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What happened in the 1850s and what happened in the present are very similar in a number of ways, though the symbol of the insurrectionist Confederate army never flew in that nation’s capitol—not once—until January 6, 2021.
The following conversation between veteran journalist and broadcaster Bill Moyers and historian Heather Cox Richardson took place on Thursday, January 7th—one day after an insurrectionist mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building after being incited to action by U.S. President Donald Trump at a nearby rally focused on stopping members of Congress from certifying his loss to President-elect Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
Welcome to Moyers on Democracy. President Trump urged his followers to come to Washington for a “big protest” on January 6th. He wanted their help in reversing the results of the election he lost. “Be there,” he said.“ (It) will be wild.” And they came. By the thousands, they came, and sure enough, it was not only “wild,” as the President had promised, it was worse. Much worse. The protesters became a mob, stormed the US Capitol, drove the vice president and members of the House and Senate out of their chambers, and turned a day meant for celebrating democracy into a riot that sought to overturn a free and fair election. Across the country and around the world people watched, horrified, dumbfounded and disbelieving, as insurrection incited by the president of the United States and his Republican enablers struck at the very centerpiece of American governance. Here’s Bill Moyers, to talk about that day with the historian Heather Cox Richardson.
BILL MOYERS: Good morning Heather, glad you could join me.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: It’s always a pleasure.
BILL MOYERS: It’s the morning after what happened in Washington, the insurrection. Did you believe your eyes when you were watching those events unfold on the screen?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I believed them and I wept. And I am not exaggerating. Seeing that Confederate flag, which had never flown in the Capitol during the Civil War, and it had never flown in the Capitol in the 1870s, and it had never flown in the Capitol during the second rise of KKK in the 1920s, going through our people’s government house in 2021– the blow that that means for those of us who understand exactly what was at stake in the Confederacy. That image for me, of the flag being carried through the halls was, I think, my lowest moment as an American.
BILL MOYERS: Interesting because I kept seeing the flags all afternoon: the Confederate flag, American flags flying upside down. Flags with the name “Jesus” on them, “Jesus saves,” “Jesus 2020.” A big, burly protester carrying a flag on a baseball bat that seemed as big as his arms. He paused long enough just to give the camera and us a middle finger. Joe Biden keeps saying, this isn’t America. It’s not who we are, but it is America. This kind of character and this kind of conflict and this kind of meanness are a big part of our history. Is there any hope for Biden’s aspiration to unite us again?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: These people have always been in our society. And they always will be in our society. What makes this moment different is that we have a president who is actively inciting them in order to destroy our democracy. We certainly have had presidents who incited these sorts of people before for one end or another. But at the end of the day, every president until now has believed in democracy. And this one does not. He wants to get rid of democracy and replace it with an oligarchy that puts him and his family at the top. The same sort of way that we have oligarchies in Russia now, for example. Biden cannot combat these people alone. This is a moment for Americans who care about our democracy and who care about returning to our fundamental principles. And finally, making them come to life to speak up, to push back, to insist on accountability and to recognize that we are, in fact, struggling for the survival of our country, not simply talking about, “Oh, I like this politician” or, “I like that politician.” And if we do that, will we win? Absolutely. But making people do that and getting people to understand how important that is is going to be a battle. And it’s one that, by the way, we’ve been in before, and lost. This is the same sort of battle we fought at the end of Reconstruction, when most Americans sort of went “Whatever.” And we ended up with a one-party state in the American South for generations. And that is exactly the sort of thing that they are trying to make happen across America itself.We are, in fact, struggling for the survival of our country, not simply talking about, ‘Oh, I like this politician’ or, ‘I like that politician.’
