"We have been here before": Heather Cox Richardson on how to save our republic

Historian and author talks about her new book "Democracy Awakening" — and why she's still bullish on America

Published November 2, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Heather Cox Richardson, a writer, professor and an expert historian in 19th-century America, poses for a portrait in her study at her home. (Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Heather Cox Richardson, a writer, professor and an expert historian in 19th-century America, poses for a portrait in her study at her home. (Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In her new book "Democracy Awakening," historian and author Heather Cox Richardson warns of the autocratic threat posed by today’s GOP and shares approaches she believes can preserve our republic. This is where we find ourselves as a nation, thanks to Donald Trump and his MAGA movement. 

I recently spoke with Richardson for Salon Talks. As many readers will know, she is also the author of the popular daily newsletter Letters From an American. As a historian, Richardson says saw warning signs early in Trump’s first presidential campaign as he adopted the "strongman" persona. From there, he “turned his intellectual and rhetorical strategy into a movement” that leaned heavily into both racism and sexism and became what we now know as MAGA. 

That movement, Richardson explained, did not come out of nowhere. Rather, Trump is simply the current figurehead after nearly a century of “a concerted movement to overturn the concept that the government should work for ordinary Americans.” 

Richardson also discussed her concerns about the GOP’s efforts to rewrite American history, saying,“If you conceive of American history, or any country's history, as being perfect in the past, it deliberately serves authoritarians.” That allows people like Trump, or for that matter like Ronald Reagan, to vow to make America “great again” based on a fabricated history that serves their political purposes. That stands “in contrast to a small-D democratic vision that says, ‘Our country actually has always been a work in progress. It is always changing, and it is inclusive of every voice,’” Richardson said.

In the end, though, this much-beloved historian is optimistic that our republic will withstand its current test: "We have been here before.” But Richardson counsels that each of us will need to work, individually, and all together, to preserve our democracy. If we don't, we could well lose it.

Watch my "Salon Talks" with Heather Cox Richardson here or read a transcript of our conversation below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

I saw you make an interesting point in a recent interview: Historians just don't tell us what happened, you tell us why it matters. Why is that your philosophy?

There's a really important distinction between journalists, who tell you what happened and that's their job and they do a very good job at it, and historians, who look at that information and use it to make observations about the way societies change. That's what history does: We take a look at how societies change, whether it's great men or political movements or economics. We take a look at all the things that happen on the ground and put it in a much larger context to draw conclusions about what it says about societal change, which of course is what we're all ultimately interested in.

We're living through a unique time in history. How does that impact you? Do you have a sense of that?

Absolutely. It is unique in many ways that I hope we'll talk about, but one of the things I think people like about my newsletter is that I always have history in mind. When the news hits me every day, I literally sit there at night and say, "If I were a graduate student in 150 years, what would I want to know about what happened today?" Because that's literally how some of my books were. I would say, "What happened 150 years ago on this date?" and pray that somebody had kept a diary. Well, I'm keeping that diary.

In your book, you map the trajectory of the modern day conservative movement. You have the Southern strategy and Nixon, through Reagan and through today. Is there a through-line, where you see the rise of authoritarianism that is more organic and that people missed? Or is what Trump is doing something new?

I'm laughing a little bit because it's sort of a grab bag of everything if you put it that way. The book tries to look at how we got here, where "here" is, and how we get out. That through-line — quite unexpectedly, that's not the book I intended to write — is the way that the modern-day conservative movement, which is not inherently intellectually conservative, it's actually quite radical, has used language and history to convince Americans to give up on democracy. 

"The book looks at how we got here, and how the modern-day conservative movement, which is actually quite radical, has used language and history to convince Americans to give up on democracy."

The Trump years are a little bit different in that he becomes a strongman very quickly and turns that intellectual and rhetorical strategy into a movement. The end of the book is how we reclaim both language and history to get out of that. But yes, the people who think that Trump happened from nowhere and is the sole cause of our current malaise are completely missing the previous hundred years, in which there was a concerted movement to overturn the concept that the government should work for ordinary Americans.

