In August 2020, as the presidential election drew closer, Donald Trump decided it was time to roll out a new line of attack against Americans he didn’t like. At a campaign stop in Minnesota, with uniformed military personnel in view, the Republican declared, in reference to his opponents on the left, “Fascists. They are fascists.” The then-president liked the phrasing enough to repeat it before voters headed to the polls.
By any fair measure, the response from Democrats was muted, to the extent that Trump’s opponents cared at all. It wasn’t as if the Republican’s use of “fascists” immediately sparked a public conversation, front-page headlines and an avalanche of op-eds. In general, few cared.
Indeed, regular readers might recall that MaddowBlog covered the 2020 race in granular detail, but when I checked my archive this morning, I discovered that I made no references to the incumbent’s use of the word “fascists.”
There’s no great mystery as to why: There was no serious pushback in response to Trump’s rhetoric because it was plainly unserious. Democrats, among others, seemed wholly unconcerned that voters might actually believe that that they resembled fascists. Much of the political world simply shrugged its collective shoulders, realized that the then-president routinely used needlessly inflammatory rhetoric detached from reality, and moved on.
Two years to the month later, President Joe Biden described radicalized elements of the Republican Party as being like “semi-fascism,” which the Democrat soon followed by a speech in which he warned the public about Trumpism.
“Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal,” Biden said. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic. Now, I want to be very clear upfront: Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know because I’ve been able to work with these mainstream Republicans.
“But there is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to this country.”
I think it’s fair to say the response to this president’s remarks included more than just shrugged shoulders.
Nearly two weeks after Biden’s address in Philadelphia, leading GOP voices continue to whine incessantly about the speech. Just yesterday, for example, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he felt “attacked” by the presidential comments — suggesting, as a great many Republicans have in recent days, that Biden had targeted all Trump voters, despite the fact that Biden has repeatedly and explicitly said the opposite.
But there was one response that stood out for me as more notable than most. The Hill reported:
Former Vice President Mike Pence railed against President Biden’s speech arguing “MAGA Republicans” pose a threat to democracy, telling a conservative women’s group that the address amounted to a “partisan campaign rally” that demonized the right.
In remarks to a religious right group called the Concerned Women for America, Trump’s former vice president told his audience: “The president made it clear that he views pro-life Americans as enemies of democracy. In fact, he said that anyone who refuses to bend the knee to his extremist left-wing ideology represents ‘an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.’”
Pence added, “Never before in the history of our nation has a president stood before the American people and accused millions of his own countrymen of being a ‘threat to this country.’”
For now, let’s put aside the fact that Biden isn’t an “extremist” and he didn’t ask anyone to bend a knee to any ideology. We also won’t dwell on the Hoosier’s indifference to the kind of sweeping condemnations his former boss made against “millions of his own countrymen.”
Instead, let’s consider just how poor a messenger Pence is for this specific message.
The unmistakable point of Biden’s Sept. 1 address was that there’s a radicalized wing of the GOP that not only rejects the legitimacy of U.S. elections, but also embraces violence as politically justifiable. The incumbent president made a compelling case that such extremists represent a small-but-dangerous faction of the contemporary Republican Party.
If there’s anyone in GOP politics who can relate in a deeply personal and direct way to how right Biden was, it’s Pence — who was not only pressured by the then-president and his allies to advance an illegal coup scheme, but who was literally hunted in the halls of the Capitol by violent Trump followers who intended to do him harm.
Pence doesn't have to imagine whether Biden is right as some kind of philosophical exercise. The Republican can simply reflect on his personal experiences.
As recently as June, the former vice president himself said that what Trump asked him to do on Jan. 6 was “un-American.” That didn’t mean, of course, that Pence was accusing all Republicans of being “un-American,” but his assessment served as a reminder that he, as much as anyone, knows how much Trumpism is at odds with the rule of law in the United States.
It’s unrealistic to think that Pence would ever endorse Biden’s vision, but with the events of Jan. 6 in mind, he knows full well how right Biden’s warnings were about radicalized Republicans.