BILL MOYERS: What do you think happens to those we saw on the screen yesterday, those who invaded the Capitol, the core of our congressional system? What do you think happens to them when they discover that Trump and the Republican Party have been lying to them? That the election wasn’t rigged, it wasn’t a hoax. What do they do?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: A lot of them will never realize that. You know your psychological studies. A lot of what we used to call brainwashing can’t be undone and won’t be undone. And they will go to their graves believing that this was a stolen election. But some, and you could see them on their faces yesterday, some people sort of went, “Well, wait a minute. This was supposed to be the storm. We were supposed to be having a revolution. And it didn’t happen. We got into the Capitol building. We did our part, and there was nobody there to greet us and to help us take over.” And what’s interesting in a moment like that is there are two things to do: you can go deeper into your delusion, or you can turn on the people who took you there in a really powerful and passionate way. And this is one of the reasons this moment is so fraught is a lot of people might be waking up and going, “Wait a minute. They lied to us. They changed their minds last night and they made Biden president.” And you can see if you’re watching QAnon. They’re sort of saying, “Well, wait a minute. I’m sure Trump has an even deeper plan.” Which, of course, puts him in a bind because he can’t now say, “Oh, never mind. I didn’t mean this,” because then he’s going to lose their loyalty. So, we’re in this fraught moment. But I think people will either go ahead and continue to believe and this will a rump group that we are going to have to be dealing with for many, many years. Or some of them will become some of our most vocal opponents of people like Trump.
BILL MOYERS: Seventy million people are not really a rump group, are they? They constitute a sizable portion of the American population. You think they’ll drift away, those who are just seeing Trump as a sort of spokesman for their grievances and someone who could put the establishment on notice? Or are they in this for the long run?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I think it’s really important to distinguish between people who voted Republican in the last election and people who actually stormed the Capitol yesterday. For all that we saw yesterday was horrific and the rioters that protested outside of some state capitals, there really weren’t that many of them. And a lot of people who went ahead and voted Republican would not have endorsed what happened yesterday. So, the thing that I am watching is the fact that so many people will vote for their political party no matter what it does. And one of the things, as you know, that I’ve talked about for a long time is Republicans stepping in and reclaiming their party because I think they really could steer some of those Republican voters back into the American mainstream. And you can see that battle going on at this very moment as there’s this dramatic split between the formerly establishment Republicans who went ahead and supported Trump for all these years. People like former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky, or the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee Lindsey Graham. Or many of the other establishment Republicans who have stepped in and said, no, we’re not going to go ahead and pretend that Donald Trump won this election. He did not. And you can see them trying to take back the Republican Party and move it back away from the QAnon supporters, away from the Trump supporters. And then you see the Trump supporters taking their own off-ramp into a more radical direction. And if that split really happens, I worry a lot less about those 70 million people because I think they will vote Republican. Not a lot of them will end up going down what is absolutely a neo-Nazi, white supremacist direction.
BILL MOYERS: But as I watched, I was taken with a couple of still photographs of the members of Congress after the invaders got inside, who were being evacuated. They got their gas masks out from underneath their desk and began to proceed. Three in a row that I saw were what I would call political agitators from within. They were people who supported Trump’s argument that the election was a hoax and was rigged. And they had the most bewildered look on their faces as to what was happening. And as I watched, I got angry with all those people who stoked the fires of dissent and, when it got out of control, acted surprised, like those members of Congress who were being led out. But once you whip up fury with people you’ve lied to, you can’t just brush them off with a shrug of your shoulder. And you can’t just say, I have no responsibility for what happened. I only asked those people to vote for me. I didn’t ask them to attack the Capitol. What happens to those members of Congress, those political figures who actually encouraged what happened yesterday indirectly by agreeing with and embracing Trump’s lies that the election was a fraud? What happens to them?