Can We Make America Sane Again?
It feels like our country has been in the grip of some form of insanity for a few years now. Our political system has gone berserk, tested by a person who should never have gotten anywhere near real power. Perhaps more surprisingly, Donald Trump has remained, if not popular, at least steady in the approval ratings.
Nothing he has done — from separating children from their parents to maintaining numerous conflicts of financial interest to profoundly mismanaging a deadly pandemic — seems to have put a dent in his approval rating, which has hung around 40% since 2016. It may be that his latest indignity — the assault on the Capitol — will be a breaking point. Maybe, maybe not.
Some smaller percentage of Americans have gone full MAGA, treating facemasks as a threat to their “freedom,” promoting wild-eyed voter fraud conspiracies, and attacking Joe Biden, of all people, as the second coming of Stalin. This group, which seems to include some members of Congress, seems ready to subvert two centuries of democratic tradition to keep this (very unworthy) man in office for a few more years. In short, we have a president who’s gone off the deep end, and a significant percentage of this country has gone with him.
We’re not the first country to suffer from a significant break with reality, and we probably won’t be the last. As America gets ready to wake from these bizarre four years, it may be useful to look at other countries that fell into some sort of collective insanity (I hope it’s obvious that I’m using the term colloquially here, not clinically). How did they get out of it, and how should that guide our country in the days to come?
China‘s descent into unreality
There may be no better example of collective delusion in the twentieth century than Mao’s China in the 1950s and 1960s. Mao presided over some of the deadliest events of the twentieth century. Between 1958 and 1961, his disastrous economic program, the “Great Leap Forward,” resulted in the deaths of at least 30 million people; after a brief period out of power, Mao returned in 1966 to enact the Cultural Revolution, which attempted to eliminate any elements of Chinese society that weren’t completely subservient to Maoism.
Mao’s policies during this period were objectively disastrous — tens of millions died, China’s economy suffered, and the government’s policies were destabilizing when they weren’t actively harmful to the people of China. He maintained power the only way possible under these circumstances — by creating and maintaining mass delusion.
During the Great Leap, when children missed school to make worthless steel and mass collectivization of agriculture led to food shortages, the Communist Party promoted the fiction that everything was wonderful. Propaganda broadcasts told stories of improbably large harvests; communist officials promised to meet production quotas that they knew they could never meet. Officials like Peng Dehuai, the head of the military, who dared to acknowledge the truth — that millions of people were starving to death because of government policy — were ruthlessly purged.
According to memoirist Jung Chang, Mao demonstrated “an almost metaphysical disregard for reality” and would not tolerate anything less from his subordinates (sound familiar?). When the failures of the Great Leap became too great for even Mao to ignore, the officials who took over after him blamed natural disasters for the suffering they had caused; Mao was allowed to retire as a sort of emeritus member of the government.
Five years later, Mao regained power and plunged China even deeper into unreality. He recruited thousands of Red Guards — mostly teenagers — who were given the task of destroying anything in the government or the culture that got in the way of revolution. The Red Guards accused and tortured those who represented the “old” culture of China.
This devolved into a frenzy of backbiting, as more and more things — lipstick, or violins, or the wrong kind of book — became signs of insufficient loyalty to the communist cause. Uncertainty was the point; what had been perfectly normal one day was a sign of counterrevolutionary scheming the next. Relentless propaganda made sure that Chinese citizens either believed the falsehoods the government was peddling or felt like it wasn’t possible to say the truth out loud.
Deng decides to ignore the past
Though the Cultural Revolution slowed after its first couple of years, it didn’t end entirely until Mao died in 1976. The new leaders of China (there was a power struggle for a couple of years until Deng Xiaoping ended up at the top of the heap) had a difficult problem. They wanted to move China away from the unproductive chaos of the Mao years, but the Chinese public had been awash in pro-Mao propaganda for decades. Besides, the leaders of the Communist Party had spent their entire careers loudly proclaiming the genius of Mao Zedong thought.
