Truth After Trump

The case for a truth commission in the United States

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House Washington, DC on July 22.
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House Washington, DC on July 22. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

One of the first and potentially most delicate challenges for the President-elect Joe Biden is deciding what to do with the Trump administration’s legacy of corruption, incompetence, and abuse of power. An obvious approach is to let bygones be bygones, which is the norm in American politics. It is what the Ford administration did in the wake of Watergate, including issuing a pardon to former President Richard Nixon. It is also the approach that President Barack Obama adopted when it confronted the George W. Bush administration’s policies in Iraq. Some of them, including the use of torture on suspected terrorists, are internationally recognized as war crimes.

Biden shouldn’t be so quick to forget and move on. A compelling case can be made that the Trump administration’s political misdeeds, especially those that stand in direct violation of universal human-rights norms, are deserving of a different approach: a truth commission, a quintessential practice of the international human-rights movement for holding former leaders and political regimes accountable for their human rights abuses.

For many, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about truth commissions is South America in the twilight of the Cold War. It was in Argentina that truth commissions first drew international attention by becoming a key component in that country’s successful transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappeared met for nine months between 1983-84 to document the political excesses of the country’s notorious Dirty War, including the forced disappearance and presumed murder of an estimated 30,000 political dissidents. Its final report, Nunca Más (Never Again), which was published in English in 1986, became an international best-seller.

It would be a mistake, though, to think of truth commissions as the sole province of transitional democracies like Argentina in the 1980s. In recent years, truth commissions have been embraced by older, Western democracies to address large-scale human rights violations. In 2007, for example, Canada established a truth commission to document the terrible legacy of the Indian Residential Schools, a network of government-run institutions that separated thousands of Indigenous children from their families and communities. Dating to the 1920s, the program made attendance in the residential schools compulsory for Indigenous children ages seven-16 as part of a policy of so-called aggressive assimilation. The truth commission was part of a court-ordered settlement that also included a formal government apology and a $1.8 billion payout to the surviving students.

Truth be told, truth commissions leave a lot to be desired. They are a poor substitute for justice since they can allow even the most egregious human-rights abusers to get away with impunity in exchange for information. Indeed, one of the principal means by which a truth commission is able to gather the full story is by offering amnesty to those implicated in wrongdoing. That tactic was most famously employed by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), founded in 1995 to chronicle systemic racial discrimination under Apartheid. Although the TRC is widely seen as one of the most successful truth commissions in history, many South Africans resent the fact that no one from the old regime has ever faced prosecution.

Truth commissions are also known to have a problematic relationship with the truth. In an effort to put victims, rather than their oppressors, at the center of the search for facts, those in charge of truth commissions tend to privilege oral recollections as the primary source of evidence. But these recollections are often hazy, incomplete, and faulty either because the events in question are long in the past or because of the trauma caused by the events themselves. Moreover, truth commissions can complicate the process of national reconciliation by reviving the memory of a difficult and painful history. Although a core tenet of the human-rights movement is that remembering the past is a moral imperative for any civilized, democratic society, some degree of forgetting is also necessary for any country to get past traumatic historical events.

That said, truth commissions remain a very useful tool for coping with the crimes and misdeeds of a departed political administration, especially human-rights violations, which explains their worldwide popularity. They can serve to restore dignity to the victimized while allowing for some degree of redemption for those willing to admit to their complicity with human-rights abuses. Truth commissions can also be a catalyst for human-rights prosecutions, such as Argentina’s “trial of the generals,” which convicted the country’s military junta to life in prison, and for reforming state institutions with the intention of deterring future human-rights abuses. They can also lead to the creation of ministries charged with promoting and policing human rights, to reforms to the state’s security apparatus, to reparations for the victims of state-sponsored human-rights abuses, and to constitutional provisions intended to strengthen human rights.

Most importantly, perhaps, truth commissions create an official narrative of past wrongdoing that countries can employ to help ensure that history is not repeated. The final report of Argentina’s truth commission has been incorporated in school curricula to teach children about the value of respecting human rights and motivated the creation of museums and memorials honoring the victims of the Dirty War. South Africa’s truth commission has inspired numerous documentaries, exhibitions, and works of fiction. One product of Canada’s truth commission was the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba. It houses the archives of the truth commission and organizes a wide range of activities about the history of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

Among the benefits of a truth commission in the United States will be to help expose the Trump administration’s full depravity and venality. The most compelling charges for any potential prosecution of outgoing President Donald Trump by the Biden administration would be perjury (for offering false testimony to the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 general elections); public corruption (for using the presidency to enrich himself); and obstruction of justice (for firing FBI Director James Comey). Prosecution under these charges will undoubtedly strengthen the rule of law, which under Trump has taken a blow. But observers should not expect much in the way of shedding light on the Trump administration’s atrocious human-rights record. What is known about this record warrants a serious investigation.

