Donald Trump and the United States of Amnesia

Donald Trump and the United States of Amnesia 1

Donald Trump speaks at a political rally at Dayton International Airport in November 2022. Michael Conroy/AP

Editor’s note: The below article first appeared in David Corn’s newsletter, Our Land. The newsletter comes out twice a week (most of the time) and provides behind-the-scenes stories and articles about politics, media, and culture. Subscribing costs just $5 a month—but you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Our Land here.

In the previous issue of my Our Land newsletter, I wrote about Trump Normalization Syndrome—a term I’m trying to popularize and a condition that demands greater recognition—and I observed that a major element of TNS is forgetting. After all, outrageous conduct that endangers American democracy cannot be easily minimalized or ignored, if the details remain fresh in our minds. And Donald Trump and his campaign are banking on the human inclination to cast aside or deemphasize ugly memories—to the extent that they have been absurdly asking voters, “Are you better off now than four years ago?” This is bonkers. Four years ago, we were in the middle of a pandemic that was killing thousands a week—by the end of April 2020, 60,000 Americans had died—and crushing the economy. It was a time of fear and food lines, as Trump downplayed and mismanaged the crisis.

It is amazing—and an indictment of the American political system—that the fellow whose mishandling of the pandemic resulted in hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths could be in strong contention for a return to the presidency. Worse, Trump and his minions believe that they can use 2020 as a selling point. This has been flummoxing me. Then I read a recent article in the Atlantic by George Makari, the director of the DeWitt Wallace Institute of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Richard Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at Weill Cornell, which sheds light on this. (Makari happens to be an old college chum.)

Makari and Friedman set off to answer a bit of a different question: Why is America in a funk? They point out that unemployment rates are low, and the stock market is high. Yet President Joe Biden’s approval rating is abysmal, and polls show that Americans’ satisfaction with their lives is near a record low. “And nearly half of Americans surveyed in January said they were worse off than three years prior,” they write. The pair note that experts and pundits have struggled to explain the malaise. Inflation (which soared but then dipped)? Ukraine? Gaza? The border crisis? They dismiss these possible causes and insist the experts are “overlooking a crucial factor.” Their answer: Covid. They write:

Four years ago, the country was brought to its knees by a world-historic disaster. COVID-19 hospitalized nearly 7 million Americans and killed more than a million; it’s still killing hundreds each week. It shut down schools and forced people into social isolation. Almost overnight, most of the country was thrown into a state of high anxiety—then, soon enough, grief and mourning. But the country has not come together to sufficiently acknowledge the tragedy it endured. As clinical psychiatrists, we see the effects of such emotional turmoil every day, and we know that when it’s not properly processed, it can result in a general sense of unhappiness and anger—exactly the negative emotional state that might lead a nation to misperceive its fortunes.

In short, we went through a national trauma and have not fully reckoned with that. (An aside: The same could be said for January 6.)

More from Makari and Friedman:

The pressure to simply move on from the horrors of 2020 is strong. Who wouldn’t love to awaken from that nightmare and pretend it never happened? Besides, humans have a knack for sanitizing our most painful memories. In a 2009 study, participants did a remarkably poor job of remembering how they felt in the days after the 9/11 attacks, likely because those memories were filtered through their current emotional state. Likewise, a study published in Nature last year found that people’s recall of the severity of the 2020 COVID threat was biased by their attitudes toward vaccines months or years later.

When faced with an overwhelming and painful reality like COVID, forgetting can be useful—even, to a degree, healthy. It allows people to temporarily put aside their fear and distress, and focus on the pleasures and demands of everyday life, which restores a sense of control. That way, their losses do not define them, but instead become manageable.

Forgetting can be useful. This jibes with what I’ve been struggling to comprehend about Trump’s current standing. People yearn for the good old days…even when they were not so good. At the same time, unprocessed trauma creates an unease that affects current attitudes. So with Trump and the pandemic, many Americans don’t want to accurately recall that terrible stretch, but the unresolved issues from that horrific time yield a dissatisfaction with the current moment that Trump himself can exploit. Talk about a bank shot.

In part, Trump can (try to) get away with this because there was no post-pandemic establishment of a consensus Covid narrative. There were a few congressional hearings—mounted by Democrats—that examined the Trump administration’s actions during the crisis. But the Democrats failed to turn these sessions into high-profile affairs. And there has been no prominent blue-ribbon commission to investigate what was the worst public health emergency in a century. Accountability has been absent. That has made it easier to forget.

