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By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
“For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia.” –Chuck Schumer
Just before the Labor Day weekend that traditionally opens campaign season, the head of the Democrat Party, President Joe Biden, gave a campaign speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. (Because it was a campaign speech, the networks didn’t run it, preferring reruns.) On the White House site, the text is titled “Remarks by President Biden on the Continued Battle for the Soul of the Nation,” “soul” being significant, as we shall see.
As readers know, the Democrat Party faces — or refuses the face — an existential predicament: Its base in the Professional-Managerial Class (PMC) is too narrow to win elections all on its own, year after year, unlike the fabled but long-dismantled FDR coalition. The Democrats could solve that problem by bringing non-voters among the working class they betrayed back into the fold, but class interests and sensibilities rule that out. Hence, every election has become an exercise in collecting existing voters at the margin, i.e. in “swing states.”
The existential predicament of the Democrat Party explains the “idiosyncratic” nature of Biden’s speech. As I read it, Biden is speaking to three segments: MAGA Republicans, Democrat loyalists, and — here are the voters at the margin Biden needs to attract — non-MAGA Republicans, particularly suburban Catholics in the important swing state of Pennsylvania, where Biden gave the speech.
When I put on my yellow waders, I usually
eviscerate go over a speech word by word and line by line, doing a close reading. However, that technique isn’t appropriate for the kind of audience analysis I need to do here, because Biden needs to send a different message to each segments, using different appeals. (Too bad for me; I love close reading). My entry point will be the reaction of the political class to the speech, which was primarily aesthetic. Then I will perform some informed speculation on how the speech might have landed in the three segments of the voting population to which it was addressed. It’s not easy to whistle to three dogs simultaneously! I’ll conclude with some remarks about policy.
The Political Class Reacts to the Aesthetics
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s live coverage describes the venue in prose:
Independence Hall, awash in for a speech in which Biden several times invoked the Constitution.
Two photos are relevant. The uncropped one shows a backdrop of red and blue:
The cropped one (which has, by this point, gone viral) shows a backdrop of red alone:
Tucker Carlson summarizes the aesthetic reaction most crisply:
“Yeah, they’re a threat, says the guy with and Marines standing behind him,” he said. “It’s totally immoral.”
If I recall Nazi trade dress correctly, they weren’t big on blue (or yellow, either, but that’s a topic for another day). So that aspect of Carlson’s response is at best careless. (I will get to the “threat” under MAGA.) Carlson also responds, as a symbol manipulator, to a symbol, as nimbly as any liberal Democrat symbol manipulator would. Ditto on the Marines.
The aesthetic reaction spans the political spectrum (examples too numerous to quote on the Twitter). Some say the (cropped) red background reminds them of V for Vendetta; here is Taibbi: “Biden’s handlers had the otherwise inspiring setting of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall bathed in so much blood-red light, he looked like an opening act for Queensrÿche or Rammstein.”
The aesthetic reaction, however, begs the question: Why the red background? Biden’s handlers, whatever else they may be, aren’t dumb; as professionals, they must have known that photographers would zoom in on Biden, that the shot would be vertical to include the Independence Hall tower, and the result would be, well, blood-red. (Notice how much more dramatic the vertical, red-only shot is, compared to the horizontal shot that gives the whole context, included blue on, well, both left and right.) As it turns out, the answer varies by the segment Biden is trying to address. First, let’s look at MAGA.
Threatening MAGA with the Power of the State
Here is how Biden defines MAGA:
[BIDEN:] MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people. They refuse to accept the results of a free election. … They promote authoritarian leaders and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country. They look at the mob that stormed the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, brutally attacking law enforcement, not as insurrectionists who placed a dagger at the throat of our democracy, but they look at it as patriots.
It’s worthwhile asking how many MAGA there are. Summariizing the results of a Washington Post polling aggregation:
This is a subset of what Biden said, certainly, but, with four categories: … rejection of the 2020 election, embrace of candidates who similarly reject the results, approval of the Capitol riot and a willingness to consider violence as a political tool.
Again, we can’t assume that these percentages all overlap. But we get a consistent picture. Over and over, about 10 percent of the population (plus or minus a few percentage points) expresses the sort of view that Biden articulated: Republican or Republican-leaning and in favor of the positions he associated with “MAGA.”
These are not Biden voters. And when Carlson says Biden is threatening them, I believe he is correct:
Dark Brandon” is the Democrats’ appropriation of both the insulting “Brandon” moniker derived from the “Let’s Go Brandon” chant and the “Dark MAGA” meme that spread virally among Trump supporters earlier this year.
All of this is clearly the Democrats attempting to catch up with the Trump camp’s mastery of meme warfare, using the same sort of ludic reversal that Trump supporters did, for instance, when they embraced the moniker of “deplorable.” But the promotion of the “Dark Brandon” meme from within the White House, which the Philadelphia spectacle seems to build on and extend, is also an attempt to tap into some of the aesthetic and emotional potency of the same MAGA movement Biden and other Democrats also denounce for being on the side of “darkness.”