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Well, of course, they were making the calculation that it was worth supporting what Trump was alleging because they wanted to pick up his base for elections in 2022 or 2024. And that’s exactly what Josh Hawley was doing, the senator from Missouri who went ahead and signed early on to supporting the House Republicans who were going to challenge Biden’s electoral votes. And then, of course, Ted Cruz from Texas jumped on board because he’s terrified that Hawley was going to undercut him for the 2024 nomination. So, to them, it was a game. It was a calculation. You know, “Biden’s going to get the presidency. We know he won it fair and square. Trump has lost all of his lawsuits. This is a really safe way to go ahead and signal that I’m going to honor him, and I’ll pick up his voters.” And to them, it was a game. And what they discovered pretty quickly was, it wasn’t a game to the people to whom they had seemed to promise their loyalty. Josh Hawley is done because that photograph of him making the power sign to the rioters, yeah. His career is done. And Ted Cruz is also in a terrible spot because, if you recall the timing, he had given a really incendiary speech while they were already marching toward the Capitol. So last night, those two senators doubled down because they really don’t have anywhere else they can go. But it was interesting to see the people who hadn’t been that exposed took the off-ramp. Yesterday morning, 14 senators said that they were going to object to the counting of electoral votes from Arizona, which is one of the states that Trump said he was contesting. But by the time the vote actually happened last night, only six of them went ahead and objected to it. But you can see them going, I didn’t mean that. I didn’t want to be part of that. And so there is going to be this struggle I think in the Republican Party between people who are trying to pick up Trump’s base and others who are recoiling from it. But it was interesting that they lost half of the people who were supporting that between the morning and the afternoon when they saw what it could create. So I think that people like Hawley and Cruz have no choice but to stay with the tiger that they are riding. But other Republicans don’t want to be part of it. And think about what that’s going to look like in any election going forward to intercut what those senators said, encouraging Trump’s false accusations about the election with the person who was at the front of the Senate on the dais, wearing a bull costume without a shirt, with Aryan tattoo on his abdomen. You know, Americans don’t like violence. They don’t like political violence. So long as we still have elections, that’s going to mean you are never going to get reelected.
BILL MOYERS: And the photograph of a fella who had occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office, the speaker of the House, and he was sitting in her chair and twirling his cap and had his feet on her desk. And he had that look of a Brownshirter in an earlier time of European history. And I wondered, “What happens to him when he leaves there? Any shame?” I woke up wondering about him this morning. “What’s he doing this morning,” I thought, “after sitting at the personal desk of the speaker of the House of Representatives with his feet on her desk?”
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Well, but isn’t that you know, we can’t know because we’re not in his—
BILL MOYERS: No.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: —head. But isn’t that one of those things where you find yourself in a position you never expected to be in? You know, you maybe were trying to do one thing or make a protest or do something, and you end up in a position you don’t expect yourself to be in. And it’s almost like an out of body experience, going, “What am I doing here?” But that begs the next question. How he is thinking about this moment depends on how we react to it. Now, if he knew that he was going to be shot for breaching the Capitol walls the way I think we have to assume an African American protester would’ve been, he wouldn’t have been doing it. And if he assumed that he was going to be arrested and brought to trial and convicted and jailed for doing what he did, he wouldn’t have done that either. And that’s the moment we’re in now, is guaranteeing that there are penalties for that, so that we literally don’t have people breaking into our government with a sense of entitlement that it’s okay to be there. The sense of entitlement that we’re allowed to do this is not only a denigration of our government, which they at this point have been taught to hate, but it’s a denigration of their fellow Americans. That was my Congress that they broke into. And that I think is something that is going to be really important to reassert that you can’t just declare that you don’t like the government so you get to take it over from the majority of us.
