In This Episode
Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD) joins Brian to talk about how personal loss and the insurrection changed him, why unchecked optimism fails us when corrupt people come to power, and how we can still balance realism with hope today.
Brian Beutler: Welcome to Positively Dreadful. I’m your host, Brian Beutler. You probably know that this is going to be a show about anxiety inducing trends in so many realms of American life. That includes law, media, tech and culture. And in the political realm, the most alarming up in our faces trend is this relentless assault on representative democracy. Now, that’s not just an American problem. It’s happening basically everywhere democracy has taken root. But the authoritarian movement here is very mature. The pro-democracy forces in this country are kind of unsure of themselves and, frankly, exhausted. And, of course, the United States is the most powerful country on earth. So if politics is your thing, it’s honestly pretty hard to think about much else. And often that means shouting into a void, hoping to get people to wake up to what’s at stake. [music break] So there are a lot of people we could have invited on the show who could speak eloquently and with authority about the democracy crisis in America. But we reached out to Congressman Jamie Raskin because he has, I think, a really unique vantage point on it. He’s a former constitutional law professor, which means he’s sort of mastered the game board that Donald Trump and the Republican Party are trying to overturn. He led the second impeachment of Donald Trump for incitement of insurrection. And he now sits on the House January six committee, which I think puts him high in the running for knowing the most that can be known about efforts to steal the 2020 election. And he’s also just written a really moving new book called Unthinkable, which weaves together his experiences of the assault on the Capitol and the death of his son, Tommy. And if you read it, you’ll see those experiences made him question some foundational things about himself and his colleagues and the country. But it’s also a story about how grappling with big human and civic traumas in a spirit of openness and introspection can create resiliency and even leave us better positioned than we were before to see our way through all the challenges that remain. So not only does he understand the democracy crisis on an intellectual level, he’s seen the ferocity of it up close. It gave him fresh eyes. He knows that defeating this authoritarian movement will require a level of boldness from the small d democratic forces in our country that don’t always seem to materialize when we need them. And yet, he still thinks the good guys can win. So it’s an honor to welcome Congressman Jamie Raskin.
Jamie Raskin: Well, I’m delighted to be with you. Thank you so much for having me.
Brian Beutler: So, as I mentioned in the wind up there, there were a lot of reasons I wanted to have you on the show. But the thing that actually clinched it for me was a passage from your book where you write about how the almost simultaneous experiences of losing your son and then experiencing the insurrection, if it didn’t shatter your optimism, it made you reassess the proper balance between optimism and realism as sort of personal guiding ethics. Do you know the passage that I’m talking about?
Jamie Raskin: I think so.
Brian Beutler: It it’s long and I have it here and I can read some of it. You wrote that it’s such an ingrained part of my nature to believe that realism is often just cynicism and pessimism dressed up in business clothing. And then you wrote, I have been my whole life a constitutional optimist. In a double sense, it is an irreducible constitution of my personality to be an optimist. So can we talk about that personal ethic that you had at least prior to 2020? What that mean in the abstract? Like, what did being an optimist in your bones like that mean to you before 2020?
Jamie Raskin: Well, I mean, if you talk to my siblings and my friends, they will tell you that I’m basically somebody who has, you know, barreled through every crisis and adversity, through optimism and through, you know, a constant resurgence of hope and determination that we can make things better. And, you know, losing our son Tommy, on the last day of 2020 and witnessing what happened on January 6th with the violent insurrection. It it forced me to confront the reality of some dark things that, you know, I think I probably I probably avoided in some ways. You know, I you know, I knew, of course, that Tommy was struggling from depression. And I, I knew that he was seeing doctors and, you know, we were working with him and all of that stuff. But I, I think that suicide is just a word that I used very infrequently. And, you know, I felt myself for that, that, you know, that I didn’t fully confront the reality of suicide. And and I, you know, have engaged in a lot of self prosecution about that. I mean, not talking about suicide to someone who struggles with depression is like not talking about sex to teenagers. You know, you you think you might be reducing the chances of it ever happening or you might be, you know, trying to, you know, will into existence a world without it. But it’s just ridiculous. And so I fought myself for that. And similarly, I feel the way about the same way about the use of the word fascism. You know, I think that American exceptionalism has some real meanings. Where it really makes us exceptional is our willingness to fight, to transform repressive social arrangements and our willingness to try to make real the ideals that are built into the Declaration of Independence. Like that’s what makes us great. It’s not the fact that we’re somehow immune. To authoritarianism and slavery and fascism and these dark impulses. And, you know, but I could see up close what fascism looks like on January 6th. And it’s as close as I want my country ever to come again. So, you know, I, I write that these are things that I want to try to confront in a much more sober and realistic way while still hanging on to the idea that we can get through them and we can manage this. And we’ve lost Tommy. But he had such a beautiful ideals and values and things that he was fighting for that we can continue on in his spirit.