I think a lot of us thought that it was so ingrained in both the Republican and Democratic parties that the government should regulate business and protect a basic social safety net and promote infrastructure and protect civil rights, that we didn't think it was going anywhere. You still hear it nowadays when people are like, "They're never coming for Social Security," and people like me and you are sitting there saying, "They are literally writing documents saying, 'We're coming for Social Security.'" The answer to that, among a number of people, is, "Well, they don't really mean it." Where do you go with that?

When was the first time you saw signs in Trump that troubled you beyond normal politics. Not just the racist stuff but stuff that was actually a threat to our democratic republic?

Well, I should confess, I don't watch television. So for me, a lot of what he was doing was, from the beginning, theoretical. You could see all the pieces. So I was very concerned from the very beginning, but in a different way than perhaps many people were, because I have never thought that Trump was a politician. He has always been, to me, a salesperson, and what he was doing, I thought and I still think, was to become a mirror of a certain population. 

That population in 2016 did in fact want better economic policies. People forget that Trump called for better and cheaper health care, for bringing back manufacturing, for closing the loopholes that were making rich people not pay taxes; for all the sorts of more moderate economic reforms that in fact Joe Biden has put into place. He had all that, but he also had racism and sexism in a big way. That mirror being held up to that population was a huge red flag, because it was very clear he was not going to be a traditional Republican at that point, which already had me concerned because they were deliberately building an oligarchy. So that from the very beginning seemed to me to be a real problem.

You touch on another thing that we're seeing today, which is how authoritarians want to rewrite history. Can you share, as a historian, why authoritarians would want to rewrite history in a version that helps them?

"I have never thought that Trump was a politician. He has always been to me a salesperson, a mirror of a certain population."

This is a really interesting point, and that is it's not simply a question of saying, "I want you to learn my history." If you conceive of American history, or any country's history, as being perfect in the past, it deliberately serves authoritarians, because what that says is that we could go back to that past if only we follow these certain immutable laws. They're either divine laws or laws that are handed down by nature — I know how to do that and my enemies don't. They're trying to mess up those divine laws. So if we believe that the past was great and we can make America great again — which by the way was a Reagan phrase before it was a Trump phrase — if only we follow these universal laws for our country. What that says is that I alone know how to do that. It's a really authoritarian vision.

In contrast, a small-D democratic vision says, "Our country actually has always been a work in progress. It is always changing, and it is inclusive of every voice, not just John Adams." The idea that we are always finding new things, we're always looking at society differently because of the moments in which we live, we are always thinking about different ways to move society forward, that is a vision that is inclusive of all of our past, all of our present, but also our future. It's much more exciting than saying we should all go back and wear pointy hats.

Do they want to clean up the sins of the past so they can sell it better to people? Because we have right now numerous Republican-controlled states enacting critical race theory bans and book bans, and they're rewriting things that supposedly cause anyone to feel anxious or uncomfortable in school — which I felt all the time! I couldn't ban subject matter because of that.

Don't start me on math. [Laughter.]

Is this consistent with authoritarian movements through history?

It is in alignment with other authoritarian movements in other countries for sure, and actually political theorist Hannah Arendt talks a lot about this in “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” But just to be clear, they're not cleaning up the American past, the bad parts of American past. They're saying, "There aren't bad places in the American past." That in fact, things like enslavement or race riots, we could just make this whole list, were just about a few bad actors and the reality was always this trajectory toward a triumphant future. That really deeply serves this concept that my people are the chosen people, and everybody else is trying to mess us up.

It's remarkable.

Intellectually, it's actually quite cool. Unfortunately we're living through it.

After Jan. 6, if you had told me that two and a half years later, Trump is the leading Republican candidate, his supporters love him and that that's where we are as a nation, I would not have believed you. I'd be like, "There's no way." What did I miss about my fellow Americans that they were predisposed to accept an authoritarian, even if they don't understand the academic definition? I'm not being snooty about it. They just like him. They don't care what it means. 

"They have internalized Donald Trump to the point that he can't be ripped away. My comparison is always to Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter books. The worse Voldemort is to her, the tighter she clings to him."

