Joe Biden’s Independence Hall speech was an act of semi-plagiarism. But he (or his lazy speechwriters) at least had the sense to steal from the major Democrats of the last century—Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Those old-time Democrats were not shy about bashing Republicans as fascists—no semi- demi-shilly-shallying—and for all that, winning elections.
So Biden’s catalog of innuendoes can be called cowardly, too. The Independence Hall setting intensified, deepened, and heightened his failure simply by demanding it be measured by the highest political standards. As the veteran political observer and scholar William B. Allen archly put it, “Nice try.”
Biden based his speech on Progressive assumptions about historical progress, while also being rooted in the playbook of the Democratic Party. In his recent appearance on C-Span, Steven Hayward reminded us of the 19th century nickname of the party as “the Democracy,” recalling not only the party’st roots in slavery but in total political domination, aided by immigration. The great historian Henry Adams described politics as the “systematic organization of hatreds.” And the Democratic Party has remained rooted in racial hatred, as Biden’s speech showed. The object of the hate may appear to have shifted from blacks to white males, but its obsession with race remains central to its existence.
In a serious speech about divisiveness, Biden could have condemned the violent threats against the Supreme Court, but he was silent. He could have praised Donald Trump’s plans for withdrawal from Afghanistan—thus providing some bipartisan cover for Biden’s bungled strategy—but he was silent on that, too. As he was on the Trump Administration’s development of the COVID vaccines. Such acknowledgements would be natural for a politically neutral observer, but the purity of Biden’s hatred in that speech allowed no compromise. It was all about the righteousness of one party over another.
That self-righteous partisanship is borne out in the 30 mentions of democracy, with only two mentions of freedom (both in the same sentence) and two of liberty. By contrast, the Democratic Party gets one mention and Republicans a dozen, 10 of those condemnations of “MAGA Republicans.”
But there is a low rationality to Biden’s distortion of reality. After all, such partisanship has succeeded for Democrats in the past. The 1944 State of the Union address, with its ugly slander of Republicans in wartime, certainly didn’t hurt in winning FDR a fourth term. Note the sixth paragraph from the end of the speech, an official, constitutionally required act of the presidency:
One of the great American industrialists of our day—a man who has rendered yeoman service to his country in this crisis—recently emphasized the grave dangers of “rightist reaction” in this Nation. All clear-thinking businessmen share his concern. Indeed, if such reaction should develop—if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called “normalcy” of the 1920s—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of fascism here at home.
Calvin Coolidge’s “normalcy of the 1920s” was a reflection of “the spirit of fascism”?
Harry Truman’s 1948 Chicago speech, was even wilder in condemning Republicans for allegedly fronting for fascists, racists, anti-Semites, and anti-Catholics. Truman said and did many ugly things in his political career—seizing steel mills during the Korean war, threatening to draft striking workers—but this was a rhetorical low for American presidents.
Even the Truman admirer and historian David McCullough, who passed away on August 7, described the speech as “his most savage speech of the campaign, a wild attack, uncalled for, in which he said a vote for Dewey was a vote for fascism.” It failed in provoking his bland opponent, Thomas Dewey, to make an unhinged reply, but it maintained momentum that Truman acquired in his whistlestop train campaign. The president began by claiming he had knowledge of a secretive threat to the “American way of life.” The demagoguery deserves quotation at length, if only to contrast it with Biden’s.
The real danger to our democracy does not come only from these extremes [minority Communists and “crackpot forces of the extreme right wing”]. It comes mainly from the powerful reactionary forces which are silently undermining our democratic institutions.
I am going to tell you just what these forces are.
We must not imagine, just because we love freedom, that freedom is safe—that our freedom is safe. Eternal vigilance is still the price of liberty . . .
What are these forces that threaten our way of life? Who are the men behind them? They are the men who want to see inflation continue unchecked. They are the men who are striving to concentrate great economic power in their own hands. They are the men who are setting up and stirring up racial and religious prejudice against some of our fellow Americans.
