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Historian of Radical Right: Biden Is Correct, Trump Poses Existential Threat to Future of Democracy

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In a primetime address Thursday, President Biden warned Donald Trump and his radical supporters are threatening the foundations of the republic. Biden said, “Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal,” and that MAGA Republicans present a “clear and present danger to our democracy,” referring to Trump’s campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again.” We speak with Nancy MacLean, author and Duke University historian, who says Biden’s speech was a “wake-up call” for the nation and mainstream media. “He was absolutely right, in my opinion, that the Trump wing of the party and the MAGA Republicans have jumped the rails of constitutional democracy, of the factual universe and of representative democracy.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

President Biden gave a primetime speech Thursday night warning Donald Trump and his MAGA supporters are threatening the foundations of the republic. Biden spoke in Philadelphia in front of Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were debated and signed. This is part of President Biden’s speech.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal. Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic. Now, I want to be very clear, very clear up front: Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. 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. …

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. They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they’re working right now, as I speak, in state after state, to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.

MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards, backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love. 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.

They look at the mob that stormed the United States Capitol on January 6th, brutally attacking law enforcement, not as insurrectionists who placed a dagger to the throat of our democracy, but they look at them as patriots. And they see their MAGA failure to stop a peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election as preparation for the 2022 and 2024 elections. They tried everything last time to nullify the votes of 81 million people. This time, they’re determined to succeed in thwarting the will of the people.

That’s why respected conservatives, like Federal Circuit Court Judge Michael Luttig, has called Trump and the extreme MAGA Republicans, quote, “a clear and present danger” to our democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden, speaking in Philadelphia Thursday night. He went on to say the soul of the nation is at stake.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I ran for president because I believed we were in a battle for the soul of this nation. I still believe that to be true. I believe the soul is the breath, the life and the essence of who we are. The soul is what makes us us. The soul of America is defined by the sacred proposition that all are created equal in the image of God, that all are entitled to be treated with decency, dignity and respect, that all deserve justice and a shot at lives of prosperity and consequence, and that democracy — democracy must be defended, for democracy makes all these things possible.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden, speaking Thursday night. Just after the speech, Democracy Now! reached Ben Jealous, president of People for the American Way, former head of the NAACP, to get his response.

BEN JEALOUS: Tonight we saw Joe Biden give the most presidential speech he’s ever given as president. I say this as somebody who’s both been a friend of Joe for a long time in politics and yet also taken serious issue when I thought that he was moving in the wrong direction. I was arrested for voting rights protests five times in front of his White House last year. And what we saw tonight was exactly the president we need in this moment.

He was confident. He was clear about big victories for the climate, big victories for students, big victories for the economy. He was also very clear that he was drawing a line between MAGA extremists and the patriots that are the rest of this nation. He was very clear that we are at an existential moment, a moment I think most of us feel in our bones. And he was also clear, as a student of history, that we have been through worse and triumphed over it.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about President Biden’s speech, we’re joined by Nancy MacLean, author of the book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, professor of history and public policy at Duke University in North Carolina. She’s actually joining us now from Raleigh.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Professor MacLean. Why don’t you start off by sharing your overall response to the speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia?

NANCY MacLEAN: Thank you, Amy. It’s good to be with you again.

My overall response is that this was the most important speech of President Joe Biden’s political career, and it was a wake-up call to the nation, and particularly to the mainstream media, in the nick of time. He was absolutely right, in my opinion, that the Trump wing of the party and the MAGA Republicans have jumped the rails of constitutional democracy, of the factual universe and of representative democracy. You cannot have a democracy in which one party does not accept the legitimacy of the other party’s candidates, elected officials and the outcomes of elections. But that is where we have come with Donald Trump and the MAGA faction since they first questioned the legitimacy of President Obama’s election and denied that he had been born in America. That was the start of all that has ensued since. And it’s really important that President Biden called that out for the nation.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to President Biden speaking last night in Philadelphia.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today there are dangers around us we cannot allow to prevail. We hear — you’ve heard it — more and more talk about violence as an acceptable political tool in this country. It’s not. It can never be an acceptable tool. So I want to say this plain and simple: There is no place for political violence in America, period. None. Ever.

We saw law enforcement brutally attacked on January the 6th. We’ve seen election officials, poll workers — many of them volunteers of both parties — subject to intimidation and death threats, and — can you believe it? — FBI agents, just doing their job as directed, facing threats to their own lives from their own fellow citizens.

On top of that, there are public figures — today, yesterday and the day before — predicting and all but calling for mass violence and rioting in the streets. This is inflammatory. It’s dangerous. It’s against the rule of law. And we, the people, must say: This is not who we are.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden, speaking at Independence Hall last night in Philadelphia, the second of three trips to Pennsylvania in just a matter of days. His third one will be in the next few days. Professor MacLean, as he talks about political violence, you have said the best predictor for a successful coup is a failed coup for which there is no accountability. Talk about the political violence, how it’s been dealt with, what it means and what should be done.

