To escape from any dire situation requires that you accept two truths: the truth of how you got there and the truth of how you can get out. And the sad truth is that, in less than a year and a half in office, Donald J. Trump and the squalling far-right movement he has dragged into the White House like a mischievous dog have already changed the parameters of the American presidency and the nation’s politics beyond recognition.
The time has come to think seriously about whether, at some safer, wiser moment in the future, the United States will need a truth and reconciliation commission. I know the idea sounds outlandish—truth and reconciliation commissions are something that happens to other people in other places, typically countries that have been truly brutalized and can find no other way past their national traumas. It is tempting to propose this as satire. But the sneer withers away; the chuckle turns to dust in the throat.
Reconciliation is only possible when you start telling the truth. And while reconciliation is not complete justice—justice demanding, as it does, accountability and at least compensation—it makes it possible to move forward. This is a serious business. Done right, it would establish the real narrative of the moral twilight we are moving through now, alter political behavior for the better, and revive enough faith in this country’s ability to govern itself for democracy to prevail. It may even restore truth itself.
I don’t mean to claim that what has gone on here since the election of Donald Trump approaches what most of those other nations that used truth and reconciliation commissions have endured. The first such effort, initiated by President Raúl Alfonsín of Argentina in 1983—one earlier attempt, in Bolivia in 1982, was shut down before it was completed and another one, in Uganda in 1974, was overseen by Idi Amin; I’m not counting either—was created to soothe the still-raw wounds of a military dictatorship and “Dirty War” that disappeared some 30,000 people. Since then, at least 42 other nations have tried similar means of getting past the past, and the crimes they have confronted have usually been even more horrific and wide-reaching: the genocides in Rwanda and East Timor; the reign of the white supremacist, apartheid regime in South Africa; Soviet-imposed communism in East Germany; the slaughters perpetrated in Haiti after the overthrow of Aristide, in the Yugoslavian civil wars, and by Mobutu, Kabila, and so many others in the Congo; the atrocities committed by U.S.-backed, enabled, and even encouraged regimes in Brazil, South Korea, Chile, El Salvador, Panama, Uruguay.
How fortunate America has been to avoid the worst of these tragedies. Yet to return to something that resembles a functioning and participatory democracy, the country needs a period of internal reflection and public cleansing. Americans must, at some point, decide on which truths we still find self-evident. If anyone has a better suggestion than truth and reconciliation, have at it.
Everyone lies, and no one lies with more frequency and instinctive gusto than politicians. But in American politics today it is the right that uses lies as a tactic intended to corrode the entire concept of reality. They want Americans to believe that there are always child sex slaves in the pizza parlor, poison in the fluoride, toxins in the jet trails, black helicopters just over the horizon. That, as Roseanne Barr fervently believes, large numbers of liberal celebrities have been secretly arrested for running child prostitution rings. That large swaths of the country are being run according to sharia law, or that actors paid by mysterious gun-control advocates travel around the country pretending to be high school students traumatized by school shootings, and that anyway—as Marco Rubio and Ann Coulter have charged—the Parkland massacre was really former President Obama’s fault. (Thanks.)
The right lies pervasively and it lies well, thanks to the help of both Trump’s proverbial 400-pound guy sitting on a bed and all those Russ-bots, replicating the voice of the people ad infinitum in the internet murk. They lie via the radio ravers, and the podcast conspiracy-buffs, and the overgrown children at the Murdoch media. Their lies have become deadly, living fantasies—as lies will, given enough political muscle.
“At the national level the Republican Party has become a destructive and anarchic political force in American life,” Peter Wehner, a member of the Reagan and both Bush administrations, wrote in The New York Times this March. “The president and his acolytes are championing conspiracy theories and a sweeping, uncalibrated, all-out assault on our institutions. There is reckless talk by Republicans about ‘secret societies,’ ‘silent coups’ and ‘the deep state.’” To scrub the plaque of disinformation now smothering the brain cells of many Americans would be a significant service to the nation.
More important, though, is that the truth would set the Republican Party free. America cannot go on with one major party—the majority party, for most of the last three decades—submerged in a permanent moral shadow. Republican politics have become a deliberate campaign of hate that never ends or even relents. This was evident in March’s special congressional election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district, a campaign that Republican candidate Rick Saccone capped by proclaiming at a rally that “the other side” was not only energized by “a hatred for our president,” but also “a hatred for our country” and “a hatred for God.”