BILL MOYERS: Well, it’s one thing, of course, to prosecute those who got inside the Capitol. They were easily visible, they could be identified even days later. And it’s not hard to send them to 30 days in jail, or whatever the law requires. But what about the chief instigator the chief trigger, the chief motivator, the guy who really was responsible for this, the president of the United States? How do we hold him accountable, other than the fact that he’s been defeated and will be leaving office in a few days, but this was something that happened because of him? Can he be indicted or arrested for promoting insurrection against the government?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Well, indicted is hard, of course, because we have that 1973 memo that says that a sitting president cannot be indicted. And he’s still a sitting president. There are, of course, three ways out of where we are right now. One is the 25th Amendment, in which either members of the Cabinet and the vice president or a body that appointed by the Congress to consider such measures and if you recall the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to set up such a body last October. And was prevented from doing so. When either of those two groups are willing to say that he is not competent to continue to be the president and as you know, last night a number of people including the National Association of Manufacturers actually came out and said he must be 25th, which is a shorthand way to say, “He must be removed from office.” There is, of course, the option of resignation, which was the route that Richard Nixon took in 1974. And that depended on members of the Senate going to him and saying resign now, or we will convict you of the high crimes and misdemeanors that the House of Representatives is going to say that you have committed. They actually didn’t take it to the full Congress then. They had only gone through the House Judiciary Committee. But the Congress would have voted in favor of the articles of impeachment. And the Senate would have convicted. But what I would like to see, is for the House to impeach the president and for the Senate to convict him today. And the reason for that is one of the pieces that people are not talking about is what we saw yesterday was the overwhelming attack of the Executive Branch, the president and the people in the Executive Branch, to destroy the people’s branch, the Legislative Branch. Trump has maintained since he was in office that the Executive is superior to the Legislative Branch. That it does not have to answer to the Legislative Branch. And he and his supporters in the government are big proponents of the idea of what’s called the unitary executive which, because the president is at the top of the Executive Branch and the branches are co-equal, that means that nobody can check the president. And I think it’s really important for the Legislative Branch, the Congress, the people’s branch, to say, “Oh, wait a minute. In fact, we do have a way to push back on an overly strong Executive. And that is to impeach you and convict you and put the vice president in your place.” And if we do not push back on what this president has done forcefully and immediately, this is only the first step in the destruction of American democracy. It is not the last. And on that, I feel incredibly strongly.
BILL MOYERS: Early this morning Trump, or during the night, Trump announced, okay, the transition will be peaceful. My term is over. And that’s going to diffuse a lot of the anger and dislike of the man that was continuing to accumulate yesterday. Aren’t you worried that if he’s pressed in the way you just described, in his state of mind, something more terrible might happen? He is still in charge of the nuclear warheads. He has the sole authority if he wanted to and there was a warrant for it, to use that power. Doesn’t this trouble you, that he’ll be provoked into another act of madness?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Absolutely. And that’s why he needs to go today. And the reason for that is a personality like Donald Trump’s can not stop. It’s not that he won’t stop, it’s that he can’t stop. So, every time that he is not checked, every time that he is enabled to push the envelope, every time that someone says, “Oh, we’ll just humor him,” he takes the next step. So everybody thinks that what happened yesterday was the end. He has two more weeks and he has the nuclear codes. He has the ability to go ahead and start a military action. All of these things are things that should not be in the hands of a man who has shown himself willing to destroy our government. And the idea that he is going to stop is exactly the kind of mentality with which people approached Hitler. Remember, oh, he’s not going to try anything more than he has just tried? And that man was fighting until the very last moment in the bunker. And that thing that they released this morning about 4:00, was a very interesting statement because he said, yes, there’ll be a peaceful transition of power. Didn’t say anything else about, I’m going to behave. And it continued to insist that the election was stolen. That is not a concession. That is not a move toward peace. This is not the idea that everything is going to be okay. He basically, I think, or his handlers were trying to say, oh, he’s not going to cause any more trouble in this particular way. But it absolutely was gasoline on the fire for his supporters. And it didn’t say anything about him backing away from some of the more aggressive moves he’s made in other fields. So it would be a terrible mistake to go ahead and say, “Oh yeah, we can live with this” because, among other things, if he gets away with it, a smarter, more able, better-supported politician will make this stick.
