Joe Biden warned that American democracy was in grave peril by Republican forces loyal to Donald Trump who “fan the flames” of political violence in pursuit of power at any cost.
In a primetime address from Philadelphia, the city where American democracy was born, the US president said the United States was in a continued battle for the “soul of the nation”.
It was reprising a theme that animated his campaign for the White House in 2020 to frame the stakes of the November elections as an existential choice between his party’s agenda and Republicans’ “extreme Maga ideology”.
“Donald Trump and the Maga Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic,” Biden said in remarks delivered at Independence Hall.
Maga is shorthand for “Make America great again” – a slogan from Trump’s 2016 election campaign.
Biden emphasized that not all, not even most, Republicans are “Maga extremists” but there was not a question, he said, that the party was “dominated, driven and intimidated” by his White House predecessor – and perhaps would-be successor.
These Trump Republicans, he said, “thrive on chaos” and “don’t respect the constitution” or the rule of law. They “promote authoritarian leaders and they fan the flames of political violence”, he continued, adding that they believe there are only two possible outcomes to an election: either they win or they were cheated.
“You can’t love your country only when you win,” Biden said to thundering applause.
The unsparing speech was part of a newly aggressive line of attack Biden has unleashed on Republicans ahead of the midterm elections, as his party enjoys a brightening political outlook helped by a string of significant legislative wins and building public backlash to the supreme court’s decision to end the constitutional right to abortion.
It also comes as Trump, once again at the center of a criminal investigation – this one involving classified documents – lays the the groundwork for a potential 2024 presidential run.
“Maga forces are determined to take this country backwards,” he said. “Backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.”
On Friday afternoon, the president emphasized at an event at the White House that he did not regard all Trump supporters as threats to the US.
But he added: “Anyone who calls for the use of violence, fails to condemn violence when it’s used, refuses to acknowledge an election that’s been won, insists upon changing the rules upon which you count votes – that is a threat to democracy.”
On Thursday night, Biden also lashed Republicans for amplifying violent political rhetoric, including language targeting federal agents after the FBI seized boxes of classified documents from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate last month.
The protection of democracy has been a through line of Biden’s rise to the White House, which he has said was motivated by the racist violence in Charlottesville. Though he pledged to build national unity as president, the forces unleashed by Trump’s lie of a stolen 2020 election have only gained strength in the nearly two years that Biden has been in office.
Polls suggest that a majority of Republicans do not believe Biden is the legitimately elected president. Election deniers are running for office, securing the nominations for crucial posts with power over how future elections will be conducted. State and local elections officials have become targets of harassment and threats.
“History tells us blind loyalty to a single leader and a willingness to engage in political violence is fatal to democracy,” Biden said, vowing to defend the nation’s system of government with “every fiber of my being”.
Thursday’s primetime speech was the second of three visits by the president in less than a week to battleground Pennsylvania, which will play host to several consequential races this election season.
Among the most concerning, democracy experts warn, is the nomination of Doug Mastriano, the far-right Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania who was a leading figure in Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in the state and helped shuttle people to Trump’s rally in Washington on 6 January that preceded the attack on the US Capitol.
In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the secretary of state, giving the next governor enormous sway over how the 2024 presidential election is conducted in the state.
Without mentioning any candidates by name, Biden said the election deniers running for office saw their failure to prevent the peaceful transfer of power in 2020 as “preparation” for future elections.
Biden sought to avoid casting this fight as partisan, but urged Americans not to be “bystanders in this ongoing attack on democracy.
“For a long time, we’ve reassured ourselves that American democracy is guaranteed. But it is not,” Biden said. “We have to defend it. Protect it. Stand up for it. Each and every one of us.”
Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader and a staunch Trump ally, delivered a “pre-buttal” to the president’s address from Biden’s birthplace of Scranton, Pennsylvania. In his remarks, McCarthy accused Biden of “doing everything in his power to crush America’s soul” and demanded an apology from the president for accusing Republicans of being beholden to a philosophy of “semi-fascism”.
McCarthy made no mention of the 6 January assault or the widespread election denialism embraced by most of his party’s supporters and many of their nominees for public office.
Rather it was Trump who addressed the events of 6 January on Thursday, promising pardons and apologies for those who participated in the deadly attack on the US Capitol if he were elected to the White House again.
“I mean full pardons with an apology to many,” he told Wendy Bell, a conservative radio host on Thursday. “I will be looking very, very strongly about pardons, full pardons.”
Trump is scheduled to hold a rally in Scranton on Saturday.
Critics say the president’s combative rhetoric shows that he has failed in his promise to bring the nation together. Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, called Biden the “divider-in-chief” who has “pitted neighbors against each other” with his divisive agenda.
“We are still a democracy at our core,” Biden said, ending his speech with the rallying cry: “Democracy!”
• This article was amended on 2 September 2022. An earlier version quoted Biden as saying: “You can’t love your country when only you win.” He actually said: “You can’t love your country only when you win.”