Eric Holder: Democracy is worth saving — and justice is coming for Donald Trump

Obama's first attorney general on the lessons of history, the fight for racial justice and the payback for Jan. 6

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 24, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

82nd Attorney General of the U.S. Eric Holder speaks onstage during City Of Hope Spirit Of Life Gala 2019 on October 10, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Lester Cohen/Getty Images for City of Hope)
82nd Attorney General of the U.S. Eric Holder speaks onstage during City Of Hope Spirit Of Life Gala 2019 on October 10, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Lester Cohen/Getty Images for City of Hope)

The Republican Party and the larger neofascist movement are in revolutionary mode, aiming to push American society back before the civil rights era, and perhaps into the 19th century. They seek to reverse the struggle to expand democracy and full citizenship — however unevenly or incompletely — to include Black and brown people, women, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized and oppressed groups.

This is part of a much larger strategy by Republicans and their allies to end America's multiracial and pluralistic democracy, based on the misconception that rights and liberties are a zero-sum game, and that democracy should be exclusionary by design. In this worldview, historically marginalized groups must be continually oppressed, or "re-oppressed," to ensure that white "Christian" heterosexuals (and other "real Americans") can enjoy their full rights.

One of the Republican-fascist movement's greatest villains is Barack Obama, the country's first Black president, whose ascendance to power represented a symbolic triumph for multiracial democracy that the right found unacceptable. The very presence of Obama and his family in the White House was understood as an insult and provocation to the core values and beliefs of the Republican Party, the "conservative" movement and the larger white right.

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In a sense, they had a point: Obama's presidency represented a diverse and more cosmopolitan America — and an existential threat to the vision of the country and its future embodied in Donald Trump's movement and the current Republican Party.

Eric Holder was attorney general of the United States under President Obama from 2009 to 2015. He was the first African American to hold that office in the country's history, and now serves as chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. His new book (with co-author Sam Koppelman) is "Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past and Imperiled Future of the Vote — A History, a Crisis, a Plan."

In this wide-ranging conversation Holder explains his deep worries about American democracy in this moment of crisis. Holder also discusses the events of Jan. 6, 2021, which were a white supremacist attack on multiracial democracy -- as well as on Obama's legacy and the very idea of Black and brown people being in positions of leadership in American society.

Holder also discusses what we can learn from the Black Freedom Struggle for this moment of democracy crisis, and why the American people must organize and remain optimistic in the face of what will be a very long fight. Toward the end of this conversation, Holder explains why he believes that Donald Trump and other high-ranking members of his administration will ultimately be prosecuted by the Department of Justice for their crimes related to Jan. 6. We should have faith, he says, in the judgment and legal ethics of attorney general Merrick Garland, who now holds the job Holder had seven years ago.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

How are you feeling these days? More specifically, given all of the challenges we face in this country, how are you sleeping?

I'm a person who sleeps pretty well at night. I have the capacity to turn things off and get to sleep. That is usually the case. But I have found during the course of the pandemic that getting to sleep is a little more difficult. The pandemic is part of that of course.

I really mean this: Our democracy under attack has had an impact on me. I'll feel tired. I'll lay my head on the bed and say, "Boy, I'm really tired." And then my head starts spinning. I start thinking about, well, what's going on in Wisconsin? What's happening in Texas? What's going on in Georgia? Have we filed the appropriate lawsuits? What is happening with the Supreme Court? So many things.

What I've had to do, which I've never done before, is that I take out an iPad and watch a movie or an HBO series or something, just to stop thinking obsessively about these challenges to our democracy. At some point I just can't stay awake any longer and I go to sleep. The attacks on our democracy have really gotten to me. It really worries me.

What are you doing about those feelings of frustration? Many of us tried to warn the American people about the things that would happen if Donald Trump won the 2016 election. We were ignored, and we are still being ignored about the escalating crisis of democracy. What do we do with that energy?

What you just said is really important. What we must do is transform the frustration, the fear, the concern, into energy to do the required work. It's why I stay as active, as I have been, on all things related to voting. The ultimate relaxant for me is the knowledge that I'm doing all that I can. I am doing what the people who came before me did.

