This week: conversations with Stephen Van Evera, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and David Blight about the Capitol insurrection and the Georgia election. Listen today at 2 pm or anytime at our site.

In our Labor Day conversation in 2020, Mark Blyth brought up the observation that Trump is a secessionist, a committed “red state” president, and on January 6th, 2021, we saw one result of the president’s Civil-War mood: deadly insurrection at the Capitol, under the Confederate flag and other symbols of white nationalism.

And so this week, from a dangerously unwell country, we’re talking to people we want to hear from the most on the topic of this nation’s fractures.

Our political scientist this hour is Stephen Van Evera of MIT, who says:

We got two big problems. One is we have a radicalized Republican Party and the other is we have a radicalized, and I would say destructive, rise of a right wing media, which has given rise to another phenomenon, which is to a cult-like social formation on the right wing of US politics.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, sociologist at UNC-Chapel Hill (and MacArthur Genius) analyzed the cult-like, sinister jubilation among the insurrectionists:

We often talk about collective effervescence, sociologists might call it. Something happens when a crowd comes together in one place. And this had the sinister, jubilant quality of those old pictures I grew up watching of white people having picnics at public lynchings. The juxtaposition of the horribleness with the joy that the participants are feeling by being there in fellowship together. This was a moment of fellowship for many people and it didn’t matter what the politics were, or the expressed politics were. It was the offer of this fellowship that they could come there and they would find that visceral thrill. And that that thrill, though, is always predicated on somebody else’s oppression is the insidious nature of unchecked white violence.

The historian David Blight, a Pulitzer-winner for his biography of Fredrick Douglass, elaborated on the long history of that white violence in the US:

As a historian and a teacher now for years, it does cause one a bit of despair when you spend every day either teaching or writing about these things and you look around and you realize we’ve completely rewritten this history for half a century now. We could go on naming dozens of historians who have rewritten this history and have even written bestselling books. And yet, millions of Americans don’t seem to even know it, and they still don’t understand how fundamentally slavery tore the United States apart, how fundamentally the Jim Crow system buried the victories of the Civil War for decades and decades and decades. Even recent history: like the civil rights movement is a very contested episode in our past now.

The white nationalists storming the Capitol weren’t the only major story of that week, though, or even that day. On January 6th, it also became clear that Democrats would take control of the Senate, due to the electoral victories in Georgia of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. The two Democrats—one Black, one Jewish—defeated Trumpist incumbents, and so defeated avatars of Trumpist ethnonationalism. Tressie McMillan Cottom explains the connection between the Georgia election and the Capitol insurrection:

The people in Georgia were actually practicing democracy. The people who found themselves in Washington D.C. by choice and by compulsion were there to quell democracy. And so this has been the sort of neverending conflict. We’re always in this nation fighting the Civil War. We called off the battle, but the the ideas that animated the Civil War are always ones being litigated and relitigated through our bureaucracy, our political machinery. And that the the specter of violence raises its head is precisely because Georgia was successful. Had the strategic disenfranchisement of Black voters in Georgia been able to hold, as it had through the last four or five electoral contests in that state, white rioters wouldn’t have felt the need to go to Washington D.C., because the bureaucracy would have taken care of the conflict by excluding and oppressing the black vote.

It is precisely because the black vote was able to express itself as a full enfranchisement that the conflict, the specter of violence raised its ugly head. So they are the flip side of the same coin. Both sides are fighting for democracy or the idea of a democracy. One is just a democracy of exclusion and one is a democracy of inclusion.

One effect of the Trump Era crisis has been widespread renewal of interest in what the US is supposed to be. David Blight says this hour:

The Trump presidency has given us a gift of constitutional lessons, whether it’s about impeachment, presidential powers, congressional powers, and, for God’s sake, let’s not forget, electoral law. I mean, we’ve never seen so much discussion of constitutional authority this way or that way in my lifetime. And it’s interesting, isn’t it, Chris, how desperate Americans have been in recent months, years, to find their footing with American history.


There’s a documentary out now that traces the work of Stacey Abrams, widely credited for the Georgia election outcome. Abrams took on voter suppression with historic success, first by recognizing the nature of the problem. From Christiana Silva:

Between 2016 and 2018, at least 17 million voters were purged from the voter rolls, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice. In just one month alone — July 2017 — more than half a million voters were removed from Georgia’s voter rolls, many because they didn’t vote in previous elections, according to an investigation from APM Reports, Reveal and NPR member station WABE.

“We have to understand that purging does not simply occur because someone has died or has moved out of the state,” Abrams said, adding that then-Secretary of State Kemp purged hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls. “The use of this purging led to a disproportionate number of communities of color being disenfranchised. And many didn’t know they were purged until they showed up to vote.”

Read: The Man Without Qualities

On the subject of a country flinging itself into the abyss: consider Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities. It’s the modernist masterpiece about Austria on the verge of World War I, written when the world was on the verge of World War II.

Musil’s characters pulse with ideas and sentiments that lift them into confusion, contradiction, futility, disaster; they speak through frenzied essays, in a way, holding forth on subjects, often, without a durable sense of confidently accessible truth. The novel’s main character, its man without qualities named Ulrich, is almost exclusively an essay-generator, the representative figure of a world of doubt and restless confrontation with complexity:

It was more or less in the way an essay, in the sequence of its paragraphs, explores a thing from many sides without wholly encompassing it—for a thing wholly encompassed suddenly loses its scope and melts down to a concept—that he believed he could most rightly survey and handle the world and his own life. The value of an action or a quality, and indeed its meaning and nature, seemed to him to depend on its surrounding circumstances, on the aims it served; in short, on the whole—constitituted now one way, now another—to which it belonged.

Listen: Remembering MLK

For the holiday weekend have a listen to this show from the recent archives, with Brandon Terry, the Rev. William Barber and others.

This week’s ephemeral library

Sen. Ben Sasse rebukes his party. Luke Mogelson’s “Among the Insurrectionists.” Jill Lepore on “What’s Wrong with the Way We Work.” Masha Gessen: The Trial of Donald Trump Must Tell the Full Story of the Capitol Insurrection. They Say This Isn’t America. For Most of Us, It Is. The Austerity Politics of White Suppression. Axios on the tick tock collapse of a president.

Hang in there, folks.

The OS Constitutionalists.

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.