Even on the day that President Joe Biden delivered his most jarring warning yet that democracy is in severe danger, Donald Trump teased how he might use a new White House term to further erode that core American birthright.
At Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and their fellow founders set the nation on a democratic path, Biden warned their legacy of government for the people by the people was in peril in one of the most stark prime-time speeches ever given by a president.
He warned that Trump and his fellow ideologues represent a dark, dangerous force bent on using lies and violence to crush the will of the majority.
“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” Biden said in another energetic and passionate speech that belied the low-wattage tone of much of his term so far.
It was a commentary on this era’s fractured political times that the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy would feel compelled to give such a speech at all. Given events over the last few years, his comments cannot be considered alarmist. And Biden left no doubt that he sees the purpose of his presidency as being to once again defeat Trump and his “Make America Great Again” movement, which he warned was already poisoning the 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 White House race.
“They look at the mob that stormed the United States Capitol on January 6 brutally attacking law enforcement, not as insurrectionists who placed a dagger at the throat of our democracy, but they look at it (them) as patriots,” Biden said.
“They see their MAGA failure to stop a peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election as preparation for the 2022 and 2024 elections. This time they are determined to succeed in thwarting the will of the people.”
Biden addressed a nation whose politics have been transformed by Trump’s false claims that he was cheated out of power in 2020. It’s a lie that has nevertheless won over millions of Americans and is the platform for countless campaigns by GOP midterm hopefuls trying to ride the ex-President’s base to power, some of whom could win and be in a position to influence future elections.
Still, Biden’s speech should not be seen in isolation. While he was speaking as America’s head of state, his remarks also sounded like a campaign stump speech, delivered in a critically important battleground state that he will have visited three times within the span of a week by Labor Day. He left no doubt that he was targeting his predecessor, and potential future rival, who will also be in Keystone State this weekend.
And Biden seems to have had a point. Hours before he spoke, Trump appeared to validate the President’s warnings about the threat that he poses.
Trump raised the prospect that if he wins back the presidency, he’d consider full pardons for members of the mob that crashed into the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in a bid to thwart the legal certification of Biden’s presidency.
“I will be looking very, very strongly about pardons. Full pardons,” the ex-President said on Wendy Bell Radio. “I mean full pardons with an apology to many,” he said.
His comment at this point is hypothetical and depends on a long, complex road to power. But it was also a stark reminder that he often crushed the principles of democracy and the rule of law in office. Here as before, Trump is viewing the presidency as a tool of personal power to be used to reward his allies and to punish his political opponents. In effect, Trump would be pardoning supporters he called to Washington and incited to violence to try to overturn an election he lost. Had he succeeded, he would have replaced America’s 250-year experiment with democracy with autocratic strongman rule.
And Trump’s showdown with the Justice Department over classified documents that he took to his Florida resort – which was playing out in a courtroom in Florida earlier Thursday – is fundamentally rooted in his view of the presidency as an all-powerful office that grants its incumbent absolute power.
In another sign of how Trump’s movement worked to try to compromise the will of voters, it emerged Thursday that Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a conservative activist and the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, pushed state lawmakers in Wisconsin, as well as in Arizona, to overturn Biden’s election wins in those states, according to emails obtained via a public records request and shared with CNN. The Washington Post first reported the text of those emails, which were obtained by the watchdog group Documented.
This development followed weeks of televised hearings by the House select committee probing the January 6 insurrection that have painted a damning picture of Trump’s attempts to steal the 2020 election and then to incite violence when his efforts failed. Multiple courts and Trump’s own Justice Department found there was no evidence that the 2020 was marred by massive fraud.
That is exactly the kind of vision of autocratic power vested in one man that the founders – who signed their names in history in the hall that formed Biden’s backdrop on Thursday night – broke away from two-and-a-half centuries ago.
Biden defines the political battle of the modern age
Biden’s speech and the intensifying swirl of attacks on the election system from Trump’s world underscore how the most critical divide in politics right now is not the age-old duel between liberalism and conservatism. Those fights have raged intensely and often with ill-feeling in a deeply divided nation, but they mostly took place between two parties who fundamentally respected the electoral system.
Increasingly, the political battle of our time is between leaders who see democracy as under attack (mostly Democrats but with increasing recruits from conservative dissidents like Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney) and the Trump machine, which is ready to use any method, including undemocratic ones to win power.
