Moyers on Democracy

PODCAST: Democracy on the Edge

Bill Moyers talks with noted lawyer Steven Harper and distinguished historian Heather Cox Richardson about threats to democracy.

PODCAST: Democracy on the Edge

ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Moyers on Democracy. The Supreme Court needed only one sentence this week to reject Republican efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania. It was a resounding rebuke of President Trump’s scheme to steal the election and stay in power. Trump’s now lost or withdrawn some 50 lawsuits, yet still refuses to concede, instead hurling a daily tirade of lies and misinformation as raw meat to his most rabid fans, prompting them to turn on democracy, by any means. To discuss all this, Bill Moyers is joined by the noted lawyer Steven Harper and the distinguished historian Heather Cox Richardson. She teaches American history at Boston College and has written several acclaimed books about the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and the Republican Party, including her most recent HOW THE SOUTH WON HE CIVIL WAR: OLIGARCHY, DEMOCRACY, AND THE CONTINUING FIGHT FOR THE SOUL OF AMERICA. She writes the popular must-read daily digest of events LETTERS FROM AN AMERICAN that has earned a large following. Steven Harper retired after thirty years as a litigator at Kirkland and Ellis LLP and now teaches at Northwestern University Law School. He created and curated the Pandemic Timeline, and with his daughter Emma S. Harper, the Trump-Russia Timeline, both available on—and both valuable resources for keeping up with the crises of the Trump Administration. Steven Harper wrote THE LAWYER BUBBLE: A PROFESSION IN CRISIS as well as the novel and legal thriller THE PARTNERSHIP, among other works. Here to talk with them is Bill Moyers.


I’m so grateful to both of you. I sent out an SOS because, frankly, I need help in sorting out this atmospheric craziness that is going on. The Arizona Republican Party posted several inflammatory tweets early Tuesday morning amid President Donald Trump’s corrupt efforts to subvert the 2020 election results. The party’s official, official Twitter account retweeted a report from a pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” organizer declaring, quote, “I’m willing to give my life for this fight.”  He is, the GOP account responded: Are you? Asking all of the people who read this official site about an hour later, the party posted a clip from the action movie RAMBO in which the titular character threatens to shoot another character in the face with an arrow. The state’s GOP account quoted Rambo’s line in the clip, quote, ‘This is what we do, who we are. Live for nothing, or die for something.” In other words, are you people willing to risk your life to change these election results? Something is going on collectively in the psychology of apparently millions of people in this country. What is it? What’s happening to us?

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Millions of people are not necessarily reading the Arizona GOP Twitter feed. And there is a lot of posturing going on I think in this particular moment. So, I think that the fears that I see of people thinking that we are in fact on the verge of a civil war are probably overblown. That being said, I do think we have a real problem in this country and have had one at least since the overturning of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. And possibly from before that, with the rise of Ronald Reagan, and maybe even before that with the concept of William F. Buckley Jr., for example, that rather than making arguments based in fact, what we really need to do is indoctrinate people to believe a certain narrative about the way America works. And what we really have now is a whole bunch of people who no longer are in a relationship with reality, if you will. And they really do want to have their lives mean something. They want to care about something. They want to be important. And they are laying their ideology on the line in this moment to say that they’re going to fight for what they believe is America. Now, that being said, we’ve been here before. We were here in the 1850s, and after 1860, when, in fact, our leaders did manage to bring those people into a civil war, they discovered pretty quickly that what they were fighting for was not some version of America in which ordinary Americans would go ahead and be able to have a future. What they were fighting for was the very wealthy, who essentially walked away from that war and left that entire Southern region devastated. And that’s the thing I always worry about, is so many of these keyboard warriors are really brave until the rubber meets the road. And then they discover that they’re actually burning down their own homes. It’s all fun and games until the actual shooting starts, as people like Kyle Rittenhouse found out.

BILL MOYERS: He’s the young man who took his rifle and killed two other protesters out in—

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: It was in Wisconsin.

BILL MOYERS: Whatever their motive, nonetheless, they’re willingly and publicly, these who speak out, are willing to ignore the law, break the law. Doesn’t that threaten everything you’re about, Steve Harper?

