IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Reflecting on the unthinkable with Jamie Raskin: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with Rep. Jamie Raskin, D- Md. about navigating an unimaginable convergence of personal and public trauma.

Congressman Jamie Raskin’s life was forever changed on Dec. 31, 2020 when his 25-year-old son Tommy died by suicide. Raskin writes about the loss of his beloved middle child in “Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy,” a deeply personal memoir out January 2022. Nearly a week after losing his son, another tragedy occurred: the Jan. 6th insurrection at the Capitol. Shortly after, he writes, House Speaker Pelosi “threw [him] a lifeline” when she asked him to lead the second impeachment of former president Donald Trump. Raskin joins to discuss navigating the unimaginable convergence of personal and public trauma, finding the strength to lead following double blows and what’s ahead in the aftermath of modern democracy’s darkest day. Note: This episode contains mentions of suicide. Anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress can contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Jamie Raskin: The road to rebuilding for America is through honest reckoning with the traumas we've experienced and then building beyond that. And we can do it. We can rebuild. And we can have a renewal of our country.

Chris Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Why Is This Happening we me, your host, Chris Hayes. You have probably seen a lot of the January 6th one-year anniversary coverage in lots of places on our program All In With Chris Hayes which is weekends on MSNBC, across all kinds of media platforms.

There's an accelerating investigation of course from the select committee, a lot of meditations on the meaning of that day, which is as profoundly and proximate a threat to American democracy and the way that we conceive of it in the modern era as anything that I have experienced certainly in my lifetime. And I think that's true for most folks.

One of the sort of clearest voices on the dangers of what happened January 6th, and more broadly one of the voices in politics I find to best combine deep knowledge with human empathy and a historical sensibility is Congressman Jamie Raskin. He represents Maryland's 9th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He was the lead impeachment manager for the second impeachment of Donald Trump, the impeachment for leading and inciting the insurrection. He drafted the articles of impeachment along with others who were part of that effort.

He now sits on the select committee. I sort of knew of Jamie Raskin even before he was a member of Congress, when he was a state legislator. His wife, Sarah Bloom Raskin, worked at the Treasury Department. She was also on the Fed. The two of were both law professors before they sort of entered public life.

And Jamie Raskin's just a really fascinating guy. And, you know, I meet a lot of politicians. And you learn a lot from different politicians. And they really run the gamut in the sort of depth of their thoughtfulness, (LAUGH) the life experiences they've had, the politics.

Some are great talkers; some are not. But Congressman Raskin's someone who I've always looked at as a really remarkable public servant at least in the capacity that I've known him, and a really interesting guy. Congressman Raskin also shortly before January 6th suffered an unthinkable, unfathomable personal tragedy which was the death by suicide of his adult son, Tommy.

He's spoken very eloquently about Tommy's loss, the devastation of it. He was still in shock and mourning and grieving his son's death when he was at the Capitol with one of his daughters and his son-in-law January 6th wen the January 6th attack happened. And they all had to shelter.

Then Speaker Nancy Pelosi in an act, in which he says in his new book, sort of was a lifeline to him and recruited him to be the impeachment manager on the second impeachment at a moment in which he had been through two profound traumas, a personal trauma and a kind of collective national trauma that he also had experienced with his family, with his beloved daughter and son-in-law.

And he has a new memoir out about those twin traumas. It's called Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy. And it's my great pleasure to welcome Congressman Raskin to the program. I should also note before we get started that this episode contains mentions of suicide. And anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 24/7, at 1-800-273-8255. All Congressman.

Jamie Raskin: Hello, Chris.

Chris Hayes: So I want to start with your family because you come from an incredible line of fascinating people, (LAUGH) and your dad in particular. You have this kind of distinct heritage, a great sort of liberal family through the years that I think I would describe as being sort of like one foot in the establishment and one foot in the anti-establishment, (LAUGH) I think if that makes sense. So tell about your family, your grandfather and then your dad.