Brian Beutler: It sounds to me like those period of a few days, a year and a half ago were were a breaking point. And that, though, you still think of optimism as like an important part of how people should grapple with the world, that you have allowed some measure of of realism to seep into your thinking and decision making, and you almost see the world in a different way?
Jamie Raskin: Well. Yeah. I don’t quite know what the balance is. I mean, it’s a it’s a struggle for me, you know?
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Jamie Raskin: And, you know, Tommy left us a note, which said, please forgive me. My illness won today. Look after each other, the animals and the global pooe for me. All my love, Tommy. You know, it’s a sobering, painful thing to contemplate what he was dealing with in terms of his illness, which he kept very private. And in fact, we just got back from Harvard Law School, where he was a second year student when we lost him and his his classmates and his professors had a memorial service for him. And so many of them described Tommy as the person that they would go to with their problems and with their issues and with their own struggles with emotional mental health. Because, you know, of course, it’s a plague on the land in terms of this young generation which has been forced to deal with so much from climate change to COVID 19 and its attendant isolation and demoralization. And so that was just, I think, a very heavy burden for Tommy. So, you know, I, I retain a fundamental optimism because I believe that the vast majority of people are good people and reject authoritarianism and fascism and they want to help other people. And that was certainly Tommy’s message to us. And I hold it close to my heart. And that’s the first thing I see every morning when I wake up and it’s the last thing I see when I go to bed.
Brian Beutler: I was thinking when I was prepping for the interview about what issue other than the democracy crisis could sort of help us suss out where the balance between optimism and realism lies and where sort of maybe an optimum point is. And I came up with climate change and maybe this is something you’ve thought about or talked to Tommy about or something. I mean, I don’t think we need to belabor why we care about climate change, but I think you can see in climate change that the poles of unbridled optimism and cynicism on the other end are sort of equally poor guides to to addressing it. Right. If, if, if you’re a climate pessimist, which is sort of a it’s fashionable at least in some segments of the Internet, it’s common for people to sort of take for granted that we’re never going to stop the worst consequences of climate change because we’re asking too much from slow moving, self-interested governments and we’re just screwed. Right. But if you have a if you’re overly optimistic about how people are going to grapple with the challenges ahead of them, and you just assume that scientists will revolutionize our energy production or that great political leaders will emerge to implement big changes to to how we live. Then you risk losing a sense of urgency, and you wake up one day and it’s kind of too late. And so there may be somewhere in between that there’s a symbiosis where the where the realism gives you a sense of the problem or an ability to grasp the problem. What it would take to meaningfully mitigate climate change or the threats to democracy. And the optimism stems sort of not necessarily from certainty that things will work out perfectly in the end, but from knowing that the window for action is still open.
Jamie Raskin: Well, I think that’s right. I mean, we need an optimism that’s informed by realism, that’s educated by realism, and we need a realism that doesn’t collapse into despair because it’s braided with optimism or I guess what Gramsci called the optimism of the will that we can be sober based on our reading of science and data and facts. But we have to have an optimism of the will, a sense that we can make a difference and we can change things. And, you know, this is a dark period we’re in, but it’s not the darkest period in American history. And people have faced far bleaker conditions and odds than what we are facing. And they’ve been able to get through it and make the changes. And, you know, you look at what enslaved people were up against in this country and abolitionists were up against and what Lincoln and the union were up against. And you look at the modern civil rights movement and women who were able to gain the vote, not having the vote and the LGBTQ movement. I mean, look at the number of gay and lesbian people who led lives of total despair in misery because they couldn’t even express, you know, in public who they were or what their identity was and what their feelings were. You know. So there have been people who have faced, you know, seemingly insuperable, implacable odds, but they’ve gotten through it. And the young people today have got to be able to look to prior. Generations of people who struggled for democracy and for freedom. And that’s what’s at stake here. And we don’t know what the future foretells for humanity or for any one of us. But all of us can fight to protect democracy and then to use democracy to meet people’s needs and to protect freedom and to try to head off climate catastrophe. But if we don’t save the democracy, we really have no hope of saving ourselves from climate change because the autocrats and the kleptocrats, the bullies and the dictators from Moscow to Mar-a-Lago are not interested in dealing with it and are in complete denial about it.