STEVEN HARPER: Absolutely. And to your larger question, which is what’s happening, well, it could be that the philosopher/historian Hannah Arendt captured the essence of what’s happening now. Hannah Arendt would say when you’re bombarded with lies, repeatedly, the purpose of the lie is not really to get you to believe the lie. It’s to persuade you to doubt everything. And with such a people, you can do as you please. And so what we’ve seen, when shortly after Trump was inaugurated, something that I, frankly, thought would be a name and shame kind of approach to Trump. Which is to say to the people who were supporting him, don’t call them Republicans anymore. Make them walk hand-in-hand and join them at the hip. Call it the Trump Party. Call them Trump people. That’s now become a badge of honor. He’s completed his hostile takeover. There is no real Republican Party anymore, it’s the Trump Party. The impeachment proceedings and the Senate so-called trial made that abundantly clear. And what I worry about is that I think it understates it. I think that pundits have understated it, and really underestimated Trump for a long time by referring to the things he does as “breaking norms.” As if a norm is not a big deal. But one of the norms that this country has stood for, and what makes the country what it is, is respect for the rule of law. And if you shatter the rule of law, which is what’s been happening again and again and again under Trump, what’s left? If you eliminate truth, if you eliminate facts, if you let people believe whatever they want to believe, if they confine themselves to the comfortable bubbles of people telling them what they want to hear, I don’t think democracy survives that.

BILL MOYERS: We have over 15 million cases of the virus in the country. And 284,911 deaths the last time I looked early this morning, with more than 2,000 people dying every day. When Donald Trump’s not on the golf course, he’s spending all of his time trying to reverse the outcome of the election he’s lost. He’s sowing rancor and confusion, and he’s inciting violence against election officials honestly doing their duty. What manner of man is this? What manner of man is he?

STEVEN HARPER: Well, I would say we have an alien in the White House. He is a man who is by all accounts completely without empathy. I think that the three words that best capture what he’s about right now are survival, because the minute he leaves office he’s open to criminal prosecution on several different fronts. Second, revenge. He is a vindictive, Roy Cohn protégé. Cohn used to say, if you’re hit, hit back ten times as hard. And I would say the third word is resurrection. He’s certainly posturing or acting in a way that leads you to believe that he’s, at some level, recognizes that his days in the White House are numbered. And all of those things are coming together to produce behavior that’s extraordinarily dangerous. Because at the end of the day, he cares about nothing but himself. And the truth is, if he were just an ordinary person, Heather, you, or me, Bill, walking the streets, he’d be under indictment. He’d be facing trial in several different courts. He’d be worried about the complete loss of his fortune, whatever funds he had in the civil suits that are facing him. And he’d be seriously considering what it would be like to be spending the rest of his days in an orange jumpsuit. And that’s a very real problem.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I think that this is a really interesting moment in the country. Because I do think that women and people of color perceive this moment very differently than white men do. Because we have all worked with a Donald Trump. Not literally with Donald Trump, but he is a domineering abuser, essentially, who is used to dominating people. And his real mistake was taking that to a national scale, where there were going to be people who were examining what he was doing to the women that he was sexually assaulting, or to his underlings, or to the law. He was really abusing and putting his own dominance over the system– the idea of destabilizing a population. The word for that in abuse is “gaslighting,” which you’ve seen around ever since Trump was elected. So, you look at this moment when you are essentially seeing an abuser being told no. And as everybody who studies that will tell you, this is when they really get dangerous, because he’s trying to reassert control over the people he no longer controls. But I am less interested in what he is doing right now, even though he’s trying to get people on his side, the same way a schoolyard bully does. I am far more interested in what everybody else is doing. Because this is the moment where he either manages to pull out a win by convincing the Arizona GOP or any of the many people standing in front of the Michigan Secretary of State’s home, for example, threatening her, this is the moment where he either says to them, “Take to the streets and raise me up over your head,” or he really loses. When that happens, the coming together of people who have thrown off that gaslighting is enormously powerful. From everything I can see, and I’m watching it really closely, for all that they are really dramatically stirring the pot on One America News, and certainly trying to do some stuff on the Fox News channel, and absolutely doing it through Facebook, I’m not seeing huge numbers of people in the streets. And they’re losing in court again and again and again. Now, it’s going to be messy as can be until inauguration, but I have a hard time seeing this win. And when I think about what it’s going to look like going forward, I certainly see him trying to complain to the world that he’s been badly treated. We’re in a very unsettled period, for sure. But I do not see it as the end of American democracy so much as an extraordinary chance for its rebirth.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I think you’re certainly right in many of those points. But in the meantime, there are fearful people in the country. And I want to see what your fears might be, despite what’s happening out there that’s positive. I mean, one prominent liberal economist and writer wrote this week that it’s evident to him, Trump is, as the English say, barking mad. And with only 44 days to go before Biden’s inauguration, he could only get crazier… He could egg on Netanyahu, who is almost as desperate as Trump, to launch the kind of attack or assassination that would produce a counterattack on Israel and draw in the U.S. Or he could opt for one last provocation of China that could lead to a shooting war. Or he might decide to show that little twerp Kim in Korea by taking out his missiles, and that could lead to an attack on South Korea.  Do you fear anything like that, either of you?

