WASHINGTON DC – Last week, the US president Joe Biden said that the former president, Donald Trump, and his most ardent supporters represent “semi-fascism”. Last night (1 September), in a speech in Philadelphia, he made it clear that this was no slip of the tongue. In a 24-minute address, he said that Trump and “Maga Republicans” – “Maga” being the acronym of “Make America Great Again”, Trump’s catchphrase – are extremists and constitute a threat to democracy.
“Not every Republican. Not even a majority… But there’s no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the Maga Republicans.” And that, he said, was a threat to American democracy.
To put it plainly: Biden was right. Trump, having falsely claimed that he won the 2020 presidential election, now makes veiled threats of political violence should he face consequences for his actions, which reportedly include taking classified information involving nuclear secrets with him from the White House. Republican leaders have not broken with him, and indeed continue to cast aspersions on those who would keep this aspiring demagogue from breaking the remaining checks on executive power and abuses thereof, claiming that the Department of Justice and FBI are running political errands.
Biden has insisted, repeatedly, that there are Republicans who are reasonable, and with whom he can compromise. So it was revelatory to hear him say out loud what is already evident to many of us: that one of the US’s two major political parties is threatening to burn the whole place down if it and its leader are not allowed to do what they want when they want, and that it considers any election that it loses to be fraudulent. Indeed, the Republican senator Tom Cotton essentially said Alaska’s voting system, known as ranked-choice voting, was invalid after Sarah Palin lost her congressional election to a Democrat on Wednesday.
Yet I have two main criticisms of Biden’s speech. The first is that the president spoke as though the country just had to try and get back to the way it was, back to an idealised past. But the way it was featured slavery, segregation, repression and inequity. America shouldn’t go back to the way it was; it needs to build something better.
And the second is that democracy won’t be saved by a speech. US democracy, if it is to be saved, will be saved because those with the power and responsibility to do something have demonstrated that democracy is worth saving. Biden, after what seemed like a year of passivity and a Supreme Court session in which Americans saw their civil rights – including their right to an abortion – stripped away, has had a remarkable summer. He and congressional Democrats managed to pass a major piece of legislation that will constitute a significant investment in tackling the climate crisis. He finally moved to cancel some student debt, which will be a significant boon to many Americans. Polls show that voters are moved by the threat to abortion rights, and are not falling for Republican claims that the Supreme Court decision that stripped millions in this country of their federal right to an abortion is not an insignificant change.
But Biden cannot rely on words alone. Democracy will survive, maybe, if voters see people fighting for it in deeds as well as in words. This is particularly true with respect to abortion rights; if this is the issue animating voters to not support people who would have free and fair election results thrown out, it would behove this administration to show it is more serious in fighting for those rights.
Still, I felt some relief listening to the speech. Polls show that more than two thirds of Americans believe democracy is at risk. Good. They should. It is. And it is encouraging that their legitimately elected president does not lie to them about what’s at stake. Americans deserve, in what is maybe the 11th hour of the republic, leaders who call things by what they are, and tell the people what position they are in – and show them where, if they refuse to give up on the whole American project, they could be.
“I have no doubt that this is who we will be,” Biden said, depicting a future in which the country is a shining beacon, a democratic example to others. I didn’t believe him. But listening, I wanted to. He had articulated the problem. If I tried hard enough, I could pretend that we could find a solution. And maybe that’s half the battle.
This article first appeared in the World Review newsletter. It comes out on Mondays and Fridays; subscribe here.