Because they couldn’t credibly tell the truth about the Mao years, the leaders of the new China decided to mostly ignore the matter. There was a brief period right after Mao’s death in which “scar literature” told the truth about the Mao years, especially the Cultural Revolution, the excesses of which were largely blamed on the “Gang of Four” led by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. By 1980, however, Deng, worried that the criticism of the Mao years might lead to criticism of the present leadership, ruled that this had gone far enough. It became unwise to speak openly of China’s painful past.
Many people who had bought into the ideology of the Cultural Revolution were wrong-footed by this brief period of truthfulness. Take college students as an example. During the Cultural Revolution, students had been evaluated almost entirely on their loyalty to the regime. In 1977, the government announced that college entrance exams — which would test students on academic knowledge, not party orthodoxy — would be held for the first time in 12 years.
People of several generations (the age cutoff for the test was 37, in a nod to those whose educations had been interrupted under Mao) scrambled to find adequate textbooks to prepare. Young people who had gotten ahead through political loyalty to the regime were suddenly left in the dust. The government didn’t issue much in the way of an explanation — this was just the way things were now, and people should get on board if they want to get ahead.
The Party did not abandon or repudiate Mao, despite the fact that many of its post-Mao leaders understood exactly how harmful Mao had been (Deng spent time in and out of jail during the Cultural Revolution, and current leader Xi Jinping’s father was disgraced during that era as well). Deng slowly and pragmatically redefined Maoist socialism, eventually characterizing it as whatever raised the standard of living for the Chinese people. What Deng didn’t change was the role of the Communist Party — he declared that, without its leadership, China would become a “heap of loose sand.”
Deng understood that if the truth came out that the Communist Party’s key figure had been a disaster, and China under Deng was becoming less communist, people might ask why the Party should rule China at all. So Deng and his successors kept Mao’s portrait up in Tiananmen Square, and the party has attempted to turn Mao into a kindly figure from the past, a George Washington for Communist China. Many of China’s leaders between Mao and Xi were low-key technocrats; they let Mao be the face of the party for them.
The 40th anniversary of Mao’s death in 2016 demonstrated China’s official attitude toward these years of mass delusion. The government held a number of low-profile events to remember Mao’s legacy, while making it clear to people who might have something critical to say about him that their comments were not welcome. When western news outlets asked questions about sensitive periods during Mao’s rule, Chinese scholars demurred.
The Chinese approach to their years of insanity was like that of a family that simply refuses to discuss an embarrassing or painful incident. China’s leaders found a way to essentially ignore the atrocities of the Mao years, and made it clear to their citizens that they should do so, too. Of course, many people in China remember the Mao years because they lived through them, and speak in private about those days, but there is an unhealthy public silence around those years. This has allowed the Communist Party to maintain control and to use Mao as a symbol that hearkens back to a sanitized version of the Chinese past. In doing so, they’ve been able to manufacture a history that serves the needs of the Communist Party.
The party’s official version of history — which seeks to downplay China’s own mistakes and emphasize aggression from enemies like Japan and the U.S. — has allowed it to suppress people’s movements for more democracy. This has been very good for the party, but terrible for China as a whole; the so-called “fifth modernization” of democracy seems farther away than ever in China.
Argentina’s Dirty War
Between 1976 and 1983, Argentinians were oppressed by their own government. The “Dirty War,” as it came to be called, began as a way for the military junta in Argentina to root out what it described as a dangerous leftist movement that permeated every part of Argentine society.
The junta had taken control after a chaotic series of events in which former ruler Juan Peron had returned from exile, ruled for a short time, and then died, leaving his wife Isabel (who had been his vice president) in charge of the country. During the early 1970s, pro- and anti-Peronist forces had formed militias and terrorist groups, and there had been a wave of left-wing terrorism in which businessmen were kidnapped and government figures were assassinated.
When the junta, led by President Jorge Rafael Videla, took power in 1976, they exaggerated the size and scope of the guerilla movement in order to justify their overreach. Backed by the United States, which saw the military as an ally against communism, they embarked on what they called the “Proceso” — a “Process of National Reorganization,” in which anyone who was suspected of leftist leanings or associations was abducted, tortured, or killed without due process. The junta portrayed this as a war, which it wasn’t — terrorists killed several hundred people in the 1970s, but the government response, which killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people, was wholly disproportionate.