STEVEN HARPER: I don’t know what to expect, because I don’t think even Trump knows what he’ll do next. When Barr came out last week and said he hasn’t seen any evidence of the systematic fraud of the type that Trump has been complaining about since the election. And shortly after that a reporter asked Trump if he still had confidence in Barr. Nobody really picked up on this very much, but I thought it was pretty ominous. Trump hesitated, and he looked sort of glassy-eyed. But in a very sort of direct, focused way, looked away and said, “Ask me that question in a few weeks and I’ll give you the answer.”  So, he’s got four or five weeks to go. What is it? Within days we hear Barr saying that he may step down and not complete his tenure before the inauguration. And that just raised a whole host of questions in my mind, one of which was, so what was it that Trump wanted Barr to do that even Barr, the ultimate wing man, isn’t willing to do for him? That was one question. Maybe nothing. Maybe I’m being paranoid. What is it that Trump has in mind that he maybe isn’t telling people about? But it was a very odd response. Ask me again in a few weeks and I’ll give you my answer, about what he thinks about his attorney general. There are a number of different kinds of ominous turns that you could take ranging from the foreign policy kinds of questions and issues that you raise, and I honestly think he’s looking for anything that might help him survive, and anything that that might be. I guess I don’t know what to fear, because I don’t know what he might think come up with.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: And that’s exactly the plan. You know, the whole point is the amount of energy we’re expending trying to figure out what on Earth he’s doing. I was very concerned about the changes in the Department of Defense, the replacement of civilian officials with Trump lackeys. What that meant was not entirely clear. Was it an attempt to hide intelligence? Was it an attempt to clear the way for some sort of a strike on Iran. Or, the one that I think you can never lose sight of with this administration is the money. We’re looking at a $23 billion sale of military equipment, including our F-35s, which are state-of-the-art technology that many countries would like to get their hands on, to the United Arab Emirates, with their relationship with China and Russia and the fact that bipartisan members in Congress are saying “You just can’t do this,” I wonder about that sale. But even more than that, one of the things that seems to me to be continually slipping under the radar screen is the attempt on the part of the Trump administration to get the Department of Defense to lease its 5G spectrum to Rivada, to a private company. And that’s a deal that’s worth $50 billion.

BILL MOYERS: $50 billion, yeah.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Yeah, $50 billion. So, when I think about all this, I think yes, that in fact the certain members of the Trump administration are desperate to avoid the law. But I’m also always assuming that there’s a really big moneymaker here somewhere, and that one of the things he’s trying to do is to make sure he leaves office in such a way that he’s set up for life. So, you’re always guessing, and that’s another aspect of dealing with somebody who is barking mad in the presidency.

BILL MOYERS: What is the effect on the rule of law as Trump and Giuliani and his legal team, go around the country spreading distrust of the law, and a warping of the law. I mean, what happened yesterday, 1,500 attorneys across the country wrote an open letter condemning Trump’s lawyers of violating their code of conduct by lying and filing baseless legal actions. They called on the American Bar Association to hold them accountable for breaking the code, which says that a license to practice law is not a license to lie to the public on behalf of a client. What is all of this doing to the rule of law?

STEVEN HARPER: It’s undermining it. It’s just flat out undermining it. And there’ll be thousands of lawyers, because it’s an open invitation of practicing lawyers to add to the list of lawyers that are condemning what Trump’s legal team has done. One problem is that bar associations are notoriously weak when it comes to disciplining their lawyers. And even this kind of conduct in that sense isn’t going to do much about it. Judges can and should start sanctioning these lawyers and their clients. Judges have the power to do that. And that would begin to restore some confidence that people might have in the legal system. What’s happening is disgraceful. And the effect that it has on ordinary people I think, who already have some cynicism about lawyers, everyone I think takes for granted that there are at least two different systems of justice in America, one for the rich and well-connected. That’s why Michael Flynn got his case dismissed today after the judge ruled that he had to accept the pardon that Trump had given him. That just came out. That’s why Roger Stone is walking the streets today a free man. And then the rest of the justice system is sort of for everyone else, the people who don’t have the resources, the people who don’t have the connections, the people who actually get busted for relatively minor offenses when you have the rich and the powerful essentially doing whatever they want to do. It undermines any incentive for anyone to think that any of it matters. Why should I follow the rule of law? When you have a society that loses respect for the rule of law, you lose civilization. There is an enormous price that gets paid. And I don’t know how you get it back other than in the ways that Biden is trying, I think very appropriately to do, which is to say, look, let’s just all calm down. Let’s just all take a deep breath. And at some point, maybe he’ll be able to invoke what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said when she was asked how history would view the Trump administration and her response was two words, “An aberration.” That’s the best we can hope for, I think, at this point. But the damage that’s being done in the interim to the rule of law, to the social fabric of the country. What’s happening is extraordinarily destructive.