Brian Beutler: Those other those other struggles, you know, suffrage, LGBTQ equality, I’m glad you mentioned because, you know, we’re recording this the same week that we learned that a Supreme Court majority appears to be prepared to overturn Roe versus Wade, which will sort of thrust us backwards and force people to renew a struggle that they thought they had won 50 years ago. And I wonder what, you know, trying to temper optimism with realism and vice versa, what you see as what’s that fight going to look like and how do you how do you get to a place where you can make people believe that the right to abortion, if it is struck down, will be restored?
Jamie Raskin: Well, we’ve got to be fighting to defend democracy and freedom at the same time. You know, Lincoln was once asked about the relationship between the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. The Constitution’s like a silver frame or shining silver frame, and it is the democratic structure. But what it is serving is the golden apple of freedom, of liberty, which sits in the center of the frame. And I think that is the proper relationship between democracy and freedom. Democracy is in service of the freedom of the people. And we can see how both are under just brutal, ruthless, ruthless attack today. The voting rights of the people, the reproductive freedom of women, you know, all of it is embedded in a system of democratic constitutionalism. So I’m very optimistic because I think that the vast majority of the American people reject authoritarianism and they reject the brand of politics that you see in Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary and El-Sisi’s Egypt and Duterte’s Philippines and President Xi’s Chinese authoritarian government and the homicidal crown prince of Saudi Arabia. I mean, America is still the greatest multiracial, multi-religious, multiethnic experiment in democratic self-government in the history of humanity. And that’s where the majority of the people are. But we have, you know, what was once our greatest political party, the Republican Party, Lincoln’s party that has turned into a cult of authoritarian personality under Donald Trump. And it runs like a cult where no free thinking is allowed, no dissent is permitted in any way. Anyone who breaks from Trump orthodoxy or his lies, like the big lie, must be expelled and ostracized and opposed. And so that’s why they’re going after Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in Georgia right now. They’ve gotten one of my colleagues, Jody Hice, to leave Congress to run for secretary of state against him. And they’re doing that anywhere there’s an elected official or an appointed official who did not do the exact bidding of Donald Trump in 2020. So that’s what’s going on there. But what do they have against us? What they have is a bag of tricks. The gerrymandering of our congressional districts, the passage of voter suppression statutes to keep people from participating. The manipulation of the Electoral College, which is a profoundly undemocratic institution that’s given us two popular vote losers in this century alone in 2000 and 2016, and which now offers all of these opportunities for strategic attacks on the will of the majority and opportunities even for violence to interfere with the will of the majority. And with they’ve got, the packing of the courts where, you know, they’ve they added more than 200 unqualified Federalist Society judges to the federal bench while Trump was in office, and then a pattern of extreme judicial activism, although not so extreme as to go along with the big lie. And that’s one of the remarkable things that, you know, there were 60 federal and state cases brought on the basis of the big lie of electoral fraud and corruption and they lost every single one of them, including in eight courtrooms presided over by Trump nominated federal judges. Just to give you a sense of how outlandish his lies are, and yet it didn’t stop him from attempting to coerce election officials and then ultimately trying to overthrow the election by coercing Mike Pence to step outside of his constitutional role and declare unilateral, lawless, unconstitutional powers to reject Electoral College votes from the states. And that plan was all in order to kick the contest into the House of Representatives for a contingent election where they knew we would be voting not on the basis of one member, one vote, but one state, one vote, and they control 27 state delegations. We have 22, Pennsylvania with a 9 to 9 delegation is off to the sidelines. So even if they had lost the electoral or the contingent election vote of Liz Cheney as the at large representative Wyoming, they still would have had 26 states. And that was that was the plan to force Pence to do this then to run a quick contingent election, declare that Trump had seized the presidency and would be president for four years, and then likely invoke the Insurrection Act and declare martial law to put down the insurrectionary chaos that they had unleashed against us. Blaming the whole thing on Antifa, which they proceeded to do in any event. But I mean, that was basically the game plan that day.
