Preet Bharara: From CAFE, welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.
Heather Cox Richardson: It’s this moment that is not just about police brutality I don’t think. And it’s not just about the pandemic and the feeling that the government has kind of said our economy is more important than your life. But really the culmination of hey, wait a minute. This is supposed to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Why is all the money moving upward? Why is it the people at the who are getting all the protection? Why is our president getting away with whatever it seems he wants to do? Why is the Secretary of State doing the same? Why is the Attorney General doing the same? This moment is giving voice to that anger.
Preet Bharara: That’s Heather Cox Richardson. She’s an American history professor at Boston College, and the author of many books about race, power, and labor from the civil war to the present. Her latest is called How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. Professor Richardson is also the writer of a popular daily newsletter Letters from an American, which seeks to contextualize today’s political events in the long arc of American history. Today, she joins me to discuss the history of racism in America, the danger of false political images, and why we’re at a critical inflection point in our country’s history. That’s coming up. Stay tuned.
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This question comes from Twitter user Martini Composer. “Hi Preet. I have a question about a possible jury for Officer Chauvin. What are the challenges in finding an impartial jury, given that everyone has seen the video? Thanks #AskPreet.” Well, that’s a good question Martini Composer, and one that lawyers struggle with all the time in high profile cases. There probably aren’t too many people in the jury pool in Minneapolis, specifically in Minnesota generally or pretty much anywhere in the country where large numbers of people have not seen the video of Officer Chauvin putting his knee into the back of the neck George Floyd and killing him.
So it’s not just the fact that so many people have seen the video and people in the jury pool have seen the video. Relatedly, but perhaps more importantly is the fact that probably a lot of people have made up their mind about the evidence not having seen everything. And they probably prejudged the guilt of one or more officers having made up their mind. Which is reasonable if you’re an ordinary citizen or you’re a podcaster, because I have a pretty intense view that the evidence is pretty strong in favor of guilt on the part of the main officer and aiding abetting criminal liability on the part of the other officers as I’ve been discussing. And Anne and I have been discussing on the Insider Podcast. For that reason, I probably wouldn’t be a good member of the jury because of the things I’ve said about the case already. That said, a couple of things.
You would be surprised that there are people in the world who do tune news out and don’t know all the precise details of what’s going on. And again, the most important criteria is not whether or not someone has seen the video, but whether or not someone can be fair. And at least give the impression to the court and to the lawyers for both sides that they can be fair and impartial and keep an open mind.
It’s difficult. In a case like this, I would imagine they’re going to go through a lot of jurors and ask a lot of questions. And engage in a very, very significant and rigorous voir dire to make sure they have a jury pool consisting of people who have convinced the court and the parties that they can be fair.
There are also some precautionary measures. The court can dismiss anyone for cause if they think that the juror cannot be fair. And the parties themselves have what are known as peremptory challenges, where they can strike jurors because they think they might not be able to be fair to their particular side.
But remember, this will be a sensational and highly watched trial if there is in fact a trial or multiple trials. But there have been other cases like this as well. The case against O. J. Simpson, the case against the officers in connection with the Rodney King beating. There are from time to time in America cases that are as sometimes people call them case of the century or case of the decade. And jury pools are convened, and juries are selected from them. Is it challenging? Yes. Can it be done also? Also yes.
I mean I remember when we were debating back at the beginning of my time as the United States attorney, where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his cohorts might be tried in an American civilian court. We obviously advocated for it to be in the southern district of New York. Think about how sensational trial that would have been, and whether or not you could find anyone in New York or elsewhere who didn’t have a feeling about 9.11 and whether or not KSM was responsible. And even though at the end of the day, the case went to the military commission at Gitmo, we were pretty confident that not withstanding how sensational that would have been, that the law would have permitted a proper jury to be selected where they could be fair. Challenging? Of course. Doable? Yes.
This question comes from Twitter user A [Qureshi] Esq, as in Esquire. “Preet in light of recent events, what are your thoughts on changing the way the AG is selected? Could the AG be elected as part of general elections every four years?” #AskPreet. So that’s interesting. It’s a pretty radical change for a lot of reasons, given the structure of our federal government. It’s not radical. I guess if you think about what happens in the states and virtually all states, other than New Jersey and maybe one or two others, as you know from listening to Anne Milgram, attorneys general of state are elected directly by the people. And that sometimes can cause tension between the chief law enforcement officer of a state and the governor of the state, but it’s an independent entity. It’s an independent agency in most states like it is in New York and a lot of other places. And provides a measure of distance and arms length between investigations and certain kinds of civil actions and criminal prosecutions from the executive of the state. And the Attorney General has their own base of power, and their own constituency, and their own accountability that’s separate from the executive of the state.
Now while that’s a model that works in the States, not withstanding my agreement with the spirit of your question about so many things that have gone wrong and so many disappointments that we’ve had in Bill Barr, it becomes I think a little unworkable. Even if you could cause the change to be made, which would be very, very difficult to have an Attorney General of the United States of America independently elected. First of all, the only two people who are independently elected by the entire country are the president and the vice president. And to do something further, I think will be very, very difficult principally for the following reason, although there may be other reasons as well.
Although I agree, and I’ve said this a million times and I write about this in my book, that law enforcement needs to be independent. The Attorney General needs to be more independent from the president than any other cabinet officer. And I believe that with all of my soul and heart and being, and that’s what makes the Justice Department special. And one way to do that I suppose, is to have that person be independently elected, even if that were possible to do, which I kind of doubt.
On the other hand, there are things where you want the Attorney General and the Justice Department to be on the same page as the executive branch and the White House. Not with respect to individual prosecutions of individual people, whether they’re cronies or the president, adversaries or the president, or something like that. But part of the job of the Justice Department, which by the way includes the FBI, the DEA, and all sorts of other law enforcement organizations, is a protection of the homeland. And to keep us safe from terrorism, and to enact policies that are uniform throughout the country. And though some of that independence has been breached by this president and by this Attorney General, and that’s happened in the past also. It’s really important for purposes of national security for the AG and the president to be in sync.
Now, better ways of accomplishing that are making sure you pick the right president who understands those principles and stays away from individual prosecutorial decisions. And also that the Senate confirmation process of the AG provides another check and balance to make sure that someone who is thought to be too close to the president or will not carry out their independently, not get confirmed. Those checks and balances have proven to be imperfect. Those norms have proven to be imperfect, but still on balance. I think it’s a better way of going about it than something radical like independently electing the AG. It’s time for a short break. Stay tuned.
My guest this week is Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor at Boston College. She has authored many books that critically examine American narratives and myths. Her most recent book, How the South Won the Civil War is an investigation of how oligarchy kept the myths of the antebellum south alive. Richardson has also written extensively about the history of the Republican Party and legacy of racism in the American West. Richardson writes a popular daily newsletter called Letters from an American, which outlines the most pressing political events of the day. Today, we discuss the development of modern conservatism, the calls to remove Confederate statues, and the nationwide protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Professor Heather Cox Richardson, thank you so much for taking the time and joining us on the show.
Heather Cox Richardson: Oh, it’s a pleasure.
Preet Bharara: So I begin with the same question of everyone lately. How are you?
Heather Cox Richardson: I’m remarkably well, actually. My life is not all that different now than it is on any normal summer day. I hole up on the coast of [inaudible], which is precisely what I’m doing now. I never see anybody normally. So I’m not seeing anyone now.
