Democracy, political violence and disputed elections: Five takeaways from Biden’s primetime speech

In primetime address, President Biden makes his clearest case against Trump

John Bowden
Washington DC
Friday 02 September 2022 20:06 BST
Heckler repeatedly yells ‘Let’s go Brandon’ as Biden denounces political violence in primetime address

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Joe Biden pulled zero punches on Thursday evening as he condemned Donald Trump and his grip over the Republican Party in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

The president spoke on a warm summer evening as drama over an FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago continues to unfold and the stability of America’s rule of law seems more fragile than ever. Polling indicates that the feeling of uncertainty about the future is widespread: as many as four in 10 Americans say civil war is possible in the coming years, a shocking number.

The address on Thursday echoed many of the same warnings Mr Biden made earlier this year on the 12-month anniversary of the Jan 6 attack on Congress, a major but not the first sign of America’s worsening political fractures. Violence between the right and the left has been escalating for years, and was evident as early as 2017 when far-right rally attendees including white nationalists attacked counter-protesters in Charlottesville, killing one person.

There were many unique points in Mr Biden’s speech on Thursday as the president made his most aggressive case yet that Donald Trump and his allies’ continued efforts to sow distrust in America’s election systems represents a clear threat to the future of US democracy.

Here are a few notable points to think about after the president’s address to the nation:

Joe Biden makes clear he’s ready to take Donald Trump and Trumpism on directly

The president didn’t hold back tonight. In previous remarks about the threat posed by Americans losing faith in their government, he has refused to directly name Donald Trump as the lead purveyor of that atmosphere of distrust and often crows about so-called “reasonable” Republicans with whom he can work in Washington.

On Thursday, however, he made clear what the problem is: Donald Trump, and the efforts by him and his allies to contest every single election they lose. These remarks were quite timely, as a number of GOP candidates for office including some endorsed by Mr Trump have refused to concede in the wake of their primary season defeats.

“Democracy cannot survive when one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election: either they win or they were cheated,” Mr Biden stressed.

And he issued his most withering condemnation of Donald Trump yet, going far beyond any rhetoric he used during the 2020 campaign season or in the immediate aftermath of January 6.

“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” he said. “MAGA Republicans do not respect the constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognise the will of the people.”

There was a clear message here to both Joe Biden’s Democratic allies and Republican foes. To Republicans, his warning was clear: their efforts to subvert rightful election results won’t be tolerated under his administration, and he’s willing to make the defence of American democracy an election issue.

To Democrats, the message was the same: Joe Biden is not only willing to make this an election issue, but he’s capable of doing so as well. There was no doubt that part of the purpose of Thursday’s speech was an audition for what most political observers expect will be a rematch with Donald Trump in 2024. And before today, it’s clear that Mr Biden has faced scepticism within his own party regarding his ability to run again (and win).

Republicans in Congress, watch out

While Donald Trump was the only “MAGA Republican” called out by name on Thursday, there was another clear reference to a nationally notable GOP figure in Mr Biden’s address.

He spoke about the aftermath of the FBI’s execution of a search warrant at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence — and the GOP response to that action.

“Can you believe it? FBI agents, just doing their job as directed, facing threats to their own lives from their own fellow citizens. On top of that, there are public figures today, yesterday and the day before predicting and all but calling for mass violence and rioting in the streets. This is inflammatory. It's dangerous.”

“It’s against the rule of law,” Mr Biden continued. “And we the people must say, ‘this is not who we are’.”

The line, which drew applause, was about as direct a challenge to South Carolina Sen Lindsey Graham as Mr Biden could make without naming him specifically. Mr Graham’s prediction days ago that there would be “riots in the streets” should Mr Trump face a criminal indictment was heavily criticised by former DoJ officials and political experts, who took it as a veiled threat.

In that moment, Mr Biden’s intent was clear: to reaffirm to Republicans on Capitol Hill that he was ready to use the bully pulpit of the presidency against them.

There are still good Republicans, according to Joe Biden

Despite all of Mr Biden’s criticism of Donald Trump and his supporters, he’s still willing to extend an olive branch to any conservative who breaks with the “MAGA” brand.

That was evident as the president declared: “Not even a majority of Republicans are MAGA Republicans. But there’s no question the Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans – and that is a threat to democracy.”

Again, the intent was obvious: avoid a Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney-esque “Basket of Deplorables” moment by insulting wide swathes of the country, while still directing sharp criticism at anyone who chooses to align with the most extreme of the Republican Party. Joe Biden’s efforts to reach out to the GOP, for all the scrutiny of how serious he really is about it by the DC press, resulted in the passage of rare bipartisan legislation addressing infrastructure last year, even amid a time when large segments of Republican voters still believe that Mr Biden is an illegitimate president and should be impeached.

A powerful speech, but who saw it?

While CNN and MSNBC predictably covered Mr Biden’s speech live, other networks chose to ignore the primetime address by the nation’s president. It was a questionable decision, given the seriousness of the topic and the rarity of a sitting president choosing to make a speech to the nation on any topic, let alone the immediate threat to democracy posed by his predecessor.

Fox News covered portions of the speech while returning to its typical primetime slate of opinion hosts. Broadcast networks took even less interest in the address, with their news divisions covering it online while their TV channels ignored the event entirely – NBC stuck with reruns of Law & Order, while CBS delighted viewers with the shenanigans of Young Sheldon. ABC was showing a game show.

Aside from the typical Thursday night primetime audience for the left-leaning cable news networks and those following the coverage on social media, it’s unclear whether Mr Biden’s strong words will even be heard by the audience of independents and Trump supporters who he most sought to reach.

Democrats fired up, Republicans smoulder

Initial reactions that poured in after the speech showed a clear divide between how Mr Biden’s message was received by his own supporters and the so-called “MAGA Republicans” whom he sought to condemn.

"The thing about President Biden's speech tonight was: he was just calling out the truth. The voters I talk to at the doors here in Pennsylvania, they all see what's happening. If the president had sugarcoated what he'd said, they'd see it as politician-speak. President Biden is just saying what a lot of these voters already know: that everything is on the line,” said Vicki Miller, leader of the Indivisible PHL activist group that rallied outside the president’s event on Thursday.

“Biden’s speech tonight was precisely what a president should say at a moment when democracy is under siege by violent extremists,” added Amy Spitalnick of Integrity First for America.

Mr Trump’s supporters, particularly politicians, were left fuming. As usual, their statements ignored the very real question about the continued issue of efforts to contest elections by Trump-supporting candidates – including the ex-president himself who in a recent Truth Social posting flat-out demanded to be reinstated as president.

“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,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted.

“Is Joe about to announce the round-up of all the Trump voters? Pure hate speech if there ever was one,” added former Arkansas Gov Mike Huckabee. “No president has ever abused the podium to personally attack half of America like this.”

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