Forgive me if what I’m about to say about democracy seems obvious, but judging from the protests over Joe Biden’s speech about the soul of America, it doesn’t appear to be obvious to everyone. Those protests centered mostly around his accusations of MAGA being “semi-fascist” and his inclusion of military symbols in a “partisan” speech. That his accusations were harsh and divisive and his effort to recruit Democratic votes political is, I think, a fair observation. But, was he wrong, and was it inappropriately partisan?
It would be hard for any objective observer to deny there are some obvious fascist tendencies in the MAGA movement: MAGA followers revere only a single person as their legitimate leader, and hold him above laws that would apply to everyone else; they inflict and threaten violence against opponents and against the legitimate exercise of democratic governance; they intimidate reporters and target with political violence those who speak critical truth about, or are not loyal to, their leader; they are systematically imposing a Christian nationalism on a religiously diverse population; they pejoratively label and target immigrants, especially immigrants of color; they admire, and identify their cause with global dictators; and they reject the outcomes of legitimate elections and plan to overturn future elections they don’t win. Of course, not every Republican does or supports all these things, but their de facto leader does and they stand by or behind him at every turn.
There should be little doubt in anyone’s mind about the goal and future of the MAGA cause; we have heard it preached and watched it unfold. They want Donald Trump to be president by any means necessary. They will welcome his politicization of the federal civil service and his consolidation of all of the power of American government under his exclusive personal control. They have little interest in democratic process as long as he remains their leader, and they will support whatever measures, including violence, are needed to keep him there. Does anyone question that? Many Republicans might not want that outcome and might believe it won’t happen or that they can prevent it from going too far, but surely no one seriously doubts that Donald Trump and MAGA adherents seek and would embrace these goals.
Loudly and repeatedly claiming that the democratically elected president and the rule-following Justice Department are the real fascists does not make those accusations even slightly true. Neither does insisting against all evidence that the 2020 election was stolen make their cause genuinely righteous or their violence legal or less destructive. Even fair accusations of Democratic hypocrisy and legitimate criticisms of Biden’s mistakes as president are not an answer or even a denial of the threats President Biden was warning about.
So, let’s ask what we mean by democracy. It’s true that the framers assigned the right to vote only to white, property owning men. They knew they were excluding women and slaves who had no power in the society of their time. But the deepest and most profound commitments of their revolution—protecting the right of the governed to choose their representatives, prevailed over time through Constitutional amendments to expand that right to all citizens. That right recognizes the human equality claimed at the heart of the Declaration of Independence, and, by vesting control of government in the hands of the governed, helps assure a stable government of, by, and the people.
Our society becomes more racially diverse every year and in two short decades Whites are projected to become a minority. Clearly this is felt not just as a jolt to everyone’s sense of racial identity but also by some as a threat to the privileged status of Whites in a society they founded and ruled for two and half centuries; it’s a lot to adjust to and to give up. But the choice now is between an apartheid-like minority racial dominance, or a genuine commitment to the revolutionary spirit of equality and self-governance. Perhaps there is even a bit of fear mixed in—that Whites might get treated as a minority the way they treated people of color when they were the majority. While I see absolutely no indication of any such intention or motivation, it would not be unreasonable to think the risk of that happening could rise in direct proportion to the repression today’s minorities’ experience leading up to it. Whites would do well to model and institutionalize the behavior they want to see in others.
Looking back now at Biden’s speech, his warning that MAGA adherents are extremists and a semi-fascist threat to democracy seems pretty accurate. That the threat can best be overcome by voting for Democrats seems regrettably accurate as well. Biden has spoken clearly and consistently of his goal to demonstrate the capacity of democracy to serve the needs of All Americans and not just a wealthy or powerful few. He, his Administration, and his Party have positioned themselves as advocates for democracy vs authoritarianism. He said in his speech most Republicans do not hold these semi-fascist objectives, but unless and until the Party to which they give their loyalty actively renounces MAGA’s expressed and direct threat rather than acceding to it, voting for democrats might in fact be the surest and best way to protect democracy. This is political, to be sure, but it is not partisan in the traditional sense. It is fundamentally and literally a defense of our constitutional republic, and I suspect at some level everyone, despite their protests or their silence, knows it.
One thought on “Joe Biden’s Speech”
Bob, thank you for this powerful essay. It would be interesting to hear from those Republican leaders who disagree with the MAGA movement but refuse to give voice to that opposition. Their behavior suggests they agree with the precepts more than they disagree with them. Truly scary. I applaud President Biden’s courage, and your own articulate thoughtfulness.