On September 1, 2022, President Biden gave a speech which will be his defining moment as a leader and communicator. The official name for the speech is “Remarks by President Biden on the Continued Battle for the Soul of the Nation” but it can be commonly identified as just the anti-MAGA speech. This speech became controversial immediately after it was given. Supporters of President Biden and his politics called it an accurate description of recent past events and the current state of affairs. Those on the other side believed that his words were divisive, in bad faith, and an attack against his political opponents.
One question that I heard raised from a supporter of the speech’s worldview is “what did he say that was wrong?” This is a very fair, interesting question and a good starting point from which an opponent of the speech’s worldview can build an argument. The speech itself wasn’t about presenting a certain set of facts which could be proven or disproven. It was about building a narrative, perception, and framing around a set of events. To point out the problems of a narrative, we need to see whether it can be shown to be contrived; inconsistent with previous actions/beliefs, one-sided, and exclusionary of the full context of its underlying factual blocks. If we look at it this way, even if we can’t say that what President Biden said is “wrong”, we can demonstrate that what he said is partisan, inconsistent, hypocritical, and not the basis for a good-faith worldview.
The full text of the speech can be found at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/09/01/remarks-by-president-bidenon-the-continued-battle-for-the-soul-of-the-nation/
The entirety of the speech can be viewed at:
Let’s look at some of the specific statements from the speech that are controversial and problematic in terms of intellectual consistency.
“Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal.
Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.
Now, I want to be very clear — (applause) — very clear up front: Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology.”
The speech starts off in a problematic way; it clearly states that there is a bad, guilty identity but it is very unclear as to what specifically this identity is. What is a MAGA Republican? Is it a set of political beliefs? Is it someone who voted Republican? Is it someone who voted for Donald Trump? Voted for him once? Voted for him twice? Is it someone who wears a MAGA hat? Is it someone who simply opposes Democrats and/or Joe Biden? If you were hundreds of miles away from Washington DC on January 6 but you voted for Republican candidates in the 2020 election, are you a threat to the very foundations of the country? If you support some or all of the MAGA political ideas but didn’t vote or participate in any protests, are you a MAGA Republican?
By making these vague assertions, President Biden potentially called nearly half the country as enemies without specifying what types of associations, actions, beliefs, or ideology makes you an enemy and why. It is certainly not in the principles of tolerance and liberty for the democratically elected leader of a country to call (maybe?) half of his constituents as enemies and extremists without explaining how/whether someone lands in the extremist category.
“But there is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to this country.”
“And here, in my view, is what is true: MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people.
They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they’re working right now, as I speak, in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.”
Here we start to get into the realm of contrived arguments. There has been a long history of Democrat politicians challenging the results of elections. This has been attempted using the court system, refusals to concede, procedural moves to influence electors, objecting to electoral votes, and delegitimizing the opposition. Why is there a double standard where it is ok for one side to take these steps, but not the other side? I’m not making the argument that it is good or bad when one or the other side does it. But it is completely disingenuous, contrived, and politically opportunistic to prey on the emotions of a group of people who don’t know any better to demonize one side for doing something that your own side has been doing for decades.
You may say, “Ok, so previously there were concerted efforts by politicians and candidates to object to and overturn elections. But it only got as far as lawsuits and speeches. There’s never been violent action taken by a mob of protesters against the government to stop the government from functioning!” Well, this is untrue.
“They look at the mob that stormed the United States Capitol on January 6th — brutally attacking law enforcement — not as insurrectionists who placed a dagger to the throat of our democracy, but they look at them as patriots.
And they see their MAGA failure to stop a peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election as preparation for the 2022 and 2024 elections.”
There are many examples of left-wing violent and non-violent protests that occurred specifically in legislative buildings to stop the government from functioning or to get a certain outcome. We did not see a media or politician meltdown about the future of democracy being at stake. Again, you don’t have to support or not when either side does “it”, but it is blatant hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty to only be against something when the other side is doing “it”. If one side is doing “it” for a cause you agree with and the other side is doing “it” for a cause you don’t agree with, then you must oppose or support “it” in both cases – supporting something on a partisan basis is fundamentally unprincipled.
Kentucky, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma all had legislative building occupations by protestors in order to shut down their governments.
A courthouse attacked in Portland:
There were also violent and damaging multi-day protests after President Trump was elected and inaugurated (with hundreds of arrests):
Anyone not living under a rock also plainly saw examples of left-wing rioting causing damage to both government and private property, especially in 2020. How many times have these rioters been vilified even though they have caused orders of magnitude more monetary damage and many more people have died than on January 6? The CHAZ protestors in Seattle literally took over a piece of the city, sounds like an insurrection to me. How many times did the media and left-wing politicians call out these people for their destructive behavior?
In fact, the mainstream media and left-wing politicians went out of their way to defend the violent riots of 2020 and the damage they caused.
