Stories teach us and transform us. They have the power to make us connect and understand the disordered fragments of our experience.
To get through the next few weeks and months, the U.S. is in desperate need of an authentically real story—a Maileresque chronicle that would account for the events of January 6, explain the power that Trump still holds over the masses, and set us right for what may come.
You can’t exorcise the past, but you can explain it. Masha Gessen writes that for politics to function, we need stories to give us 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.”
Which is just what we don’t have. A coherent story might be the only way to convince the outliers and secessionists that the truth is not what they think it is. Joanna Weiss proposes that the Trump era is like something out of Mad Men or The Sopranos. Perhaps it’s the story of a television antihero, sucked into a life of atrocity and paying (or avoiding paying) the price for it:
once Trump leaves office for good, the prizes that have fed his appetite and driven his presidency—adulation, importance, obsessive attention—will be gone. History will cement him as a one-term president who entered the political world in a dramatic escalator ride, and exited clinging to the tablecloth as the chinaware went crashing to the floor.
Or maybe the story goes like this, as Jonathan Chait tells it: Trump “is impeached again, but his trial is delayed until after his departure date. It feels as if we have spent four years watching the wheels come off, yet the vehicle somehow still keeps rolling forward.” But now the beast may be fatally wounded, “undergoing a cascading sequence of political, financial, and legal setbacks that cumulatively spell utter ruin. Trump is not only losing his job but quite possibly everything else.”
It’s a common trope—the villain gets his just desserts—but very likely the just desserts in this case never arrive. The fish is never landed, the thug escapes capture. There are many uncertainties as to how this story will end.
None of these circumstances should keep writers from using the powers of narrative to tell us what really happened. The unity that Biden looks for will depend on it. Writing that story may not convince the deniers, but it can unify the rest of us and breathe some life into our desperate history.
I think that trying to understand America is like reading Finnegans Wake.