Sep 7, 2022

Biden's speech in Philly.

Biden's speech in Philly.

His words sparked a fervor.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

The news we missed on our break, Biden's speech in Philly, and another question about Trump.

Biden's speech in Philly / Screenshot: 6ABC News

We're back.

We hope you had a great Labor Day weekend! I'm feeling recharged after a couple of days off spending some time with family and friends in the beautiful state of North Carolina. Remember: On Friday, paying subscribers got a lengthy edition on nuclear energy, which you can read by clicking here.

Since we’ve been off since then, we're going to start today with a few quick hits we missed...


While we were gone...

  1. The U.S. economy added 315,000 jobs in August, slightly below expectations. Job growth continues despite rising interest rates implemented to cool inflation. (The numbers)
  2. A retired NYPD officer was sentenced to 10 years in prison for assaulting a police officer during the January 6 riots. (The sentence)
  3. Officials in Jackson, Mississippi say water pressure has been restored at a local treatment plant after nearly 180,000 residents went without water for a week. (The water)
  4. British conservative Liz Truss was sworn in as Britain’s third prime minister in just over three years on Tuesday, replacing Boris Johnson. (The new PM)
  5. A federal judge granted President Trump's request for a special master to review documents seized by the FBI during a search of his Mar-a-Lago residence. (The ruling)

Today's quick hits.

  1. Russia says it won't restart the Nord Stream pipeline that supplies natural gas to Germany until sanctions are lifted. (The pipeline)
  2. Newly declassified U.S. intelligence documents say Russia is now buying thousands of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea. (The intel)
  3. Couy Griffin, the founder of Cowboys for Trump, was removed as county commissioner and banned from holding public office because of his role in January 6. (The punishment)
  4. A document describing a foreign government's military defenses, including its nuclear capabilities, was among those found at Mar-a-Lago by the FBI, according to a Washington Post report. (The report)
  5. California is urging residents to reduce electricity usage to avoid blackouts as a heat wave drives up the state's power demand. (The grid)

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


Today's topic.

President Joe Biden's speech. On Thursday, Biden delivered a speech in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where he called for Americans to come together to support democracy in the face of former President Trump’s extreme ideology.

“Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal. Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” Biden said in the speech. "MAGA Republicans have made their choice. They embrace anger. They thrive on chaos. They live not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies."

Biden said these "MAGA Republicans" are refusing to recognize the results of free and fair elections, increasingly turning to political violence, and are threatening the "soul of the nation."

He insisted that he was not referring to most Republicans with these allegations.

"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,” Biden said. “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."

Biden also celebrated his legislative accomplishments, citing the Covid-19 recovery package, the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the gun control bill, and the reconciliation package, which included healthcare reforms and hundreds of billions of dollars of spending on climate change.

The speech, in which Biden was backlit in red and flanked by two Marine soldiers, immediately drew criticism from Republicans.

"There's nothing wrong with America's soul," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said on Twitter. "The American people are hurting because of your policies. Rampant inflation. Out of control crime. Terrorism on the rise. Broken borders. Stop lecturing & change your policies before it’s too late."

Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro said Biden was "cynically raising the political temperature by labeling half of Americans enemies of the republic."

You can read a full transcript of the speech here or watch it here.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the left and right, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left is mostly supportive of the speech, saying Biden is properly framing the threat of Trump and his supporters.
  • Many argue that democracy is under threat in many states and Americans need to be aware of that.
  • Some say Biden could have invoked patriotism instead of partisanship.

In The New Yorker, Susan Glasser said Biden called out MAGA Republicans in "unsparing terms."

"I suspect that few will remember Biden’s words on Thursday night, however, as much as they will think of the ominous setting — the front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall at night, with dramatic red floodlights as the backdrop for the President while he spoke in dire terms about the possibility of political violence from the Trumpists who still refuse to concede Trump’s 2020 defeat, and who celebrate the violent mob that stormed the Capitol in hopes of overturning it," Glasser wrote. "Just hours before Biden’s speech, in fact, Trump himself bragged of giving financial support to some of the insurrectionists who have been charged by the Justice Department, and told an interviewer that he was considering offering blanket pardons to the January 6th defendants, should he be reelected in 2024.

"MAGA Republicans seemed to think that the scary setting for Biden’s alarming message was somehow beneficial to them, and they soon began sharing images of the dramatic black-and-neon-red scene," she said. "In the inverted logic of Trumpworld, theirs is the grievance that matters. They are always the wronged party. Storming the Capitol and defying the will of the voters in 2020 was totally fine. But how dare Joe Biden say such nasty things about them for doing so? These howls of complaint might have been fun to listen to from the folks who routinely savage Biden as a wild-eyed socialist out to destroy freedom itself, if what they themselves were doing to the country were not so deadly serious."

