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In a unmistakable show of unity against a president they said threatened the nation’s democracy, liberals, progressives, moderates and even some Republicans came together for the opening night of the Democratic national convention on Monday, a virtual affair that culminated with an urgent plea from former first lady Michelle Obama to vote for Joe Biden “like our lives depend on it”.

Related: A pandemic DNC: telethon, commercial, and awkward family Zoom call in one

In her keynote address at a convention that had been truncated and conducted almost entirely online as a result of the public health crisis, Obama delivered a searing indictment of her husband’s successor. Confronting Donald Trump directly, she accused him of mishandling the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 170,000 American lives and of failing to respond to the nationwide cries for racial justice.

The suffering felt across the country would only deepen, she warned, if Trump was allowed four more years in the White House.

“Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country,” Obama said, prefacing her remarks with a promise to be unusually direct. “He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.”

When she finished speaking, the broadcast displayed a panoramic of living rooms around the US, where supporters applauded enthusiastically.

Her denunciations of the president were echoed from prominent figures of both parties. The Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who finished second to Biden in the Democratic primary race, warned that Trump was leading the nation “down the path of authoritarianism” while John Kasich, the anti-Trump Republican former governor of Ohio, urged Americans “take off our partisans hats and put our nation first”.

In the first moments of the broadcast on Monday night, actor Eva Longoria, host for the evening, acknowledged that this year’s convention would be unlike any other. Traditionally, she said, a convention is a quadrennial exercise in reaffirming “our democracy.”

“This year, we’ve come to save it,” Longoria said.

With a pre-taped rap of a gavel, Mississippi congressman Bennie Thompson, the convention’s chairman, formally opened the four-day presidential nominating convention that has been entirely reshaped by the coronavirus pandemic.

The convention was originally planned for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in mid-July, with tens of thousands of in-person attendees. Now, renamed the “Convention Across America” and “anchored” in Milwaukee, it has been condensed into two-hour primetime events over four nights, featuring some of the nation’s most prominent politicians alongside everyday Americans.

<span class=The control room where live feeds are managed for the Democratic national convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on 17 August. Photograph: Reuters” src=”” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/eQ01BkneT4ABYTZFny_Yng–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQyMw–/https://media.zenfs.com/en-GB/the_guardian_765/d5b301a63caf692d26d9525f45eb8a49″/>
The control room where live feeds are managed for the Democratic national convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on 17 August. Photograph: Reuters

“We gather virtually, however we gather unified in spirit,” said Wisconsin congresswoman Gwen Moore. “Unified in our values and purpose to heal divisions and together move the nation confidently into a prosperous, inclusive future.”

In live remarks from Burlington, Sanders warned that the “future of our democracy is at stake”.

“This president is not just a threat to our democracy, but by rejecting science, he has put our lives and health in jeopardy,” Sanders said, summarizing Trump’s handling of the pandemic, likening the president to the tyrannical Roman emperor: “Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Trump golfs.”

Directly addressing the millions of young progressives who voted for him in 2020, many of whom remain skeptical of Biden, Sanders laid out key policies where he and his one-time rival overlap, including on a $15 minimum wage and aggressive action on climate change.

It was a stark contrast to the almost valedictory nature of his remarks in 2016, which did little to ease the boiling anger of his supporters that spilled into the open on the convention floor in Philadelphia.

On Monday night, Sanders was unequivocal: “We need Joe Biden as our next president.”

Amid the appeals to unity, were searing reminders of the lives touched – and lost – by the parallel crises of a global pandemic and racial injustice.

From a nurse in Texas worried about “the kiddos” going back to school in a pandemic to a Pennsylvania farmer fearful that he might be the last generation to till a field if the economy doesn’t improve and a repentant Trump supporter, all urged the nation to choose new leadership.

In one of the most moving segments of the evening, Kristin Urquiza said her father was a “healthy 65-year-old” when he died from coronavirus after Arizona rushed to reopen its economy at the urging of the president.

