One of the most quoted lines in American nonfiction is Joan Didion’s “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It’s the first sentence of “The White Album,” an essay in which Didion recounts some facts, some images, and some reporting notes from 1968. Didion felt that she had lost the ability to string the stuff of stories into narratives, and, as a result, life itself seemed to drain away. She was plagued with symptoms that were variously interpreted as neurological or psychiatric—or, after the fact, by Didion herself, as a normal reaction to 1968, which could have given anyone a case of vertigo and nausea. Outwardly, she appeared to function, except when she didn’t, when her mind was besieged by disconnected phrases and an overwhelming sense of existential dread, apparently insurmountable for being well founded.
Nations, in this way, are like people: they cannot survive without a story. A common sense of past and future, a broad agreement on organizational principles, trust that your neighbors near and distant share a general understanding of reality and current events—all of these are necessary for any kind of politics to function. American politics right now are like Didion’s life in 1968: a jumble of fragments, a thin veneer of functionality, and an abyss of well-founded existential fear. At this moment, we are deciding whether we will try to forge a coherent story.
During the first impeachment of Donald Trump, in November, 2019, I wrote that it was impossible to observe the hearings without first choosing between two non-overlapping views of reality, two different stories. In one story, Trump had repeatedly abused power and was finally facing impeachment for a particularly egregious incident of abuse. In the other, Democrats had been trying to get Trump for years and had finally latched on to an inconsequential incident, staging a witch trial to get rid of the President. This week, the Republican Party is still closing ranks around the President, with a mere ten exceptions in the House. Wednesday’s impeachment hearing, like the first, was legible only through one of two frames: either Trump organized an attempted coup and was being impeached for it, or, as Representative Jim Jordan, of Ohio, claimed in his speech on the House floor, “It’s always been about getting the President no matter what. It’s an obsession.”
Although several Republican representatives acknowledged that the violence at the Capitol on January 6th was terrifying, condemnable, and un-American, some of them compared it to Black Lives Matter protests, or what they imagined the Black Lives Matter protests to be. “Make no mistake, the left in America has incited far more political violence than the right,” Representative Matt Gaetz, of Florida, said. “For months, our cities burned, police stations burned, our businesses were shattered, and they said nothing.” By this logic, since no one was impeached for, say, the property damage sustained in Minneapolis last year during the protests of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police, no one should be impeached for inciting chaos at the Capitol.
President-elect Joe Biden released a statement several hours after the House voted on the motion to impeach. This timing seemed designed to signal that impeachment is not one of Biden’s top priorities. “I hope that the Senate leadership will find a way to deal with their Constitutional responsibilities on impeachment while also working on the other urgent business of this nation,” the statement read. Over all, Biden has distanced himself from the proceedings, underscoring that he sees his job as getting his Cabinet seated, speeding up vaccine distribution, and passing his economic-relief package. On Thursday, barely more than twenty-four hours after the impeachment vote, Biden gave a speech in which he made no mention of it, or Trump, or January 6th.
Most Democrats in the House have based their calls for impeachment on the claim that Trump is a “clear and present danger” and must be removed from office immediately. Framed this way, the process does seem to lose its urgency after Trump has moved out of the White House. The backers of impeachment will then shift their focus on the imperative to prevent Trump from ever running for office again. As malignant as Trump is, though, can the task of banning him from federal office be as urgent as legislative measures that will have a material impact on the lives and health of millions of Americans?
As long as the proceedings are narrowly focussed on Trump, the case for urgency will grow only harder to make. Instead, the goal of the Senate trial should be defined as finding and telling the truth about the insurrection. My colleague Jill Lepore has taken up the question of what we ought to call the events of January 6th. “Any formulation is a non-starter if it diminishes the culpability of people in positions of power who perpetrated the lie that the election was stolen,” she wrote. The task before the Senate, then, ought to be to produce the first draft of those history books.
Too often, we think that trials, whether in the courts or in the Senate, exist to mete out punishment—that they need to establish the facts only to the extent necessary to decide on the charges brought before them and determine the appropriate penalties. But, as of next week, whether Trump should be removed from office will no longer be an operative question. A Senate trial focussed only on Trump may not hold the attention of the media, the public, or even the lawmakers themselves. And if the trial in the Senate sputters out, the story of January 6th will be told in dozens or even hundreds of separate trials, in federal courts located in different states. Different judges will be deciding whether different defendants were guilty of trespassing, damaging federal property, assaulting officers and journalists, and taking part in an insurrection. It will not be the job of any of these judges to paint a comprehensive picture of what happened on January 6th, what led up to the insurrection, and what made it possible.
In the absence of such a story, the task of preventing future insurrections will fall to the F.B.I. and the uniformed services. Security in the Capitol and the capital will be permanently increased; domestic surveillance will grow in scale. In other words, the U.S. will respond to this crisis the way that it has responded to other crises: with securitization and the curtailment of political rights. The grave term “domestic terrorist,” which has gathered much traction in the past week, paves the way for just such a response. But the insurrectionists were not terrorists. Their primary purpose was not to inspire terror in the general population; their purpose was to prevent the elected President from taking office. Unlike most terrorists, they acted directly upon their target, going to the seat of political power in the United States and attempting to seize power, following what they perceived as orders from the President of the United States.
Reframing the Senate trial of Trump as a truth-finding mission rather than a punitive undertaking requires a voice more authoritative than that of any one senator or even a majority of the Senate. It requires the voice of President-elect Biden. Such a proposition runs against all of Biden’s political instincts: the idea that he should focus on his own Administration and his legislative agenda; the tradition of moving on in the name of healing; the knowledge that getting things done in the Senate is the process of counting votes, negotiating, making concessions; the desire to get results in the most efficient way possible.
An attempt to tell the story of the insurrection—and the story of the Trump Presidency, which made it possible—would not be efficient. It would have to be sprawling, ambitious, grand. It would require the President-elect and senators to use their full political and intellectual muscle. This needs to be done not because it is necessary to punish and banish Trump, but because this country cannot rely only on snatches of stories that float haphazardly through non-overlapping realities. Biden certainly fears that insisting on a deep and broad Senate trial would further alienate Trump’s supporters. But if impeachment is allowed to fizzle, or even to proceed in the most efficient way possible, that will guarantee nearly half of Americans will watch the process without having to challenge the notion that the Democrats are simply out to get Trump. Can they be pulled in by a more detailed, more truthful, and undoubtedly more troubling story? We cannot know—but without telling a story we cannot live.