In NBC News, Jason Stanley celebrated Biden for finally coming around to the central issue facing Americans.

"The president did not shy away from the truth: The Republican Party, one of our two major parties, has been taken over by an explicitly antidemocratic social and political movement collectively known as MAGA Republicans," Stanley wrote. "Biden’s comments built on remarks at a fundraiser a few days ago in Maryland, where he said extreme MAGA philosophy was 'semi-fascism.' Not surprisingly, reactionary conservatives like Fox News host Tucker Carlson and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy immediately began braying for an apology. But does Biden have anything to apologize for?

"Americans can freely vote for MAGA Republicans in the upcoming 2022 (and 2024) elections. But placing and keeping these people in power in the short term would likely result in long-term one-party rule, as well as massive restrictions on the liberties of racial, religious and sexual minorities, as well as women. This is a hard truth that every American must face," he wrote. "However, in painting MAGA Republicans as essentially intruders into American politics, the president did misrepresent our history...  [they are] a descendant of Jim Crow. And its leaders are bringing back the same tactics of voter suppression, attacks on history and education and calls for political violence, using the specter of Black political protest as an existential threat to white America."

The Washington Post editorial board said it was a "depressing reflection" of the times that Biden had to give the speech he did.

“The difficult, perhaps insurmountable, challenge that Mr. Biden confronted — just eight weeks before midterm elections that will determine the future course of his presidency — was how to convey the message of defending democracy in a way that summons patriotism rather than partisanship,” the board said. “Here, as much as we agree with the president about the urgency of the issue, is where he fell short, too often sounding more like a Democrat than a democrat. You don’t persuade people by scolding or demeaning them, but that’s how the president’s speech landed for many conservatives of goodwill. Mr. Biden was wrong to conflate upholding the rule of law with his own partisan agenda, which he called ‘the work of democracy.’

“You can be for democracy but against the president’s policy proposals to use government to lower prescription-drug prices and combat climate change. ‘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,’ Mr. Biden proclaimed. But many conservatives — not just ‘MAGA forces’ — agree with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. It was disappointing that Mr. Biden chose to omit that the infrastructure, gun-control and burn-pits legislation he praised had passed with Republican votes,” the board wrote. “Pointing this out would actually have strengthened his effort to draw a contrast between ‘MAGA Republicans’ and ‘mainstream Republicans.’”


What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right criticized the speech, saying Biden is framing his political opposition as mortal enemies.
  • Some called out the hypocrisy of what he said when compared to the actions of Democrats.
  • Others said Biden is framing his political opponents as a threat as a way to use the power of the government against them.

Nicholas Giordano called it a "sinister speech" where he targeted his political opponents.

“With the blood-red lighting and two shadowy Marines flanking President Joe Biden Thursday night, the message was clear: unity can only exist through submission,” Giordano wrote. “The president’s job is to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and our way of life. Given that solemn oath, what happens when the president and his administration view nearly half the country as ‘threats to democracy,’ intent on ‘destroying democracy’ to usher in an era of ‘semi-fascism?’ If the president and his team truly believe ‘MAGA’ and anyone who subscribes to the America First policies represents ‘an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,’ how long will it be before the president officially declares tens of millions of Americans as domestic terrorists?

“Everyone should pay attention because the Biden administration is not just targeting ‘MAGA Republicans.’ They are targeting Republicans, Independents, Libertarians, and disaffected Democrats who support the former president’s policies," he wrote. "This is a coordinated and sustained campaign to portray political opposition as an existential threat and enemies of the state. The timeline of events and the increasingly darker rhetoric indicates that we are heading towards an ominous period in American history... If the Biden administration continues down this trajectory, it is only a matter of time before former President Trump and his supporters are officially designated as a domestic terrorist organization.”

In The Wall Street Journal, William McGurn said Biden is "angry but not serious."

"Yes, it was full of nasty stuff. But in the end it was more Beltway bathos than menace," McGurn wrote. "Surely it’s damning that what so many people seem to remember isn’t Mr. Biden’s message but the nakedly political use of the uniformed Marines behind him (calling Gen. Mark Milley)—and the neon illumination that made the stately face of Independence Hall look like the entrance to a bordello in some red-light district. Even more striking was the tone. Gone was genial Joe from Scranton, the man who persuaded Americans that he would give them a calm and drama-free presidency. In its place was Dark Brandon, a superhero saving America from imaginary armies of fascism.

"This Joe Biden seems to think anger conveys seriousness. But apparently no one inside the West Wing is asking whether these outbursts really help him—or only underscore his failure to do anything about what he’s complaining about," he wrote. "Mr. Biden well knows voters aren’t happy with him. For all the talk about his legislative victories and a fortunate drop in gas prices, the president obviously isn’t confident those will prove decisive when Americans go to the polls. He’s not the first politician to calculate that his best path to victory is to paint political opponents as not merely wrong but evil and pray voters end up hating the other guys more than they hate him."