Jamie Raskin: You know, my dad used to tell a funny story about that. People would say things like, "Well, gee, I don't know if I could testify in Congress. Or I don't know if I could actually take a job in the government. I don't feel like I'm enough of an insider."

And my dad would tell this story. I don't know if it was true or not, but about Richard Nixon and Marilyn Monroe where they invite her to the White House. And she got there. And she said, "You know, just whoever dreamed that an actress, a girl from a small town could ever get to meet the vice president of the United States, Richard Nixon."

And he said, "Whoever dreamed that I could grow up like this skinny awkward kid in California and I could (LAUGH) end up meeting Marilyn Monroe." So everybody feels a little bit like an outsider in America. (LAUGH) But what democracy is is that all of the outsiders have to govern ourselves. And some people will take a job like Speaker Pelosi that's super important. But all of us have got to play our part.

Chris Hayes: But tell me what your dad did.

Jamie Raskin: So my dad actually was a piano prodigy growing up. And he was raised as a concert pianist. And he grew up in a town called Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, where a lot of Raskins were. My dad's father after whom I was named, Benjamin, was one of ten kids, I think, eight sons and two daughters.

So there's dozen of them. They are and they were very steeped in progressive politics, democratic politics in Wisconsin. But my dad got out as quickly as he could. And he went to New York. And he went to study music in high school there and to go to Juilliard.

And he was going to have a career in piano, and then decided that he really wanted to go law school to figure out how to use law as a way to end war. So you can imagine, he was not totally fascinated with contracts and torts and civil procedure. But he really wanted to study international law and constitutional law to figure out how we could use law to prevent war and genocide and human rights violations.

And he ended up moving to Washington to work for a group of members of Congress that he helped to organize into the Liberal Project which became the democratic study group. He collected a group of papers they called the Liberal Papers. And then he ended up going to work for President Kennedy under McGeorge Bundy on the National Security Council.

His first day of work was the Bay of Pigs. (LAUGH) And my wrote a memo, an unbidden memo on that day that we were able to find, or somebody found, at the Kennedy Library in which he addressed the president and said that the way to redeem this catastrophe and this loss of life in the Bay of Pigs would be to transfer Guantanamo Bay to the Cuban government and the Cuban people for the purposes of a hospital, for a health care facility. And American doctors and medical personnel could work with Cuban doctors and medical personnel down there for the good of the people in Cuba.

Chris Hayes: That's incredible. And then he goes on to start the IPS, right? There's this sort of, like, liberal think tank in Washington.

Jamie Raskin: Yeah. It was the first liberal think tank. In some ways I think it was really the first think tank in Washington. The idea was to set up a place for ideas and action and brainstorming on how to move America forward. I think the idea for it was born the same year I was, 1962, when my parents had me.

But I think they created it in 1963. He and his co-founder, Richard Barnet, were both kind of officials in the Kennedy administration who wanted to leave and to push for more progressive politics around civil rights and around peace and human rights and social justice.

So that was their aim. And my dad was an early critic in the administration of the Vietnam War. And I think that was what kind of solidified his resolve to leave the administration and was one of the early activists and thinkers in the anti-war movement.

And he was indicted in a case called the Boston Five trial, the Dr. Spock conspiracy case, with Dr. Benjamin Spock and William Sloane Coffin and two other people for allegedly conspiring to aid and abet draft evaders and draft evasion. And so that trial I describe in the book was a formative experience in my life.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. By the way, the book is fantastic. And I was just talking to my wife, Kate, who's a constitutional law professor about what a good writer you are, which I guess is not surprising. But it's a really beautiful book. And the reason I want to start with your dad is because one of the throughlines here, and we'll talk about your son Tommy in a second.

You know, this multi generations of people that are very kind of like communally directed and very focused on issue of global justice and war and peace and equality and (LAUGH) improving human welfare. And I guess, I would just ask to take a second, because I think there's a tremendous and profound and beautiful connection between your father and your son of how that gets moved through the lineage, you know, how that baton got passed down through those generations.

Jamie Raskin: Well, our branch of the Raskin family on the East Coast has stayed very close. And everybody lives closely together. So Tommy got to see my dad two or three times a week. And he went to intern at the Institute for Policy Studies. Tommy interned kind of all over the waterfront in terms of think tanks.

He was at the Institute for Policy Studies. He was at the Cato Institute because Tommy had very strong Libertarian impulses as well. He spent a year working at the Friends Committee on National Legislation after Amherst. But he and my father were just exceptionally close. And I feel like he was probably the closest continuer of my father's political philosophy and his spirit of anybody.

Chris Hayes: Will you tell me a little bit more about Tommy? When I first heard the news of his passing, it was, you know, devastating from afar, as someone who knows you, doesn't know you well, and someone who has three kids, a girl, boy, and a girl, the middle son which is a specific kind of role in a family, (LAUGH) and looking at the pictures of your family, what was he like?

Jamie Raskin: Well, I could write not just one but multiple books about him. So I always feel I don't do justice to him when I begin to describe him. But he was an overwhelmingly joyful and happy and ebullient boy and young man. And he had very strong political and moral passions.

But sometimes people identify that with a kind of humorlessness and ideological rigidity. And Tommy was anything but that. He was totally funny. He was madcap in his humor. And he was a poet. He was a playwright. He was a piano player. He loved playing jazz and blues on the piano.

And he was just a riot, I mean, in the old fashioned sense of the term. He was a personal who loved life. He did have very strong political beliefs and values. And he insisted on the absolute dignity and integrity of each person and the inviolability of people's rights.

And then he extended that to the animal kingdom. He believed in the rights and the welfare of all sentient beings. He used to pet our dogs, Potter and Toby, and say, "You know, Toby you're such a fine sentient being." (LAUGH) He totally opposed the slaughter and the eating of animals.

He said, "In the age of Beyond Sausage and Impossible Burgers, nobody needs it anymore." He didn't think there was anything immoral about people craving meat. I mean, Tommy said he probably ate, you know, more hamburgers and chicken nuggets in his day than anybody.

But when he was old enough to recognize his complicity with a really deeply sinister system, (LAUGH) then he disengaged from it. And he said, "I don't want to be part of it anymore." And he converted a lot of people, and again not through guilt tripping, but by showing people the facts of how the livestock industry works and the harmful environmental effects of agriculture.

You know, 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions are contributed by the way we've designed agriculture and the livestock industry. So, you know, he talked about all of those things. And he talked about the moral proposition. But he talked about it in a way that people learn from.

And he just had an utter charm about him. He had a perfect heart. And he was super smart. But that was the least of it. We, you know, continue to stay in close touch with his many, many friends from Blair High School and before and Amherst College and Harvard Law School. But he has thousands of people around the country who love him. And they write to us.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, I will just say obviously any parent speaking about a child who has died is going to talk about how special they are, as rightly they should. But as someone who knows enough people in the outer social circle of your son and has seen enough that he's a very, very truly remarkable human by the accounts of the hundreds of people (LAUGH) whose lives he touched.

And that was very apparent in the aftermath of his death. And I think that one of the things that's hardest, I saw it with people who were responding in real time to his death was, you know, someone will say at, like, a dinner party or gossipy, "You know, so-and-so, he's troubled," you know, about someone's son or daughter.

"They got kicked out of two different schools and then they got sent to a third. Or they're battling an addiction." To the outside world, Tommy never looked that way, and even I think to friends and family. And I think that's part of the totality of what you're dealing with in the aftermath of his loss.

Jamie Raskin: Well, he was suffering from depression from the end of college. But he kept it so much to himself. And he had such a sense of privacy about it. I mean, even his closest friends and his girlfriends really didn't know the full extent of the pain that he was in.

Of the many things I fault myself for, Chris, one of them is my own inability. I don't think Sarah had this problem, but my own inability really to talk about suicide. And I came to the conclusion that that was just a major failing on my part. I don't know that it would have made any difference.

