Two days before he delivered a rare primetime address to the country that depicted members of the opposition party as a threat to democracy, President Joe Biden was in a gym in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., previewing that attack to a receptive crowd of hometown friends and supporters. “Let me say this to my MAGA Republican friends in Congress: don’t tell me you support law enforcement if you won’t condemn what happened on the 6th,” Biden said, referring to the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. “You can’t be pro-law enforcement and pro-insurrection.”
Then he took a swipe at senior Republican lawmakers who have warned that the Justice Department’s investigation into Donald Trump’s hoarding of government documents could trigger a violent reaction from Trump supporters. “No one expects politics to be paddycake— sometimes it’s mean as hell,” said Biden. “But the idea you turn on a television and see senior senators and congressmen saying, ‘If such and such happens there’ll be blood on the street’? Where the hell are we?”
The speech was emblematic of a new, sharper tone from Biden, who ran for President two years ago promising to unite the country, but has begun devoting more of his time to warning about the dangers of a Republican Party that remains largely under Trump’s spell.
On Thursday night, Biden gave the most direct version of the message he had been honing for weeks, warning the American people about the threat posed by “MAGA Republicans” and public officials denying the outcomes of elections. He painted the midterm elections as part of a broader contest between those who believe in the American democratic system, and those who want to tear it down in their own pursuit of power.
“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” Biden said, standing on front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia where the U.S. Constitution was debated and signed. “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, 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,” Biden said.
Democrats cross the country are expected to impress upon the public a similar message in the coming weeks, as campaigning gears up for races that could see Republicans winning back control of one or both chambers of Congress.
Biden’s senior advisors acknowledge that midterm elections, which millions of voters typically skip, are won with anger. Democrats in many states were riled up this summer in the face of Republican-led restrictions on abortion access in many states after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. GOP resistance to calls for stricter gun control laws in the wake of continuing school shootings is also a motivating factor.
But the state of the country’s democracy is also drawing more voter interest, recent polls suggest. Speaking last week at a Democratic National Committee event hosted at the home of a wealthy supporter in Bethesda, Md., Biden said he chose to run for President in part because of the divisiveness he saw Donald Trump stoking in the public arena and wanted to help “restore the soul of this country” by promoting “dignity,” “honor, making sure we — you mean what you say,” and “treating people with respect.” But those strains of Trumpism, amplified by hatred and misinformation, have not gone away. “What we’re seeing now is either the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA philosophy,” Biden said. “It’s not just Trump,” he went on, “it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the—I’m going to say something: It’s like semi-fascism.”
Republicans immediately rejected the label. Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu said Biden was “trying to stir up this anti-Republican sentiment right before the election.” He called on the President to apologize. “It’s horribly inappropriate, it’s insulting, and people should be insulted by it,” Sununu said.
Biden’s closest aides acknowledge there’s a balance to strike. The President shouldn’t sound sharp and angry all the time. He has scheduled several weeks of travel across the country to tout his administration’s investments in improving infrastructure, improving clean energy technologies, and lowering prescription medicines for seniors.
Biden’s approval ratings among Americans, while still low, have ticked up slightly to the low 40s from the high 30s in July. His party’s prospects of holding on to control of the Senate and stemming their anticipated losses in the House have improved as well. Democrats, who have trailed Republicans since January in polling on a generic congressional ballot, have recently pulled even with the GOP in most polls.
Biden hopes to draw a contrast between his administration’s approach to governing—passing major bills on climate change, health care, and infrastructure investment—to the Republican push back.
It’s a strategy the administration does not intend to limit to Biden’s words. The White House press office has taken a tougher tone in social media posts as well. Last week, when Republican politicians criticized Biden’s student loan forgiveness actions as unfair, the White House Twitter account fired back at several of them directly by highlighting the size of the loan their own businesses had forgiven under the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program during the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic slowdown. The online taunts were a departure for the otherwise staid official account and coincided with the White House hiring Megan Coyne from New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s office, where she gained attention for using quick responses and wit to build a massive audience for the governor’s Twitter account.
“We’ve never hesitated to call out hypocrisy, and we’re not going to stop now,” Alexandra LaManna, a White House assistant press secretary, said in a statement.
As Biden delivered his speech in Philadelphia Thursday night, voices could be heard nearby chanting, “F*ck Joe Biden!” and the euphemism adopted by Trump supporters, “Let’s go, Brandon!” Biden acknowledged the taunts, saying that those protestors “are entitled to be outrageous. This is a democracy.”
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