We are facing a very serious crisis. But other people in other times in this country have also faced crises that were even more serious, and the stakes for them were much higher. They potentially had to face losing their lives and their livelihoods. We don't generally face those kinds of personal consequences right now. For example, Medgar Evers, as we talk about in the new book, was carrying a bunch of T-shirts that say, "Jim Crow must go," on the same day that my sister-in-law integrated the University of Alabama. He must have been feeling pretty good that day, and then he was shot in his driveway.

We don't have those kinds of concerns. Our predecessors got through it. They got through their fear, their frustration, and they changed this nation. Especially for Black people, they were fighting for things unseen and fighting for concepts never experienced by them, in the hope that future generations would have opportunities that they didn't have. I owe them a great debt. I owe the future something better than the present. All those things help me and get me through the day.

The struggle never stopped. Once you stop fighting and you believe rights are secure, they will be taken away. Our long freedom struggle continues. Nothing is guaranteed.

That's a constant theme that one sees in this nation's history. We are part of a continuum that began in the 17th century. We're not facing anything that is totally unique. It is certainly different. As I described, the consequences perhaps are not as great on a personal level. But we're part of a continuing struggle. My father's generation that went to war in World War II came back to the United States and faced discrimination. Those Black men were fighting and struggling for democracy on foreign soil and then came back and got mistreated.

My father's personal story is that he was an immigrant from Barbados. He enlisted in the Army in his early 40s. He's in uniform and he's in North Carolina, and he is told to get to the back of a bus. In uniform, in war. He is told to get the back of a bus. He's in Oklahoma, trying to get a hamburger and he's told to go to the back of a lunch stand along with some other Black soldiers.

Well, his son grew up to be attorney general of the United States. There's a marker of progress there. His generation believed in the promise of this country in ways that I think we have to hold onto. My father wasn't a great civil rights leader. He was a good guy, one of the wisest men I've ever known. He didn't finish high school, but he did little things. The way he carried himself. The way he went to meetings and was involved in the community. We have it within ourselves, so-called ordinary people, the capacity to bring about great change.

My father was told to go to the back of the bus in North Carolina. In his Army uniform, during a war. In Oklahoma, he had to go to the back of the lunch stand. Well, his son grew up to be attorney general of the United States.

We need charismatic, eloquent and wonderful leaders, of course. But those leaders need to have foot soldiers. Too often we forget those foot soldiers. We need to raise them up. We need to talk more about those people whose names we might have forgotten. 

There's been a lot of change in America. But there are still these demons of racism and white supremacy that have not been exorcized. Your own life journey is an example of the changes America has experienced. But there was and continues to be so much racism, white supremacy and white backlash that is directly related to Barack Obama's presidency, and to Black and brown folks like you being in positions of authority. How do you reconcile this combination of progress and backlash?

I go back to my father and his generation. They loved this country when this country didn't love them back. That has been, in some ways, the history of people of color, and certainly African Americans, in this nation. We have demonstrated a love for this country and a devotion to the ideals of this country and have not always gotten back the kind of respect and love from this country that we deserve, given the seminal role that we played in the literal building of this country. We were asked to fight in wars, which we did, and were then denied the benefits of the sacrifices that we were asked to make and that we willingly gave.

I'm lucky. I'm privileged. I stand on the shoulders of people who sacrificed and gave their lives. Who, on a day to day basis, suffered indignities with a hope to achieve things unseen and in the future. So that people like me and Barack, and so many others obviously, would have opportunities that they never had. I feel really connected to them. I always have.

A white supremacist terrorist just killed 10 Black people in Buffalo. The connections to Dylann Roof and Charleston are obvious. How are you feeling? Do you have any advice for Black Americans about what to do with this pain, with this PTSD?

I am angry. At the same time, I think it is a moment where we need to revisit how generations of people of color before us experienced horrific events — not just in the form of mass atrocities, but also in the form of daily dehumanization. Having to go to the back of the bus. Being forced to take an impossible-to-pass literacy test. Lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan, a domestic terrorist organization, and other forms of state-sanctioned terror. The list goes on. We have made progress from those times because our ancestors knew they deserved better without having seen it for themselves. Instead of disengaging, they responded with engagement. They rejected the status quo. They organized. They protested. They lobbied their government. 

