A country under threat and a media out to lunch

by | Sep 2, 2022 | Editor's Blog | 14 comments

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.


  1. Mike Leonard

    What comes next with Trumpism? Maybe in a week or two we’ll learn that the FBI found a walk-in freezer at Mar-A-Lago stocked with human body parts. Donald Trump: the Hannibal Lecter of American politics.

  2. ctw

    Nice work, Thomas.

  3. DL Etheridge

    Someone above wrote, “AND the President should stop returning military salutes; he’s a civilian, and he should remind all who watch him (particularly members of the military) of civilian control because it’s a foundation stone of the Constitution, and of our democracy.”

    I don’t wish to argue with your take on whether or not those salutes should be returned.

    I wish only to point out that minimal searching shows that
    1) neither the President nor Vice-President is ‘required’ to return a military salute, but
    2) doing so regularly seems to have begun with President Reagan. Subsequent Presidents seem to have followed suit. Very easy to find photos of Presidents from Reagan through Biden, inclusive, returning salutes.

    Minimal searching also shows that Presidents (and Vice Presidents) are “damned if they do” salute and “damned if they don’t.”

  4. Clayton Larrison

    Back in the Reagan days, if the president was going to make a prime-time speech, it would have been easy to hear. Tune to any network – done. We cut the cable years ago and my wife was in a panic channel surfing trying to find Biden’s speech last night. I found it on NYT web page and so we watched it from there. I occurred to me that not everybody has access to a computer, a high-speed internet connection and subscriptions to corporate news channels.

    How many people who needed to hear the speech just gave up trying to find it because it was so hard to find? When the leader of the most influential nation on the planet has something urgent to convey to those who might not already be pre-disposed to the message, it should be harder to avoid it, than it is to find it. Something is so upside down with this that it blows my mind.

    And that aspect wasn’t even mentioned in this critique of the speech.

  5. Fetzer Mills Jr

    I watched the speech from Madrid, Spain. I thought it was a strong and necessary speech. We’re house hunting in Seville because of what’s happening to the US. Not only are the MAGA Republicans fascist. They’re terrorists. The reason MAGA Republicans won’t do anything substantive to prevent mass shootings in schools, churches, concerts, grocery stores is because it terrorizes Americans and undermines faith in the government’s power to protect them which is one of government’s primary functions. The January 6th attack on the Capitol was an act of terrorism purely and simply. The fact that Donald Trump wanted to join them on their attack shows that not only is he a fascist, he’s a terrorist. I’m also fairly positive that what he did with the classified documents he took to Mar-A-Largo was sell them to the Russians. Benedict Arnold was small fry compared to Trump.

    • Ellie Kinnaird

      Good take, Thomas – should be shouted from the rooftops.
      Ellie Kinnaird

    • Tom Terrell

      Fetzer — Don’t move to Spain. Stay here and run for president!!

  6. Jay Ligon

    The demise of Democracy in America is a very big story. It is existential, not partisan. Our Founders created a flawed democratic Republic. Only white men had the right to vote then, but the document that gave them all power was also amendable. From the outset, diffusion of power by creating three co-equal branches and a separation of state power from federal power has been our salvation. In the past five years, Americans have been spared the total loss of our heritage by that original design. Trump is an autocrat and he has tested every crack in the system with the help of quislings and opportunists.

    One Party has been hammering away at the foundations of democracy attempting, through lies and deceit, to recreate America into a more authoritarian government, a whiter, more Christian government. Republicans are doing so by making bold, blatant swipes at the people of the United States. Sometimes, very effectively.

    A thoughtful media would have a deeper understanding of the clear and present danger posed by the anti-democratic legions who assault our state houses, our Capitol, our police, our FBI, our IRS, our school boards, our election boards our fellow Americans. But the media ignores the earthquakes of sedition that threaten to change our political landscape every day. The leader of the insurrection and his co-conspirators stand before television cameras without shame to advocate the end of our republic.

    How important must a story be? When do our journalists and reporters see and report on the story evolving in front of them? It doesn’t get more important than the survival of our freedoms and our rights. Dark money, a packed Supreme Court, the assault of right wing propaganda and constant drone of the Big Lie and many, many small ones are changing our country and our people. President Biden stood against the anti-democratic forces last night. The media continues to acquiesce and pander to the wolves at the door. And they print the lies that give enemies of democracy all their power.

  7. Sandi Campbell

    “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.” Amen to that!
    Either they are teaching a much dumbed down version of what constitutes serious reporting in journalism schools these days, or this is just the laziest bunch of hacks I’ve seen in my 75 years. Obviously not all – I shouldn’t use such blanket criticisms either! Some of their short comings could be attributed to lack of historical knowledge and context, but hey, isn’t that what Google is for?

  8. Kathleen

    That was my first impression when I heard the pundits on MSNBC. They called it a political speech which seemed odd to me. Trump was elected in 2016 with the propaganda help from Putin’s agents. He tried to overthrow the government of the Unites States. That is not politics. That’s a threat to our country. He stole government Top Secret documents — for what purpose? No doubt many of the so-called MAGA Republican voices on social media are Russian agents. I don’t think their numbers are as large as the media likes to pretend. The MAGA sweetheart Sarah Palin just lost her election in Republican Alaska to a Democrat. The media is asleep and has been for a long time.

  9. Richard H Kohn

    Most of the media didn’t notice the Marines; most DID focus on analysis of the speech, and in a largely positive way.
    But Thomas should know better. The presence of the military as props for what many would consider a partisan speech (note the Republican reaction to it) is wrong, wrong, wrong. It continues a politicization of the military by political leaders who should know better: having active duty officers in political positions (the current brigadier as the Secretary of Defense’s public spokesperson is an example), using retired four stars who require waivers to serve as the Secretary of Defense, seeking military audiences for political speeches, using the military to justify political positions, retired senior officers endorsing presidential candidates and criticizing policies of presidents they served, and more .
    Thomas’s examples are not as explicit use of the military for such obviously political purposes as Biden’s speech could be interpreted. The White House should think about this; if it believes in civilian control of the military, it should be more sensitive. AND the President should stop returning military salutes; he’s a civilian, and he should remind all who watch him (particularly members of the military) of civilian control because it’s a foundation stone of the Constitution, and of our democracy.

  10. George Entenman

    Wow! Biden even has Marines stationed at the White House! This is outrageous!

  11. JB

    Problem is that MAGA in today’s GOP IS the “mainstream”. The Kool Aid has eradicated the few not-insane Republicans that were left. They left the building long ago, just about the time the Gingrich era started

  12. tmagi

    Full agree. The tell this time was the MSM not covering a Presidential address. After dissing the President they probably had no choice but to diss the speech. Despicable.

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