Saccone is not some jackleg preacher who wandered barefoot out of the woods one day, calling down fire and brimstone on the unworldly. He is a former Air Force intelligence officer with two masters degrees and a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh in public and international affairs, and had worked for twelve years in South Korea before being elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 2010. Yet, this devout Baptist presented himself to voters as an acolyte of “Christian nationalist” fanatic David Barton, with his campaign to impose “Biblical law” on the United States. Entering this year’s race, Saccone began calling himself “Trump before Trump was Trump.” His progress, from legislative foot soldier to Christian jihadi and eager personality cultist, is in lockstep with the party nationwide.
My opponents hate God and America? Don’t expect an apology for that slander. There certainly wasn’t one after Sarah Palin put crosshairs on the districts of Democratic representatives she wanted to replace, or after a man convinced by the right’s bogus pizza parlor–sex trafficking claims fired a gun in that child-filled emporium. It’s hard to remember the last time anyone in the GOP expressed regret about the disastrous binds their party has led the country into, over and over again, in recent years: the endless, unwinnable wars; the cataclysmic deregulation of the financial system; the massive intelligence failure that allowed September 11 to take place; the pathetic inability to rescue the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; the scheme to build a model, laissez-faire state in Iraq; and so many other self-serving, crack-brained, feckless projects.
Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattacks, to borrow Roger Stone’s turn of phrase, has proven to be effective politics. Democratic contrition, by contrast, can approach self-parody, especially when it’s extended to things the party didn’t really do, such as spending recklessly or “not supporting the troops.” But being able to analyze itself, identify past mistakes, learn from them—and, yes, apologize—is in general a healthy sign in any institution.
The Republican Party was once able to do this. It grudgingly accepted, for instance, much of the American social welfare state built in the 1930s and ’40s, while looking to improve it or define its limits. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, leery of a growing and centralized federal government, nonetheless famously wrote to his more conservative older brother, Edgar, in 1954, that:
Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things ... an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
Ike’s assessment was at least an acknowledgment of what the modern world required and a rejection of the party’s more conservative wing (not yet fully dominant to that point), while his internationalist foreign policies, for better or for worse, were a rejection of the GOP’s old-guard isolationists. So, too, was the embrace of these ideas by pretty much every Republican presidential candidate from Hoover to Nixon. This conservative—in the true sense of the word—recognition of what is owed to an established national consensus, plus a genuine concern for future generations, was discarded years ago by the GOP, in favor of a fantastical, far-right worldview that wishes to build an impossible future society based on a history that never really existed.
Hence, movement apologists such as Amity Shlaes, Peggy Noonan, Pat Buchanan, David Horowitz, and Peter Collier look to rewrite the nation’s past, back through the Reagan years, the Sixties and the Kennedys, the Great Depression and the 1920s—even our victory in World War II. All in the cause of an increasingly bizarre, utopian vision of a sort of anarcho-corporate state—one in which pretty much everyone will be armed and able to threaten each other into politeness and nonviolence; miraculously reconstituted extended families will eradicate the need for Social Security and Medicare; poor children will work as janitors to pay for their schooling; tax cuts will generate enough income to offset the need for subsidized health care; public property will be largely eliminated; and no regulations of any kind will apparently be required to keep our food, water, air, money, or medicine safe or to determine how the public will shape its own towns and cities.
In everything from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s desire to turn the public school system over to the church, to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s tax plan with its backdoor assault on Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, the modern-day GOP moves determinedly toward turning these fantasies, no matter how putrid or dangerous or unpopular, into a reality.
Truth and reconciliation commissions in other countries have rarely if ever brought complete satisfaction to all involved. How could they? The South African commission, for instance, was reckoning with human rights abuses from 1960 to 1994, in the upholding of a system that, by its very nature, could be considered one gigantic human rights violation. Nor was the commission merely an amnesty mill: Of the 7,112 applications for amnesty that were received, only 849 were granted.
