Despite his fading relevance, Trump remains the presumptive presidential GOP nominee

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

December 3, 2022

Today, one of former president Trump’s messages on the struggling right-wing social media platform Truth Social went viral. 

In the message, Trump again insisted that the 2020 presidential election had been characterized by “MASSIVE & WIDESPREAD FRAUD & DECEPTION,” and suggested the country should “throw the Presidential Election Results of 2020 OUT and declare the RIGHTFUL WINNER, or…have a NEW ELECTION.” 

Then he added: “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution. Our great ‘Founders’ did not want, and would not condone, False & Fraudulent Elections!” 

In other words, Trump is calling for the overthrow of the Constitution that established this nation. He advocates the establishment of a dictator. 

This outrageous statement seems to reflect desperation from the former president as his political star fades and the many legal suits proceeding against him get closer and closer to their end dates. 

The midterm elections, in which the high-profile candidates he backed lost, prompted some members of his party to suggest it’s time to move on to new candidates. At the same time, lawsuits are heating up. The Department of Justice continues to investigate Trump’s role in the attempt to overturn the 2020 election, an attempt that led to the events of January 6, 2021.

Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the Washington, D.C., District Court recently rejected Trump’s claims of executive privilege and ordered Trump’s White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, and deputy counsel, Patrick Philbin, to provide additional testimony to a federal grand jury. On Friday, they each testified for several hours. On November 29, Trump advisor Stephen Miller, who worked with Trump on his speech at the Ellipse, also testified before the grand jury, 

The Department of Justice is also investigating Trump’s theft of documents when he left the White House. The December 1 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit declaring that Judge Aileen Cannon had no authority to allow Trump a special master to review the materials the FBI took when they searched Mar-a-Lago on August 8, 2022, had a very clear, concise rundown of what the government has so far recovered from the former president, and the list was damning. 

In the first group of documents Trump returned to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), after significant pressure to do so, included “184 documents marked at varying levels of classification, including twenty-five marked top secret.” After a subpoena, Trump’s lawyers returned another 38 classified documents, seventeen of which were marked top secret. Trump’s team declared that a “diligent search” had turned up only these items, and there were no more left.

But the FBI learned that there were, in fact, more documents still at Mar-a-Lago and obtained a search warrant. On August 8, FBI agents retrieved about “13,000 documents and a number of other items, totaling more than 22,000 pages of material…. [F]ifteen of the thirty-three seized boxes, containers, or groups of papers contained documents with classification markings, including three such documents found in desks” in Trump’s office. Agents found more than 100 documents marked confidential, secret, or top secret.

Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Special Counsel Jack Smith to oversee these two investigations after Trump announced an early candidacy for president in 2024. Smith got down to work immediately, sending out a letter on Thanksgiving Day itself. It seems likely there is good reason for Trump to be concerned.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is investigating Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, and South Carolina’s Supreme Court has ordered Trump’s White House Chief of staff Mark Meadows to testify to that grand jury, another reason for the former president to be concerned.

And the Trump Organization’s trial for tax evasion is reaching a verdict, while the House Ways and Means Committee has finally received six years of Trump’s tax returns after years of attempts by the former president to keep them out of Congress’s hands. At Lawfare, Daniel J. Hemel says that as a matter of law, the committee can make the returns public. He counsels against it for a number of reasons (although he says they should be made public) but notes that the Senate Finance Committee, which will remain in Democratic hands, can now get access to the material easily and will be able to release it. If his attempt to hide his taxes was anything other than principled, there is reason for Trump to be concerned about this as well. 

So, the former president has reason to try to grab headlines with an outrageous statement about overthrowing the Constitution.

But the real story here is not Trump’s panic about his fading relevance and his legal exposure; it’s that Trump remains the presumptive presidential nominee for the Republican Party in 2024. The leader of the Republican Party has just called for the overthrow of our fundamental law and the installation of a dictator. 

White House Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates said in a statement: “The American Constitution is a sacrosanct document that for over 200 years has guaranteed that freedom and the rule of law prevail in our great country. The Constitution brings the American people together—regardless of party—and elected leaders swear to uphold it. It’s the ultimate monument to all of the Americans who have given their lives to defeat self-serving despots that abused their power and trampled on fundamental rights. Attacking the Constitution and all it stands for is anathema to the soul of our nation, and should be universally condemned. You cannot only love America when you win.”

But Republicans, so far, are silent on Trump’s profound attack on the Constitution, the basis of our democratic government. 

That is the story, and it is earth shattering.

