In Philadelphia, Joe Biden Peddled a Competing Brand of Authoritarianism

The current president becomes what he criticizes by delegitimizing opposition.


Back in the distant year of 2020, Joe Biden sold himself as a unifier, able to bridge divides created by then-President Donald Trump.

What a long way he's fallen. Last week, he took to a stage to denounce his political opponents as a "threat to this country" in a setting seemingly chosen by 20-something staffers who dusted off imagery from V for Vendetta. And he did so not as a political candidate, but "as your president." Even for those of us who agree that Republicans are a flawed bunch defined by their loyalty to a wannabe caudillo, Biden's alternative is just a different brand of authoritarianism.

"There is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to this country," President Biden insisted in a speech at Philadelphia's Independence Hall, lit blood-red and flanked in the background by two marines. "And here, in my view, is what is true: MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people."

It's true that former President Trump threw a temper tantrum when he lost the 2020 election and that his supporters rioted at the Capitol. To this day, Trump and company nurse fantasies of stolen elections. But it's not clear what use for the Constitution and rule of law is harbored by his successor, who took office with an avalanche of executive orders that disconcerted even The New York Times editorial board and recently launched a half-trillion-dollar vote-buying scheme by unilaterally forgiving student loans.

"Look, I know politics can be fierce and mean and nasty in America," Biden added. "I get it. I believe in the give-and-take of politics, in disagreement and debate and dissent."

He believes in disagreement, debate, and dissent? Really? But his administration quietly deputized supporters at social media companies to suppress disfavored news stories and viewpoints, as revealed through emails uncovered in a lawsuit by the attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri.

"The social media companies are at pains to show that they share the government's goals, which is precisely the problem," Reason's Jacob Sullum noted. "Given the broad powers that the federal government has to make life difficult for these businesses through public criticism, litigation, regulation, and legislation, the Biden administration's 'asks' for stricter moderation are tantamount to commands."

Prior to that, the FBI distributed a bulletin on symbols "used by Anti-Government or Anti-Authority Violent Extremists" that included patriotic imagery from the American Revolution. It makes you wonder why the White House bothered to choose Independence Hall as the backdrop for last week's speech. And earlier, the Department of Homeland Security had to quickly deep-six its new Disinformation Governance Board after discovering that Americans aren't ready to let government officials define truth.

"They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country," Biden went on to huff about his GOP opponents in Philadelphia.

There's no denying the events of Jan. 6 and the explosion of anger by Republicans pissed that ballots didn't deliver victory to their guy. But there's also no glossing over the assassination attempt against Justice Brett Kavanaugh and attacks on pro-life centers. Incidents of political violence target and are perpetrated by left and right alike.

"The rise both of threats and actual violence shows the dangerous levels of polarization, extremism, and radicalization that we face in America today," Darrell M. West wrote for the Brookings Institution in August. "In the current period, people see opponents as enemies and many do not trust the motives or actions of opposition leaders."

Disturbingly, Biden plays to a willing audience with comments that already included painting opponents as fans of "semi-fascism." Many Americans eagerly buy into the villainization of political opponents.

"While Republicans and Democrats may hold distinct views on many things, there is one area in which they precisely mirror each other: their contempt for members of the opposite party." The University of Chicago's Institute of Politics reported in June. "About three-quarters (73 percent) of voters who identify themselves as Republican agree that 'Democrats are generally bullies who want to impose their political beliefs on those who disagree.' An almost identical percentage of Democrats (74 percent) express that view of Republicans."

If the other side is viewed with contempt, why allow it any say in government? Last September, a solid 46 percent of Biden voters and 44 percent of Trump voters told University of Virginia Center for Politics pollsters they at least somewhat agreed "it would be better for America if whoever is president could take needed actions without being constrained by Congress or the courts."

With all due respect to both the current and former presidents, which isn't much, what differentiates them, and their political organizations, isn't the degree of their adherence to the Constitution and liberal norms, it's the branding on their disdain for those things.

"Each side is using some legitimate complaints to build a permission structure for seizing power by any means necessary and raining down destruction on its foes," Reason senior editor Stephanie Slade writes in the October issue. "One result is a sort of bipartisan apocalypticism: A recent Yahoo News poll found that more than half of each major party believes it's likely that America will 'cease to be a democracy in the future.' Under these circumstances, extreme medicine can start to seem like the only logical response."

So, Democrats and Republicans race each other to jettison respect for the Constitution, limited government, and liberty, using the excesses of their opponents as the excuse. Inevitably, their adversaries return the favor, moving further down the path of delegitimizing opposition.

"He's an enemy of the state, you wanna know the truth," Trump shot back at the president at a Pennsylvania rally two days after Biden's "threat to this country" speech. "The enemy of the state is him and the group that control him."

President Biden is right that Donald Trump and the Republican party represent an authoritarian threat to this country. But if he takes a clear look in the mirror, he'll see himself and his Democrats offering nothing better than competing authoritarianism.