Unity was a major theme of President Joe Biden’s campaign, and so it wasn’t much of a surprise for the word to show up eight times in his inaugural address. But predictably, right-wing media quickly ripped Biden’s message from its context and redefined it as a promise to capitulate to Republican demands.
In his January 20 address, Biden warned that “few periods in our nation’s history have been more challenging or difficult than the one we’re in now,” asking the country to join forces to defeat “common foes” like anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, joblessness, and hopelessness.
With unity we can do great things. Important things. We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome this deadly virus. We can reward work, rebuild the middle class, and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice. We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world.
His point, which he elaborated on later in the address, was that while there will always be disagreements, the country can and should look for common causes when possible, respect one another, and “reject a culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.” In all, for as dark of a time as it is, Biden delivered a speech that was both hopeful and gracious, especially given that just two weeks earlier, more than half of all House Republicans voted to overturn the election results and install Donald Trump as president for an illegitimate second term.
But unsurprisingly, people on the political right and in the media quickly took Biden’s words out of context and reframed his call for “unity” as his promise to give in to the demands of his political opponents. This reshuffling of Biden’s point has the potential to set up a lopsided political framework for the next four years in which Biden and the Democrats will be given the sole responsibility to try to unify the country, regardless of Republican disinterest.
“So much for ‘unity’” will become the new “so much for the ‘tolerant left,’” and Thursday’s press conference showed how it’ll happen.
About halfway through White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s second official briefing, New York Times reporter Michael Shear followed up on a question NBC’s Kirsten Welker asked about Biden’s plans to work with Republicans on a COVID-19 relief package. Shear said:
So I want to push you a little bit more on that question. Like if there’s this call for unity that the President made in his speech yesterday, but there has so far been almost no fig leaf even to the Republican Party. You don’t have a Republican Cabinet member, like President Obama and, I think, President Clinton had. You — you know, the executive orders that he’s come out the gate have been largely designed at erasing as much of the Trump legacy as you can with executive orders, much of which the Republican Party likes and agrees with. You’ve put forth an immigration bill that has a path to citizenship but doesn’t do much of a nod towards the border security. And you’ve got a 1.9-trillion-dollar COVID relief bill that has, as folks have said, already drawn all sorts of criticism. Where is the — where is the actual action behind this idea of bipartisanship?
And when are we going to see one of those, you know, sort of, substantial outreaches that says, “This is something that, you know, the Republicans want to do, too”?
Shear’s comment that there “has so far been almost no fig leaf even to the Republican Party” illustrates just how much the press has promoted a warped version of Biden’s message. Biden didn’t say that in the interest of unity he was going to leave Trump policies about discriminating against LGBTQ people, building a southern border wall, or drilling in Alaska in place. He didn’t say that in the interest of unity he was going to cede parts of his cabinet to Republicans or that he was going to water down his policy proposals. In fact, certain elements of Shear’s question, such as his line that Biden’s COVID-19 relief plan has “drawn all sorts of criticism,” distort just how much Biden actually has already reached out to conservatives for input as his plan has been endorsed by a number of fairly conservative pro-business groups.
Shear isn’t the only one at the Times promoting this twisted reading of “unity.” In a Wednesday article detailing Biden’s first day executive orders, the Times wrote, “Despite an inaugural address that called for unity and compromise, Mr. Biden’s first actions as president are sharply aimed at sweeping aside former President Donald J. Trump’s pandemic response, reversing his environmental agenda, tearing down his anti-immigration policies, bolstering the teetering economic recovery and restoring federal efforts to promote diversity.”
It’s one thing for right-wing media to adopt this framing. Fox News, The National Review, The Federalist, The Daily Caller, Breitbart, former Fox Business anchor Trish Regan, and multiple members of Congress are among the many on the right that have been hammering away at this talking point, some for months. But respected mainstream news outlets need to do better, and the Times’ decision to join this dishonest approach is disappointing.
What’s happening with “unity” is what happened to the word “tolerance.” As a way to argue that people on the left were actually intolerant and hypocritical for expecting others to tolerate LGBTQ people, religious minorities, people of color, and other marginalized groups, some conservatives would claim that true tolerance meant tolerating intolerance. In 2016, former Dancing With the Stars contestant Bristol Palin wrote a blog post titled “10 Times the ‘Tolerant’ Left Wasn’t So Tolerant.” Palin’s examples, which included a bakery that got sued after discriminating against a lesbian couple and Ben Shapiro getting jeered during a speech in which he attacked trans people and Muslims, illustrate the type of dishonest rhetorical trap “so much for the tolerant left” arguments tend to be, warping calls for social inclusion.
Explaining the fallacy of the conservative argument -- which philosopher Karl Popper did in his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies -- takes up far more time and energy than pithy one-liners like “So much for the tolerant left” do. The same is true for trying to explain why calling for “unity” doesn’t simply mean to give Republicans everything they want over simply saying, “So much for unity.” This makes them effective attack lines for conservatives to trot out as part of a “Gish Gallop” debate tactic. The more widespread and accepted the conservative reframing of “unity” is, the more of an advantage conservatives have in the realm of rhetorical combat.
The weaponization of “unity” is well under way, and there’s a narrow window to prevent it from becoming a lasting bad-faith conservative attack line.
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent explained the strategy driving Republicans’ attempts to frame Biden as being divisive. Rather than agreeing with Biden that we should be able to come together to fight racism, domestic terrorism, and white supremacy, Republicans are pretending that those are actually thinly veiled attacks on Republicans, generally. Sargent wrote:
The obvious trick is to game the media into saying Biden is already reneging on his unity promise by being divisive.
But there’s a deeper ploy here. With this new fake outrage fest, Republicans are working to reframe the national debate over how to repair the damage done during Donald Trump’s presidency on terms favorable to them.
This reframing is designed to bury their own culpability for the injuries they inflicted by actively enabling Trump and by deliberately harnessing the destructive forces he unleashed toward their own instrumental ends.
One line from Sargent’s column turned out to be instantly prophetic, as it was published just hours before Shear asked about Biden’s failure to extend olive branches to Republicans:
Republicans now think they can exploit a tendency in press coverage to place the entire onus of “unity” on Biden. The president promised unity, but he hasn’t soothed Republicans, who say he’s being divisive. Why can’t he deliver unity?
We are not required to play this game. Biden may or may not succeed in securing “unity.” But Republicans don’t get to unilaterally dictate in advance what counts as a true attempt to achieve it.
Dan Pfeiffer, who was a senior adviser to the president during the Obama administration, published a newsletter the next day elaborating on how “unity is already being weaponized against Biden,” urging readers to understand that the very concept of unity exists outside of partisan politics.
Joe Biden won the election. Republicans lost. Joe Biden doing the things Americans elected him to do is not divisive. The Republicans may not like it, but that’s their problem. A majority of Americans voted to rejoin the Paris Accords, repeal the Muslim ban, implement more comprehensive pandemic measures and so on. Pushing forward on agenda items supported by the majority of Americans is not divisive just because Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson find it irksome.
Biden’s obligation is to reach out to Republicans to try to find common ground, it is not to abandon his agenda in favor of the rejected Republican agenda. The opposition is trying to set up a false choice between unity and progress, we can’t let them do that.
The wild misapplication of “unity” will be a right-wing talking point for the next four years, in media and in politics. Rejecting their false rebranding of the term isn’t biased, it’s honest. The New York Times and others in mainstream media have a short window of time to course-correct lest they add fuel to a dishonest and divisive far-right narrative.