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What a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ Would Actually Look Like

President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Carson City, Nev., October 18, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

On the menu today: Robert Reich and other Democrats yearn for a post-Trump “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”; a Republican pollster lays out why he thinks Trump has a much better chance to win reelection than the conventional wisdom suggests; and a pair of very special announcements.

Democrats Haven’t Thought Through a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission,’ Have They?

Former secretary of labor Robert Reich garnered some attention this weekend for a tweet calling for a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to be established “when this nightmare is over” — presumably he means after Trump is defeated in the upcoming election and when Joe Biden is president. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes made similar comments earlier this month.  

This isn’t Reich being short-tempered or flying off the handle in a moment of passion; some on the left have been calling for this idea for years. In May 2018, Kevin Baker wrote an extremely lengthy cover piece in The New Republic calling for one after the Trump era, but at least he acknowledged that the election of a president who drove one side of the aisle crazy with outrage was not the traditional situation that required this kind of commission:

I don’t mean to claim that what has gone on here since the election of Donald Trump approaches what most of those other nations that used truth and reconciliation commissions have endured. The first such effort, initiated by President Raúl Alfonsín of Argentina in 1983 — one earlier attempt, in Bolivia in 1982, was shut down before it was completed and another one, in Uganda in 1974, was overseen by Idi Amin; I’m not counting either — was created to soothe the still-raw wounds of a military dictatorship and “Dirty War” that disappeared some 30,000 people. Since then, at least 42 other nations have tried similar means of getting past the past, and the crimes they have confronted have usually been even more horrific and wide-reaching: the genocides in Rwanda and East Timor; the reign of the white supremacist, apartheid regime in South Africa; Soviet-imposed communism in East Germany; the slaughters perpetrated in Haiti after the overthrow of Aristide, in the Yugoslavian civil wars, and by Mobutu, Kabila, and so many others in the Congo; the atrocities committed by U.S.-backed, enabled, and even encouraged regimes in Brazil, South Korea, Chile, El Salvador, Panama, Uruguay.

If the first point you have to concede is that this is nowhere near the sort of circumstance that requires a truth and reconciliation commission, then you don’t really need a truth and reconciliation commission.

I suspect many of those currently calling for an American Trump-era Truth and Reconciliation Commission know South Africa had an institution by that name, but don’t know many of the details. For starters, “reconciliation” necessarily includes a widespread acceptance, however begrudging, of those believed to have committed significant wrongs, even violent crimes. South Africa’s TRC aimed for restorative justice, not retributive justice, which left quite a few victims of the system believing that some perpetrators escaped true accountability. South Africa’s commission “received 7,112 amnesty applications. Amnesty was granted in 849 cases and refused in 5,392 cases, while other applications were withdrawn.” The U.S. Institute of Peace concluded that “few trials were actually held. Several high-level members of the former police were convicted for the attempted murder of Reverend Frank Chikane in 1989. The trial of former minister of defense Magnus Malan and nineteen others ended in acquittal.” The commission called for reparations for victims of the Apartheid state, but only 21,000 people received the payments. South Africa’s TRC was called a “gold standard for how a divided society with a violent past might work through that past and move forward,” and maybe it really did represent the best possible option in one of the worst possible situations. But that didn’t mean everyone went home satisfied.

In the “Trump Presidency Truth and Reconciliation Commission” that Reich envisions, does Stephen Miller get prosecuted — crimes to be determined later — but a less-controversial cabinet member like Rick Perry gets a pass? Attorney General Barr would surely be a top target, too. Does Brett Kavanaugh become a target of the commission? Do administration members who criticized Trump after leaving their positions get a pass, or are they targets of investigation for enabling the president early on? Does Kayleigh McEnany make the cut, or did she sign on too late?

Is the Democratic Party’s agenda truly to see all of their opponents during this presidency locked up in jail, all in the name of upholding the law and protecting human rights?

You may recall that after Barack Obama became president, some Democrats wanted prosecutions of his predecessor and Bush administration officials for alleged “war crimes,” the CIA’s rendition programs, etc. Even before he was sworn in, President-elect Obama indicated he had no real interest in that: “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. . . . And part of my job is to make sure that, for example, at the C.I.A., you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got spend their all their time looking over their shoulders.” Obama recognized that he could extract vengeance upon the preceding administration, or he could get his agenda passed, but not both. This outraged quite a few folks on the left, who had convinced themselves that the Bush administration policies ranked among the greatest crimes in human history.

If elected, Joe Biden will face a similar choice. He can set out to put the preceding administration behind bars — and watch Trump make the O. J. Simpson trial look quiet, obscure, and dignified — or he can focus on enacting the policies he wants passed by a Congress that will still probably be closely divided. But Biden can’t have both.

