, and aides say that has influenced his decision to call out Trump on a more regular basis.
Jon Meacham, a historian who has advised Biden and occasionally helped him craft speeches, said the president “has a moral obligation” to confront Trump’s language, which “comes directly from the darkest years of the bloodiest centuries.” Scholars have particularly spotlighted Trump’s comments to rallygoers that “I am your retribution,” his railing against “demonic forces” and his use of language reminiscent of Adolf Hitler, who fixated on blood purity and also described people as “vermin.”
“To speculate, as some are, that Biden’s campaign might be ‘negative’ or full of ‘foreboding’ when he’s warning against Nazi rhetoric is like blaming a firefighter who shows up to save a burning building for the fire itself,” Meacham wrote in an email.
The darkening tone comes as Biden’s efforts at more positive messaging have struggled to gain traction. After spending months pitching “Bidenomics” and touting his record and accomplishments, Biden still faces stubbornly low poll numbers and poor public views of the economy, a phenomenon he has privately bristled about.
Biden’s approval rating has tied his record low, standing at 38 percent with 58 percent disapproving, according to a Washington Post average of 12 polls in December. Majorities of Americans have told pollsters that they feel the country is on the wrong track, that their outlook for the economy is negative and that they don’t want a rematch of Biden and Trump in 2024.
Given that, it is arguably not surprising that each candidate is focused on amplifying the negative views about his rival. The White House, often reluctant to comment on 2024 candidates due to laws restricting politicking by public servants, has released several statements in recent weeks responding to Trump’s comments.
“Echoing the grotesque rhetoric of fascists and violent white supremacists and threatening to oppress those who disagree with the government are dangerous attacks on the dignity and rights of all Americans, on our democracy, and on public safety,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement after Trump claimed migrants were “poisoning the blood of our country.”
While Biden’s allies have focused most of their attention on Trump, other Republican presidential contenders are also embracing apocalyptic language in their campaigns.
Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley has staked much of her election bid on portraying a “world on fire,” arguing that “Biden’s too old” to handle the gathering storm clouds of international unrest. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has used antagonistic language to blast his perceived enemies, pledging to destroy the “woke mob” and to have U.S. troops shoot suspected drug traffickers “stone cold dead” at the border.
Such rhetoric has come to dominate GOP politics in part because it has proved effective in recent years, said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who worked for congressional leaders during the rise of the tea party movement.
“It tells us something about the trajectory of this campaign: that there’s nothing about it that’s going to be uplifting,” Heye said, adding that he understands why the president is also shifting to more negative messaging. “Biden knows if the election was held today, he’d lose. So he’s trying to turn this away from being a referendum on him to a choice, and that makes sense.”
Still, Biden’s campaign has sought to balance its warnings about Trump with a positive pitch about the president’s accomplishments.
His campaign launch video began with chilling footage from the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, but it then shifted to brighter imagery showcasing Biden’s accomplishments and smiling Americans. Most of the campaign’s television ads since the April launch have been positive spots focused on the president’s record.
Biden, who also cast his 2020 bid as a contest between darkness and light, often ends speeches by saying he has never been more optimistic about the country’s future. His aides point to his 2022 messaging, which included warnings about GOP extremism and threats to democracy, as a model for success, given Democrats’ unexpectedly strong performance in that year’s elections.
Still, Trump’s embrace of doom-filled language — and his strong position in the polls — has caused the Biden team to intensify its effort to raise the alarm about the risks posed by the former president.
Michael Tyler, the communications director for the Biden campaign, released a memo recently pointing out several of Trump’s most incendiary comments and asserting that America remains “in a battle for the soul of our nation.”
While amplifying the potential dangers of a second Trump term could motivate some liberals to vote out of fear, many Democrats have warned that voters could be turned off by the broad negativity of a Trump-Biden race. Several strategists and activists have expressed concern that key constituencies will stay home if they do not hear more affirmative reasons to support Biden’s reelection.
At the recent Democratic fundraiser in Bethesda punctuated by dire warnings about Trump, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) stood out by making a point that has become increasingly rare in Democratic politics.
“This election is not about the danger of electing Donald Trump,” he said. “It’s about the promise of reelecting Joe Biden.”
Emily Guskin and Scott Clement contributed to this report.