There was a period before the 2008 presidential election when it seemed as though the Republican nominee might be former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. At two points in the cycle, he was polling at or near the front-runner — but was ultimately unable to secure enough delegates to win the nomination. Instead, Arizona Sen. John McCain served that role, choosing as his running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. They’d go on to lose to Barack Obama and the man currently serving as president, Joe Biden.
In the past few weeks, both Huckabee and Palin have been in the news. Each still maintains a presence in the right-wing media ecosystem and each used that platform to suggest that the time for armed conflict against their political opponents was nigh.
Palin’s invocation of the idea came during an interview on Newsmax as she maligned the indictments of former president Donald Trump.
“Do you want us to be in civil war? Because that’s what’s going to happen,” she said. “We’re not going to keep putting up with this.” Asked about her comments in an interview, Trump reiterated a line he’d offered when former Fox News host Tucker Carlson posed the idea of civil war: Passion and anger were “a bad combination.”
Huckabee, who hosts a show on Trinity Broadcasting Network, used an opening monologue this week to raise a similar specter.
“If these tactics end up working to keep Trump from winning or even running in 2024,” he said, “it is going to be the last American election that will be decided by ballots rather than bullets.”
That this rhetoric is centered on Trump isn’t a coincidence. The former president has been assiduous about casting his legal travails as assaults on democracy rather than accountability for his actions. Polling from CNN conducted by SSRS shows that Republicans accept that: Members of Trump’s party were six times as likely to say that Trump was being targeted politically as they were to say that the indictments he faces were his own fault.
One of those indictments, of course, follows Trump’s efforts to subvert the results of the 2020 presidential election. Culminating in the attack at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, those efforts were the most obvious manifestation of Trump’s long-standing sympathy for autocratic governance and autocratic leaders.
Trump arrived at the White House from the private sector with no inclination to understand or respect the traditions that undergird the U.S. government or the separation of powers. In that post-election period, that disinterest was obvious.
Biden was nonetheless inaugurated. Soon after taking office, he held a summit focused on promoting democracy internationally — though it was impossible to separate that defense of democracy from the tumult that had unfolded in the United States over the preceding three months. When Biden addressed Congress in April 2021, he explicitly lumped Trump’s efforts with autocracy.
“We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy, of pandemic and pain,” he said, “and ‘we the people’ did not flinch.”
This was his closing message before the 2022 midterms as well: Voters needed to reject threats to democracy when they went to the polls. His party overperformed historical trends, though that was likely more attributable to the reversal of Roe v. Wade. After all, the threat to democracy from Trumpian politics and his allies was, at that point, more abstract.
With Trump leading the field of Republican contenders for the party’s presidential nomination next year, it no longer is. And, in an ad released Thursday, Biden again elevated the defense of democracy as a campaign theme — with its indirect indictment of Trump.
Centered on his visit to Ukraine earlier this year, a voice-over celebrates Biden’s visit.
“Joe Biden walked shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies in the war-torn streets,” it says, “standing up for democracy in a place where a tyrant is waging war to take it away.”
If your arm is getting sore, it’s because of how hard you’re being nudged.
There is an obvious political reason for this pitch. CNN’s poll also found that almost two-thirds of people who say they’d vote for Biden over Trump in November 2024 pick Biden mostly because they oppose Trump, not because they love the sitting president.
Reinforcing that discomfort makes sense as a tactic. So does winking at Trump’s long-standing sympathy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including after the expanded invasion of Ukraine.
But the argument is not simply cynical. As the rhetoric of his 2008 opponents makes clear, a real threat to democracy exists. Trump’s power over the right and his rhetoric about the left combine to foster both sincere and broadly unjustified anger at the system — and to make it valuable to feign that anger to appeal to his supporters.
There was also another presidential expression of support for American democracy Thursday. The foundations associated with more than a dozen previous presidents, from Herbert Hoover to Obama, signed a joint letter calling for the reinforcement of “our most basic democratic principles.”
“Americans have a strong interest in supporting democratic movements and respect for human rights around the world because free societies elsewhere contribute to our own security and prosperity here at home,” it reads. “But that interest is undermined when others see our own house in disarray. The world will not wait for us to address our problems, so we must both continue to strive toward a more perfect union and help those abroad looking for U.S. leadership.”
Every American has a role to play, the letter continues, including that “elected officials must lead by example and govern effectively in ways that deliver for the American people.” Americans generally should “engage in civil dialogue” and “respect democratic institutions and rights.”
Among the former presidents who was not represented among the letter’s signatories was Donald Trump.