Oath Keepers gang found guilty of seditious conspiracy

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

November 29, 2022

Today, after an eight-week trial and three days of deliberations, a jury of five women and seven men found Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, 57, the founder and leader of the right-wing Oath Keepers gang, and Kelly Meggs, 53, who led the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers, guilty of seditious conspiracy and other charges related to the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. It found Rhodes guilty of obstruction of an official proceeding and tampering with documents and proceedings, and found Meggs guilty of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to prevent an officer from discharging duties, and tampering with documents or proceedings.

The jury also found three additional defendants from the organization—Kenneth Harrelson, 42; Jessica Watkins, 40; and Thomas Caldwell, 68—guilty of related felony charges.

The Department of Justice proved that after President Joe Biden won the November 3, 2020, election, Rhodes, Meggs, and others began plotting to use force to oppose the lawful transfer of presidential power. 

Beginning in late December 2020, they planned to travel to Washington, D.C., on or around January 6, 2021, to stop Congress from certifying the electoral college vote that would officially elect Biden. They recruited others, organized combat training sessions, and smuggled paramilitary gear to the area around the Capitol. They planned to take control of the Capitol grounds and buildings on January 6. 

According to the Department of Justice, on that day, “Meggs, Harrelson, and Watkins, along with other Oath Keepers and affiliates—many wearing paramilitary clothing and patches with the Oath Keepers name, logo, and insignia—marched in a ‘stack’ formation up the east steps of the Capitol, joined a mob, and made their way into the Capitol. Rhodes and Caldwell remained outside the Capitol, where they coordinated activities” and stayed in touch with quick reaction force teams outside the city, which were ready to bring in firearms to stop the transfer of power. 

That a jury has now found two people guilty of seditious conspiracy establishes that a conspiracy existed. Former federal prosecutor Randall D. Eliason, who teaches law at George Washington University, told reporters Spencer S. Hsu, Tom Jackman, and Rachel Weiner of the Washington Post: “Now the only remaining question is how much higher did those plans go, and who else might be held criminally responsible.” While federal prosecutors sought only to tie Rhodes to the other Oath Keepers, both sides agreed that Rhodes communicated with Trump allies Roger Stone, Ali Alexander, and Michael Flynn after the election. 

There are two more seditious conspiracy trials scheduled for December. One is for five other Oath Keepers; the other is against the leaders of the far-right gang the Proud Boys, led by Henry ‘Enrique’ Tarrio. 

Yesterday, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election are not covered by presidential immunity as his lawyers argued. The judge noted that he was acting not as a president in defense of the Constitution, but rather in a different role as a candidate when he tried to overturn the election. Sullivan said: “Persuasive authority in this district specifically recognizes that there is no immunity defense for Former President Trump for ‘unofficial acts’ which ‘entirely concern his efforts to remain in office for a second term.’”

The South Carolina Supreme Court today unanimously ordered Mark Meadows, who was Trump’s last White House chief of staff, to testify before the Fulton County, Georgia, grand jury investigating Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. Meadows was on the phone call Trump made to Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger on January 2 to demand he “find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have,” making his testimony key to the investigation. Meadows lives in South Carolina, where he tried to argue that he could not testify because of executive privilege. Lower South Carolina courts disagreed, and now the state’s supreme Court has said that Meadows’s arguments are “manifestly without merit.” 

In Washington, Trump advisor Stephen Miller testified today before the grand jury investigating the events of January 6, 2021. The Justice Department subpoenaed Miller in September. He also testified before the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

Also in Washington today, the Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act, which provides federal recognition of same-sex and interracial marriages for the purposes of federal benefits like Social Security, and requires states to recognize such marriages, although it does not require them to perform such marriages. The law is an attempt to get out in front of the Supreme Court, whose right-wing members have suggested they would invalidate marriage equality after ending protections for reproductive rights. Thirty-six Republicans voted against the bill, with 12 Republicans joining the Democrats to pass it. 

The Senate bill amends one passed in July by the House, which will now have to agree to the changed measure and is expected to do so. House speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a vote for next week.

Today Pelosi also announced that Congress will take up the legislation Biden asked for yesterday: a law to put in place the deal between the railroad corporations and the railway unions. Four of 12 unions have rejected the deal because of its lack of paid sick days. In a letter to her colleagues, Pelosi expressed reluctance to bypass standard ratification procedures but said, “we must act to prevent a catastrophic strike that would touch the lives of nearly every family: erasing hundreds of thousands of jobs, including union jobs; keeping food and medicine off the shelves; and stopping small businesses from getting their goods to market.”

She promised to bring the measure up for a vote tomorrow. 

