“It sucks that none of this will matter,” I texted a friend when the second impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump began. “I think the trial matters,” she responded, and I wrote back: “Sure, but he’ll be acquitted. And a whole bunch of people are going to be re-traumatized in the name of accountability that won’t actually come.”
The past few years have felt like an onslaught of traumatic events that took place on a national level across the United States. From the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford to the violence against protestors at Standing Rock; the viral videos of police officers killing unarmed Black men to the images of immigrant children locked in cages; the graphic details that emerged from the #MeToo movement to a slew of deadly mass shootings; the ongoing pandemic that has killed over 485,000 Americans to date to a deadly insurrection played out on national television.
Statistics alone suggest that there are few, if any, Americans who have not been impacted in one way or another by at least one, if not many, of these events, which has led to the trauma compounding to a potentially detrimental effect. It’s estimated that as many as one in 11 Americans will be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in their lifetime. And right now, one in four adults report feeling anxious or depressed as a result of the pandemic alone.
The absence of accountability or of any semblance of justice for these events can, unfortunately, exacerbate the trauma even further, which makes it worth questioning whether the potential for re-traumatization is worth pursuing justice when we know that justice probably won't prevail.
During Trump’s second impeachment trial, images of the violence that occurred on Jan. 6 were played by House Impeachment Managers. The footage, which mostly came from security cameras inside the Capitol, broke down the day’s events in horrific detail. Senators — and the nation, at large — were shown videos of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer running the halls to find safety, as rioters screamed "WHERE ARE YOU NANCY?" in search of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It became incredibly clear just how close many lawmakers, including former Vice President Mike Pence, potentially came to being murdered during the insurrection.
While the video evidence seemed incontrovertibly to prove Trump's complicity in the day's events, the former president's defense lawyers spent their time blaming the violence on Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and the very lawmakers who were put in harm’s way. Much like a police officer who asks a rape victim how much they had to drink, or what they were wearing the night of their assault, Trump’s defense team relied heavily on victim-blaming tactics that are all too familiar to victims of gender- and race-based violence. Thus, both the images and the response to them were triggering, especially to those who have survived attacks like these, or ever feared their lives were in danger.
“In public cases of all kinds of trauma, or ones we experience and go through ourselves individually, having accountability — even acknowledging that something happened — is really what matters,” Dr. Jessi Gold, M.D., a psychiatrist and assistant professor for the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, tells Refinery29. “And we don’t get that every often. So it sort of seems, for the most part, when you’re dealing with all sorts of trauma, that most of it doesn’t matter, because somebody is going to discount it or not care about it. Obviously, it’s hurtful to be repeatedly told you don’t matter.”
Throughout the entire five-day impeachment trial, I thought of my own sexual assault, and other high-profile cases of gender- and race-based violence that often end with the absence of justice. I thought of Anita Hill, Christine Blasey Ford, Breonna Taylor, Chanel Miller, and Sandra Bland. I also thought about those whose stories are not “high profile”: the alarmingly high rate of missing Indigenous women, the one in four Black girls who’ll be sexually assaulted before they’re 18, the four in five Alaska Native women who will experience violence in their lifetime, and the immigrant women forcefully sterilized in ICE detention centers.
It’s not a coincidence that many of the insurrectionists had histories of domestic abuse and sexual assault; their calls for House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi were laced with the underlying threat of sexual violence. And it’s not pure happenstance that many of the violent rioters carried Confederate flags, hung nooses, and sported other Nazi and white supremacist paraphernalia; racist violence was a driving force behind this siege, and has been a key aspect of Trump supporters over the years.
As the trial continued, I began to feel numb — a feeling the friend I was texting experienced as well. This is a common reaction to traumatic events, especially when they’re replayed on the news, online, and various other platforms ad nauseam.
“It’s really hard not to watch, even if you choose not to,” Gold says. “It finds a way though, like on social [media] or through friends. It’s really hard to avoid it, because it’s everywhere and it doesn’t stop. And if you flood people with the things that are really hard for them [to process], usually they just become numb to it or disassociate from it."
