On Saturday evening, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris gave their victory speeches, reminding Americans and the world what a political leader can sound like: thoughtful rather than ignorant, authoritative rather than arrogant, empathetic rather than callous. They promised healing and spoke of unity. The allure of normalcy was immense.
Biden is poised to take office following the most divisive and destructive Presidency in memory. Speaking to his supporters’ collective desire to leave behind the nightmare of the past four years, he promised to end “this grim era of demonization.” He stressed that, in choosing him, a majority of Americans opted to “marshal the forces of decency and the forces of fairness. To marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope”—the forces of everything good, reliable, and familiar that can help us shake the feeling of living in an unstable and unrelentingly dark reality. Biden promised to “restore the soul of America.”
The soul of America has been battered by a hateful and lying President, by a government intent on destroying itself, and, when the covid-19 pandemic struck, by a government that demonstratively rejected the value of human life. The Trump Administration taught Americans that no one will take care of us, our parents, and our children, because our lives are worthless, disposable. It has taught Americans that this country is a dangerous place. The President kept telling us that we are at risk of being murdered by illegal aliens or overrun by violent protesters—while our lived experience showed us that we are forever on the brink of disaster and that no one will protect us, whether from illness or economic hardship. Even now, Trump, in refusing to accept electoral defeat, has continued to try to bully reality into submission.
How can the soul of a country be healed after this kind of trauma? We are certainly not the first society to face this question. Relative to other times and other places, our trauma of the past four years looks small. This time of living with a cruel, ignorant leader was blessedly brief. Other countries have had to recover from tyranny and totalitarianism, from gulags, disappearances, and genocide—and the United States has its own unaddressed legacies of enslavement and colonization that ultimately overshadow Trumpism. Our current transition is no ordinary transfer of power: in reversing Trump’s autocratic attempt, voters have chosen between two fundamentally different political futures. The broad lessons of societies that have undergone major transitions apply to us. In general, these societies have had to choose between two paths: the path of reckoning and the path of forgetting.
The arguments in favor of forgetting are always at our fingertips. They were intelligible in Biden’s and Harris’s victory speeches. “To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy,” Biden said. The fear of divisiveness—and the sheer exhaustion that divisive politics breeds—easily translates into the desire to let sleeping dogs lie. In the early nineteen-nineties, the first Russian constitutional court of the post-Soviet era scrambled a planned public trial of the Communist Party, and many of the country’s leaders called on the people to let bygones be bygones. Their motivation was largely pragmatic. A real reckoning would have swept up everyone who had any government experience, leaving the bureaucracy understaffed; it also would have cut through families and communities, exposing past sins. Finally, a reckoning, whether in the courts or in the media, was bound to sap energy and attention; Boris Yeltsin’s government wanted to show a better way, one that would have rendered the past irrelevant. That plan didn’t work. Within a few years, as old divisions turned into unbridgeable chasms, the history of Soviet totalitarianism, left unexamined, gave way to all-encompassing nostalgia.
America’s crimes against itself are not on par with Russia’s, but the arguments that are already taking shape are similar: we should focus on the future, not dwell in the past; we shouldn’t play into Trump and some of his conspiracy-minded followers’ persecution narrative; we long for a news cycle liberated from Trumpism. In the past half century—starting with Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, continuing through Al Gore’s ceding of the Presidential election to George W. Bush, and up to, for now, Barack Obama’s decision not to investigate the crimes of the Bush Administration—American political culture turned forgiving and forgetting first into a virtue and then into a fetish. A reckoning would require a future Biden Administration to dispense with this tradition. A reckoning may take different forms—investigations, hearings, trials, public assemblies—but it must be a national project, not the heroic quest of a lone federal prosecutor, state attorney general, or investigative reporter. The Administration would have to lead it, and would have to accept that its policies and actions need to share the front pages, for some time, with an examination of Trump’s four years in office.
Consider the consequences of choosing against a reckoning—what we would leave in place by choosing not to look back. Republican lawmakers who enabled Trump, some of whom are refusing to recognize the results of the election, will likely continue to hold and win office. Executive-branch employees will continue to publish tell-all memoirs and secure appointments at think tanks and colleges as they await the next Republican Administration. In other words, they will continue to be members in good-enough standing of the political élite, demonstrating that political power in the U.S. confers a lasting immunity from prosecution and public reproach. Or, as Trump once memorably put it, “And when you are a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
As for the rest of us, if we choose to move forward without a reckoning, we move into the future lugging the trauma: the trauma of four years of seeing and hearing a President who makes us feel ashamed of looking and listening; the trauma, for many immigrants, of fearing for themselves and their children, and, for nonimmigrants, of being complicit in the war on immigrants; the trauma of observing a First Family that appears to use the government as an annex to its own private enterprise; the trauma of seeing friends and family get sick and die in a pandemic, the effects of which could have been ameliorated; the trauma of half the country, led by the President, denying the existence of a deadly disease and refusing to protect themselves and others; the trauma of seeing American troops used against protesters; the trauma of hearing a President address calls for a reckoning with structural racism by fanning racist hatred; the trauma of feeling helpless in our outrage. The election does not wash away this pain, anger, fear, and helplessness, especially because this election was by no means a landslide: looking at the percentages of the popular vote cast for each candidate, one could conclude that this was just a normal electoral contest. It was not.
