The first time I remember meeting Jamie Raskin it was dark, and we were standing atop the great steps of Harvard’s Widener Library, looking out over a sea of candles. I was a reporter for the Crimson, the student daily; he was an undergrad organizing against the Reagan Administration’s involvement in Central America and had just pulled off an enormous rally in Harvard Yard. He’d given a burning, powerful speech; the crowd of students, not an easy audience, had roared and roared.
I thought of that moment on Thursday, as I listened to Raskin, now the Democratic representative from Maryland’s Eighth Congressional District, close out the prosecution presentation in Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial. Raskin had opened the arguments on Tuesday with a personal, passionate speech that described his family members hiding from the rioters in the Capitol on January 6th; it was as powerful and effective as the speech he gave on that long-ago Cambridge night. But his speech on Thursday was even more important: it was, I think, a classic defense of American history, even of the exceptionalism of American history. That it was left to the left—because Raskin is very much a man of the left—to make that case is telling. Although constantly accused of undermining American pride, of debasing American history, progressives are, in fact, the ones who actually understand the nation’s story.
Raskin grew up in the left—his father, Marcus, after a few early years in the Kennedy Administration, quit to set up, with Richard Barnet, the most important progressive think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies. Marcus was a stalwart of the antiwar movement—he co-edited “The Vietnam Reader,” which was used at teach-ins across the nation, and he stood trial, alongside Dr. Spock and William Sloane Coffin, for urging resistance to the draft. When Daniel Ellsberg stole the Pentagon Papers, he handed them to Raskin père. Marcus Raskin later chaired the group that led the nuclear-freeze campaign.
Like father, like son. Jamie Raskin, a former law professor and resident of Maryland’s Takoma Park (a.k.a. Granola Park, Berkeley East), served as general counsel to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Before this week, his most famous public remark came in 2006, when, during a debate about gay rights, he reminded a Republican state senator that “when you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.” Later that year, Raskin was elected to the Maryland State Senate, where he worked to legalize same-sex marriage and marijuana.
It was to the Constitution that Raskin returned, via the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence, in his closing remarks on Thursday. He noted that democracy—government of, by, and for the people—is the exception on this planet, and always has been. Ours, of course, was utterly imperfect from the start, and utterly imperfect it remains a “slave republic,” as Raskin put it, that is still a place where George Floyd can be murdered by authorities in broad daylight. But the basic insight of the Founders, the idea that “all men are created equal,” had, Raskin insisted, allowed us to unleash “waves of political struggle and constitutional change and transformation,” so that we could become “the world’s greatest multiracial, multireligious, multiethnic constitutional democracy, the envy of the world.” These Founders had, at the start, one great fear, he said, “Presidents becoming tyrants and wanting to become kings.” That’s why he explained, they wrote the oath of office into Article II of the Constitution, with its pointed insistence that the President’s job is to uphold and defend that very document.
I was reminded, as I listened, of Gordon Wood’s classic history “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” published in 1991, and its argument that it is hard for us to understand today what a remarkable break with the past the founding of this nation represented: “Living in a monarchical society meant, first of all, being subjects of the king. This was no simple political status, but had all sorts of social, cultural, and even psychological implications.” The universe was ordered and hierarchical; each man had his “betters,” and those betters exercised patriarchal authority. Replacing inherited power with merit; the idea that we could govern ourselves; that ordinary people could rise to do the governing, but that as they rose they could not force submission on those around them—these were the great American notions, never fully realized but always honored, at least, as ideals.
Until, of course, Donald Trump: the man who said, of our nation’s problems, “I alone” can solve them; the man who insisted that the Constitution gave him “the right to do whatever I want.” The man who installed his family in positions of high power, and who used occasions of state to line his pockets. The man who, ultimately, put himself above our system of self-governance when it finally rejected him, refusing to abide by the outcome of an election, even after the courts and the states made it clear that he had lost. The man who, on January 6th, tried to end that long history of self-governance.
On Thursday, Raskin, arguing gamely for a conviction that everyone knows he cannot win, had to pretend that his audience of senators shared his assumptions about democracy. But, of course, many of them didn’t—many had truckled to Trump precisely in order to maintain position and privilege. Is there anyone who thinks that a 1776 version of Lindsey Graham would have been fighting alongside Sam Adams and Tom Paine? It’s much easier to imagine him as a bewigged and bewildered gent ordering the servants to pack the household baggage for the move back to London with the other Tories. That members of the party that licked Trump’s spittle called themselves “Republicans” and pretended their subservience was somehow an attack on “élites” is a reminder of the power of the idea that they have done their best to wreck.
One has to stand up to that privilege and rank and vested interest constantly, so Raskin’s case was made for history—a case against Trump, and the next Trump, and the Trump after that, if we’re lucky enough to endure as a country to see those challenges. And, if we are that lucky, it will be because new generations of Raskins will keep standing up to power, very much in the progressive tradition that goes back to our founding. American history is full of ugliness, but there is beauty at its core, as well, and that was what illuminated this week’s proceedings.
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