But what the commission managed to do, however crudely and imperfectly, was to enable South Africa to continue as a country. It could be argued that the crimes committed in its name, or the entirety of the apartheid regime, might be regarded as crimes nearly as brutal as those perpetrated by Nazi Germany—where there were no truth or reconciliation commissions but a series of war-crime and de-Nazification trials that sometimes ended with the noose. But then, Germany was a thoroughly defeated nation, prostrate at the feet of its neighbors, and very ready to be remade. Even after the depredations of Trump, Americans will, thank goodness, have no such need to rebuild from scratch.
The United States has in fact tried different versions of truth and reconciliation commissions, although they have typically been organized and funded by independent, nonpartisan groups. Governments generally won’t commit to following any of their recommendations, and it’s easy to see why. Nearly all of these commissions have tried to bring resolution to some of the thorniest, shameful chapters of America’s racial past. In recent years, there have been truth and reconciliation commissions established for the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, the Tulsa race riot of 1921 (possibly the most murderous civic uprising in our history), the Rosewood Massacre of 1923, and the Greensboro Massacre of 1979. Other commissions have confronted the legacy of segregated housing policies in Detroit, the Boston school busing violence of the 1970s, and the fight for civil rights in Mississippi and the violent reaction to that struggle from 1945 to 1975. Likewise, there are several ongoing investigations into how most prominent American colleges and universities for many years battened on the Atlantic slave trade.
These are all necessary and admirable examinations of the past. Yet because they lack official imprimatur, they have proved disappointing, both in providing clarity and in producing compensation for the victims and their heirs.
There is, however, an existing and effective tool that has been used in the past to delve into the country’s worst national traumas and conflicts. I’m thinking, of course, of congressional investigations, or rather true congressional investigations, as opposed to the farces the Republican majority is now overseeing on Capitol Hill at the behest of the president.
There was no comprehensive attempt to find either truth or reconciliation after the Civil War. But the Republicans who controlled Congress then did move with alacrity to staunch what were effectively the efforts of the day to blot out the true history of the war, and to reverse almost everything it had accomplished. After Lincoln’s assassination, and with Congress out of session, the grossly unqualified new president, Andrew Johnson, tried to impose his own “Presidential Reconstruction.” By presidential decree, most former rebels were granted a blanket amnesty, and the Confederate states were ordered to hold immediate constitutional conventions, so they could rejoin the Union as soon as possible.
Nowhere in his decrees did Johnson, an inveterate racist, make any provision for the millions of newly freed black men and women in the South, and the results were predictable. The Southern state conventions refused freedmen the franchise, and the all-white legislatures, which their all-white electorates then put into place, generally rejected the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments abolishing slavery and establishing equality under the law. They also voted to send whole slates of former Confederate politicians, generals, and other leaders to the U.S. Congress. Even the former vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, fresh from a five-month stint in federal prison, was elected to the Senate from the state of Georgia. (The Senate refused to seat him and the other Confederates. Seven years later, he ran again, this time for the House, and was able to take office.)
African Americans were thus moved from slavery to serfdom. The new Southern constitutions contained horrific “Black Codes” so close to the same states’ old “slave codes” that in places they simply lifted entire blocks of text from the antebellum statutes and substituted “Negro” for the word “slave.”
The Black Codes of 1865–1866 restricted every form of African American activity as closely as any totalitarian state has ever controlled its population. They legally tied the former slaves to the lands of their once-and-future masters and began the long tradition of convict labor that still plagues America to this day, creating incentives for local police forces to arrest people of color on the flimsiest of pretexts and force them into what Douglas Blackmon called, in his book of the same title, “slavery by another name.”
Northern public opinion was outraged by these provisions, which essentially negated the terrible sacrifices of the Civil War. What followed was a three-year fight between the president and Congress, one that climaxed with Johnson’s impeachment and his replacement in the next election by Ulysses S. Grant. The reinforced “Radical Republican” majority overrode Johnson’s vetoes of the nation’s first civil rights bill and its extension of the Freedmen’s Bureau—the first overridden vetoes of such major bills in U.S. history—threw out the Black Codes, the new racist constitutions, and the election results in the South, implemented the black franchise, and made it clear that the rebellious states were not getting back into the Union until they recognized the Fourteenth Amendment. President Grant then sent in troops to suppress the Klan, the White League, and other white supremacist terror groups.
