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PHILADELPHIA — Standing in Philadelphia in front of Independence Hall, President Joe Biden warned Thursday night that the democracy born there faces an existential threat from former President Donald Trump and his allies, seeking to reframe the stakes and consequences of this fall’s midterm elections.
“As I stand here tonight, equality and democracy are under assault. We do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise,” Biden said to open a searing 25-minute address. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the foundations of our very republic.”
In a sharply critical speech calling for voters to choose a different path, Biden pointed to Trump and his supporters’ long-running efforts to undermine the 2020 presidential election, excuse the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, and attack the FBI. He said the rule of law and future elections are on the brink, with danger lurking in this year’s elections.
“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,” Biden said, with Independence Hall behind him awash in red and blue lights. “They refuse to accept the results of a free election, and they’re working right now as I speak in state after state ... to (empower) election deniers to undermine democracy itself.”
Biden’s speech came as a wave of election-denying Republicans have won critical primaries across the country, putting them within steps of governor’s offices, Senate and U.S. House seats, and state-level offices that will oversee the 2024 presidential race.
Pennsylvania’s GOP gubernatorial nominee, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, is one of the most prominent examples. If he wins, his administration would steer the election administration in one of the country’s premier battlegrounds.
Biden said the attempt to overturn the 2020 election was “preparation” to thwart the will of the voters this year and in 2024.
Biden’s address also came just before Labor Day, when political campaigns traditionally heat up, and as Democrats defend narrow majorities in Congress. While Biden presented it as his duty as president to lay out the stakes for the country, there were clear political aims as well. In putting the focus on Trump, he aimed to bring to the forefront a figure who has energized Democrats and driven many swing voters into their camp.
And in calling on voters to reject “MAGA Republicans,” Biden aimed to reframe the election, and change it from a referendum on his own administration — which has gotten negative reviews in most polls — to a choice between Democrats and the Republicans whom he described as a threat to peace and the rule of law.
“Folks, it’s within our power, it’s in our hands, yours and mine, to stop the assault on American democracy. I believe America’s at an inflection point,” Biden said. “America must choose: to move forward or to move backwards, to build a future or obsess about the past, to be a nation of hope and unity and optimism, or a nation of fear, division and of darkness.”
Republicans accused Biden of fomenting the very division he once promised to end, and of slandering millions of Americans who disagree with him. Several times during his speech, nearby protesters interrupted Biden. One with a bullhorn chanted: “F--- Joe Biden. Let’s go Brandon!”
Biden accused Republicans of condoning, or inciting, political violence with their attacks on FBI agents who have searched Trump’s home seeking classified documents.
He also attempted to calibrate his criticism, saying the majority of Republicans don’t fit his dire description, but that the party has come to be dominated and intimidated by the wing that does follow Trump. (Indeed Trump has scored a string of victories over his GOP critics this year, ending many of their political careers and elevating loyalists in their places.)
“Democracy cannot survive when one side believes there’s only two outcomes to an election: Either they win, or they were cheated,” Biden said. “I will not stand by and watch elections in this country stolen by people who simply refuse to accept that they lost.”
But Biden didn’t focus only on elections. He tied the Jan. 6 riot and election deniers to other positions that he attributed to “MAGA Republicans,” including the end of the constitutional right to abortion and potential threats to rights to same-sex marriage and contraception feared by the left, and foreshadowed in an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas.
Republicans said Biden’s speech will only worsen the divisions he pledged to heal when he ran for president in 2020.
“Joe Biden is the divider-in-chief and epitomizes the current state of the Democratic Party: one of divisiveness, disgust, and hostility towards half the country,” said Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee.
“This president has divided us,” said Guy Ciarrocchi, a Chester County Republican running for U.S. House against Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa. He spoke to reporters in a call before the speech. “Somebody has to calm down the rhetoric and get back to the issues that families care about.”
It was Biden’s second visit to Pennsylvania in three days, after stopping in Wilkes-Barre Tuesday.
Along with the symbolic value of Independence Hall, Biden stood in a key swing state hosting some of the country’s most high-profile races for governor, U.S. Senate, and U.S. House.
And he spoke in a key area for Democrats: along with deep blue Philadelphia, the city’s suburbs largely recoiled from the Trump presidency, helping swing the state back to Democrats in 2020.
Biden’s speech came as 67% of Americans believe the country’s democracy is in danger of collapse, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released this week, including almost identical shares of Democrats, Republicans and independent voters. That represented a 9-percentage-point increase from January.
Trump has his own Pennsylvania rally scheduled for Saturday night, also in Wilkes-Barre, as he looks to boost GOP candidates and continues to hint at another presidential run.
Joseph Lipscomb, who stood near the anti-Biden protesters hoping to hear the president, said he’s glad Biden called out extremism.
”The Democrats have been laying low and not really rebutting anything that Lindsey Graham or Trump ... are saying, so I think it’s really admirable that people are starting to speak up,” he said.
Lillian English Henry, whose nephew is Democratic state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, said she’s a lifelong Democrat who marched for civil rights along with her mother, a union leader.
”I tell people I have sucked on a baby bottle on a picket line,” she said.
Henry said threats to democracy feel very apparent.
”Things that people have fought for and died for, they’re trying to take away,” she said. “I’m hoping and praying we’ll turn things around. If we don’t, I don’t know what’s gonna happen to my country. And I love my country.”
Biden will return to the state Monday, for Pittsburgh’s Labor Day parade.