For much of the past year and a half, the folksy, feisty Joe Biden from the campaign trail seemed to have been replaced by a wooden stage prop. For months, as his popularity plummeted, nothing seemed to go right for the now-president. The man who told Trump to shut up during a live debate, who cried with affecting sincerity when he talked about his son Beau, looked worn, strained. When he spoke, it was the gaffes rather than the substance that made the headlines.
On Thursday night, candidate Biden was back, speaking from the heart in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. He spoke of America’s “soul,” and used the opportunity to lacerate the MAGA wing of the Republican Party for pursuing a fundamentally antidemocratic, violent, conspiracist politics. He took it to task for exhibiting “blind loyalty” to Trump and to Trumpism, despite the manifest dangers they pose to the democratic guardrails of the Republic, and “despite history teaching us that blind loyalty to a single leader and a willingness to engage in political violence is fatal to democracy.”
For the first several minutes, Biden put forth a full-throated defense of political pluralism in a moment when a significant part of the Republican Party has decided that, as the 46th president put it, “there are only two outcomes to an election: either they win or they were cheated.” Early in his presidency, Biden made a policy decision to avoid mentioning Trump by name whenever possible. But in Philadelphia, he took the gloves off. The speech was a stinging rebuke of Trump’s willingness to open a Pandora’s box in order to bolster his political position with his base, and an indictment of his efforts to convince his followers that America today was a place of “carnage and darkness and despair.”
There are certain advantages to having the presidential podium. If you feel, as Biden clearly does, that the country risks sliding into a “semi-fascist” period of strongman rule, addressing the nation directly about these dangers is time well spent. A few days ago, Biden contemplated the implications of a moment in which an ex-president was inciting his followers to attack the FBI and Justice Department, and in which senators and representatives were going on TV and radio and predicting mob violence if Trump is indicted. So he asked the networks for a prime-time slot this Thursday to deliver a searing broadside about the dangers to democracy posed by Trump and his MAGA movement. The networks obliged.
Savvy politician that he is, the president used half of his 24-minute speech to speak of the fissures threatening America’s long experiment in democracy—which he perhaps painted in somewhat rosy hues—and to plead with moderate Republicans to reject the MAGA movement before it destroyed the polity. And then he made a strategic pivot: Somewhat incongruously, Biden spent the second half of his speech detailing his policy accomplishments and running something of a victory lap after the passage of several of his key legislative priorities over the summer. That part of the speech was boilerplate stuff. He touted his investments to fight climate change, boasted of having signed major health care reforms, detailed the huge infrastructure investments passed under his watch, and so on. In other words, he used the moment to craft a pretty damn effective TV commercial for Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections.
I don’t like campaign ads, and I probably wouldn’t have watched the speech if it had solely been an exercise in horn-tooting. But it had been promoted as a shot-across-the-bow to the antidemocratic forces infiltrating American politics, and on balance, it didn’t disappoint. His responses to the growing storm clouds threatening to swamp the political process was, at times, riveting.
“Too much of what is happening in our country today is not normal,” Biden argued. “Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic.”
By all accounts, the president—who recently convened a private conversation at the White House with leading historians and political analysts to discuss the risks now facing the US constitutional system—has been thinking about the growing dangers to American democracy for months now. He is, apparently, increasingly angered and bewildered by erstwhile friends such as Lindsay Graham making one excuse after another for Trump and his mob. With elections on the horizon, he is troubled by the prospect of wholesale political violence breaking out, with Republicans flirting with “mass violence and rioting in the streets.” He called on the American citizenry to stand firm: “It’s inflammatory, dangerous, against the rule of law, and We the People must say we won’t accept it.”
Before the speech, GOP House minority leader Kevin McCarthy held a press conference and demanded, somewhat desperately, that the president apologize for calling the MAGA movement “semi-fascist,” as he had done a few days earlier during private comments about his upcoming Philadelphia event. It was, McCarthy insisted, a grievous insult to the tens of millions of Americans who voted Republican.
But Biden had McCarthy over a barrel. He stressed repeatedly that he wasn’t impugning all Republicans, just those who continue to bend their will to election deniers, conspiracists, demagogues, and the like. McCarthy, in his quest for power, has opportunistically embraced all of these—despite having initially opposed Trump and, for one brief moment after January 6, having developed enough spine to call out Trump for his insurrectionary actions. Biden must have taken considerable pleasure in knowing that he was hitting the Republican House leaders close to the bone. “There’s no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by the MAGA Republicans,” Biden argued, speaking slowly for emphasis. “And that’s a threat to the country. MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution, do not believe in the rule of law, do not respect the will of the people.”
For a politician who came into office saying that he wanted to turn a page on the past, that he wanted to forge consensus and work in a bipartisan manner with the GOP, no matter how extreme that party had become, this is a seismic shift. It’s late in the day, but at long last Biden is confronting head-on Trump and Trumpism’s unprecedented authoritarian threat to American democracy. It’s a theme that, with the midterm elections fast approaching, the Democrats, from Biden on down, should hammer home as frequently as possible over the coming months.