The attempts by Andrew Johnson and his mostly Democratic allies to rewrite the past and pretend that the Civil War had been some sort of terrible misunderstanding—or a “lack of ability to compromise,” as John Kelly, Trump’s racially compromised chief of staff, put it in October—and that now everything could go back to pretty much how it had always been, were stymied. A truth was established, and a foundation of justice constructed that would withstand even a long abandonment.
To be sure, Jim Crow slithered in, as Northern exhaustion and indifference ended Congressional Reconstruction in 1877. Whites were able to terrorize and legislate freed blacks into peonage after all—but the Republican rebellion against Andrew Johnson had made possible ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth “Reconstruction Amendments,” which would serve as the constitutional framework for the modern civil rights movement. They would return the moral arc of the law—eventually—to the side of righteousness.
Few of America’s battles over truth have been fought over such direct and clear-cut moral issues. Almost always, the greater question has emerged only from the cover of a more limited and immediate scandal—the way the truth about the American right will be revealed, one venal payoff at a time, from any effective audit of the Trump government.
The form that a modern congressional investigation takes was molded in the 1920s by Teapot Dome, the best-known of the myriad shocking and often ludicrous scandals of the Harding administration. It evolved due to a conundrum that the current president could appreciate. The figure at the center of the scandals was no less than Warren Harding’s sitting attorney general, Harry Daugherty, someone who was able and willing to do more of the things then that Jeff Sessions so frustrates Donald Trump by not doing today. To circumvent Daugherty, twospecial prosecutors, one from each party, were hired to run the proceedings, and they were directed and supported by an independent Republican, the great Progressive Robert La Follette, and a pair of liberal Democrats from Montana, Thomas Walsh and Burton K. Wheeler.
While pretending to abet the hearings, Daugherty fought them tooth and nail. In a move akin to contemporary House Republicans Bob Goodlatte and Trey Gowdy’s demand to investigate the FBI for daring to investigate the Trump administration, Daugherty assigned the head of the Bureau of Investigation, William J. Burns, to investigate both Walsh and Wheeler. Burns, known as “the American Sherlock Holmes,” found nothing, but that didn’t keep him from sending agents around the country to try to intimidate any reporters and editors who criticized his boss. La Follette’s Senate office had also been ransacked and Wheeler was indicted in Montana on a bogus influence-peddling charge that was soon thrown out.
The hearings wound on for six years, and several of the principals in the Harding scandals went to jail, including Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, the first Cabinet secretary ever packed off to prison. Calvin Coolidge replaced Daugherty—almost seven months after he took office in 1923—and Burns was fired. But if the Teapot Dome investigation was diligent, it was ultimately shallow, failing to address larger issues such as the inevitable government corruption caused by Prohibition or a shambolic financial system supported in part by routine gifts of corporate “preferred stock” to any number of politicians and power brokers. No one was eager to tarnish unduly the memory of poor Harding, a devoted golfer with fair hair, a poor diet, and a penchant for getting tangled up in extramarital affairs, who in the end was considered sadly incapable of fulfilling his office.
The Nye Committee hearings of 1934–1936, it could be argued, tried to reach a deeper level of how things are done in Washington and why. Yet they also had the unfortunate side effect of giving credence to the prevailing idea that, no matter how deep you dig, there is always a secret, permanent government distorting the will of the people.
The Nye Committee—officially the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry—was an anomaly. It was made up of just seven members, four of them from the overwhelming Senate Democratic majority, but the chairman was Senator Gerald P. Nye, a young, liberal Republican. The special committee’s curious status and composition most likely reflected how wary the majority Democrats were of investigating how America’s munitions companies and banking interests supposedly drew the country into World War I during the Wilson administration.
Americans remained widely disillusioned and baffled by the reasons for the country’s entry into that conflict, which had cost 116,000 of their countrymen’s lives in just 19 months and seemed to accomplish nothing. Nye’s hearings, which went on for a year and a half, brought up something worth exploring in the intersection of American finance and foreign policy. But the committee remained primarily focused on the lessons of World War I, while failing to notice that the foreign threat America faced by the mid-1930s was of a different nature. Its investigations bolstered a growing pacifist movement, badly retarded U.S. military preparedness, and led to the passage of the three Neutrality Acts that hamstrung the country’s ability to confront the Axis and helped doom the Spanish Republic, unable to acquire enough arms to hold off international fascism.
