President Trump visits El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, but cannot make a big speech in an open venue for fear of being booed. (In Dayton, he made himself invisible, meeting behind closed doors with family and medical staff, making no public appearance or comment.) He creates division and anger at a time when the country would normally look to the president. The contrast between the bitter, little man who occupies the White House, attacking Beto O’Rourke on Twitter and insisting before taking off Wednesday morning against all evidence that his rhetoric brings us together, and former vice president Joe Biden, who chose to deliver a big, important speech Wednesday in Iowa could not have been more stark.
Biden began by stating what too many Republicans, embarrassed by this president but shamefully still backing him, refuse to admit: “The words of a president matter,” Biden said. “They can move markets. They can send our brave men and women to war. They can bring peace. They can calm a nation in turmoil. They can console and confront and comfort in times of tragedy ... They can appeal to the better angels of our nature. But they can also unleash the deepest, darkest forces in this nation.” His tone varied from defiant to sorrowful, he emphatically blasted out each phrase. The language was plain and direct, but the call to recall our founding principles was profound and stirring.
The notion that Trump is “fine” except for all those tweets and comments is a dangerous fiction used by squeamish Republicans to avoid confronting him. Biden recounted the parade of Trump horribles — from Charlottesville (“very fine people on both sides”) to raising fear of a refugee “invasion” to calling Baltimore a “disgusting, rat-infected and rodent mess” that “no human being” would choose to live in.
Biden reminded us that at a rally in Florida, after Trump asked the crowd how to stop immigrants, someone in the audience said “shoot them.” Trump smiled and took it as a joke. Biden argued that it “is not far at all” from Trumpian comments to the alleged El Paso murderer’s diatribe that “this attack is in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” just as his praise to “very fine” neo-Nazis chanting “you will not replace us” is not far at all from the words of the mass murderer at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, who said Jews “were committing genocide to his people.”
Biden flat out accused Trump of fanning white nationalism and mocked his “low-energy, vacant-eyed mouthing of the words written for him condemning white supremacists this week.” Biden noted that white supremacists themselves praise Trump during a time the number of hate groups and white nationalist shooters surges.
Biden did not say Trump was responsible for white nationalist terrorism, but he did accuse Trump of pouring fuel on the fire, retweeting white nationalist messages and cutting funding to fight domestic, white nationalist terrorism. He said Trump’s invoking of mental health as the issue was “a dodge” — as he reminded everyone of his authorship of the assault-weapons ban in the 1990s. “We will do it again,” he said to cheers. He also insisted that we make “the same commitment as a nation to root out domestic terrorism as we have to stopping international terrorism.”
Biden also contrasted Trump to presidents who stood up at key moments in history (e.g., George H.W. Bush turning in his NRA membership, Bill Clinton’s speech after the Oklahoma City bombing, George W. Bush’s mosque visit after 9/11, Barack Obama’s sermon after the Charleston, S.C., massacre). Now, Biden argued, “Our president who has aligned himself with the darkest forces in this nation. And it makes winning the battle for the soul of this nation that much tougher, harder.”
Biden made the case that Trump fundamentally doesn’t understand the job. “Trump offers no moral leadership; seems to have no interest in unifying this nation, no evidence the presidency has awakened his conscience in the least,” he said. “Indeed we have a president with a toxic tongue who has publicly and unapologetically embraced a political strategy of hate, racism and division.”
Biden then called on the country to take up the challenge and do what Trump can’t. “Stand together. Stand against hate. ... Treating everyone with respect. Giving everyone a fair shot. Leaving nobody behind. Giving hate no safe harbor.”
Biden closed by reminding us that greatness stems from the conviction “America is an idea” — not great because we have the biggest economy or military or because we “win.” The essence of America is its creed. Ironically (or tragically), this is how conservatives used to talk, before they became yes-men for Trump or argued that his defacing democracy was tolerable because of judges or tax cuts.
Biden told voters: “Everyone knows who Donald Trump is. We need to show them who we are. We choose hope over fear. Science over fiction. Unity over division. And, yes — truth over lies.”
We’re in a time when someone such as Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who fancies himself an intellectual and used to write about America as a creedal nation, does not the nerve to denounce Trump nor the self-respect to come up with a better framing of the election than a choice between civics and socialism. (Actually civics and democracy are under attack by Trump and his quisling party.)
Biden explained that the real choice is between Trump and American democracy, between Trump and objective truth and between Trump and someone with a basic understanding of what makes America “great.” The speech was intended to and succeeded in making the case that Biden could be that better alternative, but in another sense it should serve as a provocation to Republicans.
What and who are Republicans supporting? How can one love America’s founding principles and vote for Trump? Do tax breaks justify keeping a president that inspires white terrorism?
Anyone who fails to comprehend the decision we face and the obvious answers to these queries, unfortunately, is unreachable at this point. The rest of us will simply have to outvote those lost souls.