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President Biden made a simple but brilliant distinction Thursday evening in Philadelphia when he spoke passionately about two species of Republicans in America today: mainstream and MAGA.
“Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans,” Biden said. “Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know, because I’ve been able to work with these mainstream Republicans. But there’s 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.”
This was another welcome manifestation of the president’s more combative public stance toward Trump and his followers. In the speech, Biden even obliquely slammed his onetime friend, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who foolishly predicted last week that there will be “riots in the street” if Trump is prosecuted for illegally removing documents from the White House.
“This is inflammatory,” said the president. “It’s dangerous. It’s against the rule of law.”
Biden is showing himself to be an apt pupil. Last month, he met at the White House with a group of scholars who put the current, perilous American moment in historical context, comparing it to the lead-up to the Civil War, when the country broke in two; and to the isolationist, pro-fascist sentiment that preceded America’s entry into World War II.
Last week, the president set off a torrent of Republican outrage when, during a fundraiser in Maryland, he described the tenets of Trump’s MAGA movement as “semi-fascism.”
“It’s not just Trump,” said Biden, “it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the — I’m going to say something — it’s like semi-fascism.”
The president’s true but incendiary comment gave MAGA Republicans such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) a case of the fantods. Like that old Gary Larson cartoon, where a guy is berating his dog, but all the dog hears is “Blah, blah, Ginger, blah, blah, blah,” McCarthy heard only one word. Biden, he said, was guilty of “slandering tens of millions of Americans as ‘fascists.’”
Naturally McCarthy’s refrain was picked up by disingenuous conservative political commentators, where, on CNN at least, it backfired.
“He still attacked Republicans, plain and simple,” Republican political operative Alice Stewart told CNN anchor Don Lemon after Biden’s Philadelphia speech. “That was a dark, depressing and very divisive speech. He just vilified half of this country."
Hogwash, replied Lemon, noting that Biden was careful to clarify he was speaking only of MAGA Republicans.
“I am telling you what Republicans hear when he's saying that,” said Stewart.
To which Lemon replied, “Is there something wrong with Republicans' ear?... Do they hear differently than other people?” LOL.
Make no mistake, MAGA Republicans do lean into fascism.
They worship former President Trump, a racist immigrant-basher who tried to overturn a free and fair election to stay in office illegally, who called military leaders “my generals” and once described McCarthy as “my Kevin.”
Given Trump's tendency to flout legal norms, you can see how he is in hot water over all those top-secret documents the FBI said it found at his home in Mar-a-Lago. Trump is the human incarnation of those seagulls in “Finding Nemo,” whose one-word vocabulary is “mine, mine, mine, mine.” Reportedly, some of the purloined documents include correspondence from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Trump has called them “love letters.”
MAGA Republicans, such as the influential Fox News host Tucker Carlson, nakedly admire autocrats like Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban, a white Christian nationalist who has destroyed his country’s democratic traditions. An enamored Carlson even made a pilgrimage last fall to Hungary, and leaders of the annual conservative conference, CPAC, admire Orban so much they invited him to be their keynote speaker last month.
Biden is unquestionably correct to use the word “semi-fascism” to describe the MAGA movement.
“Well before Jan. 6, 2021, Trump had already established key pillars of fascism,” Federico Finchelstein, a fascism scholar and New School history professor, wrote in the Washington Post last week.
Among the behavior he cited was Trump’s militarization of politics, as demonstrated by his use of security forces to clear protesters so he could stride across Lafayette Square near the White House holding a Bible for a photo op; his xenophobia; his use of totalitarian propaganda techniques such as calling true accounts of his behavior and policies “fake news” ("Lügenpresse" in the original German); his nonstop lies and the demonization of anyone perceived as getting in his way.
“Trumpism was only missing dictatorship,” wrote Finchelstein. “And then the insurrection happened.”
Shortly before Biden spoke in Philadelphia on Thursday, Trump reiterated a promise he made in January. In a radio interview last week, he said that if he runs again and is reelected, he will pardon anyone convicted in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“I mean full pardons with an apology to many,” he told host Wendy Bell, adding that he had met with some Jan. 6 defendants and said he was supporting them financially. “What they’ve done to these people is disgraceful,” said Trump of the people who brought unprecedented mayhem and destruction to the Capitol on that terrible day.
To those he has vowed to support I would say, don’t hold your breath on any count. He's not going to be reelected and he is an almost singular skinflint, stiffing hundreds of contractors, lawyers, even charities to whom he has promised money.
MAGA Republicans' flirtation with fascism is dangerous, but I have faith that our democratic ideals will prevail. Especially — fingers crossed — if our former president finds himself under indictment or, better yet, behind bars.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.