President Joe Biden Monday accused Republicans of wanting to "destroy" the country. No really, that's what he said, then tweeted out the video for emphasis:
My message to Republicans: If you don't want to help save the country, get out of the way. pic.twitter.com/5Um4dL0XO8
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) October 5, 2021
Such apocalyptic, condemnatory rhetoric has become increasingly common for a president whose inaugural-address theme was "unity, not division." Last month, for example, Biden accused Republican governors of "playing politics with the lives of their citizens, especially children," and "doing everything they can to undermine the public health requirements that keep people safe" from COVID-19.
In contravention of his inaugural promise to "stop the shouting, and lower the temperature," the president this week is hyperbolizing his twin infrastructure/social-spending bills on Capitol Hill as nothing short of an "inflection point" in "world history," after which—if we don't choose correctly, and fast—America as we know it may soon be lapped by China and Russia.
"First I want to set one thing straight," Biden said Tuesday at a union training facility in Howell, Michigan. "These bills are not about left versus right or moderate versus progressive or anything that pits Americans against one another. These bills are about competitiveness versus complacency. They're about opportunity versus decay. They're about leading the world or continuing to let the world pass us by, which is literally happening."
Having rejected pitting Americans against one another, the president then suggested that Americans who vote against his legislative agenda are dooming the country.
"To support these investments is to create a rising America, America that's moving," he said. "And to oppose these investments is to be complicit in America's decline. To support these bills is to pursue a broader vision of our nation. And to oppose them is to accept a very cramped view of our future."
Every president preaches unity with his mouth while using his hands to stab political competitors; such incentives are inherent to the job. As is rhetorical hyperinflation of his domestic agenda. (Though equating the fate of the infrastructure bill as the "moment where history is going to look back on this time as a fundamental choice that had to be made between democracies and autocracies" does seem a bit much.)
But these bully pulpit degradations, rightly criticized during the stressful, norms-shredding term of Donald Trump, have not been abandoned in Trump's aftermath. Biden may have said in his inaugural that "we have to be different than this," that we need to "listen to one another," to "hear one another," to "see one another," and "show respect to one another," and to "reject a culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured," but once the ceremonial speechwriting gave way to Capitol Hill negotiations, the gloves quickly came off.
Among the facts being manipulated and even manufactured this week by the president is that "The cost of these bills, in terms of adding to the deficit, is zero. Zero. Zero." Which has zero relationship with truth. Another one is that "We haven't passed a major infrastructure bill for decades in this country." Former President Barack Obama just 12 years ago called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act "the largest new investment in our nation's infrastructure since Eisenhower built an Interstate Highway System in the 1950s."
Such whoppers are thus far not prompting the cable news chyron-writers to control-V the go-to Trump-era phrase of "claims without evidence," nor are they triggering the kind of indignant journalistic outrage that greeted the comparatively minor transgressions of Paul Ryan back when the once-viable Wisconsonian was running for vice president.
Part of that treatment disparity can be attributed to ideological tilt, but don't sleep on the sheer unbeatableness of the 45th president's compulsive dishonesty. "A good rule of thumb with Trump," Jacob Sullum wrote one year ago, "is that the truth is exactly the opposite of whatever he says….Trump's utter disdain for the truth, combined with his mercurial nature and complete lack of principles, makes it impossible to have a rational conversation with him."
And Biden still has an impossible mountain to climb when it comes to topping Trump's willingness to toss around words like "treasonous," and "un-American" and "enemy" when describing fellow Americans.
But prudent self-governance suggests more than just shrugging at bad politician behavior on grounds that his competitor was worse. The ends don't justify the means is not a moral insight limited to one side of a given political contest.
The biggest and most offputting reveal during the rise, reign, and continued influence of Trumpism within the GOP has been the extent to which even seasoned politicos have ditched principle and philosophical mooring for whatever it takes to produce or emulate #Winning against the hated libs. When conservatives ditched a half-century of media deregulation for the chance to smash Trump's media and Silicon Valley enemies in the mouth, that was a telltale sign that a corrosive, will-to-power right-illiberalism was on the march, fueled by the literal fight-or-flight analogy of elections as Flight 93.
Now that Democrats have regained power, so has their appetite for picking up the whipping stick against the domestic enemies within. Packing the Supreme Court, scrapping the filibuster, using federal health agencies to override residential property rights—all and more are on the table. And like Trump vs. the initially un-housebroken Freedom Caucus back in the early days of his presidency, special hellfire is reserved for any same-team stragglers not getting with the program.
So: It's not just a right but an obligation to "bully" Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D–Ariz.) outside a bathroom stall. And as for Sen. Joe Manchin (D–W.Va.), well, did you know that "he just cooked the planet," and not even in "a metaphorical sense," but "literally"? The things you learn from reading music magazines….
The Republican Party, meanwhile, "is becoming an armed insurgency in the United States, and it is absolutely terrifying," if you believe MSNBC's go-to intelligence guru Malcolm Nance, as prodded this week by a nodding Joy-Ann Reid. (In a marvelously tail-chasing flourish, Nance also warned about the Trumpist right's fondness for Mussolini's Blackshirts, then complained: "They know they're fascists, they know they're supporting white nationalist goals, they know that by using these terms in a way that their supporters approve of they can actually get away with calling liberals 'Nazis.' It's absolutely fascinating." Quite.)
The main problem with so many people treating politics like a life-or-death struggle against an internal enemy is that so many people will treat politics like a life-or-death struggle against an internal enemy. Which is to say, the massive levers of state power are more likely to be used against innocent Americans in violation of their constitutional rights. Individuals who work to write or enforce those laws will be more likely to mistreat wide swaths of the population like criminals. These are not trend lines you should want to see go up.
The temptations of populism do not vanish with the vanquishing of this or that populist politician. Apocalypticism is no less lunatic when hollered by the sympathetic. I was happy to see Trump go, and will be happier still when a president or even his/her entire party sees the state's coercive power as something to be devolved or dismantled, not aggrandized and concentrated. We're not getting to a healthier politics until more people start unilaterally putting down the club, and managing to navigate their policy disagreements without accusing the other side of being in league with the Sweet Meteor of Death.
The debt ceiling will be raised, some version of the must-pass cromnibus will be passed, and we'll be finding brand new reasons to call each other Nazis a few months from now. Maybe next time more of us should instead touch grass.