Analysis by Zachary B. Wolf, CNN
(CNN) — President Joe Biden commemorated January 6 as a day of American infamy, marking the third anniversary of the 2021 insurrection with a call for Americans to join him in defending US democracy from former President Donald Trump, who by comparison has promised to pardon the insurrectionists.
In a Friday speech near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where the Continental Army spent the frigid 1777-78 winter, Biden said the democracy those Americans fought for is under threat.
“Whether democracy is still America’s sacred cause is the most urgent question of our time,” he said.
He rattled off a litany of Trump’s more outrageous claims and comments, drawing analogies to the language of Adolf Hitler and the antidemocratic actions of dictators.
Of Trump laughing about a violent attack on former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul, Biden said of Trump, “What a sick—” and stopped short of adding another, perhaps more colorful word.
“We all know who Donald Trump is,” Biden said later. “The question we have to answer is, who are we?”
And if there is any question about how central this message is to Biden’s reelection campaign, he declared the “preservation of American democracy” the “central issue of my presidency” in a slick campaign video released this week.
The hard democratic truth is Trump could win
There is evidence that a democratic majority of American voters won’t mind that Trump tried to overturn the last election.
Three years after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol and delayed the counting of electoral votes that made Biden president, there has been a numbing of outrage and a blurring of reality, and there could soon be a validation of Trump’s position.
► Rather than being expunged by Republicans, Trump is now the front-runner to be their presidential nominee for a third straight time.
► The Supreme Court announced Friday it will hear arguments in a Colorado case next month about whether he can be kept off primary ballots for violating the 14th Amendment’s “insurrectionist ban.”
► Rather than move away from election denialism, most Republicans have embraced amnesia. The still-new House speaker, Mike Johnson, was one of the coordinators of efforts in the House to challenge the 2020 election results, although he doesn’t like to answer questions about it.
► Rather than buy into facts presented in courts and by the House select committee that investigated January 6, a third of Republicans and a quarter of all Americans believe the unfounded conspiracy theory that the FBI had something to do with coordinating the insurrection, according to a new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.
► Looking past the presidential primaries, which get underway with the January 15 Iowa caucuses, a new assessment by David Chalian and Terence Burlij in CNN’s political unit suggests Trump has the advantage in a general election matchup against Biden. Trump currently has the advantage in enough states to win the election, according to their outlook.
Accountability for the insurrection continues, slowly, through the US justice system
There have been more than 890 convictions in connection with the insurrection, according to the Department of Justice.
Trump still faces criminal prosecution by special counsel Jack Smith for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The former president has made undermining confidence in the justice system a key pillar of his 2024 presidential campaign. But he can’t escape the fact that Smith was appointed to separate Trump prosecutions from the Biden administration.
Trump will also have to contend with the undeniable fact that questions about his prosecution will ultimately be answered by a Supreme Court that has a solid conservative majority and to which he appointed a third of the justices.
Attorney General Merrick Garland rarely mentions Smith, but he did defend the special counsel in a statement commemorating the anniversary of the insurrection.
“We are following the law without fear or favor,” Garland said. “We are honoring our obligation to protect the civil rights and civil liberties of everyone in our country.”
One of Trump’s lawyers, Alina Habba, argued this week that the court would throw out efforts to have Trump disqualified from running because Justice Brett Kavanaugh essentially owes Trump his position and will “step up” to help the former president.
If elected again, Trump has promised to go in a new direction and use the FBI and Department of Justice against his political rivals.
The system worked the last time
Trump was unable to overturn the election results in 2020 because the complicated, inefficient and often frustrating US system of government, which was designed to guard against a monarchy, was too strong for him to completely break down.
While there are indications that Trump would try to enact a radical second-term agenda, and he likes to say he wants to be a dictator for one day – the first day after his second inauguration, if he wins — American voters will have to wonder if a president who so frequently seemed inept and who caused a partial government shutdown when his own party controlled the House and Senate will suddenly be able to bring the entire federal apparatus to heel.
That he could get the opportunity to try is an increasingly plausible scenario, something that the Republican former congressman Adam Kinzinger, now a CNN political commentator, said he never would have believed possible three years ago.
Chipping away at what was normal
Kinzinger defied his party by working with Democrats on the select committee that investigated the insurrection. He said people who have real political differences on issues such as immigration and taxes must put those aside to defeat Trump.
“Whenever you violate norms in democracy, you never get that norm back,” Kinzinger told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Friday.
“The basic contract for self-governance … is that we know that we can vote, that vote counts and the winner wins. He sullied that and destroyed people’s faith in that very basic compact we have to have when he convinced a quarter of the country or more that the election was stolen.”
Biden needs more than his democracy argument
Pelosi, who stepped down from leadership after Democrats lost control of the House following the 2022 midterm election, seemed to acknowledge Thursday that a pledge to save democracy won’t be enough to save Biden’s presidency.
CNN’s Dana Bash asked Pelosi how effective Biden’s democracy argument will be for voters.
“We have to relate democracy to the kitchen table, to our people’s personal lives,” Pelosi said, adding that January 6 isn’t all of Biden’s message.
“The kitchen table issues are our motivation and our mobilization to get the job done, win the election,” she said.
In that sense, the coming election may be more about the economy and inflation, abortion rights and immigration than about the protection of democracy.
However, there is polling to suggest a criminal conviction for his efforts to overturn the election three years ago could have an effect on Trump’s chances of winning the one in November.
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