(CNN) — Even on the day that President Joe Biden issued his most chilling warning yet that democracy is in grave danger, Donald Trump mocked how he could use a new term in the White House to further erode that fundamental birthright. of the Americans.
From Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and their fellow founders set the nation on a democratic path, Biden warned in one of the harshest speeches ever given by a president that the legacy of government by these founders for the people and by the people was in danger.
Biden warned that Trump and his fellow ideologues represent a dark and dangerous force bent on using lies and violence to crush the will of the majority.
“Donald Trump and the MAGA (Make America Great Again) Republicans represent extremism that threatens the very foundation of our republic,” Biden said in another forceful and impassioned speech that contradicted the low-voltage tone of much of his tenure to date. moment.
It is a sign of the fractured political times we live in in this era that the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy would feel compelled to make such a speech. Given the events of recent years, his comments cannot be considered alarmist.
And Biden left no doubt that he sees the purpose of his presidency as once again defeating Trump and his “Make America Great Again” movement, which he warned was already poisoning the 2022 midterms and the race for the White House of 2024.
“They look at the mob that stormed the United States Capitol on January 6 brutally attacking law enforcement, not as insurrectionists who put a dagger to the neck of our democracy, but they see them as patriots,” Biden said. .
“They see the failure of their MAGA to stop a peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 elections as preparation for the 2022 and 2024 elections. This time they are determined to thwart the will of the people.”
Biden addressed a nation whose politics have been transformed by Trump’s false claims that there was fraud to remove him from power in 2020. It is a lie that has nevertheless convinced millions of Americans and is the platform for countless campaigns of mid-term Republican hopefuls trying to retake the president’s former power base, some of whom could win and be in a position to influence future elections.
Still, Biden’s speech should not be viewed in isolation. While speaking as US head of state, his remarks also sounded like a campaign speech, delivered in a critically important election battleground state that he will visit three times in the span of a week before Labor Day. He left no doubt that he was targeting his predecessor, and his potential future rival, who will also be at Keystone State this weekend.
And Biden seems to have been right. Hours before speaking, Trump appeared to validate the president’s warnings about the threat he poses.
Trump raised the possibility that if he regains the presidency, he would consider granting full pardons for members of the mob who stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an attempt to thwart legal certification of the presidency. of Biden.
“I will be very, very attentive to pardons. Full pardons,” the former president said on Wendy Bell Radio. “I mean full pardons with an apology for many,” he said.
His comment at this point is hypothetical and hinges on a long and complex road to power. But it was also a stark reminder that he often crushed the principles of democracy and the rule of law in office. Here, as before, Trump sees the presidency as a tool of personal power to reward his allies and punish his political opponents. In effect, Trump would be pardoning supporters he called to Washington and incited violence to try to overturn an election he lost. Had he succeeded, he would have replaced America’s 250-year experiment in democracy with autocratic strongman rule.
And Trump’s showdown with the Justice Department over the classified documents he brought to his Florida resort, unfolding in a Florida courtroom early Thursday, is fundamentally based on his view of the presidency as an all-powerful office that bestows his absolute power holder.
In another sign of how Trump’s move to try to engage the will of voters worked, it emerged Thursday that Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a conservative activist and wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, lobbied state lawmakers. in Wisconsin, as well as Arizona, to overturn Biden’s election victories in those states, according to emails obtained through a public records request and shared with CNN. The Washington Post first reported the text of those emails, which were obtained by the watchdog group Documented.
This development followed weeks of televised hearings by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection that painted a damning picture of Trump’s attempts to steal the 2020 election and then incite violence when his efforts failed. Multiple courts and Trump’s own Justice Department found there was no evidence that 2020 was marred by massive fraud.
That is exactly the kind of vision of autocratic power vested in one man that the founders, who signed their names into history in the room that formed Biden’s backdrop on Thursday night, broke two and a half centuries ago.
