A NEWSLETTER FROM DAVID CORN
Has Biden Lowballed the Threat to Democracy?
By David Corn November 5, 2022
President Joe Biden leaves the stage after speaking about threats to democracy on November 2, 2022, in Washington, DC. Alex Brandon/AP
On Wednesday night, less than a week before the midterm elections, the president of the United States of America delivered a speech asserting that democracy was threatened by MAGA extremism and Donald Trump’s baseless claim the 2020 election was stolen from him. “It’s damaging, it’s corrosive and it’s destructive,” Joe Biden said. He added, “Make no mistake, democracy is on the ballot for all of us.”
The speech was…fine. He was correct, if not a bit school marmish. He said the right words. But would it make a difference? Would anyone other than citizens already concerned about the fate of American democracy be moved or motivated by Biden’s address? Sure, he invoked lofty abstractions, such as liberty and opportunity. And he reminded us, “Freedom is not free.” Yet there was no gut punch. If this is a break-glass moment—as I believe it is—there were no shards.
Biden took a few pokes at Trump and the MAGA GOP. But perhaps looking to counter the inevitable criticisms that he was being divisive, he insisted that Trump’s “extreme MAGA element” was “a minority of that party,” though “its driving force.” This depiction casts the GOP as redeemable. If only the non-MAGA majority could gain control, all will be well. But who, exactly, is that silent Republican majority? This characterization downplays the threat posed by the Rs and allows independent and in-the-middle voters considering tapping a Republican candidate to view that person as a reasonable choice and the party itself as a potentially positive force. My Republican is not an extremist.
Biden elided an ugly truth: The GOP in its entirety is endangering democracy. It is an entity led by a scoundrel who rejected legitimate election returns; who persuaded tens of millions of Americans to believe his false allegations of a stolen election; who schemed (probably illegally) to overturn the vote; who incited violence in a bid to retain power and has since vowed to pardon the January 6 insurrectionists, should he be returned to the White House; who embraced the loony QAnon conspiracy theory; and who recently posted an antisemitic threat on social media.
None of this has caused Republicans to break with Trump. In fact, more and more members of the party at all levels are emulating him. As Biden noted, 300 GOP election deniers are on the ballot this Tuesday. That group includes secretary of state candidates in swing states who are aligned with QAnoners and other conspiracy kooks, who have championed the Big Lie, and who obviously cannot be trusted with overseeing elections. It includes gubernatorial and senatorial contenders of similar ilk. The GOP nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, is a January Sixer who has hobnobbed with a prominent antisemite and assorted Christian nationalists. Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz is a proven huckster; Herschel Walker is an idiot with a troubled and violent past. JD Vance, who may become an Ohio senator, has demanded the “de-Nazification” of the US government, by which he means illegally rooting out all liberals. The GOP gubernatorial nominee in Wisconsin vows to make sure no Democrat will ever be elected in his state, should he triumph. (See below.) Incumbent Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson says he may not accept election results should he lose. Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake mocked the attack on Paul Pelosi and (see below) claimed there was no way Biden received 81 million votes in 2020. (He did.)
Meanwhile, House Republicans, assuming they will win control of that chamber, are already preparing multiple investigations of Hunter Biden and indulging in other right-wing fever dreams by readying assorted impeachments, including that of Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas—just for starters. And we can expect vindictive and reckless investigations of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the FBI’s Russia probe, the National Archives (for daring to demand Trump return the sensitive government documents he stole), and perhaps even Hillary Clinton’s emails and Benghazi. Congressional Republicans are also considering proposals to cut Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, undo Biden administration actions to address the perils of climate change, criminalize all abortions nationally, and threaten an economic and financial crisis over the issue of raising the debt ceiling. And a GOP-controlled House will likely see the influence of the wingnut wing—Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and assorted newcomers—widen. Greene has absurdly claimed that Democrats are “killing” Republicans.
In short, the crazies—the liars, the conspiracists, the unhinged and those who exploit the unhinged—are at the gates. And they have plans—plenty of plans. Oh, and there’s this: If they attain greater power in Congress and the states—especially over the vote-counting systems—that could pave the way for a restoration of a vengeful Trump and further grease the path toward authoritarianism and minority-rule.