Brian Beutler: It’s interesting to hear you sort of give a capsule summary of the democracy crisis, because I wrote one down to sort of bounce off of you, to see to see how much or little of it you agreed with. And I think that we see things pretty, pretty similarly. What I had written down was that you. You know, some of this predates Trump, but there’s a major political party in the U.S. who has worked for a long time, been skeptical of popular rule. They have ideologues. They’re sort of controlled by ideologues who think other things like low taxes and deregulation and unfettered capitalism are more important than letting people decide what to do with the country’s resources. And many of their rank and file voters think they sort of own or they define what it means to be American and that new generations of people with different different views, different ethnicities, different ways of living sort of don’t fit their definition of what what America is and will destroy it. So they’ve played around with exploiting anti-democratic aspects of the constitutional system we have for a long time. But then they embraced this power mad, deeply unethical person as their leader, and under him they’ve switched from trying to sort of tilt the playing field to just completely upending it. And that means cheating in elections and using their control over various levers of power to try to unlawfully install themselves into power. Or at the end of that, if none of that works to just resort to mob violence. But then the other half of the crisis is that we have a two party system there, one of the two parties. And in our system that means that about half the time they actually just win the elections. And I I’m interested in hearing you grapple with, you know, if we can’t be confident that the party that doesn’t resort to these sort of unethical strongman tactics is going to win regularly in popular elections. Where does the optimism that we’re going to defeat them come from?
Jamie Raskin: Well, first of all, I think that your analysis is correct. I mean, they’ve become a rule or ruined party. I mean, either they’re going to rule over us or they will ruin our prospects of making any progress on anything from lowering prescription drug prices to universal pre-K to climate change. You know, we remarkably were able to pass the infrastructure plan because there were some Republicans who had joined on as co-sponsors. But our struggle on the day we were finally trying to get it through was to get Republicans who were co-sponsors of the bill actually to vote for it, because there was so much pressure being brought down by the GOP leadership and Trump to vote against it just because their primary allegiance is to preventing us from getting anything done. You know, they talked about infrastructure for four years. Of course, they never did anything about it, but they were nominally in favor of it. But they were you know, their their main commitment is to preventing us from get anything done. I mean, McConnell said that about Obama and he basically said it about Biden, too.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Jamie Raskin: And said, you know, and that in itself is a profoundly unpatriotic way of acting. But then to go from there to say, not only are we not going to cooperate on any policy things, but if we lose an election, we will say it was stolen. That does threaten the basic integrity of the constitutional structure. And that was precisely what Donald Trump was saying before the 2020 election. And he’s running around saying, there’s only one way I can lose this, and that is if it’s stolen from me. And so you can view the GOP as violating the the single most important commitment of a political party in a democracy, which is to accept the results of an election, even if they lose it. You know, we the Democrats, we just lost a big race down in Virginia for governor. Nobody was happy about it. But we didn’t storm the state capitol [laugh] and beat the hell out of several hundred officers and lie about it. We basically said, okay, we got outmaneuvered on their their you know, their their stupid claims about critical race theory. And so we have to figure out how to answer it. I mean, 2016 was an election that millions of Americans thought was illegitimate because of Vladimir Putin’s proven interference in cyber sabotage and cyber espionage. And, you know, but what did our side do? We remained within the constitutional order. Everybody put on a pink hat and joined Indivisible. But we didn’t go and start beating up police officers with American flags and smashing the windows of the Capitol and trying to overthrow the peaceful transfer of power. [music break]
Brian Beutler: So if we have a we have a fairly common grasp of what the what the problem is and what the challenge is. And so I was thinking to myself in sort of an analogy to the climate change question, you know, first you got to grasp what the problem is and then try to figure out what realistic options you have for addressing it. And so the main the first thing that comes to mind is accountability, right? Like the the stuff that that that they were willing to do to to gain and maintain power are in many cases seem to be crimes. And if people were prosecuted for committing them, then others might think twice before doing the same thing. In in another bucket of of options are more procedural guardrails, which I think in this case basically means adding more democracy to democracy so we can get rid of the filibuster. Add states that union reform the courts, do away with partizan gerrymandering. You do those things and maybe it shuts down the paths they think they have to, you know, a procedural coup. And then the final thing is just sort of bare knuckles politics, right? Like corruption is unpopular, fascism is unpopular. Attacking your opponents at their weak spots and defining them by those vices is perfectly legitimate, effective politics. And I think some of the anxiety that I, I feel myself and that I also hear from our readers and listeners that they feel, too, is that those three things accountability, Democratic reform and a sort of FDR like appetite for mixing it up and confronting the opposition. They’re not sort of reliably on offer at the moment. And I’m wondering what you would say to them to make them feel better about that mismatch between the sort of the people who are willing to do anything, including violence to win and the the rest of us who are not always able to marshal all of the responses we ought to.
