September 3, 2022

Biden’s Speech: Wrong Messaging for Right Message

by Hal Gershowitz

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Question: What is the right message?

Answer: America’s constitutional democracy is in great peril, and the next election may well determine its future.

Question: What is the wrong messaging?

Answer: MAGA-Republicans are semi-fascists.  

Many, perhaps most Americans, have their own opinion by now of what a MAGA-Republican is. Different people will have different definitions of precisely who or what a MAGA-Republican is. To some, a MAGA-Republican is any Republican who attacked or supported the attack on the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. I would agree. To others, it is anyone who voted for Donald Trump in either 2016 or most certainly in 2020. I would somewhat agree. Others will describe any Republican who would vote for Trump in 2024 if he were to win the Republican nomination as a MAGA-Republican and a semi-fascist. I might be inclined to assume that almost everyone with functioning synapses would suspect that anyone in any of these categories could be a MAGA-Republican.  

However, let’s recognize that many Americans follow our political cross currents quite closely, and many of our fellow citizens barely at all. Labeling and name-calling accomplish little that is constructive and a lot that is potentially counterproductive.

President Biden had a grand opportunity to use his speech this week to unite the country around a proposition the overwhelming majority of Americans would embrace in a heartbeat; protecting our constitutional democracy. Biden’s approval rating is the highest it has been since he was sworn into office. He has racked up some very solid legislative accomplishments. The vast majority of Americans would do nothing to jeopardize our constitutional democracy, and that is what is at stake; our democracy. That is the message President Biden should have conveyed.

Many Americans happen to agree with various policies that former President Donald Trump supported. I do. For example, this column enthusiastically applauded his support of the First Step Act, which heralded an important shift in American criminal justice reform, and which would not have become law without Trump’s support. I also supported the Abraham Accords and some other initiatives that I thought were worthwhile. Some citizens will, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, rationalize some measure of redeeming value in Trump because they agreed with these or other Trump policies, and it does little good to toss around labels like “semi-fascist” and leave people wondering if the disparagement is directed at them.

That said, I deplore Donald Trump’s authoritarian temperament and behavior, his habit of lying with complete abandon, his childish, immature name-calling, his arrogant belief that rules don’t apply to him, and, of course, his outrageous attempt to violently interfere with the peaceful transfer of power, a first in our nation’s history. I hope neither Donald Trump nor anyone like him ever gets near the Oval Office again. History will, I believe, place him alongside James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce as the terrible trio among American Presidents who were the most divisive in our nation’s history. That’s a message worth delivering.

Nonetheless, some millions of Americans who voted for Donald Trump in 2020 simply preferred him to Joe Biden. Many of them would vote for any Republican instead of Joe Biden in 2024. While President Biden was careful to recognize that not all Republicans are MAGA-Republican, and, indeed, that the majority of Republicans are not MAGA-Republicans, his remarks came across to me as gratuitous and accusatory with respect to a category of voters who he labeled as MAGA-Republicans and semi-fascists, but who are ill-defined. Few Americans have any trouble condemning the January 6th, 2021, rioters who savagely attacked the Capitol and those Capitol police officers who were trying to defend the Capitol, and those elected representatives who were there to do the peoples’ business; the constitutionally-mandated counting of the duly-certified electoral ballots. Everyone understands that the attempted coup was what the so-called Trump-supported Stop the Steal Rally was staged to incite.

Nonetheless, while President Biden may have a crystal-clear notion of who and what constitutes a MAGA-Republican and a semi-fascist, most Americans do not. Many Republicans (and Democrats) will assume that anyone who has voted for Donald Trump would fit the Biden definition of a MAGA-Republican and a semi-fascist.

Regardless of how repugnant many American voters consider Donald Trump to be, and count me among them, loosely inferring that anyone who voted for Donald Trump in the past or who wouldn’t vote for his opponent in 2024 is a MAGA-Republican and a semi-fascist runs the risk of alienating millions of voters who simply intend to vote against President Biden if he were to be the Democratic nominee. 

Fascist (or semi-fascist) is a repugnant label to pin on anyone. Millions of Republicans will not know whether President Biden is referring to them simply because they do not plan to vote for him in 2024.  