Related: Kristin Urquiza, who lost father to Covid, condemns Trump in powerful DNC address

“His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump,” Urquiza said, “and for that, he paid with his life.”

Urquiza said she would cast her vote for Biden in November to honor her father. “One of the last things that my father said to me was that he felt betrayed by the likes of Donald Trump,” Urquiza said. “And so, when I cast my vote for Joe Biden, I will do it for my dad.”

Urquiza was echoed by several prominent Republicans who said they too planned to vote for Biden in November.

“America is at a crossroads,” Kasich said, standing at the intersection or two gravel pathways in his hometown of Westerville, Ohio, an affluent suburb in the perennial swing state that Democrats have called “ground zero” in the battle for the White House. “Joe Biden is the man for these times.”

<span class=John Kasich speaks in a screen grab from the live video feed of the Democratic national convention on 17 August. Photograph: Reuters” src=”” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/m3zY6hFs58Bb8vTA4aiurw–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQyMw–/https://media.zenfs.com/en-GB/the_guardian_765/84dfe65c59dc45805a23b0aa37d72c3c”/>
John Kasich speaks in a screen grab from the live video feed of the Democratic national convention on 17 August. Photograph: Reuters

His remarks were followed by a montage of lifelong Republican voters who expressed disbelief for the moment in which they found themselves: calling for the election of a Democratic president at the party’s national convention. Nevertheless, they warned of the lasting consequences of allowing Trump a second term.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was widely praised for his handling of the coronavirus that ravaged his state earlier this year, laced into Trump’s response to the pandemic.

“Only a strong body can fight off the virus, and America’s divisions weakened it,” Cuomo said, seated at his desk as America came to know him during daily press briefings, with a powerpoint presentation stating the number of days the US has been enduring the pandemic: “Today is Monday. Day 170.”

“Donald Trump didn’t create the initial division,” he continued. “The division created Trump; he only made it worse.”

New polling shows that the American public is increasingly disappointed by Trump’s handling of the virus, and his presidency, while Biden maintains a steady lead, according to national surveys.

In a summer of racial reckoning sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, Biden joined the event on Monday night to host a conversation on racial injustice and police reform.

Floyd’s family addressed the convention, and asked Americans to join his family in a moment of silence.

“George should be alive today,” Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, said before beginning a somber roll call of African Americans who have died at the hands of police.

Earlier in the day, Trump delivered a starkly different message in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on Monday, hours before the convention formally began in Milwaukee.

There he addressed supporters from an airport landing strip, mocking the former first lady for pre-recording her remarks while delighting the crowd with a promise to deliver a “live speech” from the White House when he accepts the Republican nomination next week.

But the format did little to blunt the sting of her words.

It was Obama who delivered the evening’s most devastating rebuke of her husband’s successor in a strikingly political speech that diverged greatly from sunny vision of American progress she outlined at Democratic convention four years, when she assailed Trump without ever saying his name.

“If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can – and they will if we don’t make a change in this election,” Obama said, wearing a gold necklace that said “vote”. “If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”

In her telling, Trump’s greatest weakness was Biden’s greatest strength: his empathy.

“Whenever we look to this White House for some leadership or consolation or any semblance of steadiness,” Obama said, “what we get instead is chaos, division, and a total and utter lack of empathy.”

Though Biden has been in American politics for nearly five decades – and despite efforts by the Trump campaign to define Biden as a leftwing socialist – many Americans are unfamiliar with the contours of his life and career.

On Monday night, a highly produced video with Amtrak workers told the story of Biden riding the train between his home in Wilmington and Washington DC as a young senator so that he could be home with his young sons after his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident.

The South Carolina congressman James Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress whose endorsement was instrumental in helping his longtime friend win the Democratic primary, described Biden simply as a “good man”.

“We know Joe,” he said. “But more importantly Joe knows us.”

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