Battle for the Soul: can Joe Biden beat Trump’s Republicans in the war of words?

Joe Biden declared his third candidacy for president on 25 April 2019 in a three-and-a-half minute video. The format was new, but for Biden relied on an old-fashioned conception of masculinity.

He talked about the 12 August 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, about which Donald Trump (in)famously said there were “very fine people on both sides”. The incident provided Biden with a good vs evil story frame, which he entered as a sort of superhero.

“At that moment,” Biden intoned, as viewers saw white supremacists marching with torches, “I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had seen in my lifetime.”

I wrote at the time that we’re in the battle for the soul of this nation. Well, that’s even more true today. We are in the battle for the soul of this nation.

If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation. Who we are. And I cannot stand by and watch that happen.

The core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America, America, is at stake.

Captain America, out of retirement and to the rescue. The Charlottesville setting, adjacent to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, supplied Biden with a pretext to quote the Declaration of Independence. And the video displayed, in colonial cursive font, passages many Americans could recite from memory.

The “battle for the soul of America” narrative frame served Biden well. It helped differentiate Biden’s criticism of Trump, as both personal and constitutional. It converted his age into a campaign asset: a man with historic consciousness would be a good choice for Democrats, a party that usually opted for youth. And it ennobled his call for unity as the solution to Trump’s divisiveness. A Biden victory would win the battle for the soul through an appeal to transcendent patriotic values.

Two men, longtime adviser Mike Donilon and the historian Jon Meacham, have worked on Biden’s speeches and the “soul” verbiage. But regardless of the authorial division of labor, it has been Biden’s sign-off, delivery, and persona which give the phrase its public meaning.

During the campaign, Biden repeated his theme in speeches on national holidays and historic anniversaries, often in Pennsylvania: at an 18 May 2019 campaign kick-off rally at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia; in a 2 June 2020 speech at Philadelphia City Hall (commenting on the eruption of protest for the George Floyd death and the president’s use of tear gas at Lafayette Square in Washington); and on 6 October 2020 at the Gettysburg battlefield:

You and I are part of a covenant, a common story of divisions overcome and hope renewed. If we do our part, if we stand together, if we keep faith with the past and with each other, then the divisions of our time will give way to the dreams of a brighter, better future. This is our work. This is our pledge. This is our mission.

Pennsylvania is both the state where Biden was born and a perennial swing state. As the city where America’s foundational documents were written and signed, Philadelphia stands out in the national imagination as the Jerusalem of what sociologist Robert Bellah termed the “civil religion”. In his 1966 analysis of inaugural addresses from Washington to Kennedy, Bellah noted that presidents up to the incumbent at that time, Lyndon Baines Johnson, enlarged and deepened their rhetoric by invoking God. It was neither the God of any particular denomination nor a perfunctory bow to the religiosity of the American people. Rather, such references to God legitimated political authority by “supplying moral consensus amidst continuous political change”. Invocations of the civil religion reassure and integrate the disparate members of a pluralistic capitalist society.

Biden relied more on the word “soul” than “God” but the functionality was the same. “Soul” is also a word with extensive philosophical and religious lineage. It denotes the essence of a being (or nation, or people). It connotes reason, feeling, presence, expressivity, depth, the substance of a style. In running for president, Biden was embarked on a moral crusade. He was battling, as he put it in another frequently used phrase, for “hope over fear, unity over division, and truth over lies”.

And “the idea of America” at the seat of the civil religion was not an empty notion. Jill Lepore’s 2018 one-volume history of the US identified “These Truths” as the nation’s core values: political equality, natural rights, popular sovereignty and the meta-truth that they are “self-evident”, Benjamin Franklin’s Enlightenment amendment to Jefferson’s “sacred and undeniable”.

White nationalists and white supremacists carrying torches march through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, in August 2017. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Like most campaign slogans, “battle for the soul of America” was an expedient coinage, tinged in this case with a touch of bravado. Yet it has become uncannily apt. Some Americans continue to resist “these truths” and others. And so Biden has justly continued to use the phrase as president.

In his inaugural address two weeks after the assault on the Capitol and Congress he quoted Abraham Lincoln’s attestation that “my whole soul is in it” as he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and reiterated his claim that national unity was essential “to restore the soul and to secure the future of America”. On Memorial Day, at Arlington National Cemetery:

The soul of America is animated by the perennial battle between our worst instincts – which we’ve seen of late – and our better angels. Between “Me first” and “We the People”. Between greed and generosity, cruelty and kindness, captivity and freedom.

On 13 July, back at the National Constitution Center, Biden zeroed in on the opposition:

It’s no longer just about who gets to vote or making it easier for eligible voters to vote. It’s about who gets to count the vote – who gets to count whether or not your vote counted at all. It’s about moving from independent election administrators who work for the people to polarized state legislatures and partisan actors who work for political parties.

To me, this is simple: This is election subversion. It’s the most dangerous threat to voting and the integrity of free and fair elections in our history …

We have to ask: Are you on the side of truth or lies; fact or fiction; justice or injustice; democracy or autocracy? That’s what it’s coming down to …

The Republicans on the other side peddle disinformation and bank on partisan polarization. They seek to negate the truth of the 2020 election results and tilt the certification process against a reoccurrence in 2024. Under the banners of a “stolen” and “rigged” election and a vastly exaggerated claim of election “fraud”, they are conducting feckless audits and enacting voter suppression laws in battleground states, including Pennsylvania. They blocked the establishment of an independent commission to investigate the riot on the day they voted to decertify the election. Biden also cited Jim Crow in view of the racial dimensions of the soul battle. The opposition has launched a coded attack on a misappropriated academic term, “Critical Race Theory”.

The soul battle is distinct from the programmatic initiatives and negotiations being conducted under another Biden slogan, “Build Back Better”. In that political domain differences can be monetized and split without recourse to dire dichotomies. However, the emotions summoned over voting cannot be easily compartmentalized and hived off from the dollar figures.

The soul battle also bears on the effort to persuade Americans to get vaccinated, both in Biden’s exhortations to get the shot which appeal to patriotic duty and the opposition’s efforts to brand resistance to vaccination as a stand for freedom against the government. Analyzing that argumentation requires an essay unto itself, although I note in passing that Biden’s rhetorical approach has eschewed the designation of a “czar” to coordinate the administration’s public appeals and briefings, which would put distance between the soul battle and the urgent project of pandemic mitigation. As it is, government messaging on Covid runs through the president and state governors. And it is certainly valid to see the battle against the virus as a test of the force of reason in politics.

Occasions for more soul speechmaking dot the national calendar. A rally in Washington DC on 28 August will commemorate Dr Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” address, which the president will probably recognize but not attend. The 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks will necessarily reference the pullout of troops from Afghanistan, but Biden could also validate the House inquiry into the Capitol riot as being in the spirit of the 9/11 Commission. Thanksgiving is the quintessential holiday of the American civil religion. More occasions will crop up after congressional voting on the For the People and John Lewis Voting Rights Acts.

But before any of those holidays or events surface on the civil religion calendar there is next Thursday, 12 August, the fourth anniversary of the battle that marked Biden’s starting point. He might do well to travel to Charlottesville and speak at the downtown spot vacated by the 10 July removal of the Robert E Lee statue that sparked the Unite the Right rally. It would be a sign that the mostly nonviolent but deeply conflicted war over the idea of America – for that is what a series of battles amounts to – is being won.

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