As the United States moves into a new era of governance with a divided Congress and a new Presidential administration under Joe Biden, calls for unity and moving on from the era of Trumpism have reached a fever pitch. The desperation among many for the normalcy of moderate government in the aftermath of the unconscionable catastrophe of the Trump presidency is, in many ways, an understandable reaction to the collective trauma with which we now must grapple; Joe Biden has built his campaign and his self-managed transition on the idea of the nation “coming together as Americans.” But while nostalgia for a principled, unified past as the basis for future progress is superficially comforting, the reality of the moment demands something else entirely: a reconciliation with the very hard truth that through deep systemic failure, our nation gave near-absolute power to an unqualified, narcissistic, criminal sociopath and, true to his brutal, self-interested nature, he set about the task of dismantling our society, fracturing it into a million pieces. Our ideals are now a broken mirror, shards that reflect deep, longstanding problems which demand redress.
When we think about trauma, we often resort to our understanding of the psychological impacts of violence, repression, and targeting on individuals, a subjective experience based on their personal relationship to the trauma inflicted, wherein the experiences of black men will be different from immigrant children will be different from transwomen and men, etc. Each individual action of repression has a profound impact on each individual person and in this way, our collective ability to deal with the consequences of Trumpism, an ongoing, emboldened cultural identity that only two weeks ago inspired a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, will require specific action that begins-and only begins- with accountability for those responsible.
But with Trump’s intentional, disastrous failure at dealing with COVID-19 demanding a massive amount of time, money, and social will, there is a real fear that the need to finally confront the pandemic will supersede the necessary reckoning with trauma not only for individuals who have suffered, but for our nation. Already, Republican Trumpist collaborators are threatening that any attempt to bring consequences to bear on those responsible for this sustained attack on our democracy should be rejected in the name of “national healing“, an idea that stands more as a threat than a call for reconciliation. But American needs a bigger, better idea; Trumpism must be systematically dismantled and removed, without compromise, from every legitimate corner of American politics, because Trumpism has proven itself to be wholly incompatible with democracy.
The well-documented phenomenon of social amnesia is a real concern, the “result of ‘forcible repression’ of memories, ignorance, changing circumstances, or the forgetting that comes from changing interests.” The battle for how we remember, process, understand, and overcome the trauma of Trumpism will define how we triumph over it. The first and most crucial step in the formalization of post-traumatic collective memory is to invest in transparency and truth. Troublingly, the failure of the state to restrain Trumpism will require those responsible for this failure to expose their own shortcomings. We know how that will likely go.
Transparency begins with Joe Biden, and yet his calls for unity and the focus on his agenda has frustratingly ignored the lingering impact of the trauma of the Trumpist years. Biden has laughed off Trump and ignored every ridiculous indignity, instead focusing on building his own transition process with seriousness and determination. And though sustaining a transition while an unstable President completely unravels into a pile of self-pitying inaction may be a survival tactic to carry the nation to Inauguration Day, Biden’s refusal to take the need for consequences seriously, his laughing disdain for Trumpist theatrics, feels like one more dismissal of our shared trauma. I’m not sure he understands how deeply the nation has been injured. We need to be heard, to be understood, and to share in the validation and legitimization of our experience. After years of gaslighting and the demolition of belief in the ability of our institutions to stand up to their debasement at the hands of Trump, we need more than just the truth; we must demand that our shared experience is validated and, most importantly, we must see vindication for our belief that our system is still capable of delivering equal justice under the law.
Depending on how the next few months go, how much information is made public and how many crimes go unremarked upon, Biden’s failure to acknowledge the nation’s wounds could be a destructive, foundational mistake that seeks to appease a movement hell-bent on establishing authoritarian, antidemocratic power in the hands of Trumpist Republicans. As Trump’s disingenuous claims of “election fraud” have ricocheted through public life, the climactic lie of a years-long assault on truth without a single meaningful consequence, the scope of the challenge facing the nation remains daunting; the very freedoms upon which we define our nation have been weaponized and turned against us by a movement that sees freedom solely as a lack of consequence and restraint for powerful Trumpists. And now that institutional power has somehow survived the assault and miraculously shifted, Trumpists are asking us to put the past aside, to forget and move on. Joe Biden seems to want the same.
This would, of course, be a catastrophic mistake. Our collective survival and healing depends on not forgetting. We must remember everything, we must not let to go. We must instead experience the catharsis of justice.