Biden gave a rousing speech — but is he the wrong president at the wrong time?

Joe Biden brought fire and gravity, for the first time in his presidency. Is he really ready to fight fascism?

By Chauncey DeVega
Published July 15, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)
U.S. President Joe Biden arrives to speak about voting rights at the National Constitution Center on July 13, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Biden and Congressional Democrats are set to make another push for sweeping voting rights legislation as Republican state legislatures across the country continue to pass controversial voting access laws. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden arrives to speak about voting rights at the National Constitution Center on July 13, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Biden and Congressional Democrats are set to make another push for sweeping voting rights legislation as Republican state legislatures across the country continue to pass controversial voting access laws. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, President Biden delivered a rousing speech in Philadelphia, continuing to sound the alarm about the Republican Party's escalating assaults on American democracy.

This is the same city where, during the Fourth of July holiday weekend, an organized group of white supremacist thugs marched in the street before being routed by counter-protesters and bystanders.

In his speech, Biden told personal stories of how democracy is lived through and by real people, and spoke of the long struggle for justice along the color line and America's ugly history of white supremacy:

From denying enslaved people full citizenship until the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments after the Civil War; to denying women the right to vote until the 19th Amendment 100 years ago; to poll taxes and literacy tests, and the Ku Klux Klan campaigns of violence and terror that lasted into the '50s and '60s; to the Supreme Court decision in 2013 and then again just two weeks ago –- a decision that weakened the landmark Voting Rights Act; to the willful attacks -- election attacks in 2020; and then to a whole other level of threat -- the violence and the deadly insurrection on the Capitol on January 6th….

The 21st century Jim Crow assault is real. It's unrelenting, and we're going to challenge it vigorously.

To his credit, Biden expertly summarized and detailed how Republicans and their agents are systematically trying to subvert trust in the country's democratic institutions and "free and fair elections." He directly addressed "those who challenge the results and question the integrity of the election," saying, "No other election has ever been held under such scrutiny and such high standards." He continued:

This should be celebrated — the example of America at its best. But instead, we continue to see an example of human nature at its worst — something darker and more sinister.

In America, if you lose, you accept the results. You follow the Constitution. You try again. You don't call facts "fake" and then try to bring down the American experiment just because you're unhappy. That's not statesmanship.

That's not statesmanship; that's selfishness. That's not democracy; it's the denial of the right to vote. It suppresses. It subjugates.

The denial of full and free and fair elections is the most un-American thing that any of us can imagine, the most undemocratic, the most unpatriotic, and yet, sadly, not unprecedented.

As others have observed, Biden's speech in Philadelphia could have been given by Lyndon Johnson during the 1960s, in the most crucial years of the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, Biden's speech lacks what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders in that movement described as "the urgency of now." Biden and other Democratic leaders have spoken eloquently of an existential crisis in American democracy. But they have not offered a vision and a plan sufficient to face that crisis.

During his Philadelphia speech Biden continued to lean into "bipartisanship," as though the Jim Crow Republican Party were capable of being a responsible partner in democracy and government:

This isn't about Democrats and Republicans; it's literally about who we are as Americans. It's that basic. It's about the kind of country we want today, the kind of country we want for our children and grandchildren tomorrow. And quite frankly, the whole world is watching.

Biden also said during his speech: "We will be asking my Republican friends — in Congress, in states, in cities, in counties — to stand up, for God's sake, and help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our elections and the sacred right to vote."

In the spirit of healing and in his desire to serve as father figure to a broken country, Biden continues to believe (at least in his public rhetoric) that the Republican Party is capable of shame. Some of his language, however, suggests that he knows better: 

It gives me no pleasure to say this. I never thought in my entire career I'd ever have to say it. But I swore an oath to you, to God — to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. And that's an oath that forms a sacred trust to defend America against all threats both foreign and domestic. 

