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Time for American Vergangenheitsbewältigung
The cult-breaking power of guilt, shame, and its obverse side, humiliation.
A nondescript driveway hangs on a small desolate spur off Marietta Blvd in the Knight Park section of Atlanta, a few miles west of downtown where Georgia Tech’s urban campus, and the cluster of government buildings encompassing the State House, City Hall, and the Fulton County Court House sit in traffic-snarled magnificence. Turn into 901 Rice Street NW, 400 feet, then a parking lot before an especially brutal building that looks like a a Soviet apartment block had Boston City Hall’s baby. That’s the Fulton County Jail. It’s a particularly nasty place where—fortunately for me—I have no personal experience to report to you.
This is where Donald J. Trump and 18 of his closest personal conspiratorial friends will make their perp walk, get booked, mug-shotted, and efficiently processed as defendants in the widest-ranging political criminal case since the American Civil War—or more recently—the Red Scare.
What to make of this spectacle? Is there anything to be learned?
I won’t get into the charges, because others, who possess law degrees and trial experience, have opined. Yet 25 million or so Americans still hold to the belief that Trump alone can restore American greatness, and therefore that the 2020 election is still being litigated. In fact, Trump, in his constant ranting and railing on his personal platform, Truth Social, wrote that he has a “CONCLUSIVE Report” that the election was “rigged.”
Read differently, the word “riggers” triggers some dog whistles among many of Trump’s supporters who lurk in the moldy forums devoted to worshipping him.
Where is the shame? When will it finally hit? I know Trump himself has no shame—he’s mentally incapable of it—but others in his orbit, and those good Americans who mow their lawns, wash their cars, and lament for drug addicted youth have the capacity for shame. (Or said another way: there can’t be that many mentally ill people who exhibit some form of Borderline Personality Disorder or NPD in America, ignoring foreign troll accounts on social media, that is.)
The Germans have a word for collective guilt, Kollektivschuld. It refers, in that context, specifically to the worst period in the history of that nation. They have another word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which means “working to cope with the past.” It’s about the same period, but more of a healing, “never again” vibe, to break cognitive dissonance, and realizing that shame is a good tool for positive change.
Japanese culture, which is based on social harmony, internalizes shame to a high degree, with formal, ritualistic actions based on losing “face.” Being indicted on 90 counts of anything would be enough for Japanese people to abandon any possible connection to a politician, or any popular figure. I can’t imagine how the Japanese people feel watching this period of American history, where we revel in our abandonment of decency and embrace shamelessness.
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What’s more interesting is that many on the new American right experience the kind of national shame about things that George W. Bush did, but fail to see it with Trump. As an aside, let me rehabilitate Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf, a.k.a. Baghdad Bob. In 2003, Al-Sahaf predicted that “You will reap nothing from this aggressive war…except for disgrace and defeat.” Fast forward 20 years, and Al-Sahaf is reportedly living comfortably in the UAE, while his proclamations—silly at the time—come true. He called Bush and Tony Blair “an international gang of criminal bastards,” and “ignorant imperialists, losers and fools.” Now I know where Trump gets his speeches.
We can’t wait 20 years for Vergangenheitsbewältigung. We need a moment like the exchange between the civilian lawyer hired by the U.S. Army, Joseph Welch, and Sen. Joe McCarthy.
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness,” Welch began. The exchange was about a young lawyer who once belonged to the “Lawyers’ Guild,” a communist front organization. McCarthy would not let up despite Welch’s plea “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator.” Still, McCarthy would not give up.
“You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
That was the line. That brought the shame. We’re still dealing with the Vergangenheitsbewältigung from that era (have you not watched “Oppenheimer”?).
Here’s the facts today. These indictments don’t amount to a hill of beans between now and the primaries, or perhaps the 2024 election. It takes months to litigate these cases. The vision of Trump behind bars is a long-way-off fantasy right now. Trump in a courtroom defending against felony charges—in any venue—is months away. He may never see a courtroom in Fulton County. We just don’t know.
But we do have the opportunity to see the cruelty, the recklessness, the self-worship, of Trump and Trumpism, and in a way that might bring shame upon his supporters. We must be careful however. The obverse side of the coin for shame is humiliation. Humiliating Trump will enflame his supporters even more. Trump is counting on it. He feels no humiliation—only anger—and is willing to project that to his supporters.
This is one of the main reasons why I have taken an unpopular position regarding many of the January 6th rioters. Showing them mercy, instead of prosecuting them to the max, would remove one of Trump’s key selling points: attacks on him are attacks on his supporters. What they need to see is how Trump treats his closest aides as they take the perp walk on Rice Street. They will be abandoned to their fate—many will see prison time, with a promise from Trump for pardons if he’s elected.
It’s time for a national moment where all can see the shame, and those who see it will not be further humiliated. We need them to help heal the country.
I hope that Trump’s visit to the Fulton County Jail might be the moment where we find our Vergangenheitsbewältigung. I don’t have a lot of faith that we’ll have some kind of national repentance, but maybe something will break. That’s my prayer, and I hope it’s yours.