President Joe Biden's inaugural speech won praise from many observers, who appreciated his calls for unity and his unflinching but still optimistic assessment of the problems the country faces and the path forward. But many Republicans and conservatives lashed out against Biden in the days that followed, picking up on what others might have assumed were innocuous passages and using them as a source of outrage.
The talking points quickly became quite common on the right, revealing disturbing trends in right-wing thought.
On Fox News, Guest Dan Henninger said of Biden's speech:
...he was talking about things like people telling lies for power and profit. He talked about nativism, white supremacy. I think a lot of people sitting -- I mean let's face it. Half the country, nearly half the country did vote for Donald Trump.
It was at that point President Biden talking about Donald J. Trump or is he talking about the people who voted for Trump? Cause I think a lot of them would be entitled to sit out there and say, "I'm not that person."
And if he is trying to reconcile with the country, it's one thing for him to be giving his inaugural speech about his grievances with Donald J. Trump, but a lot of people out there who supported Trump and his policies did not agree with some of those ideas.
It might've seemed like an odd comment, because Biden didn't accuse Trump or even his supporters of anything in particular. He spoke of white supremacy once, referring to "a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat." He also said: "Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart."
So if Trump supporters or whomever else don't think that they're a source of racism or white supremacy, they shouldn't have any reason to think Biden was talking about them.
But Fox News host Martha MacCallum was immediately receptive to Henninger's strange claims, saying: "I think it's a great point that you bring up, Dan. He talked about nativism, racism and fear. And, you know, it kind of fits into the litany of words that we've heard about the deplorables, about clinging to guns and religion, about cults and people being -- need to be deprogrammed."
She also said: "Although there was a lot of outreach in that speech, there was not a line that he could have had in there that might have said, you know, 'You, you know, you voted for President Trump and, you know, I hear you. I hear the things that you want, I hear the things that you care about. And I want to meet you halfway.'"
This was an even stranger comment because Biden explicitly said:
To all those who did not support us, let me say this: Hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart. And if you still disagree, so be it. That's democracy. That's America. The right to dissent peaceably, within the guardrails of our Republic, is perhaps our nation's greatest strength. Yet hear me clearly: Disagreement must not lead to disunion. And I pledge this to you: I will be a President for all Americans. I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.
The off-kilter reactions didn't end with MacCallum and Henninger.
Karl Rove, a long-time operative in the GOP, had a similar reaction to the speech. "The racism thing to me is — I was offended in the speech," he said. "There was a point in there where he said 'we're divided as a country between the people who believe in the American ideal, and racism, nativism, and fear.' No, no, no, we're divided as a country politically over questions of policy and direction, and respect. But we're as united as a country against racism and nativism."
Again, he misquoted Biden, who said:
Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart.
Rove admitted there are still racists and bigots in the country, so he could have seen himself as being on Biden's side when the president said he stood against these forces. But instead, like other conservatives, Rove interpreted Biden's words as an attack.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky took a similar view.
"If you read his speech and listen to it carefully, much of it is thinly-veiled innuendo calling us white supremacists, calling us racists, calling us every name in the book, calling us people who don't tell the truth," Paul said on Fox News.
At no point in the speech did Biden refer to Republicans or Trump himself. As quoted above, he welcomed those who didn't support him to hear them out, while also promising to recognize their right to dissent peaceably.
Who might Biden have been referring to when he talked about racists, nativists, and white supremacists? The most obvious example is the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, some wearing explicitly Nazi-themed outfits or wielding the Confederate battle flag. He might have been referring to people like Stephen Miller, the architect of many of Trump's most racist and vicious immigration policies. He might be referring to the Republicans who sought to specifically throw out the votes of cities and states with large Black populations in an attempt to overthrow the results of the 2020 election.
But was he referring to Henninger, MacCallum, Rove, and Paul?
That's up for them to decide. Biden's call for unity is thoughtful and specific. The speech made clear that for him, "unity" isn't about everyone agreeing. We don't compromise with white supremacists, after all; we simply seek to defeat them. Unity is a value that finds itself in opposition to an ideology like white supremacy. And Biden is sounding a rallying cry for the United States to unite behind this value.
It's notable then, that many conservatives took this call as a direct attack. But that doesn't really say much about Biden or his speech. It tells us a lot about them. They're the type of people who hear denunciations of white supremacy and nativism and feel personally attacked. They're implicitly putting themselves in opposition to Biden's call for unity against bigotry.
The most charitable interpretation of this position is that they just don't see nativism or white supremacy as serious threats in the United States, and so they interpret a politician's words denouncing them as being a smokescreen for attacking others. But that's not really a great defense, because it means they're ignorant, at best, of serious threats in the country, threats that affect others. And it suggests they have no interest in uniting to combat these forces, which is a damning indictment in itself.