President Joe Biden’s primetime speech was ostensibly dedicated to itemizing domestic threats to the “soul of the nation,” all of which apparently emanate from the pro-Trump right. It was billed as an urgent call to action on a matter of grave national concern, but what the president turned in was a stump speech. In the process, he cheapened the moment, commodified the public’s apprehension over a rising tide of illiberalism on America’s political fringes, and strengthened the very menace he set out to condemn. Worst of all, these were not unintended consequences. That was Joe Biden’s goal.
Hours before Biden’s address, White House Press Sec. Karine Jean-Pierre gave reporters a preview of what they could expect. The president’s address would invoke themes he discussed in August 2017, in the immediate wake of racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. It would also harken back to his first inaugural address, where he was flanked by a Capitol Building still scarred from the January 6 riot. “You think about what we’re seeing today,” Jean-Pierre said. “You think about the battle that continues.”
Those two traumatic events had self-evident national significance, and Biden’s decision to weigh in on them met a delicate moment in American history with the aim of cooling the passions that fueled violence. But what occasioned Biden’s speech last night? It was not preceded by any episode of mass violence, no outpouring of primitive racial antagonism. The January 6 rioters are being systematically prosecuted by the legitimate executors of American justice, in whose crosshairs even the former president has found himself. What crisis is the American right precipitating? A keen observer might conclude that the acute “threat” to which the White House is responding is the Democratic Party’s political peril. If Democratic voters are not as anxious as the White House, the president’s party will lose political power to the GOP in America’s fair and impartial elections. How perverse.
Indeed, the goal of Biden’s demagoguery could only be to reinforce and accelerate the GOP’s amassing around Trump’s orbit, not to loosen the former president’s hold on his party. Biden opened with a perfunctory caveat, saying that the number of treasonous Republicans was likely to be small. But he then proceeded to draw the largest possible circumference around what constitutes the MAGA movement to capture as many conservatives as possible.
“MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards,” Biden insisted. They’re after your “right to choose,” your “right to contraception,” your “right to marry who you love.” The president is here referring, in part, to Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurrence in Dobbs, in which he alone maintained that the Court’s decision imperils other precedents based on substantive due process. Disagree with that rationale all you like, but Biden equated this jurisprudential philosophy with street violence and the demolition of America’s institutions. There is no equivalence between those insurrectionary activities and the banal—indeed, proper—conduct of America’s courts. To make that connection in voters’ minds is reckless and irresponsible.
If it wasn’t yet obvious that the objective of this speech was to brand Republican voters “pro-insurrectionist,” the president’s whiplash-inducing swerve into a State of the Union address should be clarifying. What does Biden’s Covid-relief package, infrastructure spending, and gun-control legislation have to do with combating illiberal sentiments on the right? Biden is hoping that the case for Democratic governance enthuses otherwise listless Democratic voters. This served no other purpose than to incept in voters’ minds the idea that even opposing Democratic policy preferences renders you a little suspect. “American democracy only works,” Biden insisted, “if we respect our legitimate political differences.” By his own logic, therefore, the president is himself a reactionary.
Even the press’s formerly inexhaustible patience with this administration has been tested by this event. The Biden team baited reporters with the promise of a White House event only to deliver a campaign-trail speech festooned with the trappings of taxpayer-funded state power. To their credit, some prominent reporters refused to look past Biden’s decision to violate presidential norms as he was attacking his predecessor for the same. It may not last, but this address gave the press license to be a little less pliant.
Finally, with this ham-fisted attempt at psychological manipulation to raise Donald Trump from the political dead, the president has foreclosed on the idea that the Democratic campaign operatives spending millions to boost MAGA candidates in Republican primaries have gone rogue. This is a party-wide effort to elevate the very faction that supposedly represents an existential threat to the republic. The exquisite cynicism of this charade is breathtaking.
Had Biden set out to deliver a lofty sermon on the fragility of the American experiment and the Founders’ suspicions of ambitious men, it might have been a valuable exercise. The menace Joe Biden ostensibly sought to warn Americans about is real. But the president did not embark on a selfless effort to preserve American propriety and norms against anti-democratic forces. He did his best to strengthen the very movement he insists is a mortal threat to American democracy. He tethered himself and his administration to the Democratic Party’s material support for the MAGA movement. He undermined his mission, and he cheapened the office he holds.
If you’re inclined to accept Joe Biden’s premise—that “MAGA Republicans” represent “a threat to this country”—you should be furious at the way Biden commodified your solemn cause. Whoever conceived of this misadventure should be stripped of their capacity to debase the office of the presidency further. That does, however, assume that this wasn’t Biden’s idea in the first place. Given how incandescently boneheaded this spectacle was, we can’t rule that out.