Biden may regret calling MAGA a “semi-fascist” movement

Alex Wong/Getty

Alex Wong/Getty

With the promised red tsunami starting to look more like a red ripple, Republicans are desperate for something — anything — to get the November midterms back on their normal historical trajectory.

Joe Biden may have just handed it to them.

“What we’re seeing now is either the beginning or the death of an extreme MAGA philosophy,” Biden told Democratic donors during a private meeting last week. “It’s not just Trump, it’s the whole philosophy behind the — I’ll say something: It’s like semi-fascism.”

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Later, at a different Democratic event, Biden continued: “I respect conservative Republicans. I have no respect for these MAGA Republicans… There aren’t many real Republicans left.”

Biden’s penchant for extravagant blunders aside, there may be a method to his madness. “There’s a reason Democrats want to keep Trump at the center of the debate.” tweeted conservative Ben Shapiro, “half of independents say Trump is an important factor in their vote, breaking 4-1 for Democrats. Republicans should not play this game. If they do, they’re cruising for bruises.”

The riot on Capitol Hill on January 6th (“Hang Mike Pence!”) and the more widespread election phenomenon of refusing candidates to win the next GOP primary shows that this is not your father’s GOP.

But Biden should be aware that similar remarks—regardless of their plausibility or apparent political utility with the base—have backfired in the past.

In 2012, a video surfaced of Mitt Romney telling a private group of donors that “There’s 47 percent who are with [Obama]who depend on the government, who believe they’re victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them… And they’re going to vote for this president no matter what.”

Now, there was some truth in Romney’s statement. About half of American households pay no income tax. Some percentage of voters are habitual (non-convincing) Democratic voters. Some percentage of Democrats are socialists. Similarly, some percentage of Americans who receive benefits are probably voting in their own financial self-interest.

None of these caveats mattered.

Four years later, Hillary Clinton made a similar mistake, saying, “You could put half of Trump’s supporters in what I call the basket of deplorables. Correctly? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.”

Like Romney, he played to the crowd and exaggerated the numbers of Americans he could write off. And like Romney’s “47 percent” line, there was some truth there.

The other audience they had? They both lost.

Unlike Romney and Clinton, Biden is not running for president (not now, at least), and midterm voters may not be “counting Biden in their ballot calculations,” as conservative writer Matthew Continetti surmises.

But Biden just opened himself up to the same criticism that proved so deadly in 2012 and 2016 — even if he did add the word “semi” in front of the F-bomb.

Indeed, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu — hardly a Trumper — revealed the predictable pushback to CNN state of the union on Sunday: “The fact that the president was going out and insulting half of America … basically calling half of America a semi-fascist because he’s trying to stir up controversy, trying to stir up this anti-Republican sentiment right before the election … it’s wildly inappropriate.”

Dismissing half a nation as unredeemable, it seems, is a grim game.

But it would be a mistake to stop here without analyzing the uniqueness of the word fascist.

Almost no one knows exactly what a fascist is, as evidenced in part by the fact that it is usually used as a stand-in for “authoritarian”. In the movie Bull DurhamCrash Davis (played by Kevin Costner) says that strikes are “fascist” – unlike ground balls, which he says are more “democratic.”

My simplistic shorthand for “fascism” is “right-wing socialism,” but not everyone even agrees that it’s an exclusively right-wing thing. In a recent column revisiting his 2008 book Liberal FascismJonah Goldberg describes fascism as a “highly concentrated and toxic form of populism that manifests itself as mob politics, not a manifesto.”

By that definition, there’s a legitimate case for Biden to call MAGA’s philosophy “quasi-fascism.” Look no further than the January 6 riot, the fake voter scheme, or the ties between Trumpworld and paramilitary groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and Trump supporters for evidence. Or, more recently, consider Sen. Lindsey Graham’s warning last weekend that there will be “riots in the streets” if Trump is impeached.

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The danger is that for most of my life, the word “fascist” was bandied around to basically associate conservatives with “Nazis.” For this reason, Biden risks reminding everyone that liberals have cried wolf before. Similar insults were hurled at Reagan.

On the other hand, the fact that this word has been thrown around so often can make it ironic less likely to fail. There was something fresh transgressive about labeling oneself as ‘deplorable’. This is not the case with “fascist” (although, in some circles, “semi-fascist” may have some ironic t-shirt potential).

Regardless of whether this backfires against Biden, this strikes me as the latest example of Biden abandoning his mandate opposite of Trump. Like his decision to cancel student debt, so does Joe Biden’s invocation of The c * word he can be better understood as a man more focused on cleaning up his base than as a president committed to restoring the rules.

The only question that remains is whether this moment will matter — whether Biden’s use of the F-word will be a big F-ing deal.

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