In Tempe, Arizona, President Joe Biden spoke on September 28 at the dedication ceremony for a new library, named for the late Arizona senator John McCain, who died in 2018. Biden used the opportunity not only to honor his friend, but to emphasize the themes of democracy and to call out those who are threatening to overturn it.

While Biden has made the defense of American democracy central to his presidency, he has never been clearer or more impassioned than he was today. Biden recalled that when McCain was dying, he wrote a farewell letter to the nation that he had served in both war and peace.

“We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil,” McCain wrote. “Americans never quit…. We never hide from history. We make history.”

Biden reiterated the point he makes often: that the United States is the only nation founded on an idea, articulated in the Declaration of Independence, that we are all created equal and have the right to be treated equally before the law. While “[w]e’ve never fully lived up to that idea,” he said, “we’ve never walked away from it.” Now, though, our faith in that principle is in doubt.

“[H]istory has brought us to a new time of testing,” Biden said. “[A]ll of us are being asked right now: What will we do to maintain our democracy? Will we, as John wrote, never quit? Will we not hide from history, but make history? Will we put partisanship aside and put country first? I say we must and we will. We will. But it’s not easy.”

Biden laid out exactly what democracy means: “Democracy means rule of the people, not rule of monarchs, not rule of the monied, not rule of the mighty. Regardless of party, that means respecting free and fair elections; accepting the outcome, win or lose. It means you can’t love your country only when you win.”

“Democracy means rejecting and repudiating political violence,” he said. “Regardless of party, such violence is never, never, never acceptable in America. It’s undemocratic, and it must never be normalized to advance political power.”

“Today,” he warned, “democracy is…at risk.” Our political institutions, our Constitution, and “the very character of our nation” are threatened. “Democracy is maintained by adhering to the Constitution and the march to perfecting our union…by protecting and expanding rights with each successive generation.” “For centuries, the American Constitution has been a model for the world,” but in the past few years, he noted, the institutions of our democracy — the judiciary, the legislature, the executive” have been damaged in the eyes of the American people, and even the eyes of the world, by attacks from within.

“I’m here to tell you,” Biden said: “We lose these institutions of our government at our own peril…. Democracy is not a partisan issue. It’s an American issue.”

“[T]here is something dangerous happening in America now,” Biden said. “There is an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs in our democracy: the MAGA Movement.” After high praise for his Republican friend McCain, and recollections of working with Republicans to pass bipartisan legislation throughout his career, Biden made it clear that he does not believe “every Republican,” or even “a majority of Republicans” adheres to the MAGA extremist ideology. But, he said”

“[T]here is no question that today’s Republican Party is driven and intimidated by MAGA Republican extremists. Their extreme agenda, if carried out, would fundamentally alter the institutions of American democracy as we know it.”

The MAGA Republicans, Biden said, are openly “attacking the free press as the enemy of the people, attacking the rule of law as an impediment, fomenting voter suppression and election subversion.” They are “banning books and burying history.” “Extremists in Congress [are] more determined to shut down the government, to burn the place down than to let the people’s business be done.” They are attacking the military — the strongest military in the history of the world — as being “weak and woke.”

They are “pushing a notion the defeated former President expressed when he was in office and believes applies only to him: This president is above the law, with no limits on power. Trump says the Constitution gave him…’the right to do whatever he wants as President.’ I’ve never even heard a president say that in jest. Not guided by the Constitution or by common service and decency toward our fellow Americans but by vengeance and vindictiveness.”

Biden accurately recounted the plans Trump has announced for a second term: expand presidential power, put federal agencies under the president’s thumb, get rid of the nonpartisan civil service and fill positions with loyalists.

Biden quoted MAGA Republicans: “I am your retribution,” “slitting throats” of civil servants, “We must destroy the FBI,” calling the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a “traitor” and suggesting he should be executed. These extremists, he said, are “the controlling element of the House Republican Party.”

“This is the United States of America,” Biden said. “Did you ever think you’d hear leaders of political parties in the United States of America speak like that? Seizing power, concentrating power, attempting to abuse power, purging and packing key institutions, spewing conspiracy theories, spreading lies for profit and power to divide America in every way, inciting violence against those who risk their lives to keep America safe, weaponizing against the very soul of who we are as Americans.”

“The MAGA extremists across the country have made it clear where they stand,” Biden said. “So, the challenge for the rest of America — for the majority of Americans — is to make clear where we stand. Do we still believe in the Constitution? Do we believe in … basic decency and respect? The whole country should honestly ask itself…what it wants and understand the threats to our democracy.”

Biden knew his own answers:

“I believe very strongly that the defining feature of our democracy is our Constitution.

“I believe in the separation of powers and checks and balances, that debate and disagreement do not lead to disunion.

“I believe in free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power.

“I believe there is no place in America…for political violence. We have to denounce hate, not embolden it.

“Across the aisle, across the country, I see fellow Americans, not mortal enemies. We’re a great nation because we’re a good people who believe in honor, decency, and respect.”

Pointing to the fact that the majority of the money appropriated for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has gone to Republican-dominated states, he added: “I believe every president should be a president for all Americans” and should “use the Office of the President to unite the nation.”

The job of a president, he said, is to “deliver light, not heat; to make sure democracy delivers for everyone; to know we’re a nation of unlimited possibilities, of wisdom and decency — a nation focused on the future.”

“We’ve faced some tough times in recent years, and I am proud of the progress we made as a country,” Biden said, “But the real credit doesn’t go to me and my administration…. The real heroes of the story are you, the American people.” Now, he said, “I’m asking you that regardless whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, or independent, put the preservation of our democracy before everything else. Put our country first…. We can’t take democracy for granted.”

“Democracies don’t have to die at the end of a rifle,” Biden said. “They can die when people are silent, when they fail to stand up or condemn the threats to democracy, when people are willing to give away that which is most precious to them because they feel frustrated, disillusioned, tired, alienated.”

“I get it,” Biden said. But “[f]or all its faults…, American democracy remains the best…[path] forward to prosperity, possibilities, progress, fair play, equality.” He urged people not to sit on the sidelines, but “to build coalitions and community, to remind ourselves there is a clear majority of us who believe in our democracy and are ready to protect it.”

“So,” Biden said, “let’s never quit. Let’s never hide from history. Let’s make history.” If we do that, he said, “[w]e’ll have proved, through all its imperfections, America is still a place of possibilities, a beacon for the world, a promise realized — where the power forever resides with ‘We the People.’”

“That’s our soul. That’s who we truly are. That’s who we must always be.”

Evan Vucci (AP) and Morry Gash (AP)

Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics