Biden Was Right to “Go Political” in Addressing “Threat to Democracy”: MAGA Republicans
In the week since President Joe Biden’s speech in Philadelphia — titled “The Continued Battle for the Soul of the Nation” — there has been much criticism about the “political” and “partisan” nature of the speech. Certainly this was the Republican response, but also various reporters and commentators echoed this line.
This political/partisan line was cited as the reason all three major TV networks — ABC, CBS, NBC — opted not to run a presidential address to the nation, based on advance review of the speech. Even the all-news networks — CNN, MSNBC — did not program it(!). The editorial board of The Washington Post admonished Mr. Biden for taking a partisan, not a “patriotic” line.
But: Consider the moment we are in. It is, this moment of ours, not only profoundly political, but perilously so.
American democracy is caught up in a ferocious battle from within — with one of our two major political parties now actively and aggressively dedicated both to dismantling our democratic institutions — disenfranchising voters, manipulating elector slates, radicalizing state legislatures and courts, threatening violence, not to forget for one minute the attempted coup of January 6, 2021 — and trashing the U.S. Constitution itself. This makes this battle truly existential — that is, it is about the very existence of the system itself, the one in which we all live, work, breathe.
Which is why: A stunning 72% of all Americans now say American democracy is “under threat,” per a recent CBS poll. And “threats to democracy” now leads household-battering inflation as the most important issue facing the country, per a recent NBC poll. Which is why: Conversation nowadays with our fellow citizens is almost all-politics, almost all the time (and why, for self-care, we bow out now and then). It’s this existential threat Mr. Biden sought to address in Philadelphia. Addressing this threat, Mr. Biden was in fact meeting the American people where we now are. We know America is in trouble, so surely we can talk about it? Mr. Biden bet we could. (Thank you, Mr. President.)
Read the text of the speech, skip the red-white-and-blue spectacle staged at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. In the text, Mr. Biden opens by restating what America in its essence means, as established over two centuries ago on this “sacred ground”: equality and democracy. In his first minute, Mr. Biden broaches his difficult theme: “Equality and democracy are under assault. We do ourselves no favors to pretend otherwise.” Continuing, he says: “I have come…to speak as plainly as I can…about the threats we face.” adding we have it in our power to meet these threats. But “we must be honest,” he says: “Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal.” In his delivery, Mr. Biden emphasized “not normal.”
Immediately, Mr. Biden names the forces posing this threat — “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans” — and lays out exactly how they undermine the “very foundations of our republic.” Mr. Biden’s damning bill of particulars: “MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people…. They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the very soul of this country. They look at the mob that stormed the United States Capitol on January 6th — brutally attacking law enforcement — not as insurrectionists who placed a dagger to the throat of our democracy, but they look at them as patriots.” And, concluding: “MAGA Republicans have made their choice. They embrace anger. They thrive on chaos. They live not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies.”
What in this damning bill of particulars is not true? And how, in citing it, could Mr. Biden refrain from naming the forces behind it?
What makes this bill of particulars all the more damning: MAGA Republicans’ willingness to engage in political violence. It’s startling to hear Mr. Biden — of necessity — devote so much speech-time to this ominous development: “We hear — you’ve heard it — more and more talk about violence as an acceptable political tool in this country. It’s not. It can never be an acceptable tool.” He goes on: “On top of that, there are public figures — today, yesterday, and the day before — predicting and all but calling for mass violence and rioting in the streets” (a clear reference to “Senator” Lindsey Graham’s recent threat). Forcing the President to this: “So I want to say this plain and simple: There is no place for political violence in America. Period. None. Ever.”
Having pointed to that which can undo democracy — political violence — the President warns: “We can’t allow violence to be normalized in this country. It’s wrong.” This is the “perilous” part of this political moment: Fascism condones political violence, in fact it keeps itself in power with violence and intimidation. Would-be House Speaker, GOP Congressman Kevin McCarthy, pre-speech, cited Mr. Biden for calling all Republicans “fascists.” Mr. McCarthy needs to get educated on what fascism entails and how MAGA Republicans are already there: Recall the hideous violence of Jan. 6, the death threats since to members of Congress, election officials and volunteer poll workers, judges. The President — responsibly — spoke to this perilous moment: the very real potential for political violence becoming widespread and normalized. He draws this conclusion, plainly: “We can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-American. They’re incompatible.”
Up front in the text, Mr. Biden takes pains to clarify his target: “Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology.” Then he states an irrefutable general truth: “[T]here is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to this country.” “Intimidated” is strong language — as discussed above, it’s part of the fascist toolkit — but again, how is it not true? Today’s Republican party is not the historic party of old, but a cult of personality: Trump’s. Unfortunately, post-speech, GOP leaders were deaf to Mr. Biden’s clarification, claiming he damned “half the country.”
The speech’s latter half is about the future. Here’s where Mr. Biden got cited for partisanism, crowing about a recent remarkable string of legislative victories (let us count those victories!). But, another take is: He was contrasting his administration’s positive program with the MAGA Republican vision of “carnage and darkness and despair.” Instead, President Biden sees “an America that is about to take off.” And: “We’re going to make the 21st century another American century, because the world needs us to.”
As for timing, just weeks before the November midterms: Yes, the speech was political. But Mr. Biden, in naming MAGA Republicans as our anti-democratic nemesis, was also aiming, at the optimum moment, to do what veteran pols do: splinter the opposition. Right on cue, Trump bit: His rally in Pennsylvania days later featured a two-hour rant elaborating on his “big lie” of a stolen 2020 election, relitigating established fact. Can we hope some in his base will tire of it?
It should be noted this speech is not the first time Mr. Biden has addressed “the battle for the soul of America.” He did so on the campaign trail and earlier in his presidency. Philadelphia was, as his speech’s title states, a “continuation.” Tellingly, commentators who are self-described “recovering” Republicans — Max Boot, David Frum, Tom Nichols— praised its content. Liberal Dana Milbank had fun, mock-apologizing to “insurrectionists and fascists” if Mr. Biden hurt their feelings. Yes, Mr. Biden’s delivery was lacking, but to focus on that instead of content is short-sighted. None other than famed playwright Arthur Miller urged journalists, and by extension us all, to refrain from becoming “theater critics” rating a politician’s “performance.”
The Philadelphia speech was not great as oratory, but going high-flown or lyrical would have been mistaken. It was a serviceable speech. In its plainness — “These are hard things” — Mr. Biden may have striven for his Gettysburg Address, which Address was honored not in its time, but later. (Historian Jon Meacham framed the Philadelphia speech.) As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing.” Judging by the reaction, Mr. Biden astonished. But plainly, powerfully, and honestly, the President called out the grave threat to democracy — political violence — and he named names: the anti-democratic, anti-Constitutional, and violent MAGA Republicans.
George Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” instructs us in this momen. The hard-nosed Englishman thought political regeneration was possible. But it would take clear thinking: “To think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.” And clear thinking takes language that tells the truth. In Philadelphia, President Biden told the plain hard political truth. The question becomes: Can we deal with it?