Ninety-four years ago, the editors of Time magazine declared the transatlantic aviator and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh their first-ever Man of the Year. This editorial gambit proved a winner on the newsstand, and a parade of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and other worthies followed. There have been a few odd choices along the way. In 1941, the editors tapped Dumbo, the Disney elephant, as Mammal of the Year. Alas, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, rudely relegating the animated pachyderm to the inside pages of the magazine. F.D.R. seized Time’s cover and the annual laurel in Dumbo’s stead.
This year, the wealthiest individual in the world, Elon Musk, was Time’s choice for Person of the Year. I speak for no one except myself, but is this the moment to valorize a supposed man of science who cast early doubt on the COVID vaccines and told the world that “kids are essentially immune”? Might as well give the accolade to Eric Clapton. Others on Time’s list of “most influential people” for 2021 are distinctly more inspiring–Stacey Abrams, for example, who is leading the fight against voter suppression in the U.S., or the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who is languishing in a prison camp at the order of Vladimir Putin.
And yet one person of the year, an individual who embodies both the tragedy and resilience of our time, was missing: Jamie Raskin. A Democratic member of the House, Raskin is fifty-nine and represents Maryland’s Eighth District. He was at the Capitol with his colleagues on January 6, 2021, to witness what should have been the routine certification of Joe Biden’s election as President. Instead, he witnessed an insurrection. This bloody assault, which threatened constitutional democracy and the nation’s democratically elected leaders, came just one day after the burial of Thomas Bloom Raskin, the congressman’s beloved twenty-five-year-old son. At the Capitol, Raskin told me, he could still hear the sounds of the day before: the prayers of mourning, the clods of dirt shovelled onto the casket. Meanwhile, maniacs shouting deranged slogans and threats were storming down the hallways of Congress in search of enemies.
Tommy Raskin, by all accounts, was a brilliant, politically committed student, who had been attending Harvard Law School. He was an antiwar activist, a believer in justice for human beings and animals alike, a hungry reader, an avid writer—a generous, decent young man who, as a statement from his family described him, possessed “a perfect heart, a perfect soul, a riotously outrageous and relentless sense of humor, and a dazzling radiant mind.” Tommy Raskin also suffered from depression. And his condition deepened during the long months of COVID. On the morning of New Year’s Eve, Raskin found his son dead in bed. Tommy had taken his own life and left behind a handwritten note for his parents and two sisters: “Please forgive me. My illness won today. Please look after each other, the animals, and the global poor for me. All my love, Tommy.”
When I first spoke to Jamie Raskin, early in the year, it was nearly impossible for him to talk about his son without weeping. This has eased somewhat. Now, whole minutes go by when his mind does not dwell on the loss and what he might have done to save his “dear boy.” Raskin has also been consumed by a sense of mission. Not long after the insurrection failed, Nancy Pelosi tapped him to be the lead manager of Trump’s second impeachment trial, a task he performed with eloquence and organizational skill. Now, as a member of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, he is once more at the center of the struggle over the Trump legacy and the future of constitutional democracy.
In the past year, as Raskin was in the depths of his grief and consumed with his work on Capitol Hill, he somehow seized the late-night hours to write a book. Writing, he told me, was a way to avoid cycling down into the depths, a way to make at least some sense of what he and those around him were suffering. “Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy” will be published just after the New Year.
“I wrote this book in five months,” Raskin told me. “I was sleepless and couldn’t think about anything else. It was therapeutic. I just did the audio version, and that was wrenching to do. But I’m sleeping better these days. . . . I am not drowning in grief and agony in quite the way I was. And a lot of that is that we’re trying to honor the spirit and the wishes Tommy expressed in his farewell note: ‘Look after each other.’ That is a pretty specific set of instructions, and it has given me a roadmap for the rest of my life.”
“Unthinkable” is not a work of emotional austerity; rather, it is an unburdening, a howl, a devotional. The grief is nightmarish, but the love that suffuses the text is even more powerful––the love for family and a lost child, as well as a love for a fragile democracy. It takes its greatest inspiration from the idealism of Raskin’s son.
“Tommy was someone who felt the pain of other people in a way that you don’t come upon very frequently,” Raskin said. “He could stay up all night worried about children caught in the civil war in Yemen. Or children separated from their parents at the border. Or victims of gun violence. He was an enormously joyful and happy and funny young man, but he experienced the other end of the emotional spectrum very acutely.”
Raskin went on, “Tommy had a clinical diagnosis, but, having said that, everyone’s mental-health struggles take place in a social context. The COVID-19 period has been dreadful for young people. It’s been so isolating and demoralizing. During COVID, Tommy’s spirits sank further south, like so many in his generation. Studies show that a majority of young people have experienced heightened anxiety and depression during COVID, and it’s also exacerbated by climate change and vicious political extremism. I’m not saying Tommy’s death was caused by right-wing politics or Donald Trump’s catastrophic COVID-19 policies. But his situation existed in a social context.”
In recent weeks, Raskin has been immersed in the January 6th investigation and the committee’s attempt to wrest evidence from Trump’s circle, most recently Mark Meadows, Trump’s last chief of staff, who initially coöperated and then reversed course. “Mark Meadows has one foot in and one foot out,” Raskin said. “He turned over thousands of documents, which are a very rich reservoir of information. But then Donald Trump had a tantrum and called his book ‘fake news,’ and then Mark Meadows called his own book ‘fake news’ and cancelled his coöperation with our committee.” The House has voted to recommend holding Meadows in contempt of Congress for his refusal to coöperate.
