President Joe Biden is not wasting time on the pretense that Republican primaries are going to produce any opponent other than the man he bested three years ago. In upcoming ads and appearances, Biden is not just campaigning directly against Donald Trump, he’s focusing on one central theme: Donald Trump is a threat to democracy.
As NBC News reports, Biden is preparing a speech to be delivered on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection in which he will make a case that democracy and freedom are under a threat like none the nation has seen in the past. “Our message is clear, and it is simple,” said Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez. “We are running a campaign like the fate of our democracy depends on it. Because it does.”
As Biden campaigns on Trump’s unique threat to democracy, there is another candidate who is increasingly centered on the same theme: Trump. In advance of the Iowa caucuses, Trump is leaning into fascist rhetoric, doubling down on phrases lifted from Adolf Hitler, and making clear that he fully intends to ignore the law if he returns to power.
Both sides are making the stakes clear, and the biggest concern might not be America failing to listen … but that it already is.
It’s been clear for years that Republicans were willing to stick with Trump despite his frequent praise for brutal dictators and explicit statements that he wants to stuff the government full of yes-men who will empower his drive to use the government as a personal instrument of vengeance.
Astoundingly, the media is still cranking out pieces like this December hot take from CNN saying, “The widespread fear that Trump will actually be a dictator, however, is misplaced. If Trump wins the 2024 election, American democracy might be suspended, at least temporarily. But it won’t be replaced by a dictatorship, which is a coherent and recognizable system of government.”
In other words, don’t fear a Trump dictatorship, because Trump is too incompetent to be a dictator. This is exactly the kind of prediction anyone might have made about Pol Pot, or that guy responsible for Trump’s bedtime reading. Competence is not, and never has been, the hallmark of dictatorship. Having a total f**k-up in charge doesn’t make the bullets any softer. It just makes their distribution more random.
Before his Jan. 6 speech, Biden will also appear at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That was the church where a white supremacist killed nine Black church members in 2015. Even in those pre-Trump times, Republicans responded to the shooting by ignoring the racist motives of the shooter and calling for more guns in churches.
That’s because Trump isn’t just a source of hate speech. He’s a benefactor.
Trump’s campaign is buoyed up by decades of AM radio, Fox News, and social media that have fed the worst inclinations toward selfishness, intolerance, and disdain for justice. Decades of right-wing pundits promoting cruelty, equality as a weakness, and treating democracy as something to be sneered about has spread a kind of learned sociopathy.
As Denise Oliver-Velez highlighted last year, “You’ve got to be taught to hate.” Americans are not only getting that hate passed on to them by the prejudices of their own families, they are getting it confirmed by news media, social media, and increasingly by Republican political leaders. They are saturated in this hate, basted in it. That polls show a plurality of Republicans saying that fascist statements make them more likely to vote for Trump is shocking … but it really shouldn’t be.
It’s no longer even left versus right. It’s simply morality versus amorality.
That should have been clear in 2016 when the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape failed to dent Trump’s support. Trump blew off his endorsement of sexual assault as “locker room banter,” and Republican voters agreed. Between the time that tape was released on Oct. 7, 2016 and Election Day a month later, Trump’s favorability rating among Republican voters increased. This isn’t just a matter of sticking with Trump no matter what he says. It’s that the more Trump speaks to racism, misogyny, and injustice, the better he does.
That Access Hollywood tape is now something that Trump brags about. Not in a locker room, but in public rallies. He’s laughing about how he can get away with endorsing sexual assault, even though a jury already determined that he sexually assaulted writer E. Jean Carroll.
In a December appearance before the New York Young Republicans, Trump said that an unnamed general told him that going on television to give the “locker room talk” explanation was the “bravest thing I’ve ever seen.” Even braver than watching people die on the battlefield. That’s where the Republican Party is now. Lying about sexual violence is a virtue. Sacrificing one’s life for one’s nation is a sucker bet.
As polling from The Washington Post recently showed, Trump supporters are also less concerned about Jan. 6 than they were two years ago. It’s not that they are tired of talking about events of that day or the weeks of schemes Trump implemented leading up to the insurrection. It’s that they are increasingly on board with the Big Lie, increasingly sympathetic to those who smashed their way into the Capitol in defense of Trump, and increasingly loyal to Trump himself.
There should be no expectation that overt support for fascism, racism, and generic hate will shake the Republican base free from Trump. They passed the Welch limit long ago.
It’s not just that Republicans are sticking with Trump despite his anti-democratic positions, it’s that they are actively supporting these positions. They are eager to go further.
Hate may need to be learned, but empathy at least needs to be bolstered. Equality has to be taught. Democracy has to be valued. Otherwise, selfishness, prejudice, and narrow-minded support for strongman rule are easily spread. Trump is a source for the growing amorality of the fascist right, but he’s also a benefactor of a portion of America that has absorbed hate right down to its heartland bones.
Biden is right to campaign on the threat Trump represents. Just don’t think his base sticks with him because they don’t understand that threat. They understand. Maybe better than anyone else.