But, in typical Pelosi fashion, she has found a way to demonstrate to union members and to lawmakers like Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who are angry at Biden’s determination to avoid a strike, that those standing in the way of paid leave for the unions are not the Democrats. After the vote on the agreement, she will hold a “separate, up-or-down vote to add seven days of paid sick leave for railroaders to the Tentative Agreement.” Such a measure is likely to pass the House and die under a Republican filibuster in the Senate. 

While the jury was handing down its verdict in the case of Stewart Rhodes, who said on tape that he would “hang f*ckin’ Pelosi from the lamppost,” Speaker Pelosi was lighting the Capitol Christmas tree with fourth-grader Catcuce Micco Tiger, who is a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and has ancestry from the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. 

Tiger won the role of youth tree lighter with an essay sharing the Cherokee origin story for evergreen trees. “After creating all plants and animals,” Pelosi explained, “our Creator asked them to fast, pray, and stay awake for seven nights. But at the end, only a few were awake. The trees that stayed awake were rewarded with the ability to keep their leaves yearlong and with special healing powers. It is a story of faith and gratitude—of hope enduring through the dark night.”

“And,” Pelosi added, “it is hope that we celebrate each holiday season—that through the cold and dark winter, spring will someday come.”  

Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, who defended the Capitol against the Oath Keepers on January 6, heard the jury’s verdict, then watched the tree lighting.

“History’s First Draft” – an interview with Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson
Photographs by Kelly Davidson

By John Wolfson

Three years ago, Heather Cox Richardson was in the middle of the kind of sparkling career that any academic would admire. The BC history professor had written a number of highly regarded books, was a regular contributor to respected publications such as the Washington Post, had cohosted an NPR podcast, and had amassed twenty thousand or so followers on Facebook who looked forward to her weekly essays about history, current events, and life itself.

Then, in 2019, something happened in Washington that would change the trajectory of Richardson’s career. The chair of the House Intelligence Committee sent a letter to the acting director of national intelligence demanding that, in accordance with the law, a whistleblower complaint be turned over to the committee. To Richardson, the letter marked the first time that a lawmaker had accused a member of the Trump administration of breaking the law. Recognizing the historical significance of the moment, Richardson dedicated one of her Facebook essays to it. Rather than assume her readers were already experts, however, she used her conversational writing style to provide context and help her audience understand the nuances of the issue. The response was astounding. So Richardson wrote again two days later. “The floodgates just opened,” she recalled. “And I’ve written every night since then.”

Those early essays formed the beginnings of Letters from an American, Richardson’s daily musings about the state of the nation. She continues to post her 1,200-word essays for free on Facebook, but hundreds of thousands of people also pay for subscriptions to them on the hit newsletter platform Substack, on which Richardson is one of the most successful authors. Her posts generate tens of thousands of comments. She was named one of USA Today’s 2022 women of the year. And she was invited in February to travel to the White House to interview President Biden.

We sat down with Richardson to discuss her sudden—and quite unexpected—rise to media stardom, the state of the country, and how the job of historians will change in the future.

There’s much more to this conversation. To listen to the entire Boston College Magazine podcast, click here.

How did Letters from an American get its start?
I had a Facebook page of about twenty-two thousand people in 2019, and I posted an essay on it about once a week—sometimes about history, sometimes about life, whatever, just because I like to write. And I had not written in 2019 since July 18 and my readers were starting to be nervous about me because I had been listed on a professor “watch list,” and people like me get hate mail. So I started to get emails from people saying, “Are you okay? Has something happened?” But actually, I was just really busy and didn’t have time to sit down and write an essay. One of the things I was doing was moving to a new place. So I was painting my house before I moved, and I got stung by a yellow jacket. Now, I’m allergic to yellow jackets, and I did not have my EpiPen. I was supposed to come back to Boston but I didn’t dare get in a car until I knew that I was not going to have a bad reaction to that sting. So I thought I might as well write. So this again was 2019, just after Representative Adam Schiff, who is the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, had written a scathing letter to the acting director of National Intelligence saying, We know there’s been a whistleblower who has said something. And by law you must give us that complaint, and you have not done so. So we have to assume that there’s somebody big that’s referred to in this whistleblower’s complaint and you’ve got to hand it over. This was the first time in all the years of the Trump administration that a member of the legislative branch had explicitly accused a member of the executive branch of breaking a law. And so I thought, well, I might as well write about where we are in American history right now. So I wrote up this quick thing for Facebook saying, “This is what’s happened, there’s been this whistleblower complaint.”

