An unfortunate truism of history is that bad history can sell and, even worse, leave a lasting influence on the public. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, David Irving’s The Bombing of Dresden, Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial, Daniel Goldenhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, and dozens of other books have all left an outsized legacy on the public despite near universal condemnation from other historians. Heather Cox Richardson’s new book, Democracy Awakening, a portion of which appears in the November issue of The New Republic, is a prime example. Richardson, a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction, has garnered mainstream success with the Substack newsletter “Letters from an American.” It has reached over one million followers, which landed Richardson with an interview with President Biden. For a while now Richardson’s books have shifted from history to polemics, a predictable trend of using history to advance one’s politics instead of knowledge. Democracy Awakening is no exception. Like her newsletter, it’s a one-dimensional partisan piece meant to tell progressives that they are right: that their fellow citizens are either evil or rubes. It is an MSNBC segment with pseudo-historical gloss. Billed as a warning to American democracy, it is a simple yet pretentious work that will do nothing to solve the problems bedeviling the nation. No conservatives will read it, and none will be persuaded by its arguments.

Ritualistically, it starts by invoking the specter of Nazism and how “it could happen here” too. The coverage is superficial and offers no analysis of how German democracy crumbled before Hitler. The reason is that to do so would reveal how little there is in common between the two republics. America does not have a legacy of authoritarian political culture, it has not lost large tracts of territory, and its civil service is much too individualistic. Repeatedly, President Trump faced whistleblowers, dissent, and obstruction from both the civil service and the military over what they thought to be either wrong or illegal actions. In contrast, such organs in Germany made peace or supported the Nazi regime from the beginning.

Sprinkled into Richardson’s history are dubious political claims like: “Authoritarians rise when economic, social, political, or religious change makes members of a formerly powerful group feel as if they have been left behind.” Or, “He insists that his policies—which opponents loathe—simply follow established natural or religious rules his enemies have abandoned. Those rules portray society as based in hierarchies, rather than equality, and make the strongman’s followers better than their opponents.”

Lenin, the founder of modern totalitarianism, did no such things. A member of the minor nobility and intelligentsia who took power in the name of the proletariat, none of these groups were previously powerful in the bureaucratic autocracy of Tsarist Russia. Unless one thinks that the dictatorship of the proletariat was about hierarchies, at which point the term loses all meaning, the Bolsheviks never based their rule on such things. The Nazi Party’s support initially came from the petit bourgeois, not the old Wilhelmine elites. The party soon developed into a cross-class movement. By 1934, workers were the highest percentage in the party. If anything, the opposite of what Richardson says is more accurate. Strongmen seize power in the name of groups that were denied power, after the old regime is discredited. They do not restore hierarchies but build new ones. Conversely, the trend where those convinced that they are “defending” democracy and end up destroying it receives no mention. Historian Stanley Payne details this phenomenon in The Collapse of the Spanish Republic, 1933–1936, where the Spanish Left repeatedly used unconstitutional methods and violence to deny the Right’s ability to govern, paving the way for the Spanish Civil War. Comparing modern-day America with this historical situation would be more helpful than another comparison with Weimar Germany.

It is not just Richardson’s political analysis that is off, but her history too. She claims that America had a strong fascist movement in the 1930s. Payne, probably the leading historian on fascism in the world, found fascism in America to be pathetically impotent to nonexistent. The German American Bund, which Richardson hypes up by mentioning their infamous Madison Square Garden rally, numbered anywhere from less than 10,000 to 25,000 (given that the population of the United States in 1940 was 132,165,129 that equates to roughly 0.001%), the majority of whom were German migrants and the rest recently naturalized Germans. Despite getting minor support from Germany, the Fatherland ultimately dismissed the Bund as useless, according to historian John E. Haynes. Almost all their rallies faced counter-protestors who sometimes outnumbered them. Other supposedly “fascist” (Payne disputes that label) groups like the Black Legion, Silver Legion, or the Christian Front were also irrelevant and soon brought down by law enforcement or societal pressure. Politicians who associated with these groups, like U.S. representatives Louis T. McFadden and Jacob Thorkelson, were quickly thrown out of office.

