The country does deserve unity and healing following the Trump presidency, but they won’t come from ignoring the destruction that has transpired. Accountability—a public reckoning for Trump and those who enabled his abuses—is the way forward. One path is prosecution, which can provide punishment to perpetrators. But another, complementary approach is truth commissions, which center on the voices and experiences of victims.
Imagine a commission convened to investigate family separations and the administration’s policies forcing people seeking asylum in the United States to wait in dangerous, squalid conditions in Mexico. This investigation could seek not only to hear testimony from the victims, but also to understand how the recent history of American immigration law and policy enabled these horrors. The value of a truth commission, in part, would be in establishing a common public understanding of the Trump administration and the damage it caused, without which the nation will not be able to move in a new direction. Other potential subjects for such a commission include the administration’s embrace of lies about the integrity of American elections, leading to the attack on the Capitol, and its catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic.
From the October 2020 issue: America’s plastic hour is upon us
Truth commissions are particularly well suited to addressing societies divided not merely by political differences but by wholly different understandings of history, as ours is. They gained prominence in the latter half of the 20th century as a means by which countries emerging from periods of violence or political upheaval could come to grips with past abuses. Commissions typically seek to provide victims of wrongdoing with an opportunity to speak and be heard, and to find the public respect and recognition they have been denied. As Kelebogile Zvobgo, a political scientist who studies truth commissions at William & Mary, told me, the violence in the Capitol showcased exactly the “lack of shared understanding of past and present” that makes a commission necessary.
The most widely used definition of a truth commission comes from the human-rights scholar Priscilla Hayner, a senior mediation adviser for the United Nations. Commissions, Hayner writes in her book Unspeakable Truths, are temporary bodies established by the government to study past abuses, rather than monitor an ongoing crisis. They tend to focus on patterns of abuse over time—long histories of racialized violence, for example—rather than isolated events. “The past is an argument,” writes the Canadian author and politician Michael Ignatieff, “and the function of truth commissions … is simply to purify the argument, to narrow the range of permissible lies.”
Some scholars contend that, in order to constitute a truth commission, the process must be linked with a political transition: the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, perhaps the most prominent example of such an organization, was formed at the end of apartheid. In recent years, though, some established democracies—such as Canada and several American states—have also begun to make use of commissions in facing the uglier aspects of their pasts. In 2013, Maine created the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission to study the state’s removal of Wabanaki children from their families beginning in the 1970s. And in 2019, the government of Maryland established a body dedicated to investigating the history of racist lynchings across the state from 1854 to 1933. Arguably, the first—and only—national truth commission in the U.S. was established in 1980, to examine the World War II–era internment of Japanese Americans. More recently, members of Congress have put forward proposals for truth commissions to deal with legacies of racial violence against Black Americans and other people of color, along with policies that forced Native American children to attend boarding schools away from their communities.