The truth is, if he were just an ordinary person, Heather, you, or me, Bill, walking the streets, he’d be under indictment.

— Steven Harper

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I’d like to add to that and go back to the concept of the rule of law, because one of the things that you’re focusing on there is the fact that it’s pretty clear in America right now that wealthy people and white people tend to have a different kind of law than people of color and poor people. But there’s a different way in which the rule of law has been eroded really since the 1980s. And that is with the idea that spread along the right that somehow people of color were getting some kind of a good deal from the liberals, if you will, who were in charge of the courts.  The idea that somehow Black people were not doing the kind of time that they ought to for rioting, for all the things that were showing up on television. And the reason I mention that is because, once again, we have been here before. That was one of the things that really pushed the concept of the Republican Party cementing its power in the 1870s, the 1880s, and the 1890s, was the idea that somehow, especially in cities or in the fields of the South, that immigrants and people of color were managing to corruptly elect judges and police chiefs and the mayors of cities so that they were able to get off when they were up for crimes in front of those, if you will, packed municipal courts. And one of the things that we get from that is lynching in the late 19th century. Now, I’m going to be the one who goes dark, and that’s– we tend to associate lynching now with African Americans in the South, but of course, lynching was a national phenomenon. And one of the biggest lynching riots was in Cincinnati. And I think it was 1884. And the argument behind that destruction of the courtroom and the taking of people out of the city jails and lynching them was that they were not going to get the kind of sentence that they ought to get for murdering their employer. That idea that somehow that because the system is corrupt that the people as a posse, as it’s called in the West, need to take into control the system of law. And that in the late 19th century dramatically led to lynchings across the country. And one of the ways that we fought back against that finally was under Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland as well, but especially Theodore Roosevelt, who backed off and said, we’re going to have one kind of law for everybody, and that means that I’m really going to hold to the fire rich people as well as poor people, and I’m going to give everyone a square deal, as he called it. And that was what really helped people to feel, once again, that they could trust their government not to be letting what they considered rabble off, and not to be letting the rich people off as well. So, I think there is room to recover from a moment like this. But I’m always sort of clutching when we talk about the rule of law, and the loss of the rule of law. Because when we lose it, you see this everywhere, people saying, well, we should get these people for treason. We should go ahead and take them out and shoot them. We should do this, we should do that. And I always sit there and think, “Well, you know, you like that theory when you’re the one in charge, but what about when your enemy is in charge?” And we’ve been here before and it was not a pretty time in our history. I kind of feel like people should be aware that the concept of a rule of law, which is of course what Lincoln stood on, is fundamental to our own safety, not just the safety of the people who might be getting off easier than we think they ought to when they’re actually in front of a judge and jury.

BILL MOYERS: So, can either of you explain to me why a federal official openly seeking to conspire with another federal official to overthrow a democratically elected government isn’t a crime? Isn’t there a law against trying to interfere to change the results of an election? Shouldn’t Trump be held accountable, and the Republican officials he’s pressuring, accountable for that?

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Yeah, Steve, come on. What’s going on?

BILL MOYERS: Judge Harper?

STEVEN HARPER: Well, at its simplest, you could say that it’s the ultimate election interference case, right? If the right to vote means anything, it means the right to have your vote counted all the way till the end, until such time as your candidate either wins or loses.

BILL MOYERS: And don’t you think everybody knows that our system depends on all of us accepting the legitimacy of democratic outcomes, including those outcomes that don’t go our way.

STEVEN HARPER: Absolutely. The Secretary of State in Georgia Brad Raffensperger, who has gotten so much heat from Trump on this stuff, penned an op-ed in USA Today. He said essentially, look, number one, he’s a Republican. Number two, he and his wife have been receiving death threats. Number three, he voted for, donated to, and supported Trump. But at the end of the day, his guy lost. And what we should be celebrating in Georgia, he said, is the fact that we held a relatively smooth, clean election. That Republican has become a dying breed, you know? I heard just before I logged on that the attorney general in the state of Texas, Paxton, has now filed a lawsuit asking the Supreme Court as a matter of its original jurisdiction suing several other states, including Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Michigan, saying essentially, those states violated my state’s rights, because my state voted for Trump and those states had crummy election processes. And so, as a result, their states are declaring Biden the winner. It’s an absurd lawsuit. It’s a public relations ploy and nothing more. And by the way, Paxton himself is under investigation by the FBI for various alleged wrongdoing by him and his office relating to the handling of donors. But it’s emblematic of the problem, which is that, it’s the rhetorical principles of primacy, recency, and repetition. You keep just putting this stuff out there over and over and over again, and somebody’s going to believe it. And the more often you do it, the more people believe it. And in a sense, it doesn’t even matter whether it’s illegal or not, because if you’ve got enough millions of people believing that whatever it is that somebody is doing is okay or defensible, you’re kind of circling back to the rule of law point. Unless you have prosecutors who are willing to stand up and say, “You know what? Here’s what we need to do. We need to show people what’s wrong about this” and start really penalizing the behavior.

