“On December 31, 2020, Tommy Raskin, the only son of Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin, tragically took his own life after a long struggle with depression. Seven days later on January 6, Congressman Raskin returned to Congress to help certify the 2020 Presidential election results, when violent insurrectionists led by right wing extremist groups stormed the US Capitol hoping to hand four more years of power to President Donald Trump.” This is the opening description for Congressman Jamie Raskin’s new book, Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy.
In this segment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc welcomes Congressman Raskin back on the show for a thoughtful and heartfelt discussion about Raskin’s new book, his son Tommy, the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the fight to leave our children a world worth living in. Congressman Jamie Raskin has served as the US representative for Maryland’s 8th congressional district since 2017.
Tune in for new episodes of The Marc Steiner Show every Monday and Thursday on TRNN.
Pre-Production/Studio: Dwayne Gladden
Post-Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner and it’s great to have you all with us once again. Today, we’re going to talk with Congressman Jamie Raskin, who many of you know as the impeachment manager for the second impeachment of Donald Trump. He joins me today to talk about his book, the one that was just published, Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy. It’s a book that really touched my heart deeply as a father because he lost his beautiful son who permeates this book with the heart and touches the book deeply and winds his way through the fight to save our democracy. His work explores the depth for the tragedy and a hope that springs from confronting and wrestling with all of this, the tragedy from the heart from losing someone you love, the tragedy we all face collectively, the threat of losing our democracy, losing our future, our children’s future, to a right-wing, racist mob of authoritarians in our own nation.
It’s amazing how these two stories bend and touch. And let me just say before I start and introduce you to Jamie Raskin, because I always do when I know somebody a little bit more than just as a guest I’ve never met before, is that Jamie Raskin is someone I have known for a while. He’s a friend and I first met him when I was his dad’s student at the Institute for Policy Studies in 1967 and he was a precocious, sweet five year old. And today we explore the deep connections between the loss of his dear son, Tommy, in the fight for the future of this nation. And welcome Congressman Jamie Raskin, it’s good to have you with us.
Rep. Jamie Raskin: Marc, it’s a great pleasure to be with you and I’ve been looking forward to it. So thanks much.
Marc Steiner: I’ve been looking forward to this too, a lot. So it’s almost hard to know where to begin. Let me just take a step backwards here for a moment. This book in many ways comes on the heels… I read which you wrote about why and how you wrote this book, on the heels of the tragic death of your son, Tommy, amazing human being. And not a week later the attack on the US Capitol when you were inside that building. So I want you to talk just about what it was, what happened to you, what was going on with you in your own heart and mind and consciousness that pushed you to this book after all that happened?
Rep. Jamie Raskin: Well the book is, I suppose, a love letter to my son Tommy. I didn’t want any more time to go by without recording all of my memories and my feelings and thoughts about him. Well, not all of them, but at least the main ones and the ones at the time. And I also didn’t want my new recollection and experience of the Jan. 6 violent insurrection and attempted coup at the Capitol to go by without my recording them immediately. And I also wanted to be able to record my experience leading the team of impeachment managers that went over the Senate in the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump. So I also wanted to be able to speak to the thousands and thousands of people who reached out to us after we lost Tommy and after the events of Jan. 6, because the amount of love and affection and solidarity we got was just overwhelming. And I’m somebody, Marc, who insists on answering all of my constituents –
Marc Steiner: Right.
Rep. Jamie Raskin: As much as possible personally, individually when they write in and suddenly I was looking at these mountains of letters and messages and emails, and there was no way I could respond to everybody in the way I was accustomed to doing. And so that was also an impetus for writing the book. I wanted to write to these people who wrote me about their trauma and grief and what they had gone through and their families losing people either to suicide or in the COVID-19 nightmare or in the opioid crisis. I wanted to tell them back the kinds of things they were telling me. So there’s a lot of love out there, there’s a lot of trauma, we’re living in a time of trauma, and I imagine at one point with a friend of mine who’s a professor of Greek classics.
I asked him whether there was a Greek god of trauma. And he said, no. So we imagined one and we imagined a god kind of like Janice who looks both forwards and backwards, but the god of trauma steals from you everything that’s most precious and most beloved and most dear to you and leaves you just bereft and destitute and cheated of joy. But then if you stick with it, trauma can also give you incredible wisdom and insight into other people’s misfortune and suffering and it connects you with other people in a really profound way.
And I imagined saying the god of trauma, well, that’s interesting, but it doesn’t seem like a very fair trade to me. But that’s the catch. It’s not up to you. You don’t get to choose, it’s just thrust upon you. So you can accept the growth through it or you can just retreat from all of it. And I can see the temptation of that too. I mean, when this first started I didn’t know whether I would be able to do anything ever again of substance or meaning in my life. I really did not. And that’s why I say that Speaker Pelosi threw me a lifeline when she asked me to be the lead impeachment manager, because she was essentially saying, we need you and we need you to organize this case.
