President Biden denounced “extreme MAGA ideology” in a Thursday evening speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the precepts of the American project were forged by the Founding Fathers nearly three centuries ago.
Thursday evening saw the culmination of that shift. Biden did take pains to acknowledge that “not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology,” a presumably reference to relative moderates like Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. But he also made clear that these mainstream Republicans had been overtaken by the energized pro-Trump wing of the party, represented by the likes of Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
“Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal,” Biden said. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”
For much of this first year in office, Biden preferred to simply refer to Trump as “the former guy.” But by 2022, his attitude started to change, in seeming recognition that no change was coming to a Republican Party still controlled by Trump and those still loyal to him. In late spring, Biden came to adapt the phrase “MAGA Republicans” — the acronym is for “Make America Great Again,” the charged slogan of Trump’s 2016 campaign — as his shorthand for what he and other Democrats saw as an increasingly radicalized Republican base that had embraced fringe positions on a number of issues, ranging from voting to vaccination.
“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,” Biden said, in reference to the unwillingness of Trump and many of his supporters to concede that the 2020 presidential contest was fairly decided. “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.”
The president also used the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to argue that a conservative movement emboldened by a Supreme Court it now effectively controls was planning to strip Americans of the rights they now take for granted.
“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 fan the flames of political violence,” Biden said.
There were no new proposals in the speech. Instead, the goal was to draw a Manichean contrast with Republicans who embrace what he described as “wild conspiracy theories” about election integrity. And he repeatedly denounced political violence, which he argued Trump and his supporters have continued to encourage, even as the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol remains fresh in the nation’s collective memory.
Last week, Gov. DeSantis appeared to call for physical assault against Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s top pandemic adviser, while Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina predicted riots if Trump faced federal charges over the handling of sensitive documents recovered by federal law enforcements from the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort last month. Shortly after the Mar-a-Lago operation, a Trump supporter was shot and killed after he fired a nail gun at an FBI building in Cincinnati and engaged in a firefight with agents.
“They embrace anger. They thrive in chaos. They live not in the light of truth, but in the shadow of lies,” Biden said of Trump’s most ardent supporters. Speaking in impassioned tones, he avoided the kind of stumbles that have marked other occasions and have given his critics on social media fodder. This time, White House press staffers were not dispatched, as they often have been, to issue clarifications or explanations.
At one point, he acknowledged hecklers whose taunts could be heard throughout the speech. “Good manners is nothing they’ve ever suffered from,” Biden said as he turned in their direction.
A more substantive challenge to Biden’s sharpening attacks came from Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House. Speaking before the president’s own address, McCarthy complained that Biden had forsaken earlier promises at a bipartisan approach. “President Biden has chosen to divide, demean and disparage his fellow Americans,” McCarthy said.
Democrats have argued that it was Republicans who rejected their entreaties by continuing to embrace Trump and his approach. “History tells us the blind loyalty to a single leader and a willingness to engage in political violence is fatal to democracy,” Biden said.
And while the location of the speech was historically significant, there were more immediate considerations at work too. Biden had visited Pennsylvania earlier this week and will return on Monday for a Labor Day parade in Pittsburgh. Democrats are fiercely fighting for a Senate seat from the state, as well as to retain the governor’s mansion. Biden has made clear that he intends to campaign aggressively for Democrats in the coming months, as their hopes of retaining at least the Senate, if not the House, appear to be increasing. Crucial to that strategy, Biden’s speech made clear, is casting the midterms as a referendum on Trumpism and Trump.
“America must choose to move forward or to move backwards. 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,” he said, outlining the choice as one not of policy differences but of differences over the future of an American democracy now as imperiled as it has ever been.