The right's latest attempt to prove Biden is senile is breathtakingly cynical

Strom Thurmond and the case of multiple Civil Rights Acts

At a reception for a civil rights group on Monday, President Joe Biden responded to a white supremacist gunman’s racially motivated slaughter of three Black people in Jacksonville, Florida, the previous day. The president described white supremacy as “a poison that’s been allowed to grow faster and fester in our communities,” but said that “America is the most multiracial, most dynamic nation in the history of the world” and “hate will not prevail.” 

Over the balance of the speech, Biden discussed the history of the Civil Rights Movement, his record as president on that issue, and “how, from trauma, hope can grow and the promise of America can prevail.”

Republicans and their right-wing media propagandists are totally uninterested in any of this. Instead, party activists weaponized a fragment of Biden’s remarks, right-wing influencers used the snippet to accuse the president of lying or being senile, hyperpartisan websites ran with the story under the same frame, and by Tuesday night, the bogus narrative had hit Fox News. This pattern has played out time and time again as the right seeks to damage Biden’s reelection bid.

At one point in the speech, Biden said he had previously “thought things had changed” and there had been “real progress” in America, but that racist killings like the one in Jacksonville showed that “hate never dies” and Americans can’t “remain silent” about it.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: But pause for just a moment. I thought things had changed. I was able — literally, not figuratively — talk Strom Thurmond into voting for the — the Civil Rights Act before he died. And I thought, “Well, maybe there’s real progress.”

But hate never dies. It just hides. It hides under the rocks. And when someone breathes a little oxygen in it, it comes out — roaring out. And silence — silence is complicity. And we’re not going to remain silent. You’re not, nor am I, nor are the vast majority of Americans. Denialism is worse. And we’ll call out — we’ll call it for what it is.

Republican strategist Greg Price and the Republican National Committee’s research department posted a sub-30-second clip highlighting Biden’s statement, “I was able to literally, not figuratively, talk Strom Thurmond into voting for the Civil Rights Act before he died." Biden and Thurmond had a long and at times controversial relationship. They served in the U.S. Senate together from 1973, following Biden’s first election, until 2003, when Thurmond passed away; Biden gave a eulogy at Thurmond’s funeral.

Thurmond infamously set the record for the longest Senate filibuster to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957; he also filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964, switching from the Democratic to the Republican Party after it passed. But Biden’s description of Thurmond as evolving to support civil rights should cue in any fair-minded observer that he wasn’t talking about convincing Thurmond to support one of those bills. Thurmond did vote for subsequent civil rights bills which became law when he and Biden were serving in the Senate together, including the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and the Voting Rights Act of 1980, which Biden invoked during his eulogy. 

But the path to right-wing stardom is paved with reflexive attacks on Democrats, not fair-minded observation or familiarity with civil rights laws. Conservative influencers immediately seized on the Price and RNC tweets to claim that Biden had actually been saying he had convinced Thurmond to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Highlighting that Biden had been 21 when that bill passed and that Thurmond had opposed it, they portrayed the president as either lying or senile. 

Once that narrative entered the social media ecosystem, content-hungry hyperpartisan websites ran with it. Several outlets published headlines which falsely claimed that Biden had explicitly referred to the 1964 law, which more squarely fit their preferred story. Here’s a sampling:

By Tuesday evening, Fox star Sean Hannity had swallowed the bogus narrative and regurgitated it to his prime-time audience, claiming that Biden had “told the truly unbelievable tale” that “he literally convinced the senator and former Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond to vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.” 

According to Hannity, Biden’s statements proved that the president “is deteriorating cognitively right before our eyes,” and been “reduced to a mumbling, bubbling — bumbling, frankly, buffoon” who “is not capable of fulfilling his duties.” He also called Biden’s statement a “lie” because “in 1964, Joe Biden was 21 years old. He had never met Strom Thurmond. And not only did Thurmond vote against the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he also filibustered the bill.”

Fox contributor Charlie Hurt later told Hannity that while “everybody's known” Biden is ”a liar,” “the problem now is he's become so senile, we don't know whether it's lies he's telling or it's just his senility setting in and he's making up these crazy stories about Strom Thurmond.”