Preet Bharara: You have no concentration issues given all the news?
Heather Cox Richardson: Well remember, this is kind of, I won’t say my happy place. I don’t like what’s going on. But what I do is take a look at a great amount of material and try to reduce it into something that’s comprehensible. So in a way, my work has become my entire life. But that’s why I went into this profession. So concentration issues, no, not particularly.
Preet Bharara: That’s good. A lot of people listening probably will envy you. So your professional title is historian, but you have described yourself as a translator. You said, “I am a translator.” What does that mean?
Heather Cox Richardson: Well, precisely that really. So one of the things that’s funny about what historians do is we’re trained of course, to look for the larger patterns in society. What changes society, what moves it forward, what creates change? And all I have ever done in my career is try to look at a large body of material that represents a society in a certain moment and say, “Oh wow, look. There’s the pattern that I see here.” Now, what I was not trained to do was do it for the present. And what I never expected to do was to do it for the present. But those skills have turned out to come in very handy right now. So what I feel like I’m doing is translating for people who don’t have that 35 years of experience looking at large bodies of material and saying, “Here’s the pattern.” And taking it for them and doing that with today’s. So that’s sort of what I’ve ended up doing over this last eight or 10 months for people nowadays. But I do still write history in my spare time, because how and why society’s changed is really a central question for any of us in this present moment in America or anywhere else at any other time.
Preet Bharara: So you’ve not only called yourself a translator. You also in your Twitter profile, refer to yourself as a budding curmudgeon. Why budding? And when will you achieve actual curmudgeon status?
Heather Cox Richardson: Okay. So that’s a great story. All of the social media stuff is really a great story for someone of my age. It was never my idea either to get on to Twitter or to Facebook. That was my students. I taught a class on comic books a number of years ago, on the history of comic books. And it turns out that the university I work at has just a phenomenal collection of comic books. Who knew? So I taught a class on them and how they are really social commentary. And it was a small class and we worked together incredibly well. They were a great group of students. And I used to make comments in class as I often do. And they were like, “You really should be on social media. You really should be on social media.” And I was like, “Yeah, right. I’m too old.”
And they finally one of them, I remember the day, it was April 4th. Came into my office and she said, “You’re not leaving this office until you sign up for Twitter and Facebook.” And I said, “I’ll do that. I promise I’ll do that, but I need to get home right now. It’s my daughter’s birthday.” And she said, “Perhaps, you didn’t hear me. I said, you couldn’t leave this office until you sign up for Twitter and Facebook.” So if you look, you’ll see it says that I signed up on April 4th. I don’t remember the year.
But I didn’t use them. And finally one of my students, I still remember him as well, a great guy. We’re still in touch. Who used to joke about the fact that they always knew they were in trouble in class when I came into class and said, “Okay, you guys are in real trouble today because I am in a dangerously good mood.” So that he insisted had to be my first tweet, which if there’s any history of that, you will see it is. It’s something like, “Look out Twitter, I’m in a dangerously good mood today.” But they also, whenever I growled about something, I would say, “Just don’t pay any attention to me. I’m just a curmudgeon.” So they sat there with me and wrote that Twitter bio. I thought that I would drop it after the class. But somehow it’s become who I am. And I keep it there kind of in memory of all the great students I’ve had over the years.
Preet Bharara: Well, I think that’s a good thing. The irony is that years from now, anyone who wants to study the Trump presidency. I think his entire presidential library, if there is one, will just be a big Twitter feed, right? Aren’t those the most important papers of this president?
Heather Cox Richardson: Isn’t it astonishing that so much of what we are now doing is by tweet? At first, I really objected to it. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s a kind of immediacy between people, and politicians, and presidents that hasn’t been there in the past. But I remember at first going, “I am so tired of doing history by tweet.” But maybe it’s a good thing
Preet Bharara: Someone’s running the country by tweet. Maybe it’s something that should be considered. So let’s get to this moment in time. We’re recording on Monday, June 8th. And I note that because things change every day. And I want to make sure people understand the time that we’re talking.
This is a moment that we’re in, while we still have a pandemic, a global pandemic causing a lot of harm and death. And we have a massive protests, not just in this country, but in other countries as well over issues of racism and police brutality. Are we actually at an inflection point in American history?
Heather Cox Richardson: I would say yes. And here’s why. Because we are at the end of a particular political period. That is really since the Democrats and FDR put through a series of new laws that created an activist government in the 1930s and the 1940s. And after Dwight Eisenhower picked it up and made it part of the mainstream Republican platform in the 1950s. There has been a backlash against what was then known as the liberal consensus. That is the idea that the government has a role to regulate business and to provide a basic social safety net and promote infrastructure. That was really widely spread, that idea was widely spread in the 1930s, and the 1940s, and the 1950s, and the 1960s, in the 1970s. But the backlash against that really took hold in the 1980s. And we’re seeing now the culmination of that, the idea that in fact the government has no role in either regulating business or promoting a social safety net, or promoting infrastructure. That those things should be privatized or not done at all.
And that’s gone so far, I think that we have come to a backlash against that. And it happens that the combination of this deadly pandemic, which has fallen out of the news cycle in a lot of ways. And that’s really a problem. And the attack on Mr. Floyd as well as Breonna Taylor and all the other many people who have died at the hands of police. Those two things have combined really to give a voice to a lot of people who believe that the government is no longer working in their best interests here in America. What’s happening internationally is perhaps the same story, but perhaps a different one.
But here in America, it’s this moment that is not just about police brutality I don’t think. And it’s not just about the pandemic and the feeling that the government has kind of said our economy is more important than your life. But really the culmination of, “Hey, wait a minute. This is supposed to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Why is all the money moving upward? Why is it the people at the top or getting all the protection? Why is our president getting away with whatever it seems he wants to do? Why is the Secretary of State doing the same? Why is the Attorney General doing the same?” This moment is giving voice to that anger.
Now the real question though, is what’s going to happen in the next several months. We’ve had a lot of times in the past when people took to the streets and anger and then didn’t follow it up. And that’s really what I’m going to be watching is what are the concrete steps that people are taking to create systemic change, as opposed to simply voicing their anger?
Preet Bharara: The systemic change, or other kinds of significant change always require some kind of significant catalyst, or can it happen without a catalyst like a pandemic or protest?
Heather Cox Richardson: I think systemic change happens when the people who run the system begin to change. And there are I think cosmic catalysts that create that. I would argue that there have been four major changes throughout American history that have created huge changes in society and the way we interact with our government.
The first in the early 19th century was when people started, Euro Americans started to move West. And that created a crisis for democracy. And from that crisis in democracy, we get the first activist government under the Republican Party in the 1860s. People always forget that it’s the Republicans who create national taxation and income taxes, and actually create a government that works to provide education and provide a basic social safety net for people.
We get that. And then the 1880s and the 1890s and into the 19 odds, we get industrialization. And industrialization once again forces this if you will, come to Jesus moment where people say, “What is the government supposed to be doing?” And out of that, we get the progressive era.
And then in the middle of the 20th century, we get the rise of internationalism and the very real fear of nuclear war. And the idea that the world literally could end tomorrow. And that once again, creates an America, what we knew as the liberal consensus. Now we’ve got a different crisis, and it’s a unique crisis in American history. And that’s the rise of what appears to be a want to be dictator. And once again, Americans are coming to the wall and saying, “What is our government supposed to be? And what is it supposed to be doing?”
