On the late morning of Wednesday, January 6, 2021, my partner woke up after an overnight shift at her hospital. As an emergency physician, she’s been treating COVID-19 patients from the beginning—but in the wake of holiday gatherings, the pace of suffering and death sharply accelerated. That week, they ran out of oxygen, as well as small gloves and N95 masks. The beds in intensive care were full, and so patients spilled out into other departments.
These conditions prevailed all over California—and in most parts of the country. On the day of her shift, almost 4,000 Americans died of COVID-19.
As I made her tea and breakfast, I watched Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally over my phone. Live, I listened to the president call on his followers to “walk down to the Capitol” and “show strength” against “bad people.” I saw the assault on Capitol Hill begin.
We turned on the TV and that’s when the reality of what was happening hit me: The president and his supporters were using violence to stop Congress from certifying our presidential election. That day, the mob beat a police officer to death. One hundred and forty others suffered brain injuries, cracked ribs, and smashed spinal discs. One officer lost an eye. Two committed suicide shortly after the attack.
I was horrified but not surprised that Trump’s presidency ended with a spasm of anti-democratic violence.
The Trump years were marked by a barrage of threats from the president, as well as his followers, against journalists, teachers, doctors and nurses, Black Lives Matter activists, Democratic politicians, and Republicans deemed insufficiently loyal. Political polarization, which had been intensifying in the U.S. for years, has skyrocketed into uncharted, terrifying territory. The number of white nationalist and other hate groups has surged. The percentage of Black adults who believe it is a good time to be Black in America has plummeted. So did trust in our institutions and in each other.
The QAnon conspiracy theory—which imagines that Trump was leading a campaign against a global cabal of Democratic and Jewish child-traffickers that would culminate in a “great storm” of mass murder and arrests—is believed in its entirety or in part by more than half of Republicans. Seven days after the attack on Capitol Hill, a Pew Research Center survey found that a stunning 64% of Republicans still insisted Trump had won the election, all evidence to the contrary—and other research found that half of them supported the attack itself.
That’s why the Trump years were a time when friendships ended and families broke into warring camps. So many of us lost loved ones to hatred and conspiracy theories. These breaks weren’t over wonky issues like fiscal policy or Wall Street regulation. Instead, our relationships ended over basic issues of reality vs. fantasy, as we argued about where President Obama was born, the seriousness of COVID-19, the human rights of immigrants and Black people, and the validity of votes against Trump. Millions of people appear to have embraced lies—about the pandemic, the election, and each other—that led directly to death and suffering for other Americans. Many of those people hold positions of political power.
For me—and, I think, for all of us—that’s a problem. Years ago, I was beaten unconscious in a mugging. Afterward, I needed to learn to live with the fact that whenever I’d hear feet slapping pavement behind me, my body would tense for a blow. I needed to learn to live with the tributary of scars down the back of my head, and with the knowledge that there are people in the world who will kill you for your wallet. I needed to grieve for my lost sense of invincibility and order; eventually, I needed to turn toward a new life that understood how fragile my life is. Most of all, I needed to admit to myself the seriousness of what happened, and I needed to accept that it had changed my life.
I believe our country needs a similar reckoning. Joe Biden took office three weeks ago, but going forward, we need to find a way to live in an America where lies and violence have gone mainstream. That means learning to sit with traumatic events like the attack on the Capitol, which will forever change our sense of who we are as Americans—just as 9/11 did two decades ago. However, there’s a key difference between the attack on the World Trade Center and the attack on the Capitol: On January 6, it was Americans who attacked Americans. When friends, family, and neighbors turn on us, it makes home itself feel unsafe.
We need to live with events like that one. Doctors like my partner must live with the fact that so many people denied the death and suffering happening right before them, and live with the harassment and even death threats they received for telling the truth about the pandemic. Journalists like me need to live with nonstop gaslighting and hostility. We need to move forward during a time when so many people we personally know embrace political violence and false realities like QAnon or the “plandemic.”
All of this creates a familiar pain in my heart. It’s the pain of trauma. So, how do we live with that trauma in this country? I don’t have all the answers, but I have a plan for getting to them. It grows from my own experience, the science I’ve covered as a journalist, and the advice I’ve gotten through the years about living with things we cannot live with.
The United States as we knew it is gone. Domestically, we cannot, for the time being, count on the peaceful transfer of power. Internationally, our reputation has suffered profoundly, and people around the globe may never look at us the same way again. And we didn’t just lose a vain self-image or hopes for the future. Much more concretely, we have lost family, friends, the ability to travel, and more.
“When we lose something,” says psychologist Frederick Luskin, “human beings have a natural reintegration process, which we call ‘grief.’” In grief, there is anger, sadness, denial, and bargaining. I have found myself going through those stages in the wake of the attack on January 6, and I know I’m not alone.
Luskin’s use of the word “reintegration” is important. What is being integrated? The life-changing loss—the hard fact of it—but also your response to that loss. The first step of grief, he suggests, “is to fully acknowledge the harm done, whether by you or somebody else, and to own the fact that there’s a loss: that something I would have wanted is not there, and it hurts.”