Makari and Friedman explain that “consigning painful memories to the River Lethe…has clear drawbacks, especially as the months and years go by. Ignoring such experiences robs one of the opportunity to learn from them. In addition, negating painful memories and trying to proceed as if everything is normal contorts one’s emotional life and results in untoward effects.” In extreme cases with veterans, this can lead to PTSD. (“We are not suggesting that the entire country has PTSD from COVID,” they state.)

Traumatic memories can affect how the brain functions and, thus, how the present is perceived. As they put it, “Traumatic memory doesn’t feel like a historical event, but returns in an eternal present, disconnected from its origin, leaving its bearer searching for an explanation. And right on cue, everyday life offers plenty of unpleasant things to blame for those feelings—errant friends, the price of groceries, or the leadership of the country.” We might not recall all the dreadful details of the early pandemic and the specific fears. (Will millions of us die?) “But,” Makari and Friedman assert, “the feelings that that experience ignited are still very much alive. This can make it difficult to rationally assess the state of our lives and our country.”

So if we’re all still reeling from those awful years of death and stress—and that is distorting how we view our current lives—what can be done about it? These two clinical psychiatrists say “you need to do more than ignore or simply recall it. Rather, you must rework the disconnected memory into a context, and thereby move it firmly into the past.” One remedy, they maintain, “is for leaders to encourage remembrance while providing accurate and trustworthy information about both the past and the present.” They see the politics of all this in similar fashion to what I’ve written: Trump, who bungled the response to the pandemic and who spread misinformation about Covid, has “become the beneficiary of our collective amnesia, and Biden the repository for lingering emotional discontent.” Yet they optimistically contend, “Some of that misattribution could be addressed by returning to the shattering events of the past four years and remembering what Americans went through. This process of recall is emotionally cathartic, and if it’s done right, it can even help to replace distorted memories with more accurate ones.”

I’m not certain that during an election year marked by record-high political polarization such an exercise could occur. Any attempt to revist those dark days to set the record straight would face a barrage of opposition from Trump, the GOP, and the conservative media, replete with shouts of “hoax” and accusations of Deep State plotting. See what happened when the Democrats tried to establish an account of what led to and occurred on January 6. There are no longer neutral observers (or observers who are widely considered neutral) in the political media world who could guide an endeavor of national remembrance and reconciliation.

It’s clear that Biden and his advisers have decided to steer clear of Covid—as a policy matter and a political issue. He rarely brings it up, and there’s not much of an effort on the part of his administration to promote booster shots or other anti-Covid measures. They seem to want to sidestep the divisive cultural wars that Covid triggered. Makari and Friedman, however, contend that reminding voters of the worst days of the pandemic need not “create more trouble” for Biden. They write: “Our work leads us to believe that the effect would be exactly the opposite. Rituals of mourning and remembrance help people come together and share in their grief so that they can return more clear-eyed to face daily life. By prompting Americans to remember what we endured together, paradoxically, Biden could help free all of us to more fully experience the present.”

I’d like to believe this. And I’d like to see Biden try. As I’ve noted, I am stunned that Trump’s malfeasant handling of the crisis has not disqualified him for a return engagement. Then again, I could say the same thing about Trump’s Big Lie and January 6. We’ve often heard that the first step to recovery is recognizing the problem and resolving to address it. With both Covid and January 6, one half of the political system has no interest in such a process. It rightfully calculates that its survival depends on preventing this. Can Biden and the Democrats do this on their own? That would be quite the task.

While pundits have failed to fully explain the sour mood of the American public, Makari and Friedman have delivered us a smart diagnosis that helps us understand at least part of this unusual and upsetting political moment. (On Sunday, the New York Times published a smart piece that examined the current political impact of the pandemic.) Their article is a reminder that psychology is often crucial for comprehending voters’ attitudes. I wonder, though, if it’s too late to fulfill their prescription. I once heard Gore Vidal refer to this country as the United States of Amnesia. Our problem is that many of our fellow citizens are damn happy to reside there.

David Corn’s American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy, a New York Times bestseller, has been released in a new and expanded paperback edition.