Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
We are not living in “normal” times, President Joe Biden reminded the country on Thursday night, urging the American people to defend the nation’s democracy from a very real threat.
Speaking in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the founding fathers crafted a system of popular government that for more than 200 years inspired the world – and left it baffled and concerned in more recent years — the President sent a stark warning and a call to action.
“As I stand here tonight, equality and democracy are under assault,” Biden declared. Then he called the source of the problem by name.
“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”
Despite the GOP’s attempts to cast Biden as a “divisive” leader who is insulting half the country, the President made very clear he was referring specifically to a segment of the Republican electorate. “Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans,” he said.
But for GOP officials who support Trump, allowing him to become the unquestioned leader of his party, Biden showed barely concealed contempt. “The Republican Party today,” he denounced, “is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans.”
It remains to be seen whether Biden’s decision to speak so searingly, to condemn the man he had previously referred to as “the former guy,” is a wise tactical choice. But there is no question that he spoke the truth. Biden called out the elephant in the room. Given the existential threat that American democracy faces from within, elections are no longer solely about taxes, spending or other policy differences, as they once were.
The MAGA extremists tried to overturn the results of the election two years ago. Biden said they view their “failure to stop a peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election as preparation for the 2022 and 2024 election,” adding, “This time, they’re determined to succeed in thwarting the will of the people.”
He’s right. In many states, Republicans have passed new voting laws and nominated 2020 election deniers to positions that would give them the ability to overturn future elections.
As president, Biden has tried to steer US politics back to its more sedate ways. But that hasn’t worked because the loser of the last election has refused to let go. As Biden was trying to craft legislation, Trump and his minions have been battling the rule of law and laws of reality.
Trump incited the January 6 mob and launched a campaign of lies. His more than 60 failed lawsuits to prove the election was stolen have done nothing to quiet his determination to portray himself as invincible. And just as Biden was about to give his Philadelphia speech, Trump told a conservative radio host he would “look very, very favorably” at pardoning the people who attacked the Capitol on January 6. “And I mean full pardons with an apology to many,” he added.
From the moment Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015, he launched a style of politics that continues to undercut America’s democracy. It used to be routine for politicians to stretch the truth; Trump lied with prodigious abandon.
It was common for candidates to have a contentious relationship with the press; Trump attacked legitimate journalists as “fake news” and “enemies of the people.” When protesters attended his rallies, he told the crowd to “knock the crap out of” them – a preview of the threats of violence he issued against anti-racism protesters while he was president.
Trump demolished rules and norms and, in the process, became the subject of multiple ongoing civil lawsuits and criminal investigations, including the most recent probe into his handling of super-secret documents that belong to the country, not to him. (Trump argued that his constitutional rights were violated and that some of the documents seized earlier this month contain material covered by executive privilege.)
The MAGA brand now reaches far beyond the man who coined it and has engulfed individuals who might have resisted its dark lure in another age.
Biden blamed it on intimidation, but it’s also self-interest. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy accused Democrats of “dismantling” democracy on Thursday, but he knows better. He’s on tape telling Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming after January 6 that he was planning to tell Trump to resign. But just weeks after the attack on the US Capitol, McCarthy crawled back to Trump, visiting the former President at Mar-a-Lago.
He also went on to publicly defend Trump’s response to the January 6 insurrection. McCarthy’s friends told the New York Times he was exasperated with Trump’s behavior, but understood the need for the former President’s support in order to fulfill his ambition to become Speaker of the House if Republicans win a majority this November.
As MAGA’s muscle erodes GOP integrity, Biden wants to energize Americans on either side of the aisle to resist it.
Those who had disparaged the President as “Sleepy Joe” now need to find a new adjective. Biden displayed a fiery conviction that could not be faked. Defending against the rise of autocracy is what motivated him to run against Trump in 2020, and it’s one that resonated with voters, who sent him to a decisive victory against the incumbent president, a surprisingly rare feat.
Will it work this time? There’s reason to believe it will, because many Americans share Biden’s anxiety about democracy.
Sure, voters care about inflation and bread-and-butter issues. But a recent NBC poll found that concerns about “threats to democracy,” have soared, becoming one of the top issues for voters in August 2022. And a CBS News poll found 72% of Americans believe that democracy and the rule of law are in danger in the United States. (Granted, some believe those threats come from the left, not the MAGA right.)
Biden was born in 1942, when fascists ruled much of Europe and threatened the world. He reminded Americans that “history tells us a blind loyalty to a single leader and a willingness to engage in political violence is fatal to democracy.”
The speech was not just a dark recitation of dangers. “We are not powerless in the face of these threats,” he declared in his call to action. An impassioned Biden outlined his vision for the country, and he called on Americans to join in what he views as “the work of this generation,” defending democracy.
“Our task,” he said, “is to make our nation free and fair, just and strong, noble and whole.” That was the ideal when the United States was created. The mission now is to see that it survives these abnormal times.