What kind of a reaction did you get to that essay?
It was very different than in the past. All of a sudden, the transoms opened and people were writing in, asking all kinds of questions: Who is the DNI? Who is Adam Schiff? What is going on? That post was on September 15. I wrote again on September 17. Again, the floodgates just opened. And I’ve written every night since then. What I’m doing is responding to people’s questions about this country. And I think the magic of it is not me. It’s that I’m a teacher, and a translator for people asking questions. And a lot of what I do is simply say, “Okay, here’s what the Department of Justice is, and here’s what a congressional committee is, and here’s the difference. And here are the powers that they have. And here’s what they’re trying to do.” All those things that many people pretend they know and they don’t actually know. And that’s always been the key to my professional career, saying, “Wait, I don’t understand that. What are you talking about? Let’s figure out what exactly you mean.”

Your Facebook audience has exploded since then. 
It’s about 1.5 million now, and it happened really quickly. I remember reaching out to my Dean within three weeks or so—because I was already touching on some really hot topics—and saying, “Just so you know, something really big is happening over here. And I don’t want to embarrass the university.” And I will say that the administration has always been extraordinarily supportive of me.

How do you choose your essay topics?
I’m not deliberately trying to push any arguments with my essays other than for multiracial democracy and liberal democracy. Beyond that, I am not pushing an argument except to the degree that I want people to understand the facts. I firmly believe in the Enlightenment concept that if people have true facts in front of them, they will make good decisions. They will not necessarily be the decisions that I would make, but they’re the decisions that make sense for them. And that’s how a pluralistic democracy works. So that’s my political point of view. But that means that as a person trained to be a teacher, I try to include voices that I don’t agree with but that are well grounded in facts, ones that simply present a different perspective. In terms of the topics I write about, I look at this in many ways as a chronicle of America for the graduate student in 150 years. So, which are the stories that are going to matter then? I try and look from that perspective and say, “This is important, and many of these other things are not.” And my historical training is very useful for that because, for example, I could look at the first speech that Antony Blinken gave when he became secretary of state in the Biden administration—which was not well covered in the media—and say, “Whoa, boy, this is a major shift in American foreign policy. This is the speech that’s going to be in textbooks and is going to be in monographs in 150 years.” Meanwhile, some other stuff in the news today really is going to be in the background in the future. So that’s how I choose my stories and how I figure out what’s going to be important.

How did you come up with the name Letters from an American?
There is a very famous document in American history called Letters from an American Farmer. It’s by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, and it’s very famous for the line, “What is this American, this new man?” And so it is partly saying, “what is America?” And I’m trying to explain what America is and keep a record of what America is. But there’s also a twentieth-century reference and that is Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America. And those were absolutely brilliant short snapshots, once a week, that really took off in the 1940s. Alistair Cooke, who was a journalist from England, took a look at America, saying “This is what America looks like today.” And he would cover everything from the 1948 reelection of Harry Truman to a tattoo artist. And it was his way of creating a kaleidoscope of what America looked like. And I thought those two things worked very well. That being said, it sounds like I was sitting around thinking great thoughts—I was literally running down the hallway in Stokes Hall with two of my graduate students going, “Oh my God, I got to have a name for this. What am I going to call it?” And we shopped it, the three of us, and this is what we came out with.

Writers are typically encouraged to write for their audience. Your audience is enormous. Do you write for your readers?
I have a laptop and I sit alone in a room, and I don’t see those oceans of people out there. I write these letters to explain to about six friends the way the world works. My touchstone about what goes in a letter is always, would I send this to the six friends? Because the minute I start thinking about the people who are actually reading that letter, or the people that I would like to impress, or the people that I think are really cool, or the people I don’t like, I find I get paralyzed. So I sit there and I say, “Would I say this?” And one of the people is my college roommate. “Would I say this to my college roommate?” And if I would, then it goes in. And if I wouldn’t, then I figure I’m not writing authentically any longer.

I firmly believe in the Enlightenment concept that if people have true facts in front of them, they will make good decisions. They will not necessarily be the decisions I would make, but that’s how a pluralistic democracy works.

