Was January 6th Unthinkable?
Rep. Jamie Raskin's new book is a must-read, but it suggests that our side came to a knife fight with a law journal. Plus, more crypto questions and lessons on relational organizing.
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On January 7, 2021, the day after a mob of thousands had ransacked the Capitol and nearly derailed the certification of Joe Biden as President, people kept calling the Capitol Police and the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to ask if there was a Lost and Found service, because they thought they “might have forgotten” their cell phone or their backpack in the Speaker’s office the day before. As Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) writes in his spellbinding new book, Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth and the Trials of American Democracy, “they were acting as if a violent insurrection to overthrow a presidential election were some kind of rock concert or Civil War battlefield reenactment.” He adds, “The astonished and quick-witted Capitol officers hurried to get each caller’s name, phone number and address so they could ‘return their property and deal with any other lingering issues.’”
Lingering issues indeed.
After sharing that astonishing anecdote, Raskin goes on to imagine how those people could have thought that their calls were, in fact, little more than requests for constituent service. President Trump, whom he aptly calls the “inciter-in-chief,” “had clearly convinced a lot of people that they had a right to be there that day, that they were ‘guests’ in Congress of the president of the United States….That remarkable sense of entitlement and impunity, which millions of horrified Americans came to see immediately in racial terms, was doubtless further bolstered by the undeniable fact that thousands of trespassing rioters and hooligans were simply being let go by overwhelmed and injured police officers.” [Emphases in the original.]
Many of those of us who watched that day in horror are still traumatized by it. Some find it difficult to look at pictures of the mob and harder to watch the videos or to stomach the careful reconstructions stitching hundreds of those videos together made by journalists at places like The New York Times. Even a satirical video like Stephen Colbert’s “Abhor-Rent” is too hard for some to watch.* Everything is still too raw. The realization that this was indeed something unthinkable—an organized effort to violently prevent the lawful transfer of power—and that the masterminds of this treacherous act still walk free, is chilling. When politics gets this polarized and bloody, it’s understandable why many ordinary people want to turn away. You may not have the stomach to relive those days and therefore decide not to read Raskin’s new book. That would be a shame.
Unthinkable may also be too much for some people for a second reason: the shattering tragedy that Jamie and the rest of his family suffered just a few days before January 6th, when Thomas Bloom Raskin, his middle child and only son, ended his life after a hard and quiet battle against depression. Tommy, as Jamie calls him, was ineffably special in many ways: funny, wise beyond his years, a slam poet, a dedicated vegan, a rising star at Harvard Law School, and, like many young people, highly sensitives to the sufferings of the world and battered by the Great Pandemic. His farewell note to his family read, “Please forgive me. My illness won today. Please look after each other, the animals, and the global poor for me. All my love, Tommy.” All of the parental love and pain that Jamie and Sarah Raskin shared with the world on January 4th in their first extraordinary statement about their son’s death is on vivid display in this book. Somehow, with the help and goodness of many friends, neighbors, and colleagues, they have found the strength to move forward with purpose in the world.
“This struggle will be my life now,” Jamie writes near the opening of the book, a realization he came too as he fled the Capitol “from American democracy’s oldest enemy—racist mob violence.” The struggle is how our constitutional democracy can prevail over Donald Trump’s party, “which operates like a religious cult and couldn’t give a damn about the Constitution or democracy.” Well said.
Unthinkable brilliantly weaves both of these narratives together, the political tragedy of January and the personal nightmare of losing one’s child. Tommy Raskin was in many ways his father’s intellectual soulmate, carrying the moral flame he inherited from his parents and grandparents and also embracing his father’s passion for the Constitution and the ways it has been bent, by creating lawyers and crusading movements, towards greater justice. As Raskin carefully recounts how Congressional Democratic leaders like him prepared for and responded to Trump’s assaults on democracy, he often shares how conversations with his son and his two daughters influenced how he led the second impeachment proceeding. If you need a bracing reminder of why we do the work of repairing the broken world, Unthinkable may restore your faith.
All that said, Raskin raises one critical question early in his book that he unfortunately never quite returns to answer, which is how he and the rest of the Democratic leadership failed to recognize the warning signs before January 6th. One of the virtues of Unthinkable is how Raskin takes us behind the scenes to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s inner circle, recounting how he and she had a meeting of the minds going back to early 2020, when he lucidly laid out the ways that Trump might execute an end-run around the Electoral College and she asked him to be part of a handpicked group to prepare to block that. Pelosi is loved by nearly all Democrats on Capitol Hill for her strategic prowess, and Raskin, whose politics are more to the left than hers, is definitely an acolyte. (The one false note in Unthinkable for me is how gushingly he describes all of his Democratic colleagues, though he admits that he tends to see the world through rose-colored glasses.) And yet, she and he and everyone else with any power on the Democratic side of Washington never saw what the rest of us saw plainly—a full-blown coup in waiting.
Even though, the constitutional law professor Raskin can’t help to note, the scenario of an opportunistic demagogue unleashing a violent mob against the Constitution is literally in the first Federalist Paper, he writes, “We Democrats are in love with the rule of law,” and thus looked away from this old threat. “How could I have been caught so off-guard?” he asks himself on page 32. “Just as I will condemn myself for missing multiple glaring clues that Tommy was on the path to taking his own life, I will condemn myself for missing multiple glaring clues that Trump and his forces were on a path to overthrow the 2020 election,” he writes on page 10. The furthest his imagination went was to Trump’s attempt to get Vice President Mike Pence to usurp the Electoral Vote certification, which the House Democrats were indeed prepared to respond to. Somehow, the notion of an armed mob storming the fortress of Democracy was, I guess, unthinkable.
