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.

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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.

Here’s the tip jar!

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

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. abbyinsm on July 30, 2021 at 11:28 pm

    YES BUT we cannot move forward until we stop thinking of democracy as a win/lose binary and instead find ways to move toward the common good. This is deep culture change that will take the media, schools, families, faith communities, cultural institutions, and businesses to stop making everything into a sports contest with winners and losers. I’ve devoted the past four years to immersion in MLK’s Six Principles of Nonviolence. PRINCIPLE THREE:
    •Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people.
    •Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people.
    •The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.

    We have an opportunity right this moment to test this! I am very excited about the possibility of moving toward authentic reconciliation. The horrible damage of the past four years gives us that opening. President Biden and Vice President Harris may be able to lead us, but we will need pundits, universities, religious leaders, and activists to take a breath and imagine peace instead of the competition that we’ve been purposely trained in.

    So, YES BUT to this post.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 11:28 pm

      Thank you for this!

  2. Blue Loon on July 30, 2021 at 11:28 pm

    This quote rang so true for me. “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 Americans enough. “

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 11:28 pm

      THANK YOU!!!

  3. MIGriffin on July 30, 2021 at 11:28 pm

    Here’s my “Yes, But:” We haven’t seen the media or Dems make any progress against the “conservative” chorus for years. The whole “cancel culture” trope makes me crazy because the RW is so much more effective in finding ways to shut down the Left–including getting people to believe that calling out white supremacy is a “war on white men.” We dared not nominate Bernie or Elizabeth to go up against Trump because the Right has “canceled” any progressive idea, even as minimal as asking millionaires to pay a tiny bit more in taxes, by labelling it socialism. I totally agree with you, John, but my soul cries because those “buts” seem insurmountable.

  4. Bennett on July 30, 2021 at 11:28 pm

    Sorry, there is no Yes But to this post. John is exactly right. The Republican response has been, and will continue to be, predictable, self-serving, mendacious, extortionist, shameless, and wrong on both the facts and morality. One does not negotiate with terrorists or the threat of terrorism. Moreover, in terms of political calculus, there is nothing gained or to be gained by the Democrats–even in red states or with “Fox News” watchers–accommodating this Republican call (which is just a rhetorical tactic anyway). Democrats didn’t win Georgia by swinging right or by making peace. Instead they activated and added to their base. (Good lesson there for the Florida and Texas Democratic parties.)

    John is also still right that the only solution is not less partisanship on the part of the Democrats, but more. Why more? Because on most of the immediate issues (stimulus, COVID response) and on future issues (gun control, voting rights), Democrats have the votes on their side–certainly popular and potentially at district and state levels (note how referendums in red states fared this and the last election cycle, such as on minimum wage).

    The question now should not be issues. Democrats are right on this. We’re now at tactics. Too often Democrats are bringing knives to gun fights. But you shouldn’t have to when you have the voters on your side and good messaging, which they can and do have. (E.g., “Democrats are the law and order party.”) You won’t get or keep your voters, however, if you show no backbone and bicker instead of deliver. Democrats have lots of tools now in their toolbox to deliver. Republicans know this, hence all the calls for “unity,” which are just efforts to shore up their base and avoid Democrats from taking credit on delivering the goods.

    In brief, the way to look at this is in terms of carrots and sticks. For Republican voters, the carrots will be the delivery of public goods, even if they don’t vote Democratic. That’s why I’m not worried about having to make peace with them–nor worried about how they feel about how this Administration (or Congress) should deal with traitors. For traitors, on the other hand, and their enablers (looking at Congressional Republicans), there should only be sticks. So when Kevin McCarthy asks for unity, I do have unity in mind for his voters since Democrats already have something for them: stimulus checks and a vaccination plan. For Kevin McCarthy, however, I don’t have unity in mind for him if he thinks there is reason not to expel Lauren Boebert or to fire Peter Robb from the NLRB (as Biden just did).

    No, there is literally no downside to the Democrats cleaning house. The only downside would be NOT cleaning house. Seriously, this one is easy.

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