It’s interesting as a historian to look at these major changes. And that’s sort of the cosmic law, but does society change without those? Sure. I mean, if you look at really the backlash against the New Deal and Eisenhower’s middle way, this liberal consensus. That happened not because protesters took to the streets in the 1960s and said we have to change things. It happened after the Goldwater campaign of 1964, when Goldwaterites said, “We’re obviously not going to change things in the streets. So we’re going to have to do it by taking over school boards.” And that’s precisely what they did. Quietly and almost insidiously changed our government.
Preet Bharara: So I was taking notes as you were speaking. And I just want to be clear. You said the third major change was in the mid 20th century with internationalism and the fear of nuclear war. And just make sure I didn’t miss it. The fourth major change was what?
Heather Cox Richardson: I would suggest looking at this from a large perspective that the fourth major crisis. And let me just say here that what I’m suggesting is what you were asking about was changes in government. So when I’m talking about these crises, I’m talking about crises of government. Certainly Americans have had other crises in the past that I’m not mentioning know. Little things like world wars. But what I’m suggesting is the fourth major crisis of government has been when we see, as we are seeing in the present, that our guard rails really don’t exist. And that we’ve got the problem of the rise of a want to be dictator in Donald Trump. I think this moment will go forward as one of those four major crises in the American government that I’m identifying.
Preet Bharara: If we’re not talking about just crises, but just sort of major change that follows crisis. You’re not including on the list of those few for what happened after the Vietnam War and people’s lack of trust in institutions? Or Watergate, or the great society or any of those things?
Heather Cox Richardson: No, I’m not. I’m putting those in the larger backlash against the liberal consensus after the 1950s. And I think we could dig down into that if you’re interested. A lot of people say, “Why would this moment be any different now than the movement after the 1960s?” And what I would say about that is that after the movements of the 1960s, one of the things that didn’t happen to the degree that would have required to have happened for change is the people who were making those demands in the 1960s tended not to go into politics. They tended to leave politics to the Goldwaterites who did in fact take over the system. Controlling the system really matters.
Preet Bharara: Well, yeah. Well, after all that in the sixties, it was not a liberal who got elected. It was Richard Nixon.
Heather Cox Richardson: That’s correct.
Preet Bharara: Let me ask you this question. Because lots of people seek to find historical parallels. real historians like yourself, but also armchair historians, people who read history in the papers. Is it wrong to say that there’s a parallel in 1968 in the current day?
Heather Cox Richardson: So lots of people are looking-
Preet Bharara: I note that sigh. I note that sigh.
Heather Cox Richardson: A lot of people are looking at ’68 and saying, “We’re basically reliving ’68.” But it’s very important to remember that what they’re really looking for when they make those parallels is to say unrest in the streets really helps reactionary forces. Look, it elected Richard Nixon.
And it’s important to remember that Richard Nixon was not in office in the midst of all those protests. And what we have right now is a situation where the person in power is overseeing those protests in the third year of his presidency, or is it the fourth year? I can’t remember at this point.
So I think that what’s different here is that the unrest is against somebody in power. In that case, it was LBJ led reactionary backlash to put Nixon in power.
LBJ: I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.
Heather Cox Richardson: But we have the opposite situation nowadays in that the person who has created this situation and who is currently in power is the one that this movement is going to take out. I’m not entirely sure I’ve articulated that. But it matters that the president who is in power is the person against whom this unrest is happening. As opposed to it being somebody who is riding on the outside into the White House, on this kind of chaos.
Preet Bharara: Is it useful or silly to try to draw direct parallels between the time we’re living in and other periods? Peter Baker of the New York Times has been a guest on the show said …
Peter Baker: We started this year thinking it was another 1998 because of impeachment. And then we’d moved to 1918 with the pandemic. And then we thought maybe it’s another 1929, throw that on top of 1918, because of the Great Depression. Now we’re talking about 1968.
Preet Bharara: Should we be sitting around talking about how similar or different our time is to other years? Is that a useful enterprise or not?
Heather Cox Richardson: Well let me go back first of all, where you started this and how people are responding to it. I think it is very real that Americans are traumatized. We are going through major crises, one on top of each other. And that does in fact create a really hard situation for an awful lot of people. So I think it’s important in that way to recognize that what we’re going through is extraordinary and hard for a lot of people.
That being said, one of the things that historians are very, very used to saying and very fond of saying is that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And what historians do is they study society. And it doesn’t really matter for this principle, what society they’re studying. I mean, they could be studying farm workers in Southern France. Or Icelandic fishermen. It doesn’t really matter. What you’re really studying anytime you try and look at the history of a population is to see what creates change. What stresses on a society mean that society either moves in one direction or in another? And to that degree, we can learn an awful lot by looking at the pandemic of 1918, or the depression. We can look at those things and say, “Look. Under these circumstances, American society did these things because of this.” And one of the reasons that historians argue is what I see as being crucial in the depression for example, might be something very different than what one of my colleagues does. That’s fine. That’s exactly what we should be doing is arguing about what creates change.
But in that sense, it’s very important to look to the past and say, “Oh yeah. When the depression hit, this was going on. And it really mattered that for example, FDR sent Eleanor to talk to the bonus marchers rather than the army, the way Hoover had. Because it created this kind of goodwill in the media.” That sort of looking at it really matters. What you cannot do is say, “Because this happened in 1918, the same thing is going to happen in 2020.”
Preet Bharara: So I’m going to ask you more directly what you think will happen. And if this is one of those moments where we will get change number five. Largely I’m guessing that it’ll depend on what happens in five months. The whole ball of wax depends on who the next president is. Does it continue to be President Trump, or is it President Biden.
But before we get to that, there is a feeling that the protests about George Floyd and the others is different this time. It’s more widespread. That in lots of communities where you would not have expected protests and marches, particularly in the middle of a pandemic, you are getting them. And there seems to be an opening of the mind in lots of ways that we haven’t seen before. Not after Eric Garner, not after some of the other tragic cases where young black unarmed men were killed by police. Do you agree that this is different, and it feels different? And if so, why do you think that is?
Heather Cox Richardson: Yes, I do believe that. And this goes back to something I was saying earlier. One of the things that interests me when you study historical change is when people decide something really is different. That sounds like a circular argument, but it’s really not in the sense that not to put too fine a point on it, but police brutality against African Americans and all people of color is absolutely nothing new. I mean, you and I could sit here and off the top of my head, I could give you case, after case, after case. We could go over all of American history. It’s always there.
So why at certain times do a large segment of the population, maybe even a majority of the population stand up and say, “This matters to us”? Because it hasn’t mattered to them 10 years before that or 15 years before that. So why now?
It’s my sense that when people do that, it’s because they can see in the abuse of a minority population, the reality that they could be next. At some level, there is a sense that things have gone so far off the rails that you can no longer say, “Oh well, he shouldn’t have been doing X.” You have to say, the system itself is corrupt. And when that happens, then yes, we get systemic change. And that’s what it feels like to me, the fact that so many people are showing up and saying enough is enough. I don’t think they’re simply protesting the horrific deaths that we have seen around us. And let me just say as an older woman, the loss of people who are my children’s age just kills me every time. They look like the people who used to sit around my kids, my dining room table chatting after school. It looks like my own children every single time I see Breonna Taylor, who’s the same age as my oldest son.
I think that it’s not simply about them any longer. It’s about the whole system. And it’s a system with which people who are not necessarily themselves on the line. White people look and say, “This system also involves me.” And when that happens, we get a major change.