Raskin wasn’t unaware of the warning signs. He recounts the events of June 1, 2020, when Trump led a “special force of militarized police…to unleash a paramilitary riot against non-violent protestors” so he could march over to the St. Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square and wave a bible around. “If he unleashed the violence of government against protestors to prop up his power, why wouldn’t he unleash the violence of protestors against government?” Raskin writes with hindsight. He mentions the armed militiamen who roamed the Michigan state capitol earlier that spring in a kind of terroristic dress rehearsal. And he notes how earlier Stop the Steal rallies in Washington before January 6th had turned violent, with Proud Boys vandalizing Black Lives Matter signs and beating up counter-protestors across DC.
But, remember, we weren’t supposed to call it “a coup.” Our leaders told us, “We got this.” Stand down and stand by, if you will. Our lawyers beat Trump’s lawyers sixty-plus times in court. Despite all the evidence, glaring since 2015, that showed that Trump hated democracy and loved violence, and the consistent warnings from the community of scholars and activists focused on the rise of far-right white nationalist extremism, the best and the brightest in Speaker Pelosi’s orbit failed to prepare for the worst. They came to a knife fight with a law journal.
What Trump and his minions did was not unthinkable. What was astonishing was how unprepared our side was when the coup was actually attempted. I, for one, would like to see more soul-searching from our leaders about this failure.
—Related: Of all the opeds and think pieces published around the anniversary of January 6th, this one by Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at UC Irvine who is best known for his Election Law Blog, is the best on the question I raise above. He offers a sober assessment of what is likely to happen in 2024 if current trends persist, but extends his argument past the usual bromides about passing voting reform legislation. “Law alone won’t save American democracy,” he writes, “all sectors of society need to be mobilized in support of free and fair elections.” And, most critically, he calls now for organizing now “to support nationwide peaceful protests and even general strikes” in the event they are needed in 2024 or 2025.
—*I do hope you watch Colbert’s “Abhor-Rent” video, which takes a song from the hit musical Rent and turns it into a savage and funny attack on the insurrectionists. Yesterday, in my Medium column, I explained why I think it vital that we figure out how to laugh at these clowns. Here’s a “friend link” to that piece.
—This essay by Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of Signal, is a bit technical, but it’s the strongest dissection of the “Web3” and crypto project that I have yet seen. He deftly shows that for all the talk about decentralization and the elimination of middlemen, all the main products of crypto like Bitcoin and wallets and non-fungible tokens still require middlemen. The tl/dr version? This is a gold rush. People are making money off of crypto-currency speculation and that is drawing in more money. Caveat Emptor.
—Paul Krugman, the New York Times’ top economics columnist, sniffs out something a lot of us have been noticing, which is the unholy alliance between Christian rightists, Trumpists and Bitcoin enthusiasts. More signs of the gold rush.
—Mozilla, the nonprofit foundation that makes the Firefox web browser, has paused its decision to accept cryptocurrency donations after one of its founders, Jamie Zawinski, called them out for “partner[ing] with planet-incinerating Ponzi grifters.” Tell us how you really feel, Jamie!
—Everything you ever wanted to know about relational organizing when you are a Senate campaign with limited time but unlimited funds: bookmark and read these guides from the Jon Ossoff campaign team. In less than a month they reached more than 160,000 voters, more than half of which were under 40 and 25% of whom didn’t vote in the 2020 general election, and upped their turnout by an estimated 3.8%. That was done by hiring nearly 3,000 community mobilizers. (Is that network being sustained? Sorry, just joking.)
—The Devil Strip, a seemingly innovative journalism cooperative based in Akron, Ohio, that I profiled with some enthusiasm last April, has shut down. A forensic investigation by a lawyer hired by its board determined that it was deeply in debt, mostly from expenses built up from before it became a coop, and little ability to sort out its actual financials. Apparently, grants kept it afloat, but it wasn’t until its original founder Chris Horne went on a leave this past fall that the board discovered the extent of its problems. If you donated to its GoFundMe, you should be getting a refund.
Odds and Ends
—Ezra Klein wrote a strange column in the New York Times this past week, praising Steve Bannon for doing the nitty-gritty work of organizing at the precinct level (which is where a lot of the post-January 6th energy of the right has been focused) while criticizing Democrats for relying too heavily on national politics to win the fight for the future. Then he trots out Ben Wikler, the chair of the Wisconsin state Democratic Party, and Amanda Litman, the co-founder of Run for Something, as two helpful counter-examples of precinct-level organizing. Well, maybe pundits like Klein are too focused on the national side of politics, but down here in the Districts, far from the Capitol, that’s what grassroots Democratic activists have been doing since 2017. What really irks me about Klein’s column, which has its heart in the right place, is his failure to point his readers directly to the groups that are working on this problem. Is that Times’ policy?
—“I have no problem with the education system providing instruction on the existence of those isms,” Indiana state legislator Scott Baldwin said with regards to the terms Marxism, Nazism or fascism. “I believe that we've gone too far when we take a position on those isms ... We need to be impartial.” He was responding to a history teacher who testified that he couldn’t be neutral when he taught students about fascism and Nazism. Baldwin has since walked back his remarks. He is a former Marine Corps veteran and Indiana police officer whose name surfaced on a membership list for the Oath Keepers, but he claims that he is not a member. I’m Nazi-ing any problem here, are you?
If you’re enjoying Wordle, you’ll also enjoy this post from Anil Dash celebrating the creativity of the web (along with several spinoff versions of the hot new daily word game).
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