It’s like we’re in an endless car ride with a drunk at the wheel. No one knows when the pain will stop.  

Psychologist Daphne De Marneffe, on our current traumas

The events of the last month or so have gotten me thinking a lot about the issue of closure. Many of us were happy to see 2020 come to an end and anticipate something better for the new year. But the political closure many were looking for in November in the change of presidents from Donald Trump to Joe Biden was deferred by Trump and his supporters’ refusal to acknowledge the election results. Trump’s persistent claims that the election was “rigged” boiled over on January 6 in the riotous storming of the Capitol Building. Trump’s supporters came with their own closure issues, determined to stop the lawful counting of the ballots of the Electoral College, and thereby prevent Trump’s removal from power. 

The National Mall, Presidential Inauguration, January 2021. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Biden’s inauguration on January 20 was strangely serene, due in large part to pandemic. The usual crowds were replaced by rows of flags, artfully arranged on the lawn between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. It stood not only as a reminder of the strangeness of this time in our national history, but as a stark contrast from the scene in the same place just a few weeks before, during the insurrection at the Capitol. The inauguration was, in other words, an exercise in closure: an attempt to put a punctuation point on the chaos and trauma not only of  January 6, but of 2020 and the entire Trump era. 

If I am in any way representative, the scenes and choreography of the inauguration did offer some respite from what has seemed like the unending distress of the last four years. But have Americans really gotten the closure they need? Is closure really ever possible in the field of politics?

Closure is a classic topic in literary criticism. It refers to the way a poem, story, novel, or film produces that satisfactory feeling of resolution, ”the sense of an ending.” It is the ”happily ever after” conclusion of a fairy tale or a romance, the dance at the end of a Shakespearean comedy, or the hero’s death in a tragedy. But it also refers to a psychological need to end pain, ambiguity, or distress. At the very end of last year, pop singer Taylor Swift released a song called ”Closure,” sung from the perspective of a lover who refuses to let go of her anger and pain over a failed relationship, who refuses to give, or get, psychological closure. 

The satisfactions of literary closure are linked to the psychological desire for the resolution to pain or trauma. And between the COVID pandemic, the economic crisis, and the former administration’s various assaults on American democracy, decency, and the very concept of truth, many Americans have indeed experienced enduring, relentless trauma. Literary closure also has a political dimension: a satisfactory ending is often the moment when conflict is resolved, or when a sense of order–moral, political, or otherwise–is restored or justified. 

In this sense, the inauguration, just one week later, feels now like a pause in the ongoing trauma. COVID vaccinations are only beginning to roll out, even as new, more contagious strains are emerging. Though Trump said goodbye to Washington on the morning of January 20 with an anticlimactic ”Have a good life,” it hardly feels like the national narrative he dominated for years is in any way concluded. This is true both for his most fervent supporters and staunchest critics.

Jake Angeli in October 2020. He was a prominent presence in the January 6 riot at the Capitol.

Among Trump’s fringiest supporters are followers of QAnon, which involves its adherents in a conspiratorial collective narrative featuring an evil cabal of ”liberal elites”– politicians, media figures, and various other celebrities–who have bent the apparatus of the state to cover up heinous crimes including murder, pedophilia, and cannibalism. At the center of this unhinged story is their hero Trump, who as president has been plotting with various members of the US military to sweep in and destroy the conspiracy. QAnon believers often fantasize about violent closure, in the form of retribution against the evil-doers: once they have been rounded up, Trump and his allies will hold military tribunals, followed by firing squads and public hangings.

QAnon believers have been patient, but they have waited for this cathartic closure with no satisfaction.  Some were drawn to Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6, in anticipation that this would be the day when Trump finally unleashed the ”storm” that would bring their desired resolution. When that didn’t happen, some turned their hopes to Biden’s inauguration day. Maybe Trump would start rounding up his enemies in his final hours as president. With these disappointments, some Q Anon adherents may have lost faith in the conspiracy theory. But others, surely, will go on adjusting the narrative, in hopes of getting the closure they have pinned their hopes on for so long. 

For Trump’s opponents there is a similar desire, and need, for closure to the Trump era and its authoritarian assaults on democracy and on the racial and other divisions Trump actively fomented. But we know how Trump’s story has gone so far. If the narrative of the Trump era is to be one of an incompetent and immoral demagogue who finally gets his comeuppance, thereby restoring something like the moral and political order (and a psychological sense of relief), then we have reason to fear disappointment. After all, Trump is the guy who inherited a fortune,  cheated his way into college, bounced back from bankruptcy, fended off 26 separate accusations of sexual misconduct, improbably won a presidential election, and was acquitted of all charges in his first impeachment. 

The Trump story so far seems more like a rogue’s tale of one misadventure after another, with the rogue always landing more or less unscathed. Will the second impeachment stick? Will his debts and business failures finally catch up to him? Will his various accusers finally get their day in court? Will there be meaningful reforms to repair the laws and norms that Trump broke? Will Americans ever get the closure and reconciliation they both need and desire? It’s a cliffhanger: stay tuned.

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