“You are either with us, or with the terrorists.”
That’s how President George W. Bush framed the challenge just after 9/11. Bush went on to make some terrible decisions, including to invade a country—Iraq—that had nothing to do with the terrorist attack on the United States. But at the time, the clarity of those words was bracing.
Now, 21 years later, President Biden has done something similar in response to today’s threat. He has properly framed the great political challenge of our time, not just for the 2022 and 2024 elections but through at least the middle part of the 21st Century, when Donald Trump’s cult followers will still be roaming the land.
Biden was basically saying, You are either with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that were written just behind me—that’s “us”—or you are with the political terrorists who use fear and threats of violence to get their way. There’s no middle ground.
In parliamentary systems, politics is mostly about building coalitions. American politics requires that, too, but here politicians prevail by invoking our ideals, drawing lines, framing issues, stigmatizing the other side. Biden did all of that in his fine speech. He finally recognized that his gauzy message of unity was obsolete amid the Democracy Crisis (and yes, let’s start capitalizing it). So he jettisoned it in favor of the unvarnished truth.
When Biden first started calling Trumpsters “MAGA Republicans,” I thought it was too soft and abstract. I was wrong. The term simultaneously recognizes that the threat will last longer than Trump himself and leaves room for respecting patriotic Republicans. It will live in the American political lexicon forever.
It doesn’t matter that most TV viewers were watching Press Your Luck, Young Sheldon or a Law and Order rerun, or that much of the press dismissed the speech as a political pep rally, or that the usual rightwing blowhards were projecting again with their nonsense about Biden being the bad guy. The president hammered the new frame into wall, where it will hang just fine:
“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”
“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.”
“The Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to this country.”
In early August, Biden met with a group of historians. They drew his attention to two other historic inflection points: 1860, when Abraham Lincoln ran for president after warning that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and 1940, a period described by historian Lynn Olson as “those angry days,” when emotions ran so high for and against intervention to stop Hitler that Arthur Schlesinger later said it was the most bitter struggle of his lifetime—worse than McCarthyism or fights over the Vietnam War.
I take no comfort from those historical analogies because both were only resolved by violence. In 1861, Southerners refused to accept Lincoln’s election and launched the Civil War. And in 1941, it was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—not FDR’s speeches about the importance of democracy—that ended the acrimony over intervention.
This time, we need to protect democracy peacefully. That means exercising it in the courtroom—by proving that even presidents aren’t above the law—and at the ballot box, where a big turnout can save the day. “We need everyone to do their part,” Biden said. “So speak up. Speak out. Get engaged. Vote, vote, vote.” It’s like the principle of fighting bad speech with good speech. The only way to defend democracy is to extend democracy.
This won’t be easy, and not just because the Orange Menace has the survival skills of a feral animal. As Biden put it, MAGA Republicans believe it’s “either we win or we were cheated.” A crisis that began with one megalomaniac’s refusal before the 2020 election to commit to the peaceful transfer of power has become the animating principle of what was once the party of Lincoln.
Biden’s speech should help Democrats build on their momentum this fall. His aim is not persuasion but mobilization—to place democracy itself on the ballot so that so-called “sporadic” Democratic voters (who usually vote only quadrennially), elusive independents and patriotic Republicans (about 20-30 percent of the GOP are pro-democracy) understand that this is not just another boring midterm election. Even if voters don’t like him, Biden reasoned, they like Trump less, and fear giving MAGA Republicans the keys to the car. In a new NBC News poll, “threats to democracy” passed inflation as the number one issue for voters in both parties—69 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans placed it first. Of the latter, it’s hard to know how many are Liz Cheney Republicans and how many are more of the Kari Lake fascist variety, who believe “threats” are indistinguishable from “Democrats.”
A Biden-Trump rematch, in absentia, since neither is on the ballot in 2022, looks good for Democrats. Biden leads Trump by six points in a new Wall Street Journal poll, which also shows independents trending toward the Democrats. That’s because wedge politics—using an emotional issue to energize supporters and divide the other party—works, even in an uncertain economy. It was once a Republican speciality. Now the Big Wedge is wielded by Democrats. It seems that democracy, of all things, has the potential to deliver some stinging losses to the GOP.
An instinct for democracy can also help create unscripted, authentic moments that people remember. When a protester in Philadelphia first started shouting at the president through a bullhorn, I was hoping someone would politely escort him out of earshot. Biden knew better. He deftly incorporated the heckling into his message: “They’re entitled to be outrageous. This is a democracy.” And then he tapped into the sense of decency that powers the pro-democracy movement: “Good manners is nothing they’ve ever suffered from.” Perfect.
Contrast that to Trump shouting at his 2016 rallies, “Get him the hell out of here! Get him out of here! Throw him out!” in Alabama or “I’d like to punch him in the face” in Las Vegas, where he reminisced, “I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”
Unfortunately, Biden missed a chance to drive home an even sharper contrast. At one point, he said, “They [MAGA Republicans] 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.”
This would have been the perfect place to refer to Trump saying earlier in the day on a rightwing radio show that if he's reelected, he will offer “full pardons with an apology to many” of the insurrectionists. Pardons to people convicted of viciously assaulting Capitol police officers? This will be a great issue for Democrats. It crystallizes Trump’s contempt for law enforcement and lack of patriotism. As Biden explained, ”You can’t love your country only when you win."
The president was right to strike a hopeful tone. Even when it rang false (“I’ve never been more optimistic about America’s future”), he grasped the importance of connecting Americans to our idealized version of ourselves.
For years, Biden has ended his speeches by saying “And may God protect our troops.” Now, with the war in Afghanistan over and a new crisis looming at home, he has amended that. He concluded the most important speech of his presidency this way:
“And may God protect our nation. And may God protect all those who stand watch over our democracy. God bless you all.”
Then one final word:
Reprinted with permission from OLD GOATS with Jonathan Alter.
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