BILL MOYERS: It seems to me that while Donald Trump is not the first, he has led the way for a new age of lawbreaking, in which for political reasons, people are more and more inclined to break the law if it gives them dominant political advantage. Here we are with Donald Trump’s power depending on keeping a minority faction ignorant of the truth and stirring maximum rancor and disorder.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: But I think there’s something important to pick up in this moment that Steve was just talking about. And that is something that ties to what you just said about the Republican Party right now can only stay in power if it basically disfranchises Democrats, if it disfranchises the majority of American voters. And it’s trying to do so, obviously, through voter suppression and through gerrymandering and through all sorts of different methods that they’re using. But that’s not new. That’s not Donald Trump. That first raised its ugly head in 1986 under Reagan, when the Republican Party recognized that it was in trouble in the mid-terms of that year and began to talk about voter integrity measures. That they quite literally put in a memo saying, this should cut down African American voting. And after the Democrats passed the motor voter law in 1993, which increased registration of voting in places like welfare offices and registries of motor vehicles, the Republicans literally said that the Democrats were manufacturing voters. And, of course, by the middle of the 1990s, they were saying that Democrats could only win if there was voter fraud. Now, of course, we know there’s really no such thing as voter fraud. It’s infinitesimal. But there is in than the kernel of an idea that a Democratic voter is an illegitimate voter. That even if the Democrats win elections, as they did in 2020, it doesn’t matter because those must be somehow un-American or illegitimate votes. And that, again, is a redefinition of what it means to be an American and who is welcome to be an American that does in fact echo the 1890s when we have a whole series of new state constitutions across the country, with the exception of Massachusetts, that basically puts real walls around who can vote to make sure, of course, that people of color can’t vote in the West and in the South, but also that makes sure that immigrants can’t vote in the North. The idea that even if they’re a citizen of America, even if they’re a hardworking member of America, no matter what qualifications they have to be an American, the very fact that they are likely to vote for leaders who are going to use tax dollars to create schools and roads and so on, thereby makes them illegitimate. And we’re looking at a moment very similar to that right now. And there’s two ways you can go. You know, in the 1890s, 1900s, this country basically disfranchised people of color and then later on gave the vote to women who were part of that idea of being wives and mothers. Or we can actually create a multicultural democracy in which we really do give vote to all Americans with the concept that the world works better when you essentially crowdsource it. Which I think is the wave of the future in a way that the 1900 wave of simply saying we’d better make sure we really reinforce white supremacy isn’t at this moment.

STEVEN HARPER: I hope Heather’s right. The thing that worries me as much as anything else is that what’s happening in the United States is not unique to the United States. This sort of wave of strong man authoritarian rule, disenfranchising voters, it seems to me at least to be a global phenomenon. And so, what I worry about is that while I’m certainly hopeful about the ultimate outcome here, and I certainly pray for it, it’s by no means assured. And I think it’s going to go through a lot of tough tests to get there. The striking thing to me, and it’s all connected, of course, is that somehow they manage never, the Republicans that is, never pay much of a political price for it. I daresay that but for the pandemic and the resulting impact on the economy, Trump would’ve been easily reelected. Notwithstanding children in cages at the borders, notwithstanding, I could list– we could both list for hours the heinous, heinous things that have happened during the Trump administration that make you wonder whether this is even America anymore in some very fundamental ways. It’s ironic that the pandemic, in a sense, killed his second term. And even then, had he not made every conceivable mistake that you could make in managing a pandemic as president of the United States, every wrong turn that you could make, he made. He would have pulled it off. They would have gotten away with it and the Republicans would be sailing to another four years with Mitch and probably recaptured the House. And that’s the part that’s, to me, is very curious.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: But doesn’t that come back to a free and fair election? I mean, the whole reason that—


HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: As I keep saying to people, you know, they have elections in Russia. You know, they have elections in these countries. And they had elections across the South between 1877 and 1964. And, you know, just astonishingly, the Democrats always won.


