President Biden declared in his inaugural address that our prospects for much-needed “unity” are threatened by various political forces. Among them, he said, are racism, nativism, political extremism, white supremacy and domestic terrorism.
But there’s a deeper ploy here. With this new fake outrage fest, Republicans are working to reframe the national debate over how to repair the damage done during Donald Trump’s presidency on terms favorable to them.
This reframing is designed to bury their own culpability for the injuries they inflicted by actively enabling Trump and by deliberately harnessing the destructive forces he unleashed toward their own instrumental ends.
“If you read his speech and listen to it carefully, much of it is thinly veiled innuendo calling us white supremacists, calling us racists, calling us every name in the book, calling us people who don’t tell the truth,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) whined to Fox News.
“The next four years will be about shaming, blaming and cancelling until diversity of thought is completely extinguished,” complained the chairwoman of the Minnesota GOP.
“As long as you agree with radical progressives, you will be tolerated,” raged one House Republican about Biden’s speech, adding that it was about “coercing” conservatives to agree with the left or get “canceled.”
Meanwhile, as Matt Gertz documents, this argument is plastered all over Fox News programming. As Tucker Carlson dissected Biden’s speech, a chyron blared: “PARTY IN POWER IS DEMONIZING HALF OF THE COUNTRY.”
Carlson purported to justify this with a convoluted argument: Because Biden claimed we must “defeat” extremism, white supremacism and domestic terrorism, he’s actually pledging to “wage war” (Carlson’s words) against a broader segment of the population, and Biden is being cagey about who that includes.
The real reason for GOP rage
Let’s talk about the real reason for all this anger. It’s because Biden placed the primary blame for our recent breakdown precisely where it belongs: On right-wing extremism.
Biden did state clearly that unity requires “the defeat” of “political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism.” As it happens, intelligence services agree that violent white supremacy is “the most persistent and lethal threat” facing the homeland, and that Trump’s lie about the election’s illegitimacy threatens to incite more extremist violence going forward.
To be clear, this cannot mean intelligence or law enforcement is used in any way to denigrate or target legitimate right-wing political activity. Such overreach is a genuine danger with a long history in this country. We need to draw a hard line against it and not let that line get fuzzy.
But Biden is absolutely correct in saying that the primary threat to unity in this country — to civic peace, to democratic coexistence, to mutual acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the opposition — is the bundle of right-wing movements he described.
The problem is right-wing extremism
Right-wing extremism is responsible for the crisis we all just lived through. Full stop. This is not to say left-wing extremism is never a problem or that the protests over the summer didn’t get violent at times.
Rather, it’s to say that our post-election cataclysm was entirely driven by a war on democracy waged entirely by the right. The sentiments unleashed and harnessed for this purpose dramatically dwarf anything we’ve seen recently on the left.
Republicans want to cast our problem as one of generalized division. In fact, it’s that anti-democracy forces have waged sustained warfare, sometimes violent, on pro-democracy ones.
Republicans want to make all this disappear, precisely because many of them actively encouraged and fed all those sentiments. This does not mean they are directly to blame for the violent storming of the Capitol. But it does mean they bear culpability for feeding the authoritarian and democracy-despising impulses that drove the assault.
Large swaths of the GOP spent months feeding the lie that the election’s outcome was illegitimate. They stood by while Trump whipped up his supporters into believing that delusion and tried to corruptly strong-arm officials into helping him steal the election. After the assault, more than 100 congressional Republicans voted to overturn the results.
It’s telling that Republicans who have correctly identified the true nature of Trump’s assault on democracy liked Biden’s speech. Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) declared that Biden’s speech was “very much needed” in terms of getting us to “come together” by stating “enduring American principles.”
In other words, Biden was right to finger right-wing extremism as the primary cause of dragging us to the brink.
This is exactly what Republicans (unlike Romney) who actively enabled and encouraged all that right-wing extremism cannot admit. Because this admission blows back on them.
We don’t have to play this game
Their game now is to extort a price in exchange for agreeing that Biden is actually pursuing unity. That price is that Democrats must refrain from holding them accountable for all they’ve done to feed the impulses that threatened to tear the country apart.
Republicans now think they can exploit a tendency in press coverage to place the entire onus of “unity” on Biden. The president promised unity, but he hasn’t soothed Republicans, who say he’s being divisive. Why can’t he deliver unity?
We are not required to play this game. Biden may or may not succeed in securing “unity.” But Republicans don’t get to unilaterally dictate in advance what counts as a true attempt to achieve it.