PHILADELPHIA (AP) — President Joe Biden warned Thursday night that “equality and democracy are under attack” in the US when he raised the alarm about his predecessor, Donald Trump, and “MAGA Republican” supporters, calling them an extremist threat to the nation and its future.
Aiming to reframe the November election as part of a battle for the soul of the nation — “the work of my presidency,” Biden used his prime-time address at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall to argue that Trump and “Make America Great Again” allies challenge the national system of government, its position abroad and the way of life of its citizens.
“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” Biden said. He said they are “determined to make this country go backwards,” they “promote authoritarian leaders and they fan the flames of political violence.”
Biden’s explicit attempt to marginalize Trump and his supporters marks a sharp turn for the president, who preached his desire to bring about national unity in his inaugural address. White House officials said it reflects its growing concern over Trump allies’ ideological proposals and the country’s ruthless denial of the country’s 2020 election results.
“MAGA forces are determined to reclaim this country,” Biden said, according to prepared comments from the White House. “Back to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to birth control, no right to marry those you love.”
“We have long reassured ourselves that American democracy is guaranteed. But it’s not,” Biden says. “We must defend it. Protect it. Stand up for it. Each of us.”
Biden, who largely avoided even referring to “the former man” during his first year in office, has been getting louder and louder by calling out Trump personally. Now, emboldened by his party’s recent legislative victories and wary of Trump’s return to headlines, Biden is sharpening his attacks.
Trump is planning a rally this weekend in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden’s hometown.
During a Democratic fundraiser last week, Biden compared the “MAGA philosophy” to “semi-fascism.”
In Philadelphia, White House officials said Biden intended to hark back to the 2017 white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, which he said brought him out of political retirement to challenge Trump. Biden says the country will face a similar crossroads in the coming months.
Biden’s allies insist that he does not reject the entirety of the GOP and is calling on traditional Republicans to join him in condemning Trump and his followers. It’s a balancing act, as more than 74 million people voted for Trump in 2020.
“I respect conservative Republicans,” Biden said last week. “I have no respect for these MAGA Republicans.”
With a preemptive rebuttal from Scranton Thursday night, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy accused Biden of trying to divide Americans, destroying Democrats’ record in Washington, pointing to rising inflation, crime and government spending.
“Over the past two years, Joe Biden has launched an attack on the soul of America, on its people, on its laws, on its most sacred values,” he said. “He has launched an attack on our democracy. His policies have seriously damaged America’s soul, tarnished America’s spirit and violated America’s trust.”
Asked about McCarthy’s criticisms, Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary, said “we understand we are touching a nerve” with the GOP leader, citing the Republican’s previous statements that Trump was responsible for the attack. January 6, 2021 at the United States Capitol.
Larry Diamond, a democracy expert and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said Trump’s calls for attacks on democracy “can be manipulated or labeled as partisan. And if you don’t shout it, you’ll shy away from an important challenge in the defense of democracy.”
Even this week, Trump posted on his beleaguered social media platform about undoing the 2020 election results and holding new presidential elections, which would violate the constitution.
Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, said it is not uncommon for tensions to arise between a president and his successor, but that it is “unprecedented for a former president to actively attempt to undermine the US Constitution.”
“The challenge President Biden faces is to continue with his agenda and still do what he needs to do to uphold the constitution,” Naftali said. “That’s not easy.”
The White House has tried to keep Biden away from the legal and political maelstrom surrounding the Justice Department’s discovery of classified documents in Trump’s Florida home. Still, Biden has benefited from the swift condemnation of federal law enforcement by some Republicans.
“You can’t be pro-law enforcement and pro-insurgency,” Biden said Tuesday in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
Biden’s performance Thursday night was promoted as an official, taxpayer-funded event, a sign of how the president views defeating the Trump agenda as as much a policy goal as a political goal. It was not expected that the major television channels would broadcast the address live.
Biden’s trip to Philadelphia is just one of his three trips to the state within a week, a sign of Pennsylvania’s importance in the midterm elections, with competitive races for the Senate and governor. However, neither Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, the Democrat Senate candidate, nor Attorney General Josh Shapiro, their choice for governor, were expected to be in attendance Thursday night.
The White House wanted the speech to reconcile familiar themes: bipartisan legislative victories over weapons and infrastructure as evidence that democracies “can deliver”, pushing back GOP policies on guns and abortion that Biden says are inconsistent with views of most people, and rejecting attempts to undermine confidence in the country’s election or diminish its position abroad.
The challenges have only grown since the turmoil surrounding the 2020 election and the attack on the Capitol.
Lies surrounding that presidential race have led to intimidation and death threats against state and local election officials and new restrictions on mail voting in Republican-dominated states. County election officials have faced pressure to ban the use of voting devices, efforts generated by conspiracy theories that voting machines were somehow manipulated to steal the election.
Candidates contesting Trump’s loss have been inspired to run for state and local election posts, promising to restore the integrity of a system undermined by false claims.
There is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines. Judges, including those appointed by Trump, dismissed dozens of post-election lawsuits, and Trump’s own attorney general called the claims bogus. Still, polls by Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research have shown that about two-thirds of Republicans say they don’t think Biden was legitimately elected president.
This year, election officials face not only the ongoing threat of foreign interference, but also ransomware, politically motivated hackers and threats from within. In the past year, security breaches have been reported at a small number of local polling stations where authorities are investigating whether office workers have inappropriately accessed or granted inappropriate access to sensitive voting technology.
Associated Press writer Zeke Miller reported from Washington. Chris Megerian in Washington and Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta contributed.