Well, I think it's more than that they like him and don't care. I think he is part of their identity at this point, that they have internalized him to the point that he can't be ripped away. My comparison is always to Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter books. The worse Voldemort is to her and her family, the tighter she clings to him. And again, authoritarian scholars talk about this, that once you have started to poison your own soul by buying into somebody who's abusing others, you can't turn away from that without admitting that you are the problem.

I think what both of us missed was not our fellow Americans, and I really feel viscerally about this. It was the leadership of the Republican Party. They absolutely had that moment to call him out, and they didn't. They legitimized him. When Kevin McCarthy went and paid homage to him, and when Mitch McConnell voted to acquit in the second impeachment trial and then tried to give that speech saying, "Oh, now he can go in front of the courts" — I mean, the senators in the Republican Party could have stopped him anytime they wanted, from 2015 on, and they didn't do it. That to me is the big story. And now I'm afraid their moment has passed. They're no longer relevant to this discussion because that population has taken on a fury and a power of its own that they can no longer control.

Where does the role of the media come in, especially post-Jan. 6? 

I always hate to criticize the media because it's a very hard job, as you and I both know. But there is, I think, a lack of understanding of the fact that there has been a concerted effort since the 1980s to push the idea that in order to be fair, you have to present two sides as if they are equal. That is a real issue for me, obviously, because they're not equal right now. 

As we are recording this, we are coming up on a possible government shutdown, and that is often covered as a Congress problem or a Biden problem. It is literally the Republicans in the House of Representatives who cannot get their act together. It doesn't make it more fair to say, "Oh wait, we have to put the Democrats in this as well." Or to put the fact that Trump is an authoritarian opposite the fact that Joe Biden is three years older than him. Those things are not equal! So I wish the media would be better about recognizing not only that this is a big issue, where we are historically, but also that people really want to know that. I mean, the argument is that this won't sell papers, but I disagree. I think people are interested in where we are in this moment.

Is your sense as a historian that our current media is not equipped to deal with the rise of an authoritarian movement, arguably a fascist movement, on U.S. soil? Is it so ratings-driven that they just don't care? 

I don't know the answer to that. I'm not part of that world at all. I am a consumer of it and concerned about it. I will say one of the things that I think is interesting right now is, and I think this is arguable, but I don't find Trump interesting anymore. I write every night, and many times it would be easy to write about his latest antics, and I'm just bored. Remember, every once in a while you'd have a shock jock who got thrown to the top of the ratings because he said stuff nobody could believe. There comes a point when it's just the same thing again and again.

"I don't find Trump interesting anymore. I write every night, and many times it would be easy to write about his latest antics, and I'm just bored."

If you watch closely, as obviously I do, you are seeing the rise of very good writers outside the mainstream media who are really grappling with these issues. A number of outlets are taking on people who are writing in a very different way than their compatriots have been. I take a little bit of hope from that. 

As I think I said on Twitter the other day, if it's comforting to you people, I think there's actually money in this to cover these issues, because I think we're all bored with what Trump is doing. We've got the 2025 Project, which has gotten coverage but not nearly as much as it should. To go back to what we were talking about before, they are telling us what they're going to do in that project, which says, "We want Trump or someone like him to destroy our nonpartisan government and replace it with loyalists who will enforce Christian nationalism."

Deep down, I wonder if there are Americans who believe that whatever we call it, authoritarianism or fascism, can’t actually happen here. I don't know how to reach people who are busy in their lives. They're not pro-Trump; they're just busy in their lives. They don't read your newsletter, which they should. They don't read my articles. The third part of the book is called "Reclaiming America," and that's the key thing. How do we do that?

I think a lot of people are paying attention who weren't before. To go back to what you said before, are there people who recognize that this could happen? Yes, there are a lot of them who want it to happen, because the whole idea of the evangelical movement has been to replace our democracy with a theocracy, and that's exactly what they're being promised. 

