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What Biden's speech left out about the growing popular support for political violence

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden's speech last night focused on what he called the extremism of MAGA Republicans. He said they're behind growing popular support for political violence. And he also identified white supremacists as a divisive force. NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism and has been looking at the broader context for this dangerous moment in American history. Hey, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What kind of reaction did you see on the far right to Biden's speech last night?

YOUSEF: Well, perhaps not surprisingly, there was a lot of grievance expressed on far-right social media forums. You know, the SITE Intelligence Group was monitoring these platforms and found people claiming that Biden was justifying violence against Trump supporters, you know, even though Biden spoke quite clearly, Ari, about the need for all Americans to reject political violence. Some even were using the speech to renew their longstanding calls for civil war. But honestly, Ari, you know, when Biden was talking about extremism last night, these were not the people he had in mind.

SHAPIRO: Well, he singled out MAGA Republicans specifically. What more did he say about that group?

YOUSEF: Well, he said they, quote, "represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic." You know, Ari, when we traditionally have talked about extremists, we've been talking about people who are willing to use violence and physical intimidation to achieve their political or ideological goals. And we've already seen this. You know, we saw it on January 6 at the Capitol. We've been seeing it locally throughout the pandemic with street clashes between ideological opponents, with physical threats and harassment against election officials, teachers and librarians. And so we're in an environment now where this is affecting everyday people. I think what's been tricky, though, is articulating exactly how this connects to an erosion of democracy. I spoke with Eric Ward about this. He's with the Western States Center, and he's been tracking extremism for decades.

ERIC WARD: These extremists talk a lot about freedom, but what they spend most of their time doing in terms of policy is undermining everyone else's freedom. And when they can't get their way, they threaten violence. That's extremism.

SHAPIRO: Did he explain what he means by undermining everyone else's freedom?

YOUSEF: Yeah. I mean, he's talking about things, Ari, that frankly weren't really mentioned in last night's speech but which are causing real concern about the erosion of democracy in this country. And, you know, right now this is less about specific extremist groups than it is about mainstream political actions - so, for example, you know, new restrictions to voting access in many states. Here's professor Anthea Butler from UPenn.

ANTHEA BUTLER: There's so many things that have happened on the state level - purging of the voting rolls like in Georgia or, you know, making sure that people don't get, you know, absentee ballots like in Texas. And it's very clear that, between those kinds of things and gerrymandering - that there is a serious problem on the state level about voting.

YOUSEF: And beyond voting, you know, we're also seeing state-level restrictions on abortion access, on gender-affirming care for trans people. You know, these are the freedoms that Eric Ward was referring to that are being stripped away. So last night, you know, Biden didn't really talk about how race and gender are playing into this moment. And he also failed to use the word immigrant even once in his speech, which was really surprising, especially to some immigrant advocates who view the recent surge in hate crimes as an outcome of anti-democratic political speech and as an indicator of growing extremism.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Odette Yousef, thanks a lot.

YOUSEF: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.