early and often

A Guide to the Intense Debate Over Biden’s Big Democracy Speech

Biden during his speech. Photo: Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

President Joe Biden delivered a blistering prime-time address on Thursday in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in which he tried to essentially, albeit not literally, issue a national call-to-arms to protect America’s democracy. More specifically, Biden tried to lay out an argument for why “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic.”

They “do not respect the Constitution,” he said. “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.” He added these “MAGA Republicans” see the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 as patriots, and see that failed effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election as a dry run for the 2022 and 2024 elections. “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,” Biden explained. He also framed the upcoming midterm elections, which may end Democrats’ control of Congress, as an opportunity to reject the MAGA ilk — and listed many of his administrations accomplishments as examples of taking the country forward, while emphasizing how “MAGA forces are determined to take the country backwards.”

Needless to say, Biden’s speech came in hot, and so has the continuing response. Below is a guide the reaction in all its forms, from high fives to MAGA-world outrage to moderate what-about-our-norms angst.

Joe Biden is the fascist divider who is out to destroy America!

The reaction from many on the American right, and particularly those now aligned with Donald Trump, was to essentially respond to Biden’s speech by claiming that he, not Trump or them, is the problem. They characterized Biden’s address as a demagogic, divisive, and authoritarian attack on his fellow citizens, suggesting Joe Biden and Democrats, as opposed to Trump and his allies and supporters, were the real American would-be fascists.

“Instead of trying to bring our country together to solve the MANY problems he has created, President Biden has chosen to divide, demean, and disparage his fellow Americans — simply because they disagree with his policies,” was one of the milder responses, from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Former governor-turned-pundit Mike Huckabee called Biden’s address “pure hate speech.”

Across Twitter and other social-media platforms, much of the outrage from GOP lawmakers, candidates, and allies utilized the same photograph of Biden during his speech, giving it the appearance of a coordinated response:

Illustration: Screencaps/Intelligencer/Twitter

The National Review’s Charles W. Cooke also called the speech “a catastrophe — for the rule of law, for President Biden, and for the country itself, which, in almost every respect, deserves a far better political life than the one it’s getting.”

The speech was too partisan! And hypocritical!

The Washington Post editorial board complained that Biden invoked partisanship instead of patriotism:

As much as we agree with the president about the urgency of the issue, is where he fell short, too often sounding more like a Democrat than a democrat. You don’t persuade people by scolding or demeaning them, but that’s how the president’s speech landed for many conservatives of goodwill. Mr. Biden was wrong to conflate upholding the rule of law with his own partisan agenda, which he called “the work of democracy.”

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat agreed, criticizing Biden for linking opponents of his overall policy agenda, including people who are against abortion or cancelling student loan debt, with anti-Democracy forces. He also noted, as the Post’s editorial board did, that the Democratic Party and their allies are currently spending a lot of money to boost the “Trumpiest” candidates in GOP primaries around the country, believing those candidates will be easier to defeat in the midterms:

But in the debate about the risks of Republican extremism, the debate the president just joined, it’s still important to judge the leaders of the Democratic Party by their behavior. You may believe that American democracy is threatened as at no point since the Civil War, dear reader, but they do not. They are running a political operation in which the threat to democracy is leverage, used to keep swing voters onside without having to make difficult concessions to the center or the right.

It’s easy to imagine a Biden speech that offered such concessions without giving an inch in its critique of Donald Trump. The president could have acknowledged, for instance, that his own party has played some role in undermining faith in American elections, that the Republicans challenging the 2020 result were making a more dangerous use of tactics deployed by Democrats in 2004 and 2016.

The speech was just right!

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, who on Friday morning characterized Biden’s speech as “an urgent wartime address,” argued in an op-ed that he thought Biden’s tone, timing, and rhetoric were all warranted and “if anything, understated,” since “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”:

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.

CNN White House correspondent John Harwood, on what controversially turned out to be his last day at the network on Friday, also backed up Biden, noting how Trump has now offered to pardon the January 6 insurrectionists if he is elected president again:

The core point [Biden] made in that political speech about a threat to democracy is true. Now, that’s something that’s not easy for us, as journalists, to say. We’re brought up to believe there’s two different political parties with different points of view and we don’t take sides in honest disagreements between them. But that’s not what we’re talking about. These are not honest disagreements. The Republican Party right now is led by a dishonest demagogue. Many, many Republicans are rallying behind his lies about the 2020 election and other things as well. And a significant portion — or a sufficient portion — of the constituency that they’re leading attacked the Capitol on January 6th. Violently. By offering pardons or suggesting pardons for those people who violently attacked the Capitol, which you’ve been pointing out numerous times this morning, Donald Trump made Joe Biden’s point for him. 

At The Atlantic, David Frum argued that Biden’s address was a justified shift to meeting the danger of resilient Trumpism, noting that Biden can no longer pretend that America will go back to normal, so he “followed the old adage: If you can’t beat them, join them”:

Whatever was true four, five, or six years ago, in 2022 Trumpism cannot be regarded as some anomalous strain in U.S. politics. What began as deviation has become mainstream. What once could be minimized as a recessive tendency within the Republican Party has become the dominant one. Facing that reality is the way to prevent it from doing worse harm. Only recognition of that unwelcome new reality can change behaviors across American politics—not just those of Trump supporters, but also those of Trump opponents. …

Trump changed the rules of politics. Everybody, on all sides of politics, has no choice but to adapt.