Preet Bharara: Do you think there’s anything to the theory that one way in which the coronavirus and the pandemic has caused people in his moment to be awakened to this kind of reality for so many black people in this country? And I’ve heard a couple of people mention this, and I’m wondering what you think. Lots and lots of people at home. People can’t rely on their commute and running into the office, and having all sorts of social engagements going on to turn away from, avert their eyes from the reality of what happened in Minneapolis. People are home. People are paying attention. People have the news on all the time. Is there anything to the theory that that has caused lots more people to focus on this and not be able to ignore it, than might’ve happened if we were in regular times?
Heather Cox Richardson…: I think that’s part of it. But I also think that one of the things that the coronavirus really exposed was this argument that we’ve heard for so long that the people we really need to protect in society is the makers, right? The people at the very top. The wealthy guys who know how to run society. And what really became clear was that this economy that seemed stable to a lot of people, obviously economists and historians had our doubts. But seemed stable, was really very unstable. And that the people who really mattered were the essential workers.
And all of a sudden, the idea that we were going to pass laws in Congress that continued to protect people at the top, even though it was the bus drivers and the sanitation workers who were keeping us all alive. I think really hit people, especially people who now realize that they were not part of the essential workers or part of the top. And that somehow, the system had left them behind. And there’s a lot of people I think, who were upset about or at home because of the coronavirus, but also who are upset at this new look at the economy and saying, “Wait a minute, it wasn’t never that stable. And really we’ve got to make some changes in it because it’s not serving us very well. And it’s certainly not serving well the people who are keeping us alive in this really terrifying moment.”
Preet Bharara: I want to go back to something in your Twitter bio where you say-
Heather Cox Richardson: You’re killing me here.
Preet Bharara: No, it’s good. It’s good stuff. “I study the contrast between image and reality in America, especially in politics.” What does that mean?
Heather Cox Richardson: Well, here’s a story. What that means is that I have always been fascinated by the difference between the way the world looks, and the way the world really is. And this really jumped out at me. Many years ago, I was actually a waitress in Oklahoma. And I was on the floor, and I was the only person on the floor who was not an Evangelical Christian.
And they loathed Democrats. They hated Democrats, my colleagues. And they loved Ronald Reagan. It was in the ’80s. And I remember looking around at the many of them who were not even living hand to mouth. I mean, they were impoverished. Somebody was bringing home a new baby at one point, and there literally was no food in their house. So we all went into the restaurant in the off hours and cooked for them so they’d have some food to bring home to the family with the new baby.
I remember sitting there listening, not sitting there. Cooking, listening to this conversation and talking about how much they hated the Democrats and how much they loved Ronald Reagan. And thinking, this is just bizarre. The idea that you are actively hating the party that seems like it’s going to be helpful to people like you who are working 40 hour weeks and can’t make ends meet. And yet you’re demonizing that party and supporting the party which is doing just the opposite.
And that was really, I actually had taken time off of graduate school because I thought, “Really, this stuff doesn’t matter that much. I ought to get into the world and see what it’s like.” And I remember looking around at them and thinking, “How do you get to a point where you believe really something that on its face is if you look at the facts, is not at all true?” So I went and studied mythology for awhile. And then I ended up in history trying to look at how people, especially politicians. Of course we all do it by the way, but how politicians can manipulate imagery in order to get people to do things that are really not in their interest. And that’s obviously where I’ve ended up.
Preet Bharara: So in the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen a lot of images on our TV screens and on our computer screens that reflect something. And I wonder what you think about them. Do they reflect reality, or do they reflect some distortion? Most notably obviously, people talk about the snapshot. That is the picture of that officer Derek Chauvin with his knee precedent into the back of the neck of George Floyd with his hands in his pocket, almost nonchalant. Is that image reality? Is that an example of image actually being reality in the country?
Heather Cox Richardson: Well, it certainly to my understanding is a real image. The young woman took that video. And it was a startling, startling video, I think. Just the casualness, the sheer casualness with which that man choked out the life of another human being was mind boggling, I think.
But to speak on a larger level, one of the things that America has always had going on, I think maybe every political system does, is control for how people think about things. And this is obviously one of the things that’s always driven politics from the very beginning. Is George Washington a dictator, or is he a man of the people?
But we have seen the attempt to control the political narrative in a really, really big way since the 1950s, the rise of that since the 1950s. And of course, since 2016, or before 2016 with the insertion of foreign actors in the attempt to control the way Americans think about things. It’s really become the battleground on which our politics is fought.
And I think you would not see the kind of attempts of people like the president, but also of foreign actors to change the political narrative if they didn’t think it was enormously important.
So the question right now is who is controlling that? And one of the things that is important is the fact that a lot of Americans now are pushing back on false imagery. On the ability of people to construct whatever kind of narrative they want to construct.
One of the things though that I found really disturbing about the impeachment hearings was it became clear to me that a number of the Republican senators and representatives were really not at all trying to conduct interviews or to try to get to the truth of anything that was happening. But were actually looking simply for soundbites that they could then transmit into some sort of a video or onto the Fox News channel. and to try and control the narrative and to control the way people thought about things.
And that to me was a new low in our political discourse. So the real question right now is which side is going to win? Are we going to have a victory for people who actually care about the facts on the ground and to try and put some kind of a real lens on what’s happening in America? Or are we going to fall back into the narrative spin that we have lived with really since the 1950s, and really dramatically since the 1980s, and even more dramatically since the 2000 teens in America? That I think is really the major battle that is on the table right now.
Preet Bharara: Let’s talk about that. We have a president who I think you can arguably say compared to his predecessors, cares more about image over reality than anyone we’ve ever had lead the country. And he has as you say, everyone does this in politics. Is trying to control the narrative through imagery. And we have that other snapshot that will live indelibly in people’s minds of AG Barr clearing that park outside the White House. And then the president sort of walking over, holding up a Bible, not reading from it, not praying. Not offering any kind of conciliatory words or thoughtful words to the public or to the Black Lives Matter movement or anything else. Holds up the Bible for a photo op, literally clearly just for the image, I have two questions. How do you think he is doing for his own purposes and trying to control the image and the narrative? And then second, what would real presidential leadership look like at this time?
Heather Cox Richardson: Well first of all, I’m going to get all historically excited here. Sorry about that.
Preet Bharara: That was the goal.
Heather Cox Richardson: We’re in this really fascinating moment. And it’s not the first time we’ve been in this moment in America. You can also say we were doing the same in the 1890s. And that’s where the image no longer meets the reality for so many people that they’re crying, foul. And that as a historian is fascinating because we like images. We like narratives that are tidy and easy. And one of the things that has been so powerful, really since the rise of Reagan is this image of the individual taking on a behemoth state that is destroying opportunity.
And the great image that we have of that was 1977, when Star Wars came out with Luke Skywalker taking on the empire. It’s no accident that that happened right before Ronald Reagan gets put into the White House. That image that we have to destroy the state because it’s destroying the individual has really been, it’s a mythological image. It’s David and Goliath, it’s Jesus and the Pharisees it’s Daniel Boone taking on the wilderness. It’s all those things wrapped up together. And Americans liked that. Republican voters really liked that image.