(When I read a phrase like “ludic reversal,” I just have to sit down for a moment.) In short form, Biden is telling MAGA “[family blog] around and find out.” In this he has form:
Biden: "For those brave right-wing Americans who say it's all about keeping Americans independent and safe, if you want to fight against a country you need an F-15. You need something a little more than a gun." pic.twitter.com/W94uo0sn3X
— The Post Millennial (@TPostMillennial) August 30, 2022
Throwing Democrat Loyalists Red Meat
Biden, naturally, is not threatening his base at all. For the base, Dark Brandon is a protective figure. In fact, Dark Brandon is throwing the base red meat (or, when one looks more closely, impossible red meat). He does this by playing on the almost infinite PMC capacity for self-regard (see Thomas Frank here). For example:
We, the people, have burning inside each of us the flame of liberty that was lit here at Independence Hall — a flame that lit our way through abolition, the Civil War, Suffrage, the Great Depression, world wars, Civil Rights.
Leaving aside that “abolition” is lowercase, and “Suffrage” upper, why on earth don’t the Populists of the 1890s or the union movement of the 1930s make this list? Impossible to get that past HR? Regardless, such erasure works for liberal Democrats:
“He was just calling out the truth,” said Vicki Miller, who leads the Philadelphia chapter of the grassroots group Indivisible. “The voters I talk to at the doors here in Pennsylvania, they all see what’s happening.”
“If the president had sugarcoated what he’d said, they’d see it as politician-speak,” she said. “President Biden is just saying what a lot of these voters already know: that everything is on the line.”
But there are more current forms of erasure. For example (and I’ll throw in a few footnotes here):
This is a nation that believes in the rule of law. We do not repudiate it. (Applause.)
This is a nation that respects free and fair elections. We honor the will of the people. We do not deny it. (Applause.)
And this is a nation that rejects violence as a political tool. We do not encourage violence.
 Unless you are a torturer under the Bush administration, in which case Obama will look forward and not back. Or unless you are a bankster during the Great Financial Crash, in which case Obama will stand between you and the pitchforks
 Unless your opponent is Bernie Sanders, in a Democratic primary, or Al Gore, in the general
 Unless you’re the non-violent Occupy, in which case Obama will orchestrate a 17 city paramilitary crackdown through DHS fusion centers. Or Ferguson marchers, subject to both cops and the National Guard.
 Except internationally
Nothing wrong with a little civic religion, but civic idolatry? Come on.
Catholic Republicans Voters (in Pennsylvania)
I too, along with Carlson and Taibbi and others, scoured the Intertubes for menacing figures with blood-red backdrops. I found this:
The Exorcist (TV series, 2016) Note the slogan: “Every soul is a battlefield.” I don’t say that “the Continued Battle for the Soul of the Nation” is a conscious echo, but echo it is. Let’s dig into Pennsylvania as a battleground state, and see how the idea of Biden as an exorcist might play out.
First, Pennsylvania, besides being “Scranton Joe”‘s birthplace, is an important swing state. From The Hill:
Pennsylvania is home to a critical midterm Senate pickup opportunity for Democrats in the race between Lt. Gov John Fetterman (D) and Republican Mehmet Oz. The state was also pivotal to Biden’s presidential win in 2020, as well as Democratic victories in the 2018 midterms and — importantly — losses in the 2016 election that put former President Trump in the White House.
“The last two elections have shown that it is now a swing state,” said Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau, adding that it’s a must win along with Michigan and Wisconsin. “And I think in some ways, Pennsylvania is the crown jewel of those three.”
Second, not all Catholics are Republicans, and not all Catholics are suburbanites, but many are:
Once composed of an immigrant underclass that moved to the city centers, joined labor unions and voted for the Democratic Party, second- and third-generation Catholics have become more educated and economically successful, and many settled in the suburbs and became more conservative.
Beginning in the 1970s, with the support of abortion rights by Democrats (including 1972 presidential nominee George McGovern) and the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, many Catholics came to feel that the Democratic Party no longer represented them.
To capitalize on this trend, Republican strategists targeted Catholics in the Northeast and Midwest and white Evangelicals in the South on moral values. In the 1980s, the GOP successfully wooed “pro-life” voters and many Catholics began to either cross party lines or become independent. From 1980 to 2000, only one Democratic presidential candidate won a strong majority of the Catholic vote: Bill Clinton, when he was re-elected in 1996.
(Interestingly, Catholics in Pennsylvania outnumber evangelicals.)
Third, Biden’s notion of “the soul of America,” which he has been pushing since the 2020 election — and in which he may therefore actually believe — is an explicitly religious appeal; moreover, it’s an appeal to a segment of the population that is deeply steeped in the idea that body and soul are joined at conception. Here is how Biden transfers that concept to politics:
I ran for President because I believed we were in a battle for the soul of this nation. I still believe that to be true. I believe the soul is the breath, the life, and the essence of who we are. The soul is what makes us “us.”