BILL MOYERS: I was bemused when you mentioned the National Association of Manufacturers and some other big business magnates. I was bemused when they announced yesterday that he should go, the 25th should be invoked, because some of them have been his enablers. Some of them have supported him for the last four years in no small part because he gave them a big tax cut. And he’s been good for business by removing regulation and all of that. But they will go scot-free, having been born again yesterday. Will it be enough to just get him out of office? Or should there be something like a 9/11 Commission that investigates all of this and puts him right at the center of what he has done?There’re a lot of reckonings that need to happen.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I’m not convinced there should be something like a 9/11 Commission, although we absolutely need to uncover everything that happened in his administration. I mean, have you ever thought how strange it is that he’s so determined not to leave office? I mean, presidents never want to lose, for sure. You know, they don’t go have a party when they lose an election. But they don’t fight to stay like this, especially an older man who had a different life beforehand. Why is it so important that he stays in office? Well, there’s the money, of course, which can’t be small in terms of the way he’s run the presidency. But I am increasingly convinced that a lot of things happened in this administration that he does not want to have come to light. And I think it’s really important that the Biden administration looks into it. And the nomination yesterday of Merrick Garland for the attorney general is very important because Merrick Garland has a reputation of being nonpartisan. So it’s not going to look like the witch hunt that the Trumps are going to scream it is. And he has a reputation of being nonpolitical. So that at least is a start, to have the Department of Justice look into things. But it seems to me there’s a lot of different ways in which we must come to grips, not only with what happened during the Trump administration, but with, for example, American policing, the infiltration of many of our law enforcement agencies, with white supremacists. There are a lot of reckonings that need to happen. I will say that one of the things historians will tell you is that the idea of simply everybody holding hands and being unified going forward is completely wrong and ahistorical. That’s not what happens. If a government says, “Never mind. We’re going to look the other way and we’re not going to go ahead and reckon with the crimes you may have committed or the things you have done to your neighbors,” it simply emboldens the people who did that. So, for example, you think about the American Civil War. There was never really any penalty for having engaged in a rebellion that tried to destroy the United States, that cost more than 600,000 lives and at the time, an extraordinary sum of money, about $6 billion, because Grant and the political situation after the war thought that they could bring the former Confederates back into the Union by being kind to them. And what that did is it created a narrative almost immediately that, in fact, the Confederates had been right. That the North didn’t want to go ahead and be harsh to them because they knew secretly, deep down that the Confederacy was really fighting on the right side, and the Northerners had only won because they had more weaponry. And that lost cause myth has so poisoned American society. It meant that rebellion was okay. And I think you can see how it played out yesterday in that Capitol. It’s crucially important after something like this, that people grapple with the reality that they have committed crimes, that they have turned against their fellow country people, and that they are held to account for those things. Now, it’s really interesting though if you look at Germany after World War II. East Germany and West Germany did two very different things. East Germany went ahead and simply tended to execute former Nazis extra-legally. That is, they didn’t go through the system. West Germany insisted on following the law incredibly closely. And that meant that a lot of former Nazis got off, which infuriated people. But what it also meant was that those former Nazis became really enthusiastic about following the law. And it ended up recommitting the country to a democratic system in a way that did not happen in East Germany. And that’s one of the reasons that I push so hard on the idea of the law. People will get away with things, for sure, if we enable them to get off because somebody didn’t put the right law in place or somebody didn’t fill out the paperwork fine. Sure. People are going to walk away from that. But at the same time, they’re going to be really glad that the law supported them in their rights. And it will recommit them to the law. It’s one of the reasons I hammer again, and again, and again on the idea that every single person should have to face the law for what they have done so we can reemphasize that this is a nation of laws to which we are all beholden.
BILL MOYERS: So, there’s a real danger, isn’t there, that Donald Trump in exile could become a demagogue on the make again, just as able to stir sedition in other ways. And there are junior Giulianis all over the country who still believe in combat as politics. So, who steps up and says, “Mr. Trump, you’ve got to go today or tomorrow”? His Cabinet is weak and humbled by him further. It’s not Biden. He’s not in office yet. Who does that?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Who does that today? This would be members of Congress and one would hope, members of the Cabinet. But you’re right. The Cabinet’s not going to do anything. It was interesting last night that Vice President Mike Pence continued to put distance between himself and Trump so it no longer looks like he is a sycophant. But it did seem that he was before all the trouble started between him and Trump recently. This will be a job, at this point, for Congress. But once again I will emphasize that this is up to the American people to say this is not okay. The people who are grabbing the headlines right now are the rioters who took over our government. But there’re an awful lot of Americans who don’t approve of that. And it’s really important that they make their wishes heard, or the same thing’s going to happen that happened after the Civil War, where people look the other way and say, “Oh, it’s really not such a big deal.” And we’re going to end up with a one-party state. But this time, it’s not going to be regional, it’s going to be national.