For all the trauma that humanity has managed to inflict upon itself, we know remarkably little about recovering from it. Psychologists and psychiatrists who specialize in collective, rather than individual, trauma are rare birds. But one approach that people who study collective trauma favor is called narrative therapy. A few years ago, when I was researching a book on totalitarian trauma in Russia, I spent time with some of the originators of this approach, at the Dulwich Centre, in Adelaide, Australia. Their work, which has included indigenous communities in Australia, has been applied all over the world. The approach involves a number of methods, including storytelling, letter-writing and rituals. People may tell what they did and what was done to them, they may tell their stories repeatedly in specific settings and formats, and they may produce a record of the telling. This approach accomplishes several goals. By creating new rituals, it gives voice to people who have not been heard in public. By focussing on the acts of telling and listening, it may challenge assumptions about justice as the act of meting out punishment. By involving a larger public, some of the people who work on collective trauma seek to address the issue of moral injury. In the framework of collective trauma, moral injury has been inflicted on society as a whole, not only on the victims but also on the perpetrators and the bystanders—not in the same way, to be sure, and not in equal measure, but it is all of society that has been injured. The goal of reckoning is moral restoration.
Anticipating the end of the Trump Presidency, some people have suggested that we should create truth-and-reconciliation commissions to deal with its legacy. My colleague Jill Lepore, writing in the Washington Post, called this “a terrible idea.” She argued that the Trump Administration’s “wrongdoing—a litany that includes corruption, fomenting insurrection, separating parents and children at the border, and violently suppressing political dissent—should be investigated by journalists, chronicled by historians and, in some instances, tried in ordinary courts.” In other words, she argued, American democracy would be best served by treating the Trump Presidency as a bad version of an ordinary political occurrence—a President unseated by voters and evaluated by regular institutions. (Lepore favors truth-and-reconciliation commissions for dealing with longer and deeper traumas of American society, such as the legacies of enslavement and colonization.) Responding to Lepore, in The Nation, Elie Mystal argued that existing institutions cannot be entrusted entirely with the task of reckoning, because all of these institutions have “in some way failed” over the past four years; their complicity would have to be part of the reckoning. Some of the failures of the Trump Administration, Mystal wrote, such as the negligence that caused the deaths of tens of thousands from covid-19, exceed the scale of malfeasance that can be prosecuted through regular channels. Past decisions to move on, to stay the hand of vengeance—such as the Obama Administration’s decision not to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate illegal detentions during the George W. Bush Administration—were mistakes that are partly responsible for our current predicament.
I think that Lepore and Mystal are both right. Part of what distinguishes our current situation is that the institutions of state have not been entirely corrupted, and the people who have suffered grave injury have not been rendered entirely voiceless. We don’t need to invent an entirely new set of rituals, because some existing institutions provide them. A reckoning may include congressional hearings, special-counsel investigations, court proceedings, town halls, journalistic projects, truth-and-reconciliation commissions, and some yet-to-be-invented formats. All of these are ritualized ways to acknowledge and document the injury, to tell stories—and to tell these stories not in the company of your closest friends and family, who have heard them before, but in public, before an audience of people, some of whom are very different from you. The act of speaking across differences is what makes such processes political. It is also what gives them their healing potential. The question is whether we, as a nation, opt for a reckoning with Trumpism, and whether a future Biden Administration assumes the responsibility of guiding the nation through it.
Public rituals of telling the stories of the Trump era would be healing because they would insure that people are heard. They would create accountability and transparency, not necessarily by handing out criminal punishment but by exacting a reputational cost that might keep people who lied for Trump away from prestigious fellowships, and people who worked with Trump and broke the law out of government and think tanks. Most important, they would force us to ask the question of what made the Trump Presidency possible.
In a brief talk that was recorded this summer, the New York psychologist Jack Saul, who studies collective trauma, made what he called “a moral proposal” for national healing. He proposed a sequence of rituals: the rituals of remembrance, the rituals of grieving, the “rituals of protest to assert our basic values, and rituals of envisioning the future that we would like to attain and what we must become in order to inhabit the new world.” Put more simply, we have to talk about what happened and about how we go on living in such a way that it doesn’t happen again. Of course, this process can’t succeed as long as nearly equal numbers of Americans live in two non-intersecting realities. But such a process is also our best hope for reclaiming a shared reality. When you have a deep, festering wound, you do not heal it by pretending there was no injury: you clean it out, and then you stitch it up.