January 21, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Joe Biden didn’t just call for unity. He called for unity against enemies America must defeat
Republicans are already trying to spin Biden's speech.
The headlines produced by the new president’s inaugural address were almost universal in quoting one of its key themes: “We must end this uncivil war.” This quote is now being put through the spin cycle, as they say, where it will be rinsed and re-rinsed, and interpreted and reinterpreted, until all the nuance and complexity and profundity of the speech is washed away, leaving behind a widely accepted and, therefore, uncontroversial truth about what Joe Biden’s presidency is all about.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, demonstrated this on the Senate floor Wednesday, during a speech that in appearance was in the spirit of democracy. In addition to congratulating the new president and Kamala Harris—a “new three-word phrase ‘Madam Vice President’ is now a part of our American lexicon”—McConnell said that, “President Biden made unity the major theme of his inaugural address.” You can expect the rest of the Republican Party to continue in this vein, defining and redefining “unity” in whatever ways that are politically convenient. You can expect “unity” to be defined and redefined in ways beneficial only to the Republican Party.
You can expect “unity” to be defined and redefined in ways beneficial only to the Republican Party.
Indeed, we saw it before Biden’s swearing in. For instance, an unsigned Wall Street Journal editorial, published the day before Inauguration Day, said that “if Mr. Biden really wants to unite the country, he will have to reach out to the 74 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump. One way to do that would be to speak out against the burgeoning progressive desire to punish, black list, and censor political opposition. Americans will be listening to his Inaugural Address for such a constructive signal.”
That such a thing was not offered is beside the point. (So is the suggestion that Biden needs to reach out to Trump voters; he already has, many times over.) The point is rhetorical. Indeed, this maneuver is quite effective. (Or it has been in the past.) The Democrat can have unity if he [fill in the blank]. If he does not [fill in the blank], he can’t have unity. If the Democrat in question decides to take this advice in good faith, the next step is to “move the goal post,” as they say. Sorry, [fill in the blank] won’t work. Now you have to [fill in the blank]. I don’t know if the Wall Street Journal’s editorial writer watched Lucy pulling the football from Charlie Brown, but that’s what this is.
There are many variations of extortionist rhetoric. I’ll name three more. A talking head on Fox said there can be no unity with the Democrats constantly talking about white supremacy. A top editor at the Washington Examiner said Biden doesn’t want unity, because … well, it makes so little sense, I’m not going to try comprehending it. His point is that Biden intends to govern using “lofty rhetoric about unity, while acting below the radar to smash norms to implement the Left-wing agenda.” And, finally, a Breitbart reporter said Biden’s “amnesty” bill elevates CEOs and “migrants” but “sidelines Americans.” He said it “includes a few cursory mentions of American families while championing the demands of migrants, employers, and investors.”
All of this is extortionist, because it brandishes a threat—do [fill in the blank] or something bad happens—or it identifies a threat so monstrous the Republicans are “forced” into sabotage. A) Stop talking about racism or no unity for you. B) Biden is controlled by “Left-wing” masters who must be eliminated in the name of self-preservation. C) Good white people are victims of bad rich and foreign people. If you haven’t noticed, the rhetoric of extortion puts whiteness at the center of politics, so the Democrats must work with the Republicans but not the other way around. If the Democrats don’t play by these “rules,” they’re not quite American enough. Any way you put it, Biden and the Democrats are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
Which is why context matters. Yes, the president called for unity, but he called for it in a speech delivered at the foot of the US Capitol, where days before armed guerrillas, at the behest of a former president, tried to sabotage the transfer of power, murder members of the US Congress, and bring down the republic. On that same day, 142 Republicans stood up to be counted among the traitors. Biden’s speech, seen in its proper context, is clearly not just about unity but unity against common enemies.
My whole soul is in this: Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause. Uniting to fight the foes we face: anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. With unity, we can do great things, important things. We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome the deadly virus. We can reward work, and rebuild the middle class and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice and we can make America once again the leading force for good in the world.
Only a fool would think the enemy does not include Republican seditionaries and their media allies who’ve forfeited the right to accuse others of not being American enough.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.