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The MAGA crowd’s dishonest counterpoint to Biden’s plea to save democracy

Trump voters also think democracy is at risk — but for all the wrong reasons.

Wednesday night was the second time in two months that President Joe Biden addressed the nation to warn of the ongoing threat to democracy. It was a solid, sincere bit of oration, one that emphasized the danger that political violence and voter intimidation poses to the democratic process. But as I processed his words afterward, I found myself unsure exactly who Biden meant to reach when he delivered that address from Washington’s Union Station.

Was it intended to push undecided voters to the polls? To affirm American values for posterity? Or to provoke a change of heart among Republicans who still back former President Donald Trump and his movement? The latter is an admirable goal, but I fear the train may have left the station, if you’ll excuse the pun. Worse, I can easily hear Trump delivering a version of Biden’s speech, one that reflected the way his movement has hijacked what it means to have a free and fair election in America.

I can easily hear Trump delivering a version of Biden’s speech, one that reflected the way his movement has hijacked what it means to have a free and fair election in America.

That may sound odd, but as Biden noted, polling has “shown an overwhelming majority of Americans believe our democracy is at risk, that our democracy is under threat.” The New York Times poll in question showed that a supermajority of Trump and Biden voters do believe that to be the case and at similar rates. In fact, nearly identical amounts of Democrats, Republicans and independents — roughly 72% — all agreed that “American democracy is currently under threat.”

Biden and his advisers clearly see that number as a touchstone, a point to rally Americans around. But when you start to examine what that means, you come face to face with the cracked lens that Trump and his acolytes have conditioned their supporters to look through. Because what Biden’s speech framed as a growing menace, Trump supporters likely see as what is needed to prevent a total collapse of America. When the Times poll asked which is more worrying — votes being cast illegally or that eligible voters won’t have a fair chance to vote — the result was almost dead even.

That’s part of the horrible beauty of Trumpian rhetoric: It has rules that are almost Newtonian in their simplicity and universality. To wit: For every statement of fact that casts Trump in a negative fashion, there is a corresponding accusation of similar behavior by his enemies. Similarly, a lie — once in motion — will continue in a straight path until acted upon by some outside force, usually the gravitational pull of a new lie.

When Biden said that “there’s no election in our history that we can be more certain of its results” than 2020, Trump supporters would be inclined to agree. But while Biden noted that every challenge had failed to back up the claims of fraud, the conspiracy-clogged conservative ecosystem can merely point to whatever new bit of flotsam has captured their attention. At present, that’s the “2000 Mules” theory, which despite being repeatedly debunked has led to the aggressive monitoring of ballot drop boxes in Arizona and harassment of voters who use them.


When Biden noted that autocracy, the opposite of democracy, “means the rule of one, one person, one interest, one ideology, one party,” how many Republicans listening — if they listened at all — believed that Democrats, not themselves, represent the true autocratic threat? Essayist Josh Barro argued Wednesday that warnings “that there is only one party contesting this election that is committed to democracy — the Democrats — and therefore only one real choice” amounts to “telling voters that they have already lost their democracy.” I disagree personally but can see that belief holding sway among conservatives.

The same can be said of Biden’s suggested litmus test for voters in the midterms: “Will that person accept the legitimate will of the American people and the people voting in his district or her district? Will that person accept the outcome of the election, win or lose? The answer to that question is vital. And, in my opinion, it should be decisive.”

Again, both sides likely agree those questions are decisive. But for many on the right, the correct answer should be “no.” No, that candidate should fight tooth and nail, as MAGA loyalists said before, during and after the 2020 election. No, that candidate should not accept a loss in what is clearly a rigged election. No, that person should not accept the “legitimate will” of voters if that result doesn’t match with expectations. Because let’s not forget that on Jan. 6, just before the mob he riled up left for the Capitol, Trump told his followers that his defeat was an “egregious assault on our democracy.”

Who gets to vote is the divide that animates America, the question that has sparked revolutionary progress and reactionary backlash since the country’s founding.

In this democratic republic, who gets to vote — and what guardrails are required to ensure only the “correct” people do so — is the divide that animates America, the question that has sparked revolutionary progress and reactionary backlash since the country’s founding. The clash between a narrow view of who should be afforded the sanctity of the vote and the expansive promises of equal rights at the ballot box that Biden espoused is what keeps Americans united over the threat to democracy yet divided over its origins.

The white fear of replacement in political power drove Trump’s election denialism in 2020. Whether openly embraced or not, it is the fear that candidates up and down the ballot are tapping into as they continue to wave the MAGA flag. It’s the fear that Biden didn’t fully acknowledge in his speech, choosing instead to skim the surface of the issue.

And it’s why in a world where Trump’s scheming succeeded and he is ensconced in the White House, waiting to throw the Democrats from power in Congress in the midterms, I fully believe that he would be issuing his own cynical warnings about the threat to our democratic way of life. And I have a creeping suspicion that his version would have more receptive listeners.