PHILADELPHIA – President Joe Biden delivered a forceful address Thursday on what he called a dangerous assault on American democracy, warning that “too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal” as “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”
Biden’s speech, outside Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, was a remarkable assessment from a sitting president that the fabric of American governance is under serious threat – “we do ourselves no favors to pretend otherwise,” he said. While Biden did not name Republicans other than the former president, he warned of election deniers who have won Republican primaries and those who have sought to overturn legitimate elections.
“We are still at our core a democracy – yet history tells us that blind loyalty to a single leader, and the willingness to engage in political violence, is fatal to democracy,” Biden said. “There is no question that the Republican Party is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans.”
Biden on Thursday appeared to seek a balance between the lofty tones of a presidential address and the sharp, personal criticism of Republicans that many in his party believe is necessary to meet a moment of crisis. While paying tribute to the country’s grand historical traditions, Biden also suggested the upcoming election is a battle between those embracing American values and those trying to destroy them.
White House officials stressed repeatedly that Biden’s speech was not political, saying the defense of democracy is hardly a partisan topic. While Biden did criticize Republicans, he made it clear he was only attacking what he called “MAGA Republicans,” a reference to those who are loyal to Trump and his false claims of rigged elections.
The speech unfolded at a moment of remarkable turmoil in American politics. The Justice Department is investigating whether Trump improperly took hundreds of classified documents to his home in Florida, and whether his employees obstructed efforts to get them back.
As Trump weighs another White House run – while falsely claiming he won in 2020 – a House committee has disclosed vivid details of his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol. Meanwhile, Republicans have been nominating an array of candidates for office who falsely claim the 2020 vote was rigged and appear ready to rewrite election rules in their states.
Biden spoke before the majestic backdrop of Independence Hall, colored by red and blue spotlights, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were shaped. Uniformed Marines stood on each side of the hall’s main door and large American flags were unfurled behind the president.
Biden sought to frame the current moment as one of the tests that has periodically arisen in American history. It is “one of those moments that determines the shape of everything that comes after, and now America must choose to move forward or to move backwards,” Biden said. “This is a nation that believes in the rule of law. We do not repudiate it. This is a nation that respects free and fair elections. We honor the will of the people, we do not deny it.”
Many Democrats and activists have long complained that Biden was doing too little, and speaking too mildly, to take on the threat from a pro-Trump movement that is seeking to undermine past and future elections, and Thursday’s speech was one of his most forceful since taking office. Biden can often stumble over his words or abandon a sentence in midstream, but on Thursday he appeared focused and energized.
The speech was delivered outdoors, and Biden was repeatedly heckled by protesters yelling “Let’s go, Brandon” and the more vulgar version of that slogan. Biden periodically referred to the hecklers, at one point saying, “They’re entitled to be outrageous. This is a democracy.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in remarks ahead of the speech, portrayed the president as a divisive figure who dismisses much of the country, saying Biden should apologize “for slandering tens of millions of Americans as ‘fascists.'” At a fundraiser last week, Biden accused many in the Republican Party of moving toward “semi-fascism.”
Referring to Biden’s oft-repeated line about restoring the soul of America, McCarthy said, “What Joe Biden doesn’t understand is that the soul of America is in the tens of millions of hard-working people, of loving families of law-biding citizens, [whom he] vilified for simply wanting a strong, safer and more prosperous country.”
Some Republicans, including those who have repudiated Trump, criticized Biden’s speech for being divisive.
“I don’t hate Biden’s thesis, but that speech was so full of divisive language that goes well beyond the ‘MAGA base.’ A step backward for Biden on a critically important topic,” Alyssa Farah Griffin, a former Trump official who has since criticized the former president and his political movement, wrote on Twitter.
Biden said Thursday that he was not taking issue with those who disagree with him or come from another political party, but rather with those who challenge the principles the country was founded on.
