TEMPE, Arizona — President Joe Biden issued one of his most dire warnings yet that Donald Trump and his allies are a menace to American democracy, declaring Thursday that the former president is more interested in personal power than upholding the nation’s core values and suggesting even mainstream Republicans are complicit.
“The silence is deafening,” he said.
During a speech in Arizona celebrating a library to be built honoring his friend and fierce Trump critic, the late Republican Sen. John McCain, Biden repeated one of his key campaign themes, branding the “Make America Great Again” movement as an existential threat to the U.S. political system. He’s reviving that idea ahead of next year’s presidential race after it buoyed Democrats during last fall’s midterm election, laying out the threat in especially stark terms: “There’s something dangerous happening in America right now.”
“We should all remember, democracies don’t have to die at the end of a rifle,” Biden said. “They can die when people are silent, when they fail to stand up or condemn threats to democracy, when people are willing to give away that which is most precious to them because they feel frustrated, disillusioned, tired, alienated.”
The 2024 election is still more than a year away, yet Biden’s focus reflects Trump’s status as the undisputed frontrunner for his party’s nomination despite facing four indictments, two of them related to his attempts to overturn Biden’s 2020 victory.
The president’s speech was his fourth in a series of addresses on what he sees as challenges to democracy, a topic that is a touchstone for him as he tries to remain in office in the face of low approval ratings and widespread concern from voters about his age, 80.
He used this line of political attack frequently ahead of last year’s midterms, when Democrats gained a Senate seat and only narrowly lost the House to the GOP. But shifting the narrative in Washington could be especially tricky given that Biden is facing mounting pressure on Capitol Hill, where House Republicans held the first hearing in their impeachment inquiry and where the prospect of a government shutdown looms – a prospect Trump has actively egged on.
On the first anniversary of Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of Trump supporters staged an insurrection, Biden visited the Capitol and accused Trump of continuing to hold a “dagger” at democracy’s throat. He closed out the summer that year in the shadow of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, decrying Trumpism as a menace to democratic institutions.
And in November, as voters were casting midterm ballots, Biden again sounded a clarion call to protect democratic institutions.
Advisers see the president’s continued focus on democracy as both good policy and good politics. Campaign officials have pored over the election results from last November, when candidates who denied the 2020 election results did not fare well in competitive races, and point to polling that showed democracy was a highly motivating issue for voters in 2022.
“Our task, our sacred task of our time, is to make sure that they change not for the worst but for the better, that democracy survives and thrives, not be smashed by a movement more interested in power than a principle,” Biden said Thursday. “It’s up to us, the American people.”
Like previous speeches the latest location was chosen for effect. It was near Arizona State University, which houses the McCain Institute, named after the late senator, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who spent his public life denouncing autocrats around the globe.
Biden said that “there is no question that today’s Republican Party is driven and intimidated by MAGA extremists.” He pointed to Trump’s recent suggestion that Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who is stepping down from his post on Friday, should be executed for allegedly treasonous betrayal of him.
“Although I don’t believe even a majority of Republicans think that, the silence is deafening,” Biden added. He also noted that Trump has previously questioned those who serve in the U.S. military calling “service members suckers and losers. Was John a sucker?” Biden asked, referring to McCain, who survived long imprisonment in Vietnam.
Then he got even more personal adding, “Was my son, Beau – who lived next to a burn pit for a year and came home and died – was he a sucker for volunteering to serve his country?”
The late senator’s wife, Cindy McCain, said the library, which is still to be built, grew out of bipartisan support from Biden, Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs and her predecessor, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. She called it “a fitting legacy for my husband” and recalled how the Bidens introduced her to her future husband decades ago.
“I am so grateful for that,” Cindy McCain said, her voice cracking.
Later Thursday, the Treasury Department announced $83 million in federal funds to help construct the 83,000-square-foot library near Papago Park.
Republicans competing with Trump for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination have largely avoided challenging his election falsehoods, and Biden said Thursday that voters can’t let them get away with it.
“Democracy is not a partisan issue,” he said. “It’s An American issue.”
After the speech, Biden spoke at an Arizona fundraiser for his reelection campaign. The attendees included Brittney Griner, the basketball star who was arrested last year at the airport in Moscow on drug-related charges and detained for nearly 10 months.
A number of candidates who backed Trump’s election lies and were running for statewide offices with some influence over elections – governor, secretary of state, attorney general – lost their midterm races in every presidential battleground state.
Still, in few states does Biden’s message of democracy resonate more than in Arizona, which became politically competitive during Trump’s presidency after seven decades of Republican dominance. Biden’s victory made the state a hotbed of efforts to overturn or cast doubt on the results, and some GOP candidates continue to deny basic facts on elections.
That’s help reinforce other claims from Democrats about GOP extremism on other, separate issues, said Republican officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly describe the party’s election shortcomings last year. Though Trump-animated forces in the party dominate public attention, many Republican voters were concerned about other issues such as the economy and the border and did not want to focus on an election result that was two years old.
Republican state lawmakers used their subpoena power to obtain all the 2020 ballots and vote-counting machines from Maricopa County, then hired Trump supporters to conduct an unprecedented partisan review of the election. The widely mocked spectacleconfirmed Biden’s victory but fueled unfounded conspiracy theories about the election and spurred an exodus of election workers.
In the midterms, voters up and down the ballot rejected Republican candidates who repeatedly denied the results of the 2020 election. But Kari Lake, the GOP gubernatorial candidate, has never conceded her loss to Hobbs and plans to launch a bid for the U.S. Senate. Last year, Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters and Mark Finchem, who ran for secretary of state, also repeated fraudulent election claims in their campaigns.
Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., who defeated Masters, said the importance of defending democracy resonates not only with members of his own party but independents and moderate GOP voters.
“I met so many Republicans that were sick and tired of the lies about an election that was two years old,” Kelly said.
Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, who is seeking the Democratic nomination in next year’s Senate race, said a democracy-focused message is particularly important to two critical blocs of voters in the state: Latinos and veterans, both of whom Gallego said are uniquely affected by election denialism and the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
“You know, we come from countries and experiences where democracy is very corrupt, and many of us are only one generation removed from that, but we’re close enough to see how bad it can be,” Gallego said. “And so Jan. 6 actually was particularly jarring, I think, to Latinos.”
Weissert reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Fatima Hussein contributed to this report.