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26 February 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 6:45am

Jamie Raskin: Donald Trump’s US almost became a “failed state”

The lead house impeachment manager on the psychological toll of the Capitol attack and cynicism as a right wing strategy.

By Emily Tamkin

“Senators, this cannot be our future,” Representative Jamie Raskin, a congressman from Maryland, said on 9 February, the opening day of Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial. “This cannot be the future of America. We cannot have presidents inciting and mobilising mob violence against our government and our institutions because they refuse to accept the will of the people under the constitution of the United States.”

Raskin, a former constitutional law professor, was the lead impeachment manager, heading up the team that made the case for conviction to the Senate, which would decide whether to convict Trump.

Raskin played a series of videos from the day of the attack — including footage of members of the mob that stormed the Capitol saying that they were there for Trump — and argued that inciting an insurrection was as clear an impeachable offence as any. And then, after the other impeachment managers spoke, he closed with a personal story.

Raskin had very recently lost his son, Tommy. Tommy Raskin was, by all accounts, a remarkable young man — a Harvard Law School student and teaching assistant who donated half his salary to charities on behalf of his students. Tommy also had depression, and, on 31 December, he took his own life. Raskin, speaking before the Senate, recounted that his son’s funeral was 5 January, the day before Congress met to certify electoral votes. He brought his daughter and son-in-law with him to Congress that day because they wanted to be together as a family, and he assured them that it would be safe. He worried, as the mob stormed the building, that he would lose them too. Afterwards, he promised his daughter it would be different the next time she came back to the Capitol, to which she replied that she never wanted to return.

I wondered, watching that, how, in under two months, a person could lose one child, fear that they were going to lose another, and find it in himself to describe both before the US Senate and the country.

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“I suppose I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to figure out the answer to your question,” Raskin told me over the phone earlier this month. 

The attack on Congress, he said, was intensely personal. It was not just a physical assault, but an emotional and psychological one as well.

“I felt my son, Tommy, was in my heart and in my chest the entire time. I was driven to stand up for our country.”

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Over the past four years, Donald Trump set a particular example for how to conduct politics in America, and, by extension, of what America is and could be. He lied repeatedly. He privileged his own reelection campaign over dealing responsibly with a deadly pandemic. He threatened and insulted and was known for demanding loyalty to himself, not the country.

Raskin puts forth a different kind of example: one of respect, above all, for the rule of law. He sits on the Judiciary committee, where he’s a member of the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee; the Committee of Oversight and Reform, where he chairs the subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties; and the Rules committee. He couches the changes he wants to see in the country in the language of equity and justice. When I asked, for example, what Congress should work on now, he said first that America needs to get back to telling citizens the truth (“the assault by government actors on the truth is an extremely dangerous thing for democracy”) and lift the country out of the pandemic.

He also said the US needs to build its resilience  to climate change. “While [Trump] was making money for himself and his family […] the nation became increasingly vulnerable to climate change and the various natural calamities that have accompanied it.”

On Wednesday 24 February, the Atlantic writer David Graham posted a screenshot to Twitter of a fundraising advert for Josh Hawley — the Missouri senator who was the first to announce that he would object to the election results and who was photographed fist-pumping the mob that went on to storm the Capitol — that depicts Raskin’s face. The accompanying text says that “they” think they have “him” beaten (presumably implying Raskin and the Democrats against Trump), and that “they” will come after Hawley and his supporters.

Raskin is not going after Hawley or Hawley’s supporters — but that Hawley chose Raskin to illustrate his point is telling. In a way, Raskin has become a symbol of the push to hold Trump to account.  

The twist is that while Raskin did stand up for the country, too few senators joined him in the process. He presented the facts. He made the case that Trump had incited an insurrection as clearly as that case could be made. The result was the most bipartisan impeachment vote in history — but, as only seven Republican senators joined their Democratic counterparts, it was not enough to reach the two-thirds majority needed. Donald Trump was acquitted.

Raskin believes a victory was still won. “A vote of 57-43 is very powerful,” he said. “He has been totally convicted in the court of public opinion.”

“We showed the emperor has no clothes.”

Still, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll taken in the days after the second impeachment trial, 53 percent of Republican voters said they would support Trump in the 2024 presidential primary. Eighty-one percent of Republicans polled said they view the former president favourably. It is easy to convince oneself that no set of facts, no argument, no trial, no truth, no attempt at accountability matters. 

But Raskin rejects that. “Cynicism is a political strategy,” he told me. “All over the world, cynicism about government is a right-wing strategy.” 

“Why be cynical?” he asked. “Why be a nihilist? You’re demoralising your own government and your own people.”

Trump, Raskin said, brought us to the edge of being “a failed state” — one that failed to provide for its own people. He hopes that the trial was a part of the process of turning things around, the most important part of which is the telling and preservation of the truth. 

Personally, I don’t know if I believe that America can come back, and that cynicism won’t win out. But I did believe, listening to him, that Jamie Raskin is determined to beat it.

[See also: What the Texas storm reveals about climate politics in the US]