Among those still in the if-everyone-would-only-ignore-Trump-he’d-simply-go-away camp, Joe Biden finally realized that the concept wasn’t working. Not only was it not working, it was a disaster. And not only has it been a disaster, there’s no easy way to fix it.
Some are saying Biden gave the best speech of his presidency Thursday on the anniversary of January 6 — OK, a low bar — but in this case, there was no need for soaring rhetoric, just plainspoken truth. It was time — a year after the Capitol riot/attempted coup and the GOP’s continued embrace of the Big Lie — for Biden to finally and straightforwardly call out Donald Trump and his followers/enablers for holding “a dagger to the throat” of American democracy.
In his speech, Biden basically read out an indictment of “the former president,” which was, in effect, an indictment of the Trump-fully-owned Republican Party and the only plank in its platform, which is to promulgate the Big Lie. For Trump, that is basically the entirety of his message. That is, if you don’t include his attacks on the media, antifa, Black Lives Matter, Democrats, Liz Cheney, immigrants, refugees from shithole countries, Adam Schiff and any Republican who dared to vote to impeach him or convict him or simply question the holy writ that is the Big Lie.
Biden called Trump a sore loser — loser being for Trump the most damning epithet — whose “bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our constitution. He can’t accept he lost.”
For Biden’s part, he ran on unifying the country and couldn’t seem to accept the notion that to still believe in bipartisanship is a sucker’s game. When nearly three in five Republicans still tell pollsters that they don’t think your election was legitimate, it’s past time to change tactics.
Not a single Republican senator showed up for ceremonies commemorating all that was lost on that January day when the Capitol came under siege. Only one Republican House member — the now-exiled-from-her-own-party Liz Cheney, accompanied by her father, Dick — showed up. When you see Democrats lining up to praise Dick Cheney, you know the world has gone either upside down or sideways. A few Republican senators did leave January 6 statements, a very few. Where was Mitt Romney, whose life may have been saved — as he himself has often expressed — by a brave member of the Capitol police? As the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser put it of the Republican boycott: That’s “why the story of January 6, 2022, is also the story of the elephant not in the room.”
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Maybe the most telling moment of the day came when Ted Cruz — who has called the storming of the Capitol a “terrorist attack” — had to go on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program to apologize for telling that truth. It was more groveling than apologizing, actually, but we already knew who holds the real power in Republican politics. The party line is to say either that it was just another tourist-filled day at the Capitol or that the FBI had stoked the insurrection or that the rioters were really antifa. Even in the era of the Big Lie, those talking points can’t all be true at once, but no matter.
Biden mentioned Trump 19 times in his speech — but never by name, which must have infuriated the former guy, even as he plots his return to power from Elba-al-Margo. And while most Americans believe the Big Lie is, in fact, a big lie, you can hardly expect Biden’s words to have any impact on the Trump cultists or those GOP politicians lacking the spine to stand up either to Trump or to his base or to Tucker Carlson.
But they could change the tone of the conversation, which desperately needs changing. Trump is Trump, the carnival-barking demagogic huckster he always has been. There really isn’t much to learn there.
What there is to learn is how Trump managed to get elected in the first place, how more than 70 million Americans voted to re-elect him in 2020, how he has been able to tighten his hold on the GOP even when out of power. I’ve seen many attempts at explaining all this, but I’m not sure we’ve hit on the answer.
But without taking on Trump directly, you can’t really take on the base of Trump cultists, the true believers who have been manipulated — maybe duped is the better word — by Trump, Hannity, Carlson, Bannon and the rest.
Kyle Clark, the 9News anchor, drew some national attention when he said that the media fails when applying a double standard to politicians like Lauren Boebert, who is so often so outrageous that her unstinting support for lies, Big and Little, is often overlooked because of her constant assault on the truth.
The real truth is that though Boebert may be an extreme example, she’s hardly alone. While most of the responsible media now openly call out the Big Lie, they don’t often press those Republicans who only sporadically parrot the lie or those who simply refuse to answer when asked about it. For me, this was the most important part of Biden’s speech. He credited those “courageous men and women in the Republican Party … standing against Trump’s lies.”
But then he came after the not-so-courageous majority, including those who have passed voting laws in 17 Republican-led states — “Not to protect the vote,” Biden said, “but to deny it; not only to suppress the vote, but to subvert it; not to strengthen or protect our democracy, but because the former president lost.”
“At this moment,” Biden added, “we must decide: What kind of nation are we going to be?”
That’s all that’s at stake, I guess. On Friday, Biden came to Colorado to console survivors of the Marshall fire, encouraging them to “hang on to one another.” On Tuesday, his role changes. He goes to Atlanta to call for passage of two voter-reform bills, which would counteract some of the damage to be done by those red-state, voter-suppression laws. No Senate Republican is expected to support either bill, meaning neither can pass unless all 50 Democratic senators vote to reform the filibuster rules. Biden, a self-described creature of the Senate, has reluctantly joined that cause. But at this point, at least two Democrats have refused to sign on.
Biden doesn’t have to call out Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema by name. But he does have to call out those Democrats who worry more about protecting a Senate rule than protecting democracy. It’s time. It’s past time. How else can Biden legitimately raise the question he asked Thursday: What kind of nation are we going to be?
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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