But not talking about suicide to a person battling depression is like not talking about sex to a teenager. Like, you might think that you are reducing the prospects of something you don't want to happen by doing that. But it's quite the reverse.

You infuse it, you endow it with more power by not talking about it. And Tommy was someone like my dad who was adamant about the idea that there's no such thing as a bad word, that words can't be bad. And suicide's not a bad word. It's just a bad idea. We can help people in crisis.

So, you know, I've engaged in a lot of self cross-examination about these things. And I do fault myself for not being more forward and just pushing that question. Just like I fault myself for not using the word "fascism" to describe what we're facing in America today.

There were clearly fascistic impulses that were on view before January the 6th. But in a surplus of politeness, none of us ever wanted to mention it. You know, it's just forbidden. You can't say that. And then suddenly we're staring in the face of what's essentially a fascist movement, a violent insurrection that stormed the Capitol, that interrupted the peaceful transfer of power, and that came very close to surrounding what might have been a successful political coup.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, and the title of the book Unthinkable I think unites these two ideas, which I want to just take another second on, of just we extrapolate that the future will be like the past. And then as humans we encounter disruptions, tragedies that appear.

Sometimes they just appear out of nowhere. A car accident takes a loved one. Or sometimes they grow over time. And the same thing can happen in the national life or global life. A pandemic that suddenly life is disrupted in every way and more profoundly than it has been probably since the Second World War, and maybe even more.

And you write about this unthinkability idea. And I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about that, about a year later after these twin tragedies, the most brutal and profound in your personal life, and also this tragedy the nation has suffered, how it's changed the way you think about the normal course of life.

Jamie Raskin: Yeah, I mean, trauma is defined by the psychologists as a violent demolition of your basic expectations of what life will be like. And so we did endure this terrible family trauma. You know, I think that people across the political spectrum have generally embraced and internalized this idea of American exceptionalism, that somehow we're different from those countries that could face violent mobs knocking over the government and dictators and mass fascist movements and those kinds of things.

I don't think there's anything that makes us necessarily structurally immune to that. I don't believe that anymore. I think what's exceptional about America is the determination of the people to move forward through civilizing movements like the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Movement, the LGBTQ Movement, the Peace Movement, the Human Rights Movement, the Environmental Movement.

Those are the movements that have opened America up. Those are the movements that have tried to vindicate Lincoln's promise of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. But there's not any kind of magic potion in our water that makes us immune to a dictator.

Alexander Hamilton told us that in Federalist 1 where he warned of politicians who would go out and appeal like demagogues to negative emotions in the crowd only to become tyrants over the people in the end. And that captures a lot of what just took place last year.

Chris Hayes: We'll be back after this quick break.

Chris Hayes: You write in the book about the unbelievable morning, I think it was just several days after Tommy's death, January 6th. You are traumatized and in shock and in the deepest possible human grief. And also your expectation for that day is that it would go as normal. Take me a little bit through that day.

Jamie Raskin: Well, that's the thing. I mean, we'd been planning for months to combat any conceivable parliamentary maneuver to try to strip Joe Biden of his rightful majority of 306 in the Electoral College. So we were prepared to rebut GOP objections to Arizona, to Georgia, to Pennsylvania, to Wisconsin, to Michigan, and so on.

We were prepared for the possibility that Vice President Pence might buckle under to these outrageous appeals to him to declare unilateral powers to repudiate Electoral College votes coming in from the states. And we had prepared for all of that as best we could, that is what we do in the scenario, what we would do in that scenario.

But what we had not prepared for, Chris, was coordination and unity of a violent mob insurrection actually punching out our windows, storming in the entrances, occupying the building, driving us out of the room, all as a tactic to try to increase that pressure on Mike Pence to magically disappear Electoral College votes.

We weren't ready for that. And so it was chaos. Now luckily we had lots of brave officers who fought against it. And we mobilized very quickly to insist upon going back in. Thank God that Liz Cheney was where she was as the head of the Republican Conference.

But we know that there were members of the Republican Conference who wanted to continue the political coup even after the violent insurrection had totally wrecked our proceedings and interrupted the counting of electors for the first time in American history.

Chris Hayes: Wait. Say more about Liz Cheney's role as the head of the Republican Conference.

Jamie Raskin: When we were all sheltered in place finally over in the Longworth House office building, she came over with Hakeem Jeffries who's the chair of our caucus. So they were counterparts. And they spoke together that this attack on American presidential elections and on our constitutional system would not stand.

I don't remember the exact words. But they basically said it would not stand. And that they were equally determined to go back in. And of course, I had talked to Liz at several points through this crisis. And I knew how outraged and scandalized she was by it. And both of them were insisting that we go back in.

I could tell even from when we were fleeing the House floor, I heard a Republican colleague say on the phone, "You screwed it up. Y'all screwed it up good," he said. In other words, the violent insurrection interfered with the political coup. The attempt to get Pence the deny Biden the majority, to kick the whole thing into a contingent election in the House where, of course, we would vote, not one member, one vote, but one state, one vote.

And that's why the whole effort was to drive it into a contingent election under the 12th Amendment. I think you and I have talked about this before on the air. They had 27 states after the elections. We had 22. Pennsylvania was tied right down the middle. Even if Liz Cheney as the at-large rep from Wyoming defected from the GOP as I think she would have, in trying to pull a rabbit out a hat for Trump, they still had 26 states.

And had they declared it for Trump at that point, I think he was prepared to invoke the Insurrection Act and call in the National Guard to put down all the chaos to look as if he was the conquering liberating hero instead of the guy who had generated the whole thing.

Chris Hayes: So what you're describing is closer to working than I think a lot of people recognize. What do you say to people who say, "This never had a snowball's chance in hell of working"? That all of the machinations were born of kind of desperation in impotence as opposed to from a position of power. And ultimately the system worked.

Jamie Raskin: No.

Chris Hayes: And everything went along.

Jamie Raskin: If Pence had gone along with them, it likely would have succeeded.

Chris Hayes: This is the key.

Jamie Raskin: It's possible that if Pence had gone along with them and our officers were able to hold the line, we would have gotten back in. And then maybe some of the Republicans would not have been willing to go through with the fraud with all of the Democrats there.

But I don't know. Anything could have happened. Coup, successful coup, failed coup, insurrection, successful insurrection, civil war could have broken out. You know, Jim Jordan has been saying for weeks or months, "This is an affront to 74 million people who voted for Trump. You're not gonna push them around."

How does he think 81 million people are gonna feel? Does he think they're gonna take that lying down when Biden beat Trump by more than 7 million votes and beat him by a landslide in the Electoral College using Trump's own description of his victory over Hillary Clinton which was by the exact same numbers?

Anything could have happened. So we got lucky in the final analysis. And I'm hoping that one of the things that comes out of our discussions about January 6th is a tour that Congress is able to give to the public and to journalists of all of the critical places that were part of the events of that day outside the building, inside the building where different things happened. Because if you go on such a tour, which we did as a committee, it brings the whole thing alive in a very vivid way.

Chris Hayes: So what did it reveal, January 6th? I mean, the runup to January 6th and then January 6th. A metaphor that I've used is: If you've ever been a homeowner of particularly an old house, and someone comes in to work on something. It's like, "Well, you got a leak." And you open up the wall and then inside there's just, like, some mess, right?

Some succession of people that have come in and done shoddy work. And there's some piece of machinery, a boiler that's about to blow. Or there's a exhaust pipe that runs right into brick and is spewing exhaust back in your house. You didn't realize it. To me there's a little bit of that with the machinery of American electoral democracy vis-à-vis presidents that is exposed by January 6th. Like, we tore the wall down, and the stuff back there is rickety and bad. And do you feel that way?

Jamie Raskin: Absolutely. Well, the very first bill I introduced when I was in the Maryland State Senate was to get rid of the Electoral College as we know it through the national popular vote in our state compact. So I have thought for a long time that the Electoral College is a standing affront to democratic values.

