At the time we spoke, I was wrapping up my new book about the Trump-era Democratic Party and the 2020 presidential campaign, which I’d been working on for four years. As I moved us off small talk and into questions, I told Biden that my editor and I had just settled on the title Battle for the Soul. It was inspired by a line that Biden had delivered repeatedly on the campaign trail, introduced in an essay for The Atlantic he wrote after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville: “We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation.”
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Biden chuckled for a second, a short laugh of sarcastic disbelief. “The difference between you and me, pal,” he said, “is I actually believe it.”
“No,” I replied, “I think you may have been onto something.”
“Everybody in the press thought that the party had moved, that I was from another era, that it wasn’t relevant. ‘What the hell are you talking about, “the soul of America”? For Christ’s sake, Joe, talk about global warming,’ or whatever the hell they wanted me to talk about,” Biden said. “But back then, what I saw with Trump was he didn’t understand anything about who we are as a people.” Biden rattled off his objections to Trump: “His transparent selfishness, his willingness to say anything, his overwhelming appeal to prejudice and division. He didn’t have any social redeeming value, as far as I can see.” Biden acknowledged that he had misjudged how many Americans would buy into Trump’s politics, including his eventual claim that the 2020 election was stolen: “I underestimated his ability to take the big lie and turn it into something that was salable.”
Had the Democratic Party been prepared for the 2020 campaign? I asked Biden. No, he replied. Democrats hadn’t appreciated how much of a challenge Trump posed to the fiber of America itself: “The people who built the country are the people who are all being left behind. When that happens, and you don’t have a counter-voice to The reason you lost your job is because of an immigrant; the reason you lost that job is because those Black folks are taking your job—it opens up the door to the Charlottesvilles of the world.” He echoed something that he’d said right after the attack on the Capitol, back when he was still president-elect: “There’s a direct line between Charlottesville and January 6.”
Still, at the time of our conversation, Biden hadn’t written off the GOP. When we spoke, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming hadn’t yet been kicked out of GOP congressional leadership for calling out the former president’s lies about the election. Biden was early into his negotiations over the Democrats’ first COVID-19 relief bill, and believed that he could still get a few Republicans in Congress to support him. (In the end, the American Rescue Plan passed without a single Republican vote in the House or the Senate.) Were there really deals to be made with the Republicans who had voted to overturn the election results on January 6—after law enforcement had chased the rioters out of the Capitol building?