Edited by Sam Thielman
RIGHT-WING MEDIA FIGURES and centrist pundits have criticized the language President Joe Biden used to talk about the pro-Trump Republican movement on Thursday: dangerous, extreme, and a threat to this country. I suppose it could be debated whether that kind of language is productive toward healing a polarized country. Whether the things Biden said are true, however, cannot.
The pro-Trump strain dominating the Republican Party is frank about its goals: to deny the will of voters, roll back individual rights, criminalize LGBTQ expression, and brutalize its perceived opposition. It has exchanged mealy-mouthed condemnations of the January 6 Capitol riot for sympathetic praise and support of people arrested (and in some cases, charged, convicted, and sentenced) for their participation. It will presumably nominate Trump again in 2024 because of, not in spite of, his open contempt for law and democracy. This is the same faction that slobbers over the boots of Hungary’s leader Viktor Orbán and sighs wistfully about the excesses of his authoritarian regime.
Any person with a working internet connection or access to cable television can see the problem Biden spoke to. Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News regularly features hate and conspiracy theories, and it wields an undeniably potent influence over not just Trump supporters but the whole of American right. When tech companies measure user engagement, outrageous Trumpists on digital media consistently pulverize their counterparts in the legitimate press, even though only a small minority of Americans claim to hold far-right politics. Ron DeSantis, the presumed 2024 nominee in the event that Trump’s bid crumbles, has risen in popularity in part by performing a lousy Trump impression while he speaks publicly.
I opened CrowdTangle on Saturday to see what the highest performing Facebook content mentioning Joe Biden was like in the three days prior. In the top ten, ranked by Meta’s own sorting mechanism, I saw:
- Florida’s Rep. Kat Cammack describing Biden’s speech as “Hitler-esque”;
- Right-wing conspiracy theorist Robby Starbuck claiming Biden “declared war on half of America” and declaring Democrats “full-bore fascists”;
- Right-wing commentator Graham Allen claiming Biden “just declared war on, that we know of, 75 million Americans”;
- TPUSA leader and Yahoo Answers plagiarist Benny Johnson calling Biden a “fascist”;
- Right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro claiming Biden gave “the most divisive, demagogic speech in modern American history”;
- Some dude named Reg Kelly calling Biden a “Hitleristic, satanic, nazi , LIAR”
- Another Benny Johnson video, this one calling Biden “satanic.”
The others were news reports. Need I say more?
Not every Republican is on board with this agenda, of course. Biden himself said as much on Thursday. Recognizing that is important, but so is allowing ourselves to see something self-evident: The GOP and its institutions have rolled over for the MAGA project, and so have enough of their supporters to keep it not merely alive, but dominant. A Republican Party with principles could have quashed the takeover. Instead, the party broadly welcomed it. I suspect that choice had little to do with policy and everything to do with strategy—the hope that the authoritarian tendencies of the MAGA movement would prove convenient tools as Republican policy preferences recede further in popularity.
Discussing the real threats posed by the Trumpist GOP is something we should do more, not less. Denying reality risks normalizing the danger at hand. Our conversations should be specific, focused on those leading the charge. They should avoid veering into hyperbole. They should recognize that a hyperactive portion of the base supporting the MAGA cause has been trained by their media sources to support owning the libs no matter the cost and to understand politics writ large as a braindead red team vs blue team competition. And those discussions must look for ways to convince people suckered into those reflexes that they’ve been sold a dark vision for the future with clickbait drivel made by cynical manipulators. Perhaps most importantly, these conversations must argue for democracy, not just against its alternative.
Republicans interested in proving their party is still capable of moderation and reason need to be loud about it. They must join these conversations with honesty about the conditions that made it possible for MAGA to consume so many of their institutions; anything less is just endorsement. This requires bravery—anyone willing to do this will certainly be cannibalized for their disloyalty to the former game show host and president. Very few have demonstrated the requisite degree of moral clarity; most seem to prefer influence among their peers to a coherent set of principles.
Some have suggested that talking about the threat of the MAGA movement will only provoke its supporters to adopt more extreme positions or further rally around its authoritarian wannabe leaders. No honest person should entertain those arguments, and anyone who would make them from a non-MAGA posture is a coward. There is no reasoning with the MAGA political project, no compromises to be had, and no amount of coddling that would undo the deep hatred its supporters feel for moderates and liberals. To the extent this kind of thing even matters anymore, Republicans have been calling anything and everything “fascist” for years.
The truth at our current moment is hideous. It’s frightening to hear a President talk about his opponents like this. But beyond the debate around tone and aesthetics, it was ultimately important that he did. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that a majority of Americans are worried democracy in the US may collapse. The concerns Biden voiced are not limited to a tiny loop of liberal media commentators and researchers, as some partisans would like you to believe. This is a majority issue.
Biden’s descriptions of the MAGA movement are not, as columnists and commentators have put it, a declaration of war, an incitement to violence, ‘the real threat’ to democracy, hate speech, an inevitable regret or otherwise. Biden certainly wasn’t nice, but he was right.
A humble ask
Now that I’ve got that whole getting married and going on a honeymoon business out of the way, I’m hoping to finally expand on what I’m doing here. Your support will help make that possible, whether it’s sharing this newsletter with your friends/followers or chipping in $5 per month to the general fund I use to pay for things like Sam’s editing and my web hosting, distribution, and equipment. Going forward, I’d like to trade you some bonus content for the generosity. I’m thinking maybe a special podcast series or extra newsletters? I’d love to hear from you about what you want to see.
Here’s a song I like: “Tonight” by Snakehips and Tchami
This is a laughably dumb take on blues music.
An excellent tweet from my friend Hannah:
The big man himself: