In early June 2019, I had an opportunity to speak with ADA National Board member and Member of Congress Jamie Raskin, D-MD. Jamie (as his constituents call him) was a colleague of mine at American University in Washington, DC, where he taught Constitutional Law and campaigned for democratic rights. Among other initiatives, he organized a high school program to teach students about their rights and worked with FairVote, a nonpartisan US organization that advocates for electoral reform, to develop a strategy to secure the popular election of the president.
Continuing in the tradition of his father, the late political philosopher and Institute for Policy Studies founder Marcus Raskin, Jamie is one of the most creative activists for democracy I have ever encountered. Doubtless, you have seen him arguing for the impeachment of President Trump in the House and against authoritarianism in the media.
In the following transcription of our chat, Jamie makes clear how he regards past “civilizing” movements as his inspiration.
Jamie Raskin: These are really my first memories in life. The Boston Five Trial [of activists urging resistance to Selective Service over the Vietnam War] took place in the John Moakley Federal District Courthouse in downtown Boston, and we went up there for the trial as a family. I have vivid memories of going there, of being in the courtroom. It was a terrifying thing. It’s made me instinctively sympathetic my entire life to the families of people being prosecuted for something. As a kid it was very confusing—I knew enough to know about cops and robbers and something being against the law but was confused about why they would be trying to take my dad away. Our parents did whatever they could to protect us. My mom was very protective of us, but of course the first thing you want to know is could your dad be going to jail. I had this sense early on of the power of the State, of the government.
I became really interested in law from an early age and [in] whether your government can take someone away from their homes and their family. My dad famously was the only one of the five [activists] who was acquitted. The others [later] had their convictions reversed. [My father] basically put the government on trial. [One of the lawyers was Telford Taylor of the Nuremberg Trials, who said there were war crimes in the Vietnam War.] When he was acquitted, my father was asked by the New York Times how he felt and he replied, “I suppose I could demand a retrial.”
I have been thinking about this recently. When the progressives get prosecuted for something as with the famous trials—the Boston Five or the Chicago Seven—the defendants all stick together. They don’t point fingers at each other and try to turn states’ evidence. They stand on principle and they mount a common defense. The lawyers work together. With the Trump people, they all turn on each other—they testify against each other, they point figures. There is no honor among thieves. They are in it for themselves. If any of them stand by Trump, it’s because they’re scared of him; he’s threatened them. He’s constantly threatening people if they tell the truth to the government.
My dad as always showed exemplary courage in that trial. He really did. He said they were not engaged in civil disobedience; if anything, they were engaged in civil obedience. They were upholding the law, the Constitution, the Nuremberg Accords; [rather,] it was the government that was lawless and out of control. That was always his vision of it. He was acting as a citizen, as a citizen should. My dad always believed that you [have] to stick to the law and make the law stick to justice.
When [General] Pinochet and the Chilean National Intelligence Service ordered the execution of Orlando Letelier (a diplomat under Chilean President Salvador Allende), my father’s assistant, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, was also killed and the FBI was dragging [its] feet. My father made sure that the Institute for Policy Studies was fully investigating the case and assembling evidence until the case was cracked and the government brought charges.
It’s always a struggle to make sure that the government is going to do the right thing…. [This is] where we are with Donald Trump today. Vice and injustice are their own undoing. The whole Trump thing is beginning to fall apart. The problem is that he is a guy who nobody is ever said no to his entire life. He knows no limits. He knows no boundaries. He tramples everything. Federal laws, the Constitution of United States, basic manners, values, rules, principles, norms: they’re all out the window.
DJ: Why are the Republicans being compliant?
JR: Generally, it’s just fear. The Republican Party has been turned into [a] quasi-religious cult. [Trump] exercises mass psychological control over everyone; the moment anyone says anything remotely critical, he goes after them and tries to destroy [their standing] in the party.
I hope and pray that we’re living through a moment when Congress and the people are recognizing the dangers of giving so much power to the presidency. We’re in an absolute moment of peril because of the way this president has arrogated to himself the right to turn the government into a money-making operation, [how] he’s arrogated to himself the right to conduct wars outside of Congressional involvement, [how] he thinks he can declare a national emergency and circumvent the will of Congress with respect to the power of the purse in spending on his stupid wall. Trump is the cartoonish culmination of a process of concentrating power in the presidency—he didn’t come out of the blue. I hope that we reestablish the proper relationships within the federal system and that people understand that Congress is [specified] in Article I for a reason. The powers of the people in “We the people”—the first [words in the first] sentence of the Constitution—flow immediately into Congress in Article I, where all the legislative power is invested. The president’s core job is to [ensure] that the laws are faithfully executed—that’s Article II. The president works for the Congress, and the Congress works for the people. That’s the proper relationship.
DJ: How would you define your fundamental values?
JR: I remember my dad talking about exemplary prophets, figures in the Bible. They were prophets not because they had the gift of precognition or clairvoyance. The way they lived prefigured a different way that people could relate to each other. I suppose I think of my dad kind of like an exemplary prophet. His life exemplified a way of living where you always hold yourself and everyone else to the highest possible values of justice, excellence, and equal rights.
We’re in a tough time but are going to make it through. We have so many great figures from the past to look up to. I’ve taken to quoting a lot of Frederick Douglass, who said there is no progress without struggle: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Thomas Paine wrote in “The American Crisis” in 1776, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
DJ: I’m always asking myself: Is there any reason to believe that next year will be better than this one?
JR: My dad said that he always thought things would get better because we have the “music” of prior generations—the “music” of the civilizing movements of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, the peace movement. That music has stayed alive. It has infused our culture. We try to hang on with the best from prior generations and get rid of all the ghosts and skeletons of authoritarianism, fascism, and anti-Semitism. This is clearly there to be recalled by those who are interested in going in that direction. So you know we are in the fight of our lives right now.