At that point, you must allow yourself to suffer. According to Luskin, you have to be miserable before you let go of the loss. “You’re not letting go of the event; that’s immutable,” says Luskin. January 6 happened, and it can never unhappen. COVID-19 happened. At this writing, 466,000 Americans are dead, and they will never come back.
Indeed, we can never forget these events and we can’t fall into silence around them. Luskin argues that the loss and the grief “can’t be a secret.” The research says that people who go through horrible experiences but keep it to themselves suffer more, not less. They are less likely to bounce back from the experience.
Taking the event out of our heads and sharing it with other people can lighten the load. “The human connection is central to healing,” says Luskin. That is why I’m writing this article; that’s why I’m sharing the pain I experienced with my family on January 6. It’s a form of grieving—and it’s a way to make loss meaningful.
We need to say it aloud, if only to ourselves: We have lost something, it’s never coming back, and that hurts.
Make—and accept—apologies, and forgive when you can
Apologies are stories. They generally have a beginning that shows that the perpetrator is aware of the harm and a middle that reveals how they came to see their role in the damage they caused. They end with the perpetrator taking responsibility for the harm and promising to do better.
In the wake of January 6, the acting chief of the Capitol police told a story about the Capitol attack that ended with her taking responsibility for the department’s botched response. “I am here to offer my sincerest apologies on behalf of the Department,” Yogananda Pittman told the U.S. House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee.
None of the politicians who instigated the attack followed suit. In fact, an inability to apologize was one of the hallmarks of the Trump years, as was a refusal to accept consequences. At this writing, it’s all but certain that the GOP leaders who perpetrated the lie that the election was stolen, and others who appear to have aided and abetted the January 6 insurrection, will escape any kind of penalty for their actions. That will also be the case for most of the people—often, the same people—who lied in various ways about COVID-19.
The absence of apology and accountability will make forgiveness difficult, if not impossible, for most of us. That is why, in my view, I think we need to listen very carefully to the apologies we do hear for harm done during the Trump years—and be open to accepting them and forgiving transgressions.
Why? Partially because apology and forgiveness are radical alternatives to Trumpist values. But also because, when it comes to harm done by people to other people, “forgiveness is the resolution of grief,” as Luskin says. Forgiving the people who hurt us helps us to let go of the power the hurt has over us.
It’s not something that should ever be forced. Speaking only for myself, I am nowhere close to being able to forgive what happened during the Trump years. But, for my own sake, I hope to get there one day, because apology and forgiveness are two essential tools for both personal and collective growth.
Look for evidence and tell the truth
Trump entered presidential politics with the conspiratorial lie that President Obama was not an American citizen. He exited the presidency with the conspiratorial lie that the office had been stolen from him by election fraud. In between, he told tens of thousands of other lies. In the process, he infected the United States with a culture of tribal unreality, in which adherence to lies became a litmus test of group loyalty—a phenomenon psychologists call “blue lies.”
We’ve seen this culture of blue lies lead to political violence, including the attack on the Capitol. But it also crippled our ability to respond to COVID-19 when it arrived in America. Instead of facing the danger squarely, the Trump administration minimized the pandemic, touted quack cures, and sabotaged the flow of accurate information. Following those cues, millions of people refused to take simple measures like wearing masks. As a direct result, the United States has suffered the worst infection and death rates in the developed world—and we were not able to protect our economy against the public health measures necessary to protect lives.
There are a number of practices, and some research, suggesting ways to counter conspiracy theories, such as using Socratic questions to guide people away from them. Interpersonal techniques like that seem hard to scale, though, and it’s clear that addressing many of the conditions that breed conspiratorial thinking on a wide scale—such as feelings of anxiety, isolation, and loss of control—also demand broad structural changes, like better mental health services, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
“Neglecting the mental-health crisis risks perpetuating an information one,” writes political psychologist Aleksandra Cichocka.
De-platforming conspiracy theorists and violent revolutionaries—as social media companies started doing after January 6—is another solution. It made a difference when mainstream media organizations stopped pretending that Trump was telling the truth about the election.
While big solutions like those seem out of our control as individuals, there are strategies we can apply within ourselves, and with the people we know and love. If you see a meme you like on social media, stop and ask yourself if it’s accurate before you share it. If someone in your tribe says something you know to be untrue, speak up. In short, before you call out the lies of your opponents, first look within yourself and your own group for untruths. From that foundation, you can stand up for truth in wider public conversations.
Burn bridges, if you must
From 2016 to 2019, I worked to get out of my so-called “bubble.” All the news alerts on my phone were from conservative sources. I deliberately followed right-wing thinkers and journalists, and I made a special point of checking in with conservative friends and family.
Meanwhile, at work, the Greater Good Science Center launched our Bridging Differences project. Our goal with the project is to help readers bridge many kinds of social differences, not just political ones. But when it came to politics, there is one question that has hovered over the project: When is it worth it to bridge differences, and when do we need to walk away? In other words, are there any political differences that are simply unbridgeable?
