Trump attempts to spin anti-democracy, authoritarian criticism against Biden

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Republican polling leader Donald Trump moved to deflect from criminal charges that he tried to overturn the 2020 election and from his own pledges to take revenge on his opponents if he returns to the White House, seeking to parry warnings that he presents a danger to democracy.

His speech on Saturday was an effort to turn the tables on rising alarms from Democrats and some Republicans that Trump’s return to power would imperil free elections and civil liberties. As candidates ramp up appearances in Iowa ahead of the caucuses on Jan. 15, the former president, who refused to accept his 2020 election loss and inspired his supporters to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power, responded by comparing President Biden to a fascist tyrant, and the campaign distributed signs reading ‘BIDEN ATTACKS DEMOCRACY.’

“Biden and his radical left allies like to pose as defenders of democracy,” Trump told a raucous crowd of a couple thousand supporters here. “But Joe Biden is not the defender of American democracy. Joe Biden is the destroyer of American democracy. … This campaign is a righteous crusade to liberate our republic from Biden and the criminals and the Biden administration.”

The speech showed that Biden’s framing of the 2024 election as democracy versus authoritarianism is resonating with voters, according to Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University. Trump’s strategy to “accuse the accuser” could confuse voters about the real threat and help reassure his own supporters, she said.

“Trump’s Iowa speech continues his use of fascist rhetoric: it’s us versus them, he tells his supporters, and ‘they’ are enemies who cheat,” she said. “Authoritarians have a lot of rhetorical tricks for explaining away anti-democratic actions as actually ‘democratic.’”

The Biden campaign called the speech an attempt to distract from Trump’s own promises to punish his political opponents, and a renewed push in recent weeks to repeal the 2010 health care law commonly known as Obamacare.

“Donald Trump’s America in 2025 is one where the government is his personal weapon to lock up his political enemies,” campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa said. “After spending a week defending his plan to rip health care away from millions of Americans, this is his latest desperate attempt at distraction — the American people see right through it and it won’t work.”

The speech marked a striking rhetorical escalation of themes that Trump has consistently hammered as he racked up 91 criminal charges in four separate cases over the course of this year. Two of the cases involving his efforts to overturn the 2020 election are poised to go to trial during next year’s campaign, in Washington and Atlanta.

“President Trump is turning the tables,” said a senior Trump adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. “We are not going to allow Joe Biden and the Democrats to gaslight the American public.”

Throughout Trump’s political career, he has often responded to attacks by accusing his opponents of the same. In 2016, Trump brought women who accused former president Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to a debate against Hillary Clinton to deflect from the release of a years-old recording showing Trump bragging about sexual battery. In that same debate, Trump responded to Clinton’s calling him a “puppet” of Russian President Vladimir Putin by saying, “No puppet! You’re the puppet.”

Trump has increasingly centered his campaign on defending himself from his criminal indictments, portraying them as politicized and repeatedly warning that he takes them as license to retaliate by using government power to investigate Democrats if he returns to the White House.

In Saturday’s speech, Trump claimed the investigations into his presidency, such as the special counsel probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election and his first impeachment for pressuring Ukraine to disparage Biden, amounted to an effort to “overthrow the duly elected president.”

He also accused Biden “and his band of Marxists, Communists and Fascists” of trying “to crush free speech, censor their critics,” and “criminalize dissent.” Trump routinely demonizes the press as the “enemy of the people,” banned reporters from covering his 2016 campaign, and last week renewed a threat to punish NBC for its coverage by revoking its broadcast license.

“They’ve been waging an all-out war on American democracy,” Trump said. “And becoming more and more extreme and repressive.”

He added: “If you put me back in the White House, that reign will be over and America will be a free nation once again.”

Ashley Parker, Maeve Reston and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.

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