Under Trump’s watch, the State Department downgraded the importance of human rights in U.S. foreign policy and withdrew the United States from the U.N. Human Rights Council over the Council’s treatment of Israel. Trump also embraced the world’s most notorious human-rights violators, including Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who the State Department has accused of overseeing “unlawful killings and torture” as well as “enforced disappearances,” and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, famous for having said that he would like to “slaughter” drug dealers “just like Hitler killed Jews during the Holocaust.” Little wonder that just one year into the administration, Human Rights Watch’s 2017 report warned that Trump’s policies threatened to “reverse the accomplishments of the modern human-rights movement.” When the Trump administration directly engaged with human rights, in 2020, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “Report on the Commission on Unalienable Rights,” it brazenly conceptualized human rights as entailing property rights and freedom of religion. The report pointedly skirted the real core of the matter: the intrinsic dignity of every human life; the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, and freedom of opinion and expression.

The problem wasn’t just rhetoric. Trump’s policies have created an untold number of human-rights victims. A truth commission will not erase this legacy, but it will assist in restoring the dignity taken from its victims and open the way for prosecutions and reparations. Most famously, the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy forcibly separated approximately 2,500 children (many of them under the age of five) from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border. The children were housed in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities described as “cages” in the media; as “concentration camps” by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; and as “internment camps used by Japanese-Americans during World War II” by former first lady Laura Bush. A report by Americans for Immigration Freedom, a nonprofit legal organization, which drew on interviews with 9,500 minors conducted in 2019, found that nearly 1 in 10 had been verbally abused by CBP officers, while 147 said that they had been subjected to physical abuse. More than 40 percent reported a lack of adequate food and water during their detention. Some 700 children remain under custody because the Trump administration did not bother to keep any records at the time it deported their parents.

American citizens are also among the victims of the Trump administration’s human-rights abuses, starting with the LGBTQ community. Among Trump’s first actions as president was to revoke the Obama administration’s transgender student guidance for schools, which extended Title IX protections to transgender students; Trump also declared a ban on transgender people serving in the military and fought to prevent LGBT protection under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He demonized minority communities, having described an African-American majority district in the City of Baltimore as “a disgusting, rat-infested mess,” after the district congressional representative, the late Elijah Cummings, criticized the poor conditions at Trump’s migrant detention centers. Trump’s Justice Department authorized the gassing of thousands of ordinary Americans for protesting peacefully on Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square as part of the national reckoning with racial injustice. Last, but not least, Trump put politics ahead of science when confronting the COVID-19 pandemic, which so far has killed about 250,000 Americans.

Beyond committing the Trump administration’s misdeeds to the public record in painful detail, the most important benefit of a truth commission would be to give a much-needed boost to the American human-rights movement. It will establish an historical precedent for handling presidential misbehavior while bolstering America’s capacity to promote human rights around the world. It is an understatement to say that when it comes to human rights, the United States has often failed to practice what it preaches. This inconsistency mirrors the very strange career of human rights in American history. Even though notable Americans, especially former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, played a leading role in drafting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the fact that human rights are rooted in the United States’ foundational documents, especially the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, during the Cold War conservatives successfully branded human rights as foreign and un-American. This stigma has hindered the capacity of U.S. social movements—from the Civil Rights movement to the LGBTQ rights movement—to use the language and practices of human rights, including truth commissions, to advance their objectives.

Even though the creation of a truth commission to examine the human-rights abuses of the Trump administration would only require an executive order, it would still face an uphill struggle. Because of the political polarization of the moment, it is almost a given that the Republican leadership in Washington will label any investigation of the human-rights abuses of the Trump administration a partisan undertaking, and maybe even try to use the historical association of truth commissions with nations with a history of authoritarian rule to discredit the idea as unbecoming of the United States. But the climate for truth commissions in the United States has never been more auspicious.

Last June, following a spate of killings of African Americans by the police and in the midst of a massive wave of protests across American cities against systemic racism led by the civil rights organization Black Lives Matter, California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee introduced a bill calling for the creation of the U.S. Commission on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation. Its task will be to examine the historical legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws. Several cities, including San Francisco and Boston, have announced plans to create a truth commission to examine police brutality as well.

Given the unprecedented assault on American democracy by the Trump administration, it is far too risky to fall back on the default mode of letting bygones be bygones. The most important take-away from the 2020 general election is that while Trump was defeated, Trumpism was not. But harnessing the resources and prestige of the U.S. government to expose the whole truth about Trumpism, especially its contempt for basic human rights, will go a long way towards ensuring its passing.

Omar G. Encarnación is a professor of political studies at Bard College and author of Democracy without Justice in Spain: The Politics of Forgetting.