For many Americans, the Trump presidency gave us a daily dose of depravity we willingly subjected ourselves to in the hopes that our informed outrage would somehow, in the long run, matter. The trivialization, the obscenity, the misogyny, the smug logic of white supremacy, the juvenile character national politics took on throughout this time, the erosion of dignity of office, the vulgarization of language in the media and in the congressional chambers themselves are things we recorded carefully in an effort to preserve our sense of sanity and reality.
Slowly, steadily, we watched the erosion of language morph into a state of cacophony in which objective fact became replaced with alternative narratives among which, it was implied, one could freely choose. We were alert and alarmed, yet we knew that, inevitably, through the sheer force of habit, we would eventually grow accustomed to a dangerous buffoon occupying the country’s highest office. And while losing this sense of alarm was the most alarming prospect of all, because it seemed that our understanding of reality itself was about to undergo an insidious and potentially irreversible change, the challenge now is to resist the urge to put it all behind us.
We’ve come to regard many of the more egregious acts that have been committed both on and behind the political stage of the previous administration as contemporary phenomena, but it’s worth taking a short detour to locate them in a larger historical context. Recently, while studying the correspondence between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, I was struck by the words McCarthy chose to address what appears to have been, to her mind, the emergence of precisely these phenomena in America nearly seventy years ago:
The Nixon success, if it’s really serious, is too horribly Orwellian to contemplate; it would mean that mass society is a reality, which nobody here, even those who have denounced its symptoms, really has ever believed except in talk. The idea that people are influenced, not by their passions or interests, but by advertising techniques, i.e., by mass-conditioning, blows all my conceptions of U.S. life sky-high. If this is true, if Nixon actually “put it over,” it seems to me in a way more terrifying than any of the successes of Nazi or Soviet propaganda, which after all are based on something, on deteriorated ideologies, national interests, primitive mysticism, and on the fact of a dictatorship. (October, 1952)
McCarthy was referring to (then Republican candidate for vice president) Nixon’s “Checkers Speech,” in which he addressed allegations of impropriety in handling funds to cover campaign expenses; the speech, seen and heard by 60 million people, the largest televised audience until that time, rescued his spot on the Eisenhower ticket, which went on to win the election a few weeks later. McCarthy was appalled by what she saw as the blatant manipulation of verifiable truth through unprecedented technological means: as quaint as it might seem to us today, it was the advent of a new and powerful force that was no longer reliant on demonstrable fact and could sway mass opinion, even if the likely results ran counter to the public good.
Since that time, we’ve grown used to, and calloused by, the colossal role the mass media play in falsifying reality. McCarthy, however, was writing from a position where these things were still, frighteningly, new. The first time we perceive it, the ramifications of a previously inconceivable phenomenon are cast in particularly sharp relief: it’s the moment we become aware of something we’re not yet prepared to accept as real, even as its inevitable consequences become chillingly clear. McCarthy went on to write extensively about the Vietnam War and Watergate, and her subsequent political analysis was informed by an understanding that these new tools of mass manipulation had already, irrevocably, changed the game. For the most part, however, we seem to have overlooked that the recent pathological expression of this—the role social media played throughout the four years of the Trump presidency and will continue to play in shaping American politics—is not as new as we claim it to be, but a logical consequence of where we’ve been headed for quite some time.
American history is rife with violence and suffering that it has failed to adequately address or come to terms with: the transatlantic slave trade; the centuries of genocide inflicted on the native tribes; the AIDS epidemic; racism, lynchings, police brutality, and the privatization of the prison industry; and the ubiquity of assault weapons and mass shootings being some of the more obvious examples. As we consider these, it’s important to distinguish between the trauma of the victim and the less relatable trauma of the perpetrator; that while afflicted groups struggle to forge narratives to define themselves vis-à-vis a catastrophe or chain of catastrophic events, those responsible are busy suppressing or reframing the evidence of their complicity.
In Germany, the trauma of the aggressor consists in undeniable guilt—with all the violence done to the collective psyche in the form of calamitous moral rupture and shame—and it became, over time, a defining reference of cultural identity. In the US, on the other hand, a persistent self-identification with a glorified national narrative has largely prevented a reckoning with the darker chapters of American history—but guilt has a way of finding its way to the surface.
In the 1990s, trauma theory, most notably that of Cathy Caruth, Judith Herman, Shoshana Felman, and Kirby Farrell, expanded the literary criticism of cultural trauma—based as it was on the Holocaust and the psychological interpretations of its aftermath—to encompass a broader range of subsequent political events that have greatly impacted contemporary society. Caruth drew on the neurological insights of Bessel van der Kolk to assert that trauma, because it so overwhelms the psyche’s capacity for normal perception and memory formation, remains unassimilated and takes its place outside language. The result is a blind spot that is essentially unknown to the traumatized individual, who nevertheless compulsively reenacts it in the form of flashbacks, involuntary bodily responses, phobic reactions, deluded ideation, etc.
While the biological metaphor—the notion that the mechanisms of individual trauma and its somatization can be applied to the pathological symptoms of the larger social body—is not a code for deciphering every troubling feature of the culture, it can nonetheless be instrumental for analyzing phenomena that otherwise defy interpretation, including the enabling fictions that American society, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary, creates to reinforce its fundamental beliefs about itself and to justify itself when its behavior transgresses its own declared moral boundaries.
