Biden warns US democracy ‘in peril’ as he commemorates war dead

President’s speech comes during time of tumultuous politics and civic unrest in US

US president Joe Biden at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in Arlington, Virginia. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty

US president Joe Biden at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in Arlington, Virginia. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty

 

Joe Biden warned in a speech commemorating the US’s war dead on Memorial Day that US democracy was “in peril” and called for empathy among his fellow citizens.

Speaking at Arlington National Cemetery, the US president, joined by first lady Jill Biden, vice-president Kamala Harris and her husband, paid tribute to America’s war dead, whom he described as making the ultimate sacrifice in the pursuit of democracy.

But he added that US democracy was itself in danger. “The mission falls to each of us, each and every day. Democracy itself is in peril, here at home and around the world,” he said. “What we do now, how we honour the memory of the fallen, will determine whether democracy will long endure.”

Mr Biden’s speech played out against a tumultuous time in American politics, shaken by four years of erratic and norm-shattering rule by Donald Trump, culminating in the January 6th attack on the Capitol in Washington DC by a Trump-supporting mob seeking to disrupt the formalisation of Mr Biden’s electoral win.

It also comes at a time of civic unrest sparked by largely right-wing protests against shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the spread of conspiracy theories around election fairness stoked by Mr Trump and the far right, and widespread demonstrations against racism and police brutality.

Mr Biden centred his speech on the ideals of a democracy that thrives when citizens can vote, when there is a free press and when there are equal rights for all.

“This nation was built on an idea,” Mr Biden said in his address. “We were built on an idea, the idea of liberty and opportunity for all. We’ve never fully realised that aspiration of our founders, but every generation has opened the door a little wider.”

Fraudulent claims

Since he beat Mr Trump to the White House last year Mr Trump and many other Republicans have sought to baselessly portray the election as having been somehow fraudulent. They have launched scores of court cases and even a so-called “audit” of the results in in Arizona’s largest county.

Republican state legislatures have also passed local voting laws aimed at restricting voting access that civil rights advocates say are aimed at communities of colour. On Sunday night Texas Republicans failed to push through one of the most restrictive voting measures in the US after Democrats walked out of the state House at the last minute. But other measures have passed in states such as Georgia and Florida.

While politicians from both sides of the US political spectrum routinely speak of a “battle for the soul of America” to describe their mission to voters, Mr Biden’s holiday address came as Mr Trump’s former national security adviser Lieut Gen Michael Flynn also said over the weekend that a Myanmar-like coup “should happen” in the US.

QAnon conspiracist

Appearing before a conference of the QAnon conspiracy movement in Dallas, Mr Flynn was asked by an attendee if what was happening in Myanmar – in which the military overthrew a democratically elected government – could be repeated at home.

“There’s no reason,” Mr Flynn told a cheering audience. “I mean, it should happen – that’s right.”

Since Myanmar’s military seized power in February, and detained the country’s democratically elected leaders, at least 800 civilians have died and thousands have been arrested.

Mr Flynn was fired by Mr Trump in 2017 after it was revealed that he had lied to vice-president Mike Pence over contacts with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak.

He later pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI, then withdrew his plea and the justice department dropped charges against him. Mr Trump later pardoned the general. In January, Twitter banned Mr Flynn from its platform in a purge of accounts promoting QAnon theories. – Guardian