Unfortunately, didn’t happen to be reality. It’s never been reality. And now under the Trump administration, we’re seeing that wedding of image to the political narrative, to the point that people are looking and, “You’re nuts. You’re threatening social security, you’re threatening my healthcare. You’re threatening the environment. You’re threatening our lives.” Especially after the coronavirus revealed the fact that the federal government was not planning to do anything to help regular Americans deal with this deadly pandemic.
A lot of people have seen for a long time that their narrative wasn’t real. But now really we’re seeing a lot of people who had bought into it, look at it and say, “No, this is absolutely not reality. And as painful as reality is, my life depends on paying attention to reality again.”
So when you see Trump standing there holding that Bible, you can see exactly what he’s doing. He is a master of narrative. He’s also by the way, a very, very good speaker, which most people are not willing to give him credit for. Because he can so manipulate reality. But people now recognize that it’s not reality. And when that mask is torn, this is a great question you started with. Is this a different moment?
What I always say about that is I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I don’t know what’s going to happen in an hour. And in this administration, things happen constantly to the point that we’re all exhausted.
But I will say, how do you put this genie back into the bottle? How do you go back to a world where Americans say, “Oh nevermind, we’re cool”? I don’t see that happening. I can’t predict what is going to happen, but I think I can go out on a limb and say that is not going to happen.
Preet Bharara: You know it’s interesting what you just said, which paints a pretty optimistic picture. That suggests people are seeing through the false image and not being fooled. Where there is a lot of people who say there’s been no time as much as now where people are not sure what’s true and what’s false. And I guess the other question is, who are the people who are seeing through the false imagery? The president retains a very significant, although still minority level of support, hovering around 40%. Is there anything that you think will cause his supporters as opposed to other people who are on the fence, but his supporters to see through it?
Heather Cox Richardson: No. No. Full out Trump supporters are lost. But there’s always a population that’s lost in every time in history. For whatever reason, they’re going to cling to their belief system. That’s never how a movement is born or dies, is from those true believers on the side. And this is not original to many. People have been studying what they call true believers now for a very long time, certainly since 1951.
Preet Bharara: How would you describe that belief system, the Trump supporter belief system? What is it?
Heather Cox Richardson: Well if you can hold on for a second, I want to go back to something different that you just said. And that is at this moment, so many people don’t know what is true and what is not true. And that’s something different than a narrative. What you’re talking about there is the disinflation that is being thrown at us quite deliberately. First of all, by people who embrace the tactics of Russian disinformation or other disinformation systems that are designed to throw so much crap at people, that they finally just throw up their hands and say, “I don’t know, I don’t care. Just somebody take care of this.” And they walk away. That’s a really dangerous situation.
But as for more people believing now than have in the past. One of the things as a historian that always jumps out at me is I hear this constantly people saying, “Oh my God, it’s never been so bad. It’s never been so bad.” I’m sorry. I’ve been paying attention for 35 years. Yes it has been. People just weren’t paying attention before.
The fact that people are now paying attention to systems of disinformation, to the deliberate construction of a narrative. Calling out lies. I mean, the Washington Post had a piece today on the number of times that Attorney General William Barr lied in an interview yesterday. We would not have seen that even two years ago. So I see this moment as something very different.
Now, in terms of the true believers, that question you just asked, this is actually the heart of what I’ve been doing in my work recently. And one of the things that I find absolutely fascinating. And my ideas about it came really from studying Eisenhower when I wrote my book about the Republican Party. Because Eisenhower was really into a book called True Believer by Eric Hoffer. And Eric Hoffer was a longshoreman in San Francisco.
And he was studying the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. And of course everybody was studying the rise of Hitler and Mussolini in the 1940s and the 1950s. And he said, “This is stupid. Who cares about Hitler and Mussolini,” that’s the wrong place to start looking. And by the way, I’m paraphrasing. He didn’t say this is stupid, but that was the gist of it.
And what he said is that every generation has plenty of Hitlers and Mussolinis, but they don’t come to power. The real question to look at is why does a population adhere to people like this and boost them to a position of power? So he tried to take a look at what you could do to create a population that would accept a dictator. And what he discovered was a number of phases. And what those phases were, was first of all, to take a population that has been destabilized in some way. Either religiously, or culturally, or politically to feel that it is no longer of significance, the way it had in the past. You find those people and you convince them that they should be important. It’s not that the world has moved on without them and they haven’t changed, but rather that somebody has stolen that significance from them.
And then you have to find someone to blame for the fact that they have lost their significance. And as Hoffer said, and as certainly other propagandists have in the past said. Who that person is or who those people are doesn’t matter at all. You just have to have somebody to hate. That’s how you bind a group of people together.
And then once you have given them somebody to hate, then you have to promise that you can fix it. That you have a leader who can take that situation and will restore you to power. And then you have to start abusing those others in order that first of all, that they’re marginalized. But second of all, that you want your followers to start to treat those people badly.
And this is a really important discovery by Hoffer, or development by Hoffer. When he talks about how important psychologically it is to people to start abusing others. Because once they’ve done that, in order to justify in their own minds their own antisocial behavior, they have to go ahead and say, “Well, it isn’t that I did something wrong. It’s that that person deserved it.”
And once you have got people buying into that, it’s extremely difficult to get them to say, “Oh no, wait a minute. I was wrong for talking that way about minorities, for beating up that guy, for cheating that woman out of that job.” Because they have to admit that they are complicit. And once you have gotten to that point, that group of true believers as he calls it, can almost never be swayed. Because it’s not simply that they’re treating somebody else badly, it’s that they are complicit in it. And that kind of behavior ratchets up until at the far end, you get the construction of gas chambers is what Hoffer was looking at.
And one of the great things about J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books was that she recognized that system, and you can see it in her creation of Bellatrix Lestrange. Who the more that Voldemort abuses his followers, the tighter she clings to him. And this is a really classic pattern in abusive relationships. That the more abuse somebody endures, the more they cling to that abuser. Because they have become complicit in some ways in that relationship.
So who are the true believers for Trump? It’s the people who have bought in and who have demonized their fellow Americans. And they’ve been told to do so really since 1970, when facing the midterm elections of 1970. Richard Nixon and his speech writers and his advisors, advised him to create an us and them, the way he had hinted at in 1968. And that’s really in the midterm election, when you get the increasing demonization of the Republicans, the good law and order Republicans against them. The others. And that’s become a staple of the Republican Party since 1970. And now, those true believers are really wedded to it.
Preet Bharara: It’s remarkable how one can sort of parse out all the ways in which you can have true believers follow a movement that goes in the wrong direction. And then you have someone like Trump, who seems to have done a lot of things that follow in the pattern of that behavior as you’ve described. My guess is with no study of history, with no particular playbook, with nobody explaining to him what those phases are. What do you make of that, that he intuitively has been able to put himself in a position of power as you say, in a country and in a world where there are always certain kinds of people, demagogues or charlatans? But they typically don’t get put into power. What do you say about his skill?
Heather Cox Richardson…: Well, one of the things that fascinates me about Donald John Trump is that he’s not a politician. He never has been. But what he is, is a salesman. So he gives people what they want to see. He mirrors back to them. And this is one of the reasons as a historian, I have found him so fascinating. Is because he has mirrored so very well what the Republican Party, after it was taken over by movement conservatives, told their followers that they wanted. So in that sense, he is mirroring back to the base of the Republican Party what they want to say.
