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U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on democracy, while honouring the legacy of late U.S. senator John McCain at the Tempe Center for the Arts in Tempe, Arizona, on Sept. 28.JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden is warning that “extremist MAGA ideology” could undermine the American constitution and push the country toward authoritarianism if Donald Trump returns to power in next year’s election.

During a speech Thursday in which he announced federal funding for a national library in Arizona that will be named after the late Republican senator John McCain, Mr. Biden cast his 2024 battle to stay in the White House as a fight to preserve democracy.

“There’s something dangerous happening in America. There is an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs of our democracy: the MAGA movement,” he said, using the acronym for Make America Great Again, Mr. Trump’s most recognizable slogan.

“Their extreme agenda, if carried out, would fundamentally alter the institutions of American democracy as we know it.”

The President has often framed his political mission in terms of the need to protect the constitutional system. But in Thursday’s address the language he used was particularly stark.

Mr. Biden pointed to Mr. Trump’s plans to increase presidential powers if he returns to the White House, including by giving himself the ability to block individual government spending decisions and purge civil servants who are insufficiently supportive of his agenda. He also referenced calls by some Republicans to disband the Department of Justice and the FBI, make it harder for people to vote, and ban books from school libraries.

Last week, Mr. Trump accused the country’s top general, Mark Milley, of treason, and suggested he should be executed. This received little notice. It was only one in a seemingly endless avalanche of extreme statements by the ex-president.

“It’s not only wrong, it’s un-American,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Trump’s remarks about Mr. Milley. He chided Republicans for not condemning such threats. “The silence is deafening,” he said. “Hardly a Republican senator spoke up.”

The speech was also the White House’s clearest acknowledgment of how likely a second Trump presidency is becoming. Over the past six months, Mr. Trump has been hit with 91 criminal charges in four different cases, including two prosecutions related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Those efforts culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol by his supporters.

Even so, he remains the runaway favourite for the Republican presidential nomination. Polling shows he could win the general election.

Mr. Biden said he does not believe that most Republicans are actually behind Mr. Trump’s ideology. But he said they are nevertheless in thrall to him and his acolytes. Mr. Biden referred to a looming federal government shutdown this weekend. A small number of far-right Republican House members have prevented their own caucus from passing a spending bill that would avert the crisis.

“Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, adhere to the extremist MAGA ideology,” Mr. Biden said. “But there is no question that today’s Republican Party is driven and animated by MAGA extremists.”

The President highlighted his friendship with Mr. McCain. Despite their ideological differences and long political rivalry, Mr. Biden said, he and Mr. McCain agreed on the basic principles of democracy. Mr. Biden took credit for introducing Mr. McCain to his wife, Cindy, and encouraging him to get into politics. (As Mr. Biden said this, he jokingly crossed himself and asked God’s forgiveness.)

Mr. Biden invoked Mr. McCain’s military service, including more than five years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. He noted that his own son, Beau, had fought in Iraq. Both men died of brain tumours. The President contrasted this with Mr. Trump, who once mocked Mr. McCain for getting captured during the Vietnam War, and who reportedly referred to U.S. soldiers killed in the Second World War as “losers” and “suckers.”

“Was John a sucker? Was my son?” Mr. Biden shouted. “Was he a sucker for volunteering to serve his country?”

Republicans in Congress on Thursday, meanwhile, opened an impeachment investigation into Mr. Biden based on the actions of his other son, Hunter. While there is evidence, not yet proven in court, that Hunter Biden evaded U.S. taxes on earnings from foreign business deals, there has been nothing so far to tie the President to his dealings.

Mr. Biden did not mention the proceedings, which he has dismissed as frivolous.

Instead, he framed the current fight over the country’s direction as being similar in importance to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

“We’re at an inflection point in our history, one of those moments that only happens once every few generations. It happens once every eight or nine generations,” he said. “The decisions we make today will determine the course of the country, and the world, for the next six or seven decades.”

At one point, a climate activist in the audience interrupted Mr. Biden’s speech, demanding that he ban fossil fuel extraction in the country.

“I’ll tell you what: if you shush up, I’ll meet with you immediately after this,” Mr. Biden told the protester, before continuing the speech.

“Democracy is never easy,” he said, “as we just demonstrated.”

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