Lessons from American ProgressivesJamie Raskin, Lead Investigator of Trump’s Conspiracy
Katrina vanden Heuvel reflects on why the Congressman and former constitutional law professor’s politics can help guide the US to a more humane and radical future
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Introduction by Anthony Barnett
As the congressional committee investigating the 6 January attack on the US Capitol begin a series of public hearings to present its findings, Byline Times is launching a short series of articles to introduce American progressives to a wider world.
We are at a turning point in Joe Biden’s presidency, as US politics heads towards the mid-term elections in November. Will the Democrats be able to prevent the return to the White House of Donald Trump or an authoritarian Republican with similar supremacist politics in 2024?
With the system rigged against them, the Democrats will need a coherent, popular agenda, which means that there will have to be an alliance of the influential centrists with the emerging progressives.
The outside world is familiar with media favourites like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But a less well-known generation is laying the foundation for America’s future — if it is to have one that isn’t overseen by surveillance fascism.
Three Representatives in Congress are especially remarkable: Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; Ro Khanna, a vice-chair of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign; and Jamie Raskin, who led the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. All of them the feature in a short documentary I recently made in Washington D.C..
Of the three, Raskin has been outstanding for the critical part he has played in analysing what happened on 6 January and demanding justice. In this article, he is introduced by Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher of The Nation, America’s oldest and most distinguished progressive voice.
On 6 January 2021, the world watched as a mob breached the United States Capitol building in a violent attempt to overturn the result of the 2020 Presidential Election and crush the clear decision of a majority of American voters.
The bid to prevent a peaceful transfer of power was instigated by the incumbent President himself; the frightening culmination of a concerted effort by him and his associates to undermine American democracy.
Yet, even as the hallowed halls of American democracy were desecrated and Capitol police officers were felled, Congressman Jamie Raskin remained fearless and determined.
“My feeling to the people who want to take down our democracy is that they’re not going to scare me out of doing my job,” he later wrote. Now, as the House of Representatives’ select committee investigating the events of 6 January starts its public hearings, committee member Raskin has promised that it will lay out facts that “will blow the roof off the House”.
In the aftermath of 6 January, Raskin quickly emerged as one of the most passionate defenders of American democracy, drawing on his expertise as a former constitutional law professor. He is no dry and dusty ‘expert’. He gets at the heart of issues – and reflects on his personal experience to capture the hearts of the people.
Raskin’s progressive prowess is very much in his DNA. His father Marcus Raskin was co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies and a long-time editorial board member of The Nation. Following in his father’s footsteps, Jamie Raskin wrote for The Nation many times, as did his son Tommy Raskin.
For our 150th Anniversary issue, we asked college students and former interns to share their vision for a radical future. Tommy Raskin, then a college sophomore, wrote about his hopes for an America with leaders who stood up to dictators and regimes that tortured their citizens. “In the radical future, we must use the political mechanisms available to us to stop state-sponsored torture and murder and to hold power-brokers accountable for their complicity in gratuitous violence,” he observed.
Holding the powerful to account is a Raskin family tradition – and Jamie Raskin’s constant motivation.
He cut his teeth working for the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s National Rainbow Coalition – a civil rights organisation and an outgrowth of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. For more than 25 years, he was also a professor at American University’s Law School, teaching generations of lawyers about the rights guaranteed in the US Constitution.
Then, in 2006, Raskin launched a campaign to serve in Maryland’s state Senate, running against a long-serving incumbent. In his own words, Raskin wanted to be a “progressive state-wide leader and not a safe vote or a machine politician”. After he won, he made good on that promise, earning national praise for his role in the fight for marriage equality and ending the death penalty, to take just two examples.
Exactly 10 years later, Raskin won a seat in the US House of Representatives. It was 2016 – the same year Donald Trump incited a wave of xenophobia and right-wing populist rage to take the presidency. Following that election, Raskin joined a small group of law-makers who contested the certification of Trump’s election, citing reports of voter suppression.
After Trump entered the White House, the Raskin cohort of newly-elected progressive representatives – including Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and Congressman Ro Khanna – became a vital force of resistance within the US House of Representatives.
As members, and later leaders, of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), the class of 2016 turned the bloc of left-of-centre law-makers with little clout and few substantive policy victories, into a caucus with real power on Capitol Hill.
During the Trump years, the CPC frequently blocked legislation sponsored by its own party’s leaders that it found insufficiently bold. On the eve of Biden’s election in 2020, CPC chair, Jayapal, Raskin and colleagues changed the rules for CPC membership to strengthen cohesion among its ranks. The group flexed its muscle during heated negotiations leading up to the passage of a massive infrastructure spending bill and continues to pressure the Biden administration to act on climate change, voting rights, and immigration, among other issues.
However, it is Raskin’s work since 6 January that has defined him as a leading defender of American democracy.
Just after the violent mob caused death and destruction in the US Capitol on 6 January, Jamie Raskin joined two of his colleagues in introducing an article of impeachment against Donald Trump. With its passage in the House assured, Raskin was selected to help prosecute the case against Trump in front of the US Senate.
In his opening statement for Trump’s second impeachment trial, Raskin said: “The transition of power is always the most dangerous moment for democracies… The framers of our Constitution knew it. That’s why they created a Constitution with an oath written into it that binds the president from his very first day in office until his very last day in office.”
Of particular importance is Raskin’s forensic dissection of what Trump attempted on 6 January – set out succinctly in this interview. He explains how there were three circles of intent: the mob of many thousands drawn to Washington by Trump’s rhetoric; the organised ‘insurrectionary’ racist and far-right groups and networks who led the violence; and the inner circle of ‘the coup’ that sought to prevent the Electoral College vote and thus open the way for Trump to declare martial law.
At the same time as Raskin was battling America’s unrelenting autocrat, he was struggling with his own deep and personal grief. The day before 6 January, he had buried his son Tommy Raskin. The young idealist and activist died by suicide on 31 December 2020 aged 25.
In a moving tribute to their son, Jamie and his wife Sarah Bloom Raskin described a young man with a “perfect heart, a perfect soul”; someone with a prodigious intellect and passion for justice. Tommy Raskin was someone who felt the weight of our broken world acutely, his parents wrote, and he began to suffer from depression in his twenties.
In his memoir, Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth and the Trials of American Democracy, Jamie Raskin processes the twin traumas of Tommy’s death and 6 January. He began writing the book as a response to the many condolence letters he received, but it also serves as a balm for heartbroken families and a guide for a fractured nation.
“If a person can grow through unthinkable trauma and loss, perhaps a nation may,” Raskin writes.
If the United States does, it will have Raskin to thank. Even now, he is working hard to ensure that he has good company in fighting the good fight. Ahead of the mid-term elections in November, he has been campaigning for fellow Democrats in Congress who stood up for American democracy and supporting candidates committed to protecting the Constitution.
He also hosts Democracy Summer, a programme that has trained thousands of students to register voters and become organisers. In other words: democracy’s next defenders.
Jamie Raskin’s bold, progressive leadership now helps to guide the nation towards the humane and radical future his son once envisioned; a future in which democracy’s adversaries – the corrupt, the cruel and the cynical – are held to account.