It's given us two popular vote losers as presidents just in this century in 2000 and 2016. And it marginalizes the vast majority of the American people in every presidential election because the whole thing comes immediately down to seven or eight states.

So the vast majority of the states are just sitting on the sidelines with no visits from presidential candidates, no debates, no offices, no TV ads, nothin'. It's all, "Well, we know what the states are." There's a rotating cast of characters.

But most people are sitting on the sidelines. But now what we know from 2020 is it's even worse than that. The Electoral College is this massive invitation to strategic mischief by bad-faith partisan actors. Because there are so many phases to the process that depend on good faith, that a bad-faith actor can inject all of those with partisan venom and try to transform every ceremonial or ministerial part of the process into another partisan brawl or blood bath.

And that's what we saw on January 6th. My friend, Eddie Perlmutter from Colorado sits next to me on the Rules Committee said, "That day the first Wednesday in January called for in the 12th Amendment used to be a day of bipartisan celebration where people would go out drinking together."

Chris Hayes: Right.

Jamie Raskin: I mean, that's would would happen on Capitol Hill. Now it's just bare-knuckle brawls taking place. And we have people saying, "The Electoral Count Act is unconstitutional, and you can't hold us to it," and so on. The Electoral College is a danger.

The sooner we can get rid of it and move to majority rule so we're electing presidents the way we elect governors and senators and members of Congress, the better. But until then, we do need to try to put in whatever reforms and fixes we can to prevent at least the kind of steal that Donald Trump was trying to executive on that day.

Chris Hayes: That sort of relates to the next point, which I, as you know, have had you on the program to talk about it, like, fully support both the reinstatement of the gutted provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the broad sort of national standards for voter access and as represented by legislation that has passed the House and is, you know, proposed in the Senate.

But there's also a little bit of my sense that the problem here is fundamentally a political one as opposed to a legal or technical one. The problem is that one of the two parties has been taken over by a fundamentally anti-democratic faction that believes in any means necessary to secure power. And that's incompatible with the traditions of liberal democracy, no matter what the law says.

Jamie Raskin: Bingo. I mean, what we've got here is a party positioning itself outside the constitutional order and adopting fundamentally authoritarian attitudes towards our elections and our constitutional norms. There is not going to be a technical fix to that problem by definition.

Because a quasi-fascist party will simply roll over any rules that stand in its way. They've become a rule or ruin party. Either they're gonna rule, or they're gonna ruin our prospects for democratic self-government and progress. Having said that, we still do have the old-fashioned problems.

Even if we had two political parties between the forty-yard lines that fought it out over taxes and so on, still we do have all of these gaping problems in the Electoral College. We should deal with that. We need to protect the right to vote. We need to protect the right to vote against all of these strategies for voter suppression, eliminating weekend voting, eliminating early voting, making it more difficult to cast mail-in ballots and so on. So we've got both the problems of the creaky obsolescent political institutions.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Jamie Raskin: And we've got the problem of an anti-democratic party which is at our jugular right now.

Chris Hayes: But what's the solution for that? This is the problem I keep circling back around to. Because I agree with you that there's these two problems. And the technical fixes feel clearer than the political ones about the nature of this malformation of this movement.

Jamie Raskin: Well, we need to empower the citizenry. The good news is that Hillary beat Trump by more 3 million votes. Then Biden beat him by more than 7 million votes. We're getting millions of votes more for Congress. They would be nowhere without gerrymandering which is why I say GOP now stands for the "Gerrymander Only Party," because they are absolutely committed to gerrymandering.

So what we have is a series of anti-democratic tricks that they've got in their trick bag. And it's the filibuster and it's the gerrymandering and it's the right-wing court packing and the judicial activism, the voter suppression. And those are powerful tricks they've got.

But it is up against the majority will of the American people. And the young people are coming our way. And the new Americans are coming our way. Our majority is growing. We are going to have to fight this at every level of government, at federal, state, county, and local.