This is a serious moment. I don’t believe the end of America is necessarily at hand—though it could be—but there’s no question that this is a crisis for democracy in the United States. Given that, Biden’s speech did not go far enough. I imagine the White House calculated that it was best to keep the address from being too partisan. A presidential speech might be regarded as more serious and receive more media coverage. Yet the broadcast networks did not cut into their previously scheduled shows to air his remarks. Nor did the speech do much to change the political landscape or the national conversation before the midterms.
Biden did not sufficiently tie the need to protect American democracy to the Democrats’ desire to safeguard American families. Democracy must be preserved, he could have said, so we can make sure Republicans don’t make good on their threat to whittle away Social Security. Or so Democrats could deliver on lower prescription drug prices, cheaper insulin, paid family leave, universal pre-K, expanding Medicare to include dental coverage, and more, over the opposition of Republicans. Hey America, you want teeth? Then vote to defend democracy. You want retirement security? Then vote to defend democracy.
Biden rendered the protection of democracy as a goal in and of itself. Of course it is. But for some Americans, that might be too abstract. They care about it, but they don’t feel strongly about it. (See this much-discussed New York Times poll.) All good messaging resonates psychologically and tends to connect with specific needs, desires, and dreams. Biden did not make that connection. Moreover, though he has raised this issue of democracy imperiled by a dangerous group of Republicans several times in recent weeks, he has not steadily repeated the message in a kickass manner. Gone are the days when a president can deliver a Big Speech and shift the terrain. That’s not how the world works anymore. Unfortunately, the basics of marketing prevail, and a fundamental one is repeat, repeat, and repeat.
If there is an emergency at hand, the president, his administration, and his party should all act as if there is an emergency at hand—and fight like hell. What else is going to cut through the immense info-clutter that clouds all our lives? Fighting like hell means clearly identifying the danger and calling out the threats. The Republicans kick the Democrats in the teeth a million times a day. The Dems are thieves, radicals, commies, tax-hikers, (anti-white) racists, soft-on-crime anti-American and anti-Christian woke evildoers who are purposefully trying to destroy the republic. (In some renditions, they are also satanic pedophiles.)
Don’t bring a knife to this gunfight. The Democrats don’t have to resort to such demagoguery. But they do have to battle back with similar intensity and fierceness. That was missing from Biden’s speech—and from much of the Democratic messaging this entire campaign season. Some Democratic campaigns and candidates have thrown powerful punches. Barack Obama showed how to do it at a recent campaign rally. But the White House has not led the way. Perhaps that is a tough task to pull off when the president is sagging in the polls. Yet what is another option?
Yeah, yeah, it’s a bit too late to be complaining now. But I have been raising a version of this fundamental point for months. Who knows what’s going to happen on Tuesday? It is easy to lob brickbats from the sidelines and whine about messaging and the obvious missteps and miscalculations. My take might not be supported by polling and data. But all I know is that one side has created a fake emergency (the election was stolen and Biden wants to annihilate America!) and has mobilized millions with an unrelenting and combative message, while the other side that faces a true emergency has come across as less committed to its cause.
It's true that the party in the White House usually takes a shellacking in the midterms. And inflation cannot be thwarted by a well-crafted political narrative. These are externalities that might be impossible to overcome. But if there ever were a time when the in-party had a chance, this ought to be it. The Democrats are up against a party led by the unpopular and autocratic Trump that has swerved far right and into the swamplands of irrationality and, as Biden put it, “semi-fascism.” The Big Lie, January 6, a war on democracy, a war on women’s freedom, a disastrous Covid response, threats to essential programs such as Social Security and Medicare—there’s so much to pin on the GOP. Yet the last few months have been more an opportunity lost for the Democrats than an opportunity seized. Many Americans might soon pay a high price for that.
Got anything to say about this item—or anything else? Email me at email@example.com
American Psychosis in the News
Here’s a bit of good news. The book charted at No. 5 on the politics/current events bestsellers list for independent bookstores. Thanks to all of you who pre-ordered from Porchlight, an independent bookseller, or who purchased the book from an indie shop. You still can!
Dumbass Comment of the Week
Just because Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) went to Harvard, he’s not immune to deploying dumbassery to score cheap political points. For that, he wins a (dis)honorable mention this week. Appearing on Megyn Kelly’s SiriusXM show—did you know Kelly had a SiriusXM show?—Cotton cooked up a novel way to dismiss the January 6 insurrectionist riot. “The January 6 Capitol riots had many terrible crimes,” he quipped. “I think most Americans, though, remember most about Jan 6, 2021, that gas was $2.40 a gallon.”