Name-calling is childish and, well, Trumpian, especially when the definition of fascist or semi-fascist is undefined in the context in which President Biden uses it. It is a safe bet that millions of voters, and not just Republicans, cringed at the specter of the President labeling millions of Americans as fascists or semi-fascists without defining what the term means. And let’s be honest, when people hear this new term “semi-fascist,” they simply hear “fascist.” There is no such thing as a “semi-fascist,” just as there is no such thing as a semi-democrat or a semi-republican.

I also thought the optics for the speech were ill-advised. While Independence Hall in Philadelphia was an appropriate backdrop, flooding the edifice with rather ominous scarlet lighting and the presence of two U.S. Marines in the background was, to me, a bit too much stagecraft. As Allison Jaslow, former Executive Director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and herself, a veteran of the war in Iraq commented, it wasn’t appropriate for Trump to use men in uniform as props, and it wasn’t appropriate for President Biden to either.

The stakes are high. The message should be simple. American constitutional democracy is in jeopardy, and a gaggle of unconventional Republicans who put party ahead of country is responsible. No need for name-calling.

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21 responses to “Biden’s Speech: Wrong Messaging for Right Message”

  1. Craig says:

    I disagree.

  2. Jamie Kabler says:

    My favorite line from biden’s speech that I bet is from Meacham “They live not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies” re: maga republicans

    • I believe, at this point, that any thinking person, regardless of politics, realizes what a lunatic trump is by now. At least I hope so, for the sake of our Nation, and the future our children, grandchildren, and in some cases, great-grandchildren. I realize most people don’t know as much about him as I do, and I won’t go into detail here, but there is absolutely NO WAY he should EVER be allowed back into The White House, even as a visitor!!!

  3. Bonnie Moore says:

    Although I agree with your comments, in theory, I disagree that Biden’s message was wrong. Unfortunately, when you say “democracy is in peril” to most Americans, they do not comprehend. It’s too lofty, too idealistic. When you say “the people in red hats are trying to destroy our government,” it’s a little easier. They can comprehend and remember the 1/6 attack on the Capitol; they can understand that women can no longer get safe abortions; they can disagree that “the election was stolen.” I don’t like it any better than you do, but to reach the vast majority of voters, you have to speak at their level of understanding.

  4. LWY says:

    Here we are close to approaching 2 years since Biden was elected and you keep talking about Trump, despite the fact that you continually believe that you rarely talk about Trump. How about one time talking about Biden and his policies. How about talking about some important issues like Border security, crime, inflation and our economy, our relations with China and the impact to our country if they invade Taiwan, the impact of Iran relations, Policies on dealing with Russia, the quality or lack thereof of senior officials in the Biden Administration, eg. the director of homeland security and many others and the impact of having an 82 year old man with health issues running for president. Each week you talk about your OPINION on various topics. How about sharing some facts about the Biden administration and letting the viewers comment on HOW they feel about those facts.

    • pegiety says:

      You are right, it seems as tho President Trump is always in the democrats spot light, while the democrats are destroying our country in every aspect there is in doing so.

  5. Perry says:

    As a Semi Fascist who had decided under no circumstances would I vote for Trump in 2024.
    After Biden’s horrific State of the Nation speech filled with utter fear and loathing to anyone who
    disagrees with this horrid administration I have decided what was I thinking? As far as I am
    concerned the speech was nothing but a campaign speech and worthy of one of his Pennsylvania one’s.

    No mention of his accomplishments other than to give out special incentives to voters with
    forgiveness of loans, or homeless, border security, drug death increase, or crime increases.
    Let’s not forget the shutting down of schools, or supply and distribution or INFLATION..

  6. Perry Altshule says:

    I have always thought that Trump had little to do with the Republican Party and only cared about what was good for himself.
    He feeds a portion of the America that is discontent and angry about their lot.
    You may approve of some of his programs but it is impossible to approve of him. He continues to foment his brand of Politics by his total me’ism and his leading by lying and having little regard for the people who are most devoted to him. They see him as a true American when he is only a true Sociopath.