Jamie Raskin: Well, I just want people to recognize how far we’ve come and the changes that we’ve been able to make. You know, it’s true that the GOP in these gerrymandered legislatures is passing all of these voter suppression statutes to repeal weekend voting and repeal early voting and interfere with mail in balloting, because those are innovations that we’ve made that have pushed us forward in the in the direction of a more perfect union. And they’re trying to turn the clock back on all of that. That’s why they’re passing these laws like the one in Georgia, which says you can’t pass a chocolate chip cookie or bottled water to somebody waiting in line to vote, even if they’ve been in the line for 6 hours. You know, they want to make that a crime.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Jamie Raskin: So, you know, we’ve made progress on Democratic reform, but we’ve got a lot more progress we need to make. As you say, you know, D.C. statehood. We’ve got the only national capital on earth where the people are not represented in their own federal parliament. 713,000 taxpaying, draftable, people without representation in their own Congress in Washington, D.C.. I mean, can you imagine if you told the people of Paris that they couldn’t be represented in Assemblée nationale? You’d have another French Revolution on your hands. Mm hmm. You know. Yeah. And the same in Puerto Rico. So, I mean, Tocqueville said that democracy’s shrinking or democracy is growing, and we’ve got to get back on the growth track. We need a constitutional amendment on the right to vote and we need the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. So we’ve got the means at our disposal, but we’ve got to overcome the filibuster in order to make it happen. I mean, what you know, what I think you’re describing effectively is a matrix of GOP democracy suppression techniques. It’s like a closed circle. And all we need to do is to break one part of the circle, whether it’s the filibuster or the gerrymandering of our districts, and then we’ll be able to break the whole thing up. But they do have a very tight circle of control over democracy right now, and that’s the struggle of our times. And so we just have to have faith and hope that we’re going to be able to break through in one or several of these different areas.
Brian Beutler: Let me I mean, let me let me sort of get at the same question by talking about some of the experiences you wrote about in your book. You wrote about how you wanted to empanel, create a, pass a law and panel, a congressional body that would allow Congress to initiate 25th Amendment proceedings. And you talk about wanting to investigate and even impeach President Trump for violating the foreign emoluments clause. And there were there were other episodes to in and that. Instinct for wanting to just confront those issues resonate strongly with me. But you receive pushback internally from the leadership and from the Biden campaign who were said, you know, this is too political, there will be backlash. And when I read that, I you know, it reminded me of the of the the Yates poem about the the worst being filled with passion, intensity. [both speaking] Yeah, exactly. And and I’m curious how you felt when you received that pushback and if it gave you pause about how well prepared the small d democratic arms of our society are to to wage this fight?
Jamie Raskin: Yeah. Things fall apart. The center will not hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, right?
