The Justification for Biden’s Speech

So much of it was true.

A black-and-white photo of Joe Biden delivering an address
Jim Watson / Getty

President Joe Biden last night used the backdrop of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall to accuse his political opponents of betraying American democracy. The complaints from GOP leaders are loud. How dare Biden use this birthplace of the republic to speak that way about former President Donald Trump and his tens of millions of supporters?

During his presidency, Trump repeatedly used places of national memory for partisan purposes. He gave a slashing partisan interview to Fox News from the Lincoln Memorial. At Mount Rushmore, he denounced “a new far-left fascism” that seeks “to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.” Accepting the 2020 Republican nomination on the grounds of the White House, he predicted that his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, would be “the destroyer of American greatness.”

These deviations from past custom elicited some tut-tutting from a few who cared. But the complaints were ineffectual; Trump did it again and again.

So last night, President Biden followed the old adage: If you can’t beat them, join them. He briefly drew a distinction between those Trump-loyal Republicans and the bulk of the Republican Party. But that was a mere courtesy, because he almost immediately added, “There’s no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans.” Biden presented the 2022 ballot question as a stark choice between right (his party) and wrong (the party that has become Trump’s party).

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “we can’t be pro-insurrectionist and pro-American. They’re incompatible. We can’t allow violence to be normalized in this country. It’s wrong.”

To drive home what the speech was all about, Biden turned at the end from his defense of democracy to a reminder of his party’s record of accomplishments over the past two years: COVID relief, infrastructure spending, action to reduce prescription-drug costs, action to slow climate change. (An interesting indication of what Democrats are learning from their polling was that student-debt relief went unmentioned in Biden’s list.)

The response from Biden’s Republican opponents has been hotter than mere tut-tutting. Biden’s sharp speech has only one justification: So much of it is true.

“There are public figures today, yesterday, and the day before predicting and all but calling for mass violence and rioting in the streets,” Biden said. That’s a reference to the threats from Senator Lindsey Graham and others of “rioting in the streets” if Trump were to face charges for taking classified documents home with him after he left the White House.

“We’ve seen election officials, poll workers, many of them volunteers of both parties, subject to intimidation and death threats,” Biden said. As he could have said but did not, the intimidation and threats have come almost exclusively from Trump supporters in the grip of delusions about the 2020 election spread by the defeated ex-president.

“FBI agents just doing their job as directed, facing threats to their own lives from their own fellow citizens,” Biden said. He could have added that those threats were encouraged when Trump released information about the search at Mar-a-Lago and did not redact the names of the agents whose job it was to execute the search.

“I will not stand by and watch the most fundamental freedom in this country, the freedom to vote and have your vote counted, … be taken from you and the American people,” Biden said. In state after state, Republicans are nominating candidates—and appointing officials—who are committed to exactly that.

“We hear—you’ve heard it—more and more talk about violence as an acceptable political tool in this country,” Biden said. That’s a reference to the fantasies of “Civil War II” being promoted by right-wing chat groups. Those fantasies have led two in five Americans to fear (or hope) that a second civil war could happen in the next 10 years, according to one opinion poll.

Whatever was true four, five, or six years ago, in 2022 Trumpism cannot be regarded as some anomalous strain in U.S. politics. What began as deviation has become mainstream. What once could be minimized as a recessive tendency within the Republican Party has become the dominant one.

Facing that reality is the way to prevent it from doing worse harm. Only recognition of that unwelcome new reality can change behaviors across American politics—not just those of Trump supporters, but also those of Trump opponents.

Biden won a great many votes in 2020 from people who did not especially support the Democratic agenda but hoped that a Biden presidency would restore politics as normal in the United States. They hoped that the defeat of Trump would jolt his party back toward accepting the rules of the democratic game. (I know because I was one of those who hoped so. I did not fully believe so, but I fiercely hoped so.)

Those hopes have been brutally dashed since January 6, 2021. Trumpism is not the repudiated past of the Republican Party. It’s the party’s near-term future. If Republicans gain control of one or both houses of Congress in 2022, and in almost any state where they wield power, Trumpism is the country’s near-term future.

For American women especially, what’s on the ballot in 2022 is a referendum on the policing and controlling of their most intimate rights—in ways that will unite the most retrograde ideas of women’s place in society with the newest technologies of surveillance.

Trump changed the rules of politics. Everybody, on all sides of politics, has no choice but to adapt. You may feel nostalgia for other days, but these are your days.