BILL MOYERS: You kept me awake half the night this week, Heather. Usually I get your column at some time in the wee hours. And this one said, listen, this is a big deal. The election wasn’t close. Biden currently has over seven million more votes than Trump. And he’s won the electoral college 306 to 232. And yet Republican leadership is permitting Trump to undermine our democracy. They’re standing aside, permitting him to poison the political process and isn’t what they’re doing dangerous and egregious behavior directed at the very heart of democracy?

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Oh, I think we are in probably the biggest crisis America’s ever had, in terms of that. We have in power a political party that does not believe in democracy. I don’t mean that lightly. I don’t believe they are ideologically committed to democracy. I think they are ideologically committed to oligarchy. And the idea of getting rid of poor voters, people of color, women, I think that that’s part of making sure that, in their minds, wealth can’t be redistributed. They consider having any kind of a government that provides a basic social safety net or regulates business or promotes infrastructure as being, in their minds, a step towards socialism. Because it redistributes, in their minds, tax dollars, rather than the current system we have, which redistributes wealth upward, the way it’s moved so dramatically since 1981. So, am I concerned about it? Absolutely. Believe me, I don’t write until 4:00 in the morning every night for fun, let me tell you. I like to go to bed at 10:00. I’m with Lincoln on this. You either believe in democracy and the concept of human self-determination, or you I guess believe in machination somehow. And I think that maybe that is another place where it’s easier to look at this moment as a woman or as a person of color because we are perhaps more accustomed to seeing a world that does have boundaries in a way that perhaps other people looking at this situation see it more as a make or break moment. Whereas somebody who has lived in an America that was not unfettered recognizes that there is still room to grow and change. When the Mueller Report came out and Bill Barr sort of kneecapped it before it came out, and it was clear it wasn’t going to be the magic bullet, and everybody was so upset, I had a fascinating conversation with a friend who said, “You know, maybe white people are going to have to learn that they don’t always get what they want when they want it.” And here’s a news flash, that’s kind of what America has always been like for the majority of us. And I thought that was really a wake-up moment for me, to sort of say, “You know, this is something we have to fight for, and it’s not going to be a short-term fight.” One of the things I hear again and again and again is people saying, if in fact what Trump is doing is illegal, the emoluments, the Hatch Act violations, now the messing around in state elections. Why isn’t anybody going ahead and handcuffing people, making them show up for subpoenas, doing all the things that would reinforce the rule of law? Literally why is somebody not saying to Trump, “You can’t call the Secretary of State of Georgia and threaten them.”

We have in power a political party that does not believe in democracy. I don’t mean that lightly. I don’t believe they are ideologically committed to democracy. I think they are ideologically committed to oligarchy.

— Heather Cox Richardson

STEVEN HARPER: Fear. They’re afraid of him. There are two possibilities, right? Or three, I guess. One is they don’t disagree with what he’s trying to do. Two is they’re afraid of him, they don’t want to be, you know, the victims of his bully tweet pulpit, I should say in terms of whatever their lives might be like, they don’t want to get the death threats like Brad Raffensperger in Georgia has gotten, or the treatment that the Secretary of State in Michigan has gotten with armed people standing outside her home as she’s trying to decorate her home with Christmas decorations with her four-year-old kid. Or the third possibility is that he’s got something on them. He’s got something on a lot of people, it certainly seems from their behavior. But I think it’s mostly that people are, at the end of the day fearful. And I hate to say it, weak. Frankly, you’re just now beginning to see a little bit of courage in what I would call the mainstream media in calling Trump out. But how often did you turn on the TV over the last three years and have them sort of dismiss it as, well, Trump, he’s just bending the norms again. Well, he’s not bending the norms, he’s breaking the law. And it’s just– they’re reluctant to call him out. He’s a bully. He yells at people. He screams at people who disagree with him. And as I said at the beginning, he’s from the Roy Cohn school, if somebody hits him, he hits back ten times harder if he can. And–

BILL MOYERS: But can fear explain, I mean, THE WASHINGTON POST has called every one of the members of Congress to ask, Republican members of Congress, House and Senate, to ask if they will take a stand on Biden’s election. 200 Republicans in the House and the Senate have refused to say this election was legitimate, and that Biden is going to be president. 80% of Republican voters are now saying the election was stolen. He’s got 44 days left in his administration. What are they afraid of?

