A blue-suited Joe Biden knelt. As a parent who had tragically lost a child, he wanted to get close to a child who had tragically lost a parent. Biden put his arm on her black chair. Six-year-old Gianna Floyd turned her head to the right. She locked eyes with the presidential candidate.
Gianna saw the empathetic body before her, but perhaps she also saw the millions of empathetic bodies protesting in the streets, turning her father into a global martyr for racial justice.
“Daddy changed the world,” Gianna said to Biden. “Daddy changed the world.”
These words “burrowed deep into my heart,” Biden later said, calling it “one of the most important conversations I’ve had this entire campaign.”
The conversation occurred on June 8, the day before George Floyd’s funeral in Houston. Biden addressed Gianna again in a video at the funeral. “When there is justice for George Floyd, we will truly be on our way to racial justice in America. And then, as you said, Gianna, your daddy will have ‘changed the world.’” Sounding like many of the demonstrators, Biden declared, “Now is the time for racial justice.”
But now was not the time for President Donald Trump. Earlier that same day, Trump alleged that a 75-year-old man who was pushed by Buffalo, New York, police officers and then hospitalized during a recent anti-racist demonstration “could be an ANTIFA provocateur.”
Trump showed no empathy for the hospitalized Martin Gugino, who after being shoved to the ground had blood coming from his head as he lay motionless. “I watched, he fell harder than was pushed,” Trump tweeted.
On the day of Floyd’s funeral, the attack lines were set. Floyd’s soldiers were attacking racism and police violence as the problem. Trump’s soldiers were attacking all those demonstrating against racism and police violence as the problem. The battle of 2020—the historic battle for America—was on.
Biden projected his successful presidential campaign as “the battle for the soul of America.” He first offered this intoxicating battle cry in The Atlantic on August 27, 2017, days after the violence of Charlottesville, Virginia, days after Trump posed a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and the people rallying against them.
“The crazed, angry faces illuminated by torches. The chants echoing the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the 1930s,” Biden wrote. “If it wasn’t clear before, it’s clear now: We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation.”
No one can now deny the battle. The Biden and Trump campaigns made clear the battle before the nation. But what if American history; what if Charlottesville; what if Trumpism; what if the coronavirus pandemic, demonstrations, and natural disasters this year; what if the election and its chaotic aftermath have shown us something else about the battle? A second national soul on the battlefield?
We the people of the United States do not have a single national soul, but rather two souls, warring with each other. The battle for the soul of America is actually the battle between the souls of America.
Everyone recognizes that the nation is divided to its very core, but the division is not between people. The key divide is not between Trump voters and Biden voters; or between Republicans and Democrats; or among conservatives, moderates, and progressives. It’s not between who the people are, but what the people are being—the outcome of our being.
The biblical Hebrew words that mean soul—nefesh and neshama—stem from a root that means “to breathe,” as Elizabeth Dias wrote in The New York Times. In a biblical sense, soul is our very being, our very life. As the scripture says in Genesis 2: 7, “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
If God breathes souls into humans, then humans breathe souls into nations. What did the Founding Fathers (and the Founding Mothers they barred from participating as equals) breathe into America? Into Americans? Into American politics? Into American culture? Into American policies and practices? Into American institutions?
The question is not what they declared in statements and constitutions, but what they breathed behind the scenes of history. What was the very essence of the founding? What has it been since the founding? Freedom and not slavery? Equality and not inequality? Justice and not injustice? Vice President–elect Kamala Harris and not President Donald Trump?
If it wasn’t clear before, it’s clear now, after Trump received the second-highest vote total of any presidential candidate in history; after Trump refused to concede; after moderates started blaming progressives for GOP gains and Trump’s narrow loss. Because, of course, when moderates lose or barely win, moderates are never to blame. Because, of course, when Trump loses, Trump is never to blame.
Humans lie about themselves, like they lie about their nations. Humans and nations hide behind the cloak of ideals and intentions. But the outcome of what humans do and what nations do is never a lie. The outcome—what comes out of a nation’s policies, practices, and ideology—is what a nation breathes. Nations—like institutions and individuals—are not inherently anything. They are what they do. What they do is what they breathe. And what they breathe is their soul.
After millions of Americans partied all day on public streets, after Harris graced history in her suffragette-white pantsuit, Biden gave a rousing victory speech Saturday night from Wilmington, Delaware. “I’ve long talked about the battle for the soul of America,” he said. “We must restore the soul of America. Our nation is shaped by the constant battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses. It is time for our better angels to prevail.”
That language seemed to take its inspiration from Jon Meacham’s gripping 2018 history tome, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. After reading the book, Biden called Meacham to discuss the concept of the soul of America.
“America is a mix of light and shadow,” Meacham said during his address to the Democratic National Convention on August 20. “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall dwell in the American soul, but so do the impulses that have given us slavery, segregation, and systemic discrimination.”
Biden and Meacham both speak crucially about the battle, the twoness. But what if the twoness dwells in the nation, not in a single national soul? Opposing forces can dwell in a mind, in a nation. But can opposing forces dwell in a soul—if soul is elemental like breath? It is hard to imagine the enslaver and the enslaved being together in any elemental sense. It is hard to imagine Trump and the survivor who voted against him being together in any elemental sense. But they have been battling in the same nation.