For the post-war generation, the Kennedy assassination has generally been viewed as the marking point for a loss of innocence. For my generation, it was undoubtedly September 11. We all remember where we were the moment we learned the news, but the history of trauma is also marked by periodic amnesia as the subconscious continues to express the shock of the wound in myriad obsessive and inventive ways. One of the many curious examples in the post-9/11 period, apart from “imposter syndrome” (individuals claiming to have survived the attacks on the Twin Towers who were not in New York that day), was the sudden appearance of military vehicles on American streets at the time, all the Hummers and Jeeps enlisted for civilian purposes.
Apparently, the unexpected revelation of our weakness and vulnerability—this obvious demonstration that we were not, in fact, omnipotent—was so disturbing to some that they needed to feel protected in a hyper-militarized bubble as they purchased their groceries or picked their kids up from school and looked the other way as the US invaded countries uninvolved in the planning of the attacks.
If the effect of trauma is to forget what we once knew, our everyday actions—the way we move, our gestures and speech—carry echoes of things we can’t or don’t want to face. Thus, it’s the minor aberrations—the occasional stutter, the tic or tremor—that betray us when the mind trips over something it is unwilling or powerless to see. So while we catch our breath as Biden and Harris clean up the mess left behind by a singularly destructive presidency, what are the symptoms we’re exhibiting today?
America has a deeply problematic relationship with its own history; in the absence of a relationship with the past based on historical fact, we rely instead on the myths we’ve created around ourselves: our exceptionalism, our superior strength, our inherent moral goodness, our natural right to dominate and our will to politically and culturally prevail.
The Trump narrative was one of reclaiming waning glory; his populist motto—“Make America Great Again”—implied that the country somehow understood that its superpower status had been slowly and steadily eroding. Pathological patriotism became the answer to America’s culpability during the series of endless wars in the Middle East and the long-term destabilization that followed; a resurgence in white supremacism to the incontrovertible evidence of systematized racism and police brutality.
A far-right Christian conservatism aggressively continues to advance policies that diametrically oppose its core religious beliefs, while the authority of the traditional press, an institution necessary to maintain democracy, has been dangerously undermined in ways it may never recover from. The number of dead from a pandemic whose magnitude the former administration long underplayed has well exceeded half a million; the QAnon movement is still gaining ground in a media landscape in which the powerful force of the algorithm isolates the indoctrinated and reinforces them in their delusions.
Most troubling of all, perhaps, has been the wearing away of meaning as words are used to denote their opposite, as carefully considered logical arguments are turned on their head and appropriated by the opposing point of view, resulting in an erosion of language and fact that culminated in the spectacle of Trump’s second impeachment proceedings, when his lawyers and members of Congress openly flouted their oath to respond truthfully to the well-documented allegations, because it was clear that—no matter how obvious their lies—no one would hold them accountable if a sizable portion of the electorate believed the carefully crafted soundbites.
Given the almost eerie decency of the current presidency, we’re tempted to believe that the bombastic spectacle of the Trump administration was just a bump in the road, that we’ve proven that we’re “better than all that,” that we’re back on our true path, which is always and can only be forward. Indeed, we forget all too easily that we’ve been headed backwards for some time.
Stop for a moment and recall how shocking former Alaskan governor and one-time vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was in her time. The ignorance and the pride she took in this ignorance; her constant, cringe-worthy verbal blunders; the flagrant lies, including her claim that President Obama’s proposed health-care law would lead to “death panels”—an unfounded allegation for which she received PolitiFact’s 2009 “Lie of the Year Award”—introduced the incredulous among us to what was, at the time, a new low—and, little did we know, primed the American public for the Trump phenomenon. You can be that unqualified, that stupid, and still run for the second-highest office in the country? And not only that: millions of fellow Americans will cheer you on? We’ve forgotten how speechless that made us, haven’t we? And how unable we would have been at the time to imagine things getting even worse.
Just as the Obama presidency didn’t put an end to this trajectory, it will continue, largely hidden from view, during the Biden-Harris administration as well. The path to ever more perfectly manufactured mass opinion and to the state Hannah Arendt warned of—that if you deliberately twist facts long enough, people will stop caring what is true or false—has been under construction for some time. Trump brought us within an inch of witnessing the country’s transformation into an autocracy, and there was no inevitability to ensure that our system of checks and balances would save us. We were, it turns out, incredibly lucky.
And so we’ve won, for now, but damage has been done and those who are hurting are busy nursing their wounds. We forget at our own peril that nearly half the country was ready to turn in the keys to democracy. We’ve become like the Tower of Babel: we speak nonsense to one another, no longer share a common vocabulary. And when language is weaponized, the meaning of words is destroyed and a cloud of confusion is the result. Trump’s followers, “feeling” that he must be right, no longer tried to understand all the complicated and conflicting information—much of which they’d already effectively screened out by limiting themselves to egregiously biased media sources—but, ignoring even their own common sense, settled on simply “believing” him. Hence the religious fervor—the belief structure, based on obedience, is identical. He’s no longer president, but his followers won’t go away any time soon.
And with such people, as Arendt warned, “you can do what you please.” We continue to see layers of our identity and moral authority peel away as we pick at the scabs of wounds we didn’t even realize were there. But when it comes to pain and unresolved suffering, it’s become clear that it’s the trauma of the perpetrator that afflicts us most.