Don’t Move On Just Yet

Illustration of a far-seeing eye
Getty / The Atlantic

Until the day that a violent mob stormed the Capitol building, it seemed possible that Donald Trump would be able to shuffle into postpresidential life without facing any real consequences. President-elect Joe Biden had indicated his anxiety over a potential prosecution of the former president. Commentators muttered about the political divisiveness of pursuing Trump after he left office. Better, perhaps, to look forward, not backward, as President Barack Obama famously said of potential lawbreaking under the Bush administration.

Then, after being egged on by the president on January 6, pro-Trump rioters broke into the Capitol and terrorized staffers and members of Congress. The House of Representatives impeached Trump a second time—setting in motion a process that, if successful, could bar him from seeking the presidency in 2024. According to The New York Times, the overwhelming mood of Democratic politicians and activists lurched toward support for investigations, prosecutions, and other forms of accountability. As law enforcement continued searching for rioters, the very same Republican politicians who had earlier been stoking chaos frantically backpedaled, issuing statements calling for “unity” and “healing.”

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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.

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.

Weeks before the election, the historian Jill Lepore argued that the idea of a truth commission after Trump would minimize those earlier, historical wrongs: “Coming to terms with centuries of dispossession, enslavement and racial violence is a very different matter from reckoning with four years of a democratically elected president,” she wrote in The Washington Post. This underestimates the predation of the Trump administration—especially given that the Republican Party has now tossed aside its commitment to democratic elections going forward. But rather than separating Trump’s abuses from “centuries of dispossession,” an American truth commission might be better conceptualized as an investigation beginning with Trump and stretching backward. In many ways, Trump represents something genuinely new and warped, but he is also an extension of the uglier parts of the country’s character. “You’d need to contextualize Trump as part of the through line” of abuses over history, Zvobgo told me.

The most obvious way to establish an independent commission would be through the legislative branch: the federal investigation into Japanese American internment was created by an act of Congress. But that commission had support from both Democrats and Republicans, a notion that seems far-fetched now. Even if Democrats manage to somehow push through a bill along a razor-thin majority—or if a commission were established by other means, perhaps an executive order—a post-Trump investigation pursued along partisan lines could be doomed from the start. This is the irony: The exact conditions that led to and sustained the Trump era—white grievance, a polluted media ecosystem, and political polarization—are the same conditions that will likely prevent a truth commission from succeeding.

These problems are already apparent. Right-wing commentators have compared suggestions for a truth commission to threats of “totalitarianism” and “the guillotine.” It’s all too easy to imagine how Fox News and Newsmax would turn Trump supporters against even the most painstakingly fair commission—and how former administration officials could use this fury as a cover for refusing to testify, denying commissioners the participation they would need from perpetrators in order to succeed. A truth commission may be needed now in America to reestablish what Ignatieff calls “the range of permissible lies” about the country’s history, but how it would work is hard to see, precisely because so many liars have stopped asking for permission.

“I just don’t think the country is ready” for a truth commission, Adam Kochanski, who studies transitional justice at McGill University, told me. In his view, the political divisions are too deep: “A lot of groundwork needs to be laid first in order for a truth-commission process to be successful and for the truth to stick.” Before a national truth commission can be possible, Kochanski told me, work needs to be done around restoring trust in government and “reestablishing truth.”

Even so, “there’s never a ‘good time’ for transitional justice,” Zvobgo argued to me in the aftermath of the riot. “We just need to go for it.” Likewise, when I first spoke with him shortly after the November election, Joshua Inwood told me that a national truth commission is “probably a long shot.” An associate geography professor at Penn State University, where he has studied American truth commissions at the local and regional levels, Inwood found that U.S. commissions tend to do best when they enjoy strong grassroots support—which would be challenging to organize countrywide. When we spoke again after the Capitol riot, he remained cautious about the feasibility of a national truth commission, but felt that such an organization could help Americans “at least begin to have conversations about a shared set of facts and a shared reality.”

If a truth commission does not emerge, other strategies exist for ensuring that wrongdoing is not forgotten. After the Capitol riot, a surge of energy has poured into shunning the Republican politicians who egged on the violence. Commentators have suggested that figures such as Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley be shunned for their role in precipitating the siege of the Capitol, and home-state newspapers are calling on the legislators to resign. The day after the riot, Simon & Schuster announced that it would no longer publish Hawley’s upcoming book.

Social sanctions such as these are powerful in their own right, argues the political theorist Jacob T. Levy. After the 2019 resignation of Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen—who was crucial in implementing the family-separation policy—the Niskanen Center, where Levy is a fellow, announced that it would refuse to associate with Nielsen or any organization that gave her an institutional home. Such shunning is “an important fallback when official impunity has been granted,” wrote Levy in the months before the election. His view is that, at a minimum, officials who engage in abuses of power “should not have their time in office counted in their favor by any institution making any decision about conferring status and prestige.”

“It will take serious effort to shape the understanding of the election into ‘Trump was specifically rejected, for good reason that we should remember,’” Levy told me over email. “Without some widespread and visible ongoing rejection of those who served in the Trump administration, I don’t think we get any norm-rebuilding at all, just pious hopes.” A truth commission, he said, could help provide a documentary record to supplement that process, but the work ahead remains the same.

And then, there is the question of prosecutions—a possibility that might have seemed far-fetched before January 6, but now appears somewhat plausible. Biden told reporters in August that prosecuting a former president would be “probably not very … good for democracy.” Yet Trump’s recent dangerous behavior undercuts one of the key arguments against, at a bare minimum, looking into possible criminality on the president’s part, not to mention that of other officials who may have committed crimes. As my colleague Paul Rosenzweig wrote in The Atlantic, “the promise not to prosecute after a term ends is part of the price we pay for the routine peaceful transition of power”—but now that Trump has already broken his side of the bargain, why make that payment?

For this reason, justified investigations of Trump and his associates would help support the Biden administration’s effort to redraw the lines of what is and isn’t acceptable, and recommit the country to the much-battered principle that no one is above the law. And if a case ended up in court, it would set out the truth of Trump’s actions in the judicial record in black and white. This is a different form of justice than that offered by a truth commission, but it is also a form of healing, a way of saying that Trump’s vision of America is not the only way for the country to be.

In the short run, any of these measures could risk making the country’s social and political divisions worse.  Republican lawmakers have threatened as much with their arguments that any efforts to hold them accountable for the Capitol riot would be divisive. Yet that may matter less than it seems. Truth commissions are often referred to as “truth and reconciliation commissions,” but, Zvobgo told me, scholars have begun to split truth from peacemaking in recent years. “Truth can be a foundation,” Zvobgo said, “for education, commemoration, trials, reparations”—all worth pursuing in and of themselves, whether or not reconciliation results. Reconciliation that forfeits truth is not a trade worth making in the United States today. No solid foundation can be built from forgetting. The challenge will be to avoid the temptation of polite forgetfulness and insist instead on acknowledging and uncovering what happened under Trump, and who was responsible.