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Jamie Raskin: Well, I think that the center will hold, but it’s the moral center, not the political center. The moral center will hold if we can show people what’s right. I mean, you know, the agonizing thing to me about both the 25th Amendment, the monuments clause, as I describe in my book, is how close we came. I mean, Speaker Pelosi really got the point about the 25th Amendment, but it was quite late. It was in I think it was the beginning of October or maybe late September when she and I had a press conference together, you know, saying trying to explain to people, you know, the 25th Amendment says in Section four that the vice president and a majority of the cabinet can determine that there’s an incapacity in the president, that the president’s unable to discharge the powers and duties of office or the vice president and a body set up by Congress. So I wasn’t saying anything that radical. I was just saying, let’s read the 25th Amendment.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Jamie Raskin: It invites the Congress to set up a body that will be there, not for the purposes of one administration or one president, but for all of them that will be able to determine whether or not the president has some kind of inability to discharge the powers and duties of office. You would think during the time of COVID 19, this would be something we could rally behind. And people were acting like it was just an unspeakably partisan thing to talk about. And now it’s coming out. How many Republicans were raising the 25th Amendment in their own caucus, in their own conference meetings—
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Jamie Raskin: —about what should be done? So, yeah, I guess we’ve got to have a certain sense of constitutional courage and conviction. We’ve got to read our own Constitution. It’s the exact same thing with the emoluments clause, which says that neither the President nor any of us in federal office shall accept a present in emoluments, which just means a payment in office or a title of any kind, whatever, from a prince, a king, or a foreign state. And yet we had Donald Trump in his first week in office declaring he was going to stay in business. He might transfer some of the day to day management of his businesses to his kids, but he was basically going to stay in business. He converted the presidency into a moneymaking operation, and he did millions and millions of dollars worth of business with foreign governments while he was in there. And then the domestic emoluments clause says that the president is limited to his federal salary and not can get in, cannot get any other money from federal agencies and departments or states. And yet again, he’s raking in millions of dollars as president at the golf courses and at the hotels from, you know, the Secret Service, from the Department of Commerce, from all the federal agencies that he had going to do stuff there from the different parts of the military and so on. And what he said in response is two things. One, well, I’m not taking my salary, but that’s the only thing he’s allowed to take under the Constitution. And then he said, and I will make a voluntary payment, which he made of two or $300,000 a year, he said, for any, quote, profits he was making from foreign governments or the or U.S. government payments. Again, that’s not what the Constitution says. It doesn’t say the president should not be accepting profits from the government. It’s he can do no business at all with our government or with foreign governments. And we’re not going to certainly trust Donald Trump and his accountants to determine how much he owes us, which is one of the reasons that the framers of the Constitution said it’s just a categorical ban. You can’t do it. You can’t take money from foreign governments unless the Congress specifically okays it and you can’t take at all from the US government. But again, people, it was unfamiliar to people and they were saying, well, nobody’s going to get this, they’re going to think it’s a partisan witch hunt or what have you. And I just said, this is the one thing that Americans will understand most easily—
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Jamie Raskin: —that he is a rip off artist and a con man and he’s trying to take everybody for a ride. And so I still don’t think. We’ve reckoned with the extent to which he wanted to turn us into just a criminal state because he wanted to use the government for the purposes of his own profit maximization.
Brian Beutler: I mean, even hearing you talk about it now, it just makes me feel like not just to discharge your duties as a check on the executive branch, but like that there was a source of political power there that was left on the table. Because I agree. You know, it was it was pretty clear that he was shoveling money into his pockets and getting people to be mad at somebody who’s stealing from them. Seems pretty easy to me. And, you know, when the appetite isn’t there for something that feels so simple like that, I think it creates a bit of cognitive dissonance for for people who are sort of geared up to want to have the fight.
Jamie Raskin: Yeah. I mean, I think that. That’s right. You know, I just want people to understand that the framers were really on to something there, because what they were saying is that we want people who aspire and attain to public office to have an undivided fiduciary duty to the people of the country. You know, there’s a lot of space in America for somebody like Donald Trump to go out and run all of his schemes and everything. And we hope the law will catch up with him at various points. I mean, he doesn’t pay his plumbers and his contractors and his electricians and his painters, and he’s had to at least settle with a lot of them. And when he had his rip off Trump-U, you know, he ended up having to pay a lot of money to the students who got ripped off in that particular scam operation. But the most dangerous thing is if you allow somebody to take over the government who wants to use the whole government as a rip off of the American people. And I you know, I do fault me, our own party for failing to make that case to the American people. And that’s what really I think explains best. Everything he did to stay in office, I mean, why did he want to stay in office so much? What was the big program he was fighting for?
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Jamie Raskin: What was the agenda that was so close to the agenda, which obviously was moneymaking? And we see with, you know, Jared Kushner waltzing off with $2 billion from Saudi Arabia a couple weeks ago, exactly what they were up to while they were in and why they would love to return to power.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, I it’s funny. I got it’s like I don’t actually want to see what would happen if if Congress and Democrats in control of Congress were able to really check that kind of behavior because it would imply giving him another term in office. And I don’t want that to happen. But obviously, if at some point a future president comes in and does the same kind of thing, you got to hope that the next time around there will be they’ll run into some stiffer resistance.