BILL MOYERS: So, what happens to the right-wing, which has been well organized the last several years? They’ve got the media like Fox News supporting them and their own now right-wing media. They’re not suddenly going to change their spots. The photographs from the insurrection yesterday showed that many of these people have ties to the right and they’ve been around quite a while, even though some of them are quite young. What happens to the right when it loses the demagogue who has fueled their fires?Hold them to account when they break the law. You know, it’s one thing to be out there, partying and saying you hate the government. It’s another thing to be sitting behind bars.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Well, again, the future we can’t predict. We could only talk about past patterns. But one of the things that’s interesting about when you’re talking about the radical right, the right-wing, the neo-Nazis, the stormers, all those people, they’re always going to be there. And the way that you break them is the same way that the U.S. government finally broke the KKK in the 1870s and again in the 1920s, and again in the present, by the way. And that is to hold them to account when they break the law. You know, it’s one thing to be out there, partying and saying you hate the government. It’s another thing to be sitting behind bars. And you saw this with the attack on Governor Whitmer in Michigan this summer. The boasting on that tape of that man about how and I’m not going to go into the profanity he used in his insistence that, if you were going to be one of his team, you were going to, and I’m going to put this in brackets, commit a lot of crimes. I’m not going to say what they were. He sounded just unbelievable. It was an unbelievable recruitment video. And yet, he and his people were captured without throwing a fist. And now, they’re in huge trouble. I think that’s how you take care of that part of the right. But the larger question is why so many people have signed onto QAnon, have signed onto where they are. And one of the things that’s interesting about both QAnon and the rise of most authoritarian movements is authoritarian movements usually rise by demagogues saying, you know, “Your life is not nearly as good as it used to be. And the people to blame are those people.” And they whip up anger against “those people.” And who’re those people are doesn’t matter at all because the device is not really designed to go after those people, it’s designed to ford your supporters into a phalanx to go ahead and support you so you could do whatever you want to do. And that’s like authoritarianism 101. QAnon for all that we portray it in the media as the fact it’s supposed to be defending a secret movement to go ahead and stop pedophilia and cannibalism, which is fairly easy to make fun of in many ways. What’s interesting about QAnon is that it offers people a way to make their lives better. There’s a reason that people have associated it with religion because, if only you solve the puzzle. If only you are part of the solution and not part of the problem, you can go ahead and combat true evil in this world. And one of the things that seems to me to be key to retracking people who believe in this fringe cult, if you will, back into mainstream America is actually offering them an opportunity to make their lives better. I mean, one of the things that is the backdrop to everywhere we are right now is the fact that since 1981, money has concentrated dramatically at the top of the economy. Very few people have gotten very, very rich indeed. And many Americans have fallen into dead-end jobs, they’re working many jobs, they can’t take care of their kids. You know, we don’t have childcare, our roads are falling apart, our schools are falling apart. I think addressing those enormous inequalities that have been part of American society really now for two generations is key to weaning people away from false ways to make their lives better and returning them to positive ways that really will make their lives better, because they can see it in their real life, as opposed to simply on the screen they’re playing with.