There is a divide in America between the souls of injustice and justice: souls in opposition like fire and ice, like voters and voter subtraction, like Trump and truth.
The soul of injustice breathes genocide, enslavement, inequality, voter suppression, bigotry, cheating, lies, individualism, exploitation, denial, and indifference to it all. This is the soul that aggressively attacked climate science as forest fires raged; attacked anti-racism as police violence and COVID-19 disproportionately killed Black, Latino, and Native people; attacked coronavirus restrictions as the virus stole lives and livelihoods; and attacked voters as fraudulent while its suppression policies made it harder to vote.
The soul of justice breathes life, freedom, equality, democracy, human rights, fairness, science, community, opportunity, and empathy for all. This is the soul that aggressively defended people from climate change as hurricanes battered them; defended people from the scourge of police violence that killed Breonna Taylor and many others; defended people from the racial pandemic within the viral pandemic; defended people from voter-subtraction policies and the tyrants behind them.
Both souls can breathe in every single one of us, in our institutions, in our nation. Remixing W. E. B. Du Bois, America ever “feels this twoness”—justice, injustice—“two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one” body politic, “whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
There have been many battles between the souls of America on many issues. Both souls—the soul of justice, the soul of injustice—were there at the founding, in the 1770s and ’80s. They battled during the Continental Congresses. They battled in the First Congress. The soul of injustice defeated the soul of justice with the battle cry of “necessary evil” by the end of the 18th century. But the defeated soul of justice battled on in the shadows of history. In an 1844 letter to his fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass called for a “great moral and religious movement” that involved “the quickening and enlightening of the dead conscience of the nation into life, and to a sense of the gross injustice, fraud, wrong and inhumanity of enslaving their fellow-men,—the fixing in the soul of the nation an invincible abhorrence of the whole system of slaveholding.”
Instead, racist Americans compromised on manacled bodies again in 1850, as they had in 1820 in Missouri, as they had at the founding in Philadelphia. The Civil War, which started as an effort to put the soul of injustice back in its slaveholding place, transformed into a battle between the souls of the nation. The soul of justice won the Civil War but lost the battle. The soul of injustice defeated the soul of justice with the battle cry of “separate but equal” by the end of the 19th century. But once again, the soul of justice battled on in the shadows of history.
Then came the Great Migration, and a New Deal for some of those who migrated north, and the great Ella Baker and Rosa Parks. Lawyers like Thurgood Marshall took the soul of injustice to the Supreme Court, and preachers like Martin Luther King Jr. chose “to save the soul of America,” the motto of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, newly formed in 1957.
The soul of justice won the civil-rights movement but yet again lost the battle. Once again, racist Americans imposed a compromise, conjuring a Black criminal menace rather than acknowledging the continued crime of racist policies leading to racial inequity. The soul of injustice defeated the soul of justice with the battle cry of “color-blind” by the end of the 20th century.
Then came the movement for Barack Obama, the Movement for Black Lives, the movement for anti-racism. Then came the movement for Trump, the movement for law and order, the movement for white supremacy. Both movements were powerful. Both movements were mainstream. Both movements were never turning back. All Americans were gripped by one or the other, or both: the movement for the soul of justice, and the movement for the soul of injustice.
But Democrats, independents, and Republicans who religiously believe the myth of the pure American soul are not about to consider that we have had two souls, that we have seen a battle between slaveholders and abolitionists, Confederates and Unionists, red shirts and civil-rights activists, red hats and Black Lives Matter protesters. The two souls are not prime material for political campaigns.
Myths well tailored to common beliefs win political campaigns. During the 2012 presidential primaries, the Republican hopeful Mitt Romney said, “This is an election about the soul of America,” at a campaign stop in Iowa in January. A month later, in Denver, Romney proclaimed: “I have said over and over that this campaign is more about changing the soul of America or protecting the soul of America—saving the soul of America—than it is about changing a president.”
Romney prematurely abandoned the rhetoric after he received the Republican nomination. Many white Americans, in particular, really did believe that the first Black president was poisoning their nation’s soul. They answered Trump’s call to make America great again in 2016. Four years later, many Americans believed that Trump was poisoning their nation, and answered Biden’s call to restore the soul of the nation.
In his Republican National Convention speech on August 27, Trump mocked his opponent: “Joe Biden is not a savior of America’s soul. He is the destroyer of America’s jobs, and if given the chance, he will be the destroyer of America’s greatness.”
The next day, the Trump campaign released a video with clips of DNC speakers’ invocations of the nation’s soul mixed with discrediting images from the summer’s demonstrations. “Save America’s Soul,” the video blared.
In the end, the souls animating both the red hats and the honking cars want a restoration—they want things to go back to normal. In the end, they will all be disappointed. There’s no saving America’s soul. There's no restoring the soul. There's no fighting for the soul of America. There’s no uniting the souls of America. There is only fighting off the other soul of America.
Obama and Trump did not poison the American soul any more than Biden can heal it. Trump battled for the soul of injustice, and the voters sent him home. Soon, President Biden can battle for the soul of justice.
Our past breaths do not bind our future breaths. I can battle for the soul of justice. And so can you. And so can we. Like our ancestors, for our children. We can change the world for Gianna Floyd. We can—once and for all—win the battle between the souls of America.
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