For those of us who were horrified and disgusted by the Trump administration, and even for some who supported it, the last four years have been a period of prolonged traumatization. Now that Biden has won the presidency, we are within sight of the end of this national nightmare. Like many of you, I have been feeling a sense of deep relief, as if a great weight has been removed from my shoulders, and I’ve also felt intense feelings of hope and joy and elation.
We’re hearing a lot of calls now to “reach out” to those who voted for Trump, and there is a lot of talk about how we should forgive, even forgive and forget. I can say, first of all, that I will never forget, and I hope none of us ever does.
If we think of the idea that the Trump years were traumatizing, then we also need to take seriously the idea that we are entering a period of trauma recovery, and that we will be doing the inner work of recovery for a while. In my experience with trauma survivors, forgiveness, when it comes at all, always arrives at the end of the process of recovery, never at the beginning. Most of us will ultimately arrive at that point, because we are good and decent people, but we absolutely should not push ourselves to arrive there prematurely.
One of the tactics in the abusers playbook is to transfer moral responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim. If I’ve hurt you, so the story goes, there’s nothing I can do about that, because you can’t change the past; but it’s your responsibility in the present to forgive me. If you don’t, then you’re “holding onto grudges,” which just isn’t nice of you. If you have friends or family who taunted you and bullied you, who called you a snowflake, who belittled the anguish and fear you felt during the age of Trump, who questioned your patriotism or your intelligence for not supporting him, you may find these same people may now be telling you “let bygones be bygones,” reminding you that “blood is thicker than water,” and even chastising you for letting “mere politics” come between you and them. But our horror and disgust at Trump was never just a political disagreement, it was a moral response to profound immorality. It was the response of our humanity to the regime of a man who spoke to everything that is low and cruel and mean in our national character.
Real trauma recovery can’t begin until the traumatized person returns to some degree of personal safety. So I would ask, do you feel safer today than you did before Biden’s election? People will have different answers to that question. For people of color and other marginalized people, I suspect the answer may well be “no” or “not much.” Many of us will not begin to feel safe until Trump is gone and Biden is in the White House; for others that won’t be enough, either. But maybe there are personal actions you can take to help you feel safer. Maybe you need to take a vacation from the toxic ranting on social media. Maybe you need to spend more time with people who do help you to feel safe, who don’t judge you or make your feelings wrong, who are kind, protective and supportive. Maybe you need to spend more time in nature. Probably we all need to focus on taking good care of ourselves, on eating right and getting sleep, rest, and exercise. Maybe it’s time, for those of us who are so inclined, for more prayer or meditation.
When people are recovering from trauma, they can face a bewildering and frightening flood of intense and seemingly contradictory feelings – from relief, joy, hope and elation, to intense rage, vengefulness, fear, and despair – and back around again. You don’t have to act on any of them. You don’t have to go off on a family member who supported Trump, for instance. All of your feelings will come and go, and none of them is a final take on what you went through. But it is important that you allow yourself to feel and respect whatever arises, and that you find other people who can comprehend and listen to what you feel. But whatever we do, it behooves us not to minimize what we’ve been through, and to focus on being gentle and kind and attentive to ourselves, and toward those we love who have through the same thing.
But while we should not allow ourselves to be guilt-tripped into trying to forgive when we can’t, it is probably within our reach to remember the humanity of our adversaries. Hear this from a man of color who has learned to feel the humanity of others, even those who hate him, even white supremacists. On November 12, 2016, the weekend that Donald Trump won his election, often-controversial comedian Dave Chappelle hosted Saturday Night Live, and said this: “I’m wishing Donald Trump luck, and I’m going to give him a chance, and we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one too.” I think it’s a safe bet that he didn’t feel that the Trump administration heeded those words. But on the evening of the day that Biden’s victory was announced, Chappelle returned to Saturday Night Live, and ended his monologue with this:
“I would implore everybody who’s celebrating today to remember that it’s good to be a humble winner. Remember when I was here four years ago, remember how bad that felt?
“Remember that half the country right now still feels that way. Please remember that. Remember, for the first time in the history of America, life expectancy of white people is dropping because of heroin, because of suicide. All the white people out there that feel that anguish, that pain, they mad because they think nobody cares — maybe they don’t — let me tell you something: I know how that feels. Promise you, I know how that feels.
“If you’re a police officer, and every time you put your uniform on, you feel like you got a target on your back, you’re appalled by the ingratitude that people have when you would risk your life to save them. Believe me, I know how that feels. Everyone knows how that feels.
“But here’s the difference between me and you: You guys hate each other for that, and I don’t hate anybody. I just hate that feeling. That’s what I fight, and what I suggest you fight. You gotta find a way to live your life. You gotta find a way to forgive each other. You gotta find a way to find joy in your existence, in spite of that feeling.”
We find joy in our existence by opening our hearts to our own pain and to that of others. We can do that even when we’re in hell, and even when our hearts are hurting.