In National Review, Dan McLaughlin called it a "blundering" and "insincere" speech.

"Examples proliferate. Biden wrapped himself in the mantle of the 'rule of law,' which his administration has so flagrantly disregarded with illegal orders on the CDC eviction moratorium, the OSHA vaccine mandate, and now student-loan debt," McLaughlin said. "He talked about the Constitution, yet his list of rights he intends to protect — 'right to choose,' 'right to privacy,' 'right to contraception,' 'right to marry who you love' — consisted entirely of things the Constitution never mentions; he couldn’t spare a word for free speech, free exercise of religion, the right to bear arms, or due process of law, all of them punching bags for his administration.

"He complained that, 'Democracy cannot survive when one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election: either they win or they were cheated,' that, 'You can’t love your country only when you win,' and that, 'I will not stand by and watch — I will not — the will of the American people be overturned by wild conspiracy theories and baseless, evidence-free claims of fraud.' Again, he attributed this only to his political opponents, ignoring all manner of offenses against this norm by his own side, ranging from Biden himself branding the 2022 elections as illegitimate unless Congress passed a bunch of bills that won’t pass, to Chuck Schumer calling American elections a 'rigged game,' to election-deniers Terry McAuliffe (whom Biden eagerly supported in 2021) and Stacey Abrams (whom Biden is eagerly supporting in 2022)," McLaughlin wrote.


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • The speech had some truth and a lot of politicking.
  • Biden passed on opportunities to speak to his own party's faults and praise the Republicans who have worked across the aisle.
  • He made a clear decision to leverage hate against Trump instead of support for his agenda.

I'll start with what I liked.

I liked that Biden spoke plainly about the threat to democratic norms. It's true that political violence is on the rise, as is election denialism. It's true that the biggest purveyor of this brand of politics is Donald Trump, who is still claiming — as of last week — that he is the rightful president, that a new election should be held immediately, and that he would pardon rioters who ransacked the Capitol on January 6. And it's true that Trump has successfully elevated candidates in the midterms who spent the primary race insisting the 2020 election was stolen (though some are now turning down the volume on those claims).

I also liked that Biden spoke against political violence with clarity: "So I want to say this plain and simple: There is no place for political violence in America. Period. None. Ever," he said. "We can’t allow violence to be normalized in this country. It’s wrong. We each have to reject political violence with — with all the moral clarity and conviction this nation can muster. Now."

I've written a lot about claims the election was stolen and even debated the matter publicly, so I don't feel any qualms about saying this brand of politics Biden called out is dangerous. There is plenty of evidence the media is biased and Hunter Biden's laptop story was covered up and the pandemic upended the normal process for voting. There is still no evidence of a vast conspiracy of election fraud that threw the race to Biden in any state, and suggestions otherwise have undoubtedly led to violence.

But there was a lot I didn't like. The optics of Biden's speech — he and two uniformed Marines bathed in red light — were terrible. But more critically, the missed opportunity to take a step back from the political ledge, with so many obvious opportunities to do so, is the real shame.

Since day one, Biden has touted himself as a political unifier, and he had opportunities to talk across the aisle on Thursday. He could have condemned, in specific terms, the political violence of the left: An assasination attempt on Brett Kavanaugh, firebombings of anti-abortion clinics, and even social justice protests that turned violent.

As The Washington Post editorial board pointed out, Biden also repeatedly conflated threats to democracy with opposition to his own political agenda. Instead, he could have pointed out where his agenda met Republicans. He could have worked in lines like this:

"My administration is proof that Republicans and Democrats still have common ground. We've come together on gun control, infrastructure bills and legislation to help veterans. Together, we've poured hundreds of billions into competing with China and building semiconductors at home. We renewed the Violence Against Women Act, and a bill to protect victims of sexual misconduct. And soon, Republicans and Democrats could take up legislation to further secure our elections and ban members of Congress from stock trading."

This isn't hard. It took me two minutes to write that paragraph. But Biden's meager single sentence on working with Republicans was sandwiched between warnings that MAGA is an existential threat to the country.

He spoke about election denialism, but spared no words for his own party. What damage would it have done to add a line like this? "Denying the results of an election is not just unique to Trump, but increasingly common among members of my own party." Stacey Abrams is Exhibit A. Hillary Clinton still claims Trump was an illegitimate president. Even Biden has claimed the 2022 elections would be "illegitimate" if Republicans didn't pass the voting rights bill he wanted. These things may pale in comparison to the nonstop onslaught of allegations from Trump and company, but not addressing them at all makes it easy to call Biden a hypocrite.