Finally, there is a separate, less partisan proposal we will need to consider soon. At some point, hopefully early next year, the coronavirus pandemic will be over. And just as the 9/11 Commission offered valuable insights into how our country was not prepared for those abominable terrorist attacks, we will need to study how we could have been more prepared for this pandemic. “It’s Trump’s fault!” is not enough (or all that illuminating or accurate, really). We have tough questions to face about how much we can trust the Chinese government, how economically entangled we want to be with that country, why the first warnings of the virus spurred accusations of xenophobia, why the medical advice on masks changed so quickly and how to avoid exacerbating public confusion and skepticism, whether the sweeping lockdowns did any good or represented a panicked overreach, why the first tests from the CDC didn’t work, why certain contagious patients were sent to retirement homes, etc. A bipartisan commission of respected experts, with no partisan axes to grind, would be genuinely useful.

Proposals such as the one from Robert Reich add to public cynicism about bipartisan commissions, suggesting that they’re a fig leaf for one side’s vindictive agenda.

The Interview That Every Poll-Skeptic Has Been Waiting to Read

Over on the home page, Rich interviews Robert Cahaly, founder and senior strategist of the Trafalgar Group. In the interview, Cahaly lays out the single most compelling argument of how the polls could be significantly off-base this cycle:

One is the number of questions on its surveys. “I don’t believe in long questionnaires,” Cahaly says. “I think when you’re calling up Mom or Dad on a school night, and they’re trying to get the kids dinner and get them to bed, and that phone rings at seven o’clock — and they’re supposed to stop what they’re doing and take a 25- to 30-question poll? No way.”

Why does that matter? “You end up disproportionately representing the people who will like to talk about politics, which is going to skew toward the very, very conservative and the very, very liberal and the very, very bored, “Cahaly explains. “And the kind of people that win elections are the people in the middle. So I think they miss people in the middle when they do things that way.”

According to Cahaly, most polls are more than 25 questions. He keeps it between seven and nine, so respondents can answer in a matter of minutes.

The Bored-American community is important, but they’re not necessarily a majority.

ADDENDUM: Special announcement No. 1. . . . For everyone who’s asked, “when are you going to write a sequel to your thriller, Between Two Scorpions?” . . . it’s now available for preorder: Hunting Four Horsemen.

I spent much of autumn 2019 writing out a completely separate idea for the sequel, revolving around a long-lost diary full of Cold War secrets — real-world, little-known secrets, like the CIA’s work with the Dalai Lama in the 1950s and 1960s. But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the stakes of that story just didn’t seem high enough, when the world outside our windows was facing a crisis on this scale. And I started to think about what the world will be like, once this virus is in our rear-view mirror . . .

In Hunting Four Horsemen, the coronavirus pandemic is finally over, and a bruised, wary world is trying to return to something resembling normal — including the CIA’s Katrina Leonidivna and her Dangerous Clique team, tracking down a rogue Iranian spy with ties to the now-mostly-forgotten Atarsa terrorist group. But that spy reveals a terrifying new threat: someone calling himself “Hell-Summoner” has approached Tehran — and other rogue regimes — offering to sell them a virus that can be engineered to target any particular genetic sequence.

Katrina, Alec, and the rest of the team learn, to their horror, that the technology to engineer a virus that only infects particular people is very real and if used, could launch a cataclysmic new era of biological warfare. The hunt to find Hell-Summoner is on, at a breakneck pace, from flooded ancient tunnels to an old Nazi fortress to an island of diseased monkeys to a tower of skulls to a lake rumored to turn people to stone — up against ruthless Russian mercenaries, cutthroat Serbian war criminals, cruel animal smugglers, and every other extremist who would want to turn a virus into an unstoppable, invisible and precise weapon of war.

For the team, the stakes have never been higher — the barn door is already open, and the four horsemen of the apocalypse are already riding. For Katrina, Alec Flanagan, Ward Rutledge, Raquel Holtz and the rest, this mission is win or die trying — with that second option unnervingly likely.

Ready for something really chilling? The scenario I envisioned in this novel, of someone offering a rogue state a biological weapon that would only target particular genetic groups . . . already happened in real life. In the mid 1980s, someone — no one ever determined who — approached the South African defense attaché in London and offered to engineer bacteria that would only target and kill “pigmented people.” The South African government researched it and determined the science was plausible . . . but never followed up, or so they say, because they thought it might be a trap by a hostile foreign-intelligence service.

I am far from a perfect writer, but if you check the Amazon reviews for Between Two Scorpions, you’ll see readers by and large received what I wanted to give them —  pop-culture-literate wisecracking protagonists, settings in bizarre and unique corners of the world, villains who are convinced they’re the real heroes of the story and building a better world, glimpses of long-forgotten chapters of world history, and the occasional observation about who we are and the world we live in.

Special announcement No. 2. . . . Can you believe that as of today, Greg Corombos and I have been taping the Three Martini Lunch podcast for ten years?


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