At this point a critic of Biden might guffaw at Truman’s denunciation of inflation and Biden’s own racial demagoguery and anti-religious policies.
This is not just a battle between two parties. It is a fight for the very soul of the American Government….
[I]n recent years there has been a new outcropping of demagogues among us. Dangerous men, who are trying to win followers for their war on democracy, are attacking Catholics, and Jews, and Negroes, and other minority races and religions . . .
His Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey, decided to ignore what they dismissed as a desperate, last-minute attack. But more Americans may have sensed weakness on Dewey’s part, which meant the Republicans couldn’t be trusted to lead America in troubling times. The speech was part of Truman’s comeback victory of 1948. Today is different, but the Republicans so far seem to emulate the loser Dewey by the superficiality of their replies. They remain superficial because they don’t know the heights of American politics, while the Democrats know well the depths.
Republicans may have known at one time that the most fascistic speech ever given by an American president was Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural, a powerful short address that compared the president and the Democratic Party to Jesus Christ and defied the Constitution’s limits on executive power. Unfortunately, Republicans left that speech unchallenged until Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural, which questions the national government’s powers as they have developed since Roosevelt.
Moreover, any Democrat today would reap derision if she repeated Truman’s line about inflation today. An effective political speech needs to appeal to self-interest as well as higher motives of moral imperatives. Biden’s speech had insults but little inspiration for his domestic or foreign policies.
Biden’s speech shows that not only is his grasp of basic American politics lacking, but he cannot articulate his objection to “MAGA Republicans,” who, after all, are themselves protesting that their votes were not being counted, and that they are the ones being denied democracy.
Biden cannot see the contradiction in his position because he wrongly asserts that the right to vote is “the most fundamental freedom in this country” and misses the most fundamental thing about being American. The most fundamental freedom Americans possess is the right to govern oneself, to own oneself. That is a kind of property right. Voting by itself can only be the “most fundamental freedom” if government is all-important.
Any young American can readily think of freedoms more important than the right to vote: freedom of conscience, religion, speech, press, and association should rank more highly. By elevating voting as the only possible demonstration of consent, Biden enshrines an authoritarian view of politics based on Rousseau’s general will. This is all part of his Progressive dismissal of individual rights in favor of collective action. Biden’s trickle-down liberty view is not the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” or the rule by the “consent of the governed” of the Declaration of Independence, but something wholly alien to it. One might almost call it semi-fascist.
The democracy Biden advances is no different from a mobocracy, where justice is what the powerful want. This is why his example of advancing freedoms fails the common good test: “the flame of liberty . . . that lit our way through abolition, the Civil War, suffrage, the Great Depression, world wars, civil rights.” Freedom for the oppressed becomes power over others, including the majority.
In light of such a perverted understanding of the American democratic republic, it is preposterous to assert that: “MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law.” Biden’s concept of democracy is the death of American constitutional government, which is based on fundamental principles Biden rejects such as natural rights and natural law (“the laws of nature and of nature’s God”) that transcend historical circumstances.
Reagan put this nonsense to bed in his first inaugural: “From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?”
And Trump did well in responding to FDR in his second State of the Union address. Recall that he condemned elites of both parties, that is, those who were seated behind him at his Inauguration.
Biden has shown he is incapable of governing America to most Americans’ satisfaction. It has little to do with his apparent dementia and everything to do with his un-American understanding of freedom.
Those who object to Biden’s disgraceful speech should have dwelled not on the bizarre lighting, the Marines, or the blatant partisanship but rather should themselves have elevated the debate. They should have confronted Biden the crisis-monger by citing the brief remarks of our greatest president when he spoke at at Independence Hall, Abraham Lincoln, who as he was on his way from Illinois to Washington, D.C. on February 22, 1861 had this to say:
It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence. Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world, if I can help to save it. If it cannot be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.
A preposterous speech at a hallowed place demands a serious reply about the liberty this nation is built on.