For the last week or so, there was a bitter and mostly fruitless debate over Joe Biden denouncing the ideology of Donald Trump’s hard-core supporters as “semi-fascism.”
What we’re seeing now is the beginning or the death knell of an extreme MAGA philosophy. It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the—I’m going to say something, it’s like semi-fascism.
“Like semi-fascism” is not too exact a phrase, what with the “like” and the “semi.” Let’s see if we can make the terms a little more exact and the discussion a little more fruitful.
Biden followed up with a speech expanding his attack on this “extreme MAGA philosophy,” characterizing it as a threat to “democracy.” The central passage is worth reading.
Now, I want to be very clear—very clear up front: 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….
MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people.
They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they’re working right now, as I speak, in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.
MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards—backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.
They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country.
They look at the mob that stormed the United States Capitol on January 6th—brutally attacking law enforcement—not as insurrectionists who placed a dagger to the throat of our democracy, but they look at them as patriots. And they see their MAGA failure to stop a peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election as preparation for the 2022 and 2024 elections.They tried everything last time to nullify the votes of 81 million people. This time, they’re determined to succeed in thwarting the will of the people.
That’s why respected conservatives, like Federal Circuit Court Judge Michael Luttig, has called Trump and the extreme MAGA Republicans, quote, a “clear and present danger” to our democracy.
The response from conservatives has been telling, which is that they criticized everything about this speech except its central claims. Primarily they criticized its setting and its “optics.” The red-white-and-blue lights projected onto Independence Hall ended up leaving Biden with a “hellish red background” that was easy to portray as scary.
I agree that the speech would have been better presented in more of a low-key setting, as a friendly fireside chat with Uncle Joe. But is that really the point?
Even Kevin Williamson, who is the least prone to this sort of thing, focused his response on the use of the phrase “clear and present danger,” which in some contexts is a legal phrase that can be used to justify emergency measures to limit civil liberties. So maybe Biden is also kind of “semi-fascist,” right? But in his speech Biden did not propose any such emergency measures, and he was quoting Michael Luttig, from a New York Times op-ed and from his testimony to the January 6 committee. Here is what Luttig wrote:
The clear and present danger to our democracy now is that former President Donald Trump and his political allies appear prepared to exploit the Electoral Count Act of 1887, the law governing the counting of votes for president and vice president, to seize the presidency in 2024 if Mr. Trump or his anointed candidate is not elected by the American people.
So the emergency measure that Luttig is advocating in response to this “clear and present danger” is…reform of the Electoral Count Act. (See my recent interview with Andy Craig for more on this.) Not exactly a scary “semi-fascist” threat.
These responses are all exercises in the Anti-Anti genre of political commentary. I worked for The Federalist in 2017, so I witnessed the birth of Anti-Anti-Trumpism and I will forever recognize the pattern. The idea is not to actually defend Donald Trump or his supporters or their actions, because there is no way to do so without descending into absurdity and becoming a transparent political hack. (Some of my former Federalist colleagues have stopped trying to maintain their dignity and have simply taken that next step.) But you cannot agree with Trump’s critics, since that will make you anathema to the MAGA base that now dominates the readership of virtually all conservative publications. So what to do? Seek out the flaws in Trump’s critics and focus like a laser on those. Did you see the backdrop of that speech? And what about that one phrase Biden used? And so on.
The genius of this approach is that there is never any doubt that Joe Biden is a flawed messenger, and you can always find many things wrong with him. For example, after giving that speech in which he tried to draw a line between “mainstream Republicans” and “MAGA Republicans,” Biden has gone on to muddle his message, on the one hand saying that Trump voters are maybe not a threat after all, and on the other hand that the threat from MAGA Republicans includes anyone who is in favor of tax cuts. If you are relying on Joe Biden for what we call “message discipline,” you are going to be disappointed.
But look, this is American politics. If you demand that a message has a flawless messenger—well, that’s never going to happen. So the Anti-Anti approach is just an all-purpose excuse to close your ears to whatever you don’t want to hear.
Let’s take the opposite approach and take this question head-on. Is Biden right on the substance? Is MAGA a threat to democracy?