It is a big advantage for Joe Biden that no one takes him seriously. He spent Labor Day continuing to express animosity toward “MAGA Republicans,” and one’s instinct is to write this off as Joe rousing his party’s base for the midterm elections. It’s much more than that.
This isn’t just Joe or a blowhard Senate majority leader’s pro forma raking of the other side. No matter how feckless one thinks the occupant of the White House is, an American head of state has extraordinary powers to intimidate, investigate and, if desired, prosecute. The power of this office is incomparable. It is a mistake not to take Mr. Biden’s MAGA speeches seriously, no matter how intemperate.
The day after his dark speech in Philadelphia, Mr. Biden attempted a distinction, saying, “I don’t consider any Trump supporter to be a threat to the country,” and suggesting he was referring only to those who condone political violence. This is disingenuous. He is obviously casting a wide net.
Millions of quite-normal Americans, who wouldn’t be caught dead invading the U.S. Capitol, consider themselves MAGA Republicans, which in broad terms means they align to some degree with Donald Trump’s policies and opinions while he was president. Mr. Biden can’t use this phrase and insist he is talking only about a minority within the Republican party or American conservatism.
The president’s continued assaults on MAGA Republicans should be properly seen as an attempt both to marginalize the opposition and to intimidate it into submission and silence. The implicit threat in Mr. Biden’s thought-out aggression is that the legal and investigative powers of the state may be deployed against disfavored beliefs.
One of the most significant episodes in the use of state power to intimidate private citizens’ political behavior was the Internal Revenue Service’s investigation during Barack Obama’s first term of small tea-party groups, which organized around the goal of controlling federal spending. Some threat that was.
The IRS’s investigations of 501(c)(4) groups and delays in approving their tax status made a household name out of Lois Lerner, head of the agency’s tax-exempt groups unit. That federal offensive chilled the tea-party movement. With their just passed legislative “victory,” the Democrats and Mr. Biden are creating an army of IRS auditors.
Last October, Mr. Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, issued an extraordinary order directing the FBI and U.S. attorneys to investigate “threats of violence” against school administrators and teachers. The order was directly related to parent protests over racial and gender issues in school curriculums in Loudoun County, Va.
Mr. Garland told Congress it wasn’t his intention to intimidate parents. That, too, was disingenuous. A warning shot was sent. How many parents want to risk getting entangled with FBI agents or federal prosecutors?
Much of the Democratic Party elite believes out loud that the Republican Party is totally Trumpian and should be suppressed. “The basket of deplorables” wasn’t an idea unique to Hillary Clinton. Any president presides over a government filled with loyalists, and these appointees gain access to the investigative powers of the federal state.
Mr. Biden is entitled to be peeved at the former president’s quixotic attempts to reverse the 2020 election. But by enlarging his complaint to the MAGA Republicans as a “threat to our democracy,” he is dog-whistling the Lois Lerners in his government’s enforcement agencies that the “Trumpies” are fair game.
In the private sector, the tactic of message-sending came to be known as cancel culture. Corporations, colleges and cultural organizations have exploited the same mismatch between their institutional power and the limited resources of individuals. After someone’s deviation from the new norms, it always begins with official inquiries, with investigations. It nearly always ends with social ostracism and silence.
As to the whatabout Trump issue, Mr. Biden’s MAGA speeches pointedly fail to mention that Govs. Brian Kemp, Doug Ducey, Larry Hogan and numerous other Republicans have opposed Mr. Trump’s election theories, at some political risk. What Democrat in the past two years has spoken against the politicized violence that erupted in cities across the U.S. in the summer of 2020?
Mr. Biden’s rants about restoring limits on political behavior would have a smidgen of respectability if he criticized any of his own, such as the mobs that paraded in front of the homes of all six Republican-nominated Supreme Court justices, an obvious attempt to influence them and thus a violation of federal law. His attorney general did nothing, even after a man was arrested for allegedly trying to assassinate Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In other words, the president was OK with this show of intimidation.
The siren song of using state power against opponents tempts all politicians, and that includes in a “democracy,” a word Mr. Biden invokes almost as often as MAGA. Mr. Biden achieved his goal of becoming president of the U.S. His MAGA speeches carry an undercurrent of threat inappropriate to his office. He should stop.