Our country has never been perfect. But what makes this country worth fighting for is the fact that the people can improve it over time. We cannot lose sight of that at this moment. 

Where do we go after Buffalo? This all feels like a terrible act of repetition, in terms of white supremacist terrorism and other violence against Black and brown people and other minority groups.

First and foremost, we have to call this event what it was: an act of domestic terrorism. Even during the previous administration, the FBI stated that white supremacist domestic terrorism posed the greatest domestic threat, and the FBI has continued to state this is the case today. So we have to equip federal agencies, state governments and local police departments with the tools they need to prevent future attacks. We also need to explore legislation on this issue. Contrary to the previous administration, President Biden was unequivocal in his remarks in Buffalo, and that leadership will help to make progress in the executive branch and elevate this issue in Congress. 

It is also incumbent upon the people to stay involved. We must hold anyone who spreads racist conspiracy theories to account. If they hold elected office, we can and should organize to vote them out of office. Social media companies must do more to not allow this kind of speech to be spread and promoted. We will not be able to completely erase hate speech, but we can and must take action to hinder its ability to spread as much as possible.

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What were you thinking on Jan. 6 of last year?

I didn't believe it. I had this powerful experience of cognitive dissonance. I'm watching something and my eyes are conveying images to me that my mind is processing, but on some basic level I didn't think that what I was seeing could actually be happening. I've been in and out of that building any number of times. To get confirmed. To get yelled at in hearings with Republicans. To meet with members of Congress to lobby for legislation. I have been there for inaugurations. To see people climbing the walls of Congress, wearing Camp Auschwitz T-shirts, hitting police officers, using pepper spray on law enforcement. It was hard to believe.

But on another level what happened that day was the manifestation of all my fears. There was this reaction to Barack's election. There were things released by the Trump election. And now it all came together on Jan. 6. All these people with these so-called grievances and this sense of mistreatment were there attacking the greatest symbol of our democracy.  

Seeing a Confederate flag inside the halls of Congress? All of it was hard to believe. It was unbelievably enlightening yet frightening at the same time. It should be a wake-up call for everybody in this country. There is an illness among us. There is an illness in the body politic of this nation. It's like a cancer. If you leave it untreated, it will metastasize and it will consume us. We've got to take firm steps that begin with holding people accountable. Then we have to look at the country's institutions to make sure that what happened on Jan. 6 doesn't happen again.

As I watched that attack on the Capitol, I kept thinking to myself, "God, they hate Barack Obama that much. They hate Holder that much." I kept telling myself that they hate the reality and the symbolism of Black folks and our success, and the idea of multiracial democracy, so much that they're willing to tear it all down. Did it feel personal? Was your mind operating on that level?

Having been attorney general for six years and been attacked in a variety of ways, your skin does get pretty thick. I'm sure Barack would say the same thing. So yes, on a personal level, I understood what was happening there. But what was more worrisome are the symbols. They were not very subtle. Black people are very familiar with that imagery and what it means.

Seeing a Confederate flag in the halls of Congress? It should be a wake-up call for everybody in this country. You see a gallows there and a bunch of angry white folks and it brings up the "Strange Fruit" that Billie Holiday sang about.

Gallows? On Jan. 6 they said they wanted to hang Mike Pence. As a Black person, you see a gallows there and a bunch of angry white folks and it brings up images of the "Strange Fruit" that Billie Holiday sang about.

Those Camp Auschwitz T-shirts. That language and imagery and what it represents has a very particular and powerful resonance for Jewish people. But we all know that Black folks would be right next in line with our Jewish brothers and sisters. The Confederate flag? What greater symbol of anti-Black feeling can you have than that?

So much of this was a reaction to the promise of Barack Obama. That reaction was not so much in response to Obama's policies. It was a reaction to the possibility of a true multiracial movement that potentially leads to a multiracial democracy the likes of which we had not seen in the United States since Reconstruction. Obama represented this new, emerging America that in terms of demographics is going to make the nation more brown than it is right now.

