The aftermath of President Biden’s speech on American democracy
It is all so predictable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t shocking.
Bad faith stampedes across American democracy.
Hypocrisy oozes and drips over our national discourse.
False equivalence muddies the stark choices we face.
President Joe Biden had to know that when he gave a speech on Thursday bluntly and unambiguously delineating an undeniable truth (that Donald Trump and his legions of MAGA Republicans pose an existential threat to the governance of the United States) that the response would be fury, lies, and a convenient amnesia — indeed, outright gaslighting, over everything we have witnessed in American politics over the past six years.
It serves no purpose to list with specificity the talking points that Republican elected officials and their amplifiers in right-wing media have trotted out in the two days since. They can be categorized generally as: How dare he? How dare he say we are against democracy? How dare he use such tough language? How dare he single us out?
Biden’s response to that is the very rationale for the speech: How could I not?
Complacency in the face of what we are confronting is not an option.
Mincing words to appease a contorted view of “balance” and “fairness” when the other side long ago abandoned any pretense of those values means obscuring the truth.
To not name the threat with crystal clarity — as Biden said, “you can’t love your country only when you win” — is to risk losing the country and what it represents completely.
To remain silent is to jeopardize who the vast majority of Americans believe we are as a people and whom we aspire to become.
To see Republicans who support Trump complain about the language President Biden used to characterize them and their actions is laughable. Pick a Trump rally at random and just press play. The invective, the “othering” of anyone who thinks differently from the chanting red hat crowd, the lies about elections and their results, the winks and nods at violence, and so many other outrages are standard fare. They are indeed why his minions wait hours and drive thousands of miles to attend. They bask in the insults and bathe in the direct and personal attacks on their political enemies.
The meltdown from Republican elected officials should be considered in light of the upcoming midterm elections. These feckless politicians are witnessing their poll numbers go down and President Biden’s go up. Democratic candidates have overperformed in special elections. This fall was supposed to host a “Red Wave,” but it may be more of a ripple, or the tide could even turn "Blue.” Republicans may yet win, but they are on the defensive now.
On Thursday, they saw a president they had long tried to dismiss as old, low energy, even senile issue a blistering condemnation of Trump the demagogue and the movement he unleashed — and to which most of these Republican politicians have sworn complete fealty. You get a sense that deep down, they know Biden is right about what MAGA means for American democracy, but they are either too cowardly or calculating to care.
So they lash out and call the speech “political.” They are right. It was political. Because it had to be. It was Trump and his followers who turned American democracy into a political question. It is Republicans in races across the country who have made election lies the central rationale for their campaigns. That means our democracy is literally on the ballot. Its future, our future, as a nation of laws where the government is accountable to the will of the majority, will be decided by politics.
But President Biden was careful to differentiate between MAGA Republicans and the entirety of Republican voters and elected officials.
“Now, I want to be very clear, very clear up front. Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know, because I’ve been able to work with these mainstream Republicans. But there’s 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.”
Biden is betting that there are many Republicans who do not like Trump or his assault on democracy. Even a small shift of these voters away from Trump-backed candidates could have profound electoral consequences. Contrary to what many Republican politicians and Fox News talking heads are saying, Biden didn’t attack half the country. The true zealots are a much smaller cohort, albeit one bent on dominating the governance of the rest of us. The fact that so many people heard Biden talk about MAGA Republicans and thought, “Hey, he’s talking about me,” is telling.
There has also been a lot of discussion in the wake of Biden’s speech about the press coverage. Much of the criticism has centered on whether in framing his remarks, too many reporters and especially pundits of various backgrounds descended into that dangerous quagmire of false equivalence and whataboutism. To be sure, there was some of that. There was also too much handwringing over whether the speech was “political” without enough explanation of why it had to be. It is difficult for many, inside and outside the press, to wrap their heads around how dangerous the threats Trump and those who have picked up his mantle are to this country.
Biden wanted to be clear that he sees this moment as one of the great junctures in American history. Which road will we take? At this historic turning point, there are only two directions. There is no middle ground, no way to muddle through.
The presidency, as we know, comes with a bully pulpit and the power to frame the discourse of the nation. Biden laid down a marker that will shape how Americans, including those in the press, see this moment. Where we end up going will depend on whether those who believe he is right — and we know that includes a wide swath of the American public, including many conservatives — refuse to be quiet and are mobilized to vote.
Heated discussion over what President Biden said will carry forward now. With the American public as judge and jury, a verdict comes in November.
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