President Joe Biden speaks outside Independence Hall, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum) Biden
President Joe Biden speaks outside Independence Hall, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Making his second Pennsylvania stop this week, the president was not subtle about the danger posed by the extreme wing of the Republican party: “They are determined to take this country backwards.”

A little more than 48 hours after putting MAGA Republicans on blast in his native NEPA, President Joe Biden hit hard again Thursday during a prime-time speech from Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, stressing that the “extreme ideology” of Donald Trump and his followers “threatens the very foundation of our republic.”

“Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal,” he said before an audience of hundreds, raising his voice over pro-Trump hecklers outside the building where the nation’s founding was debated. He said he wasn’t condemning the 74 million people who voted for Trump in 2020, but added, “There’s no question that the Republican Party today is dominated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans,” using the acronym for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.

The explicit effort by Biden to marginalize Trump and his followers marks a sharp recent turn for the president, who preached his desire to bring about national unity in his Inaugural address.

Biden, who largely avoided even referring to “the former guy” by name during his first year in office, has grown increasingly vocal in calling out Trump personally. Now, emboldened by his party’s summertime legislative wins and wary of Trump’s return to the headlines, he has sharpened his attacks, last week likening the “MAGA philosophy” to “semi-fascism.”

Wading into risky political terrain, Biden strained to balance his criticism with an appeal to more traditional Republicans to make their voices heard. Meanwhile, GOP leaders swiftly accused him of only furthering political divisions.

Delivering a preemptive rebuttal from Biden’s hometown of Scranton, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said it is the Democratic president, not Republicans, trying to divide Americans.

“In the past two years, Joe Biden has launched an assault on the soul of America, on its people, on its laws, on its most sacred values,” McCarthy said. “He has launched an assault on our democracy. His policies have severely wounded America’s soul, diminished America’s spirit and betrayed America’s trust.”

Asked about McCarthy’s criticism, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said earlier Thursday that “we understand we hit a nerve” with the GOP leader, and quoted the Republican’s prior statements saying Trump bore responsibility for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.

White House officials said the sharp tenor of Biden’s remarks reflected his mounting concern about Trump allies’ ideological proposals and relentless denial of the nation’s 2020 election results.

“Equality and democracy are under assault” in the US, Biden charged, casting Trump and his backers in the GOP as a menace to the nation’s system of government, its standing abroad and its citizens’ way of life.

Trump and the MAGA Republicans “promote authoritarian leaders and they fan the flames of political violence,” he said. They “are determined to take this country backwards.”

“Backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love,” he said, referencing the social issues that Democrats have looked to place front-and-center for voters this fall.

Biden’s message carries significant importance in Pennsylvania where a host of MAGA Republicans are running for office at the state and federal level. Two of the most notable candidates—far-right extremist Doug Mastriano, who is running for governor, and Scott Perry, who is attempting to win a sixth term as US Rep. from Dauphin County—have been repeatedly linked to Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and to the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

Perry has refused to meet with the Jan. 6 committee and recently had his cell phone seized by the FBI. After a lengthy stalemate, Mastriano did agree to meet with the committee but walked out without answering any questions. On Thursday, he filed suit against the committee, according to Politico, arguing that the committee’s rules and composition mean it cannot compel witnesses to sit for depositions. He’s asking to be compensated for his legal fees.  

On Saturday, Trump is the headline attraction at a rally in Wilkes-Barre for three Pennsylvania candidates he has endorsed: US Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz, US House candidate Jim Bognet, and Mastriano. He’s billing it as the “Trump Pennsylvania ticket.”

Biden returns to Pennsylvania Monday for a Labor Day event in Pittsburgh.

Keystone managing editor Patrick Berkery contributed to this story.