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Joe Biden has created a distraction from the existential question that should define this election.

Donald Trump participates in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia.(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The 2024 presidential election, like the two previous ones, boils down to a simple question: Should the United States remain a representative democracy, or should it become a right-wing autocracy? Unfortunately, the crucial debate we should be having about Trump’s fascism has been derailed in the wake of Joe Biden’s terrible debate performance on June 28, which has made Biden’s own fitness to continue as a nominee the most discussed topic in politics.

Donald Trump’s authoritarianism, which culminated in his refusal in 2021 to accede to the peaceful transfer of power and his incitement of a mob that attacked Congress, is well known. It has not receded in time but has only gotten worse. On Monday, The New York Times carried a story with this shocking headline: “Trump Amplifies Calls to Jail Top Elected Officials, Invokes Military Tribunals.”

According to the article:

Former President Donald J. Trump over the weekend escalated his vows to prosecute his political opponents, circulating posts on his social media website invoking “televised military tribunals” and calling for the jailing of President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer and former Vice President Mike Pence, among other high-profile politicians.

Mr. Trump, using his account on Truth Social on Sunday, promoted two posts from other users of the site that called for the jailing of his perceived political enemies.

One post that he circulated on Sunday singled out Liz Cheney, the former Wyoming congresswoman who is a Republican critic of Mr. Trump’s, and called for her to be prosecuted by a type of military court reserved for enemy combatants and war criminals.

While the prospect of Dick Cheney’s daughter wearing an orange jumpsuit and locked up in Gitmo might offer some wry amusement to those who love historical irony, Trump is menacing not just the politicians he named but the rule of law itself. Nor are these threats merely rhetorical. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s massive expansion of the domain of presidential immunity (which now encompasses anything that can be considered an official act), if he returns to the White House Trump would have license to commit crimes on a scale not seen since the heyday of the divine right of kings. As my Nation colleague Elie Mystal noted in his deft explication of the ruling,

Take the now-classic example of a president ordering Seal Team Six to assassinate a political rival. According to the logic of the Republicans on the Supreme Court, that would likely be an official act. According to their logic, there is also no way to prove it’s “unofficial,” because any conversation the president has with their military advisers (where, for instance, the president tells them why they want a particular person assassinated) is official and cannot be used against them.

Trump would be empowered by not only the judges he himself appointed in his first term but also by a Republican Party and conservative movement that has increasingly fallen under his sway. As amply documented by The Nation and other publications, the Trump agenda for a second term being prepared in Project 2025 by right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation involves a wholesale attack on guardrails of American democracy such as civil service neutrality. Trump and his political allies are preparing to reshape the federal government so that it ceases to be a bureaucracy with rules and norms and becomes instead the plaything of their whims.

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Celebrating the Supreme Court’s expansion of presidential immunity, Heritage Foundation head Kevin Roberts on July 2 asserted that “we are in the process of the second American Revolution, which will remain bloodless if the left allows it to be.”

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Neither Trump’s threats of violence, nor Robert’s bloodcurdling prediction of Trump’s leading a new American revolution are getting the attention they merit. Some liberals are blaming this on the media, saying they are amplifying the issue of Biden’s age too much at the expense of more important stories.

But the Biden aging story is in fact completely legitimate. It’s foolish to deny what more than 50 million Americans witnessed with their eyes and ears during the debate. It is a fact that Biden is facing calls withdraw his nomination from elected Democrats, big donors, major media outlets like The New York Times, and ordinary citizens.

On Wednesday, Biden met Democratic governors to reassure them that he is up to the job of being president and leading a campaign against Trump. According to the Times, Biden said “he needed to get more sleep…. He repeatedly referenced pushing too hard and not listening to his team about his schedule, and said he needed to work fewer hours and avoid events after 8 p.m.” Asked by Hawaii Governor Josh Green about his health, Biden responded that he was fine and “it’s just my brain.” While this was meant as a joke, not everyone who heard the quip found it comforting. It fell into the disquieting category of a truth spoken in jest.

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There’s no shame in an 81-year-old man needing to cut back on his work schedule and get more sleep. We are biological creatures and aging is a natural part of life. But Biden has a uniquely demanding job which will become only more intense as the campaign heats up. If Biden needs more rest, the easiest way he can achieve that laudable goal is to quit his current job.

Biden’s remark to the governors should give great support to the push to have him resign as president now and for the Democrats to make Vice President Kamala Harris their nominee.

Imagine Biden getting all the sleep he needs in retirement while President Kamala Harris leads the charge against Trump’s fascist threat. Imagine if Harris were holding rallies and giving daily interviews where she explains to the public what Project 2025 is and what Trump is threatening to do to both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Imagine if President Harris were doing what President Biden has singularly failed to do in the last few months: make clear to the public the real stakes of the 2024 election.

In such a scenario, America would get the election they deserve, one where they could clearly repudiate a would-be dictator. But until Biden resigns, that clearly focused campaign on behalf of democracy cannot be launched.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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