Joe Biden devoted the first 11 minutes of his first formal State of the Union address on 1 March talking about the crisis in Ukraine, which he framed as part of “the battle between democracy and autocracy”. Yet the president never directly mentioned the attack on America’s democracy that took place last year.
While the threat to Ukraine’s democracy overshadowed the one facing America’s in Biden’s speech, the lingering fallout from 6 January 2021, when supporters of Donald Trump stormed into the very chamber where Biden spoke this week in an effort to overturn the last presidential election, was palpable.
It’s easy to see why Biden — with his approval rating flagging — would be eager to strike a positive tone at the ceremonial end of his first year in office. The State of the Union speech is an annual tradition dating back to Woodrow Wilson whereby the president delivers a report to both houses of Congress. In the modern era, it’s become a major opportunity for the commander in chief to grab a prime-time television audience and present their agenda for the coming year.
And Ukraine is a unifying issue. America is uncharacteristically in agreement when it comes to Vladimir Putin’s war. Polling released on 28 February showed about three quarters of the country opposed the invasion and Putin himself. Biden’s lines about Ukraine were both an effort to address the most urgent matter on the world stage and an opportunity to draw applause from both sides of the fractious congressional audience.
The 6 January attack, on the other hand, is divisive. Several polls have shown persistent support for the rioters and some of their underlying conspiracy theories about the election. One survey released in January found about three quarters of Republicans sympathised with the crowds who stormed into the Capitol. More broadly, the idea that US democracy is under threat and that the country faces political instability and violence goes against the exceptionalism that is a foundational part of the American psyche.
One former Biden aide, who requested anonymity to offer a frank assessment of the president’s remarks, told me it was “important that Biden focus on unity” both in terms of a need to rally the public and allies around sanctions for Russia and, later on in the speech, when the president discussed moving beyond the pandemic. “Economically, this will probably have a cost for us too, but Biden wanted to hammer home the point that any pain we might feel is infinitesimal compared to what the brave people of Ukraine are enduring,” the former aide said of sanctions. “He told that story very well, both because he’s a good storyteller and he has really good speechwriters.”
Biden’s focus on unifying was reminiscent of his early days in office when he and his team positioned themselves as focused on the pandemic above all else and moving on from the turbulence of Trump’s time in office. But Biden’s messages about 6 January has already evolved since that early honeymoon period. Three weeks after Biden took office, his press secretary specifically declined to refer to 6 January as a “coup”. Eleven months later, that was the exact word the president used to describe that day.
There were vivid reminders of 6 January on display in Washington as Biden made his speech. Presidents address Congress annually, but their first such remarks are not technically considered a “State of the Union” speech. During Biden’s joint address last April the Capitol building was surrounded by National Guard troops and the black metal fences that were put in place after the attack. That fencing was taken down last July, but on the night of Biden’s address this week it was back and the troops were on standby, in part due to the threat of an American version of the “trucker convoy” protests that have rocked Canada in recent weeks.
Trump and some of the same right-wing activists who were involved in the 6 January demonstrations have repeatedly promoted the trucker protests. In his own address before the Conservative Political Action Conference on 26 February this year, Trump framed the clearing of trucker encampments outside the Canadian Parliament as “tyranny”. He also claimed that the convoy supporters’ opposition to Covid-19 vaccine mandates and assorted other grievances were part of the true global struggle for democracy. “A line has been crossed,” Trump said. “You are either with the peaceful truckers or you are with the left-wing fascists. We stand with the truckers.”
While the nascent trucker protests in the US seem to have run into some early roadblocks, the promotion of them by Trump and his allies shows the far right is still eager to turn conspiracy theories, pandemic frustration and nationalism into physical protest. And Washington is still healing from the violence that accompanied the last major pro-Trump demonstrations at the Capitol on 6 January. According to Capitol Police sources, multiple officers are still on light duty due to injuries they suffered in the hours of brawling that day.
Violence at the Capitol was just one part of the assault on democracy that has taken place since Trump’s loss. The former president and his allies continue to promote conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, which a slew of government agencies, outside observers and state and federal officials from both parties have confirmed Biden won legitimately. More consequentially, pro-Trump Republicans are also running for local office around the country, which would give them sway over election oversight in an effort to succeed where the 6 January rioters failed at the next election.
Teddy Daniels, a candidate for lieutenant-governor in Pennsylvania, who has admitted being present among the crowds at the Capitol on 6 January laid this strategy bare in an interview on a right-wing podcast. “I can promise the people of Pennsylvania this, when we get in in ‘22, we are going to revamp the entire system for when Trump runs in ‘24,” Daniels said. “That’s what needs to happen.” Daniels is part of a wave of aspiring politicians who participated in the 6 January protests. He’s also one of many candidates who refuse to accept the result of the last election and hope to control the next one.
While he didn’t explicitly mention the Capitol riots, Biden briefly alluded to these larger threats to American democracy in his speech when he urged Congress to pass voting rights legislation. “The most fundamental right in America is the right to vote and have it counted. And look, it’s under assault,” Biden said over the jeers of the Republicans in the chamber. “In state after state, new laws have been passed — not only to suppress the vote, we’ve been there before, but to subvert the entire election. We can’t let this happen.”
The House select committee investigating the Capitol attack is taking a wide-angle look at efforts to challenge American democracy. In addition to the violence on 6 January, the seven Democrats and two Republicans (both Trump critics) on the committee are looking at prior efforts to challenge the 2020 election. A few hours before Biden took the stage on 1 March, the committee announced a new round of subpoenas for “six individuals who promoted false claims that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent”.
However, while the select committee announced in a court filing on 2 March that it uncovered information that “establishes a good-faith belief that Mr Trump and others may have engaged in criminal and/or fraudulent acts” during efforts to subvert the election, it has no criminal authority. It will be up to Biden’s Justice Department whether to file charges if the committee makes any referrals.
The former aide who praised Biden’s unifying tone suggested that the moment the committee publishes its full report — which is due in the coming months — will be the time for the president to put unity aside and strongly address the attack on the Capitol. “I don’t think January 6 is ever far from people’s minds,” the aide said. “The violent insurrection and assault on our democracy is still critical, and we’ll learn more when the committee finishes its work.”
One of the law enforcement officers who testified before the committee about their brutal experience fighting the pro-Trump crowd that day felt similarly. The officer, who requested anonymity, said they were “glad” Biden didn’t bring up the attack in his address since it would lead to “more dissent and division”. Instead, the officer agreed that Biden would need to forcefully address the issue again when the committee releases its findings.
“I was talking to some of the officers yesterday,” the officer said. “Everybody in this country knows what happened that day. Everyone does and now we’re just waiting. We’re waiting for that report.”