  7. Terry Birck says:

    MAGA- Make America great again. What’s not to like about American greatness? It’s what makes us exceptional. American exceptionalism is based on Liberty, Equality under the law and Individual responsibility. Republicanism and representative democracy. Most MAGA folks believe in God, Family and Country, they believe in law and order, not defund the police.They believe in legal immigration not the cruel and lawless open border that Biden has ignored. MAGA folks want good schools for their children, school choice and charter schools. They don’t want sexualized and racist schools of the democrats. No drag queen story time, trans studies in grammar schools and teaching kids they can choose and change their gender. That’s pagan child abuse. MAGA folks want Energy independence, a closed southern border and legal immigration. They want Antifa and BLM eliminated, street crime under control again, inflation brought under control and American owned companies brought back to America along with American jobs. They don’t want Build Back Better where only 20% goes to infrastructure and 80% goes to social programs and union handouts and finally, we don’t want a Woke military studying CRT and climate change. We want a military that is lethal and brutal that can win a war, not fight to a draw. In short Hal, we want to make America Great Again.

    • Jama Hoffman says:

      As a former Republican who left when Trump was elected, I have great respect for the immensely difficult task Biden inherited. Trying to lead a country forward when a bully, Trump. who is in control of the most violent elements of our society, readily encourages them to demonstrate their ability to terrorize and intimidate anyone who crosses his agenda has to be a challenge. In the beginning Biden quietly and effectively worked to get his bills passed, not take on Trump or antagonize his cult like followers, tried hard to let time pass and truth emerge in the Jan.6th hearings so the Trump supporters would wake up and see on their own without him being seen as the enemy who called out their hero. But there comes a point when enough is enough. My husband served in the military for 28 years, with top security clearances that entire time. My son in law served 3 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and earned a purple heart. They voted for Trump the first time, but not the second. And they, like Biden and all top gov’t and military officials, know the files Trump took and kept and lied about giving back are a threat to our national security just being in his possession, let alone speculating about who might have seen them in the year and a half they have been at his country club frequented by foreign nationals and where spies have previously been caught. Trump is now doing what he always does when he’s guilty, he’s riling up the QAnon by inciteful posts he’s making on Truth Social. He’s calling Ashli Babbitt’s mother to rile up the white supremacist base that were there supporting him in Charlottesville and on Jan. 6th. He is trying to create a scenario where civil war will break out if we dare indict him for breaking the law, which he did and has done from trying to get Raffensperger to change votes, to creating a slate of false electors, to lying about voter fraud, to raising money for an Election Defense Fund that didn’t exist. I respect Biden for finally standing up to the schoolyard bully, calling him out and those who follow him, but showing that he knows there are many in the party who do not approve of Trump or what he stands for and will not vote for him and were waiting for their president to acknowledge that he sees them and knows they are there.

  8. Irwin yablans says:

    “A gaggle” is that what 147 Republican senators are? That’s how many voted to overturn the results of a legal election?
    The “Abraham Accords” hardly balance the lies,corruption,treasonous behavior of a psychopathic would be fascist dictator. Do you have a comment on the stash of top secret documents that may prove to be vital to national security. Do you have any comments on his vilification of our institutions, the department of justice, FBI or any judge or official that challenged him. His embrace of white supremacy outlaws.
    The only point you make that is relevant is the use of the term “semi fascist” Biden should have called it for what it is “fascist”
    Just as you can’t continue to be a “semi Republican”

  9. Rick Gordon says:

    I’m all in with your analysis. You will NEVER unite the country through name calling and stereotyping. When you attack people for their political beliefs you harden their views and make it more difficult to hold civil conversations and create bi-partisan legislation.

  10. BLB says:

    I agree with your comments today. Except for the last paragraph where you say that “a gaggle of Republicans” are responsible for the peril that we are in. No, it is the current administration (and that refers to whoever is running it and calling the shots) that is responsible for our current state of affairs. Biden’s speech was a Horrible RANTING Speech and Very Political, laced with much anger.
    As LWY comments, please address the current administration’s policies that have led us to where we are today. With the tone and words of Biden’s speech, the Democratic machine behind Biden is already starting to try to sway the elections of 2022 and 2024. The Republicans (I hate the term MAGA) should wake up and address the issues instead of being sucked into this Deep State methodology, again.
    BTW, no one in any of the media seems intent on addressing the fact that Biden’s Student Loan Forgiveness debacle is Unconstitutional!! Congress needs to pass this type of legislation…..let’s get back to the issues!!

