Can the Democrats Stop the MAGA Threat?

Image by History in HD.

President Joe Biden addressed the nation on August first in a primetime speech from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With uniformed Marine Corps guards in the background, Biden declared:

I stand here tonight, equality and democracy are under assault. We do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise.

Biden directed his attacks at the “MAGA Republicans” or the supporters of former President Donald J. Trump. He outlined the immediate threat:

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.

MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards — backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.

Highlighting the January 6th riots instigated by Trump and his coterie of supporters, Biden said:

They [the MAGA Republicans] 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.

Biden said that the situation was not hopeless. He leaned heavily on appeals to God, American nostalgia, and a vague optimism, and called for unity. “That’s why tonight I’m asking our nation to come together, unite behind the single purpose of defending our democracy regardless of your ideology.”

What must be done to push back the authoritarian threat? “We can’t afford to have — leave anyone on the sidelines. We need everyone to do their part. So speak up. Speak out. Get engaged. Vote, vote, vote.” His pitch to vote in the upcoming 2022 elections was greeted with great applause by the vetted audience, and he clearly meant voting for the Democratic Party.

“Semi-Fascism”

Biden did pull his punches in his national address. Just a few weeks earlier at a major event for Democratic donors in Rockville, Maryland, Biden called Trump’s political philosophy “semi-fascism.” He avoided using the term and once again held out his hand to the dwindling number of traditional conservative Republicans. But, after the recent election defeat of Liz Cheney, vice chair of the House January 6th committee, it’s hard to take this seriously as a strategy to defeat Trump and his allies.

The motivation for Biden’s speech appeared to be playing the few cards the Democrats hold after several recent and overblown political victories, such as the partial student loan debt cancellation and passing a much diminished infrastructure bill, while reaping the public reaction against the Supreme Court repeal of Roe. Trump’s latest scandal over his keeping classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago home appeared to provide an opportunity to hit the Republicans at their most vulnerable spot right now.

Biden’s speech was crafted for a white, middle class audience. While there historical reference to past struggles in U.S. history, there were no direct appeals to African-Americans, Latinos, or working class people in general. Biden made no references to racist mass shootings or denouncing the fascist-inspired fantasies like the great replacement theory that inspire mass killings, despite having visited Buffalo and denounced white supremacy following the Tops Grocery massacre. Not even a mention of hatemongers like Tucker Carlson or potential successors to Trump, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Reactions to his speech were predictable. Liberals loved his speech and Republicans attacked it. “Joe Biden is the divider in chief and epitomizes the current state of the Democrat Party,” said Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee. “One of divisiveness, disgust and hostility towards half the country.” After Biden walked back some of his comments about the MAGA Republicans, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow rushed in, as he tried to prop-up the weak-kneed President.

Unfortunately, some well-known figures in the U.S. Left chose to enthusiastically embrace Biden rather than point out that his protein, calorie, and fat-free speech was largely forgettable. Ben Jealous, President of People for the American Way and the former head of the NAACP, appeared on Democracy Now! the day after Biden’s speech. Jealous was enthusiastic about Biden’s speech:

He was confident. He was clear about big victories for the climate, big victories for students, big victories for the economy. He was also very clear that he was drawing a line between MAGA extremists and the patriots that are the rest of this nation. He was very clear that we are at an existential moment, a moment I think most of us feel in our bones. And he was also clear, as a student of history, that we have been through worse and triumphed over it.

Joining Jealous was historian Nancy McClean and she was equally enthused:

My overall response is that this was the most important speech of President Joe Biden’s political career, and it was a wake-up call to the nation, and particularly to the mainstream media, in the nick of time.

Guardians of Democracy?

The immediate issue at hand is the upcoming fall Congressional elections. Traditional political thinking in the United States tells us the President’s party is punished during midterm elections, and this holds true most of the time. Earlier this spring it looked like Democrats faced being wiped out because of soaring inflation and an ineffective leadership on the presidential and Congressional level. Right now the Democrats hold a slim eight seat majority in the House and a one vote majority in the Senate due to Vice-President Kamala Harris casting her vote as President pro-tempore.

But, the Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe has motivated younger people, especially women to register to vote and go to the polls. The surprise referendum victory of pro-Abortion campaigners in Kansas and a few special election victories for Congress along with declining gas prices have made the fall election prospects less dark for the Democrats, but all the Republicans have to do is hold on to their current numbers and win five more to take control of the House. It is difficult to predict congressional elections because the districts are so Gerrymandered and as a result the smallest of voter shifts in 10 to 15 of them can force a change in government.