But as for his rise, one of the things that people don’t point to when they talk about his early success in the primaries is a glitch that’s built into the Republican primary system. And that is that, and this is really in the weeds political history stuff that really probably nobody cares about except people like me. But when we talk about how the Democrats after 1968 reworked their primary system to give more control to people on the ground, and then there’s fights nowadays about superdelegates, which itself is an interesting and a long story.
The Republican Party also made some major changes to their primary system. While on the surface of it, they tried to make it look very popular. What they did is they front-loaded a lot of their primaries in low information states. And the reason for that was they believed that this would enable them both to look as if they were giving more say to the people on the ground, but also have control about who those front runners would be.
So the idea was that you would be able to put your primaries in states where Republican voters would tend to vote for people who had name recognition. That’s why for example, we get Jeb Bush looking like he was going to be the candidate in 2016. Because he was theoretically the one who had name recognition. If you remember back then, he had raised scads of money, but done very little with the expectation that he was going to go ahead and do well in the early primaries.
What they weren’t prepared for was for some other candidate to come from outside with even greater name recognition. And that’s the moment I think when the Republican Party got blindsided into ending up with a Donald Trump, rather than with a Jeb Bush. And that’s a piece of luck that I don’t think anybody saw coming, including for the record, Donald Trump himself.
Preet Bharara: So what is the Republican Party now? It’s unclear to me, it’s unclear to a lot of erstwhile Republicans also. So what is it? Is it just a reflection of Trump, which is a reflection of what his base wants? Or is it something else?
Heather Cox Richardson: Well, that’s a $64,000 question, right? So forever, ever since I wrote about the Republican Party and people have said, “It’s dead. It’s going to die. It’s going to die.” And I kept saying, “No, it’s not going to die.” And it’s not going to die because it’s got this system, this very deeply ingrained system both culturally, but also the mechanics of a political party. And because its original ideology is in fact very important to the American DNA. Now, was I right about the fact it’s not going to die? I’m afraid that what we’ve got right now is a reactionary right wing party. And one of the things that has impressed me over the weekend in terms of seeing change is the fact that Mitt Romney, who’s a Senator from Utah now of course, was out in the streets with the protesters.
He’s doing that of course, because Trump is not popular among a lot of people from Utah. But also this struck me as being a moment that you could point to as looking like a split in the Republican Party before the 2020 election. People finally saying this is really not who we are. So what is the Republican Party now? I think it’s very much up for grabs what it is.
Preet Bharara: Do you think further to what Mitt Romney did, the statements made by General Mattis others show a real break?
Heather Cox Richardson: I mean, there’ve been other times in the past where there has been a particular conservative or particular Republican, not a lot of examples, but a few where they have broken with the president or criticized the president. And people would say, “Well, does that mean there’s going to be a real rift?” But then the president goes after that person and nobody follows that person’s lead. Do you think, here we are five months before the election. Would you predict there are going to be significant more breaks from Republicans who have actual power? I would expect more breaks, yes. From people who have actual power, congressmen and congresswomen you mean? No, I mean that’s itself an entire discussion.
I think that what we’re going to see that matters is more and more breaks from voters saying, “We don’t want any part of this.” More things from the Lincoln Project. More again, pressure on the public narrative saying, “Are you a Republican? This is not what your father’s Republican Party stood for.” And that’s really going to matter in terms of the election of 2020, which I know is what everybody else has focused on.
In terms of whether or not what that’s going to do to the Republican Party. The thing that I keep looking at. Sorry, historian here. Is 1884 when the Republican Party had become so corrupt that a number of really prominent Republicans, including Theodore Roosevelt, who was nobody at the time and Henry Cabot Lodge Senior who was maybe a little bit more than nobody but not much. And Fighting Bob La Follette, who again was a young man that nobody was paying much attention to. Actually complained about the party, but did not leave it. Came back. And in the election of 1884, a number of Republicans jumped ship and became known as the mugwumps.
But what happened then was that the Republican Party looked at the fact it had basically lost its base. And from that after 1884, you get the reform of the Republican Party into the progressive party that it became under Teddy Roosevelt and Lodge and Fighting Bob. So is this going to be the moment when the Republican Party tosses overboard the reactionaries, the way they tried to do in the 1890s? You know, I am not convinced either way. But I do think it could either become the moment in which the party reforms, or it could be the moment in which the Republican Party hives off and becomes a reactionary white supremacist party, and something new rises in its place.
I will tell you the original theory of the Republican Party, that the government should help people at the bottom to create a social web in which everybody is intertwined economically and socially, is very much a part of the American DNA. And stands quite separate than the democratic DNA, which tends to see the world as the haves and the have nots. And we need both. If the Republican Party disappears tomorrow, I have every expectation that there will be the rise of a new party based at least loosely on the old Republican theory.
Preet Bharara: So my fear is, because I have strong views about this president. That even if Donald Trump loses, and even if he loses by a significant amount, and even if he does leave peacefully, that does not mean there will be a wholesale repudiation of Trump and Trumpian style, and Trumpian politics and vision. Because lots and lots of people will still learn from his at least one term success that that’s a way to get into power. And the same way arguably the fact that Sarah Palin was a hot mess and became something of a laughingstock, remains a precursor to Trump. Do you share that concern?
Heather Cox Richardson: Totally. You’ve put your finger on it. And this is one of the things that I worry about with these protests. And I hate to sound like a concern troll, but this needs to be translated into the mechanics of the system. The same people are out in the streets need to be running for office, need to be registering people to vote. And again, because this is my thing. Need to be changing the public narrative that says if you want to be a good American, you aren’t going to do it by making a gazillion dollars and screwing over all your workers. But rather by creating healthy, safe, just communities that offer everybody equality of opportunity. And that’s a systemic change that is not about a single election. It’s about a societal change.
Preet Bharara: So play this out. I’ve been asking the historian who tends to be backward looking, to predict into the future. With respect to the protests that are going on and the calls for change in police departments and in dealing with systemic racism, what do you think are the possibilities of what happens in the coming months, years?
Heather Cox Richardson: I love how you just trailed off there. “What are the possibilities?” Well.
Preet Bharara: I want to give you a lot of running room. In other words, look. I guess on the one hand, there’s a spectrum, right? On the one hand, everyone protests and then the country opens up. And people forget and move on. It doesn’t seem like that will happen. It seems like at least from where I sit, and what do I know? That a base minimum of change will come to pass, but I wonder what you think will happen, given your sense of the sweep of history. Assume we have a change in the presidency, and this movement continues, and people continue to be engaged, and they don’t forget. What kinds of things would you expect to change in the country and in the Democratic Party for example, and otherwise?
Heather Cox Richardson: I assume you want this in haiku form, right?
Preet Bharara: Or rhyming couplets. That’s fine too.
Heather Cox Richardson: So first of all, usual disclaimer. Historians are profits of the past, not of the future. So I will do the best I can with this. And I will say, as I’m an eternal optimist, but I do not share your optimism that everybody is going to continue to stay engaged. And that is one of the things that I plan to be dedicating the rest of my summer to is trying to keep people engaged. Because power does not give up its own power easily. Nobody ever says, “Oh yeah, you’re right. It would be morally better for me to pay my workers more.” I mean I’m sorry. I shouldn’t say never. There’s always an example of one or two people who do it. Power never gives up its privileges easily. They have to be forced to do it.
Now forced to do it not by revolution I’m not a big fan of guillotines in the streets because, for many reasons. But that’s another question where narrative comes in to say listen, it is worth your while to do this because X. This is good for us all because Y. That kind of narrative change I think is really what drives systemic change.
