"An Aberration": How Joe Biden De-Presidented Donald Trump with a Single Speech
Our country is still reeling from a string of white supremacist terrorist attacks and more mass shootings than there have so far been days in the year, and the question in everyone’s mind is not even a ‘when does this end?’ It’s ‘when and where is the next one?’
It is against that backdrop that Donald Trump yesterday headed to El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio to pay lip service to the role previous holders of the Oval Office have shined in: consoler in chief. For the first time, the communities did not want the president of the United States to visit, because of the man who sullies that office. The communities ravaged by weapons of war correctly identified Donald Trump as a toxic agent of division and wound, someone they did not care to see at a time they needed to heal. Besides, the President - President Obama - already assumed the role of healer in chief knowing that his successor could not.
Democratic presidential candidates have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the communities that are hurting, and they have been unified in their condemnation of Trump’s racism as the catalyst for rising domestic terrorism. Beto O’Rourke joined a rally in his home town of El Paso. Kamala Harris’s campaign bought lunch for O’Rourke staffers this week in a show of solidarity. Cory Booker delivered a speech on hate and gun violence at the site of another horrific instance of white supremacist terrorism, the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
I don’t think it would be a stretch to say the highlight, however, came from Vice President Joe Biden. In a speech in Burlington, Iowa, Biden excoriated Trump for being the catalyst for both the white supremacist rhetoric inspiring many of these attacks and for readily handing domestic terrorists weapons of mass murder.
But most important thing Biden did - the key reason his speech is getting so much attention, is that he cast the fight against Donald Trump, every day and through the upcoming presidential elections, as something bigger and more important than a battle of policy proposals, bigger than a fight over rhetorical back-and-forth, more fundamental than political power. Joe Biden presented the fight against Donald Trump and white supremacy as an overarching, overriding moral struggle, a battle for the soul of our nation. He separated Donald Trump from the character of our nation.
The soul of our nation cannot depend on a president who is intent on killing it. So, brilliantly, Biden delegitimized Donald Trump as the president; one may even say Biden ‘de-presidented’ Trump.
There was not a single time in the 25-minute speech that Biden uttered the word ‘President’ immediately preceding ‘Donald’ or ‘Trump’. Biden was withering and clairvoyant in his moral condemnation of how Donald Trump was using the office of the president to gin up the darkest corners of American homegrown terrorism, but not once - not for a single moment - did he recognize Donald Trump directly as the president of the United States. He referred to Trump plenty of times as ‘this president’ (happenstance) or ‘a president’ (undistinguished) and even ‘our president’ (reminder that we can do something), but never as The President, a term that is usually reserved in the American lexicon for the contemporary holder of the Office of the President.
In fact, the first time Biden invoked the words ‘the President’ to name and identify to an individual directly, that president was President Obama. At about six minutes into the speech, Biden said:
“[Trump’s] own FBI director recently testified to Congress that extreme right-wing groups, white nationalists posed the greatest threat to racially motivated domestic terrorism. And what has Trump done? He’s poured fuel on the fire. He’s retweeted postings from extremists and white nationalists. He’s cutting funding, and in some cases, completely eliminated funding initiated by Barack, by the president and I, in our administration to counter violent extremism at home.”
Joe Biden actually does this with some regularity. When he refers to ‘the president’ in this speeches, he is generally referring to President Obama, not Donald Trump.
Biden’s refusal to put the words ‘president’ and ‘Trump’ together was not just a rhetorical device representing personal contempt for Donald Trump and what he stands for, it was a vision of America that cast the person of Donald Trump as lacking the moral authority to be the leader of all Americans, and the presidency of Donald Trump as an aberration of history, a mistake. Biden was not merely implying this. He was explicit.
He invoked the character of America but did not embellish it. He acknowledged the history of this country, fraught with imperfection and contradiction. The same Founders who wrote that all men were created equal were slaveholders themselves, Biden noted. The very Constitution that “promised to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity also allowed for slavery, and the so-called three-fifths compromise that discounted the very humanity of black people in America at the time,” he acknowledged.
And yet, even though we have never truly lived up fully to the ideal of America, the specialty of the place that its first black president described as “in no place on earth is my story even possible”, is that every generation, in their own way, has believed in America: a nation bound together not by common heritage, nor by a common race, nor by a common religion, but by a common idea of freedom and equality. And each generation, Biden remarked, has sought to perfect that idea by correcting errors of the previous generation. White Supremacy has had to be beaten back again and again, from the confederacy to the Ku Klux Klan, from emancipation to civil rights and desegregation. That has been possible in this country, because, Biden said, because enduring institutions and the highest leadership in this country stood against hate at the most pivotal moments.
“The courts, the press, and yes, presidents stood against them, and that is the point. Our institutions, often imperfectly, stood against hate at moments when we’ve been most tested.”
And so Biden invoked presidents from Lincoln to FDR, LBJ, Kennedy, and Obama who self-enlisted in this fight to create a more perfect union. He contrasted moments led by those presidents to the crass racism of the man who sullies the office those presidents once illuminated.
“We’re living through a rare moment in this nation’s history where our president isn’t up to the moment, where our president lacks the moral authority to lead, where our president has more in common with George Wallace than he does with George Washington.”
Biden also expanded on why this moment in our history - a moment when a president has more in common with George Wallace than with George Washington - must be rare, why it must be an aberration.
“Limit it to four years, I believe, I really do believe this. In history, we’ll look back on this presidency as an aberrant moment in American history, but if Donald Trump is reelected, I believe he will forever and fundamentally alter in the character of this nation. If we give Donald Trump four more years, this will not be the country envisioned by Washington and Adams and Jefferson. We give Donald Trump four more years, this will not be the nation bound together by Lincoln. We give Donald Trump four more years, this will not be the nation lifted up by Roosevelt or inspired by Kennedy. It will not be the nation that Barack Obama proved bends toward justice.”
And that is what this election is about. That is how we must fight. As important as plans and programs are, this election - this moment - demands more. This is the choice. This is not merely about whether we will get health care by modifying the current system or by uprooting it. This is not about whether we will have “free” or merely “debt-free” public higher education.
This moment is bigger than all of that. This is the moment we get to choose whether our generation will be the first to surrender the fight for America’s soul because we are too busy being the gatekeepers of progressivism or whether we will reclaim the soul of our very existence as Americans.
Let’s choose wisely.
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