“I believe it’s my duty to level with you to tell the truth, no matter how difficult, no matter how painful,” Biden said. “And here in my view is what is true: 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.”
He added, “They promote authoritarian leaders and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to our pursuit of justice, to the rule of the law, to the very soul of this country.”
This was Biden’s second visit this week to the swing state of Pennsylvania, with a third scheduled for Monday. Biden did not mention him, but the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, has promoted Trump’s claim of a stolen election and promised, if elected, and to overhaul the state’s long-standing election procedures. Democrats are also seeking to win a critical Senate seat in the state in hopes of maintaining control of the chamber.
Despite his dire warnings, the president also sought to strike a note of optimism, saying that far more people “reject the extreme MAGA ideology than those who accept it.”
“While the threat to American democracy is real, I want to say as clearly as we can: We are not powerless in the face of these threats. We are not bystanders to this ongoing attack on democracy,” Biden said. “It’s in our power. It’s in our hands – yours and mine – to stop the assault on American democracy.”
The president urged Americans to focus on the future, rather than litigate the past or expend energy on “divisive culture wars” or “politics of grievance.”
Biden also repeatedly condemned the use of violence as a tool to intimidate political opponents, citing election workers, poll workers and FBI agents who have endured threats, in part due to Trump’s rhetoric. That rhetoric has escalated in recent days as the former president engages in a hard-fought legal battle over the FBI’s efforts to get back the classified documents Trump brought to his home in Florida.
“There are dangers around us we cannot allow to prevail,” Biden said. “We hear more and more talk about violence as an acceptable political tool in this country. It is not. It can never be an acceptable political tool.”
Biden also referred indirectly, as he has before, to recent comments from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., predicting that there will be “riots in the street” if Trump is criminally charged for taking the documents or obstructing justice.
Polls show that a majority of Americans are concerned about the state of democracy – an unusual development, given that issues like the economy usually dominate voters’ concerns. Worries about democracy have become a top voter issue for November’s midterms as Trump continues to falsely insist the 2020 election was stolen and some Republican candidates embrace that position.
A Quinnipiac University poll released this week found that by a 67 to 29 percent margin, Americans think the nation’s democracy is in danger of collapse – a nine-point increase from January, when it was 58 to 37 percent.
And a CNN poll in June/July of this year found that 58 percent of Americans were “just a little” or “not at all” confident that elections in America reflect the will of the people. That was up sharply from January 2021, when 40 percent doubted elections reflected the will of the public.
The views of the source of the threat to America’s democracy vary sharply between the parties. Republicans are more likely to believe that elections are fraudulent or rigged by their opponents, while Democrats fear that the GOP is moving to suppress votes and change the rules in their favor.
In the most recent CNN poll, 71 percent of Republicans, 62 percent of independents and 43 percent of Democrats said they lacked confidence that election results in the United States reflect the will of the people.
For much of his presidency, Biden has sought to avoid directly attacking Trump or citing individual Republicans by name for their embrace of anti-democratic positions. But that has changed in recent weeks as he has more directly attacked “MAGA Republicans” who he argues pose an existential threat to the nation’s future. During a political rally last week, Biden said many of them “embrace political violence.”
At Constitution Hall, Biden said he was not maligning all Republicans or those who disagreed with him, but rather what he called extremist forces that have undermined election results and stoked political violence. He understands that politics can be nasty, he said, but the United States is a “big, complicated country” that could only endure if people accepted election results, whether their candidate wins or not.
“Democracy cannot survive when one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election – either they win or they were cheated. And that’s where the MAGA Republicans are today,” Biden said. “They don’t understand what every patriotic American knows: You can’t love your country only when you win.”
“I will not stand by and watch elections in this country stolen by people who simply refuse to accept that they lost,” Biden said. “I will not stand by and watch the most fundamental freedom in this country – the freedom to vote and having your vote counted – taken from the American people.”
The Washington Post’s Emily Guskin contributed to this report.