You have an especially large audience among women, people of color, and other groups that have traditionally been marginalized in our country. What makes your work so appealing to these readers?
Well, I don’t know. I’ve never actually done a survey or anything like that, but I think that there are two pieces that matter. One is where my writing appears. Everything I write is available for free on Facebook, which is where the audience is. That’s where people are. Love or hate Facebook, there are billions of people on Facebook. So it’s very easy to get. It’s very accessible. I also think it doesn’t hurt that I’m not afraid to say I don’t understand something. And my great example of this was when Tom Cotton, a senator from Arkansas, wrote a letter during the Obama administration to Iran. The letter was signed by a whole bunch of senators. Afterward, there were a number of news articles that said, Well, he’s violated the Logan Act. And I was like, I have taught American history for thirty years, and I don’t know what the Logan Act is. Why are you all pretending that we know what the Logan Act is? So, literally, I went to Wikipedia. I’m like, Oh, that’s the Logan Act. It was a very simple law from the Quasi War with France in which a regular citizen had gone to try and cut a deal with France, to undercut the administration. And the Congress passed a law in 1799 saying you can’t do that. Okay. So that’s an explanation that journalists could include in a sentence. The fact that they didn’t made me feel really stupid, like, “Well, everybody else knows the Logan Act.” So part of what I do is always remind people. I even identify the president of the United States every night. That’s saying, You don’t have to remember this. I know that you have worked a ten-hour day and your car’s breaking down and the laundry’s dirty and you’re exhausted. You don’t have to remember who Adam Schiff is. I’m going to tell you who Adam Schiff is. And I think that helps this whole world be more accessible to people who otherwise feel like it’s a language that they don’t speak.

From the weakening of democratic norms to the pandemic to the insurrection, these are terrifying times, and it often feels like all of this is unprecedented. One thing that your readers learn is that we’ve often been here before. What is history’s role in informing modern public debate?
We have been here before in many ways. We are currently in a brand-new moment in which we have a major political party that has rejected democracy. That is alarming and it is not completely unprecedented because, of course, this was the position of the Democratic party in the late 1850s. But in that case, those lawmakers and leaders left our government and tried to start their own. In this case, we have those same people remaining in the government, and this is new and dangerous. But I think that history’s primary role in this moment is providing the melody, perhaps, that we all sing: The reality that as Americans—and I mean this not only for native-born Americans but for the people who came to these shores a minute and a half ago—we share the same values, which have been embodied in particular documents, in particular people, and in particular events. It helps us to recognize that we have a shared reality, a shared set of aspirations, and a shared devotion to the common good. And I think of it like listening to a concert of somebody like James Taylor, where everybody in the audience knows the words to “Fire and Rain.” And part of you says, “why do they want to hear this song again?” And the answer is not because it’s breaking new musical ground for the audience, but because it reminds them that they are all in this ship together. And that, I think, is something that our shared history brings to this incredibly fraught moment.

Various takes of Heather Cox Richardson

Will the rise of social media and the spread of disinformation complicate or change the nature of the work that historians will be doing a hundred years from now? 

How will this affect history, and the way we do history? I think that’s a really interesting question because of course the real issue for archivists is curation. Whose voice gets to stay in the archives? Who gets to be there? And the proliferation of so many different forms of media and of speech means that we’re going to lose most of it. How many of your emails do you have from the late 1990s? I have none. I don’t have an archive. If it had all been on paper, I would, at this point in my life, have an archive. I don’t have one. That stuff’s going to get lost. And the question right now for archivists is, what do we keep? Why do we keep it? And what will that say about who America is at the end of the day? A lot of the reason we don’t understand that we have this whitewashed version of the past is because the only people who ended up in the archives were the white guys. And we did not, in fact, have a past that was uncontested at all. For example, if you were a follower of Joe McCarthy from Wisconsin in the 1950s, you were a fervent anti-Communist who was willing to hang people that you considered your enemies. And if you think about the 1930s, we literally had Nazis here in Boston. And those are stories that perhaps are less known, but it’s not like the past has not been contested. But at the same time, the modern explosion of media and of information offers the opportunity to include more voices in our archives, which will change the way we think about this history. When we talk about the construction of the idea of America, one of the things that has jumped out to me in the book I’m writing right now is that the people who have most clearly articulated what America means are people of color, are immigrants, and to some degree are women. And that, I think, is a really interesting reconstruction of what America means. Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, these are the people who sit in our stone pantheons. And yet, if you think about the people who made the dream of America come alive, it’s Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper who was beaten almost to death for registering people to vote. It’s the Chinese American who was asked not long after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 to donate money for the Statue of Liberty and responded, “I’m offended that you would ask me to give money for a statue dedicated to Liberty just after you’ve passed a law that says I am not welcome in this country.” It’s Frederick Douglass asking what—to an African American—is the Fourth of July? And that strikes me as being perhaps an obvious thing that I should have seen long ago. In terms of the way that we remember our history, maybe it’s time to recognize that the people who are keeping America alive are its marginalized peoples and its newcomers who recognize our dream in a way that those of us who have come to be somewhat blasé about it no longer do.

