Who decides what happened yesterday? Americans are in a fierce fight to control the national narrative

Friday, February 19, 2021, The Globe and Mail

“He who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future,” wrote George Orwell in his iconic work, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Or, put differently, as I asked in my book, Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History, who gets to decide what happened yesterday?

Orwell’s statement, and my question, were written upon a subliminal screen that hovered over the U.S. Senate chamber last week. For what took place in that famed history-soaked room was a critical contest of competing narratives about how Americans, and the world at large, will understand the country whose myth making describes itself as “the city on the hill,” as an example to everyone of how they should live and govern.

Donald Trump, an Orwellian-style demagogue, controls the present by terrifying Republican lawmakers worried about their careers into supporting his lie about incitement to violence: a not-guilty verdict in a presidential impeachment trial where the truth was plainly evident to all. As for the past, Mr. Trump’s lawyers sought to control that narrative with a strategy mirroring that of the former president: lies, personal insults and rage, all performed as on a stage, in order to impress their master of their presumed devotion and to project energy to his base. As for the future, now that he has been exonerated by the same sycophants he refused to protect, Mr. Trump will continue to manipulate what was once the Grand Old Party as he upsets the equilibrium of the U.S. political system of checks and balances.

Who gets to decide what happened yesterday in America? According to Mr. Trump and his acolytes, nothing demanding high-level accountability happened on Jan. 6. He was exercising free speech, they argued. He never actually told anyone to break into the seat of government, assault the police, or hang Mike Pence. His language may have been coarse (tsk, tsk), but no more reprehensible than that of the lying Democrats.

In his 1983 book, Imagined Communities, political scientist Benedict Anderson wrote that nations comprise a socially constructed community that is conjured into being by people who consider themselves members of the group. It is, of course, possible to imagine more than one community within a nation, which is what has happened in the United States (and elsewhere); but competing intrastate nationalisms are dangerous. For this reason, many leaders try to impose a single narrative, especially after periods of crisis.

More than 20 years ago I travelled across four continents to research the question of fictional national narratives. I asked myself, how do nations reshape the story of the recent past after times of crisis? It was a time of reckoning in many places. South Africa was emerging from decades of apartheid rule and hoping to avoid civil war with a truth and reconciliation commission, while the African National Congress invented a narrative called “The Rainbow Nation” in hopes of creating a workable racially diverse community. Japan was in the throes of a culture war over crimes committed in China back in the 1930s. There was violence; a historian of my acquaintance lost his job for teaching the facts in his classes; a battle emerged over what was written in history textbooks. In Germany, the country of official war apologies and reparations, what was known as the Historians’ Debate had been questioning the established narrative of German guilt by suggesting that Stalin may have been worse than Hitler. And in France, where the postwar fiction of an all-encompassing resistance to the occupying Nazis – an invention devised by General Charles de Gaulle in order to prevent civil violence – had recently been collapsing after decades. The U.S. was arguing over building a monument to the slaves on the Washington Mall – an initiative that failed. Along with Japan, the U.S. was the only country I studied that had not seriously come to grips with a legacy of major crisis, in its case the never-ending repercussions of slavery.

Starting this week, America is trapped in a “narratives interregnum” – a situation that will ultimately affect the way the country is viewed by its own citizens and by the world at large. The struggle for ideological control of the Republican Party will have lasting reverberations, but those who believe that QAnon fantasists can co-exist with traditional conservatives may be mistaken: they underestimate the lengths Mr. Trump will go to maintain domination. The best way for the GOP to regain respect domestically and internationally will be to split apart – to let the Trump faction go its way while creating a new entity that adheres to the democratic values of the commonwealth. In the short term, these Republicans may live in the political wilderness. In the longer term, history suggests that the pendulum will rebalance itself and Trumpism will be seen as an aberration.

Either way, there will be a long, hard battle, perhaps comprising years, between the competing narratives of what will make America great again. The U.S. has proved itself resilient in the past. This time, the entire world will be watching with apprehension.

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