The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden loses sight of the virtues of ‘normal’

President Biden delivers a prime-time speech in Philadelphia on Sept. 1. (Alex Wong/Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Im)

Sometime this summer, the Biden administration appears to have descended into the bowels of some Democratic consultancy, consulted the focus-group entrails and emerged with a strategy for the midterms: MAGAfy.

Let’s roll the tape: Late last month, President Biden spoke to Democratic donors about “extreme MAGA philosophy,” which he said was “like semi-fascism.” This escalated to a Sept. 1 prime-time speech in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, in which Biden exhorted American voters to save the Republic from “MAGA Republicans” who “do not respect the Constitution.” And last week he was tweeting that “Republicans have pushed an ultra-MAGA agenda.” Who knows how many new tiers of MAGAdom he will have introduced before November: MAGA Cum Laude, Executive Ultra Fascist Pro, the MAGAFascist Blackshirt Card.

Oh, but how dare I joke? Don’t I care about American democracy? Don’t I take Donald Trump’s assault on our bedrock institutions seriously?

In fact, I take it very seriously; it is the president and his advisers who are being recklessly cavalier, performing for their donor base and their followers on social media rather than undertaking the hard, patient work of actually rebuilding our frayed social norms. This is self-indulgent and, dare I say it, even a bit unpatriotic.

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Worst of all, I doubt it’s even a good way to win elections.

As others have pointed out, if Biden wanted to shore up our democratic institutions, he would have given an uplifting nonpartisan address, avoiding the ordinary political issues that divide us and making at least glancing reference to his own side’s lesser-but-still-worrying flirtations with denying the legitimacy of elections. Instead, he called out Republicans by name, and by themselves, and then dragged in the standard culture-war fodder of any Democratic campaign speech.

“MAGA forces,” we were told, “are determined to take this country backwards, backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.” He then took a long commercial break to plug his administration’s various legislative victories. The resulting Frankenspeech was clearly part of a concerted midterm strategy to conflate ordinary social and economic conservatism with Jan. 6 QAnon lunatics. That “ultra-MAGA agenda” mentioned in the president’s recent tweet turns out to be “Threaten Social Security and Medicare — Raise taxes on working families — Give big corporations and billionaires tax breaks.”

I’m sure that this all seemed like sly political genius to whatever guru thought it up. But there’s a steep cost. This kind of rhetorical stakes-raising is exactly what stokes antidemocratic sentiment on both right and left: If America is facing an existential threat rather than more ordinary squabbles over policy, well, can we really afford the usual procedural niceties?

And even as campaign fodder, the strategy is underwhelming. It ignores polls that consistently suggest (outliers notwithstanding) that voters are worried more about normal political issues than the specter of dictatorship, and particularly pocketbook issues such as jobs and inflation. It also ignores the administration’s own very successful history.

Left-wing invocations of the “f-word” started shortly after Trump came down that golden escalator in 2015 and famously did not stop him in 2016. Much of the ensuing years has been spent debating exactly how closely he resembles a rogues’ gallery of various historical dictators.

The people having these debates seemed to think they were doing very important work fending off the apocalypse. Yet when Trump was finally defeated, it was not because Twitter’s fascist hunters collectively agreed to send him into exile; he was beaten at the ballot box, which is not how fascist or even semi-fascist leaders usually go down. Moreover, he was defeated by the most boringly ordinary candidate that the Democratic primaries had to offer — no socialist revolution, no “big structural change,” just the candidate of “make America normal again.”

Why isn’t the administration sticking with that obviously successful playbook? After all, Trump is an incorrigible chaos muppet, even in the face of possible indictment, which means that as long as he is on the scene, Democrats make a pleasant contrast just by staying sane. Unfortunately, someone seems to have convinced Biden that instead of running as the Normal Guy (boooo-rrrrrinnggg!), he ought to recast 2022 as 1940, and himself as Winston Churchill, rallying a panicked nation against the (semi)fascist menace.

This, again, is not a winning political message. But it’s also bad because people who role-play in more interesting historical eras tend to lose track of more prosaic realities. The folks who staged Biden’s Philadelphia speech ended up producing an almost Trumpian spectacle: an incongruous mixture of the apocalyptic and banal, delivered in front of blood-red spotlights that made Biden look as though he was campaigning for Lord of the Underworld. Biden should thank his lucky stars that the networks declined to carry it — and, therefore, that he still has time to bring back good, old, normal Uncle Joe.

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