It was the backlash against another misbegotten war that ultimately led to one of the most successful congressional rebellions. Watergate began with Richard Nixon’s weirdly misguided effort to cover up the origins of the war in Vietnam, but soon turned into a far wider revolt against inflated executive power and secret government. The Watergate investigations skillfully removed Nixon from office with bipartisan support and made a real effort to reform a presidential campaign process seen as drowning in money. Campaign contributions were severely limited, the disclosure of donors was strictly mandated, and the Special Prosecutor Act was passed, in an effort to institutionalize the continued, nonpartisan monitoring of corruption in the federal government. The reform spirit that Watergate inspired extended to the 1975–1976 Church Committee’s wide-ranging investigations of the CIA, the FBI, and the IRS, and a badly needed effort to pull these politicized agencies back under the rule of law and uphold human rights as a worldwide standard in American foreign policy.
The post-Watergate reforms were undermined, though, by the ineffectual Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, elected in the scandal’s wake. Carter’s failures helped to revivify a Republican right that was able to sidestep some of the Watergate reforms immediately and chip assiduously away at the rest in the years to come. Already, by Ronald Reagan’s second term, the investigation of two stunning new scandals, domestic and foreign, were underway: the massive failure of the deregulated savings-and-loan industry and Iran-Contra, with its weapons sales to the terrorist regime of Iran (and the collaboration of the United States in the murders of clergy, labor organizers, and peasants throughout Central America).
It is hard to judge these investigations truly a success. The S & L crisis brought jail sentences and widespread reimbursements of people’s money, but the public cost was staggering, and no deeper lesson about the risks of financial deregulation was learned. Even so estimable a pair of public servants as Senators Daniel K. Inouye and George Mitchell let the phony patriotics of Ollie North distract press and public from just how lawless and despicable the machinations of Iran-Contra really were.
The best example of how to use a congressional investigation came at the nadir of the Great Depression. Once again, it was a bipartisan affair, the rationale for the reforms that would be passed by one party provided by a senator from the other.
Peter Norbeck was a big, rugged Republican senator from South Dakota, who shared his constituents’ suspicion of banks and financiers. As chairman of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee, he was finally able to persuade his party to go along with an investigation of Wall Street in March of 1932. It went nowhere. President Herbert Hoover demanded that Norbeck concentrate only on short-selling, which he was convinced was drawing out the Depression. Democrats charged that the whole thing was a fraud. The first two committee counsels were dismissed as ineffectual, while a third quit because he was not allowed to subpoena witnesses. The investigation was suspended after three months, and few expected it to resume.
Yet this was one of the last Congresses before the Twentieth Amendment was passed, meaning that both the new Senate and the new president would not be sworn in until March 4. Norbeck had the time—barely—to give his investigation one last try, now with a man who seemed to be his polar opposite as committee counsel. Ferdinand Pecora was a short, swaggering, cigar-chomping Sicilian immigrant, who possessed an inexhaustible memory and was once called “the most brilliant cross-examiner in New York.”
Hired on January 23, 1933, within a month Pecora was ripping through the entire financial sector. He worked against an incredibly dramatic background, with banks failing around the country; factories shutting their gates; and an assassination attempt in Miami on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the new president-elect, that miraculously failed. None of it slowed him down. What Pecora pulled the curtain back on was not just individual dishonesty but systematic self-dealing, stock watering, runaway bonuses, and deceptive webs of holding companies—the “financial instruments” of the 1920s—that sound all too familiar today. Throughout his tenure of office, Pecora confronted the most fearsome titans of the financial industry, facing down the likes of J.P. Morgan Jr.; Thomas Lamont; Richard Whitney; and, above all, National City Bank (now Citibank) chief “Sunshine Charlie” Mitchell, the smiling face of 1920s, trust-us, sky’s-the-limit capitalism.