So what could come from this moment? One of the things that I like to say is you can completely change society in 18 years if you want to you. You start to talk to the children who were born today about what the world should look like when they become adults. And in 18 years, you have done whatever you want with it.
Where I would start, if you let me be the emperor of the universe, is I was start with the laws that are so dramatically concentrating wealth upward. One of the things that you see again and again in American history is that we get profound reform when people have enough money. It’s easy to say yeah, I can let my neighbor have some stuff so long as I can feed my kids. And as we know, every single chart since 1981 has shown wealth concentrating remarkably up in the upper not even 1%, but higher than 1% of American society. So personally, it seems to me that that’s the first thing to take on is economic justice in America.
But from that, there’s all kinds of things that I would like to see. Personally, I would like to see some version of the New Deal. But the New Deal not centered on a heteronormative nuclear family, but rather a New Deal centered on communities. Because that whole moment of thinking that one man, one father/husband would take responsibility for his wife and children was never really anything as I say, but imagery.
So can we do it? Yeah, we can do anything we want. The question is, can we sustain the popular will to do that? And generally once things get a little better, it’s awfully tempting for people to say, “That was good. I did my part. And now I’m going to binge watch a TV show.” And that’s not how we’re going to get systemic change in this country.
Preet Bharara: So among the things people are saying as they protest and as they March is a phrase that’s become widely recited, and that is defund the police. So let me ask you this question. What historically have been effective political slogans, what have been ineffective political slogans? And how do you judge the defund the police as a slogan or as a policy?
Heather Cox Richardson: Not a fan of that word. I’m a much bigger fan of reform the police, even though basically the same thing about it. Generally slogans that work are ones that the ordinary person not paying a lot of attention to the news is not going to find frightening. And that’s a case where defund the police, honestly on its face sounds like we’re going to take away all money from all police forces. And we’re all just going to, I don’t know what. Try and police each other? It sounds completely unworkable. what it actually means is restore police funding to commensurate levels with our funding for education and for housing, and for all the other things that have been thrown into the laps of the police as we have cut those funding budgets. So the police have had to take over all those different categories.
Preet Bharara: And that to me is just frankly a no brainer. If you look at the percentage of municipal budgets that go to the police force as opposed to education and housing, and all the kinds of mental health care that we need to have to have a safe population, it’s almost a math problem. But to say defund the police I think conveys to people who are not willing to dig deeper, something that they will find sort of utopian and frightening. Yeah, look. I’ve had conversations about this with my kids over the last couple of days. And he said something interesting. Of people who are not spending all their time listening to the news and reading behind what the phrase means coming out of the mouths of a lot of people, slogans are meant to be something to catalyze people and are supposed to share a lot of information. Even though they’re short. And if they do it in a way that requires a lot of additional reading, and exploration, and Googling, then maybe it doesn’t convey what it’s supposed to convey.
Heather Cox Richardson: Exactly. Words matters so much. And the way people react to words matter so much. One of the things that I love to do when I teach is talk about flags. And one of the ways that you you start a movement, one of the first things you need to do when you start a movement is to make sure people understand who you are. So you generally carry some kind of cloth or some kind of sign that shows that you’re one of the good guys, if you will. And those flags if they’re popular flags for a grassroots movement, tend to be incredibly simple so that people can sew them or draw them themselves. And this is one of those cases where you’re kind of making a slogan with a word as opposed to with the flag. And you don’t want to have to say, “Oh yeah, you have to draw zigzag here and you have to do this and you have to do this.” You want it to be just an X on a piece of paper in a way, only done with words. And that’s one of those words that I don’t feel like defund accomplishes.
Preet Bharara: What do you make of the images of people who are rightly angry and concerned about the state of the world, taking down certain monuments and statues. It’s one thing to bring down the statue of Robert E. Lee, depending on what your point of view is. There’s imagery and footage of people in London taking down a statue of a former slave owner and slave trafficker. Then in Philadelphia, there was I think the painting over of a mural of the former mayor there, Mayor Rizzo. As a historian, does that matter? Is that something that bothers you? How do you think about that? And by what standard are former significant historical figures to be judged?
Heather Cox Richardson: First of all, you said something there. You said it might be something to take down Robert E. Lee, depending on your point of view. I disagree with that. I think that Confederate monuments need to come down. Anywhere they’re on any kind of public property.
Preet Bharara: Well that’s my view. Just to be clear, that’s my view also.
Heather Cox Richardson: Well I’m actually again, to me this is an absolute no brainer. But I’m going to qualify something else that you said and that. But the reason for that is that these guys tried to destroy the country. I mean, can you name me a single other country where there’s been a rebellion that killed at this point 600,000 people, cost almost $5 billion, and we put up monuments to it, like these were the good guys? This is crazy. I mean, it’s almost national suicide to say oh yeah, let’s honor the people who tried to destroy our nation. It’s crazy to me that anybody would think it’s okay to use those symbols in any place that is owned by or controlled by the federal government. Full stop. Those suckers need to come down.
Now that being said, then you ask something different. And I’m not going to speak at all to whatever’s happening in other countries because I’m an Americanist. I will obviously be on bad ground if I try and make any judgements about what anybody else is doing. But the question of monuments, or plaques, or paintings to other figures seems to me to be more problematic in the sense that we’re talking a great deal now about people’s reactions. White people generally reactions to black rights over the course of American history.
But the issue of women’s rights is near and dear to my heart. And if we start to take down monuments to our founders and our previous politicians who are misogynistic, I do believe we have just wiped out our entire history. And that is problematic in the sense that it did happen. These people did exist. I’m all for contextualizing these things. And I have to confess, I don’t remember anything about Mayor Rizzo. Maybe he shouldn’t have had a statue in the first place. I’m not saying we have to keep these things. We need to have discussions about them. But I am against a wholesale purging of our historical monuments simply because frankly, I don’t think any of them can stand scrutiny. And if we’re going to erase all of them, where are we left with?
Now that being said, frankly in a way, the fights over statues is really obviously about modern day politics. Because people don’t tend to learn their history from statue. They tend to learn their history from books, or from teachers, or from any number of places. And we could do an awful lot simply by putting more money into the public school system and having people say that mayor whomever was a racist jerk. Than worry about and look, there’s a statue. Isn’t it crazy that they put that up in the 1930s because they thought that was a good thing? So contextualization really would help a lot. But not for the Confederate statues. I want them all gone.
Preet Bharara: I hear you. And this discussion of racism and bigotry towards black people in this country, I’ve seen a good number of prominent Republicans. Not a ton, but a few who assert as if it’s a defense to all things going on in the country today in 2020. A reminder, a very proud reminder the Republican Party freed the slaves over 150 years ago. As if that is reason why Republicans should be voted for now. And is used as a cudgel against the Democrats. As a historian, what do you make of that kind of a slogan on the part of Republicans in 2020?
Heather Cox Richardson: It’s just stupid. Can we just leave it at that? You must have seen the many tweet threads I’ve done on this thing, on this topic.
Preet Bharara: You and Kevin Kruse too. Yeah.
Heather Cox Richardson: Yeah. I mean first of all, let me start with the Republicans did not free the slaves. The slaves freed the slaves. They walked away from enslavement, from human enslavement. Of course, the Republicans in Congress and certainly president Lincoln codified that end of a human enslavement. Except for in cases of crime in America.
