The Washington Post
To sound the alarm on democracy, Biden chose the perfect stage
President Biden’s bold rhetoric and stagecraft in his speech Thursday night were, if anything, understated. We are in a fight to save our democratic system, and it would have been wrong to pretend the battle is not both political and partisan.
“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” Biden told the nation. There, he said it. He named names. One of our two major parties, in thrall to a would-be autocrat, is no longer committed to the American experiment — and thus can no longer be trusted with power.
The ominous red lighting that framed the president and the choice of Independence Hall as his setting conveyed danger, urgency and the sense that we are, as Biden said, “at an inflection point.” Looking toward the November elections, he exhorted Americans to “vote, vote, vote.” And he left no doubt as to whom they should vote against.
While he went through the motions of drawing a line between “MAGA Republicans” and “mainstream Republicans,” he acknowledged that, at least for now, this is a distinction without a difference. “There is no question,” Biden said, “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.”
For Biden, a staunch believer in bipartisanship and compromise, this was a huge conceptual leap. The party of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan has devolved into a menace to American democracy. Imagine what any of those men would think of today’s GOP. And weep.
Trump is the unchallenged Dear Leader of the MAGA cult. But he isn’t forcing GOP officials and candidates to deny the results of the free and fair 2020 election. He isn’t forcing Republicans “in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself,” as Biden said.
Trump may condone political violence — indeed, in a radio interview earlier Thursday, he said that if he is elected again in 2024, he will “look very, very favorably” at pardons for the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrectionists. But he didn’t force the Republican National Committee to whitewash that bloody attack on the citadel of our democracy as “legitimate political discourse.” He didn’t force Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to declare there will be “riots in the streets” if Trump is criminally charged for hoarding top-secret documents at his Florida estate, Mar-a-lago.
Trump isn’t forcing Gop-controlled statehouses to impose draconian abortion bans or ensure that gun laws are tragically weak or pass legislation designed to make it harder for Democrats to vote. Nor is he forcing school districts to censor books in school libraries. The MAGA movement was there all along, waiting for a leader. And after Trump eventually leaves the scene, his MAGA followers will still be around.
Biden was right: This is an emergency. And he was right to implore the rest of us — Democrats, independents and “mainstream Republicans” — to turn back the MAGA assault on democracy with our votes.
Was it appropriate to use a prime-time address — the venue for presidents to speak to the nation about important affairs of state — to deliver a political message? Yes, because the attack on our democratic norms, as with any attack on our country from actors outside it or within it, is a fundamental threat to the nation. And because that threat, like it or not, can only realistically be seen as partisan in nature.
Was it proper to use Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, as his backdrop? Absolutely. The arc of our nation’s history has entailed hard-won progress in making the documents composed in that building apply to those initially excluded: African Americans, Native Americans, women, other marginalized groups. Independence Hall represents our noblest aspirations. And “MAGA forces,” Biden said, “are determined to take this country backwards.”
Was Biden justified in having two uniformed Marines in the background as he spoke? That is wartime imagery, usually reserved for matters of national security. If you agree with Biden that this is “a battle for the soul of this nation” pitting democracy against autocracy — and I do — then I cannot think of a graver threat to our security and our future.
Imagine a nation in which the MAGA cult prevails. Imagine a 2024 presidential election in which multiple state legislatures disregard the will of their voters. Imagine a Maga-dominated Congress that aids and abets the ascension of Trump or some puffed-up Trump wannabe to the White House.
It was Biden’s duty to sound the alarm. We had all better pay attention.