Biden's Rhetoric and Political Violence
In the fall of 1860, Tommy Wilson was four years old. As he stood near the front gate of his Augusta, Georgia home a local told him that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president and now there would be war. Tommy’s father, a Presbyterian minister, would turn his flock against the denomination’s opposition to slavery that was foundational to the South’s rebellion. Joseph Wilson helped found the new Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. President Biden was recently observed reading a book about President Lincoln -- And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle by John Meacham. So on November 2, when President Biden stood at Union Station to tell the American people the “truth,” he knew that the 2020 election was not the most contested election in history nor was it the most serious threat the nation has ever faced. Even the 1968 elections where riots wrecked the Democratic convention in Chicago and the assassination of Robert Kennedy ended one of the brightest prospects for the presidency alongside the April assassination of Martin Luther King that unleashed riots across American cities should be understood as evidently more serious threats to our democracy.
In 1860, Democrats violently refused to accept the election of the new Republican political figure that was Abraham Lincoln. Members of the Senate refused to accept the results. Hundreds of thousands of young men died to contest the presidential election of 1860. Tommy Wilson grew up to be Woodrow Wilson, America’s most academic president and the pioneer of the stronger and extra-constitutional view of this executive branch. Wilson jailed political opponents like socialist Eugene V. Debs and arrested thousands of immigrants he thought might be sympathetic to the Russian Bolshevik revolution. Wilson believed that a weak president allowed the Republican Congress to impose political humiliation upon the South in reconstruction. Wilson had an attorney general who enforced the law with partisan fervor against Wilson’s political opponent. This attorney general thought his aggressive enforcement of the Espionage Act to the demise of civil rights among Wilson’s political adversaries would earn him the democratic presidential nomination. He was wrong about that even among Democratic voters in 1920.
President Biden continues to attempt to cast himself as the extra-constitutional character of the strong president. He sought to banish the former president and anyone challenging the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. Challenging the legitimacy of elections is not inspiring to any democracy but it is not the unique rhetorical moment President Biden continued to pretend that it was on November 2. His January 6, 2022 speech at the beginning of this year conflated the death of officer Billy Evans occurring on April 2, 2022 at the capitol to confuse listeners about police officers being killed on January 6, 2021. No police officer was killed on January 6, 2021. It serves the president’s narrow partisan interests and especially his political power to bend the truth in this way as he did again on November 2.
In October 2008, America witnessed the most watched vice-presidential debate in U.S. history between populist governor Sarah Palin and Senator Joe Biden. Tens of millions of people watched. Palin’s unexpected rise from Alaskan politics drew an incredible surge of public attention and it remains one of the most watched political debates in U.S. history. Biden and Obama would go on to easily defeat McCain and Palin in the 2008 presidential election. On December 12, Sarah Palin’s church was burned around its entire perimeter with women and children inside. Fire rescue crews were able to save everyone inside despite temperatures outside more than 20 degrees below zero. Biden and Obama could have spoken out against such political violence having handily won the presidential election of 2008. Instead, they chose the path of silent complicity described by Biden in his November 2, 2022 speech.
Much like President Wilson in the midterm election of 1918, Biden begged the American people to punish the opposing party and clear a political path for his internationalist visions in the Congress. Wilson’s arrogance drove him to extremes and his chief of staff Joseph Tumulty was exhilarated in 1920 to learn that Republican presidential candidate Warren Harding was denounced by Democratic outlets as “not white” and therefore unfit to be an American president. The Ohio Democratic Party promised that if Harding won, blacks would rise up violently within the state and take it over. Wilson and the Democrats were sure the new women voters and the sensible educated voters would not elect Harding. In 1920, Harding and the Republicans won one of the largest landslides in presidential history with more than 61% of the vote.
President Biden would be wise to more carefully temper his rhetoric regarding American history in his grand narratives of politics. The 2020 election is not the most contested election in history and its struggle is not the greatest threat to our democracy every faced. Biden’s November 2 speech was an unfortunate expansion of his misguided January 6 speech and the red Philadelphia speech. He continues to excessively demonize his political opponents and provided little meaningful salience to the acts of political violence against Republicans seen in cases like Kavanaugh, Zelnick, and the Rubio campaigner in Florida. With greater honesty and humility, Democrats and Republicans can come together to overcome the risks of violence justifiably abhorred in his speech. His continued exaggerations and hyperbole tend to add to this problem and encourage the kinds of results that Woodrow Wilson found in 1918 and 1920.
Dr. Ben Voth is a professor of rhetoric and director of debate at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. His forthcoming book examines the rhetoric of Presidents Wilson, Harding and Coolidge.
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