We're gonna have to fight it in the media obviously. We're gonna have to fight it in the political culture, is the way that they understand it. And, you know, we're gonna have to make improvements in what we do. We've gotta get over ourselves a little bit in terms of all the political correctness.

I tell the young people in my Democracy Summer project, "Let's trade in political correctness for political courage." Instead of proving to everybody the superiority of our command over the right political language, let's go out and meet people we've never met before, into communities we've never been before, and bring more people into our movement.

And that calls for the exact opposite process, not the narcissism of these little differences, but instead the open-heartedness required to go out and build a big majority. At this point, we are the democracy party. FDR used to say in his speeches that we are the democracy.

He'd say, "The plutocrats want to invest in the richest people and say some of the wealth will trickle down. But the democracy says you invest in the working majority of the country, and everybody will benefit together." Well, that's gotta be our conception now. The Democratic Party is the democracy. So we all have to get much better at what we're doing in terms of political outreach and coalition building.

Chris Hayes: You know, you're a constitutional law professor. And when people talk about, you know, how unprecedented January 6th is, they are correct. But I keep coming back to reconstruction because we do have a period in which, A) the country had kind of a second founding. B) The constitution was completely rewritten in some ways.

The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments create a new body of law that produces the foundations for essentially the modern state and also a vision for multi-racial democracy. And then that's destroyed in practice for generations. And it takes decades and decades, essentially a little less than a century to get back to the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Acts and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. How do you think about where we are now in the long sweep of American history, and particularly American constitutional history?

Jamie Raskin: Well, it's the right analogy you identify because political white supremacy and violent white supremacy have been the principal enemies of democratic progress in the country. And we are in a period of absolute backsliding under the Supreme Court which has essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act, undermine the meaning of the Civil Rights Act.

And it has acted basically to drain meaning from the Equal Protection Clause. And the Equal Protection Clause today works best for white plaintiffs challenging affirmative action plans. And it works for any of the descendants of the people for whom the 14th Amendment was originally added.

The Supreme Court for most of our history has been a profoundly reactionary institution. It's still got a little bit of a faint halo around its head from the Warren court era of Brown versus Board and Roe versus Wade and the Miranda Decision. But other than that, the Supreme Court has almost always been on the side of class power and white supremacy.

And it's just returned to that historic baseline. You know, the liberals have got to fall out of love with the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is not gonna save us. We need to build a huge political movement that will defend people's rights at the state level, at the federal level.

And then eventually we'll be able to turn the tide on the Supreme Court if we can't get any structural changes there. But we are in a period of backlash against the second reconstruction when really what we need is a third reconstruction.

I mean, if you look at the stuff that's in our George Floyd Policing Act, all of that is necessary to extinguish the remnants of police forces as racist institutions. We need to get rid of that. And I say that as somebody who is a strong supporter of law enforcement, especially the law enforcement that saved my life and the life of my daughter and my son-in-law on January 6th.

Lots of Black cops, lots of Hispanic cops, lots of immigrant cops were out there getting beaten up by fascists. So I think most of this stuff about "Defund the police," I think is a right-wing mirage. But to the extent there are people who think we don't need police officers, I just disagree with them.

We need police officers like we need firefighters, like we need teachers. That is an honorable public function. And we need to purge the police forces of white supremacists and those who would use their badge and their billy club and their gun to terrorize minority communities.

But let's not confuse the issue. The right wing is the enemy of law enforcement in America. And we saw that on January 6th. They are on the side of white supremacy. And if there are white supremacists who get a badge and a uniform, they will defend those people. But they weren't defending the cops on January 6th, far from it. They're interested in their own power.

Chris Hayes: This is a book about trauma, twin traumas, the trauma of losing your son, trauma of January 6th. I kind of feel like for even people that have not experienced anything remotely close to what you personally experienced, this has been a very trauma-laden period.