Ideologically, Obama also represents where I think the nation is going. The largest voting bloc we have in this country now are young people. There are more young people than baby boomers. Their ideological view, their view of the world, is quite different. That frightens those people who were out there on Jan. 6. America is changing. We can either embrace that change and make this century, the 21st century, another American century or we can let this change divide us, as we are presently doing. Those divisions will have a negative impact not only on the American people here at home, but also a negative impact on our ability to influence things outside our borders. A weakened America is not a good thing for the world.

Why haven't Donald Trump and the other members of his inner circle been prosecuted yet?

Justice means that the people who were responsible for Jan. 6, which includes the events leading up to that day, the ones who actually did the things on the 6th and then those people who were involved after that date, have to be held accountable.

As Merrick Garland said in his speech about Jan. 6, they have to be held responsible at any level. Merrick's a careful guy when it comes to the use of language. The fact that he put in those three words, "at any level," is an indication, at least to me, that they are looking at the entirety of who was involved with and responsible for Jan. 6. Accountability certainly has to be a huge component of justice.

Merrick Garland is a careful guy when it comes to language. That he said "at any level" means they are looking at the entirety of who was involved with Jan. 6, and who was responsible for it.

But as we learn in law school, the purpose of the criminal law is not only to hold people accountable, it is to deter future similar conduct. I describe myself as an institutionalist. I'm reluctant to think about prosecuting people from a prior administration, which would potentially include a former president. It's divisive. But you have to hold people accountable. You have to speak to the future and say, if you even think about doing something like this, these are the consequences. You potentially will lose your liberty. You'll go to jail. Your reputation will be stained, and all the other negative consequences. We have to deter such future conduct.

The fact that Meadows' referral from Congress for contempt has not been dealt with, that's a tell. That's an indication that there's stuff going on, that they don't want to fool around with Meadows on contempt charges, out of concern of what that might do to what they're actively investigating him for. I would say, give them a little bit of time and we'll see what they do. But I am actually pretty confident that the DOJ will hold a whole bunch of high-level people accountable to deter people from doing things like this in the future.

I am of the school of thought that there is no way in hell that Donald Trump and his inner circle are going to jail.

You don't talk about ongoing investigations. You can't talk about the handling or the use of a grand jury. There is a whole range of things that can be going on underneath the surface. As I said, I'd say just be a little patient. Let the Jan. 6 [committee] hearings happen. After those hearings have occurred, then I think it's time to start looking for action from DOJ.

How can the average American, everyday people, get involved in saving this country's democracy? What should people be doing?

People need to have a sense of history. They need to get involved in ways that our current heroes and heroines are. For example, there is a woman named Love Caesar at North Carolina A&T. We talk about her in the new book. She was upset about the fact that North Carolina A&T was gerrymandered. They drew a line right down the middle of the campus. She got the campus together and ultimately pushed back against that North Carolina gerrymander successfully.

A man named Chris Hollins in Texas brought more people to vote in Harris County — in the middle of the pandemic, mind you — than had ever voted before in a presidential election. They are examples of how we as individuals, so-called ordinary citizens, can have an impact on the system. It doesn't mean it has to be political. There are a host of ways, big and small, in which we can improve the civic life of this country. 

How do you maintain so much optimism in the fact of the crises and challenges we are facing?

If you look at the history of the United States and you reflect on from where we have come from and where we are, you understand that we have dealt with tough issues in the past and surmounted those challenges. People before me ended a system of American apartheid. We ripped down that system. America is at its best when it confronts the problems that bedevil it. We still have that capacity within ourselves.

There has been a long arc of progress in this country. It's not always a consistent arc, but overall it is an arc of progress, of involvement, of advancement. That is what I hold onto. My optimism propels me to the work. Pessimism would keep me in a sedentary state, and I'm by nature an active guy. I'm looking for solutions. I draw strength and optimism from those who came before me. I feel an obligation to them. If they sacrificed and they gave their lives, who am I not to be optimistic and keep doing the work in the present?

Read more on white supremacy, Buffalo and the aftereffects of Jan. 6:

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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