The assault on free and fair elections is just such a threat, literally. I've said it before: We are facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War. That's not hyperbole. Since the Civil War. The Confederates back then never breached the Capitol as insurrectionists did on January the 6th.

I'm not saying this to alarm you; I'm saying this because you should be alarmed.

But Biden avoided directly or explicitly identifying the Republican Party as an enemy of democracy, and at no point during his speech did he say the word "filibuster." To this point, he has refused to use the presidency as a bully pulpit to demand that the Senate filibuster — an archaic procedural maneuver not mentioned in the Constitution, with direct origins in white supremacy and slavery — be abandoned in order to save democracy from the Jim Crow Republicans.

Perhaps Biden and the Democrats do not fully understand what they are up against. Today's Republican Party endorses right-wing political violence and other illegal or extralegal means of getting and keeping political power. Donald Trump's coup attempt and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol were a proof of concept and a test run of sorts, pointing toward future political violence whenever Republicans lose national elections.

Today's Republican Party is anti-democratic and neofascist. Elections, for them, are simply a tool — as they were for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis — for infiltrating the government, paralyzing and delegitimizing it and then usurping power, on the basis that democracy "does not work." This strategy has frequently been employed by extremist organizations in failing democracies.

Today's Republican Party has become a political cult controlled by Donald Trump. He commands the will of most Republican voters and many right-leaning Independents. "Traditional" Republicans are being purged as disloyal to Trump and his neofascist movement.

Furthermore, today's Republican Party is a white supremacist organization dedicated to maintaining white power and control over every area of American life. Its voters and leaders are committed to the cause of white racial authoritarianism. They perceive multiracial democracy as dangerous and unacceptable

Today's Republican Party, along with the other elements of the Trump movement, believe they face an existential struggle against Democrats, "socialists," Black and brown people and others they view as enemies of "traditional" America. They believe victory must be achieved at all costs and by any means necessary.

A modern healthy democracy is prefaced on reason, respect for expertise and scientific knowledge, a spirit of political consensus, and compromise in service to the common good and general welfare. It relies on a shared sense of reality. It is pluralistic and respects a widening range of human and civil rights.

As the Republican Party descends into sociopathy, it has largely rejected these norms, values, behavior and institutions.

Joe Biden's temperament, leadership style, humanity, generosity of spirit and belief in inherent human goodness are in many ways inspiring. Those traits may also be insufficient to defeat this version of the Republican Party and American neofascism. I sincerely believe that Biden possesses the potential to be a great president, but he may not be the best president for a country facing an almost unprecedented crisis of democracy, as America is now.

So the question becomes, what is to be done? If Biden and other Democratic leaders cannot act with the "urgency of now" — as Democratic state legislators in Texas have done — then the responsibility will fall on the shoulders of the American people. Yes, "leaders must lead." But there are moments in history when mass mobilization, such as general strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and other forms of direct action, are needed to force the country's leaders to do what is necessary.

In a new column at USA Today, former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile offers this call to action:

Following the example of Dr. King, everyone who believes in voting rights needs to mobilize for nonviolent marches and demonstrations around the country to make it clear that Republican voter suppression, which President Biden has correctly likened to racist Jim Crow laws, is intolerable. We need to contact our own members of Congress to make clear that voting rights must be protected. …

In reality, it will be impossible to get 10 Republican senators to support the two voting rights bills. Their only hope is if Democrats can convince [Joe] Manchin and [Kyrsten] Sinema to create a "carve-out" to allow voting rights bills to pass with a simple majority in the Senate. President Biden should join with fellow Democrats to urge Manchin and Sinema to agree to this needed exemption in order to prevent Republicans from rigging future elections in their favor.

If the Democratic Party does not lead, patriotic Americans must force its hand. The U.S. Constitution begins with "We the People." To save American democracy from the rising tide of fascism, those sacred words must be turned into collective action.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Democracy Democrats Fascism Joe Biden Republicans Voter Suppression Voting Rights