Jamie Raskin: If you look at the history of fascism, political corruption is as essential to it as scapegoating of minorities and attempted merger of church and state and authoritarian violation of civil liberties and political corruption is right at the heart of it because, you know, the people who are cut in on the deals of the authoritarian regime become the political base of the government under a fascist arrangement.
Brian Beutler: The you alluded to it earlier. You said it again just now. And I’ve noticed it is just somebody who’s followed your career, is it in the aftermath of the insurrection, you’re one of the few elected Democrats who will describe this movement that’s taken hold of the GOP as a fascist movement. And I’m guessing it’s because you see clearly now that that’s true, but also because maybe you’ve reassessed the the value of maintaining polite fictions downward a bit. Can you can you talk about. Why you sort of feel free to use that language now and maybe—
Jamie Raskin: Well, I mean, all of that is true. You know, I resolved not to ever elevate delicacy and politeness over truth and over the necessity of political, intellectual honesty. But I have to say, I was very influenced by Madeleine Albright’s last book, where she uses the F word. It’s about fascism.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Jamie Raskin: And she says it’s a mistake to think that fascism has to have a body of defined ideological contents. She says it’s totally mutating and dynamic. What is characteristic of fascism is that it’s a strategy for taking power. And then maintaining a hold on power divorced from any moral purposes. And so in that sense, it’s very easy to see what we were encountering on January 6th as an expression of fascistic politics, because there was a determination to override and crush our constitutional process in the interest of keeping one person in power. And they were willing to do everything from coercing the president’s own vice president to step outside of his constitutional role, to unleashing violence on the Congress and on the vice president to have their way with us.
Brian Beutler: Do you have a hope or a sense maybe that that more Democrats will become comfortable saying rude things about their opponents when they happen to be true, to use the word. Words like fascism to describe what what this iteration of the Republican Party. Because I feel like there’s still this sense that you ought not go there. And it’s up against the way Republicans demagog, which is just no matter what Democrats do, call it radical socialism, say that they stole the election or they’re groomers or they’re they’re corrupt. And if if that’s not being met with sort of actually, no. Like these guys are are fascists. And and here’s why. Here’s why we say that you end up with these sort of perverse situations where Republicans get to win or fight to the draw on big battles for public perception about democracy and ethics, which is the most ethical party which which party is standing up for democracy? I mean, that should be a bloodbath that the Democrats win. But in polling, it’s not always clear that that’s the case.
Jamie Raskin: Well, I’m with you. I think that, you know, we’ve got to have a sense of pride about the democracy we’re building. I mean, democracy is very hard to reify and turn into just something that exists out there. Democracy is a dynamic process and it’s always been democracy versus slavery, democracy versus white supremacy, democracy versus Jim Crow, democracy versus the disenfranchisement of women. Democracy versus authoritarian power being exercised by bosses against people in unions and so on. So, you know, I think that we need to be far more passionate and engaged about this struggle that we’re in. So I know I agree with you about that. I don’t think we can be shy about it. You know, a lot of the historians will say, well, democracies are slow to rise like America during World War Two with the rise of fascism and Nazism. It took a while. Why? Because people who live a life in a democratic spirit are involved in a lot of things. They’re involved with their families and their public, their work. And they’re playing baseball or football or bowling. They’re trying to enjoy life. That’s the the greatness of democracy that people can enjoy everything about life like art and music and so on. Whereas fascism is all about power and crushing the human spirit and lining everybody up. So it does take us a while to get riled. But when the democratic societies and movements and peoples understand what’s at stake and understand what kind of danger we’re in, then there’s no stopping us. And I think that we hit a point like that with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. And, you know, the the mass rape and the killing and the slaughter and the murder of children and everything that’s taking place there, I think, has woken the democratic world up to the threat that is at everybody’s doorstep all over the world. And we’ve seen it here. And. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz and all those guys are part of the Trump Putin axis. And I’m willing to stand up on the floor and tell them that. And, you know, I was in a I was on the floor once when Marjorie Taylor Greene got up and started saying the Democrats were communists. And I said, you know, I thought that the gentlelady was mistaken because the only communist I’m aware of on Earth are the heroes of her hero, Donald Trump, like the communist dictator of North Korea, who he writes a love letters to for President Xi, who he’s defended dozens of times throughout the COVID 19 crisis, or Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB, who said the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. So the communists, as autocrats and authoritarians and dictators belong on their side of the aisle. And I’m with you. I don’t think that we should take any nonsense from know nothings, and I mean that in the strictly literal sense, like Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Brian Beutler: So here’s where I want to close and give you an opportunity to maybe talk me down a little bit. A few minutes ago, you said that you were you were confident, not that the political center would hold, but that the moral center would hold, which I think is like a pretty it’s a profound and and hopeful thought. But it’s also a little bit scary, because what if the political center doesn’t hold, you know, your your moral victories? Might feel good. But if you’re if you’re sort of living under the the jackboot [laugh] of authoritarians while you try to reassert moral standing. You know it it’s frightening.