“If only part of the things brought out prove true, these men have done the American people more damage than all the incidental operations of Al Capone,” lame-duck President Hoover wrote his attorney general in private, before siccing him on Mitchell and National City Bank. “If these stories are true these men are not bankers, they are banksters who rob the poor, drive the innocent to poverty and suicide and do infinite injury to those who honestly work and strive. Worse than that, they are traitors to our institutions and national ideas.”
Sunshine Charlie was able (just barely) to avoid prison in the years to come but was forced to give up most of his assets and property. His fall was “a titanic scandal,” as Michael Perino, author of The Hellhound of Wall Street, a history of the Pecora Committee, would put it, and the hearings served, in I.F. Stone’s words, as an “instrument of democratic education,” one that “turned the nation into a vast class in economics.” It was an idea that the new president, FDR, who had done nothing to set this in motion, took hold of with both hands, turning his very first fireside chat to the American people into a homey lesson on how banks work.
The Pecora hearings established the moral narrative of the Great Depression. They rewrote the story of the 1920s, a period of Republican rule, as a time of corruption and dishonesty, in which the GOP allowed the flimflam men of Wall Street and the big utility companies to get away with bilking the public. This was not altogether fair. By and large, Republicans in local and national office were certainly no more (and often less) corrupt than the Democrats then controlling big-city machines and Southern fiefdoms. Yet FDR seized on the concept to make a broader, moral indictment of what had gone before, freely resorting to Biblical language in this cause.
“The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple,” he decreed in his first inaugural address. “We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths.” Three years later, in his 1936 reelection campaign, Roosevelt was still at it: “Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair!”
One almost expected Pharaoh to appear in the wings. But what Pecora’s committee had set in motion was invaluable. The committee’s mandate was extended for another year and more—a continuing reminder of the past, on hand until the financial reforms of the First New Deal were completed, including the Glass-Steagall Act separating commercial and savings banks, the passage of deposit insurance, and the Securities Exchange Act, which fundamentally reformed how Wall Street did business. Pecora became one of the original five commissioners of the new U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
More broadly, Roosevelt and his liberal allies—in both parties—expanded this new narrative to press the need for reform almost everywhere, in every corner of public life. Not just in banking and financial regulation but also in providing cheap public power, the rights of labor, cleaning up crime and busting gangs (grown so great upon the meat of that other 1920s corruption, Prohibition), the stewardship of our land and water, clean new housing stock, decent standards of living and working, and getting the Depression’s “wild boys of the road” off the roads and into good, healthy outdoor work and care. Not all of this worked as well or as quickly as the reformers might have wanted, but they did transform the country—on the whole, very much for the better.
It was a similar, once-in-every-two-lifetimes moment that was missed in the first hundred days of Barack Obama’s presidency—though at the time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did call for a new “Pecora Commission” to investigate “what happened on Wall Street.” Ron Chernow, in a New York Times opinion piece, asked, “Where is Our Ferdinand Pecora?”
He was nowhere to be found. There were hearings, and there were useful reforms proposed and passed after Obama and the Democrats took power in 2009, with Dodd-Frank and Elizabeth Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau restoring some essential safeguards and stability. But none of the financial reforms passed were considered wholly adequate. If anything, Obama seemed rather irritated by the one potential Pecora in sight: Warren. He chased her out of the executive branch as soon as he could.
More importantly, President Obama missed the vital moment to establish an overarching narrative of reform and expand it to a badly needed, wholesale revision of the national covenant. The failure was not his alone. No other politician, from either party, stepped up to propose anything much more. Bolder leaders might have commenced far-reaching, no-holds-barred investigations into our financial system well before Obama took office or was even elected, pushing for indictments of those masters of the universe at AIG, Bear Stearns, and Goldman Sachs who did so much to bring down the world economy. From that springboard, the new reformers could have gone after the architects of torture in Iraq, say, or the machinations of Vice President Dick Cheney in meeting behind closed doors with the representatives of leading businesses to strip away business regulations and environmental protections.
Nothing of the sort was done, for in the end neither Obama nor most of the Democratic leaders who came into power with him had any real interest in disrupting the status quo. Hence the movement slogan, “Yes, we can!” which had all the shallow charm of a self-improvement program or an energy-drink brand. Political slogans should be short and vivid, as Mr. Trump demonstrated, but Obama’s reflected his feeling that his administration need do no more than the political equivalent of getting to the gym more often and cutting down on carbs.