And speaking of hypocrisy, the Democrats funding the "MAGA Republicans" Biden is so frantically warning us about? Democrats spent $43 million dollars backing election deniers because they think it will improve their odds of winning in the November general elections. Whether they end up being right is irrelevant — it amounts to intentionally elevating a threat Biden claims is imminent, unique, and unprecedented.

Of course, pretending Biden somehow escalated the political rhetoric in our country is also ridiculous. His predecessor exceeded Thursday night's rhetoric on a daily basis, whether it was telling voters Democrats “are sick” and "want to destroy our country as we know it" or claiming Democrats "don't mind executing babies after birth" or promising voters Biden was going to "confiscate your guns, terminate religious liberty, destroy your suburbs" or when he retweeted a video where a man said "the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat." After Republicans spent the week criticizing Biden for saying MAGA ideology was akin to “semi-fascism,” claiming it crossed some kind of imaginary rhetorical line, a video resurfaced of Trump calling Democrats fascists at a campaign rally in 2020. The examples of hypocrisy are so endless it’s hard to remember them all.

Biden is clearly betting that hate for Trump will motivate his base more than support for his agenda, and he may be right. Yet he had plenty of chances to offer an olive branch to the many voters who are dissatisfied with his own time in office (which, by the way, is about 60% of the country). He could have offered even tepid criticism of his own party's actions, or focused on bipartisan legislative successes, or called out the specific politicians and figures who are threatening democracy, rather than taking broad swipes at anyone who subscribes to “Make America Great Again.” He passed on those chances, and while he may think he is better for it politically, I think the country’s already suffering psyche is worse for it.


Your questions, answered.

Q: As you have pointed out, it's a little ridiculous to say that Trump was flat out wrong about everything. You recently noted an example on Twitter in which an old video portrayed him as providing false information in stating that Germany was becoming too reliant on Russian energy, something we now know to be true... Given Trump's lack of experience and proclivity towards whatever was in his self interest, what do you think allowed him to see things that the actual experts and people that have spent their lives doing government work are unable to?

— Bill, Wayne, New Jersey

Tangle: I think it's the promise of Trump and politicians like him: They are a fresh set of eyes on a system run by insiders and echo chambers. Trump was right about a lot that other people missed because the "other people" are often members of Congress, the security state, think tanks and other government positions who have spent years or decades in the same sectors surrounded by the same people recirculating the same ideas.

To me, it's sort of the conservative version of progressives who want more activists turned politicians. There is an idea on the left that someone who has grassroots, on-the-ground experience helping address community needs in urban or minority-majority areas is better suited to advocate for progressive ideals than a white, wealthy, Ivy League educated professional politician. They'll have fresh eyes, are not going to play by the corporate Democrats’ rules and will bring unyielding commitment to their core issues.

In Trump's case, he entered office inherently skeptical of everything that came from Democrats and establishment Republicans. That skepticism meant his instinct was to oppose whatever they supported and do it in a way where he threw everything against the wall to try to counter those forces. Since establishment Republicans and Democrats are wrong about a lot, and Trump was open to just about any solution for any problem, a lot of stuff stuck. I think all those instances are reminders that stagnation can breed groupthink, and it's one reason Trump still has so much support.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


Under the radar.

On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill to give more than a half-million fast food workers more power and protection. The legislation creates a 10-member Fast Food Council with equal numbers of worker delegates and employer representatives, as well as two California state officials, to set standards for wages, hours and working conditions. The law caps minimum wage increases at $22 an hour next year for more than 100 restaurants, which means laborers could push for an increase above the current $15.50 minimum wage across the state. CBS News has the story.

Have a story you think is slipping under the radar? Submit one here.


Numbers.

  • 38%. The percentage of Americans who want the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. reduced, the highest percentage since July of 2016.
  • 27%. The percentage of Americans who want the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. increased.
  • 64%. The percentage of Americans who think political violence in the U.S. will increase over the next few years, according to a new CBS poll.
  • 43%. President Biden's approval rating, according to 538's average, the highest since mid-March.
  • 8.76 million. The number of air travelers screened in the U.S. over Labor Day weekend.
  • 8.24 million. The number of air travelers screened in the U.S. over Labor Day weekend in 2019.


Have a nice day.

A woman who can smell Parkinson's is helping scientists detect it in patients, with 95% accuracy. Researchers in Manchester, England are developing a new method to detect the disease in three minutes based on the astonishing ability of Joy Milne to smell it on patients. Milne, a 72-year-old retired nurse, became famous for suspecting her husband had Parkinson's 12 years before he was actually diagnosed, based on what she said was a distinct change in his odor. She linked the way he smelled to his diagnosis after meeting patients at a Parkinson's support group who she said had the same distinctive odor. Now, working with Milne, researchers have developed a simple skin-swab test to gather a specific oily substance on the skin that contains compounds often associated with the disease. BBC News has the story.


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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.