BILL MOYERS: You mentioned we can only look at past patterns. Is there a pattern from history that is working itself today, yesterday in Washington, into the present?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Yes, I think there is. And that is we look very much like we did in the 1850s. Even to last night, there almost being a fistfight on the floor of Congress. But what happened in the 1850s and what happened in the present are very similar in a number of ways. One of them is that in both of those periods, we had the laws rigged in such a way that money moved upward, leaving the vast majority of Americans in the 1850s in the South and in the present everywhere, feeling like they couldn’t really get ahead. And they were susceptible to demagogues who blamed their opponents for that, rather than for their own legislation that had taken away opportunity for, in the South in the 1850s, white men to go ahead and provide for their families. In the present, of course, it’s a wider story. But they did that in a number of ways. They did that, first of all, by rigging the laws in their favor. When increasingly they could not control the laws, they took over a political party. The Democrats in the 1850s, the Republicans now. And then, as more and more people continued to say, “Wait a minute. You’re not operating in reality. It’s your laws that are causing trouble,” what they did is they limited the media. They made it so their supporters could not have access to actual facts. And they created a fantasy world. Obviously, I don’t want people who aren’t operating in reality to control our government. One of the things that haunts me as a historian is that you can watch this happen in the 1850s. And, as a historian, I mean, I can’t change what happened. But I can look and see other routes. There were, if you were willing to be logical, ways to get rid of human enslavement without slaughtering 600,000 people. And what I look at in that past era is I look at the true believers, the poor, white men who were willing to throw their lives behind the lies of the people leading them because they believed, like those people who stormed the Capitol yesterday, that somehow, they were part of some big, noble movement. And at the end of the day, their leaders walked away from them. And they were the ones who got slaughtered. Their wives were the ones who ended up refugees. Their children were the ones who starved to death. And the idea now as I watch the people who stormed that Capitol, I think they really believe they’re part of something noble because they have nothing else to believe because they have been so deprived. And yet at the end of the day, you know exactly what’s going to happen. When the law comes for them, their leaders are not going to be there supporting them. They are the ones who are going to pay the price for this. But at the end of the day, the woman who lost her life yesterday, what did she lose her life for? She can’t get that back. And what did she lose her life for? So I look at this moment, these parallels, and I think that that fantasy world is a terrifying and terrible thing for us who are not part of that bubble and for our country. But I think of the people in that bubble. And I think, “Don’t throw away your life and your future for what isn’t even a positive fantasy. It’s a negative fantasy because the people who are feeding it to you are only using you as cannon fodder.”
BILL MOYERS: Do you have any hope that the Republican Party can ever return and embrace reality again?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Well, I always have hope, right? Yes. It can’t continue the way it is now. I mean, this is one of the things people always say to me. You know, “What’s going to happen? What are they going to do?” I think the more important question is, what is the world going to do? A fantasy only can survive as long as it is not far enough from reality that it has some plausible basis. And the Republican Party has now gone so far off the rails that something has to happen. One way or another, this fringe element is either going to be marginalized and the Republican Party’s going to split and some of it’s going to come back into a more mainstream path. Or this country is going to become an oligarchy. Or a fascist country. There’s actually some distinguishing features between those two things. For you and me, it doesn’t really matter. But either we’re going to go full fascist or oligarchical, or the Republican Party’s going to come back into some level of normality. Americans at the end of the day tend to be really reasonable people. I know it doesn’t look like it right now, but the people you grew up with in Oklahoma and the people that I grew up with here in Maine, many of them vote Republican. But they did not approve of the storming of the Capitol yesterday. That’s not what they signed up for. And we saw today, Mick Mulvaney resigning because he said this is not what I signed up for. It’s, like, wait a minute here, fella. You know, you were the guy behind keeping the money back from Ukraine. You signed up for an awful lot of this. But I actually think that the Republican Party does stand a chance of splitting and coming back into the mainstream of American politics. And if they don’t, another party that does a similar right of center thing will.
