In September 2019, Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote a short essay on her Facebook page after news broke that Donald Trump’s acting director of National Intelligence had withheld an urgent whistleblower complaint. It was the first domino to fall in what would later become a full-fledged impeachment probe into the former president’s now infamous call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The country was entering unprecedented political territory. And Cox Richardson’s observations left readers hungry for more.
What grew out of her pithy essay was “Letters From an American,” Cox Richardson’s daily newsletter on politics and US history that made her one of the most widely read commentary writers in the country. Now boasting over a million subscribers on Substack, Cox Richardson was named one of USA Today’s Women of the Year, and last year, was even invited to interview President Joe Biden in the White House.
But while her public persona has changed, Cox Richardson’s intellectual goals have not. She aims to historicize America’s political absurdities with a fundamental question: Whether, as she wrote recently, “the rule of law on which the United States of America was founded will survive.” This question lies at the heart of her latest tome, Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America, which bookends the Trump years with two sweeping, methodical accounts of US history: While one traces attempts to undermine democracy, the other chronicles attempts to protect and expand it. “Once again, we are at a time of testing,” she writes. “How it comes out rests, as it always has, in our own hands.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Vanity Fair: The middle third of your book offers a blow-by-blow account of the Trump years. Reading it, I realized how many specific episodes or scandals I’d already forgotten. Are there any events or moments from Trump’s time in office that you wish were more widely remembered than they are?
Heather Cox Richardson: The piece that I think shocked me most was how quickly in 2020, after the pandemic really began to sink its claws into society, Trump assumed the language of a strong man, of a dictatorship, and how quickly that escalated until the day he walked across Lafayette Square with the Bible in his hand. If you remember those few days, things were coming at us really quickly. There was that picture of the law enforcement officers at the Lincoln Memorial with their badges covered, and it took us a while to figure out who they even were. All that happened really, really quickly.
What really jumped out to me was how crucially important it was that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley came out afterward and said it was a real mistake for him to be there at Lafayette Square, and that the military does not stand with a person; it stands with the Constitution. And then there was a whole cascade of military leaders reaffirming that. That was incredibly important. It’s important that we know how close we came. It’s important that we know that the military—all the branches of it, really—stepped forward and said they were not going to be part of this.
What’s so important about that moment?
People now tend to forget that after that moment, a number of figures in right-wing media—certainly people like Tucker Carlson—really started going after Mark Milley and trying to destroy him. I think that echoes in the present when you look at Alabama senator Tommy Tuberville’s refusal to allow military promotions. The unwillingness of the military to back Trump is very much in the minds of those who would like to overturn our democracy even today.
In a similar vein, the last few years have seen many attempts to mine American and even world history for moments that can help us understand both Trump’s presidency and the small-D democratic resistance to it. Are there any historical moments you returned to for the book that you feel are underappreciated as guides to the present?
The answer is an emphatic yes, and that is the creation and the tactics of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). What really jumped out at me in this book is no matter where I was digging after 1909, which is when the NAACP officially organizes, I found the NAACP.
What was fascinating about the NAACP is that they were multifaith, multiracial, and multipolitical, if you will, from the very beginning. And while they certainly challenged segregation through the law, they also recognized very early on that in order to change the law, you had to change public opinion. It’s no accident that W.E.B. Du Bois, who can do anything he wants with the NAACP—what does he decide to do? He decides to run The Crisis, which is the NAACP magazine. They insisted on educating ordinary people, making clear what was really happening.
At the end of the day, as somebody who thinks that ideas change society, I think bringing to light and making people who are otherwise unaware—either by design or by apathy—of what is truly happening in the world is the key to changing things.
One of the moments the book returns to at numerous points is the rise of New Deal liberalism and the right-wing backlash to it. Why is this moment so important for understanding the birth of modern conservative politics as we know it?
The New Deal comes out of the period of first the Great Crash and then the Great Depression in the late 1920s and early 1930s. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt quite deliberately harks back to an older strand of American ideology: the idea that the government really should work for ordinary Americans, rather than working to protect property and to amass wealth at the very top of society.
What really upset a lot of businessmen is not the taxes that came with the New Deal so much as it was the business regulation. And by the end of World War II, the Democrats have also flirted to some degree with ending segregation, but they really couldn’t go too deeply into it because their southern wing was old, racist, unreconstructed Confederates. Truman starts to push the desegregation of the military, but it really takes off under Eisenhower, who’s a Republican and who embraces the idea of equality before the law.
And that really pisses the right off.
The idea of adding civil rights to the actions of the federal government gives a wedge to those businesspeople who hate the business regulations to get a popular group behind them to start to challenge that liberal consensus. From that, we get this growing rhetoric that says that a federal government that does all those things is socialism. When that rhetoric elects Ronald Reagan president in 1980, and he begins to put his tax cuts into effect and his deregulation into effect in 1981, what we see is exactly what we saw in the 1920s: Wealth moves upward dramatically, and the middle class absolutely hollows out.
Rolling back government by using racism is where we still are. You have people in the Republican Party now calling to end Medicare and Medicaid and to make cuts to Social Security, which are the gold standard of the New Deal. While you and I are talking, the House extremists are trying to shut down the government.
Has writing this book made you think differently about how the American public, in a time of protracted political crisis, should relate to American history?
This book was really written for all the people who talk to me all the time about the relationship between politics and history and humanity. In part, what I have learned is just the importance of the storytelling that historians do, because it gives you an understanding not only of the circumstances in which we find ourselves now, but also an understanding of how people in the past have handled similar historical moments.
There are two things that really jump out to me in this book. The first is the degree to which American democracy has always depended on marginalized Americans insisting on front-loading the ideas of the Declaration of Independence: that we should all be treated equally before the law, and that we should all have a right to a say in our government. That really centers the immigrant experience, the female experience, the Black experience, the indigenous experience in our country.
And the second?
The other thing that I think is long overdue is actually at the heart of why I am most concerned about the curricula that places like Florida and Texas and Oklahoma are pushing. What that story of American history does is it strips out agency. It strips out people’s sense that they can change history. I think we are in a moment in which Americans who have previously felt powerless are recognizing that they in fact do have power and that they can change the future. And that is the kind of concept of what our government is about that in the past has led to dramatic expansions of our understanding of democracy.