In the 2020 elections, despite easily defeating Trump by over seven million votes, Biden had no coattails to grab onto. The Washington Post reported:

The competitive races across the country almost all broke for Republicans. Democrats lost every one of the 27 House races rated as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report. Thirteen House Democrats were defeated. Meanwhile, Republicans did not lose a single House incumbent. Democrats picked up just three House seats, all in open-seat races where they benefited from favorable redistricting. Out of 14 competitive Senate races, Democrats won 6.

One could argue that there was a MAGA wave inside the Democratic victory. In 2016, the Democrats wanted to run against Trump because they thought he was the candidate they could handily beat. That strategy blew up in their face. It was only after Trump’s bugling response to the first year of the pandemic and a national uprising against racism, that the tide turned against him but with clear limits. Are the Democrats making the same mistake with the House and Senate elections this year as they did in 2016?

The Washington Post recently reported:

Democrats have spent nearly $19 million across eight states in primaries this year amplifying far-right Republican candidates who have questioned or denied the validity of the 2020 election, according to a Washington Post analysis, interfering in GOP contests to elevate rivals they see as easier to defeat in November, even as those candidates have promoted false or baseless claims.

Total Democratic spending rises to roughly $53 million when a ninth state, Illinois, is added. There, the Democratic Governors Association and the campaign of Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) spent a combined $34.5 million successfully elevating a GOP candidate who has said it was “appalling” that party leaders in Illinois wanted Trump to concede the 2020 election.

Some Democrats have raised concerns about this tactic. “This is a deeply, deeply precarious and dangerous strategy to deploy,” said former Indiana congressman Tim Roemer. “It risks elevating these liars and giving them a platform for another three or four months — even if they end up getting beat — to drumbeat their message into the electorate and further erode trust.”

The Washington Post reporter Annie Linskey commented:

Critics complain these investments undercut the party’s vow to be guardians of democracy. Worse yet, they say, in a difficult political climate for Democrats, they fear it might lead to electing the very candidates they perceive to present the biggest threats to the country.

How committed are the Democrats to stopping the authoritarian threat in the United States, if they are pursuing such a dangerous political strategy? The Department of Justice has charged over 900 people with crimes related to the January 6th riot at the Capitol Building, and so far 390 have pleaded guilty, but this has done little to dent the forces of the authoritarian right. Trump’s support in the electorate has also remained remarkably consistent despite his legal troubles.

Meanwhile many Republican candidates have already cast doubt on the outcome of the fall elections. According to the New York Times,

When asked, six Trump-backed Republican nominees for governor and the Senate in midterm battlegrounds would not commit to accepting this year’s election results, and another six Republicans ignored or declined to answer a question about embracing the November outcome.

Will Trump and losing Republican candidates call out supporters to intimidate election monitors? Will Trump call out armed militias to “liberate” state capitals as he did in 2020 during the first phase of the covid-19 pandemic? We should expect all of this to take place.

A suffocating sense of unease

In July, the Boston Globe and Suffolk University published the results of a poll conducted jointly. According to the poll:

Sharply rising prices and seismic Supreme Court decisions have cast a cloud over the lives of Massachusetts residents even as COVID-19 has begun to fade into the background for many of them, according to a new Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll.

Eight of 10 residents surveyed say they have been pinched in some way by ballooning inflation, and more than half say they’re concerned about their own financial situation. This has made money or finances their most common source of stress, the poll found, particularly among Black residents and younger ones — adding a suffocating sense of unease to people’s lives at a time already full of it.

For some, that economic anxiety has been compounded by the Supreme Court and its series of decisions last month, including overturning the constitutional right to an abortion. More people said the court’s actions affected them the most emotionally, more than inflation or other events, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

How this “suffocating sense of unease” will express itself in the coming midterm elections is still to be seen. The political dynamic that drives the authoritarian right’s growth: the interaction of neoliberal economic policies, xenophobia, the war on terror, rampant misogyny, anti-immigrant fear-mongering, and law and order politics continue without any major challengers in mainstream politics. The anemic liberalism of the Democratic Party is weak reed for the U.S. left and working class to hold onto faced with the increasing threat of authoritarian rightwing politics in this country.

JOE ALLEN is the author of Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost.