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Joe Biden’s lavishly produced new three-minute ad (tagged “Bones” because the voiceover begins with “We know in our bones…”) features a Chyroned line that may well become his campaign’s official or unofficial slogan: “restore the soul of a nation.” The ad opens with images of marching Klansmen, then quickly pivots to reassuring images of the former veep with Obama and to Uncle Joe’s good poll numbers. It’s predictable high-budget work, predictable in part because we know in our bones what Biden is up to.
Earlier Biden videos and some of his live campaign pitches seemed to be testing out the “healing the soul” concept. In the video announcing his run, Biden also ran footage of the neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville before turning to the camera to intone “and that’s why I’m running…” In that introductory video Biden refers to the Trump years as an “aberration,” thereby suggesting that a Biden Administration would represent a “return to normalcy” (to use the dreadful phrase coined by Warren G. Harding’s campaign).
Just two (or maybe three) points worth noting about Biden’s use of “soul of a nation” rhetoric:
1. We don’t know the current condition of the nation’s “soul,” but we do have many hints regarding this matter that are unsettling, to say the least. If our “soul” were fully intact, would we even have Trump running things right now? The new ad is clearly intended to shut down any actual reflection on this point and to associate voting for Biden with making your worries go away. Replace a scary old white man with a (more) benign one. What could be simpler?
2. Treating Trump and Trumpism under the “aberration” category is dangerously misleading (also something else that many of us know in our bones). Trump’s specific behaviors in the office he holds are certainly aberrant, but the white rage he both personifies and that he carefully cultivates is hardly an aberrant thing in our national experience. Charles King’s helpful new history reminds us that as recently as a century ago American elites all agreed that this is a “white man’s country.” Should it surprise anyone that non-elite whites never got the academy’s memo announcing that all of this hierarchical thinking is totally bogus?
3. Given that he has such a very long record in public life (a history that includes his association with segregationist legislators, his attacks on school busing, his use of racist “tough on crime” rhetoric, his role in pushing through the 1994 crime bill, and his shameless treatment of Anita Hill), Joe Biden is just about the last person who should be talking about fighting for the soul of the nation. “Gaffe” is surely far too mild a word to describe the most recent verbalized emanation from Biden’s own soul. To wit: “poor kids are just as bright as white kids.”
It hardly needs saying that the new ad is in part designed to patch things up between Biden and communities of color that, for good reason, feel especially exposed in this moment. I don’t think it’s going to work. Black communities in particular are not likely to be persuaded. For one thing, Black people have long doubted whether white America even has a soul. Nevertheless, and thanks in part to a level of religious devotion that most white people can’t even begin to imagine, Black folk have likewise always been able to answer Jeremiah’s question, Is there no balm in Gilead? in the affirmative.
Too bad for Joe that what they have in mind by way of healing balm is not him.