NANCY MacLEAN: Yes. Thank you. And I think that’s extremely important for people to understand. And that’s not just me speaking; that is the consensus of comparative political scientists who study coups. So, absolutely, we do not yet have accountability at the highest levels for the events of January 6 and the ongoing criminal conspiracy against our country that has been more than demonstrated by the House select committee to investigate the events of January 6. And the problem is that if you don’t have accountability, those acts become normalized, and the people who engage in them become emboldened to become more aggressive, more violent, more threatening.

And I think, you know, something that Biden said at the very top of his remarks is extremely important, that so much that has happened in recent years, and certainly in the last year, is not normal. And the problem that I see as an educator is that there are young people growing up who have known nothing else but this moment. And there are many of us who have been so bruised by the pandemic and inured by years of this Trump rhetoric and aggression, and that coming from his followers, that we can start to think that this is how a normal democracy functions.

But it is not. The United States has slipped radically down the scale of healthy democracies. Ten is the highest rating you can get. By 2021, global evaluators were saying that we were down at five, with Poland, Slovenia and Hungary. Hungary is interesting, because the MAGA Republicans and figures like Tucker Carlson look to Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orbán, as a model. And he is a model for them of how to use democracy to completely undermine democracy and make it impossible to remove an authoritarian leader.

So, Biden’s calling out of all this is extremely important, because we have allowed ourselves to get to the point where threats and intimidation and violence are routinely used to intimidate people. Let me be frank: This is terrorism. It has been directed most recently at the FBI, at our National Archives, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are housed. It has been directed at teachers and school boards. It has been directed at public health officials. It has been directed at Dr. Fauci and his family.

And yet mainstream news continues to practice bothsidesism, continues to pretend that these things are just partisan. You know, I am so glad that you are doing this extended segment on President Biden’s speech, because I was shocked last night to learn that three major news networks were not carrying the speech. Even NPR, when I got up this morning and turned on the radio, they gave it the most minimal coverage and just put it in the context of the midterms, as though this was politics as usual. And I think that’s the exact opposite of the message the president was rightly trying to send.

We face existential threats to democracy in America, and they are coming from one place: from Donald Trump and those he has persuaded to follow him with the big lie, with a calculated system of media disinformation. And what’s most important is that he and the donors behind this, and that media, have also cowed every Republican elected official in office, except Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both of whom have been defeated, and others less well known who have spoken the truth, who have stood up to Donald Trump and who have stood up to the lies, who have lost office or are leaving office because they know they cannot be reelected by this MAGA party.

We are absolutely, as the president said, at an inflection point in our country, and we must take stock and treat the coming midterms as truly the chance we have to save democracy from further wreckage. There’s no point in talking about candidates for 2024 if we do not stop the election deniers and the election riggers from gaining control in state after swing state, as they are trying to now. Those are the people who won all the Republican primaries.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Donald Trump, who appeared on Newsmax this week, admitted he’s financially supporting people arrested during the January 6th insurrection and more.

DONALD TRUMP: So, I met with a number of fans, but I met with and I’m financially supporting people that are incredible. And they were in my office actually two days ago. It’s very much on my mind. It’s a disgrace what they’ve done to them. What they’ve done to these people, it’s disgraceful. And mostly, I mean, you know, it’s firemen, they’re policemen, they’re people in the military. … And I will tell you, I will look very, very favorably about — about full pardons.


DONALD TRUMP: If I decide to run and if I win, I will be looking very, very strongly about pardons.


DONALD TRUMP: Full pardons.

AMY GOODMAN: So, President Donald Trump, former, who is signaling he might be running again, that he would give them full pardons, and also talking about police and firefighters that he’s supporting. In fact, a former New York police officer was just sentenced to 10 years in prison — that’s the latest news out from yesterday — because he attacked a police officer with an American flag pole. If you can talk about what he has just said, Professor MacLean?

NANCY MacLEAN: Yeah. What he has just said, Amy, is something that should terrify us all. We have seen a Republican Party over the years that has tried to treat the rival party of Democrats as illegitimate, ever since the days of Newt Gingrich using language that’s inflammatory, tossing around words like “treason.” Well, frankly, what Donald Trump just described was treasonous conduct. He is talking about issuing blanket pardons to people who waged an attack on our country, an attack that took the lives of, ultimately, seven police officers, that resulted in millions of dollars’ worth of damage, that desecrated our Capitol and shamed us before the world. And he is talking about financially supporting those people and plans to issue pardons to them. And not only is he not calling them criminals, people who violated the law, engaged in violence, attacked our country, he is actually elevating them as heroes.

And here I want to go back to something that Joe Biden said that got him in a lot of trouble with Republicans because he called out something accurate. When he used that phrase “semi-fascist” the other day to describe the MAGA Republicans, I believe that was an apt phrase. We are not in a fascist situation in America, but we have elected officials and their followers in one party behaving in a fascistic way. Donald Trump just illustrated that with his lionization of people who engaged in criminal violence.

