Joe Biden may be too damn nice for his own good — and for the nation's. Biden's kindness and generosity of spirit, not to mention his patience, reasonableness and belief in the better angels of America's nature may lead to the downfall of democracy.
Last Thursday in Philadelphia, Biden delivered a careful, statesmanlike and truly historic speech warning the American people that the Republican Party and the "conservative" movement have been taken over by Donald Trump and his MAGA-fascist followers. For an American president to issue such a warning is virtually without precedent: Matters are that dire.
Speaking in front of Independence Hall, Biden spoke of the "flame of liberty that was lit here.... A flame that lit our way through abolition, the Civil War, suffrage, the Great Depression, world wars, civil rights." After insisting that the "sacred flame still burns," Biden shifted his tone dramatically:
Too much of what's happening in our country today is not normal. 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. They refuse to accept the results of a free election, and they're working right now as I speak in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself. MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards, backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love. They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fanned the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country.
America, Biden said, was "at an inflection point" and must choose "to build a future or obsess about the past, to be a nation of hope and unity and optimism or a nation of fear, division and of darkness." It was impossible, he said, to be "pro-insurrectionist and pro-American," calling for the rejection of "political violence" and a willingness to accept "the results of free and fair elections" rather than seeing politics as "total war."
This was remarkable truth-telling, yet at crucial moments the president was simply too generous toward those who refuse to respect democracy or the rule of law:
Now, I want to be very clear, very clear up front. Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know, because I've been able to work with these mainstream Republicans. But there's no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans. And that is a threat to this country.
That mixed diagnosis is overly hopeful. In fact, today's Republicans are not "semi-fascists," as the president has said, but actual fascists, increasingly allied with a global authoritarian movement.
The examples are numerous: Today's Republican Party is organized around the Great Leader principle and a political personality cult. It has officially embraced Trump's Big Lie and a range of related conspiracy theories and assaults on truth. It endorses or condones political violence, including terrorism and an attempted coup. It blends fake populism and extreme nationalism and white supremacy. It rejects the core democratic principles of freedom of the press and free speech. It is deeply hostile to nonwhites, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ people, feminists, progressives of all kinds and other groups deemed to be "un-American".
It is engaged in what it understands as an existential revolutionary struggle to destroy multiracial pluralistic democracy and return the country to a fictional golden age when "people like them" ruled uncontested over virtually all aspects of American society. Toward that end, it rejects the rule of law, truth, reason and human decency, and is clearly willing to use corrupt and unrestrained power to achieve its goals.
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Joe Biden did not speak those truths without qualifications or exceptions. Instead, he tried to create a political off-ramp, offering the Republican-fascists the hand of unity and the promise of shared "American values." Anne Applebaum of the Atlantic explores the advantages and pitfalls of this approach, observing that "in a culture as noisy as ours ... [m]oderate language gets drowned out." Biden, she writes, took "the risky and genuinely brave decision to use emotional language in defense of our rules-based political system":
The speech he gave [in Philadelphia] was indeed lit and orchestrated to evoke drama. It was also meant to evoke strong feelings of patriotism, unity and connection. Biden referenced American history — "We, the people, have burning inside of each of us the flame of liberty that was lit here at Independence Hall" — as well as American pride. He contrasted Trump's dark, apocalyptic worldview with his own: "I see a different America, an America with an unlimited future, an America that's about to take off." ...
The language of his speech presumed that, in making an emotional appeal in favor of liberal democracy, he was still speaking to a decisive majority of the country. That's why he kept using the expression we the people, a phrase that of course references the Constitution, but also expresses a sense of unity — a unity that should, in principle, still include people with a huge range of political tastes and views. "We the people," he said, "accept the results of free and fair elections." We, the people "see politics, not as total war, but mediation of our differences." And once again: "We the people," Biden said "have burning inside of each of us the flame of liberty that was lit here at Independence Hall."
That sentence assumes that the 17th-century ideas that were debated in Philadelphia in the 18th-century still mean something to the citizens who live by them today. Biden clearly believes they do. The future of liberal democracy in America depends on whether or not he is right.
There is great potential danger in Biden's approach: The Republican-fascists only seek to destroy him, along with the Democratic Party and the progress won by the New Deal, the Great Society and the civil and human rights struggles of the 1960s and beyond.
These threats are not hyperbolic or metaphorical; they are literal. Like other fascist movements, the MAGA Republicans do not want "compromise" or "bridge building" with their political opponents. They understand politics as a zero-sum contest where the only thing that counts is total victory, to be won by any means and at any cost.
Biden is extending the hand of friendship to sworn enemies who have not earned it and actually despise him and the Democratic Party. There can be no negotiation or compromise with fascism or with those tainted by it. Those people must be totally defeated and driven out of politics, government and public life.
