I watched Joe Biden’s speech twice last night. Not because I was so moved by the address, but because fixing dinner interrupted me in the middle of it. I thought it was good speech—and appropriate. I also thought it would be controversial because Biden told the truth about a wing of the GOP that is a threat to democracy. I assumed that would be the focus. 

Then I went to Twitter. Instead of focusing on the substance of the speech, pundits were appalled that two Marines stood in the background while Biden spoke. I had watched it twice and never noticed the Marines. I also couldn’t believe that was anybody’s first reaction. The President of the United States had just accused half of one the country’s major parties of trying to subvert our electoral system and the press was concerned about the window dressing.

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny tweeted, “There’s nothing unusual or wrong with a President delivering a political speech — it’s inherent in the job description — but doing it against a backdrop of two Marines standing at attention and the Marine Band is a break with White House traditions.” His colleague Brianna Keilar said the military shouldn’t be “politicized.” Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle tweeted, “Are we trying to protect the civic norms that safeguard our democracy, or generate excuses for breaking them ourselves?”

When I read these takes, I couldn’t believe that no other president had made speeches with the military in the background. And Twitter quickly justified my skepticism. Within minutes, my timeline was filled with presidents giving speeches with much more military presence than two Marines. George W. Bush on an aircraft carrier, Ronald Reagan with a whole line of Marines in dress blues behind him, Trump surrounded by men in uniform, George H. W. Bush at the Naval Academy. 

No, the press was just looking for a reason to criticize Biden while ignoring the substance of what was a highly unusual speech. This insistence on looking for criticisms instead of honest analysis is how the media, particularly cable outlets, has failed to inform the American public. If they’ve got enough time to discuss the backdrop to an event instead of the event itself, they’ve got too much airtime. 

Too many in the national media can’t see the forest for the trees. They’re focused on the trappings of power instead of the power itself. It reminded me of Obama’s tan suit controversy. The press bears some of the responsibility that Biden made the speech that he did. They largely ignored the rise of an authoritarian, anti-democratic movement within the Republican Party, covering it as if it were part of the traditional give-and-take of politics while normalizing Trumpism. 

Biden’s speech was unusual because he clearly feels that our country is under threat by a movement within one of the two major parties. He gave the movement a name, MAGA Republicans, and differentiated them from the mainstream Republicans with whom he’s worked during his political career. His speech is an attempt to isolate MAGA Republicans and explain to the American people why they are a threat to our country. It was more than just a political speech that urged people to support him and his party. It was a call to all Americans to resist an internal threat and beat them with the tools of democracy, not the tools of violence or authoritarianism. 

Republicans are criticizing the speech by calling it a political address that urges support for his party in the midterms. In fact, it’s a sharp diversion for a president and politician who has always taken pride in relationships with members of the GOP and his unabashed belief in bipartisanship, an instinct that has frustrated some in his own party. The speech was more an admission that what he hoped would happen with his election had not occurred. Donald Trump and the MAGA movement are still alive and thriving. 

The speech recognized the failure of mainstream Republicans to win control of their own party. He made overtures to them to join the fight against the reactionary elements that have largely taken control of the GOP, knowing that he would likely be rebuffed. Still, he made clear that he believes that we need a conservative party, just not an authoritarian one.

Despite what too many Republicans and media types believe, the speech was not a cynical attempt to rally support for the midterms. It was an acknowledgement that our democracy is in trouble and that our country is under threat from an authoritarian movement. It was a call to true patriotism, to put country before party, and not the faux patriotism of screaming eagles and bastardized American flags. 

The media’s first response should have been an analysis of Biden’s address, not a criticism of its trappings. We haven’t heard language like this from Biden until very recently. Why? The people charged with keeping us abreast of the news from our government should be asking whether Joe Biden’s fears are warranted, not whether it’s appropriate to have two Marines behind him. In focusing on the superficial instead of the substance, they seem to be taking the stance that MAGA is a legitimate political movement, not a threat to our country.  They are continuing to normalize Trump.

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