But the whole idea that this was done to people who, I don’t know what, were they sitting around waiting? I mean, of course not. They voted with their feet and walked away from the places that they’d been enslaved. So that whole construction, first of all is stupid. And it takes away agency from the people on the ground.
The other obvious thing of course is the parties have switched sides. The ideologies have changed. Truthfully, it’s gotten to the point where every time I hear that, I won’t engage any longer because it’s clearly just designed to be a gaslighting waste of time.
Once again, we’ll go through how in fact, the Republican Party had a problem with the rise of movement conservatives in the 1950s and then the 1960s. It was very clear in 1964 that Barry Goldwater managed during his campaign only to pick up the state of Arizona from which he came and the five deep southern states. So in 1968, when Richard Nixon is running, he’s got to figure out some way to go ahead and cobble together some kind of a coalition. So he reaches out to Strom Thurmond in South Carolina and says, “You voted for Barry Goldwater quite publicly. If you’ll join me, I won’t back federal intervention to stop desegregation.” And Strom Thurmond joins the Republican Party very publicly at that point. And we get the rise of what becomes known as the southern strategy.
This is not like secret. I mean, literally Lee Atwater put it in incredibly crude terms in public. And we also have Kevin Phillips’ very important book, The Emerging Republican Majority in which he says if we just doubled down on this strategy and on trying to grab democratic Catholics into our coalition over issues of social traditionalism. Which by 1970 became the issue of abortion. Then we’ve got a majority for the future. I mean, this is nothing new. But every time a certain person needs. And I won’t even say the name, because I’m not going to give him free press. Needs to feel like he’s important again, he pops up on Twitter and says the Republicans freed the slaves. And it was the Democrats who enslaved people.
Well yeah, okay. No shit Sherlock. But it’s over now. And the parties, that was 150 years ago and things have moved on. It’s a total straw man argument that is really, really tired.
Preet Bharara: Letters from an American has a really robust following. As I told you before we started, one of your most avid fans is my editor at [inaudible], Peter [Gethers]. Are you surprised at how many people want to read what you write on a basically daily basis about what’s going on in the world?
Heather Cox Richardson: Floored. But that being said, my entire career has been based on the idea that people really do want to know their history. And they want to know facts. And those facts are not always positive, by the way. There’s this idea that somehow, if you tell people the history of American politics, somehow it’s a feel good story. It is not a feel good story, but it’s a real story.
In a way, for many years I said to people, “Somebody really ought to be doing this.” And everyone kept saying yeah whatever and going on and doing whatever kind of media they were doing.
I did not intend to start writing these. The other thing that’s interesting about them is they are very much a collaborative effort. They started simply because my readers started asking me questions and I started answering them. And the next thing I knew, my follower count was going up by thousands every day.
So it’s an interesting moment because I feel like once again, we’re seeing a moment when people really are valuing facts and the concepts of the enlightenment that you really can reach an agreement based on a factual examination of the world.
But also, we’re looking at a new moment in media where people on the ground are saying, “That’s not what I want to read. I don’t want to see something that’s an inch deep. I really want to have some understanding of what’s going on.” And they’re demanding it. And it just happened that I completely inadvertently happened to be the person who was there listening when they started to ask and started to answer questions. It’s really almost entirely as if it’s one of my classrooms brought to the screen.
Preet Bharara: So this is the easiest question you’re going to get from me. How do people sign up?
Heather Cox Richardson: Well, I do these on Facebook, on my professional Facebook page that people can follow. But I also have a sub stack newsletter. Again, I’d never even heard of a newsletter and it was my readers who insisted that I have one. Heathercoxrichardson.substack.com.
Preet Bharara: Professor Heather Cox Richardson. Thanks for joining me. Thank you for all your work. Thank you for educating folks. Look forward to everything you have to write going forward.
Heather Cox Richardson: Thank you very much. It’s a real pleasure.
Preet Bharara: My conversation with Heather Cox Richardson continues for members of the CAFE Insider community. Insiders get bonus day two tuned content, the exclusive weekly podcast I cohost with Anne Milgram. Recordings of my weekly notes, and more. To get a free two week trial, head to cafe.com/insider. That’s cafe.com/insider.
So I want to end with a reminder I saw on Twitter over the last few days. This week, actor and drummer John Gallagher Jr. Reminded us of a story that is unfortunately as relevant today as when it happened 20 years ago.
Back in 2000 Bruce Springsteen as you all know, one of my all time favorite people and performers. Was set to perform a marathon 10 nightstand at Madison Square Garden in New York City to close out his tour. The previous February, 23 year old Amadou Diallo, a black vendor and immigrant from Guinea was standing outside his apartment building. You may remember this. He was unarmed and returning from a meal when he was shot 41 times with semiautomatic weapons by four NYPD plain clothes officers. They claimed they mistook his wallet for a gun. 19 of those bullets hit Diallo, and he died there in front of his home.
The officers later claimed that he matched the general description of a serial rapist reported a year earlier. The officers were charged. They went to trial, but were acquitted on all of the charges.
That year in Atlanta, Bruce Springsteen debuted a song American Skin (41 Shots), which was an ode to Diallo. And a morning cry for the black and brown lives taken by police violence. The boss sings lines like …
It was considered back then controversial, scandalous even. A few days before Springsteen’s first night at MSG, 16 months after Diallo’s killing, the president of New York City’s largest police union Patrick Lynch, who is still around, called for a boycott of Springsteen’s shows over the song. Not only that. Then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and then police commissioner Howard Safir also condemned the song. The president of the New York chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police went even further and called Springsteen a dirt bag and other profanities I will not repeat for you today.
Mr. Diallo’s mourning mother Kadijatou Diallo said she took the song as a sign that people cared about her son. Why all this anger towards a man who sang a song dedicated to somebody who shouldn’t have been killed? Well, Gallagher summed it up like this. “The fact that it made the NYPD so mad tells us a lot about why they are doing what they’re doing right now. Question our authority, and become our enemy. It doesn’t matter if you’re a famous rock star or a citizenry demanding reform.”
And you may have seen some of the clips of a non-representative group of people as part of the police union, decrying the way that the police had been treated and spoken about over the last number of days. We’ve also seen over the last couple of weeks, countless videos of police brutality. We’ve heard new stories of black people killed on the street in their cars, even in their own beds. And we’ve seen new forms of protest and political change all around us.
Springsteen by the way, did not stop playing American Skin (41 Shots). In fact, he played it at every single one of the 10 concerts at Madison Square Garden. And more recently on March 23rd, 2012, a month after George Zimmerman killed 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Florida, Springsteen played that song again, dedicating it to Trayvon Martin.
As protests for the protection of black lives continue all over the world, and citizens continued to push for justice and equality, we can only hope that there are no more new names to which we dedicate Springsteen’s American Skin. Please see the show notes to this episode for links to organizations you can support that fight for black lives and our collective fight for justice and equality.
Well, that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guest, Heather Cox Richardson. If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics, and justice. Tweet them to me at Preet Bharara with a #AskPreet. Or you can call and leave me a message at (669) 247-7338. That’s (669) 24PREET. Or you can send an email to [email protected]
Stay Tuned is presented by CAFE. The executive producer ii Tamara Sepper. The senior audio producer is David Tatasciore. And the CAFE team is Matthew Billy, David Kurlander, Sam Ozer-Staton, Calvin Lord, Noah Azulai, and Geoff Isenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara. Stay tuned.
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