The speech was too political!

Speaking with reporters on Thursday morning, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre insisted that Biden’s address would not be a “political speech.” A senior administration official told NBC News, anonymously, that the address was “not a speech about a particular politician or even about a particular political party.”

But as numerous finger-wagging political journalists later pointed out, it was, of course, a political speech. And major broadcast-television networks opted against preempting their prime-time lineups to air the address. Reports the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi:

People involved in negotiations over Thursday’s address said the networks deemed Biden’s remarks as “political” in nature and therefore decided not to televise it. These people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive discussions, cited the speech’s criticism of Trump — who may run in the Republican presidential primaries in 2024 — and its timing two months before the midterm elections.

White House officials, afterward, continued to push back on the idea that Biden’s message was political:

The background lighting was literally evil!

Another theme in commentary about the speech, particularly from MAGA world, was the red background lighting during Biden’s speech, which prompted a lot of colorful commentary and hyperbole, including numerous comparisons of Biden to Hitler and Satan. Fox News host Tucker Carlson referred to it as a “blood-red Nazi background.” Nikki Haley said on Fox News that Biden “looked like he was in the depths of hell,” while Rudy Giuliani tweeted it looked like a “basement in hell.”

Vice News’ David Gilbert reports that the Nazi-memeification of Biden began almost instantly on far-right and pro-Trump message boards, then quickly bled out to the right-wing Establishment:

“Biden eats children’s souls,” wrote one member of the rabidly pro-Trump TheDonald message board, whose members recently threatened FBI agents following the search of Mar-a-Lago. Other message boards lit up on Thursday night with wild conspiracy theories about the imagery of Biden’s speech. Within minutes of the speech airing, forum members were sharing memes featuring altered images showing Biden dressed as Hitler, with Nazi flags superimposed on the background, with Biden wearing demonic masks, or with him speaking at a podium featuring the Soviet hammer and sickle. And, as has become the norm these days, the line between far-right extremist message boards and Republicans on mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook has almost vanished completely.

Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene even tweeted a video of the speech in which Hitler’s face was superimposed over Biden’s.

But CNN took the red out!

Many on the right also accused CNN of deliberately altering the color of the background during their broadcast of Biden’s speech so that it became hot pink instead of fascist red:

A CNN representative told Mediate that the color shift was due to a technical issue with the pool video feed.

Never use colored lighting for nighttime political speeches!

Then again, maybe the lighting choice was all just a big mistake:

Let’s go Dark Brandon!

Some on the left thought Biden’s apparent real-life manifestation of the Dark Brandon meme during the speech was just plain awesome:

Not the Marines!

Another vein of the pushback to the speech was how U.S. Marines in their dress blues were standing in the background behind Biden. To people like Tucker Carlson, the Marines were a symbol of Biden’s authoritarian intent to use to military to crush the MAGA movement. Others just saw them as inappropriate political props:

These sentiments quickly provoked their own pushback, with many people pointing out all the times that Trump and other former presidents used members of the military as a political backdrop.

Duke University professor Peter Feaver, who repeatedly criticized the Trump White House’s use of servicemembers as props, told the Washington Post that “the choice to literally keep the Marines guards in the frame was an unfortunate one” which “may even have the effect of distracting from the message as people debate the optics rather than the substance of the president’s speech.”

In response to the controversy, an unnamed White House official told the Post that “The presence of Marines at the speech was intended to demonstrate the deep and abiding respect the President has for their service to these ideals and the unique role our independent military plays in defending our democracy, no matter which party is in power.”

The speech did too much collateral damage to normal Republicans!

Longtime (anti-Trump) GOP operative Jim Dornan told Politico that the speech felt like a “24-minute bitch slap of Republicans” and though he agreed with the premise of Biden’s remarks, parts also offended him and thus, “He’s not going to gain votes from people like me.”

The Dispatch’s David French meanwhile argued that much of the pushback from the right was hard to take seriously:

The media missed the point!

At The New Republic, Alex Shephard argued that many journalists defaulted to forced balance in their reporting instead of properly acknowledging that the threat Biden was describing was very real:

That Biden’s speech was political served as an excuse for lazy both-sides journalism, as reporters scrambled after the nearest bottle of weak sauce to draw equivalence between Biden’s commentary and a movement that’s currently calling in bomb threats to children’s hospitals. Biden was quoted laying out an argument — with evidence — that Republicans were bent on subverting democracy.

At the Columbia Journalism Review, Jon Allsop criticized the “semantic squabble” over the speech in the press, noting numerous examples of questionable analysis and framing in its aftermath:

Biden’s core message was clear. Too much coverage ended up muddying it — stenographically stacking he-said/she-said reaction quotes, wringing it through the deadening mangle of the midterms horserace, even insinuating a cynical ploy on Biden’s part. “Biden warned about the genuinely historic threat to American democracy,” Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist who has written for CJR and others, tweeted last night. “And the media response is more brain-dead game frame coverage of the ‘politics’” …

Arguing about whether last night’s speech was political would have been silly and pedantic at the best of times. At this fraught moment, it’s akin to watching your house catch fire and shouting, “Wait a minute! Is this a house?”

This guide has been updated.

A Guide to the Intense Debate Over Biden’s Democracy Speech