Hey, honey, remember January 6?
Oh yeah, I filled up the minivan that day.
Sure was memorable, right?
Yep, gas was under $2.50 a gallon.
What an absurd pivot. If Americans remember anything else about that dark stretch, it’s probably that between 2000 and 3000 of their fellow citizens were dying each and every day from Covid—that number elevated because of Trump’s profound mismanagement of the pandemic. But I doubt Cotton wants to raise that matter.
On to other runners-up. Thomas Sowell has often been hailed on the right as one of the preeminent conservative intellectuals. In a 2015 column, Steve Forbes asserted, "It’s a scandal that economist Thomas Sowell has not been awarded the Nobel Prize. No one alive has turned out so many insightful, richly researched books." Well, it’s a good thing the Nobel gang did not so elevate Sowell, for it would be truly embarrassed by his recent tweet about climate change: “I don't understand how people who cannot predict the weather five days in advance can predict the climate decades from now.”
This is dumber than rocks. Makes me wonder about all those books.
The judges were not sure whether the following entry was a stupid remark or a stupid-to-say-in-public remark. Appearing at a campaign stop, Tim Michels, the Trump-friendly Republican gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin, blurted, “Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I'm elected governor."
Now exactly how would Michels manage that? Whatever he has in mind, it doesn’t sound like democracy. By the way, you should read my colleague Ari Berman’s account of the GOP war on democracy in Wisconsin. Michels fits right in.
Because it’s the week before the midterms, the judges decided to award the prize to Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor in Arizona, for that comment she made on the campaign trail, which is, unfortunately, emblematic of the 2022 election: “The truth is Joe Biden did not win with 81 million votes, and if you believe he did then you are the conspiracy theorist.”
No evidence. Just false assertion that plays to the irrational paranoia and hate-filled grievances of the Republican base. Lake pulls the old trick of conspiracy theorists: If you challenge my allegation, then you are part of the conspiracy! Her relentless flogging of Trump’s Big Lie illuminates how this democracy-subverting conspiracy theory has become foundational for the Republican Party. As CBS News found, 308 of the 597 Republican candidates running for state and federal offices are outright election denialists. Lake has become the queen of this pack by leading the charge in usurping the truth.
I learned something: Write about Covid, and you don’t get a lot of mail. There was not much reaction to my piece on how Covid has disappeared politically. Maybe I got it so right that no one had anything to say? Maybe there’s another explanation. The other night I was at book party for David Rothkopf’s American Resistance: The Inside Story of How the Deep State Saved the Nation and found myself in a conversation with Dr. Anthony Fauci. As we discussed the low number of Americans who are getting the latest booster shot, I noted that this big bloc of the population had to include not only vaccine-skeptical conservatives but plenty of Americans who have no beef with vaccinations and who have received the previous anti-Covid shots. Yes, Fauci ruefully agreed. People just seem to be over Covid, I observed. Again, Fauci concurred. I thought how tough it must be for him, after all these years of trying to help the country thwart the coronavirus, to see the public largely turn off, even when there’s more that ought to be done—especially prior to the surge he expects to see in the coming weeks.
Jonathan Ostrowsky emailed to share this thought about Covid:
We should not forget that Trump and Bolton dismantled the NSC group charged with preparing for the pandemic that public health and national security experts agreed was inevitable. Bolton can bluster all he wants about how the move was about streamlining and efficiency, but had it remained intact under a President Hillary Clinton, the response would've been much more timely and effective. (Of course, if a thousand people had died instead of a million, Republicans would have used it as an excuse to impeach Hillary yet again, but that's another story.)
There was much more reaction to my look at Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and his apparent alliance with right-wing extremism. Reader Sandy Zevon—cousin of the much-revered Warren—had a succinct response: “Enjoyed your book. Your last Our Land article left me terrified and hopeless.”
Sorry, Sandy. It’s hard to find much hope these days. But I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that Musk doesn’t screw up Twitter too much.
Bobbi Walbert emailed:
We have become a nation that not only permits, but encourages, vitriolic, venomous, pejorative language as a means of expressing oneself, under the veil of “free speech,” which I find abhorrent. Trump and members of his cult, including most Republicans, are delusional and quite dangerous to our society. Which brings me to my greatest fear for our nation: If Republicans win both the House and Senate in these upcoming midterm elections, we are doomed. I can only imagine how much uglier our country will become if a Republican wins the 2024 presidential election.