The soul of America is defined by the sacred proposition that all are created equal in the image of God. That all are entitled to be treated with decency, dignity, and respect. That all deserve justice and a shot at lives of prosperity and consequence.
This is a pro-life version of political science. What Biden is saying is that the Declaration of Independence (“all
men are created equal“) was the moment of conception at which the soul of America and the body politic were fused.
Biden is also urging, once again in Catholic terms, that MAGA be exorcised from the body politic; he is urging the demons to retreat, the essence of exorcism (which is not liturgical). Note that some of the signs of demonic possession can easily translated from religious to political terms:
5. The possessed losing control of their normal personality and entering into a frenzy or rage, and / or attacking others
12. Intense hatred / aversion and violent reaction towards all religious objects or items
13. Antipathy towards entering a church, speaking Jesus’s name, or hearing scripture.
I believe this political vision must be appealing to Catholic voters; both for the Catholic voters who opposed Roe v. Wade, and even more for the Catholic voters who regret its overthrow. Biden is giving them a moral justification to vote for the Democrat phrased in the terms of their own religiosity. WSWS writes:
Speaking like a Catholic priest, Biden claimed Trump sprang like the devil from the depths of hell. Trump’s rise, he said, was a product of “hate,” “chaos,” “darkness” and “evil.”
Yes, and what of it? UPDATE Sure — to the best of my recollection , here — ~90% of Republicans support Trump, ~70% think election 2020 was illegitimate, and ~10% hold to all the tenets of MAGA (see above). But elections are won at the margin. Biden has built a permission structure for the Catholics among ~10%, ~30%, and 90% respectively to vote for him. That’s probably enough to win Pennsylvania. And not everybody likes bullhorns (perhaps especially women who moved to the ‘burbs to get away from all the noise and aggression).
Taibbi summarizes the policy, as opposed to the political, implications of Biden’s speech:
Biden’s speech was an exact domestic analog [George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address]. Like Bush’s sweeping description of enemies wedded Satanically to tyranny and death, Biden’s MAGA Republicans “embrace anger,” “thrive on chaos,” and live “not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies.” He repeated almost verbatim Bush’s theory of preventive action, saying it is too dangerous to allow “MAGA Republicans” to run for office. He said “they” are working “as I speak” in “state after state” to pack vote-counting bureaucracies with “partisans and cronies,” with the express purpose of “thwarting the will of the people.”
This is why it matters when Biden describes “MAGA Republicans” as a “threat… to the very soul of this country,” or as “extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic,” representing “dangers around us we cannot allow to prevail.” It’s hard to see how these terms are substantively different from War on Terror constructions like the “continued and imminent threat to U.S. interests” or a “serious and continuing threat to the American people.” Biden sounded like a man preparing followers for an enforcement response to Trumpism itself, and even if that wasn’t what he was doing, it’s clear many Trump supporters heard things that way.
Looks like Biden wants to make the intelligence community very happy, for the next two budget cycles or maybe six. So I guess there’s a fourth audience segment. So that’s alright then. Soul of the nation, and all that.
 I continue to maintain that Biden is the best politician among Democrat loyalist contenders. It’s very hard to imagine Harris, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Newsom, or (to strike a blow at random) Pritzker achieving anything like the level of gravitas Biden delivered. That says a lot about the state of today’s Democrat Party and its gerontocratic leadership class. (The Sanders of 2016, perhaps, but that was a long time ago.)
 Biden is also less amenable to a close reading than Obama, say, because his style is so plain. For example:
BIDEN: Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal
Not an Obama sentence.
 Apparently, the background flipped to magenta at some point in CNN’s coverage, whIch CNN blamed on “a technical glitch with the CBS pool feed.”
 There is also some aghastitude on the right the Hatch Act and those Marines you can see in the background of the cropped version, but oh come on:
— Duncan Watson (@DuncanWatson) September 2, 2022
 There’s more:
This coincidence of escalating antagonism with imitation fits the definition of “mimetic rivalry” offered by the philosopher René Girard, who noted that often enough, the more intense a conflict becomes, the more closely the enemies come to resemble each other. Nevertheless, there is also an asymmetry between these antagonists: Only one has federal law-enforcement agencies, government bureaucracies, and the bulk of the corporate media arrayed on its side. All of this makes it unlikely the Biden camp will be forced to face up to its contradictions anytime soon.
 “Regardless of who leads it, professional-class liberalism seems to be forever traveling on a quest for some place of greater righteousness. It is always engaged in a search for some subject of overwhelming, noncontroversial goodness with which it can identify itself, and under whose umbrella of virtue it can put across its self-interested class program. There have been many other virtue objects over the years, people and ideas whose surplus righteousness could be extracted for deployment elsewhere.”
 TV Tropes, “Of the People.”
 Personally, I think this is ginormous category error. Nations don’t have souls.