Joe Biden goes for the jugular: Attacking MAGA insanity could be the winning message for 2024

Joe Biden gave a speech last week that went largely unnoticed in the press, and it’s really too bad. It may have been the best speech he’s ever given, and if people actually saw or heard it, it might set their minds at ease a little about his prospects in the next election. He’s never been much of a speaker, but when he talks about the threat to democracy he’s been excellent. This is his fourth such speech, reflecting a sincere effort on his part to which we should all pay attention. After all, while we’re all painfully aware of the right’s anti-democratic turn, he is the actual president. It stands to reason he sees this from a different perspective. The fact that he’s so determined to sound the alarm should get much more attention than it does.

On the heels of a bizarre impeachment inquiry hearing last week in which Republican House members threw out outrageous smears against Biden without a shred of evidence and a GOP primary debate that had the candidates yelling at each other like drunken football fans, Biden traveled to Arizona to open the John McCain Institute and Library. He spoke at length about his long friendship with the former senator, reminding people of a time when the divisions between the two parties were not as uniformly bitter and hostile as they are now.

But he didn’t linger too long on that. He used the legacy of McCain, the never-Trump patriot, to pivot to the MAGA movement’s assault on democracy. He said that for the late senator “it was country first,” subtly pointing the finger at contemporary Republicans who put Donald Trump before the Constitution. He said:

Let me begin with the core principles. Democracy means rule of the people, not rule of monarchs, not rule of the monied, not rule of the mighty. Regardless of party, that means respecting free and fair elections; accepting the outcome, win or lose. It means you can’t love your country only when you win.

Democracy means rejecting and repudiating political violence. Regardless of party, such violence is never, never, never acceptable in America. It’s undemocratic, and it must never be normalized to advance political power.

He talked about what it’s like to meet with world leaders who ask him, “Is it going to be OK?” and who wonder whether Americans understand just how unstable this big, powerful country appears to the rest of the world. “There is something dangerous happening in America,” he said. “There is an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs of our democracy: the MAGA movement.”

He said that movement was not hiding its attacks but was “openly promoting them — attacking the free press as the enemy of the people, attacking the rule of law as an impediment, fomenting voter suppression and election subversion.” Then he made his point even more clearly:  

They’re pushing a notion the defeated former president expressed when he was in office and believes applies only to him. And this is a dangerous notion: This president is above the law, with no limits on power. Trump says the Constitution gave him, quote, “the right to do whatever he wants as president,” end of quote. I’ve never even heard a president say that in jest. Not guided by the Constitution or by common service and decency toward our fellow Americans, but by vengeance and vindictiveness.

Do most Americans even know that Trump made those claims? I don’t think they do. I have been astonished at the media shrugging it off when he proclaimed on more than one occasion, “I have an Article II [of the Constitution] that says I can do whatever I want.” Any president or presidential candidate saying such a thing should be automatically disqualifying, but somehow it wasn’t.

Biden exhorted Americans to take this threat seriously and recognize that the whole thing falls apart if these people are allowed to seize power. It was a simple and straightforward address without a lot of fancy rhetoric, just a strong, clear denunciation of something dangerous that’s happening in our society and has somehow been accepted by too many as business as usual.

After that speech, Biden sat down with John Harwood of ProPublica for an interview that was largely on the same topic. Take the time to watch it and then ask yourself whether you can possibly believe that this man is somehow incapacitated or has any cognitive disability. 

Then take the time to watch Donald Trump’s interview on “Meet the Press.” It’s quite a comparison.

There’s a lot of angst in the atmosphere about Biden’s chances of re-election. If it seems almost incomprehensible that it could even be close, remember that these are not normal political circumstances and that the GOP has pretty much devolved into a cult rather than a political party. Biden doesn’t quite say that, but the concept comes through loud and clear in his comments. So while many of the usual suspects are demanding that the president talk about “kitchen table issues,” he seems to recognize that something deeper than economic malaise is going on, which is why the remarkable job market and slowing inflation haven’t made people feel any better.

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Biden understands that a majority in this country is simply frightened that America has gone off the rails in some fundamental way, and don’t know how to deal with it, or even how to define it. Many of us share the sense that for all of Donald Trump’s clownishness, something seriously destabilizing is happening. We see him flouting every norm, every rule and every law, while his followers cheer him on. We see it in the right’s nearly unanimous defense of what happened on Jan. 6, 2021. We see it in the insane fetish for guns, the uncontrolled spread of conspiracy theories, the growing authoritarian impulse. We see it in book bans, in the pointless cruelty toward trans kids and in COVID denialism. We see it in the fact that every time “conservatives” get the power to do so, they start taking away constitutional rights.

Biden’s insistence on talking about this, over the objections of many Democratic strategists and pundits, shows confidence in his own judgment — which proved to be right in 2022, when he ignored their pleas to change his closing argument before the midterms from political extremism to the economy. Americans are palpably nervous and agitated, and it’s not about the price of eggs or gasoline. It’s about freedom. Their anxiety is justified, and Joe Biden gets it.

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