The failure of the administration, or anybody else, to drag all the transgressions of the past out into the light meant that no new narrative was established, no foundation laid on which to build anything. Worse yet, by leaving all the demons out in the dark, Obama and company allowed a thousand conspiracy theories to flower, on the right but also on the left. And conspiracy theories aside, it left any number of badly needed reforms untested, unexplored, unvoiced.
So what should a Trump truth and reconciliation investigation look into? There are the obvious malfeasances and looting of the public coffers, of course, which are already approaching record-setting totals for federal venality. Ryan Zinke’s $139,000 office doors and Ben Carson’s $31,000 dining room set; the Mnuchins’ planned $25,000-an-hour, military-jet honeymoon and their Carly Simon–inspired road trip (“You flew your government plane down to Fort Knox / To see the total eclipse of the sun”). Environmental Protection Agency director Scott Pruitt’s relentless first-class junketing and his $25,000 “cone of silence.” Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s luxury flights around the world in the cause of helping oil companies find oil.
The list is almost endless for this administration that seems to consider early boarding, free airplane meals, and nice furnishings more precious than rubies. But any probe into these abuses must expand into issues of far wider importance. Some things that it would be useful to know, right now, if we are really to continue as a democracy:
Exactly how was the presidential election interfered with in 2016, and by whom?
What—exactly—has transpired between Donald Trump and the Russian dictatorship of Vladimir Putin?
What has taken place between the Republican Party, the right wing, and Putin’s personal spy state?
What is the extent of the emoluments received not just by his underlings but by the president himself and his family? How much has the Trump family made, and where, and who has paid them, right down to the last ruble, renminbi, manat, shekel, peso, and loonie?
Just what was Kris Kobach’s ominous “Commission on Election Integrity” formed to do, and why was it so abruptly dissolved? How many voters have been pulled from voter rolls in the last 20 years, in what states, under what pretexts, and by whom?
This is just a start, of course. I’m sure that all of us could think of many more things to ask our leaders. Nor is this to single out the Trump Ring and its allies for their abuses or to imply that they are the only individuals who have brought the country to this low state. The cry will no doubt go up as to why the Clintons and others get a pass.
Fine. America’s political culture has been systematically and egregiously corrupted over the last few decades—corrupted as it has not been since the reforms of the Progressive Age began, over a hundred years ago, and it might serve a useful purpose if, say, Timothy Geithner explained just who got rich when he advised the president to do nothing while millions of Americans were driven out of their homes, or if Rahm Emanuel could tell everyone just how it was that making $16.2 million in his 30 months on Wall Street between major government posts does not constitute a bribe. I wouldn’t mind hearing, on the record, just what Hillary Clinton’s “public” and “private” positions are on any number of issues regarding financial conflicts of interest, or if Bill could say what his definition of rape, never mind sex, is.
For that matter, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are still around to tell America exactly how it was bamboozled into Iraq, with a dangerously underequipped army. James Baker and former Congressman John Sweeney could explain exactly how it was they put together the notorious effort to secure the Republicans’ first stolen presidential election of this century, and exactly how it is that violently disrupting the tabulation of presidential ballots does not constitute a felony, and while we’re at it, what did happen in 2004 with all those Diebold voting machines in Ohio?
Before things go too wide or too far back, though, it would be best to stick to defining deviancy now and exploring exactly how Trump’s reign has torn this country apart. That won’t be easy, of course, and it will entail the work habits of ten thousand Pecoras, persistence in the face of modern America’s iPhone attention span, and maybe even some squirmish compromises. Contrary to how it is with many truth and reconciliation commissions, I would not want to see the threat of legal punishment ever removed completely. But as in the breaking of any mob of cheap thugs, eliciting testimony may have to include plea-bargaining or even granting some individuals immunity.
So be it—if it means getting the truth out there. Establishing the truth, establishing that narrative that makes possible a new birth of freedom in this country, would be worth it. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—which promised its own form of truth and reconciliation—was much criticized at the time for going back beyond even the writing of the Constitution, back to the Declaration of Independence, with its contention that all men are created equal, to find a foundation for that rebirth. But Americans will take the truth however it may be found.