  11. sheila says:

    Terry Birke: what you are not describing speaks volumes: You are telling only half the story: It was the MAGA folks who were wearing Nazi t-shirts on January 6 and beating the **@@!! out of the Capitol police — who killed one and sent others to the hospital in critical condition, who erected a gallows intended for Mike Pense, and wanted to kill Nancy Pelosi. It is the MAGA folks who to voted to keep AR47 weapons of war in the hands of ordinary citizens. It is the MAGA folks who believe that this country should be white and Christian and who are voting to obliterate the separation of church and state mandates in our Constitution – including in our public schools. It is the MAGA folks who screamed that the free press is the enemy of the state. It is the MAGA folks who planned the kidnapping and possible killing of Governor Witmer, who are voting to ban abortion under any circumstances, who refuse to see the irreversible damage they are doing to our planet and to our environment with drilling for fossil fuels and logging of our rainforests, and it was the MAGA folks who welcomed Victor Orban as a keynote speaker at their last CPAC conference – and applaud him and Putin – both treacherous dictators, as role models for our government. It is the MAGA folks who endorse violence and hate, who are now silent in the face of Trump having stolen our Top Secret and Classified documents and done God knows what with them. It is the MAGA folks who will, in the face of all the criminal evidence, still accept Trump or one of his puppet followers as a lifetime dictator – who will be silent at the destruction of every institution that makes our country free.

    Last and finally — There are those of us in the middle who want law and order, separation of church and state in our country and particularly in our schools, who want reasonable gun control that keeps deadly weapons out of the hands of psychopaths, who want reasonable immigration reform, a thriving economy, a free and unfettered press, a strong FBI and Military whose first allegiance is always to the Constitution. Most important – we want a President who will uphold our Constitution, who understands separation of powers, who will always place country above party, who will not genuflect to or sell our military or other secrets to our enemies, and who understands that the melting pot that is America is symbolic of why we have become such a great country.

    Bravo to President Biden, I applaud him for finally speaking out and speaking the truth about what is happening in our country. In our upcoming elections, we ignore his words at our peril.

    • Debby Baker says:

      Sheila, you nailed it. MAGAs fail to understand that it is they who have put the Constitution in peril. Their attempted insurrection, to support a lie, which they still choose to believe despite the clear evidence it is false, demonstrates they’d rather have a King, than a representative Government. Actions at state levels, designed to overturn votes disagreed with, speaks to the level republicans have sunk to ensure they remain in power. With few exceptions, republicans prefer party before country. Biden spoke truth to lies, but he was too kind because semi-fascists, are simply racists.

    • kenny vaden says:

      Bravo!

  12. Tammy James says:

    I find it sad that so many of those who have responded to your essay whether they are on one side or the other missed the point. Name calling and putting people in categories that don’t actually define who they are all about, only creates more hate and distrust. We the people include all of us. To keep our country we must find common ground and work together. Seems to me there is a little quote from a famous book that says blessed are the peace makers. Lets all have a blessed day.

  13. Michael Cieryca says:

    Hal, I read your essay carefully and I am not sure what your point is. You say name calling is counter productive and I would agree except when it describes a political movement. It does no harm to label something for what it is. I hear cries in your writing and in others to seek common ground but there is no common ground to be found. Using the term fascist without defining what it means you say is not useful. Who does not understand what a fascist is or what that point of view embodies. I understand that there are those with no knowledge of history do not understand the reference. But those like yourself who understand what it means are the ones offended at the “name calling”. You say may be you did not want to support Biden and hence voted for Trump. I say you voted for Trump and those who would again understand full well what he stands for and agree with it at your core. If that makes you a fascist or semi-fascist like the President said then I say if the shoe fits wear it. One can hardly decry the type of person Trump is but still support what he puts forward. You have cherry picked two things you liked and I guess overlook the rest of what the man stands for. I say it is incumbent if you are going to vote for someone to understand their character or else you can’t claim surprise if they do something vile once in office. We all could see Trumps character prior to 2016, just as we all saw the character of Joe Biden. I understand the difference in the two men and I believe so do you. In spite of his support b y so called Christians Trump bears no resemblance to the person they claim to follow. In contrast the Christian attributes of Joe Biden are very apparent. I would refer to Galatians 5 to see the difference between them.

  14. Hal, I believe Andrew Johnson should go down as our worst president. The Biggest Mistake in American History was that the leaders in our country during and shortly after Reconstruction did not adhere to the Constitution. Had they done so, we would not have the racial and political divides we have today. For a detailed explanation, one that I believe you will appreciate, you will find it in my latest book. It can be found at RepairingOurDividedNation.com

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