Jamie Raskin: Well what I mean, by what I mean by it is that that the people will always come around eventually to the moral position and the defense of what’s right. So the moral center will be a magnet for the political center. We will eventually bring it to us. But we shouldn’t spend any time trying to chase around the political center, which just blows with the wind and the polls and the news and so on. But we’ve got to find what’s right and then plant our flag there and, you know, with our institutions, with our values. And then that in the end is what is going to prevail, and the moral center will be the organizing principle for the political center. I do believe that, you know, because the alternative is being plunged into the fascist darkness with Trump and Putin and their team, all you know, all of those leaders who just, you know, put leaders in quotes. But, you know, all of those people who’ve, you know, claimed state power, who view it as just an opportunity to make themselves rich and to oppress other people. I mean, that’s what’s at stake. I mean, it’s the oldest question in political philosophy ever. You know, are we going to be ruled by tyrants or are we going to manage to engage in democratic self-government with whatever flaws are attendant to that system?
Brian Beutler: Can you tell me a little bit about what this what this looks like when you’re sort of daydreaming about it? I heard you say recently that you think the road to rebuilding is through honest reckoning with big civic traumas. And that’s doing that is is the road down which the good guys win. But when you’re just thinking through or wargaming these big fights that will have to happen in your mind, what are the scenarios where the democracy holds? How do they play out? What do they look like to you?
Jamie Raskin: Well, we have to hold the house in 2022, even if it’s again by two or three votes. We’ve got to hold the House. And I think that the the right wing faction on the Supreme Court, which is a hegemonic, has set the table for us to win because they’ve shown that that’s the destiny of all of these assaults on voting rights and democracy is an assault on the freedoms of the people. So we need to have, you know, a democratic uprising in the country against all of this authoritarianism. And if we pick up two or three Senate seats, just two or three Senate seats, we will be able to overcome the filibuster and pass legislation to protect voting rights and also to codify Roe versus Wade and protect the reproductive rights of women. So I think that that that’s got to be our immediate political objective, which means we need everybody organized and out there participating. My campaign now spends no money on TV, radio, consultants, pollsters, none of it. It all goes to Democracy Summer, which is our school for college and high school students to learn about the history of democratic struggle and then what’s happening today and how they can be engaged. And then we go out and we help Democrats all over the country win elections in close swing districts. And increasingly, we’re spending time trying to defend the integrity of the election against attempts by Trump and his crowd just to steal it.
Brian Beutler: Well, your lips to God’s ears. I really appreciate how much time you spent with us.
Jamie Raskin: Thank you. [music break]
Brian Beutler: You might have noticed that Congressman Raskin and I didn’t have much to say about the January 6th hearings. That’s because we recorded this interview in May before the hearings began, and we did that deliberately because we wanted the episode to be about the whole democracy crisis, not just whatever revelations happen to be in the news on launch week. But having watched a few of the hearings with this conversation in the back of my mind, what I’d say is that they really do feel like they could be the beginning of that process of civic renewal that Congressman Raskin described. I read an update recently by a reporter on the domestic extremism beat who wrote that people in pro-insurrection message boards say they know these hearings have broken through the crust of political elites and news junkies down to, quote “normies”. And they’re basically counting on memories to fade again once the hearings are done and we know memories fade. Right. It’s been a year and a half since January 6th. And in that time, as the committee worked mostly in the dark, the number of people who think the insurrection is an urgent political issue has fallen, and the number who think it’s time to move on has increased. And so the key to proving them wrong, I think, is to think of the reckoning we need to have with big civic traumas as an ongoing process, not a one and done thing, at least not as long as Republicans continue to side with the insurrection over the reckoning. If we just turn the page after June, we’ll probably prove them right. Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez and our associate producer is Olivia Martinez. Veronica Simonetti mixes and edits the show each week.