Right-wing media push false narrative that Biden called for a “physical revolution”

A bad-faith reading, an edited video, and a lot of cognitive dissonance helped stir up a new scandal

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

The conservative media sphere has worked itself up into a frothy rage over a video in which Joe Biden supposedly calls for a “physical revolution.” Spoiler: Biden did not, in fact, call for a “physical revolution.”

On Monday, the former vice president participated in the Poor People’s Campaign’s presidential forum in Washington, D.C. During a Q&A session, MSNBC’s Joy Reid asked Biden how he would advance any sort of legislative agenda as president, with the Senate run by a man who has already vowed to be the “Grim Reaper” for Democratic policies. He replied with a fairly boilerplate call for bipartisanship and use of the bully pulpit to unite people, arguing that there’s not exactly a better option:

You’ve got to make it clear to Republicans that you understand that some things, there is a rationale for compromise. For example, when we did the Recovery Act -- Mr. President, as you may remember, at the State of the Union, said, “Joe will do the Recovery Act” -- $89 billion. And it was done without any waste or fraud -- 2% waste, fraud or abuse. Well, what happened there? We didn’t have the votes initially, so I went out and got -- I changed three Republican votes. You try to persuade. Doesn’t mean you can do it all the time. But it kept us from going into a depression.

So folks, look, if you start off with the notion there is nothing you can do, then why don’t you all go home, then, man? Or let’s start a real, physical revolution if you are talking about it. Because we have to be able to change what we are doing within our system, because you talk about the creed -- we the people, we hold these truths self-evident -- we haven’t always lived up to that standard, but we’ve never fully abandoned it.

A few hours later, The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra tweeted a 51-second clip of the exchange between Reid and Biden, edited so it could seem Biden was actually promoting revolution. And he connected that statement to an earlier comment in which Biden referred to dogged campaigning against obstructionists as a “brass knuckle fight.”

But Saavedra’s video cut out some important context, and The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, who was in the room for this event, pushed back hard on Saavedra’s framing.

“Biden didn’t ‘call for’ [revolution] at all,” Weigel wrote in response to a tweet by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). “He did the opposite: He told a crowd that it needed to ‘be able to change what we’re doing within our system,’ saying if they didn’t want that they must want ‘a real physical revolution.”

But by then, it was too late and the claim was already circulating on the right. Saavedra’s edit left out the sentences immediately after the reference to “a brass knuckle fight,” in which Biden explained what exactly he meant by that: “What you do is when they say, ‘We’re not going to support you,’ you do what I did last time -- I went into 68 races in 22 states -- and they were not blue states. … You have to go out and beat these folks if they don’t agree with you, by making your case.”

Similarly, by not including the portion immediately before the “physical revolution” part -- in which Biden talks about convincing people and winning votes -- Saavedra made it seem as though Biden might have been advocating for a violent conflict when he was trying to make the exact opposite point. 

Twitter caps videos at two minutes, 20 seconds in length. Measuring from the beginning of his answer through the “physical revolution” comment, Biden spoke for 2:16, meaning that no edit to his words was necessary -- especially not one that cut essential context. In his write-up for The Daily Wire, headlined, “Biden Suggests Starting ‘Physical Revolution’ To Deal With Republicans,” Saavedra again omitted context in order to make it seem as though the “brass knuckle” comment was related to the reference to a “physical revolution”:

“There are certain things where it just takes a brass knuckle fight,” Biden continued, later adding: “Let’s start a real physical revolution if you’re talking about it.”

Saavedra, it should be noted, is no stranger to calls for violent revolution. In 2017, while he was a writer at Breitbart, Saavedra tweeted, “People think I’m kidding when I say this but the crusades need to come back.”

Predictably, others in conservative media took a cue from Saavedra and pushed this false narrative hard.

On Twitter, Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson claimed that Biden “advocated” for revolution. Right-wing radio host Mark Levin tweeted, “Biden suggests ‘physical revolution’ aka violence and the Democratic Party-media snooze” (Donald Trump Jr. liked this tweet). Brandon Morse at RedState framed Biden’s remarks as advocating for a literal brass knuckle fight, adding, “In this day and age where Antifa may just show up at your door, no matter how you slice it, Biden’s words come off as threatening.”

Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell used the occasion to label tech companies “hypocrites” for not banning Biden from their platforms over the out-of-context remarks.

The chain of events leading to Saavedra’s tweet provides an interesting look at how news can trickle through the media before getting spit out as something totally different.

U.S. News & World Report writer David Catanese was the first verified Twitter account to note the remark, which he highlighted while live-tweeting the event. He was followed by CNN’s Dan Merica and David Wright. Josh Feldman at Mediaite published a somewhat uncharitable but still accurate write-up of the appearance.

Finally, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) weighed in with a tweet.

Any one of those posts may have served as the genesis for the idea behind Saavedra’s edited video, or perhaps none of them did. But once that narrative was out in the world, others quickly latched on.

There’s nothing new about these sorts of plucked-from-context bits of outrage bait pushed by people on the right.

Last year, using another selectively edited clip, Saavedra was one of the driving forces behind an attempt to suggest that former Attorney General Eric Holder was advocating for Democrats to literally kick Republicans in comments about the fight against voter suppression. They ignored Holder’s later comment:

Now, when I say, you know, “we kick ‘em,” I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate. We don’t do anything illegal. But we’ve got to be tough and we’ve got to fight for the very things that John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, you know, all those folks gave to us. That stuff can be taken away. That’s what they want to do.

This certainly won’t be the last time an otherwise mild quote from a 2020 candidate gets taken out of context and twisted. Journalists and audiences alike need to watch out for bad-faith smears that seem questionable to begin with.