Two, two, two, two weeks to go. I wanna be sedated, and so, probably, do you. The Will Bunch Newsletter is here to say there’s definitely something on other side of this election, and we’re going to start talking about it, much like a Texas preacher rhapsodizing the Great Hereafter. Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch, and you’ll be prepared for the life that comes after.
As his tortured days in the White House counted down, a poll of more than 100 prominent American historians seemed to agree with the negative verdict of the broader public, and 61% of them said this was the worst president in the entire history of the United States. Indeed, some TV commentators wondered out loud if the successor to this troubled POTUS would hold him and his aides accountable for crimes against humanity.
But that’s not how things turned out for George W. Bush, architect of the lie-fueled Iraq War and a gulag archipelago that included Guantanamo Bay and torture-plagued “black sites.” Instead, the 43rd president painted and Ellen-danced his way back to respectability, helped immensely by the mix of crudity, venality and incompetence that arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue exactly eight years after Bush moved out (with a 28% approval rating).
No one expects Donald Trump to trade his 9-iron for a brush, nor is it yet a lock that he leaves the White House exactly three months from today. But with Joe Biden expanding his lead to double digits in many recent polls, some folks are talking in cautious but more audible terms about how America might deal with the giant mess he would leave behind.
For an ex-president Trump, one can imagine two futures — and they could overlap for a chunk of a Biden presidency. Picture an angry but oddly energized (if his cheeseburger-clogged arteries don’t give out) The Donald remaining a presence on TV, maybe even buying or launching his own channel (with other people’s money) and continuing to hold large rallies for the QAnon-fried faithful of the 2020s — with the goal of running again in 2024. Trump might also have pardoned himself before leaving office (something Biden has promised not to do), but that won’t protect him and his tortured finances and tax returns from New York’s aggressive prosecutors like its attorney general Tish James and redemption-minded Manhattan DA Cy Vance.
I think it’s important for the preservation of America as a moral and law-based democracy to prosecute Trump, his family and his aides for any and all crimes, either as a businessman or as a power-abusing president. But how to uphold the rule of law yet also heal a nation in a moment of unrest and spasmodic violence that looks like the brink of a modern civil war? How would locking up Donald Trump solve the problems that led more than 62 million Americans to decide a corrupt, anti-democratic narcissist was their solution?
That’s why there’s a small but growing conversation about a solution seen in places like South Africa that were nearly broken by racism or violence or hate but something that American Exceptionalists would have insisted can’t happen here: A National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. The idea behind such panels is to hold high-profile hearings that aren’t geared toward punishment but exposing the truth of what what has happened — no matter how painful — so that once-divided citizens can again find a common language or grant amnesty, which will form the basis for the conversation to make sure these things never happen again.
Rev. Nelson Johnson, a minister in Greensboro, North Carolina, who served on a truth and reconciliation commission formed there after a 1979 disturbance in which Ku Klux Klan members killed five people, recently told NPR he and others are looking at such a national panel. He said “we feel that there may be some help for the sickness of our nation, which is divided as never before since the Civil War, perhaps. We need some mechanism to help bring healing and sanity to our culture.”
The chatter has reached a level that a prominent academic and writer, Harvard’s Jill Lepore, responded with a Washington Post op-ed in which she argued that the verdict on the Trump era should be rendered in a different venue: The history books.
“Truth and reconciliation commissions do not provide a means for the winners of a democratic election to issue a verdict on the losers,” Lepore wrote. “Democracies have all sorts of other institutions that do that: investigative journalism, a functioning judiciary, legislative deliberation and action, and dissent itself. In the United States today, those institutions need fortifying, not bypassing.”
I’m a huge Lepore fan — her one-volume history of America, These Truths, is an essential book of the Trump years — but here I don’t fully agree with her. For one thing, the bodies and norms she mentioned failed to bring either justice or reconciliation after the pardoned Richard Nixon’s high crimes and misdemeanors of Watergate, or after the torture, unjustified warmongering and other gross offences under Bush 43. Instead of putting the U.S. back on the right track, those failures created an autobahn for Trump.
The other thing 2020 has revealed is that Trump emerged from a much deeper swamp of anxieties — and pathologies — around race, gender, social class and education. America won’t get very far in the 21st Century in tackling problems like climate change (or, heaven forbid, another pandemic) if internet superstition like QAnon continues to crowd out science. But unwinding that won’t be easy. A reality-based nation will require a massive investment in education, but how will that happen without a national consensus on what’s gone wrong? A commission geared toward facts — and healing — could jump-start that process.
It’s not over for President Trump, but with two weeks to go he’s clearly the underdog. And why not, since his core voting bloc — white, non-college, mostly men — is a smaller share of the electorate every four years. But buried on the second page of Trump’s mostly dismal poll numbers is a secret map to a road not taken by his Republican Party. America’s Latinx voters are a wildly diverse group, and many families who’ve been in the United States for a while have fought discrimination and entered the middle class, eager to hold onto the gains and, often, their Catholic traditions. That’s a lot like previous arrivals — Italian- and Irish-Americans, for example — who grew more receptive to a conservative message over time. Despite Trump’s bluster that often veers into racism, the president is actually running better with Hispanics than he did in 2016.
It feels like a century ago, but the GOP’s George W. Bush captured 44 percent of the Latinx vote as he won re-election in 2004 as “a war president,” and his strategist Karl Rove and others in the party saw a possible building block for a permanent Republican majority. But while Bush and the GOP donor class supported “pathway-to-citizenship” immigration reform in 2006-07, the conservative media like Rush Limbaugh opposed it, riling up their working-class listeners with xenophobia and teeing it for Trump’s bashing of Mexicans and “build the wall” bravado. If the 45th president hadn’t converted so many young Hispanics into lifelong Democrats, he wouldn’t have been spending the final days of the campaign desperately defending Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and other states with growing Latinx populations.