Many, many years ago, I was a waitress in Oklahoma, and I was the only one on the floor who wasn't an evangelical Christian. This was the world they wanted, and this was two generations ago. So this is deeply ingrained in a number of people who want that. They are a minority, and a shrinking minority. The trick is to make sure other people who don't want that are waking up to it, and I think they are.

Look at the labor movement that is suddenly coming out of nowhere. Look at young people turning out screaming for Vice President Kamala Harris. I'm a big fan of Kamala Harris, but she is the vice president. Who turns out for the vice president? By definition, their role is to ascend to power under really bad circumstances. The number of people who are supporting grassroots movements, pushing back against book banning, running for local offices, running for school boards, showing up to all sorts of meetings to organize voters. I mean, I think that there is a movement underway. It's one I wouldn't have articulated as recently as two months ago, but it certainly seems to be the case.

President Biden is, according to reports, going to make protecting democracy one of the themes of the 2024 campaign. Intertwined in that, too, is the idea of reproductive freedom and academic freedom. I think sometimes people just think of democracy as being able to vote, but it's much broader than that.

Well, yes, it is. First of all, Biden has made this point really since the Unite the Right rally in 2017. I mean, that's what woke him up and say, "I got to get back in the game." That in itself is very interesting. So many of these things we just assumed were going to stay in play. Academic freedom? Yet of course there's been that faction on the right that has been trying to get rid of that since 1951, when William F. Buckley Jr. wrote “God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of 'Academic Freedom,'” the idea that that was not a good thing, that we needed to get rid of that and force people to embrace Christianity and what he called free-market capitalism or individualism. Now that has been embraced by a major political party. 

A lot of people have not been willing to recognize that. Some still aren't. When we talk about Trump saying that if he gets back in power, he's going to use the power of the presidency to punish and imprison his enemies, I've a number of people say, "He doesn't really mean that." When the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, came out recently and said, "Yes, I expect I will go to jail," that was a moment, and I think maybe people are starting to recognize that, yeah, they really did mean it. And I think the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health decision really emphasized that. They really did mean they were going to get rid of reproductive rights.

We're in a dark period, but also a hopeful period. In your book you give us that third chapter about what we can do, looking back to the founders. Are you optimistic personally?

I'm optimistic, first of all, because we have been here before, and we have the American people. What's that saying: The American people finally do the right thing after they've tried everything else? If you had looked at America in 1853 when only white men could vote, you would have seen a country that was rapidly increasing human enslavement, not only through the South, but also in the West and soon to be national, on the principle that the United States would become a leader in a global movement to push an extractive economy, based on human enslavement.

By 1854, they managed to push that across the United States with the Kansas Nebraska Act. By 1856, there's a political party that decimates the other two political parties in the North to stand against that idea. By 1859, you have Abraham Lincoln rising and talking about the ideology of that party to recenter the Declaration of Independence. By 1861, he's in the White House, and in 1863 he gives the Gettysburg Address, which rededicates the nation to a new birth of freedom based on the Declaration of Independence and the idea that everybody must be treated equally before the law and have a right to a say in their government. In less than a decade, we go from the idea that a few rich guys should control everybody else to the idea that government should work for ordinary Americans and everybody should be treated equally. I mean, that's truly amazing.

In this moment, we have plenty of things on the negative side in this moment, but we still have Black Americans, people of color, and women who do actually still get to have a say. So I do not see this as insurmountable. I really don't see it as insurmountable.

That's important. What can people do as we the people in this fight against authoritarianism and preserving our democratic republic?

Well, people always talk about voting and giving money to candidates, and all that is true, but I believe that the way you change society is by changing the way people think. One of the things that people who disagree with the takeover of our government by the Christian nationalists or by authoritarians can do is talk about the principles of democracy. Talk about caring about being treated equally before the law. Talk about, and this was a big one for me, the fact that our police officers should not break someone's back when they arrest them. 

Take up oxygen. Defend our democracy by taking up oxygen and talking about the things that you believe in, because that's really how you change minds on a one-to-one basis with people that you know. The idea of big movements is great, but we know as political scientists that the way you really change people's minds is when people they care about talk to them about things that are important to them.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

MORE FROM Dean Obeidallah