Citizens who were shocked at the bitter partisanship and presumption of Joe Biden’s Philadelphia speech should recognize that such rhetoric has a long pedigree in the Democratic Party, stretching all the way back to before the Civil War.
In the runup to the Civil War in the 1850s, Democrats liked to call Lincoln’s new anti-slavery party “the Black Republicans,” a transparent appeal to latent racial bigotry. Likewise, Stephen Douglas and other leading Democrats liked to refer to their party as “the Democracy,” implying a monopoly on democratic rectitude the prefigures today’s liberal slogan, “Our DemocracyTM.” Biden’s press spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre offered a perfect recitation of Douglas’s principle of absolute popular sovereignty with her pre-speech comment: “When you are not with what a majority of Americans are, then you know, that is extreme. That is an extreme way of thinking.”
Democrats in 1860 tried to hang John Brown’s raid around the necks of the Republican Party, just as Democrats do today with the sorry spectacle of January 6. Lincoln put his finger on the totalitarian presumption of Democrats in the climax of his Cooper Union speech. His observations about the Democratic demands that Republicans endorse the rightfulness of slavery find their echo in today’s Democratic demands that Republicans must disavow Donald Trump and suppress any and all misgivings about the propriety of the 2020 election: “Silence will not be tolerated—we must place ourselves avowedly with them.”
Democrats have been thinking and speaking this way for decades, but seldom get called out for “othering” an entire political party and the half of the voting population that supports them. Franklin Roosevelt picked up where the 1850s Democrats left off in his first campaign in 1932, when he suggested Republicans were anti-American, and compared Republicans to the Tories of the Revolutionary War who left the country. Republican economic policy, he said, “belongs to the party of Toryism, and I had hoped that most of the Tories left this country in 1776.” Clearly FDR was trying to read the Republican Party out of the mainstream of American political life.
President Biden recently charged that Republicans were becoming “semi-fascist,” and this, too, began with FDR. In his 1944 State of the Union speech, Roosevelt said “if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called ‘normalcy’ of the 1920’s [invoking Republican Warren Harding’s campaign slogan in 1920]—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.” (Emphasis added.) The Democrats had their new f-bomb, and began mass producing it.
Harry Truman was happy to extend this charge. “PRESIDENT LIKENS DEWEY TO HITLER AS FASCISTS’ TOOL,” read the front-page New York Times headline of October 25, 1948:
“CHICAGO, Oct. 25 — “A Republican victory on election day will bring a Fascistic threat to American freedom that is even more dangerous than the perils from communism and extreme right ‘crackpots,’ President Truman asserted here tonight.”
The Democrats’ “fascism” slur went into overdrive when the GOP nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964. California Governor Pat Brown said Goldwater’s acceptance speech “had the stench of fascism. . . All we needed to hear was ‘Heil Hitler’.” San Francisco Mayor John Shelley said that Republicans “had Mein Kampf as their political bible.” Most of the media was happy to amplify this chorus. Columnist Drew Pearson wrote that “the smell of fascism has been in the air at this convention.” The Chicago Defender ran the headline: “GOP Convention, 1964 Recalls Germany, 1933.” (The good-natured Goldwater remarked about himself after that “If I had had to go by the media reports alone, I’d have voted against the sonofabitch, too.”)
In the week after Ronald Reagan’s first landslide election in 1980, the left practically ran out of Hitler analogies. The head of the Joint Center for Political Studies, which the Washington Post described as a “respected liberal think tank,” reacted to Reagan’s election thus: “When you consider that in the climate we’re in—rising violence, the Ku Klux Klan—it is exceedingly frightening.” Fidel Castro said right before the election: “We sometimes have the feeling that we are living in the time preceding the election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany.” Claremont College professor John Roth wrote: “I could not help remembering how economic turmoil had conspired with Nazi nationalism and militarism—all intensified by Germany’s defeat in World War I—to send the world reeling into catastrophe… It is not entirely mistaken to contemplate our post-election state with fear and trembling.” Esquire writer Harry Stein said that the voters who supported Reagan were like the “good Germans” in “Hitler’s Germany.”
But Democrats really got rolling after Newt Gingrich upended their 40-year reign in the House of Representatives in the landslide off-year election of 1994. Democratic Rep. George Miller said the day after, “It’s a glorious day if you’re a fascist.” When Speaker Gingrich proposed cuts to entitlements, Democratic Rep. Charlie Wrangel said, “Hitler wasn’t even talking about doing these things,” which is narrowly true since Hitler never proposed to cut Medicare or Social Security. Another Democrat House member, Major Owens, said “These are people who are practicing genocide with a smile; they’re worse than Hitler.”
It takes some chutzpah for Democrats to say that Trump and conservatives are “divisive.” But when you think you represent the “side of History,” such language comes naturally, because “History” can’t move forward to its benign goal with conservatives in the way. So they must be branded “enemies of the state.” An exaggeration? Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson said that “to me, it was an urgent war-time address.” Who does he think the nation is at war against? A domestic enemy, it appears.
Even though Biden said in his speech that “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic,” within 24 hours he was trying to walk it back, saying “I don’t consider any Trump supporter a threat to the country.” Even in his diminished capacity, Biden must recall how poorly Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment in 2016 went down. But don’t expect Democrats to give up their go-to f-bomb any time soon. It’s in their DNA as a party.