The themes and rhetoric of President Biden’s Inaugural Address — in a departure from his predecessor’s odd decision to channel comic-book villain dialogue but a continuation of the choices used by normal presidents — were a dollop of vanilla ice cream. Biden praised the American spirit, called for unity, reminded his audience of our common history of overcoming challenges, promised to represent all Americans, and so on.
Whether or not one found this inspiring is a matter of personal taste. What’s interesting is that certain quarters of the right found the speech actually objectionable. The portion of the speech that rankled was Biden’s renunciation of racism and violent white-supremacist terrorism.
“If you read his speech and listen to it carefully, much of it is thinly veiled innuendo calling us white supremacists, calling us racists,” protested Rand Paul on Fox News. “It’s an odd way to seek national unity: Call a significant portion of the American public white supremacists, racists, and nativists,” complained Manhattan Institute scholar Heather MacDonald. Tucker Carlson devoted an entire segment to angrily denouncing Biden for opposing white supremacy, which he interpreted, not unreasonably, as a veiled criticism of himself and his most fervent supporters.
None of these right-wingers self-identify as racist or white supremacist. And at no point did Biden say, or even imply, that all — or even most — Trump supporters are racist. Why, then, do they object to a fairly rote denunciation of ideas they claim to abhor themselves?
To understand why it rankled them, you should start with Biden’s reasons for including an attack on white supremacy in the first place. From Biden’s standpoint, he needed to do this in order to contextualize his call for “unity.” Historically, unity has been used as a device to encourage white Americans to come together while ignoring racism. The basis for the post-Reconstruction healing of the regional and partisan split was that white northern Republicans withdrew their protection for freed slaves and allowed white Southerners to violently repress and disenfranchise black people. That sub rosa agreement became the foundation for the century-long period of depolarized politics that ran from the end of Reconstruction through the civil-rights era, which triggered its demise.
Black Americans have particular cause for suspicion of “unity” as a transcendent value. (Biden himself has inadvertently articulated their reasons for questioning the old, bipartisan era when he touted his history of making deals with segregationists.) Biden’s explicit renunciation of racism and white-supremacist terror was a way of clarifying that his idea of unity would exclude, rather than include, racism.
Then, of course, there was the recent insurrection by a mob that, if not white supremacist in toto, was led by a militant white-supremacist vanguard. Biden is attempting to define a (small-d) democratic order that excludes a violent authoritarian faction that refuses to accept political equality for fellow citizens.
And that is what makes Biden’s statement an implicit rebuke to Trump and his fans. One of the most significant realignments of the Trump era was an extension of the Republican coalition to the more distant edges of the far right. As early as 2015, observers like Evan Osnos recognized that Trump had activated Nazis and Nazi-like white supremacists. (Ron Paul, Rand’s father and formative influence, was a precursor in bringing these fringe groups into his coalition.) Trump’s presidency inspired extremists, and brought into existence new ones, like the Proud Boys and QAnon.
Biden is implicitly demanding Republicans renounce those fringe groups. That’s what makes his speech so offensive to Trump enthusiasts. Carlson, indeed, all but admits that his refusal to denounce right-wing extremists is the hangup. In his segment on Biden’s speech, he said:
Other channels fill their air with attacks on the Proud Boys, whoever they are, or QAnon enthusiasts or gun owners in central Pennsylvania who fix air conditioning for a living and tend to vote the wrong way. They go after those people, and you can see why…. Attacking those people isn’t hard. None of them have real power.
Whether or not they have “real power,” they did overpower the security at the U.S. Capitol, occupy the Congress, get a lot of people injured or killed, and scare the entire country. If they were totally powerless, Trump and Carlson would be happy to renounce the far right. They won’t, because they value its small but energetic contribution to their audience and movement.
Carlson, MacDonald and Paul heard Biden denounce white supremacy, and decided he was talking about them. That’s a choice they made, and it says more about them than it does about Biden.