Portrait of Heather Cox Richardson with favorite hat

Do you see any way out of the disinformation swamp we seem to find ourselves in?
That hits on what is in many ways the most interesting part of where we are for somebody who studies ideas. I think about disinformation in two ways. First, I look at it as an attack on our society, no different than a physical attack. And I think it has been quite deliberate to try and destabilize America. The efforts of people like Russian President Vladimir Putin to seed America with divisive concepts that tear us apart have been clearly established. So first of all, it’s an attack. But second of all, there’s a larger problem. And not just the foreign influences in America. There is the problem of the algorithms that enable people essentially to package social media users, to sell them. That’s been part of advertising since the beginnings of radio—people make the mistake of thinking that we are buying products, when in fact we are the product that advertisers buy—so that’s not exactly new. But what’s new are the algorithms that permit social media to privilege certain speech. And I see social media as we are currently using it, if you will, as a wild west. Every time we get a new technology, there aren’t rules around it, people misuse it. It’s got enormous potential to do good. It’s got enormous potential to do evil. Invariably, a lot of people jump in and do the evil with it. The society looks at this and says, “We can’t have this happen,” and they start to regulate it. And I expect that this is the direction we’re going now in America. The First Amendment means the government can’t say, “Hey, you’re not allowed to lie.” But what it can do is say, “you are not allowed to put warping algorithms on advertising,” for example, or on who sees what posts on Facebook.

What’s the problem with these algorithms?
We know that Facebook privileged posts that created high emotion, especially anger. You were much more likely to see those posts than you were to see posts that created, for example, good feelings or no feelings at all. If you think about Facebook as a public sphere, that’s quite different than just seeing whatever comes along. Instead, you were literally being fed things that make you angry and that continue to lead you down a rabbit hole. And it’s not just Facebook that did this, of course. There are algorithms on YouTube. There are algorithms on TikTok. There are all sorts of ways in which people are steered into certain political directions. And I really think that’s pushing a lot of our polarization. I continue to believe that we are in an artificially polarized moment because of the way we have been steered into one way of looking at the world or another.

You’re someone who has studied and written about a number of long-deceased American presidents. And then, very recently, you had a chance to interview a living president, Joe Biden, and you got to do it in the seat of American power, the White House.
It was really interesting because my White House is a historical White House. It’s a building full of memories and ghosts and paintings and statues and rooms and the Rose Garden. And I’d never been there before, and all of that is what I saw. And yet the White House is also, in the modern world, an office building. It’s full of people doing their jobs, and literally being like, “Hey George, do you have that envelope?” And those two things are overlapped when you’re there. I’m walking through history, I’m in an office building, and in some very small way, I’m making history because I’m interviewing a president. And that was also very odd because I know President Biden very, very well. But he’s on paper. I know his speeches. I know his videos. He is a historical figure to me. No different in many ways than FDR or Lincoln or Harding or any of those people who exist for me on paper and on screens. But he’s alive. He walked into the room and he talked to me and I got to ask him questions. And there was this moment of feeling like he wasn’t supposed to be three-dimensional and he wasn’t supposed to be able to answer my questions. And if he was going to answer my questions, I wanted him to give me the answers I wanted to hear . . . but he didn’t. And I’m like, Wait a minute, you’re not allowed to do that. You’re a historical figure. I get to do research and I get to figure out what the answer is. And then I get to write it. You’re not allowed to have your own opinions about your life.

That interview seemed to take your acclaim to a new level. What’s it like to be a media star now?
[Laughs] When you put it that way, sure. But you don’t walk down the street thinking I’m going to interview the president of the United States. I am still absolutely the same person that was here five years ago or ten years ago. Sometimes I joke that I still feel like I’m twelve. I think we are who we are. And I’m a writer, I’m a teacher, and that’s what I do. I write and teach. I just have bigger audiences than I used to ten years ago.

What comes next for you?
I’m making no plans at all. Everyone says to me, how long will you do the letters? And my answer to that is, they began absolutely organically and they will stop organically. We’ll know when it’s time for them to stop. People aren’t going to need them forever and then it will be time to do something else. I think that my life will depend a lot on what happens with the country. And right now, I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of this supportive, interesting, creative community that cares so deeply about this country. It is a wonderful community that is gathering. I also feel like I have been given the golden ring in that, for a historian, there is literally no better position in our entire history than to be the person who gets to keep the record of this era. And the fact that I fell into this—if you had told me three years ago that I was going to have this opportunity, I would be like, “Nah, never me.” But I happen to be in the right place at the right time. And that for somebody like me is an unfathomable gift.

Holocaust denier, neo-Nazi Fuentes dines with Trump

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

November 26, 2022

I hate to break up a holiday weekend with a political post, but I want to put down a marker for the record.