The goal of the committee and Raskin’s pursuit is clear: “If we can get a comprehensive and fine-grained portrait of the events on January 6th and all of the causes leading up to them, it could blow the roof off the house,” he said. “It will lay bare that there is a kind of constellation of forces threatening the future of American democracy. January 6th was not the final act, but perhaps the prologue to a titanic struggle between democracy and violent authoritarianism in America.”
Raskin said that he hopes there will be hearings early in 2022 and a final, comprehensive report by the spring or summer, well before the end of this Congress. “I’ll give you my preliminary analysis of what happened on that day,” he said. “There were three rings of activity. The outer realm is a mass demonstration that became a riot. And Donald Trump drew tens of thousands of people to Washington with promises of a ‘wild’ protest and a campaign to ‘stop the steal.’ The middle ring is comprised of organizations like the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the Proud Boys, various militia groups, and QAnon networks. Those people arrived in paramilitary formation, having engaged in real training,” he said. “They were the first to smash our windows and lead the movement to try to take over the House and Senate chambers.
“The scariest of the three rings is the inside of the coup. I use that word, ‘coup,’ knowing that it’s not the usual political parlance. A coup usually takes place against an elected President. This was a President moving against a Vice-President–it was, as the political scientists call it, a ‘self-coup,’ ” Raskin said. “After he lost, he moved into overdrive and began a massive ideological onslaught against the election to propagandize his followers . . . . He approached G.O.P.-run state legislatures to overturn the popular elections and appoint slates in his name. He went to state election officials like Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state in Georgia, and browbeat them to nullify the election results—or, in the case of Georgia, to ‘find’ votes. He waged a war in the Department of Justice to get them to weigh in on various cases he brought or his supporters were bringing.
“When that failed, he turned his attention to Mike Pence. The objective was to get Pence to use lawless and unprecedented powers to reject [Electoral College] slates and return them to the state capitols.” Trump hoped that Biden would be denied his victory on January 6th and, under the 12th Amendment, there would be a one-state, one-vote ballot in the House, which the Republicans would win. “Then Trump would have invoked the Insurrection Act, as his advisers were telling him to do, and declared something like martial law and use the National Guard to put down any unrest,” Raskin said.
There is a lot left to know: Who coördinated or gave orders to the various elements of the insurrection? What role did Trump play? Who put up the money to rent the buses, buy the air tickets, reserve the hotel rooms? “January 6th brought together disparate right-wing elements into a mass right-wing street violence movement. We’ve got to be clear-eyed about that,” Raskin said. “Long after Donald Trump is gone, we’ll be dealing with a movement of violent, neo-Fascist elements who came very close to knocking over the U.S. government. And they know it. Their Web sites are filled with proud commemorations of January 6th. They lament only that they left their firearms back in their hotel rooms and in their cars. They fault themselves only for not completing the job on January 6th. And remember: the political scientists tell us that the sign of a successful coup is a recent unsuccessful coup, an event where they can diagram and analyze their previous mistakes so they can correct them the next time around.”
Raskin is an ardent liberal from a left-leaning background. His mother, Barbara, was a novelist and journalist; his father, Marcus, worked in the Kennedy Administration and made his reputation as an activist against the Vietnam War and as the co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank in D.C. But, with constitutional democracy at risk, Raskin has searched for allies among Republicans. “Liz Cheney is an important figure in our times. And I have similar praise for Adam Kinzinger and Mitt Romney––for all the Republicans who voted to impeach or convict Trump,” he said. “Historically, the left never defeats fascism on its own. . . . I continue to disagree with Liz Cheney on a range of issues, but she is an ardent constitutional patriot. She doesn’t believe her party must win. Her party is now one of ‘rule or ruin.’ Either they rule, or they eliminate any basic democratic norms. They have positioned themselves outside the constitutional order.”
Raskin said that there is little comfort to take in the fact that the Republican Party is aging, shrinking, and devoid of a coherent policy platform. “Madeleine Albright argues that fascism is not an ideology; it’s just a strategy for taking power and maintaining it,” he said. “Our challenge is that, for now, we have the White House and a very narrow majority in Congress. The G.O.P. controls all the anti-democratic levers in the country. And they are engaged in the gerrymandering of districts, the promotion of voter suppression in various states, the use of the filibuster to block policy—they’ve packed the courts with Federalist Society bloggers. It’s a race between the will of the majority—the values of the majority—versus the G.O.P.’s control of political institutions.”
Nor should anyone be confident that the Trump era is over or that authoritarian power is a concern only for foreign countries. “We got an excellent and terrifying glimpse of what an authoritarian America could be on June 1, 2020, when Trump organized the government against Black Lives Matter and against the people in Lafayette Square, and again on January 6th,” Raskin said, adding, “Trump has tapped into, and unleashed, and increased forces of right-wing authoritarianism that we will live with long beyond his natural years. That’s why we can’t totally fetishize his own reckoning with the justice system––as much as I favor and hope for it.”
The country is not lacking for committed democrats, yet Raskin seems worthy of special note this year because of the unforgettable and tragic circumstances in which he has fought for individual and collective liberty. As we finished our long conversation the other night, he said, “My book was a labor of love for Tommy and my family, but also for our country. I’m on a mission of hope. There are millions of hurting people in the country. We’ve lost more than eight hundred thousand people to COVID-19—which means eight hundred thousand grief-stricken families. There are comparable numbers in the opioid crisis, the epidemic of alcohol and drug abuse, a staggering mental-health crisis. We have to bring people some hope. We have to make it clear that part of the solution to despondency is to engage in politics and to fight back.”