Last week, President Biden delivered a speech warning that Donald Trump’s authoritarian movement posed a threat to American democracy. The Republican response did more to confirm his point than anything he said.
Biden’s main argument was simple: A wing of the Republican Party aligned with Trump refuses to renounce violence, respect the integrity of elections, or accept the rule of law. Biden argued that this faction composes a minority of the party, but has been able to bully the party’s officials into compliance:
Now, I want to be very clear — (applause) — very clear up front: Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology.
I know because I’ve been able to work with these mainstream Republicans.
But there is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to this country.
While he did not list the evidence for it, his case is overwhelming. Republicans refused to exercise any oversight over Trump’s administration, ignored his abuses of power, and repeatedly flinched from holding him accountable even for his most unforgivable attempt to seize power despite the election outcome. Republicans first supported, and then abandoned, plans to impeach Trump and then to hold hearings into his attempted autogolpe. Biden rather generously absolved the vast majority from sharing Trump’s authoritarian goals, but he correctly indicted them for going along with them.
In making this case, Biden committed one error of substance, and another of symbolism. His symbolic mistake was to have Marine guards on the periphery of the speech, thus violating a norm against using the military in political speeches.
His substantive mistake was to lump together the Republican Party’s policy agenda with its rejection of democracy. (“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.”) Biden was trying to supply a motive for the Trumpists’ rejection of democratic norms, which is sensible enough — the authoritarian right does not seek power for its own end, but for largely ideological reasons — but he framed his point in a way that made it sound as if social conservatism was itself authoritarian.
And yet the Republican Party’s reaction to Biden’s speech was not confined to his errors. They treated the entire thing, including its critique of Trumpism, as an attack on them.
It was obviously predictable that the party’s Trumpiest voices would respond to a critique of Trumpism with knee-jerk hostility. Lauren Boebert called it “one of the most disgusting and decisive speeches in American history.” (She presumably meant to say “divisive,” not “decisive.”) Fox News personalities Mollie Hemingway and Tucker Carlson were even more unhinged.
Closer to the GOP’s Establishment wing, the anti-anti-Trump conservatives at National Review were angrily insisting that Biden had directed personal abuse upon the Republican Party’s entire rank and file. “I recoiled when President Joe Biden kept attacking not only Donald Trump, but MAGA Republicans,” complained Kathryn Jean Lopez. “Biden can’t call for unity while denouncing fellow citizens as enemies,” wrote Jim Geraghty. “President Biden isn’t taking on the Trumpists’ illiberalism — he’s imitating it,” insisted Kevin Williamson.
Republican operative Patrick Ruffini, who before the 2020 election had ridiculed the idea Trump would refuse to accept defeat …
… decided that Biden’s speech was not a warning about authoritarianism, but itself authoritarian:
The conservative fantasy that Biden attacked the motives of the majority of the Republican electorate has naturally produced a fantasy that he is planning steps to persecute them. “The president’s continued assaults on MAGA Republicans should be properly seen as an attempt both to marginalize the opposition and to intimidate it into submission and silence,” claims Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger, “The implicit threat in Mr. Biden’s thought-out aggression is that the legal and investigative powers of the state may be deployed against disfavored beliefs.”
The “implicit threat” refers to actions Biden has not taken, but which Henninger likes to imagine he will. (He cites as precedent the Obama administration’s alleged use of the IRS to harass conservatives, which was hysterically alleged but proven to have never occurred, and Biden’s alleged refusal to condemn the 2020 riots, which he in fact did on multiple occasions.) The twisted logic here is that Henninger can ignore the multiple documented abuses of power Trump actually employed as the lesser evil in comparison with the hypothetical future abuses by Biden he is dreaming up.
Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist driven out of the Journal over his refusal to stop criticizing Trump, continues to oppose Trump, but he argues that the entire problem with the party lies with him alone: “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.”
This is the very premise Biden was disputing. The threat is not just one man. It is a whole movement dedicated to his authoritarian principles. Trump’s acolytes are running for office across the country, in many cases explicitly dedicated to his agenda of undermining fair elections and using state power to harass their critics.
But what Republicans have shown is that, even when they personally oppose Trump, or even deem him dangerous, they are unwilling to oppose the power structure that makes him dangerous. They see attacks on Trump’s movement as an attack on themselves. At the end of the day, they see any measures to fight authoritarianism as worse than authoritarianism itself.
Biden generously offered that the majority of the Republican Party is “dominated, driven, and intimidated” by Trump’s movement, unwilling to stand up to it out of fear. But the harsher truth is that many Republicans are not merely afraid of Trump’s wrath, but actively complicit.