Abraham Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address was a 3,600-word olive branch to a South on the eve of the Civil War. His second promised malice toward none after the war left 620,000 dead. Americans have long revered both speeches because they offered a measure of redemption, and a means of reconciliation, to those who deserved it least.
Joe Biden’s speech in Philadelphia last week bears no resemblance to either address, except that, in his own inaugural, he staked his presidency on ending “this uncivil war that pits red against blue.” So much for that. Like the predecessor he denounces, Biden has decided the best way to seek partisan advantage is to treat tens of millions of Americans as the enemy within.
How can an American president go wrong in identifying threats to democracy? Biden offered a master class.
Start with the “MAGA Republicans,” who, Biden said, “represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic.”
Who are they? The president allowed that they are “not even the majority of Republicans.” Then, in describing their goals, he cast a net so wide it included everyone from those who cheered the attack on the Capitol and the efforts to overturn the 2020 election, to those who oppose abortion rights and gay marriage.
As categories go, this one is capacious.
It includes violent Oath Keepers and Proud Boys — as well as every faithful Catholic or evangelical Christian whose deeply held moral convictions bring them to oppose legalized abortion.
It takes in the antisemites who marched at Charlottesville — as well as socially conservative Americans with traditional beliefs about marriage, which would have included Barack Obama during his 2008 run for president.
It encompasses undoubted election deniers like lawyers Sidney Powell and John Eastman — along with ordinary Americans who have been bamboozled into harboring misguided but sincere doubts about the integrity of the last election.
In other words, Biden claimed to distinguish MAGA Republicans from mainstream ones and then proceeded to conflate them. That may resonate with partisan Democrats who have never seen a conservative they didn’t consider a bigot or a fool. But it gives the lie to the idea that dismantling MAGA Republicanism is the prime objective of the president or his party.
Then there were the transparently partisan purposes of Biden’s speech.
For this election cycle, pro-Democratic groups have spent north of $40 million in ad buys to help nominate the Trumpiest candidates in Republican primaries, on the theory that they will be easier to beat in November. That included a successful effort to defeat Michigan Representative Peter Meijer — one of just 10 House Republicans who voted for Donald Trump’s impeachment last year — in last month’s G.O.P. primary.
Is that smart as hardball politics? Maybe. But Biden could have spared us the pieties about timeless American values. As far as I can tell, he has yet to say a word in public against the ad buys, much less tried to stop them. Instead, his speech makes a neat bookend to a strategy of promoting MAGA extremists so they can be denounced as MAGA extremists. Some liberals took a similar approach in 2016, all but rooting for Trump to win the nomination on the theory that he’d be Hillary Clinton’s weakest opponent. Look how that worked out.
And then there was the crassest part of Biden’s speech, in which an ostensible presidential address became a campaign rally for Democratic priorities such as prescription-drug benefits and the “clean energy future.” When a president makes the implicit claim that to be a small-d democrat one must today be a big-D Democrat he advances the interests of neither his party nor the country. He only gratuitously insults millions of voters as deplorables while again branding Democrats as the party of sanctimony and condescension.
I write this as someone who has long thought that Trump represents a unique threat to democracy.
He is the only president in American history who has refused to concede an election, who has schemed with conspiracy theorists to remain in power, who has sought to bully state officials into finding him votes, who has egged on a mob, who has cheered an assault on Congress, who has put the life of his vice president in jeopardy, who has flouted the demands of the Justice Department to return classified documents, who has violated every norm of American politics and every form of democratic decency. He is the tribune of the “mobocratic spirit” that Lincoln warned against in his first major address, and to which he devoted his life to stopping.
The gravest threat American democracy faces today isn’t the Republican Party, MAGA or otherwise. It’s Trump. He’s one man, sinister but also buffoonish. To defeat him, the core task is to make him seem small, very small. Biden’s misbegotten speech did precisely the opposite.
The next time Biden talks about democracy, he should remember Lincoln’s other injunction: charity for all.
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