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.