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, November 22, former president Trump hosted the antisemitic artist Ye, also known as Kanye West, for dinner at a public table at Mar-a-Lago along with political operative Karen Giorno, who was the Trump campaign’s 2016 state director in Florida. Ye brought with him 24-year-old far-right white supremacist Nick Fuentes. Fuentes attended the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and in its wake, he committed to moving the Republican Party farther to the right.

Fuentes has openly admired Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and authoritarian Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is currently making war on Russia’s neighbor Ukraine. A Holocaust denier, Fuentes is associated with America’s neo-Nazis.

In February 2020, Fuentes launched the America First Political Action Conference to compete from the right with the Conservative Political Action Conference. In May 2021, on a livestream, Fuentes said: “My job…is to keep pushing things further. We, because nobody else will, have to push the envelope. And we’re gonna get called names. We’re gonna get called racist, sexist, antisemitic, bigoted, whatever.… When the party is where we are two years later, we’re not gonna get the credit for the ideas that become popular. But that’s okay. That’s our job. We are the right-wing flank of the Republican Party. And if we didn’t exist, the Republican Party would be falling backwards all the time.”

Fuentes and his “America First” followers, called “Groypers” after a cartoon amphibian (I’m not kidding), backed Trump’s lies that he had actually won the 2020 election. At a rally shortly after the election, Fuentes told his followers to “storm every state capitol until Jan. 20, 2021, until President Trump is inaugurated for four more years.” Fuentes and Groypers were at the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, and at least seven of them have been charged with federal crimes for their association with that attack. The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol subpoenaed Fuentes himself.

Accounts of the dinner suggest that Trump and Fuentes hit it off, with Trump allegedly saying, “I like this guy, he gets me,” after Fuentes urged Trump to speak freely off the cuff rather than reading teleprompters and trying to appear presidential as his handlers advise.

But Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2024 just days ago, and being seen publicly with far-right white supremacist Fuentes—in addition to Ye—indicates his embrace of the far right. His team told NBC’s Marc Caputo that the dinner was a “f**king nightmare.” Trump tried to distance himself from the meeting by saying he didn’t know who Fuentes was, and that he was just trying to help Ye out by giving the “seriously troubled” man advice, but observers noted that he did not distance himself from Fuentes’s positions.

Republican lawmakers have been silent about Trump’s apparent open embrace of the far right, illustrating the growing power of that far right in the Republican Party. Representatives Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) have affiliated themselves with Fuentes, and while their appearances with him at the America First Political Action Conference last February drew condemnation from Republican leader Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), now McCarthy desperately needs the votes of far-right Republicans to make him speaker of the House. To get that support, he has been promising to deliver their wish list—including an investigation into President Joe Biden’s son Hunter—and appears willing to accept Fuentes and his followers into the party, exactly as Fuentes hoped.

Today, after the news of Trump’s dinner and the thundering silence that followed it, conservative anti-Trumper Bill Kristol tweeted: “Aren’t there five decent Republicans in the House who will announce they won’t vote for anyone for Speaker who doesn’t denounce their party’s current leader, Donald Trump, for consorting with the repulsive neo-Nazi Fuentes?”

So far, at least, the answer is no.

A good day for Democracy

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

November 9, 2022

Yesterday was a good day for democracy. Americans turned out to defend our principles from those who denied our right to choose our own leaders. There was little violence, the election appears to have gone smoothly, and there are few claims of “fraud.” As I write tonight, control of the House and Senate is still not clear, but some outlines are now visible. 

Usually, the party in power loses a significant number of congressional seats and state seats in the first midterm after it takes the presidency. Today, President Joe Biden spoke to reporters and noted that the Democrats had the best midterm elections for governors since 1986 and lost fewer House seats than they have in any Democratic president’s first midterm in 40 years. 

That this election—the results of which are still coming in as I write—is so close is an endorsement of the nation’s current path, despite the shock of inflation. As Biden said: “the overwhelming majority of the American people support the elements of my economic agenda—from rebuilding America’s roads and bridges; to lowering prescription drug costs; to a historic investment in tackling the climate crisis; to making sure that large corporations begin to pay their fair share in taxes.” 

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) agreed with Biden on the Fox News Channel tonight, but for him it was a complaint: “Why did Democrats do better than expected? Because they have governed as liberals.” And people appear to like a government that works on their behalf.

Voters appear to have been far more motivated to protect abortion rights than many pundits thought. In Michigan, California, and Vermont, voters amended their state constitutions to protect abortion rights. In Kentucky, voters rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have restricted abortion rights. 

Former president Trump and his loyalists had a bad day. Trump endorsed more than 330 candidates in yesterday’s races, including a number of high-profile people he had urged to run. They were extremist candidates whose key attraction was that they backed Trump’s allegations that President Joe Biden stole the 2020 election from him, and he remained bullish on their chances until the end, telling a host for NewsNation: “I think if they win, I should get all the credit. If they lose, I should not be blamed at all.” 

