President Biden's pro-democracy assault on Donald Trump is a promising start to 2024 presidential campaign
Biden's challenge will be to make concrete the perils to freedom and democracy posed by the insurrectionist former president and a radicalized GOP
This piece was previously published at The Hot Screen
In January, following a visit to Valley Forge in Pennsylvania, President Joe Biden effectively kicked off his 2024 re-election campaign with a speech that indicted Donald Trump as an authoritarian menace to the United States, with a particular emphasis on the January 6 insurrection that took place three years ago. In doing so, Biden signaled that the fight to preserve American democracy will be central to his election appeal over the coming months. The president’s speech rightly recognized the overwhelming reality of American political life: that in the time since Donald Trump left office following a failed coup, the question of whether the United States shall remain on the path to greater democracy, or will recede into some manner of authoritarian nightmare, remains an all-too-open question.
Biden’s repeated invocations of the violence of January 6 strike me as especially important — the unprecedented physical attack on the Capitol still resonates among most non-Republican voters, and stands as both symbol and substance of what Trump remains capable of inflicting on the country. I think this passage is an especially strong summation of the import of Trump’s efforts to stay in office:
In trying to rewrite the facts of January sixth, Trump was trying to steal history, the same way he tried to steal the election.
But he, we knew the truth, because we saw it with our own eyes. So it wasn’t like something, a story being told. It was on television repeatedly. We saw it with our own eyes.
Trump’s mob wasn’t a peaceful protest. It was a violent assault.
They were insurrectionists, not patriots.
They weren’t there to uphold the Constitution. They were there to destroy the Constitution.
Denouncing Donald Trump as an insurrectionist has a cold, logical quality to it — it’s the most damning thing one can say about him — but also hits the hot button of patriotism among ordinary Americans. And refreshing people’s memories of the violence that day lends weight to the critique Biden offered of a possible second Trump presidency, with the president further noting Trump’s openness about wanting to be a dictator, his wish for revenge, and his apparent intention to deploy the military against dissenting voices. And Biden’s invocations of democracy as the only legitimate way to govern, in that it allows the American people to choose their own fate — in contrast with Trumpist one-man rule — is necessary and clarifying. Nailing Trump for his treason and authoritarian ambition should rightly be central to the 2024 campaign.
But as before with Biden’s pro-democracy speeches, I find myself worrying that he is speaking too much in generalities, presenting Trump and his MAGA movement as a sort of Dr. Evil on steroids, doing bad things because they are bad people. While I’m persuaded that this line of attack isn’t so far off where Trump himself is concerned, this is simply not a sufficient description for why so many thousands of GOP politicians, and so many millions of American citizens, remain loyal to him and to the cause of returning him to the White House. The MAGA movement really does embody something specific — an effort to prioritize white supremacism, conservative Christianity, and patriarchy as the primary order of American life, to be imposed by violence and the power of the state. Moreover, the movement as a whole has grasped that its members constitute nothing close to a majority in the U.S., leading to an increasingly wholesale rejection of majority rule in favor of the exercise of raw minoritarian power.
This, above all else, helps explain why the Republican Party has coalesced around the position that the events surrounding January 6 did not constitute an insurrection, but at worst an exuberant effort to reverse an election stolen by Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. Thus, as Josh Marshall remarks, the greater importance of January 6 no longer lies primarily in the past, but in the present:
The ongoing Republican defense of the failed coup means January 6th never really ended. Politically we’re still living in an open-ended January 6th. You can see it every time an elected Republican refuses to admit who won the 2020 election, the refusals to admit that Trump attempted a coup and failed.
The fact that Trump’s coup never ended, but only changed form, is a key fact of American politics, perhaps a close second to the related fact of the GOP’s descent into a white supremacist, Christian nationalist party predisposed to violence and authoritarianism. The transubstantiation of January 6 in the minds of devoted Republicans into an event of righteousness — a Black Mass in which Capitol Police blood has been turned into electoral wine — only increases the pressure on Biden and other Democrats to insist on the perfidy and treason of Trump’s attempted coup.
But beyond this, it also requires the Democrats to talk about why GOP politicos and base voters have taken such a radical turn. By identifying the motivations and concrete goals of this anti-democratic movement, the Democrats will simultaneously position themselves to identify the substantive elements of what a pro-democracy movement stands for: freedom of religion, racial and gender equality, the right to go about your daily business without fear of political violence. As I’ve written before, it’s simply not enough for the Democrats to say what they’re against.
Biden should also make clear that democracy is inseparable from the material security and freedom that most Americans view as the fabric of their everyday existence. From being able to walk around without fear of white supremacist gangs sanctioned by Trump, to being able to hold a job without being fired on the basis of your race, gender, or sexual orientation, to having autonomy over your own body, to being able to trust in a government that puts science over religious mysticism, the majority’s right to rule is no abstract thing, but the ultimate guaranty that we live in a world that we want. On this point, I think President Biden is on the right track when he talks about the American people being able to choose their own destiny — but he would benefit his case by getting much more concrete and down to earth about what this means on a day-to-day level.
A few days after the speech I’ve been discussing, Biden gave another one at the site of a racist mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in which he directly invoked the specter of white supremacism behind Donald Trump’s campaign. Though some news coverage presented the speech as primarily a pitch to energize African-American voters, it needs to be acknowledged that his references to white supremacism are also a challenge to white voters to pick a side in relation to America’s greatest sin and fracture line. It has sometimes seemed that Democrats have been overly hesitant to call out white supremacism directly, a position that has become untenable with the rise of Trump, who has more or less unabashedly anointed himself the leader of aggrieved white Americans unable to cope with increasing diversity and the prospect of growing racial equality across the country. Biden’s South Carolina speech suggests a recognition that this reluctance needs to change, and was promising in that it delved into the substance of what makes Trump and other Republicans so unfit for office.
Despite the various reservations I have with Biden’s approach to the democracy question, it still seems possible that his current brand of attacks on Trump’s anti-democratic, violent, and election result-denying ways will find increasingly ample targets in the coming months. Donald Trump kicked off his own campaign with praise of the January 6 insurrection, has threatened to unleash violence in response to the various legal charges against him, and has refused to say he would accept defeat at the polls in 2024. In other words, Donald Trump is running as an insurrectionary candidate, who will either subvert American democracy if he wins the Electoral College, or will once again incite his followers to violence should he lose. It is also well worth noting that senior members of the Republican Party have indicated their agreement with these anti-democratic aims — just look at Representative Eliese Stefanik, the chairwoman of the House Republican conference, who refuses to say whether the GOP-controlled House would certify a 2024 Biden election victory, and who echoes Trump’s rhetoric by referring to January 6 insurrectionists behind bars as “hostages.”
From this perspective, Donald Trump’s countervailing efforts to paint Joe Biden as the real threat to democracy are weak tea indeed, undercut by Trump’s own pronouncements and the evidence of our senses. The former president’s decision to double down on insurrection is only going to confirm for people that he engaged in insurrection in the first place, increasing the likelihood that Biden’s line of attack will hit home. Trump is betting everything on his authoritarian, violent-minded movement cowing the U.S. government and the American majority into complaisance and submission. If Biden continues to press his strategy and makes a fuller case for how vital democracy is to the lives of Americans, Trump may find himself walking into a meat grinder of his own making.