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.
Ibram X. Kendi: The American nightmare
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.