Doomed is a big word. It will undoubtedly be a major setback for progress and progressive values. The American majority that doesn’t embrace or accept the Trumpian lies and agenda will have to find multiple ways to fight back.
Michele Coxon had some advice—or a command:
Your brilliant journalism is providing me with a platform for venting my rage that is maybe healthier than shouting around the house and having my blood pressure rise to dangerous levels!... Stop using Twitter!! Find another way to promote truth and connect with friends, etc. Why support this garbage? Hopefully, his financers will put a muzzle on him soon.
Michele, thanks for the encouraging words. As for Twitter, I have almost a million followers on the site. The platform allows me to spread and disseminate my work far and wide. Those of us who do not work for media giants have been tremendously aided by Twitter over the years. I am reluctant to give up such a platform. Also, I’ve made many dear friends via Twitter. I am hoping that finances, common sense, and whatever will prevent Musk from rendering Twitter uninhabitable.
What’s most rewarding is receiving emails from subscribers who have read my new book American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy. John Potrzuski emailed:
I just finished reading your most recent book American Psychosis. I have to give you a huge thank-you for writing this dynamite, (but scary) truly informative book about how the Republican Party, went crazy. In my opinion you are spot on. The book is like a road map of the characters (past and present) that are responsible for the current “American Psychosis” among the evangelical Christian base of the Republican Party. My wife and I are very concerned (scared) about whether our democracy will survive if the Republicans gain control of Congress in the 2022 elections. We have been fans of yours for as long as you have been a political analyst and author and will continue to follow you on Our Land.
Bobbi Corn (no relation, I swear) emailed:
Enjoying Our Land but also thought American Psychosis was amazing. Unfortunately, I think that the people who should read it won't. It should be required reading!
Alas, I can’t force people to read (or buy) the book. But few books are read by people looking to change their minds. The best books, though, do empower readers with information that can expand horizons and perspectives. That’s important, too, and I hope American Psychosis accomplishes that.
I’ve been wondering if Our Land readers dig the Mailbag. Karen Martin, a regular correspondent, wrote, “I always enjoy the opinions of others in the letters section.” And she added, “Moxie is so wry and wise.” Let me know what you think of the Mailbag. Any suggestions? And speaking of Moxie….
“How do I know you’re the same dog?”
“Look at my tags. Didn’t you put them on me for a reason?”
“The groomers could have switched them.”
“My effervescent personality and dry wit?”
“Lots of dogs have effervescent personalities and dry wits.”
“Really? Well, how many know that when you go to the bathroom, you like to read those—”
“Okay, let’s go home.”
Read Recent Issues of Our Land
November 1, 2022: Elon Musk: a problem, not a solution, when it comes to right-wing extremism; Barack Obama gets it right; Jason Kander’s gutsy and empathetic memoirs; Robert Gordon, RIP; and more.
October, 29, 2022: How Covid disappeared—politically; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Mehmet Oz); the Mailbag, MoxieCam™; and more.
October 25, 2022: Why Joe Biden and the Democrats should be talking about teeth; Michael Flynn’s greatest hits; the brilliance of Peaky Blinders; and more.
October 22, 2022: Attack ads—why they work (then and now); Tulsi Gabbard’s short, strange trip; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Marjorie Taylor Greene); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
October 18, 2022: John Durham confirms Donald Turmp is a liar; the big takeaway from the Cuban missile crisis; a new Bruce Springsteen tune; Bill Berry return to rock ‘n’ roll; and more.
October 15, 2022: The Mailbag: should you worry about the midterms; the final January 6 committee hearing; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Charlie Kirk); MoxieCam™; and more.
October 12, 2022: Time to push the panic button on the midterms?; Servants of the Damned and the law firm that’s Trump’s modern-day Roy Cohn; and more.
October 8, 2022: Can the centrists hold in the era of Donald Trump?; American Psychosis in the news; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Special Herschel Walker edition); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
October 4, 2022: American Psychosis, Facebook, and a dog; a denizen of the economic establishment admits the elite’s big mistakes; Topdog/Underdog’s brilliance hits Broadway; and more.
Got suggestions, comments, complaints, tips related to any of the above, or anything else? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.