Like Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Dirty War was designed to gaslight people and turn them against each other. Bonds of friendship or even family that had once been solid were now suspect, as people didn’t know who to trust. The government’s tactics were also intentionally disorienting. People weren’t arrested by police, they were “disappeared” in the middle of the night. The disappeared were never charged with a crime; their relatives didn’t know where they were, or even whether they were still alive.
Sometimes, the disappeared would return home. Sometimes they wouldn’t, and their bodies would never be found (the military sometimes threw bodies out of airplanes over the ocean to eliminate the evidence). The government sometimes even denied that the disappeared people had ever existed. Five hundred children were taken from women who gave birth in custody and given to other families; no records were kept that would allow these families to reclaim their relatives.
Many people in the country believed the government’s exaggerations and joined in the hunt for communists; this destroyed friendships and families. Many more simply became accustomed to the new state of affairs. These people, who Sebastian Carassai calls Argentina’s “silent majority,” were happy to believe the state’s claims at face value and focus their attention elsewhere. They tacitly adjusted to accept the state’s cruelty and its rationales for being cruel, joking about the oppression. One TV comedian, Alberto Omedo, even staged his own disappearance to poke fun at the new normal.
Argentina faces the past
After the regime fell — a consequence of brave protests by the mothers of the disappeared and the junta’s blunders in the Falklands War — Argentina had been through nearly a decade of lies, division, and gaslighting. The new democratic government, led by President Raúl Alfonsín, had a difficult choice. Alfonsín could have easily chosen to sweep all of the unpleasantness of the past decade under the rug in the name of “moving on” or “bringing the country together.” Indeed, the Peronist Party, which he had defeated, had run on a platform of providing amnesty for the military leaders. Instead, Alfonsín chose to shine a light on what had happened and bring those responsible to justice.
The new government formed a commission called CONADEP (Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, or National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons). CONADEP was the first attempt by a country to wrestle with its own period of madness, unprompted by an occupying power. The government bravely decided to dig into the nation’s messy past. The commission was formed only five days after he took office and embarked on the difficult task of unearthing all of Argentina’s terrible secrets from the Dirty War.
CONADEP wasn’t perfect, but it shone a remarkable amount of light on Argentina’s past. Its landmark report, Nunca Mas, catalogued in detail the crimes of the previous regimes. The commission took 50,000 pages of depositions, documented 300 secret sites connected to the Dirty War, and proved that the military was responsible for at least 8,000 deaths (experts think that the real figure is somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000). The report has been a bestseller in Argentina ever since its publication in 1984. The members of the junta and hundreds of other perpetrators were put on trial, in the first war crimes trial since Nuremberg and the only example of a democratic government prosecuting the dictatorship that it replaced.
Some have criticized the CONADEP report for not delving deeply enough into what the Dirty War did to Argentine society, and the report’s findings have not always been taken seriously by the government (in 2013, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner appointed a general who had been accused of human rights violations to a top post). But Argentina’s efforts to expose its past failing have inspired efforts in a number of other countries. Similar commissions were formed in Chile, Uganda, Nepal, El Salvador, Guatemala, South Africa, and Rwanda. Not all of them were successful or fair, but the idea of a truth commission has become a standard approach in countries that are coming out of a period of national madness. Many of these efforts have gone some way toward healing nations. Dag Hammarskjold said that the UN was “not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.” In this spirit, we can say that truth commissions like those that Argentina inspired have done their job.
The awful events that happened in both Argentina and China far outstrip our own American experience during the Trump years, but it’s clear that our country has been through significant trauma. Hundreds of thousands of people have died from a pandemic, our democratic norms have been shredded, and public trust in the government — and in each other — is lower than ever. Because of technological and cultural forces, many of us are living in completely different epistemic universes from one another.
Our new leaders will have to decide whether to follow China’s lead and plow ahead as though things are normal or to be like Argentina, turning over some rocks and looking at whatever’s underneath. The latter process may be messy, but it will be much more likely to help us to move on from our years of madness.