This is extremely important, because if you look back to the interwar period that brought us the regime of Mussolini, which is marking its 100th anniversary this year of the March on Rome, and later Hitler, they started with that kind of violence, that kind of celebration of violence, and also an effort to conquer major institutions of the society and make them serve this project.

Look at what Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans are doing. They are trying to conquer critical institutions. He has pardoned people in the military who engaged in illegal conduct. He has lifted them up as heroes. He has now elevated, as you’re saying, those police officers who violated the law on January 6. We have had, again, such attacks on election boards and public health workers in this country, and on teachers, that we are seeing hemorrhaging in those fields. We don’t have enough nurses. We don’t have enough public health people. We don’t have enough people in so many of the core institutions of our society. We also have Republicans attacking the domain where I work — higher education — spreading lies, attacking teachers, trying to divide students and faculty from community.

We are at red-alert stage. In military terms, it is DEFCON 1 for democracy in America. And it’s time that the mainstream media started to recognize that. President Biden gave us the call and said exactly what is happening in very clear and eloquent terms. So we can only hope that Americans respond calmly, deliberately and with determination to alert their neighbors, to canvass for these midterms, to make sure people understand the high stakes of these elections. It is only the people who will be the guardrails of our democracy responding in a calm, nonviolent, determined way to ensure that we still have a democracy for generations to come, for our children and grandchildren.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor MacLean, you’ve also made it clear that this is not just about President Trump, saying that our situation is driven by our extreme-right fossil fuel and dirty industry donors who have radicalized the Republican Party. Can you elaborate?

NANCY MacLEAN: Yes. Thank you, Amy, for raising that, because the donor question has all but fallen out of so much of the conversation and of the media attention to the problems we’re facing. But this is what I researched for Democracy in Chains, and particularly the Koch network of donors, convened by Charles Koch, the CEO of Koch Industries, one of the richest men in the world, who has convened other wealthy donors, not only in the United States, by the way, but globally, particularly from the fossil fuel sector, tobacco and other dirty industries, to try to shackle democracy. They have supported this Republican Party. They were the ones who drove it to the far right with the tea party, you know, and, before that, the efforts of the radical Republicans, like Newt Gingrich, in Congress. They are a serious threat to our democracy.

And actually, this is one of the interesting things that distinguishes our moment from the interwar period that saw Mussolini and Hitler come to power. Mussolini and Hitler came up from the streets, through street fighting and radical violence, and then later won the backing of right-wing sections of capital and other institutions, like the church and the military. In our country, we’ve seen something different. These dark money, fossil fuel donors, led, above all, by Charles Koch, have so poisoned the workings of our electoral system that we are in this position. And we will not solve this problem that we face, we will not get out of this crisis, unless we address that dark money, not only the money going to elected officials, but the money that is going tax-free to fund an apparatus of literally hundreds of organizations that are polluting our public debate, that are turning us against one another, that are distorting and deforming our institutions and that have brought us to this precipice.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question, Nancy MacLean. Before you wrote Democracy in Chains, you wrote Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan, published decades ago. But there you look at that period in the 1920s, right around the time, in the ’20s, ’30s, when you had Mussolini and you had Hitler rising to power, but in the United States, where you looked at how some 5 million ordinary white Protestant men joined the second Ku Klux Klan in the ’20s. Do you see parallels to today?

NANCY MacLEAN: Yes, Amy, and it — really, it gives me chills to say it. And sadly, the book is getting a second life all these years later, because it’s not just me: Ordinary Americans see the parallels. Donald Trump and this radicalized Republican Party has breathed life into these white supremacist, white nationalist forces. It’s no longer the Ku Klux Klan in the forefront, but we see groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters and all these, you know, kind of freelance militias, who are committed to a set of ideas very much like those of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, and milder forms of which are embraced by this MAGA faction of the Republican Party, namely the idea that only certain people are legitimate Americans, particularly white middle-class Christians, that other people don’t belong, that they’re there on suffrage, that — sufferance, rather — that white Christian Americans have the right to run the country, have the right to drive others out or subdue them, and have the right to dictate, and that somehow that is God-given, and that those elements of our history that President Biden referenced last night, the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal, that all people deserve dignity and voice, that is a reaction against that. It is a rejection of the multiracial democracy and the country that is supposed to be open to the progress and achievement of all.

So, these ideas, sadly, have come back to us. It’s like rocks have been lifted up around the country, and oxygen has been given to these forces that were always there but not encouraged in the way that they have been in the last several years of Donald Trump’s dominance of the public discussion. So, again, I think President —

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

NANCY MacLEAN: — Biden was absolutely right to say — to mention white supremacists and to say that this is an emergency for our country and that we all must pay attention and, if we care about democracy, commit to making sure it will last and it will work for all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Nancy MacLean, author of the book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, professor of history and public policy at Duke University in North Carolina.

Next up, as millions of Californians face extreme heat, we go to Los Angeles to look at the city’s most vulnerable, the unhoused, and the programs to place them in vacant hotel rooms. Sixty thousand unhoused on any given night, 20,000 vacant hotel rooms. Stay with us.

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