STEVEN HARPER: Well, because a lot of those people are going to run for reelection, right? A lot of those Congressmen come from very pro-Trump districts and states. And, you know, to Heather’s point there’s not a consistently Republican or what we would call a classically Republican ideology anymore. That would be a kind of conservatism that Trump has never embraced, that he, you know, that a true Republican wouldn’t embrace interfering with the market by tweeting bad things about particular companies that he didn’t like. There are a whole range of things in which he’s, shall I say, broken the conservative norms. Because it’s not about Republicanism anymore, it’s about Trumpism. They call them Republicans because that’s the party with which they are identified. But it’s Trumpism. And at the end of the day, the reason 80% of the 200, the Republicans who refused to say that Biden had won is because Trump doesn’t want them to do that.

BILL MOYERS: He wouldn’t even let a platform be included in the Republican Convention in August. You talk about a norm, that’s been a norm for how many years? He said, “No platform.”


BILL MOYERS: In effect, he’s saying “I am the platform. I am the law.”

STEVEN HARPER: He set the tone back in his acceptance speech in 2016. Repeatedly he said, “I alone,” and then fill in the blank, “Can fix this.” Whatever problems he was imagining. And that’s the essence of Trumpism. It revolves around him. It revolves around a single strong man, not around an ideology. The ideology is whatever he wants it to be in the moment that he says it. And he’s not beyond reversing stream if it suits another moment.

BILL MOYERS: So, when 60 state legislators in Pennsylvania ask their congressional delegation not to recognize the state’s electoral college votes when they are brought before Congress in January, they’re afraid that Trump is going to come after them? Or back people who will come after them in a primary? Is that what they most fear?

STEVEN HARPER: I can’t imagine what else it would be. I mean, if you talk to– and, you know, Heather may have a better perspective on this than I do. But if you read what people who are at Trump rallies are saying about him, they’re very quick to side with him over another Republican. The trip to Georgia was sort of a classic example. There you have both of the candidates for the Georgia Senate seat unwilling to say that Biden won. And Trump goes to the state. Because at the end of the day, there are people who will turn out if Trump asks them to turn out. It’s a cult, really, in some respects, it’s cult-like behavior. And I think that– if Trump’s base is only 20% or 30% or even 40% in some conservative red district, then if you’re running for any kind of office. You don’t want to alienate that district, any of those people, that base.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I think there is also the recognition on the part of a number of Republicans that this is it. They have to retain power. Because if they don’t, the Democrats will in fact make it easier to vote, and the current day Republican Party is not going to be viable any longer. And I will point out that the current day Republican Party, and I say this as a scholar of the party, I know the party well. They’re not bringing their A game. I mean, this isn’t really even the B list. This is, like, the D list of people. And they’re people, again, to go back to Hannah Arendt, who recognized that the reason you get people so loyal to dictators is because they recognize that they could never make it in a free and fair field, because they’re just not that good. And that gives the loyalty to the person who’s at the top, because they know that that person has elevated them beyond where they really belong being. And so, I think there is partly that fear that if the Republicans can’t stay in power, that they’re going to be replaced by Democrats for a very long time. And you can hear them saying that. But I will also say that, going forward at the national level, it has struck me, and I hate to say this, but it’s struck me that Republican leadership especially is very eager to do all they can do to make sure that Biden fails. And the fact that he is managing to pull together the kind of team he seems to be able to and managing to get the kind of traction he seems to be able to in the face of such extraordinary recalcitrance. I mean, the refusal to recognize the transition to the point that the inaugural transition committee has refused to recognize that there’s going to be an inauguration. And that sort of pettiness, right through the upper levels where the Biden team has not been able to have access to the coronavirus information, and not been able to have access to the Pentagon Intelligence Committees, for example, just strikes me as being a deliberate attempt to guarantee he’s really far deep in the hole when he takes over, so that they have a better shot in 2022 when there’s a really bad map for Senate Republicans. And that sense that what matters is not the country, but what matters is a political party, brings me to the question of to what end? And you know, I don’t think the Republicans want power at this point because they’re hoping to do what’s good for the country. I think that the Trumpers, as you say, who are in power are eager to continue the kind of legislation that has so dramatically moved wealth upwards since the 1980s. I think at the end of the day, they’re trying to destroy our democracy and turn it into an oligarchy.

STEVEN HARPER: It’s worth mentioning, Heather, that the inaugural committee that you referred to, consists of the three most senior leaders of both parties. On the Senate side, Blunt, McConnell, and Klobuchar. And on the House side, it’s Pelosi, McCarthy, and Hoyer. And they are three/three, with the Republicans refusing to acknowledge that Joe Biden is president-elect. It’s just stunning.

BILL MOYERS: Meanwhile, there is millions of people suffering in this country. You know, many of them newly hungry. I’ve just picked this story off the wire this morning, “Millions of hungry Americans turn to food banks for the first time” as pandemic’s economic fallout stings. So, I asked you in the beginning what manner of man is this. Let me ask you to close by each of you answering this question. What manner of country is this?

