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The ‘Biden dictatorship’: How the right reframes the threat to democracy

It is well established that the road to power in the Republican Party runs past a toll booth named Donald Trump. Those seeking prominence and power have to offer the former president their fealty at a bare minimum; those seeking to travel further have to pay a higher cost.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) is happy to pony up. Burgum rose to attention a year ago when he announced his extremely long-shot bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. (He’s rich, which always helps.) He fared poorly, but that was probably more a positive than a negative: He never had to hit Trump too hard but still came to Trump’s attention. Now he’s being discussed as a contender for his party’s vice-presidential nomination.

That brought him to NBC News’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, where — with a ping of his political E-ZPass — he offered a neat articulation of the Republican response to concerns that Trump seeks authoritarian power: No, Democrats do.

Host Kristen Welker asked whether Trump’s comments during last week’s presidential debate didn’t have the effect of “undermining people’s faith in … democracy itself by raising questions about the fairness of the 2020 election.” It didn’t, Burgum replied, because “both parties have done this.” His evidence that Democrats had done so was both familiar and thin: asking for a recount in 2000 or grumbling about the outcome in 2016.

“As a country, if we want to move forward,” Burgum said, “we have to have elections that both parties agree to.”

On paper, this seems noncontroversial. In context, though, it’s anything but. The entire point of Trump’s efforts to subvert 2020 was that he established and encouraged Republicans to reject the results of the election. A compromise to which both parties agreed, then, necessarily meant one in which the reality of Trump’s loss was somehow undermined. Setting that standard moving forward means that partisanship should set the boundaries of acceptability, not math. That’s precisely the sort of thing that is alarming to those concerned about Trump’s approach to democracy.

Welker pushed back, as you might hope she would: Wasn’t Trump’s failure to concede alarming?

Burgum didn’t think so, given that, “Trump, at the end of this term on January 20th, left the White House. We had a smooth transition.”

Welker offered Jan. 6 as a counterpoint to that argument.

“Well, I think we have to say that there was a smooth transition,” Burgum replied, which we certainly don’t. A second later, he got to the central point.

“Going into 2024, I think both parties are going to be very focused on [the election],” he said. “I think the threat to democracy, as a governor in North Dakota today, I’ve been living under what I call the Biden dictatorship because of all the rules and regulations.”

Welker noted that Biden had introduced fewer executive orders than both Trump and Burgum himself, asking whether that made Burgum “dictator of North Dakota.” Burgum claimed that he was simply “trying to get rid of red tape” and changed the subject.

Again, though, this is the rhetoric: Democrats are the real threat to democracy. It’s not always articulated in the manner Burgum used, but it’s routine. Violence that followed some protests against police brutality in summer 2020 was worse than the Capitol riot. The arrest of those who participated in the riot was not a response to an effort to subvert democracy but itself such a subversion. It isn’t what Trump does that’s the problem; it’s Biden and the Democrats and being “woke” and labeling social media posts as false and changing the rules around elections and so on. The problem isn’t us, and it isn’t Donald Trump. The problem is them, and it is Dictator Biden.

That Democrats and Republicans point to the threat to democracy as a significant problem has been established in polling for some time now. Last month, a Fox News poll found that members of both major parties saw the threat to democracy as being a function of restricted freedom rather than impaired elections, for example.

Over the weekend, polling from CBS News, conducted by YouGov, showed how pervasive the sentiment is. Most Democrats said democracy would only be safe if Biden wins in November. Most Republicans said it would only be safe if Trump did.

The net effect is that Americans overall are divided. A majority think that democracy will not be protected if Biden wins, and a (mostly different) majority thinks it will not be protected if Trump does.

As Welker noted to Burgum, the presentation of Biden as a “dictator” because he implemented executive actions is flatly ridiculous. It became only more ridiculous after the Supreme Court on Monday determined that Trump’s efforts to subvert the 2020 election had broad protections against criminal prosecution. It’s not even clear the extent to which Burgum believes it.

But it is clear that this is the sort of thing Trump wants to hear from a possible running mate. It is also clear that a lot of Republicans believe it, that they see Biden as dictatorial centrally because he uses the power he was granted by the 2020 election to enact his agenda.

If you think that election was illegitimate because Trump convinced you that it was, it’s not hard to see how this perception of Biden follows.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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