BILL MOYERS: What is the pattern you would like to see emerge in American life in the next few years?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Well, we have been in a position not unlike this before in the 1920s. You know, in the 1920s, when money had moved up, when, there was sort of this glitterati that dominated the new national magazines and was buying all the new products. The radios and the nylon stockings and the refrigerators and the cars and all the consumer goods that made it seem like America was just great, while the vast majority of Americans were falling dramatically behind. And we get the rise of the KKK and we get the lynching and we get the denigration of immigrants and the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. And it really looks like the country is going toward fascism, as so many countries did at the time. But with the Great Depression and with the increasing public pressure for a government that responded to the people, we got the rise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and then we get the New Deal, and then we get Eisenhower after the war going ahead and believing in the liberal consensus. And that turned on a dime. So, if you think about the election of 1928, the Republican, Herbert Hoover, won in a landslide in ’28. And Hoover actually saw this coming, to some degree. But if you had said to somebody in 1928, “Well, the Republicans are going to be done in four years,” people would’ve thought you were on drugs. And yet, in four years, an entirely different way of thinking about the world was so powerful that FDR wins in a landslide. And by the end of World War II, which is a decade, Americans have gone from believing in executing African Americans, Mexican Americans, immigrants, to insisting that all Americans belong here. That we are a democracy and not a fascist country. You’ve even got Superman saying that school children should defend the right of all races and all ethnicities and all religions to share public space. You know, if anybody says that somebody can’t be an American because of his religion, tell them that’s un-American, Superman says. And the idea of being a 1920s American gets lampooned in the precursor to Foghorn Leghorn. They’re actually setting up an old, reactionary, white Democratic Southerner with that Looney Tunes character. So what changed in that very short space of time from being an exclusionary, almost fascist country, to being the democracy that created the modern world was pressure from leaders and from the American people to say, “We are about democracy.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt did this again, and again, and again. You know, we talk about anti-Communism but Roosevelt was out there in his fireside chats constantly going, “Look at what fascism has done to its communities. Look at the fact Italy can’t feed its people. Look what’s happening in Germany. We don’t do that because we’re America and we’re a democracy.” So I think that we could do this. We can take back democracy with all the voices we have, with the sorts of things that Stacey Abrams accomplished in Georgia. Certainly, other states would flip the same way that Georgia did if they had that kind of concentration on them of the inclusion in voices. But it’s going to take not only our leadership, but us, Americans, saying, “We don’t want to be a country where armed insurrectionists can storm our Capitol and try and steal a legitimate election.” And if we all speak up, I think we can do it. If we don’t, we’re looking at a very grim 21st century indeed.
BILL MOYERS: If the insurrection had not happened yesterday, I think we would be talking this morning about what happened in Georgia because in that state that had been dominated by white Republicans for so long, you had an African American minister and a young, Jewish documentarian win both seats in the Senate that will, I think, prove to be the turning point in political history, that you will be talking about 20 years from now.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Yesterday was a day– you know, we all talk about red-letter days, the really important, historical days. January 6th, 2021 was one of those days. Nobody is ever going to be able to write a history of America that doesn’t talk about what happened yesterday, both in Georgia and in Washington.
BILL MOYERS: Heather Cox Richardson, thank you very much for your joining me and for your ideas. And we’ll be talking again.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: It’s always a pleasure.
ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening to Moyers on Democracy. On our website, you can find Heather Cox Richardson’s daily newsletter LETTERS FROM AN AMERICAN. Until next time, you will find all this and more at Billmoyers.com
Bill Moyers is a veteran journalist, broadcaster, and author. Former managing editor of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, his previous shows on PBS included NOW with Bill Moyers and Bill Moyers Journal. Over the past three and a half decades he has become an icon of American journalism and is the author of many books, including “Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues,” “Moyers on Democracy,” and “Healing and the Mind.” He was one of the organizers of the Peace Corps, a special assistant for Lyndon B. Johnson, a publisher of Newsday, senior correspondent for CBS News, and a producer of many groundbreaking series on public television. He is the winner of more than 30 Emmys, nine Peabodys, three George Polk awards.
Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, “How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America” (2020). She is the writer responsible for the highly-popular “Letters from an American” column.
Interview is included in Vox Populi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.