Biden defines the political battle of the modern era
Biden’s speech and the Trump world’s intensifying attacks on the electoral system underscore that the most critical divide in politics right now is not the age-old duel between liberalism and conservatism. Those fights have raged intensely and often with resentment in a deeply divided nation, but for the most part they have been between two parties that fundamentally respected the electoral system.
Increasingly, the political battle of our time is between leaders who see democracy under attack (mostly Democrats, but with increasing recruits from conservative mavericks like Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney) and the Trump machine. , which is ready to use any method, including undemocratic ones, to come to power.
Biden aides had insisted his Independence Hall speech was not about the former president. But this in itself was false, as he repeatedly did it about Trump. His appearance came just two days after an earlier campaign-style appearance in Pennsylvania, where he criticized Republicans who cheered mob rioters who beat up police on Jan. 6. And less than a week ago, Biden compared the philosophy of Trump supporters to “semi-fascism.”
Biden is clearly using Trump’s return to the spotlight in recent months as a springboard to push Democrats forward in midterm elections, which typically deal first-term presidents a blow. She appears to be trying to turn the election into a head-to-head matchup between him and the former president, ground on which she won in 2020.
So far, Biden’s tactic appears to be working, as he grafts this strategy onto Democratic attempts to highlight the Supreme Court’s overturning of the constitutional right to abortion, which has galvanized liberal voters and grassroots enthusiasm. his party, and the recent passage of an important Climate and Health Act. All of this is an attempt to turn the election from a referendum on his own low approval ratings and the worst inflation crisis in 40 years into a choice between himself and Trump, who alienated moderate and suburban voters in the 2018 and 2020 elections. .
Democrats tried something similar in an atypical election in 2021, but failed when Virginia Republican Glenn Youngkin emphasized education and rising prices and won the governorship in a state that Biden had won by 10 points the previous year.
But this year, Trump is indeed on the ballot given his endorsement of many candidates whose main calling card is total allegiance to their bogus claims of voter fraud. And even outside the White House, he’s in the news every day in the wake of the FBI’s search of his Florida home, reminding voters of the chaos and fury of his presidency as he and his allies threaten and they try to intimidate institutions like the FBI.
Biden’s gamble is an attempt to reframe the midterms
Still, the unanswered question of 2022 is whether voters will be swayed by the argument that democracy is at risk, a somewhat esoteric concept outside of Washington, or seek to punish the president for the pain many feel from rising in the price of budget-busting groceries.
Conventional wisdom has often favored the latter conclusion. However, perceptions could be changing. A CBS News poll this week found that 72% of Americans believe that democracy and government are under threat. However, knowing if that is the most prominent factor when voting is another question.
Biden’s approach is not without risk. With his comments on fascism last week and his relentless attack on “MAGA Republicans,” he is in danger of branding all Republicans as extremists. Millions of people voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 because they embraced his anti-establishment creed or his hostility to globalization. Some just liked his direct way of speaking. But that does not mean that they have renounced democracy.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tried to play into this lane with his own speech in Pennsylvania on Thursday, seeking to paint Biden as dismissive of millions of patriots.
“President Biden has chosen to divide, demean and disparage his fellow Americans. Why? Simply because they don’t agree with his policies,” McCarthy said. “That’s not leadership.”
“The first lines out of his mouth should be to apologize for smearing tens of millions of Americans as ‘fascists,'” the California Republican added.
Biden tried to shield himself from McCarthy’s criticism by insisting that not all Republicans are radicals. But the distinction is unlikely to be heard in the chaos of a national election campaign. McCarthy, of course, is guilty of his own transgressions against democracy. Shortly after the Capitol insurrection, he said that Trump had some responsibility. But he soon flew to Florida to reconcile with the former president on whom he seems to think the Republican hopes for a majority in the House and his dreams of becoming president depend.
If nothing else, Biden’s speech set fire to the midterm election campaign. His recently hardened rhetoric and Trump’s relentlessly inflammatory behavior prove two things: The former president remains a threat to democracy. And Biden believes it is his destiny to stop him.