WASHINGTON — The good news is that deeply divided Americans agree on at least one thing. The bad news is they share the view that their nearly 2 1/2-century-old democracy is in danger — and disagree drastically about who is threatening it.

In a remarkable consensus, a new Quinnipiac University poll found that 69% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans say that democracy is “in danger of collapse.” But one side blames former President Donald Trump and his “MAGA Republicans” while the other fingers President Joe Biden and the “socialist Democrats.”

So when Biden delivers a warning about the fate of democracy as he did Thursday night, the public hears two vastly different messages, underscoring deep rifts in American society that make it an almost ungovernable moment in the nation’s history. Not only do Americans diverge sharply over important issues such as abortion, immigration and the economy, they see the world in fundamentally different and incompatible ways.

“Sadly, we have gotten away from a common understanding that democracy is a process and does not necessarily guarantee the results your side wants, that even if your team loses an election, you can fight for your policies another day,” said Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, a group that promotes democracy globally and recently has expressed concern for it at home as well. “That’s a huge challenge for the president, but also for all politicians.”

The chasm between these two Americas makes Biden’s task all the more pronounced. Although he once aspired to bridge that divide after he evicted Trump from the Oval Office, Biden has been surprised, according to advisers, at just how enduring his predecessor’s grip on the Republican Party has been.

And so, instead of bringing Americans together, Biden’s goal has essentially evolved into making sure that the majority of the country that opposes Trump is fully alert to the threat that the former president still poses — and energized or scared enough to do something about it, most immediately in the upcoming midterm elections.

Advertising

That calculation meant that Biden knew he would be hit for abandoning his stance as the president who would unite the country. With the legislative season basically over pending the election, he no longer needed to worry about offending Republican members of Congress he might need to pass bipartisan bills. Instead, he has communicated with voters much as he did in 2020, reaching out especially to suburban women and other key groups in swing states such as Pennsylvania.

The Republicans’ reaction to Biden’s speech was remarkable. For years, they stood quietly by as Trump vilified and demonized anyone who disagreed with him — encouraging supporters to beat up protesters; demanding that his rivals be arrested; accusing critics of treason and even murder; calling opponents “fascists”; and retweeting a supporter saying “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” But they rose up as one Thursday night and Friday to complain that Biden was the one being divisive.

“It’s unthinkable that a president would speak about half of Americans that way,” said Nikki Haley, who was Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. “Leaders protect the Constitution,” added Mike Pompeo, who was Trump’s secretary of state. “They don’t declare half of America to be enemies of the state like Joe Biden did last night.”

Aided by an eerie red speech backdrop, Republicans described Biden in dictatorial terms, as “if Mussolini and Hitler got together,” as Donald Trump Jr. put it.

When it comes to democracy in America, there is no real equivalence, of course. The elder Trump sought to use the power of his office to overturn a democratic election, pressuring state and local officials, the Justice Department, members of Congress and his own vice president to disregard the will of the people to keep him in office. When that did not work, he riled up a crowd that stormed the Capitol, disrupting the counting of Electoral College votes and threatening to execute those standing in Trump’s way.

Since leaving office, Trump has continued to demand that the election be reversed and even suggested that he be reinstated as president, all based on lies he tells his supporters about what happened in 2020. He has forced Republican officeholders and candidates to embrace his false claims and sought to install election deniers in state positions where they can influence future vote counts.

Advertising

When Trump’s supporters express fear for democracy with pollsters, it is not about those actions but about what Trump has told them about election integrity, even if what he says is wrong. They also see Biden’s administration as far too liberal, expanding government to the point that it will invariably restrain their own freedoms.

In crafting his speech to be delivered at Independence Hall in Philadelphia for a national audience, Biden struggled with the question of how to denounce those he deemed unconstitutional actors without disparaging everyone who disagreed with him, advisers said.

He stressed in the speech that he did not view all Republicans as “MAGA Republicans,” his term for Trump’s supporters. He tried to straddle that line again Friday in response to a Fox News reporter who asked if he considered all of Trump’s supporters to be a threat to the country.

“I don’t consider any Trump supporter to be a threat to the country,” Biden replied. “I do think anyone who calls for the use of violence, fails to condemn violence when it’s used, refuses to acknowledge when an election has been won, insists upon changing the way in which we rule and count votes — that is a threat to democracy.”

Democratic strategists have spent months quietly amassing research on how to brand the Republican Party as extremist during an election cycle when Trump is not on the ballot.

The project was the brainchild of Navin Nayak, president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the research arm of a Democratic-aligned think tank. Working with John Podesta, a former aide to presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama who was appointed Friday as a senior adviser to Biden, Nayak began with a key insight.

Advertising

Republicans, the two men concluded, had been remarkably successful in defining the Democratic Party by its leftward-most pole. In recent years, that has been represented by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who helpfully for Republicans calls himself a “democratic socialist.”

Republican strategists seized on the word “socialist,” spending millions of dollars in television advertisements in places such as Miami to appeal to Hispanic voters whose families had long and painful memories of leftist governments in Cuba and Venezuela. In the 2020 election, Republicans picked off enough Hispanics to put Florida out of reach for Biden.

With Trump driving daily headlines, Democratic strategists said they had an opportunity to link “MAGA Republicans” to a former president whose unpopularity has driven down the ratings of the overall party, giving them a chance to hold onto Congress and governorships in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

“What we have is people who are directly linked to Jan. 6, and therefore using Jan. 6 in the campaign is yet another way to link them to extremism,” said Jefrey Pollock, founding partner and president of Global Strategy Group, one of two polling firms that conducted some of the research.

That is not a message, as the Quinnipiac poll indicated, that will resonate with everyone. The question is whether it will resonate with enough Americans to make a difference.