Members of the Biden campaign (on their own initiative but without any disciplinary measure from the campaign) and Kamala Harris herself acted in ways to support violent/destructive protestors and help them avoid the consequences of their actions. This is a clear double standard and shows that the Biden administration is supportive of political violence and destruction. But only when it is perpetrated for an ideological viewpoint the administration supports.
If we look at the numbers, should the mainstream media have applied the same standard of “mostly peaceful” to the January 6 riot as it did to the BLM/Antifa riots? The House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack estimates that there were 80,000 people in attendance for the Stop the Steal rally. Other sources estimate that the attendance could have been as low as 40,000 people or over 100,000 people. Between 2,000 and 8,000 of those people stormed the Capitol. Around 1,100 people have had criminal charges (many not for violent or damaging crimes) brought against them. So roughly 1% of the attendees of a rally have had criminal charges brought against them… sounds “mostly peaceful” to me. 5 people died either directly or indirectly as a result of the January 6 riots. Depending on the source, between 20 to 30 people died at BLM/Antifa protests in 2020. The 2020 riots caused roughly $2B of damages, the January 6 riot caused an estimated ~$3M in direct damages. The double-standard when comparing the various protests and riots versus January 6 is glaring.
“This is a nation that respects free and fair elections. We honor the will of the people. We do not deny it. (Applause.)
And this is a nation that rejects violence as a political tool. We do not encourage violence.”
“We, the people, will not let anyone or anything tear us apart. Today, there are dangers around us we cannot allow to prevail. We hear — you’ve heard it — more and more talk about violence as an acceptable political tool in this country. It’s not. It can never be an acceptable tool.
So I want to say this plain and simple: There is no place for political violence in America. Period. None. Ever. (Applause.)”
“On top of that, there are public figures — today, yesterday, and the day before — predicting and all but calling for mass violence and rioting in the streets.
This is inflammatory. It’s dangerous. It’s against the rule of law. And we, the people, must say: This is not who we are. (Applause.)”
This is another contrived, hypocritical train of thought. Democrats have not had any qualms about advocating for political violence targeted at private and governmental individuals contrary to the rule of law. Democratic congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said in 2020 “There needs to be unrest in the streets for as long as there is unrest in our lives, and unfortunately there’s plenty to go around.” Democratic congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said in 2018 on a topic where she disagreed with a policy “I just don’t know why there aren’t uprisings all over the country, and maybe there will be.” Democratic congresswoman Maxine Waters said the following in 2018 regarding officials working in the Trump administration “Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up. And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” This sounds like public figures calling for mass violence and rioting in the streets and targeting political opponents, but it looks like President Biden forgot to condemn these statements either as a private citizen or elected official.
Also, as mentioned previously, individuals with the Biden campaign helped violent protesters with legal expenses. Again, this shows support for violence as a political tool and doesn’t fit with the condemnation rhetoric of the speech.
Why deliver the speech at the time? What was the purpose? This country has developed a culture since 2000 of the defeated party communicating out rhetoric about the legitimacy of the newly elected president but not taking action beyond that. The post Biden election landscape is much the same; rhetoric questioning the legitimacy of the President while all of the normal political functions continue as normal. This is normally brushed aside by the President. What was different or special about the environment that the leader of the country felt it appropriate to nationally demonize (maybe) half the country?
It should be noted that this speech was given in September of 2022. This is more than a year and a half after President Biden was sworn in. His party controlled the executive and legislative branches (Democrat majorities in both House and Senate). Key cornerstones of the Biden administration’s legislative agenda had already passed (ARPA in March 2021, IIJA in November 2021, and the most politically significant one was the Inflation Reduction Act in August 2022). The Biden administration was also making its mark on the judicial branch, with 108 judges passing their confirmation hearings before October of 2022 (153 were nominated, 126 had hearings by that time). There wasn’t any question or challenge of the legitimacy of the Presidency at the time the speech was given, the government was functioning normally. Why (potentially) call out half the country as a threat to the country at a time when everything was normal?
What is a possible alternative to the approach that President Biden took? Instead of being divisive, alienating, and condescending to potentially half the country, is there a way to be uniting in such a scenario? Is there an example from American politics where a leader identified a very specific problematic group of people while acknowledging the validity of both sides of a controversial argument? I’m certain that great statesmen in American history have been able to do this over the last 250 years but we don’t need to find a great statesman to find a relevant example. We just need to go back to August of 2017 and see the example of a very flawed leader and his response to the Unite the Right protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The Unite the Right rally was focused on protesting the removal of Confederate statues and monuments from public spaces in certain areas of the American South. This rally involved the participation of a broad spectrum of American rightists, from traditional conservatives to white supremacists wielding Nazi symbols. These protesters believed that the removal of the statues was an attack on an important piece of American history and identity. There was also a significant counter-protester presence. Regarding the topic of the Confederate statues, the counter-protesters supported their removal since these statues (to them) represented oppression, treason, and racial supremacism. Outside of the rally itself, a counter-protester was killed by a protester, which sparked nationwide outrage.