Marc Steiner: I was thinking about very early in the book you were talking about Tommy and this trial, and you have this piece early on in the book with Tommy’s ideas for combating the growing fascism in our midst. And he wrote this really interesting line and made me think about where we are and the struggle we have now in this country and where we might be going, what could happen in the next two to four years in elections, but also what could be happening in the next several years in our country, to our country and its future.
You wrote that he said, “Americans of Trump’s ilk are not the only ones responsible for lethal inequality.” And you write, “he wondered whether Trump’s cartoonish selfishness allowed liberals to let themselves off the hook too easily. He called for a broader moral and political vision that included the rest of the world, a vision that he had been trying to live himself by giving away half of his modest salary to groups that handed direct monetary aid to poor people around the world.” And you say, he said, “We may object to Trump’s condescending rhetoric and galling outburst about the so-called shithole countries. But at the end of the day, we share in his general indifference, the preventable horrors that befall many habitants of those countries.”
And if we just went on more with that. But talk a bit about that. I mean, one of the things that struck me about all of this was your battle around the Trump impeachment was laced with Tommy’s thoughts in terms of the kind of world we should be living in, the world we have to be living in. And he clearly would take on liberals as much as he would take on anybody else, saying, you’re not doing it right. We have a huge tide ahead of us. Right?
Rep. Jamie Raskin: No. And I mean, Tommy was as horrified by Trump’s authoritarianism as anybody. He was shell shocked and heartsick about the separation of parents and kids at the border, and the absolute waste of money on the wall, and just sick things like that. But I heard multiple times in conversations that people would say, he’s the worst president we ever had. Tommy would immediately say, well, worse than George W. Bush who lied about weapons of mass destruction and got us into a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, worse than Richard Nixon and the bombing of Cambodia. And he would go all the way back to Andrew Jackson.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Rep. Jamie Raskin: We shouldn’t use Donald Trump as an opportunity to give ourselves an artificial moral bath about everything else that’s taken place in the history of our country. And he was very precocious and perceptive about that point.
Marc Steiner: So how do you translate that? You wrote about the impeachment hearings in minute and impeccable detail, as if you recorded the whole thing and then just listened to the tape and wrote it all down. It was amazing how you wrote what happened and occurred there. And I wonder what that sentiment, what that philosophy that Tommy thought about that you and he talked about a lot and went back and forth about. What his voice said to you about what happened at that impeachment hearing. Well, all that you all laid out.
Rep. Jamie Raskin: Well, yes, I heard Tommy’s voice a lot in my head. I also heard my father’s voice a lot in my head.
Marc Steiner: I’m sure.
Rep. Jamie Raskin: My dad said when everything looks hopeless, you’re the hope. And that kept coming back to me. And there is a struggle in every society for decency and dignity. And Tommy was so much a part of that and my dad was so much a part of that. And I wanted to get up and say, look, even with everything that we have just seen, even with everything that’s going on, we are the world’s greatest multiracial, multiethnic, multi-religious constitutional democracy. And we got to fight for it against these forces of right-wing authoritarianism that would take us to a completely different form of government. And all over the world, the autocrats and the dictators and the bullies, the Putins in Russia and the Orbans in Hungary and Duterte in the Philippines and Al-Sisi in Egypt and Bolsonaro in Brazil, all these people were cheering for Donald Trump because they want American democracy to be destroyed.
And I can say that as a super patriot for American democracy, knowing all the flaws of how we began as a country, knowing how critical slavery was in the original constitution. But it was the declaration of independence where Jefferson set out the ideals of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness and the consent of the governed and all of us being created equal. The greatness of America is not the American exceptionalism, the fake kind that we could never succumb to fascism or to insurrectionism. That could happen to us.
The greatness of America is that the people have fought to concretize those ideals to make those ideals of equality and liberty, freedom, justice, and democracy real. And you can read the 17 amendments we’ve had in our constitution since the original Bill of Rights as a record of the struggles for the people to dismantle slavery, to guarantee the right to vote in the 15th Amendment to Black people, to guarantee the right of the people to select their own US Senators in the 17th Amendment, women’s suffrage in the 19th, and on and on. The majority of our amendments have been democracy expanding, vote protecting, freedom deepening amendments, that’s who we are as a country.
But Tocqueville said that democracy is always either growing and expanding or it’s collapsing and shrinking away. And we’ve been in a contractionary shrinking mode under Donald Trump, and we got to turn it around and expand our democracy so our friends in Washington, DC, get their statehood, so our friends in Puerto Rico get their statehood, so we have a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote, so we can fortify and defend democratic institutions against these attacks from the outside that threaten to topple our institutions.
