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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The trauma of the Trump years is being rewritten

Former President Donald Trump at Hotel Fort Des Moines, in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. “Americans rehabilitate ex-presidents all the time,” Charles M. Blow writes. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times).

By Charles M. Blow

Americans rehabilitate ex-presidents all the time.

It was fascinating to see the rebranding of George W. Bush — the man who took us into the disastrous Iraq War and horribly bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina — into a charming amateur artist who played buddies with and passed candy to Michelle Obama.

And it didn’t just happen for him. The Monica Lewinsky scandal faded in our consideration of Bill Clinton. Barack Obama’s reliance on drone strikes and his moniker “deporter in chief” rarely receive mention now.

This is because our political memories aren’t fixed, but are constantly being adjusted. Politicians’ negatives are often diminished and their positives inflated. As Gallup noted in 2013, “Americans tend to be more charitable in their evaluations of past presidents than they are when the presidents are in office.”

Without a doubt, Donald Trump benefits from this phenomenon. The difference is that other presidents’ shortcomings pale in comparison to his and his benefit isn’t passive: He’s seeking the office again and, as part of that, working to rewrite the history of his presidency. His desperate attempts, first to cling to power, then to regain it, include denying the 2020 election results and embracing the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection that his denials helped fuel.

His revisionism has worked remarkably well, particularly among Republicans. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted in December found that Republicans “are now less likely to believe that Jan. 6 participants were ‘mostly violent,’ less likely to believe Trump bears responsibility for the attack and are slightly less likely to view Joe Biden’s election as legitimate” than they were in 2021.

This is one of the truly remarkable aspects of the current presidential cycle: the degree to which our collective memory of Trump’s litany of transgressions have become less of a political problem for him than might otherwise be expected. Even the multiple legal charges he now faces are almost all about things that happened years ago and, to many citizens, involve things that the country should put in the rearview mirror.

Indeed, in the same poll, 43% of Americans and 80% of 2020 Trump voters said they believe that the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol was an event that the country needed to move on from.

Many Americans experienced the Trump years as traumatic, and one of the most bewildering aspects of this year’s presidential race is the way that so many other Americans are disregarding or downgrading that trauma.

In 2021, a study was published about how we remember political events, specifically examining recollections about two watershed moments, one being Trump’s election in 2016. The study’s lead author, Linda J. Levine, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, wrote, “People exaggerated when remembering how angry they had felt about the political events but underestimated their feelings of happiness and fear.”

This is part of what she describes as “memory reconstruction,” the updating of our memories of the past to reflect our current feelings and beliefs. And what it says to me is that many of us have a clearer recollection of our indignation from 2016, but have developed a hazier recollection of the sense of foreboding that hung in the air during the years that followed.

I’m not sure that people — not just Republicans — are fully remembering what it felt like, just a few years ago, to wake up every morning having to brace themselves before checking the news because they didn’t know what fresh outrage awaited them.

I’m not sure that people are fully remembering the constant chaos or the disorienting feeling of the stream of lies flowing from the Trump White House.

I’m not sure that people are remembering the family separation policy, the “very fine people” refrain or the tossing of rolls of paper towels in Puerto Rico after a hurricane ravaged the island.

Too many people have settled into a hagiographic view of Trump’s presidency, even though you can make a solid case that today’s economy is stronger than the one Trump left behind, and that Trump did — and still does — gush over the world’s dictators and agitate America’s allies.

D. Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky, told me this week that “voters are usually only responding to fairly recent memories and fairly recent messaging.” As he put it, “Candidates can fairly easily put their past behind them.”

This electoral quirk is an outgrowth of human nature. Staying in moments of apprehension is so emotionally expensive and consumes so much energy that we often allow ourselves to grow numb to them or diminish them.

But the threat that Trump poses to our country hasn’t diminished. It has increased. He keeps saying things — he won’t be a dictator “except for Day 1” — that demonstrate he is not only a danger to the country, but also to the world order.

And in the end, that is the most important issue in this election, not Biden’s memory, or disagreements over his foreign policy, or migrants at the border or economic anxiety. You can’t make the country better without saving it first.

Those fighting to save our democracy can never lose sight of that, particularly since many of those supporting Trump now see his multifarious sins through rose-tinted glasses.

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1 Kommentar

Deborah Marchant
Deborah Marchant
17. Feb.

Hi, this is a reminder that unconscious death anxiety is the hidden influence that has people forgetting.

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