The United States will require much correction in the wake of Donald Trump, should he be defeated and should he actually leave the presidency peacefully. I assume neither, given his behavior and the current slate of candidates opposing him, numerous as they are.
There are 20 of them now, with Joe Biden adding himself formally to the mix last Thursday with a video that oddly invoked the 2017 white-supremacist chaos in Charlottesville, Virginia solely to take a shot at his presumed general election opponent. With any number of policy horrors to choose from in this administration, it was perplexing to see Biden define Trump’s racism reach back to two summers ago to remind voters of a quote that likely no one has forgotten: Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” remark in the wake of “Jews will not replace us,” the beating of DeAndre Harris, or a neo-Nazi murdering Heather Heyer with his car.
Never mind that Biden hadn’t been to Charlottesville since this all happened, never asked Heyer’s mom whether it was cool to do this nor worried about what his political ad might trigger in the survivors of those two days of terrorism. The former Vice President had written an op-ed back then about all this, one that I guess his campaign people figured would be a perfect message. Writing for The Atlantic two weeks after the Unite the Right rally, Biden declared that “if it wasn’t clear before, it’s clear now: We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation.”
Contrary to conventional wisdom, while Biden may have done his campaign a service steering Trump and the news cycle briefly away from Robert Mueller and towards Robert E. Lee, he failed the public. The line that Biden is now repeating, in that Thursday campaign ad and at a kickoff rally outside of Pittsburgh and in Dubuque, Iowa, may sound Presidential, in the way rhetoric often does.
But “a battle for the soul of this nation” is actually word salad. It is an abyss of a sentence, what a politician speaks and sends voters falling endlessly into like Alice’s rabbit hole. It means nothing because it isn’t intended to mean anything. It is verbal Vaseline.
Biden even echoed President Trump’s slogan in his effort to sound like the William Barber of politics. During a Good Morning America interview alongside his wife Jill on Tuesday, Biden said that his new campaign slogan would be “Make America Moral Again.” Yes, really. He plans to “make America return to the essence of who we are, the dignity of the country, the dignity of people and treating our people with dignity.”
How, exactly? And is that even a president’s job? And is this “soul of a nation” what we find only in America’s most shining, commercial-worthy moments, when the country and its government loves to tell the most heroic story of itself? Or is the soul of this nation found in the places where we don’t like to discuss? Is it in our rotting homeless encampments under the freeway bridges here in Los Angeles as we gentrifiers speed by without a glance? Can I find the soul of this nation in underfunded public housing, or along the southern border where asylum seekers are being harassed and hunted by our border patrol for trying to escape persecution? Is that soul in our overcrowded prisons, or in the overcrowded classrooms? Can we find it in the swelling rivers of the Midwest, or in the swelling eye socket of the young black boy punched by the police officer for existing? Is that soul outside our abortion clinics, threatening patients as they seek their healthcare? I surely think we can find it in the increasingly frequent incidences of domestic terrorism targeting black, Jewish and Muslim houses of worship, including one that killed Lori Gilbert Kaye at a synagogue in Poway, California, on the last of the eight days of Passover.
Trumpism isn’t extinguishable with an election, and 2020 isn’t a “battle for the soul of this nation.” It’s a job search. Joe Biden wants us to hire him. That may seem simplistic, but it isn’t false. And the more we demystify this process and understand the true powers and limitations of the presidency, the better for the voters.
As much as they may frequently position themselves as emancipators, revolutionaries or movement leaders, contenders for President of the United States are job candidates. The fact that they are applying for a position and have to convince voters how they will perform once they get the gig often gets lost in the swirling rhetoric. Declaring merely that you want to defeat the incumbent, which is more or less all Biden has done, is the equivalent of putting your name at the top of the application form.
Yes, it’s early, and Biden should have a chance to establish his platform, but it isn’t no one’s fault but his own that he entered the race well after competitors like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders have had months to lay out nuanced policy proposals by the dozen. He has less than two months before the first debates, after all — even if judging by his ad and his rhetoric, it seems that he isn’t intent upon running against the other 19 people in the Democratic field.
Part of the fault is ours. Leaving aside his rank cruelty and borderline treasonous behavior for a moment, Trump’s utter inadequacy in the office should have competence and planning as primary concerns in this race. Instead, we’re talking about which bands Pete Buttigieg wants at his inauguration and who Cory Booker is dating, as if it’s a normal election. We have loud policy debates about things that matter but are unlikely to happen, while solutions to family leave and universal child care go undiscussed in the public sphere. I don’t have much patience for candidates who fill our heads with platitudes when their names, not anyone’s soul, is on the ballot. But we are letting it happen.
This is Biden’s strike zone, adhering to political clichés and conventional politics. It’s working, in the short term. Thanks to his unparalleled name recognition and the undeniable advantage of being a white man running for president, Biden entered the Democratic fray as the front-runner and soon increased his lead substantially. Carried largely by older voters, Biden experienced a fairly massive post-announcement polling bump and now leads his nearest competitor, Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, by 14 points. A New York Times report published before his Monday rally found strong anecdotal support amongst the black interview subjects, including one 53-year-old man who repeated a cautious refrain that I suspect is being echoed in many a living room, church, and barbershop: “I’m going to be completely honest: I think with the country going the way it is, I think we’re kind of safer on the Democratic side going with a white male right now.”
Four years after Barack Obama’s presidency, the White House hopes of his running mate will likely rest heavily upon whether or not the electorate is scared to take a chance on someone who isn’t a white man. That, perhaps more than anything, may reflect the “soul of America.”
There are many echoes of Trump in the former Vice President, more than he would likely care to admit. There is the phony machismo, such as when Biden wished in 2016, after more allegations of Trump’s sexual abuse surfaced, that he “could take him behind the gym.” There are the past policy positions, in which Biden himself sounded much like a segregationist in the 1970s when speaking about school busing or contributed to mass incarceration’s explosion by helping write and pass the 1994 crime bill as the Senate Judiciary chairman. As much as there are Trump problems to fix, there are still Biden problems to fix.
Worse than the empty rhetoric about the “soul” of America is the prospect that Biden is proposing himself as the panacea. It indicates that he either doesn’t understand what Trumpism is doing to this country, or doesn’t have a strategy devised to handle it. Conveniently for him, though, this “soul of America” business positions Biden as a single-handed savior for a nation whose ills are due solely to Trump and not, say to the crime bill. Everything will be addressed by his defeat. That Biden even seems to suggest as much is dangerous, evoking an even more chilling and Trumpian quote from his 2016 Republican National Convention address: “I alone can fix it.”
There is a real chance that Biden will becomes the nominee, which makes this all even more of a problem. The stakes of this election are as dire as he makes them sound. That is why he needs to grasp that “hope and change” was for a past era, talk about goals instead of “souls,” and tell us what precisely he’ll do to address both the mess that Trump would be leaving behind and the one that he himself helped to create.