The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump-led movement centered in victimhood sees Biden’s speech as attack

President Biden delivers remarks at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia on Sept. 1. (Doug Mills/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

In both literal and figurative terms, “make America great again” is about reversion. It’s about how America now is not good but America then was. The most important word of the four is “again”: what was once, can be again.

Supporters of former president Donald Trump share a broad understanding of the America to which they want to return. In March 2016, a poll conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News yielded results that, at the time, were startling: The better predictor of support for Trump in the Republican primary wasn’t whether voters were struggling economically but whether they strongly felt that White Americans were losing out to non-Whites. Other polls reinforced this idea: Members of the heavily White Republican Party saw Whites and Christians as embattled in modern society.

Even in April this year, polling determined that Republicans saw those two groups as facing more discrimination than Black or Jewish Americans. This sentiment is why toxic ideas such as “great replacement theory” land on fertile ground. The victimhood was often framed in the context of deviant “elites” who controlled media and the economy, but the concerns were often expressed outside the context of class.

What Donald Trump promised his supporters was that he would fight back in the face of these and other perceived embattlements. He would be the shield standing between them and an America that had become more diverse and more liberal in recent decades; what’s more, he would return fire. A group used to unchallenged dominance was now perpetually aggrieved, the nation in which they grew seeming to turn away from them. But here came Trump, ready to make America great once again.

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On Thursday night, President Biden narrowed his long-standing focus on the battle between democracy and autocracy to address narrowly the most fervent Trump supporters. “Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology,” he insisted in his Philadelphia speech, but the threat posed by “MAGA Republicans” was severe.

“MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people,” Biden said. “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.”

“MAGA forces,” he said pointedly, “are determined to take this country backwards.”

In a fiery speech on Sept. 1, President Biden explained how extremist Republicans are threatening American democracy. Here are the highlights. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

What happened in the aftermath of the speech was entirely predictable: Republicans in media and politics collapsed Biden’s intonations about “MAGA Republicans” into “Republicans” more broadly and, from there, to “half the country.” Biden’s demand that the country address those who “promote authoritarian leaders” and “fan the flames of political violence” became a rote he’s attacking all of us! More extreme iterations of this framing went further — as Trump himself did.

“If you look at the words and meaning of the awkward and angry Biden speech tonight,” he wrote on Truth Social, “he threatened America, including with the possible use of military force.”

There’s irony here, certainly, given that Trump flirted with deploying the military against American citizens in the summer of 2020. But you see how it works: Not only is Biden “threatening America,” he’s doing so more than rhetorically.

Biden’s first speech as president on Jan. 20, 2021, was similarly focused on the threat to democracy, although, at the time, he framed the threat as more international. Speaking two weeks after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, from the steps where rioters attacked police, Biden made similar comments about white supremacists, extremism and violence, although not framed through the lens of “MAGA Republicans.”

The response from Fox News’s Tucker Carlson? Biden was wildly attacking half the country and threatening them with force. Feigning ignorance about what “white supremacist” meant, Carlson declared that there was “a new regime in power, and they seem to be planning to accelerate things dramatically. They’re getting the FBI and the Pentagon involved in this hunt for people who may criticize them. That’s a very big change, and you should understand what it’s really about.”

They are coming after you. This is exactly the same response as the one that followed Biden’s recent assessment that Trump extremists on the right were promoting “semi-fascism.” Trump’s longtime adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News viewers that this reflected how “they actually look down upon you,” adding: “They don’t think that you’re like them. They don’t want their kids to go to school with yours. They don’t want you to live in their neighborhoods.”

Biden’s speech on Thursday night, blending his comments about the threat to democracy with more plebeian appeals centered on the midterm elections, made it easier to cast his comments as fundamentally partisan. But the response went beyond that, once again.

Here, for example, is the junior senator from Missouri’s view:

Josh Hawley is a useful example of how the Republican Party has learned to echo Trump’s appeal to the concerns and aggrievement of the base. Biden was talking about Hawley in his speech, criticizing efforts like Hawley’s pre-Jan. 6 announcement that he would try to block valid Biden electors when electoral college votes were counted on that day. Hawley’s political maneuvers may be calculated, although he would be the first to proclaim himself a “MAGA Republican,” if pressed. But notice how he positions Biden’s speech: It’s about “half the country.”

In part, this expansion of the rhetoric is something of a recruitment strategy. Bring less-Trump-sympathetic Republicans further to the right by telling them that Biden views them as extremists anyway. This was how Trump and his allies pivoted from Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment, a pivot that probably helped cement loyalty to Trump in some quarters (though this is hard to measure).

But what comments like Hawley’s really do is reinforce how MAGAism works. It is a movement centered on perceived victimhood, and so the safest political play in most circumstances is to stoke that perception. When in doubt, collapse it into us against them. Which, it’s worth pointing out, is a common feature of fascism.

Biden’s bind is illustrated. It would be challenging for any American president in this moment to call out elements of the opposition that explicitly reject democracy without triggering a polarized response. But when those elements also feed off the perception that their side is under attack?

No matter what Biden said Thursday night about the threat to democracy, the response would have been the same. That response is central to the threat Biden was describing.

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