As "Never Trumper" and former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt recently wrote on Twitter, the MAGA movement "must be crushed to save America." He continued:
Trump's rhetoric is becoming more overtly extreme and is filled with promises of violence and revenge. He means every word. ... The American people must end this madness. The American people must rise up against the coward politicians who have gone off the rails and vandalized the American Republic to sate Trump and protect themselves from his ire. The fall campaign is underway and the choice is here.
Biden's impulses toward generosity and healing are admirable human qualities, but at this moment he should deploy realpolitik strategies and a far more forceful approach. If Republicans regain control of Congress after the midterms, they have promised to impeach President Biden for imaginary offenses, and will do everything possible to reverse the legislative gains of his administration.
In response to Biden's speech in Philadelphia, too many in the American mainstream news media have continued with their routine of normalizing the Republican fascists and their allies. Instead of engaging in unapologetic pro-democracy journalism and advocacy, the usual suspects have defaulted to obsolete conceptions of "balance" and "fairness," depicting Biden's careful and generous truth-telling as overly "partisan" or "divisive."
In the worst examples, the media creates space for Republican propagandists to spread their lies and moral inversions, arguing that a critique of fascism is actually the "real" fascism. Joseph Goebbels would be proud; he understood the importance of accusing your opponents of the crimes you have yourself committed.
From this point forward, Biden should drop any qualifiers and speak the bold and direct truth: Today's Republican Party is infested from top to bottom with fascists and other anti-democratic ideologues and followers. It must be torn down to the ground and fumigated; it is beyond salvation or repair.
If there are still "traditional" or "mainstream" Republicans and "conservatives" who want to defeat Trumpism and other forms of neofascism, they have a clear choice to make. They can denounce and reject Donald Trump, the MAGA movement, the Big Lie, the Jan. 6 coup and any candidates or office-holders who support those things. Very few will do that. If they have ridden this far with Trump and the MAGA movement, they either actively or passively support the fascism, authoritarianism, white supremacy and other anti-human and antisocial values at the core of today's "conservative" movement. Like other forms of fascism, the MAGAverse has a malignant and deep hold on its followers and acolytes.
At this crucial moment, Democrats cannot let themselves be held hostage to fantasies about "suburban independents" and the "white working class." Playing defense simply won't work.
Detractors will assert that such a confrontational strategy will somehow push "reasonable Republicans" and those much-obsessed-about "white working class" and "suburban independent" voters further into the arms of fascism. At this moment, Biden and the Democrats cannot allow themselves to be held hostage to such concerns. Playing defense in the war to protect democracy simply will not work. That strategy has already surrendered too much territory and time to the Republicans over the last few decades. Indeed the country's democracy crisis and the ascendant fascist movement have been decisively enabled by the Democratic Party's political weakness and a political consultant class eternally commitment to "normalcy," "bipartisanship" and "compromise."
Now is the time for the Democrats to launch a robust counterattack against the Republican fascists and their forces, and to press whatever advantage they have before that window of opportunity slams shut.
As AP White House correspondent Seung Min Kim recently observed, Biden's increasingly forceful rhetoric "has emboldened Democrats across the country, rallying the party faithful ahead of the November elections":
Biden's increasingly stark warnings about Trump-fueled elements of the Republican Party are making up the core part of his midterm message.... But it's the blistering statements from Biden about his predecessor and adherents of the "Make America Great Again" philosophy that have given many Democrats a bolt of fresh energy as they campaign to keep control of Congress.
"It's a particularly strong issue for our base," said Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, who leads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the official campaign arm of Senate Democrats. "Folks want us, want people to show that there is a clear contrast in the election between where Democrats are and Republicans have been."...
Biden's forceful campaign-year posture comes as Democrats are feeling more optimistic about the midterms, when the party controlling the White House has historically faced losses in Congress. A combination of legislative accomplishments, polarizing Republican candidates and voter fury stoked by the overturning of Roe vs. Wade have Democrats feeling they could see smaller losses in the House than initially anticipated, while retaining their barebones majority in the Senate.
Yes, it is certainly refreshing and good that Biden is acting as a president who wants to act in the best interests of the nation and the American people. That offers a much-needed contrast with his predecessor, whose decision-making was based on narrow personal and partisan interests that in practice meant treating all those outside the MAGAverse as enemies to be punished and suppressed.
But in trying to save American democracy, President Biden must accept the harsh reality that tens of millions of Americans are now enemies of democracy, if not outright fascists. Many are also de facto white supremacists who view multiracial democracy as something dangerous that must be destroyed. Trump and the larger fascist movement empowered those Americans to be their worst possible selves and not their best. Those people were not cajoled or tricked or coerced into supporting Trump's movement. It was an active choice, often a passionate and enthusiastic one. MAGA followers have agency; they have not been brainwashed.
If Biden truly believes what he said in Philadelphia, he must face these truths and speak them forcefully and often. Biden must also use said truths to rally supporters of democracy to defeat Trump and the MAGA Republican movement. Anything less amounts to surrender, and will reduce the president's historic speech to empty words, spoken on the road to defeat and a new American fascist nightmare.