What reckoning for Trump collaborators? None: The historical amnesia is already here

Elite society will always absolve those who cozy up to power — and no "truth commission" can change that

Published November 1, 2020 6:00AM (EST)

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on October 28, 2020 in Bullhead City, Arizona. (Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on October 28, 2020 in Bullhead City, Arizona. (Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)

"If I'm asked to serve, I'll serve," the senior partner said coyly. We were at one of Washington, D.C.'s Michelin-starred restaurants, treated to a multi-course dinner as a thank-you to me and another associate for our hard work on a recent case. The other junior associate, who, like me, was a self-professed liberal woman in her late 20s, beamed at him. We both knew he was talking about a coveted position in the Trump administration's Department of Justice. It was late spring of 2017. The administration had already imposed its "Muslim ban" and was beginning to gut protections for asylum seekers. Family separations would begin later that summer. No one asked him what "serving" in a Department of Justice led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions meant to him. 

I think about that moment often. When I read that former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein purposefully pursued a policy of separating mothers from their infant children, or read about whatever fresh atrocities this administration has enacted, I picture the feigned humility of the partner. It was a smug kind of glee that I saw on his face that night, barely disguised, conjured up by the idea of having a role in the highest levels of government. He was a senior partner at one of the largest international law firms, where he easily made a few million dollars a year. This move was not about money. It was about prestige and power. It was a feather in his hat. It is that desire to amass accolades, at any cost, that underlies so much violence and harm in our world. 

In "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil," Hannah Arendt attributes Adolf Eichmann's involvement in the Holocaust to a pedestrian careerism, devoid of the hatefulness that we attribute to Nazism. According to Arendt, Eichmann was haunted by the desire never to return to the humdrum life of a traveling salesman for the Vacuum Oil Company that he once occupied before joining the German government. He sought to live a life of significance and consequence and make some sort of mark on history. 

"And if he did not always like what he had to do (for example, dispatching people to their death by the trainload instead of forcing them to emigrate)," Arendt writes, "he never forgot what the alternative would have been…" The forgettable life of an inconsequential traveling salesman. Even though history would show that Arendt was mistaken in her assessment of Eichmann's character, her message remains — evil has a varsity league, but much is done by amateurs. 

This thirst for proximity to power is familiar to me. I think about so many of my law school classmates who would eagerly have lined up for a position to enact "lesser-evil" forms of violence against minority communities under a Hillary Clinton administration; they are now proud members of the "#Resistance," declaring, "Black Lives Matter" and "Immigrants are welcome here." Others, meanwhile, self-consciously adopted markers of conservatism, joining the Federalist Society and tailoring their extracurriculars to appeal to conservative judges, hoping to secure the right federal clerkships, the right high-ranking state government jobs, crafting the right narrative to make their eventual political ascent. And then there is me. Why didn't I speak up or challenge that partner that night at dinner — ask him what role he planned to play working for Jeff Sessions?

Over the last few months, writers and journalists have weighed in about what sort of "reckoning" will await a possible post-Trump administration. Elie Mystal has suggested a truth and reconciliation commission, Mark Tushnet has proposed a nonpartisan Commission of Inquiry and Jill Lepore has argued  that history will be the best judge of the Trump administration's conduct.

But no commission, no matter how robust, can address the fact that polite, liberal society will sanitize, ignore and absolve the crimes of the Trump administration. We saw this with George W. Bush's administration — the enablers and enactors of his war crimes and mass atrocities are sitting comfortably in law firms, on law school faculties and even in the current administration. Some even count themselves as part of the #Resistance. 

The process of historical amnesia, revisionism and hypocrisy that will whitewash the Trump administration is already underway.

That former senior partner at my old firm recently left the DOJ in what was by all public accounts an amicable separation. During his time there, he actively defended policies that in any other country would be grounds for an inquiry from The Hague. And yet the doors to his old job remained open to him; I have been told that my former firm's leadership hoped that when his stint at Justice ended, he would return to the firm. He is now a partner at another large law firm, where his "distinguished career" in government is celebrated. (Paradoxically, this firm is liberal-leaning — its website boasts of its robust pro-bono docket challenging the current administration's immigration policies and voter suppression tactics). He is also engaged to the apparently liberal, junior associate who cried after Trump was elected in 2016 and beamed at the partner during that dinner in 2017. She also left the law firm and now appears on national television and other media outlets criticizing the corruption and misdeeds of the Trump administration. She, too, sees herself as part of the #Resistance, posting Black Lives Matter infographics and calls to action one day, and romantic pictures with her Trump-administration fiancé the next. 

Elite lawyers like many of my classmates — with their liberal politesse — are not motivated by their supposed values, but by their ambition. For this reason, they will normalize and in fact celebrate anyone who rises to the highest levels of power. They will cheer on the private and government attorneys who raise the most inhumane arguments, mostly admiring the fact that they brought those arguments to the Supreme Court. They will line up to write opinion pieces in support of judges who will most certainly dismantle civil rights protections — if those judges happen to have employed them. Big law firms will welcome back with open arms the architects of some of the darkest policies in recent U.S. history, rewarding them with salaries many times larger than those of lawyers who choose to let their values guide them.

It is hard for me to imagine the sort of reckoning or even mending that this country needs (and has needed since its dark founding) when proximity to power, rather than any sort of grounding values, motivates elite circles in this country. The cognitive dissonance that we are already seeing among liberal society, which will condemn Trump on one hand and welcome his aiders and abettors with open arms on the other, leaves little hope for a bright new chapter once this administration leaves office. 

By Tasnim Motala

Tasnim Motala is a civil and human rights attorney at the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University School of Law. Twitter: @tasnimmotala.

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