At first I wondered if Joe Biden’s prime time speech Thursday night on the threat to American democracy from Donald Trump and his cult-like Republican MAGA followers was, at minimum, a semi-risky political bet.

Biden has made this kind of speech before, after all, and generally to little effect. And in this case he would leave himself open to making a nakedly partisan speech in advance of the November midterms. 

But the more I listened, the more I realized that naming names — particularly that of a certain former president — was not so much a risky bet as it was Biden’s best and maybe his only bet, even knowing the response to the speech from Republicans and media allies would be quick, ugly and, no doubt, relentless. 

It didn’t take long for would-be Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy  — that is, if Republicans win control and Trump signs off — to say Biden had chosen “to divide, demean, and disparage his fellow Americans.”

Naturally Lauren Boebert , who wants to impeach Biden because he’s Biden and she’s Lauren Boebert, said it even more directly. “Never has a president shown such hatred for his fellow Americans.” At least she didn’t say Biden was part of the Gestapo. 

Biden talked repeatedly about “we the people,” but it is not at all clear who we the people are anymore in these polarized times. The overwhelming majority of “we the people” didn’t see the speech, even as some historians were on cable news comparing our time to the run up to the Civil War.

Still, making the midterms a referendum on Trump — all the indictments he could be facing, the hints by Trumpists that there would be violence in the streets should Trump be indicted, Trump’s radical Supreme Court, which has overturned Roe and who knows what long-held right comes next — is clearly the right move. 

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And, as we know, Trump, who loves to be the center of attention, will certainly oblige, and he’s guaranteed a far bigger platform than those Republican candidates who would much prefer a referendum on Biden instead. It’s no wonder that Biden reprised his “battle for the soul of this nation” line from the 2020 election.

At this late point, there’s little reason to doubt that Trump has only a modest relationship with democracy — trying to steal an election, after all, is an important sign of a breakup — but of course it’s far worse than that. Which is why you see sycophantic Trumpists hanging out with the likes of autocrats like Hungary’s Victor Orbán.

Forget for a moment, if you can, the demagoguery and the race-baiting and the rest of the Trumpian menace, and concentrate only on this much: On the morning of the speech, Trump said he was considering fully pardoning most of the January 6 insurrectionists who have been convicted in the riotous assault on the Capitol. And then there’s the photo of the classification markings on top-secret documents that Trump had, for some reason, squirreled away to Mar-a-Lago. It’s a devastating photo particularly given that someone — Trump’s lawyers and possibly Trump himself — had lied about having more classified documents than he had already turned over. Especially give your attention to the threats of violence against the FBI agents who participated in the Mar-a-Lago search.

Democracy is on the line, as bright red states across the country pass laws making it harder to vote and easier for state legislatures to overrule the will of the voters. It’s that serious.

The timing of Biden’s speech was not coincidental. Biden had a good August in Congress. His terrible approval ratings have been improving. The January 6 committee has been a hit — right at Trump’s midsection. Gas prices, if not inflation, are heading in the right direction.

And a recent NBC News poll had “threat to democracy” as the greatest issue of concern among American voters, even greater than inflation.

So when Biden, who rarely mentions Trump by name, says, “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundation of our republic,” it’s a big bleeping deal.

When he says it while standing in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was argued and signed, the message couldn’t be less subtle.

As Atlantic columnist David Frum pointed out, even as Biden took pains to separate mainstream Republicans from Trumpists, he didn’t try very hard or for very long.

Instead, we got this: “There’s no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans.” 

And this: “Ladies and gentlemen, we can’t be pro-insurrectionist and pro-American. They’re incompatible. We can’t allow violence to be normalized in this country. It’s wrong.”

The speech could have been stronger. It may not be Biden’s fault — having had to overcome a childhood stutter — that he’s a C+ orator, but that’s still the case. And Biden spent too much time touting his successes as president, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the Trumpist threat to democracy or on his damaging hold on much of the Republican Party.

Whatever opinion you hold of Biden’s presidency, you can at least be assured that he has a good working relationship with the Constitution. Or maybe we can’t even agree on that much.

The speech has been made, with Biden’s take on the truth in play. Trump, of course, isn’t exactly interested in the truth, but rather in turning up the volume on his latest pronouncement. Now we’ll see whether Democratic candidates adopt Biden’s tone or at least the same message and how many Republicans will say that Trump would be right to pardon the January 6, uh, “patriots.”

We’ll soon learn which side makes the riskier bet.

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. Sign up for Mike’s newsletter.

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