After January 6, I answered that question for myself. The people I will not bridge with are those who tell or accept lies, and those who advocate for violence against their perceived enemies or outsider groups. When I came to that decision, I started unfriending people on social media—not just Trump voters, but some of my leftist friends, as well. This included family who had long expressed prejudice against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other sexual and gender nonconformists.
I believe there is no weakness in drawing boundaries. Protecting yourself against the mental pollution of hate and conspiracy theories is not intolerant. Falsehoods are not differences of opinion. When you reject lies, that’s not a failure to listen.
The emerging movement to help Americans bridge their differences will not grow unless it accounts for this fundamental truth: We are not obligated to stay connected with people who are actively trying to hurt our well-being. If we do choose to listen to bad-faith arguments or false stories with patience and compassion, that’s a gift, one that is ours and ours alone to give. Indeed, the rarity of such gifts is what makes them powerful. Turning gifts into duties cheapens them, and risks spreading the giver too thin. You don’t owe your emotional labor to anyone who targets you or people you love with emotional, social, or physical violence.
Likewise, burning a bridge should not be done lightly. It’s a heavy decision—and we always pay a social and personal cost for stigmatizing, shaming, or ostracizing people. In order to thrive in today’s America, we might need to pay those costs. But that makes it all the more important that we are willing and able to build bridges when we can, to people with whom we have reasonable disagreements.
Build bridges, when you can
As I unfollowed people on social media, I experienced a lot of clarity about who I was disengaging from: It wasn’t Republicans in general. Indeed, on the night of the attack and in the weeks that followed, I saw quite a few Republicans speak out against lies and violence.
“What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States,” said Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah on the night of the attack on the Capitol. “Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy.”
In the days to follow, a small number of Republicans resigned from leadership positions in the administration, and some even left the party. It worries me that about half of Republicans supported the attack—but for my own well-being, I need to remember that half did not. Those are the people I will cultivate as allies, with the shared goal of strengthening our democracy. I’m going to amplify their voices, and I’m going to treat them with respect.
During the past four years, Greater Good has published dozens of articles about connecting with political opponents—lessons we distilled into The Bridging Differences Playbook. The skills in the Playbook will help me to debate with Republicans real issues, like estate taxes or the Affordable Care Act. Bridging skills will help me to try to understand their values and stories.
However, I will never again debate stuff like whether Kamala Harris was born in the United States or if the Capitol Hill assault was an Antifa false-flag operation. If I hear threats or endorsements of physical violence, I will walk away. How do I know when it’s time to do that? I trust my gut, because the body knows when it’s being threatened.
For me, right now, burning and building bridges go hand-in-hand. Both are necessary to live in a post-Trump America.
Be kind to yourself and find your purpose
After I suffered the concussion from the mugging I described at the beginning of this piece, my personality changed in certain fundamental ways. Over time, I came to feel suicidal depression, among other symptoms. Later, I discovered that there were two clinical names for what I was experiencing: post-concussion syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder. It took many years for me to accept these diagnoses—and only when I did was I able to start healing from the psychological injuries that came with my physical ones.
Metaphorically speaking, the Trump years were a kind of concussion for America—and it may take years for us to assess, accept, and heal from the damage. Characteristically, my post-concussion depression prevented me from envisioning any kind of positive future for myself or the world. The research says that many of us have battled depression and anxiety all the way through the Trump years, emotional states that have only deepened during the isolation and mass death that have come with COVID-19.
This has been a hard time. If you can’t look beyond the next hour, let alone the next year, that’s not your fault. You are not weak. You are not a failure. You are a person who is suffering in response to terrible situations beyond your control—and the most important thing you need to know, I believe, is that you are not the only one who suffers. Sorrow is a part of life, and it’s a normal response to situations when we have lost so much control and safety. These days, we are all struggling, to greater and lesser degrees.
What should you do? Start by speaking kindly to the person you are. Try saying these things to yourself: “May I forgive myself,” “May I be strong,” and “May I be patient.” This is the essence of self-compassion as a practice. And, contrary to some presumptions, research suggests that self-compassionate people seem to bounce back more readily from challenges and hold themselves to higher moral standards.
In the moment, if you feel sad, be sad. If you’re angry, feel it. Hope and happiness will come as well, and those feelings matter just as much as the others. All those emotions add up to who you are. In those emotions, you’ll find meaning—and in that meaning, you’ll find your purpose. What makes you angriest? If it’s inequality, then work for equality. What most gives you hope? Perhaps it’s young people—then support the young people in your life. If a beautiful neighborhood makes you happy, build Little Free Libraries and pick up garbage from gutters.
The Trump years brought so much suffering to too many people. But we can’t let the trauma of those years dictate our expectations for the future. Depression is a liar. It tells you that nothing will ever change, but that’s simply not true. That is the biggest lie we need to defeat in a post-Trump America.