Marc Steiner: So… So much I want to ask, I want to try to boil it down to a couple of questions in the time that we have. I wish we had hours for this but we don’t. So from reading the book it was clear that you really believed that the cogent arguments, the clear arguments you were making in the second impeachment could change minds in the Senate, even though you said in the book as well that you were realizing you wanted to change the hearts and minds of America even more than the Senate when you realized what was going on. But that was the core of the argument. But when you look at all that, it made me think of how you refer to Lincoln’s Lyceum speech early in the book where he said that the danger for America is going to come from within, it’s not going to come from without.
And I was thinking about the 2,500 people, or so whoever that real number was, that attacked the US Capitol, and there were 80 to 120,000 people in the streets who might not have attacked the Capitol, but they certainly cheered them on at home, on Facebook and other places in their fight for what they think they believed in. So, and it seems to me that given all that you wrote about and all that you experienced and the pain you experienced that on that day on Jan. 6 and the fear that you experience with your daughter being inside the Capitol as well, just after you lost Tommy, all of that going on, that now we’re faced with this serious threat to our future, with the changing on voting rights, the way the states are going to trying to limit votes and control the votes and what we’re facing in terms of this right-wing push in America. In America, this kind of [dialectal] is as much [inaudible] for that as it is with the people who fought for the Amendments you talked about.
So talk about what you really think is going to happen in the next year, two years, three years, four years, as we really battle for the heart and future of this country and for our children.
Rep. Jamie Raskin: Well, I’m not in the prognostication business but I’m in the organization business and the mobilization business, and here’s the struggle shaping up as I see it. On the one side is the vast majority of the American people. And remember, Hillary beat him by 3 million votes, Joe Biden beat him by 7.5 million votes. We’re winning five or 6 million more votes than they are in Congress, the only thing that keeps them competitive is the gerrymandering of congressional districts, which is why I say GOP stands for the Gerrymander Only Party now, because they are doing everything they can to stop us from reforming gerrymandering. I mean, we had For the People Act, we had the Freedom to Vote Act. All of this would move it away from the politicians to nonpartisan redistricting commissions.
But here’s the struggle. The majority of the people believe not only in the framework of constitutional democracy, but they believe that we can make government work for people. I always think about Elijah Cummings because he always said the government has got to work for the people, we got to deliver. And we’re doing our best against all the obstructionism of the GOP. I mean, we got the Infrastructure Bill done. They did everything they could to stop their own members from supporting it but enough of them did for us to get it past the finish line. We’re fighting for the Build Back Better Act, for universal pre-K for millions of three year olds and four year olds in the country. We’re fighting to continue the child tax credit which has cut child poverty by 50%. So we’re trying to make democracy work for the people at the same time that we’re trying to defend the institutions of democracy that they want to tear down.
So why is it so difficult? They’ve got a bag of tricks, a bag of anti-democratic tricks that they use at every point to try to obstruct the will of the people, starting with the gerrymandering of our districts which perpetuates them in power in the legislatures and then allows them to carve up the congressional districts, starting with the voter suppression statutes they’re passing around the country to knock out early voting, weekend voting, to have voter purges of people who miss an election. In Georgia, they signed into law legislation which says if you give a bag of potato chips to someone waiting online to vote, you are guilty of a misdemeanor and can go to jail for a year. Okay.
We’ve got the filibuster, which is an anti-democratic mechanism because it says you’ve got to get not 51 votes in the Senate but 60 votes in the Senate, in order to protect people’s voting rights, you’ve got the packing of the courts because they carved out an exception to the filibuster for judicial nominations like we’ve got it for trade adjustment authority, like we got it for budget reconciliation authority, like we got it for a hundred purposes.
Rep. Jamie Raskin: They carved it out for judicial nominations so Trump packed the courts with hundreds of unqualified Federalist Society bloggers and hacks, as long as they’re in their thirties or forties so they’ll be on the bench forever. Okay. All of these are a collection of interlocking anti-democracy tricks that they’re using against us as we just try to allow the majority to rule. I mean, that’s really what’s at stake. But the GOP is a minority party, a shrinking minority party, and it thrives on all those anti-democratic mechanisms today.
Marc Steiner: Well, all you’ve just said, Jamie, before I come back to the heart of the book and we have to let you go, is true, but the picture you just painted is a fairly ominous picture. If I look at the history and think about whether it’s 1932 in Germany or whether I think it’s 1877 here in Rutherford B. Hayes and the destruction of Reconstruction and the launching, as even you wrote about in the book, of 90 years of terror against the Black world in our country and the controlling of the courts, control of the coming elections in 2022 and 2024. I mean to me, it’s beyond Democrat, Republican, because even as you write in your book, there are decent human beings all over the place.
