A Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the Post-Trump Era

What the United States can learn from Canada about navigating division and trauma

Celebrations outside the White House after Joseph R. Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 Presidential Election. Creative Commons.

Most of us in Canada can breathe easier now.

Our southern neighbor’s season of drama appears to be finally ending.

On the day the US presidential election was called for Joe Biden, I was in New York City, where people were singing and dancing in the streets — an epic release of pent-up exuberance in a time of pandemic.

Yet, for all the excitement, I have had a sinking feeling that the underlying challenge of Trumpism won’t be overcome with an election, no matter how resounding. There are deep resentments at play. There’s a need not only for de-escalation of rhetoric, but also for serious national dialogue to address grievances.

While we in Canada — like people in South Africa, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, Colombia, Guatemala, and elsewhere — have experience with formal national processes for truth-telling and healing, the United States hasn’t embarked on such a process in its history.

The US should take a lesson from Canada and other countries at this pivotal transitional moment: Create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the Post-Trump Era.

The abuses of the last four years are well-known: family separation, egregious environmental damage, unaddressed police brutality, an unprecedented rise in hate crimes and racist violence.

At the same time, the only reason Trump, with his brand of pugilistic populism, could gain a following was that he spoke to a sense of alienation and even humiliation among people in postindustrial and rural areas.

While it’s easy to dismiss the grievances of people who prop up a cruel and delusion politician with authoritarian tendencies, the fact is that these populations are now suffering record numbers of “deaths of despair,” including hundreds of thousands of deaths in an opiate epidemic. As Nobel laureate Angus Deaton and Anne Case have argued, life expectancy in the United States has recently fallen for three consecutive years in a row — a reversal that has not been seen since 1918 or in any other industrialized nation.

As former President Barack Obama highlighted in a recent interview on 60 Minutes, these issues run deeper than Donald Trump. “It has now become a contest,” he said, “where issues, facts, policies per se don’t matter as much as identity and wanting to beat the other guy.” Trump accelerated rifts that have, for too long, gone unaddressed. Especially with the rise of social media and siloed information sources, the country lacks even a semblance of a common fact base — a sense of shared truth.

The purpose of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is to help a society transition out of periods of unrest, atrocities, dictatorship, or civil war. It’s to recover common truth and to devise a roadmap for accountability, understanding, and healing. The vision of the TRC is about restorative, rather than retributive justice. It’s about working to ensure that people can find the means to live peacefully together.

“The point,” says Cyanne E. Loyle, an expert in transitional justice at the Pennsylvania State University, “is to get everybody on the same page, not to start on the same page.” This, in turn, lays the foundation for citizens and governments to work together and identify plausible paths forward.

These processes have been effective in bringing a modicum of reconciliation to even the most extreme conflicts in recent history, including the combatant parties to the Rwandan genocide and the peoples of South Africa after Apartheid.

We in Canada formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008 to address the atrocities of the Indian Residential School System. From the 19th Century to nearly the end of the 20th Century, our country took over 150,000 Métis, Inuit, and First Nations children from their homes and communities, sending them to boarding schools with a mandate to forcibly break their bonds from their families and cultures.

Through the TRC, survivors of the cultural genocide shared approximately 7,000 stories in public and private panels. Just as South Africa’s 1995 TRC taught white South Africans about the nature of the atrocities carried out by the state, the Canadian process — which included many nationally televised programs — raised awareness of peoples’ long-hidden experiences. It laid the groundwork for 94 new recommendations on issues of education, child welfare, and Indigenous language and identity that now shape a policy agenda. The process was just a start, but it was nonetheless important.

A new Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the United States would present an opportunity for people to paint the real human picture of systemic racism, environmental injustice, Native American genocide, and other issues for which progressive movements have arisen. As a restorative justice process, a TRC would also aim to record and publicize the experiences of others, including Trump supporters, who feel the breakdown of their communities, health, and economic prospects.

One underlying challenge behind the extreme polarization today — not only in the US but around the world — is that people feel disrespected and unheard. In an age of diminished community, inequality, and widespread loneliness, many people feel they do not belong. And they turn toward blunt instruments to express these feelings: ‘othering’ outsiders or those with whom they disagree.

As our experience in Canada shows, the Truth and Reconciliation process is not a panacea. It’s not easy. The work of any TRC is both about expressing truth and receiving it. It requires a capacity to listen. This, of course, is hardly a given in the current political reality. Still, the real work of reconciliation must start somewhere. The outcomes are too important to be left to Facebook groups and angry soliloquies on cable news.

This week, scenes of the Electoral College vote, affirming the Biden-Harris victory, were juxtaposed against scenes of protests, often violent, as Trump supporters continued to deny the results. It’s further evidence of the pressing need for a common fact base. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a starting point on the journey that the United States desperately needs to undertake.