STEVEN HARPER: Well, I think the answer to that is we’re going to find out. I think we know from the election what manner of country most people want America to be, or Joe Biden would not have won by the greatest percentage margin victory since Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole in 1996. So, I think most Americans know who we want to be. I think that same number of Americans, and maybe more given Trump’s behavior since the election are not willing to accept Trump’s America in the way that he had fashioned it. I can only hope that at some point the architects of what I would call the Trump vision of America– pay a real price. And I don’t mean flogging them or anything else. But I also don’t mean something as distant as the judgment of history. We need to do something that sends a clear and unambiguous message not just to other Americans and to the next generation, but to the world that says this guy was an aberration. We do value our alliances. We do value NATO. We do value our fellow human beings. We do think there’s worth in the least among us. And I guess we’re going to find out. And I think Heather’s exactly right when she said that the determination of the Republicans to prevent Biden from achieving anything, if they can, is absolute. And it’s going to make Mitch McConnell’s first term promise  saying that he wanted to do everything in his power to make Obama a one-term president, I think we’re going to view those as the good old days compared to I’m afraid with what lies ahead. That would be my conclusion.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: And I would say something similar. I hope that we are seeing the rebirth of American democracy and the concept of human self-determination in a multicultural world, which would enable America to do so many incredibly exciting things. And I worry, as I think we all here worry, about where we have been for the last four years, but where we were for a long time before that as well. But one of the things that Trump has done, and that Trump’s administration has done, is it has woken up an awful lot of Americans to the idea that democracy is not a spectator sport. And they’re getting involved in ways that they have never been involved before. And they are really starting to understand that what happens in their government matters to their lives. And they’re running for office, and they’re meeting, and they’re writing letters, and they’re voting, and they’re talking about what it means to be an American. And that, to me, looks like our greatest moments. You know, the 1850s when Lincoln went ahead and re-conceived of what an America could look like if you got rid of human enslavement, or the 1930s when Americans took a look at where we were under Herbert Hoover and said, “No.” You know, “We would like a new deal.” And what always interests me about American history is that people talk about history and they sort of say, “Oh, it’s history. Nothing ever changes.” And I always say,  “You should’ve told that to Herbert Hoover in 1928,” when he was elected and everybody thought that nobody but a Republican would ever win again. That there was this system baked in now to the American economy and the American government that put a certain group of people in charge of everybody else, and that was the way it was going to be from then on. And by 1932, he lost in a landslide because Americans had reexamined what they wanted, and decided they wanted something very different. And to me, this moment looks a lot like those moments, 1860 and 1932, when Americans said, “Let’s take a look at what it means to be an American,” and they came up with something new and something that enabled the country to move forward into a new era. And I really think, when you look at where we are, sure, this could be the end of American democracy and we might see the rise of oligarchy that looks a lot like a modernized version of fascism. But it could also look like a new future. And the work I see people doing on the ground makes me hopeful that that’s the direction we’re actually going.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I like to hear you talking that way. One last question, can a democracy, despite your optimism, can a democracy die of too many lies?

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Absolutely. If I had one change that I would make going forward, it would be to re-institute in some fashion the Fairness Doctrine. Remember, America is actually founded on the concept of the enlightenment, the idea that you can move society forward by making fact-based arguments. You strip away the concept of fact-based arguments, and you’re back to essentially, and I can hear medievalists rolling over when I say this, the Dark Ages, when people do things according to religion and superstition and tradition, and they get stuck for centuries, really unable to move forward.

STEVEN HARPER: I don’t have any doubt that a democracy can die from too many lies. The bigger challenge to me is how do we develop a mechanism, because we don’t have it yet, for calling them out when they happen in a way that resonates with people so they don’t sink in, they don’t land? Because, it’s sort of like the COVID virus, in a way. I mean, once you’ve got it, how do you get rid of it? You either recover from it or it kills you. And if you cannot persuade people to be willing to listen to what is the truth, then they’ll never be able to distinguish whether the lie was a lie, or simply somebody else’s version of alternative facts, if you will. And so, to me, that’s the bigger challenge. And I think that’s going to be a tough one. That’s going to be a tough one.

BILL MOYERS: Steven Harper and Heather Cox Richardson, I hope your combined vision of our future is the one that prevails. Thank you both for being with me.


STEVEN HARPER: Thanks Bill, always a pleasure to talk with you.

ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening to Moyers on Democracy. On our website, you can find Heather Cox Richardson’s daily newsletter and Steven Harper’s Trump-Russia and Pandemic Timelines. Until next time, you’ll find all this and more at