But the control looks like it could be shifting legally in many ways to the far right. So the question is… And at the moment it feels like in some ways the president is really having a difficult time getting things done and also his perception in America. So it seems to me, and I’m not a negative person by nature, but what I’m watching now and reading the book and seeing how it fell apart at the end of the second impeachment, that we’re facing something potentially very ominous here. [crosstalk] And the question is, what do we do about it?
Rep. Jamie Raskin: Yeah. [crosstalk] we’re in the fight of our lives. We are in the fight of our lives, there is no doubt about that. The way I see it is we are in a center-left country but we have a center-right governmental apparatus, and that’s the struggle. So the majority’s got a struggle to be heard and to govern. And as president Biden said, the GOP has become a rule or ruin party. Either they’re going to rule everything or they’re going to ruin our efforts to make life better for people.
So that’s where the struggle is, but we’re going to have to take on each one of these things, the gerrymandering of our districts, the voter suppression statutes, right-wing judicial activism, one by one, we’re going to have to do whatever we can, but it means we’ve got to be organized. We’ve got to get everybody registered to vote, we’ve got to get everybody participating, and we’ve got to defend democratic institutions. But I agree, it is a very serious situation that we’re in, but it’s salvageable. We can make it through. The younger generation is coming our way and we’ve just got to fight real hard to let the majority govern and then we will be able to confront the real emergencies of our time, which is starting with climate change, which is a civilizational crisis we’re in.
Marc Steiner: So I want to come back to… As we conclude here, that to think about… I’ve been thinking a lot about your kids, about Tommy and all the things he said, all things he stood for, the debates the two of you had about which way America should go, and your daughters, Hannah and Tabitha, and the conversations you had with them through the book as well. And I’d like to hear you speak a little bit about it in terms of his vision, in some ways, of where America is and where it could go. And not just talk about the problems we face that I keep raising, but what you think is what they are saying to you, to us about what the strategies have to be about how we win, how we do not lose what we have.
Rep. Jamie Raskin: Yeah. Well, I mean, let’s start with young people because Tommy and Hannah and Tabitha’s generation is a remarkable generation. They really are beyond so much of the racism and antisemitism, misogyny and homophobia and all of it. They’re also a little bit beyond grammar too. So, we got to reconnect them to the great English language. But these younger generations understand that the Republican Party’s got nothing for them. These younger generations understand the fundamental urgency of our situation with climate change and with authoritarianism around the world. We’ve got to connect with them. I mean, I’ve turned my campaign into this democracy summer, Marc, where we just take high school and college-aged kids and we’re educating them on the civilizing movements of our past and the greatness of the democratic changes we’ve experienced.
And we’ve said now it’s your turn, and we’re going to train you on how to be voter registrars, we are going to train you on how to be voter educators and how to canvas and mobilize people. This is what we need, we need like an uprising, a democratic uprising of the younger generations now demanding a lot more from our system. That’s also connected to emotional and mental health, too, because everybody is on a solitary mental health and emotional health journey, as Tommy was, but it’s always connected to everybody else’s and it’s connected to the social context. And COVID-19 has been a desperately unhappy time for young people. It’s been very isolating. It’s been very demoralizing. The rates of anxiety and depression have been soaring, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, opioid abuse, all of it. Politics is one of the things that can help to get people out of that dark mindset. We’ve got to give people some hope that by coming together and organizing we can move the country forward. So I feel very strongly about doing that to help people in the here and now.
Marc Steiner: So Jamie, I know you’re on a very tight schedule and I do appreciate you taking the time you did today. And I also look forward to a longer conversation sometime in the near future. And I think that as you wrote in the book here, that the America that Tommy wanted is the America you’re out there fighting for, and we have to fight for. And I think that I encourage folks to pick up the book, it’s called Unthinkable. It is an amazing book that gives you a blow-by-blow description of the battle inside Congress, but also about Tommy Raskin’s mind and heart and thoughts about the future of this country, and his father’s, and where we have to go.
And we’re in a serious fight here for the future and heart of our America for Tommy and Tabitha, for Hannah, for my young Maisie, for all the kids out there who are out there struggling and fighting to make this a better world in the work they do daily. And so Jamie Raskin, thanks so much for the work you do. Thanks so much for taking the time today and I appreciate you being with us and look forward to too many more conversations.
Rep. Jamie Raskin: Well, me too, Marc and thank you for paying such close attention to the book and to my son. That’s a very high honor, so I appreciate that very much.
Marc Steiner: And take care.
Rep. Jamie Raskin: Thank you.
Marc Steiner: Thank you all for joining us today. And you can find links to Congressman Jamie Raskin’s book Unthinkable here on the Steiner Show site at the Real News and other links around the conversation that we just had today. And please let me know what you thought about today’s program and what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. And a really important reminder, Bill Fletcher Jr. and I will be producing a series on the rise of the right and what we can do to stop it. So look for that mid March when we launch our first program. So here for Dwayne Gladden, Stephen Frank, and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening and take care.