Joe Biden’s 2024 State of the Union got one big thing right

The president dodged the “norms trap” by going straight after Trump on democracy.

Joe Biden’s 2024 State of the Union got one big thing right0

President Joe Biden during the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 7, 2024. Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

During Thursday night’s State of the Union address, President Joe Biden issued an unmistakable warning about the threat Donald Trump poses to American democracy. The speech also implicitly made a more subtle point about democracy: that defending it can require uncomfortably blunt talk.

One of democracy’s core premises is that elections are not like armed conflict, where either you win or you die. Since all parties accept the basic rules of the game, like competitive elections and free speech, the stakes of elections are not existential. Political opponents are less enemies than rivals; disagreement isn’t disaster.

Authoritarian populists like Donald Trump win by attacking this foundational democratic norm.

They demonize their opponents, arguing repeatedly that their opponents are not rivals but rather monsters bent on the country’s destruction. They claim that the system is in the enemy’s corrupt hands and not to be trusted, that their faction and our leader deserve absolute power (“I alone can fix it,” as Trump said in 2016). The nefarious plans of the domestic enemy must be resisted by any means necessary, even ones that might seem extreme.

“We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” Trump said, infamously, in his speech on the morning of the January 6 attack.

For those committed to democracy, this kind of radical attack might seem to pose a dilemma. If you ignore or downplay your opponents’ rhetoric, you fail to alert the public to the danger. But if you correctly point out that it threatens democracy, you risk coming across as a hypocrite: demonizing your opponents in the same way they’re demonizing you.

But this supposed dilemma is no dilemma at all. The reason is deceptively simple: There is no hypocrisy in defending truth against lies.

When Trump says the 2020 election was stolen, he is lying to create a pretext to overthrow a legitimate election. When Biden calls Trump’s behavior a threat to democracy, warning that the former president seeks “to bury the truth of January 6,” he is telling the truth about Trump’s lies and the dangers they pose to American democracy.

Fail to appreciate this distinction and you risk falling into what I call the “norms trap:” prioritizing the appearance of respecting democracy’s principles over acting in those principles’ defense.

At the State of the Union, Biden recognized this trap and avoided it.

When he warned of the ongoing threat to American democracy, saying, “My predecessor and some of you here seek to bury the truth of January 6th,” he did indeed sound an unusually partisan note for the typically staid affair. This might seem like a violation of democratic norms, and some conservatives attempted to cast it as such. This was the theme of one of Fox News’ top stories after the speech.

This is hard to take seriously as a good faith objection, especially given Trump’s State of the Union track record. As a rhetorical tactic, though, it’s a powerful distraction: an attempt to shift focus away from the substance of Biden’s warning about the rising threat to democracy, onto a disingenuous debate over whether Biden himself is behaving undemocratically.

Yes, it’s rare for a president to in essence campaign during the State of the Union. But it’s also unusual for the president’s opponent to be someone who has a stated desire to be a “dictator on day one,” with a host of policies that could bring that vision frighteningly close to fruition. The State of the Union is supposed to highlight grave national concerns; this is clearly one of them.

This is not to say that Biden can do or say whatever he wants to fight Trump. He should not break the law or take actions that meaningfully weaken American democracy (which Democrats are entirely capable of doing).

But in a world where American democracy is facing an unprecedented threat from one of two major political parties, it’s reasonable to risk a too-partisan speech in order to safeguard it. It’s good that Biden recognized this and devoted a good chunk of the State of the Union to telling the truth.


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