Gold explains that while watching things like Trump's impeachment trial, with all of these images and videos being presented at once, you’re just not present and processing the information. "It’s easier to not be present," she says. "And our bodies and minds do that, kind of subconsciously, and go, ‘No, you don’t really need to be doing that to yourself.’”
Yet there’s an overwhelming call to be present and engaged, especially politically, especially during a historic moment like a second impeachment. As would-be voters, people are encouraged to stay active in the political sphere so that they can remain best informed. This, along with the prevalence of social media, can make it impossible not to “do that to yourself,” but the mental ramifications — especially when there is no closure and no semblance of accountability — can be overwhelming. This is particularly true when cases, like the impeachment trial, have an inevitable conclusion long before they begin.
The security footage, the detailed accounts, the viral videos and statements from the insurrectionists themselves — it was clear what occurred that day and who was responsible. Yet it was also clear how the trial would end. Forty-four Republicans claimed the trial was unconstitutional to begin with, despite many constitutional scholars saying otherwise. Supposedly impartial jurors Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-NC), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) all met, privately, with Trump’s defense lawyers. In an episode of his podcast Verdict, Cruz shared his “advice” with Trump’s legal team. “I said, look, you’ve gotta remember you’ve already won,” he said. “There are not 67 votes to convict.” He later says, “So my opening advice was, ‘Don’t do anything to screw it up.’”
In the end, Cruz was right: Trump was acquitted, with a 57-43 vote. (Which is also another reminder that the majority does not rule in the U.S.) The Senate refused to hold the former president responsible for the violence he incited, encouraged, reveled in, and refused to stop. And as a sexual assault survivor, it all feels too familiar.
We’re told to “play by the rules” or “do the right thing.” We're told if we “come forward,” “speak out,” and “stay the course,” justice will be served. We’re implored to believe that “justice will prevail,” despite all evidence to the contrary. (Out of 1,000 rape cases, 995 perpetrators will not be punished.) We’ve watched women like Blasey Ford mocked for coming forward, her credibility questioned and her intentions scrutinized. We’ve witnessed women of colour, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, labelled “manipulative,” “calculated,” and a “liar” for disclosing their own sexual assault and the ways trauma compounds trauma. And time after time, whether it’s during a Supreme Court nomination hearing, an Instagram live, a high-profile rape case, or an impeachment trial, we’re reminded how broken various systems truly are.
If women are the canary in the coal mine of U.S. democracy, the mine is no longer filled with coal — it’s just a cave filled with dead birds.
None of this is to say that accountability shouldn't be pursued — victims of race- and gender-based violence deserve a chance at justice and for their stories to be heard, and so do those who were under attack on Jan. 6. And while it can be disheartening for many victims to see another miscarriage of justice, others can be inspired by it to evoke change. “Somebody could be watching and feel like a call to action,” Gold says. “They see that there are so many things that are wrong with this system and think it’s their duty to fix them. There are definitely people like that and we’re lucky they exist, because there are a lot of systematic problems and if there weren’t people who looked at them and wanted to change them, we would just sit on our laurels with a lot of pretty painful systems.”
But, it is important to note that these constant quests for justice that just end in frustration can lead to feelings of apathy, of disassociation, and of a reminder of all the different ways there are to be traumatized and retraumatized. For trauma victims, that lack of accountability can do continued harm to our mental, emotional, and physical health.
“It can cause minor setbacks, when people just feel tired and their body kind of reacts to this kind of stuff because the body holds a lot of trauma,” Gold says. “Or it can cause longer setbacks, like you have to process it more in therapy. It’s really person dependent, and trauma dependent.”
During Trump’s second impeachment trial, much time was spent discussing what was lost on Jan. 6 — from the five people who lost their lives that day to the vanishing feeling of safety in the workplace to the empty promise of a peaceful transition of power. Then too there is the cost of Trump’s acquittal for the American people at a time when our collective mental health is already in decline. The trauma of seeing a powerful man once again avoid accountability will have consequences that go far beyond the political, as so many of us question whether or not justice is something to be fought for — or forgotten, as an unachievable dream.