One of the ways I understand the strangeness of American life right now, both as a day-to-day fact and public life, is the emanations of trauma. We're going through a trauma as a country. We've lost 830,000 of our fellow citizens. We've had normal life disrupted.

We've seen people get sick. We've had the country's democracy come under threat. We've seen homicides, drug overuses, car crashes, fights at youth hockey games, incidents of violence on airplanes all skyrocket at the same period of time. And as someone who lived through profound trauma and is attempting to heal from that, I just am curious to hear how you are doing and how you understand the role that trauma plays in our collective public life.

Jamie Raskin: Well, I'm so glad you're saying that. 'Cause I agree completely with your point, Chris. I mean, 800,000 plus families are still reeling from COVID-19, lost a family member. That's millions of people. Comparable numbers have been affected by the opioid crisis which has been a nightmare, a devastation for communities across the country, a mental and emotional health crisis engulfing young people.

And not just people Tommy's age in their 20s, but high school students and even elementary school students. I mean, you should see some of the emails I get from parents of eight-year-old kids or nine-year-old kids who are profoundly depressed or anxious.

Gun violence has been a catastrophe in so many communities, and on and on. So we are a country reeling from these traumas. There's no doubt. And, you know, my Democracy Summer project is basically what my political campaign is now. What we do is we go out and we say to high school age kids, college age kids, "Come with us. And we're gonna teach you about the amazing history of social change and political reform in America, and how you can be part of it, and how you can register people to vote, and you can educate people on politics, and you can canvass," and on an on.

I want people to understand that politics, it's not the whole answer. Music is part of the answer. Poetry is part of the answer. Self-expression is part of the answer. But politics is definitely part of the answer. Bringing people together to understand the collective nature of so many of these problems.

In a democratic society, government is used to reduce and mitigate the misfortunes of life, the illness, the accident, the injury, just the hazards of living. In an authoritarian society, all of the misfortunes of life are compounded by injustice. So you have to face not only things like cancer and alcoholism and heartbreak, but you also have to face being discriminated against because you're from the wrong group.

Or you've got to face the dictator or, you know, the chieftain deciding on which businesses are gonna get the patronage of the government and which are not, and on and on. And so we want to oppose that kind of injustice. We want to restore the democratic rule of law.

And we want to try to use government to reduce and alleviate the misfortunes of existence. That's the most that we can hope for. And the reason why the health of the population is so important is because we want everybody involved. We want everyone engaged in self government. In a dictatorship, the health of the population's basically irrelevant. But in a democracy it's essential.

Chris Hayes: And how are you doing?

Jamie Raskin: You know, I'm hanging touch, Chris. I've got wonderful colleagues and friends and a wonderful family. But it is a struggle. It is a day-to-day struggle. And, you know, some days are good, and some days are not so good. And, you know, some days I feel Tommy in my heart. And some days I just feel his absence sharply.

But I know that this trauma has connected me to thousands or millions of other people in the country who've experienced traumas of their own. And I know that the road to rebuilding for America is through honest reckoning with the traumas we've experienced, and then building beyond that. And we can do it. We can rebuild. And we can have a renewal of our country.

Chris Hayes: Jamie Raskin, the book is called Unthinkable. And I really, really recommend it, not just 'cause you're on the podcast, but because it's a very profound and moving read. And I offer you my deepest, deepest condolences and comfort to you and your family. And I thank you for coming on the program.

Jamie Raskin: Thank you, Chris. And please send my appreciation to your staff and also to your family and your three kids for everything that you do for us.

Chris Hayes: Thank you. All right, once again my great thanks to Jamie Raskin. I should also note that Congressman Raskin's also the subject of a new feature documentary from MSNBC films called Love & The Constitution. It's an intimate look at Jamie's fight to defend democracy, his journey through grieving the loss of his son just six days before the January 6th attack on the Capitol.

Love & The Constitution airs Sunday, February 6th, at 10:00 p.m. Eastern on MSNBC. Why Is This Happening is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the All In team and features music by Edie Cooper. You can see more of our work including links to things we mentioned here by going to

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to