But when many of Trump’s candidates lost yesterday, former supporters did indeed blame Trump. Former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro tweeted: “Trump picked bad candidates, spent almost no money on his hand-picked candidates, and then proceeded to crap on the Republicans who lost and didn’t sufficiently bend the knee. This will have 2024 impact.” 

It is not at all clear that the election results will, in fact, end Trump’s political career, but they do open up the possibility that Republican leaders will not be unhappy to see him moved offstage, particularly by events they can blame on opponents—events like indictments. In any case, Trump’s status as the party’s undisputed kingmaker is no longer secure. 

This seems likely to bring the Republican Party’s simmering civil war into the open. Yesterday, Trump warned Florida governor Ron DeSantis not to run for president, hinting that he would tell reporters dirt about DeSantis if the governor did announce. (“I would tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering—I know more about him than anybody—other than, perhaps, his wife,” Trump said.)

But DeSantis came out of yesterday’s elections with a second term as Florida governor and looking strong indeed. He fared well with Hispanic voters and won his state with about 60% of the vote (it should not be overlooked that his new election security police clearly intimidated voters). If, in fact, the Republicans do end up taking control of the House of Representatives, presumptive speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) will have a delicate dance between MAGA Republicans who back Trump and those trying to move beyond Trump while keeping his voters. 

But the biggest winner yesterday was democracy. 

More than half of the Republican candidates on ballots were election deniers and either would not say that they would honor election results going forward or openly said they would not. That position appears to have hurt their chances of winning their elections. While some election deniers won their elections, more lost.

Most notably, the story in Michigan was that of democracy, as Democrats won control of the state legislature for the first time since 1984. Governor Gretchen Whitmer was heavily targeted by former president Trump and made abortion rights central to her reelection. Both factors appeared to have helped her win, hold onto a Democratic attorney general and secretary of state, and flip both chambers of the legislature.

There is a larger story here. For decades the Republicans who controlled the Michigan legislature had drawn heavily gerrymandered districts, the most recent so extreme that in 2019, federal judges called them a “political gerrymander of historical proportions.” Voters amended the state constitution to require an independent, nonpartisan panel of 13 citizens to redraw the maps. While political competitiveness was not central to the criteria they used, it was the result. 

Michigan Republicans have challenged that new map through the courts, but on Monday the Supreme Court dismissed their appeal. The outcome of yesterday’s elections suggests that what scholars have been saying for years is true: Republicans have won by gaming the system.

The importance of that partisan gerrymandering—and the importance of today’s Supreme Court in upholding that gerrymandering—showed up yesterday in the cases of four states in which Republican lawmakers simply refused to change maps that state courts had determined were illegal. In Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Ohio, heavily gerrymandered maps stayed in place despite state court decisions that they were unconstitutional. 

Those four states make up almost 10% of the seats in the House of Representatives. According to congressional redistricting specialist David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, those illegal maps were likely to hand five to seven seats to the Republicans that they would not have won without them. At the same time, Florida governor Ron DeSantis put in place heavily gerrymandered districts—so extreme that the Republican legislature balked—that were expected to turn four seats Republican and create a House delegation more than 70% Republican from a state that Trump won with just over half the vote in 2020. 

Gaming the system sets up a structural problem for democracy, of course, but also for the party in power. In safe districts, candidates don’t have to worry about attracting voters from the other party and so worry only about being challenged by those more extreme than they are in the primaries (which are always dominated by the most fervent partisans). The party becomes more and more extreme and can stay in power only by continuing to manipulate the system.

Eventually, though, they become so extreme they lose even members of their own party, as the Republican Party has done since Trump took it over. A new influx of voters—as we saw last night—can win elections, and then they will demand that the playing field be leveled back to fairness. Jack Lobel of Voters of Tomorrow, which is mobilizing Gen Z voters, told NPR’s Rachel Martin today: “The far right is trying to attack us, they’re trying to restrict our rights, and they’re trying to take us back in time. [Young people] want to go forward….” 

Lobel mentioned abortion rights, economic rights, and building a better future, and he noted that the Democratic Party has stepped up for Gen Z. Certainly, organizers like strategy director of Voters of Tomorrow Victor Shi have been pounding the pavement to turn out their people. 

Exit polls from last night show voters in the 18–29 age bracket making up about 12–13% of the vote and preferring Democrats by much larger margins than any other group: as much as 70%. In 25-year-old Maxwell Frost (D-FL), elected last night, Gen Z has its first member of Congress.