President Trump’s response (https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-trump-charlottesville-transcript-20170815-story.html – quoted below from a news conference, bolding added by me for emphasis) is an example of legitimizing both sides of a political debate, acknowledging the controversy, condemning specific bad actors on both sides who performed very specific actions, and singling out a narrowly targeted group for condemnation for the specific actions they took. If one were to look at this in an unbiased way and without prejudice towards the person saying it, this is a balanced message which acknowledges the desires and viewpoints of both sides of the political spectrum.
“TRUMP: I will tell you something. I watched those very closely, much more closely than you people watched it. And you have — you had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. You had a group — you had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent.
TRUMP: Those people — all of those people — excuse me. I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee. So — excuse me. And you take a look at some of the groups and you see — and you’d know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you’re not, but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you all — you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop? But they were there to protest — excuse me. You take a look, the night before, they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. Infrastructure question, go ahead.
TRUMP: [answering a question about whether he supports the statue removals] I would say that’s up to a local town, community, or the federal government, depending on where it is located.
TRUMP: I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I’m saying is this. You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible. And it was a horrible thing to watch. But there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You’ve just called them the left — that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.
TRUMP: Well, I do think there’s blame — yes, I think there’s blame on both sides. You look at — you look at both sides. I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either.
TRUMP: Excuse me, excuse me. (inaudible) themselves (inaudible) and you have some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. You had people in that group — excuse me, excuse me — I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.
TRUMP: OK. Good. Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue? So you know what? It’s fine. You’re changing history. You’re changing culture. And you had people, and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. OK? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people, but you also had troublemakers and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. You’ve got — you had a lot of bad — you had a lot of bad people in the other group…
TRUMP: No, no. There were people in that rally, and I looked the night before. If you look, they were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day, it looked like they had some rough, bad people — neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest, because you know — I don’t know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn’t have a permit. So, I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country, a horrible moment. But there are two sides to the country (sic). Does anybody have a final — doesn’t anybody have a — you have an infrastructure…”
But of course, the mainstream media and leftist politicians did not take and propagate these words as unifying or evenhanded. President Trump became misquoted and taken out of context to make it sound like he thought the white supremacists and Nazis were good people. President Biden himself repeated and continues to repeat this lie (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10650165/Biden-REPEATS-claim-Trump-called-neo-Nazis-good-people-Charlottesville-riot-NATO-speech.html). Many people still falsely believe that President Trump called Nazis “very fine people” and encouraged rightist violence based on carefully cut and edited news clips and lies from leftist politicians.
What would a message of unification look like after January 6? Simple, President Trump already has the playbook there for acknowledging the grievances and validity on both sides of the discussion and condemning specific bad actors. As an alternative to his divisive speech, President Biden could’ve doubled down on the message that the results of the election were free, fair, accurate, and legitimate while acknowledging the root of the frustration of the January 6 protestors and specifically denouncing protestors who committed acts of physical violence, property destruction, and plotting to prevent the government from functioning.
President Biden commits the logical fallacies of strawman-ing and either/or-ing when he describes the January 6 mentality:
“Democracy cannot survive when one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election: either they win or they were cheated. And that’s where MAGA Republicans are today. (Applause.)”
Instead of going this route, President Biden could have potentially gotten a lot of support from “MAGA Republicans” if he would’ve reiterated the validity of the election results while acknowledging the merit of some specific election concerns and offered to come up with bipartisan, unifying solutions to ensure that future election security would be enhanced.
Many on the right are upset at the process and loosening of election integrity standards around the 2020 elections. Automatic voter registration and mass dispersal of mail-in ballots, accepting late post-marked mail-in ballots, and discarding outer ballot envelopes to make cross-matching signatures and date information to specific ballots impossible are all things that happened in different states.
It is arguable what (if any) impact these things had on the election, but it is inarguable that all of these things decrease election security, make it easier to potentially commit electoral fraud, and lower the trust that people put into the electoral system. It should not be a partisan issue to acknowledge this. And it should not be a partisan issue to offer solutions to improve upon specific structural weaknesses observed in the electoral process. President Biden could’ve easily gotten allies on the right without giving up anything from his agenda on the left while increasing trust in the election process and increasing faith that government listens to opposing feedback with this approach.
Maybe it is not possible for President Biden and other leftists to offer a unifying, conciliatory, balanced message because they already poisoned the well too much to make that a politically feasible option? Maybe denouncing political opposition with demagoguery and hoping it sticks with uninformed people who aren’t paying attention is the best we can hope for in American politics?