Biden’s aides had insisted that his speech at Independence Hall was not about the former President. But this in itself was disingenuous since he repeatedly made it about Trump. His appearance came just two days after a previous campaign-style appearance in Pennsylvania where he slammed Republicans who cheered mob rioters who beat up police on January 6. And less than a week ago, Biden compared the philosophy of Trump’s followers to “semi-fascism.”
Biden is clearly using Trump’s return to the spotlight in recent months as a springboard to advance Democrats in the midterm elections, which typically deal a blow to first-term presidents. He appears to be trying to turn the election into a head-to-head clash between himself and the former President – ground on which he won in 2020.
So far, Biden’s tactic seems to be working as he grafts this strategy onto Democratic attempts to highlight the Supreme Court’s overturning of the constitutional right to an abortion, which has galvanized liberal voters and enthusiasm in his party’s base, and the recent passage of a significant climate and health care law. All of this is an attempt to transform the election from a referendum on his own low approval ratings and the worst inflation crisis in 40 years into a choice between himself and Trump, who alienated moderate and suburban voters in elections in 2018 and 2020.
Democrats tried something similar in a 2021 off-year election but it foundered when Virginia Republican Glenn Youngkin stressed education and rising prices and won the governorship in a state Biden had won by 10 points a year earlier.
But this year, Trump effectively is on the ballot given his endorsement of many candidates whose main calling card is total loyalty to his false claims of voter fraud. And even out of the White House, he’s part of the news every day in the wake of the FBI search of his Florida home, which is reminding voters of the chaos and fury of his presidency as he and his allies threaten and try to intimidate institutions like the FBI.
Biden’s bet is an attempt to reframe the midterm elections
Still, the unanswered question of 2022 is whether voters will be won over by an argument that democracy is at risk – a somewhat esoteric concept outside Washington – or will seek to punish the President for the pain many feel from budget-busting grocery bills.
Conventional wisdom has often favored the latter conclusion. Yet perceptions could be changing. A CBS News poll this week found that 72% of Americans believe that democracy and the rule are under threat. Whether that’s the most salient factor when they enter the voting booth, though, is another question.
Biden’s approach is not without risks. With his remarks about fascism last week and his relentless assault on “MAGA Republicans,” he is in danger of branding all Republicans as extremists. Millions of people voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 because they embraced his anti-establishment creed or his hostility to globalization. Some just liked his blunt speaking. But that does not mean that they have given up on democracy.
At the White House Friday, Biden attempted to rebut some of those criticisms, saying he did not feel Trump’s supporters as a whole are a threat to the nation.
“I don’t consider any Trump supporter a threat to the country. I do think anyone who calls for the use of violence, fails to condemn violence when it’s used, refuses to acknowledge when an election has been won, insists upon changing the way in which…you count votes, that is a threat to democracy,” Biden said.
“Everything we stand for, everything we stand for, rests on the platform of democracy,” he added. “When people voted for Donald Trump, and support him now, they weren’t voting for an attack at the Capitol. They weren’t voting for overruling an election. They were voting for a philosophy he put forward.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tried to play in this lane with his own speech in Pennsylvania on Thursday, seeking to paint Biden as disdainful of millions of patriots.
“President Biden has chosen to divide, demean, and disparage his fellow Americans. Why? simply because they disagree with his policies,” McCarthy said. “That is not leadership.”
“The first lines out of his mouth should be to apologize for slandering tens of millions of Americans as ‘fascists,’” the California Republican added.
Biden tried to hedge against McCarthy’s criticism by insisting that not all Republicans are radicals. But the distinction is unlikely to be heard in the pandemonium of a national election campaign. McCarthy, of course, is guilty of his own transgressions against democracy. Briefly after the Capitol insurrection, he said Trump bore some responsibility. But he soon flew to Florida to make up with the ex-President on whom he seems to think GOP hopes of a House majority and his dreams of becoming speaker depend.
If nothing else, Biden’s speech set a fire under the midterm election campaign. His recently hardened rhetoric and Trump’s relentlessly inflammatory behavior prove two things: The ex-President remains a threat to democracy. And Biden’s thinks it’s his destiny to stop him.