President Biden has locked in a key theme for the midterms. In a decisive, tone-setting speech in Philadelphia on September 1, he said: “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.… Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology.… But there is 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.” He has reiterated that message in every campaign stop since.
Pundits and politicians were quick to jump on the president for his explicit attack on the MAGA wing of the Republican Party. They called his tone divisive. They’ve argued that it runs contrary to his promises as a candidate to be a “unifier.” They accused him of politicizing the Marines stationed behind him. But few have been able to argue the fundamental truth of what he said. And saying it is the right thing to do.
Democrats, never too shy to engage in navel-gazing, have entertained a very public debate about “popularism,” the notion that Democrats should talk about and run on only broadly popular goals. Rather than racial equity, criminal legal system reform, or abortion rights that affect particular communities, the popularists would argue that Democrats should stick to “meat and potatoes” economic issues. Explicitly calling out MAGA likely wouldn’t fall under that rubric. Though Biden has been touting his recent string of legislative wins—the CHIPS and Science Bill, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Inflation Reduction Act—they would argue that he should stick to that script. Why grasp for an attack on MAGA when you’ve got so much meat and potatoes at your own table?
Well, because there is nothing more “meat and potatoes” than defeating MAGA right now. The heart of the MAGA movement is the Big Lie, denying the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election on spurious, conspiratorial claims. Denying elections is tantamount to rejecting democracy itself. And what could be more foundational to America than democracy? This isn’t just a question of politics as usual—it’s a question of politics as existential.
With the war in Ukraine roiling global energy markets and inflation wreaking havoc globally, the U.S. dollar is in as strong a position as ever. But what backs the dollar, after all? “The full faith and credit of the U.S. government.” If we’re lamenting high inflation right now, imagine what might have happened had the January 6 insurrectionists succeeded in overturning the outcome of the presidential election? The very foundations of our national economy would have crumbled.
That our democracy held provides no guarantee that it will hold again. And across the country, Trump and his allies are nominating election deniers—democracy rejecters—up and down the ballot. This week alone, election denier Don Bolduc was nominated by Republicans to run for Senate in New Hampshire to face off against incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan.
Candidates running for high-profile positions like these aren’t even the most dangerous. Rather, MAGA candidates running for less prominent, but potentially more sensitive offices could do the most damage. Michigan’s next secretary of state will oversee the 2024 presidential election in one of the tightest swing states in the country. The GOP’s MAGA nominee, Kristina Karamo, is just one election away from that office. She’s spoken alongside QAnon conspiracists, claimed she witnessed fraud in 2020 as a “poll challenger” in Detroit, supported a lawsuit to overturn the 2020 election in four states, and claimed that the January 6 insurrection was perpetrated by “Antifa posing as Trump supporters.” She also allegedly threatened to murder her children in a custody dispute—but that’s beside the point.
In the aftermath of January 6 and the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in the Dobbs case, stripping away abortion rights from millions, Biden is right to frame this campaign against MAGA. It’s also just good politics. Republicans have tried to frame Biden as too old and out of touch to have a grip on the moment’s challenges. Attacking MAGA puts him on the offensive in a way that directly counterposes their caricature. Detractors argue that Biden is unnecessarily courting controversy. But controversy can be an effective political tool in the modern media environment—the key is to court controversy when you’re right.
And Biden is. Because the MAGA movement benefits most when it’s normalized, counted as just another perspective in the wide range of “legitimate political discourse” (as they have tried to characterize their January 6 insurrection). And when we fail to address this dangerous fringe for what it is—a flagrant assault on our democracy and everything built upon it—that’s exactly what happens. So Democrats and the president must stick to the broadly popular “meat and potatoes” this midterm election cycle—by saving democracy itself from the MAGA fringe.