October 20, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Biden deescalated violence by deescalating violent rhetoric
A “democratic and decent response” to war in Ukraine and Israel.
The president gave a rare prime-time address Thursday night in which he urged Americans “to stand by Israel and Ukraine as they face ruthless but very different adversaries,” according to the Post.
Joe Biden plans to request $100 billion in funding for Ukraine’s fight against Russia and Israel’s fight against Hamas. The US House of Representatives has been without a speaker for 17 days. (This morning, Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan failed to win the speakership on his third try.) What that means for Biden’s request remains to be seen.
“Biden has urged Israel to use restraint and warned its government not to make the same mistakes that America made after Sept. 11,” says Jennifer Mercieca, professor of communication and journalism at Texas A&M University. “He’s urged both Israel and Palestine to act peacefully and democratically before peace becomes impossible.”
Biden attempted “to humanize every side of the people involved in this conflict,” wrote Jennifer Mercieca, a professor of communication and journalism at Texas A&M University. On Twitter last night, she said that the president “values human lives, acknowledges everyone’s life and their right to human dignity. Calls out those who dehumanize others.”
“He ends with an appeal to our shared fears and shared humanity,” she said. “Humanizing everyone on all sides, the opposite of creating hate objects. ‘I see you. You belong. And I want you to know that you’re all America … we have to hold on to the values who make us who we are.”
Professor Mercieca is the author of Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump and the co-editor of The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency. I asked her to expand on her thoughts on Biden’s speech. Here’s what she said.
JS: The Israel-Hamas war evokes deep emotions in most Americans. You said the president understands that and demonstrated that understanding in his address last night. How? Why is that important?
JM: Violence and war activate fear responses – the fight or flight response, but also rightwing authoritarian responses like hierarchy, obedience and defending group norms. When we’re fearful, we tend to reinforce us-versus-them ways of thinking and communicating, creating hate-objects out of people who we are told are our enemies and out to get us. Those natural responses to fear can be easily manipulated by autocrats who use our fears against us to seize power.
In his speech last night, the president did the opposite. He didn’t try to exploit our fears and use them against us, but instead he tried to acknowledge our fears while also humanizing the people involved in the war, which I see as an effort to deescalate the violence by deescalating the violent rhetoric surrounding the violence. Biden tells us he sees that we’re afraid, but he doesn’t try to use that fear against us. It’s a very democratic and decent response to the situation.
JS: Your expertise is anti-democratic rhetoric. You said the president was humanizing all sides of the conflict in the Middle East. How does humanizing push back against Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric?
JM: Trump is always looking for an angle to exploit in any situation, especially one where he can claim power. Trump has said throughout the past two weeks that this violence would have never happened if he was president and he alone can fix it. It’s a lie, and a self-serving one.
Trump hasn’t tried to deescalate violence or humanize. Rather, he has repeatedly used us-versus-them language – he has created hate-objects out of people – and used scary fear-appeals to heighten natural fear responses. Autocrats like Trump use our fears against us so that we’ll give them power because they promise they’ll protect us.
JS: I’m going to presume that humanizing all sides of the conflict in the Middle East is an expression of weakness from the point of view of anti-democratic rhetoric? Is it weakness? If it isn’t, why?
JM: Fascists love violence. Mussolini argued that violence was good and peace was bad, that the only way to live a heroic life was through a life of warfare and violence. Violence is fascism’s essential quality. Democracies, according to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, are peaceful governments and nations. Fascists are motivated by violence and for violence. Small-d democrats are motivated by peace and for peace. Humanizing people is a strong move if your motive is peace and democracy. It’s a weak move if your motive is violence and fascism.
JS: You said Biden is using a form of American exceptionalism to explain why the US should support Ukraine and prevent the Israel-Hamas war from spreading. Can you explain that more?
JM: Biden is using American exceptionalism in the traditional way that American presidents have used it throughout the 20th century: America has an obligation to the world to spread democracy and to protect peace. Typically, American presidents have used that idea of American exceptionalism (when democracy and democratic values protect peace) to urge the United States to live up to its values, its best version of itself and its ideals. They’ve also (far too often) used those same values as “eulogistic covering” for American imperialism.
Biden has repeatedly said that he sees the best in America – that he sees our values and believes we can live up to them as a nation. In Biden’s telling, we can live up to our democratic values by supporting Ukraine as well as by supporting Israel, a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, and by preventing the war between Israel and Hamas from expanding throughout the region. Again, democracies value peace and Biden’s goal is to promote both.
JS: Biden’s critics from the left say he’s not doing enough to establish limits on Israel’s reaction to the Hamas massacres. (For instance, the Post’s Perry Bacon argued persuasively yesterday that the US should support Israel firmly but not unquestioningly.) You’ve followed Biden’s rhetoric. Is he listening and is he doing enough to establish limits?
JM: I don’t think presidents can “establish limits” in public speeches. Presidents might declare a “red line” or a “line in the sand,” but that’s performative, not diplomatic. A statesman negotiates limits in ways that allow aggressor nations to save face, not by making rigid public pronouncements. Publicly, Biden has urged Israel to use restraint and warned its government not to make the same mistakes that America made after Sept. 11. He’s urged both Israel and Palestine to act peacefully and democratically before peace becomes impossible.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.