The obsession with Nazism and linking it to former President Trump leads Richardson to grasp any connection, no matter how unconvincing. Without any examples or sources, she says Trump’s 2020 campaign was incorporating Nazi imagery deliberately. She claims First Lady Melania Trump’s outfit at the 2020 GOP convention evoked a “Nazi uniform” (it was a military-inspired outfit by the late Alexander McQueen). Perhaps one will disagree, but it seemed more Queen Elizabeth than Magda Goebbels. Apparently, the campaign did this for publicity, even though only a handful of articles mentioned it, and to appeal to the Alt-Right despite it collapsing after Charlottesville. A former leader, neo-fascist Richard Spencer said he was supporting Biden in 2020, although one should be skeptical of any claim made by him. In comparison, the comical-looking speech President Biden gave in September 2022 garners not a mention. By any metric, the imagery of the speech was just as “fascist” as Trump’s RNC speech. The President, whose actions during the Vietnam War were much like Mr. Trump’s, was flanked by uniformed Marines with dark 1984 lighting and chose the moment to warn that the country was in danger from “MAGA Republicans.”

Other historical errors and simplifications abound. Southern segregationists were not united with Republicans against the New Deal; most, including conservatives like Pat Harrison and the infamous “Redneck Liberal” Theodore Bilbo, generally supported it until around 1937 with the rise of the “Conservative Coalition.” Richardson caricatures the coalition as hardened reactionaries who wanted to turn the clock back to the 1920s when in fact, many of the members accepted the New Deal. They sympathized with Roosevelt, but felt he was going too far. Their focus was halting new reforms, not repealing the very laws many of them had just enacted. On unions, the manifesto they leaked to the press said, “Enlightened capital must deal with labor in the light of a new conception of legitimate collective bargaining and the right to organize.” Nor did this stop some from taking more liberal positions than the President. Harrison for years attempted to pass a massive education funding bill, but ran into opposition from the White House who felt it did not give enough power to the executive branch and later that it would divert money from the armed forces. Despite these breaks, some of the strongest supporters of Roosevelt’s foreign policy in the run-up to Pearl Harbor came from the South.

For all her finger-wagging about the danger of fascism, Richardson’s views are remarkably Schmidtian. She argues that “There have always been two Americas. One based in religious zeal, mythology, and inequality [slaveholders, conservatives, etc.]; and one grounded in rule of the people and the pursuit of equality [liberals, abolitionists, etc.]. This next election may determine which one prevails.” That any serious historian could take such a reductionist view is bizarre given how easy it is to disprove. Abolitionism was spearheaded by “zealous” evangelicals. Their critics often charged them with undermining “the separation of Church and State.” While describing herself as a modern-day “Lincoln Republican,” I wonder what Richardson must think of Charles Sumner and Lincoln’s support for the Christian Amendment, which read:

We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government…

In contrast, while southern clergymen repeatedly defended slavery, few accepted the growing belief that it was a “positive good.” Supporters of that view tended to downplay religion preferring secular or “scientific” reasoning. Furthermore, if any political group today mirrors the supporters of slavery on this shift, it would be the abortion-rights movement. For decades the movement claimed that abortion was a tragic heart-wrenching decision that ultimately must be left to the women, etc. Recently abortion supporters have attacked this view instead arguing that abortion is “morally good.” I do not mean this to upset people, only to show how easily one can turn the historical tables.

While conservatives are demonized, the sins of liberals and progressives are ignored. No mention is made of the support for eugenics by leading Progressives. Justice Louis Brandeis voted to uphold involuntary sterilization in Buck v. Bell, the lone exception was Justice Pierce Butler a conservative catholic.

When discussing American political polarization since the 1980s, the blame is put squarely on conservatives. Her brief retelling of Robert Bork’s nomination by Ronald Reagan is indicative of the selective history employed. While Bork had his controversies, which were well-known at the time, no mention is made that a year prior then senator Biden pledged to support Bork if he was nominated. Also ignored are numerous attempts to slander Bork’s personal character, such as the leaking of his movie rental history (it was learned he liked Hitchcock) which even outraged Democrats. Instead, Ted Kennedy’s controversial speech is repeated uncritically. The key thing for Richardson is that conservatives were determined to stack the court in their favor, not the intensity progressives went to preserve their own power on it.

There is no mention that in 1993 Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed 96-3 despite being significantly more liberal than Justice Byron White, whom she replaced. When President Bush nominated Samuel Alito, who was similarly more conservative than Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Democrats attempted a filibuster. President Obama later expressed regret for supporting the attempt. Before that was the failed nomination of Miguel Estrada to the D.C. court of appeals. Estrada became the first court of appeals nominee to be filibustered despite having the support of a majority of the Senate. It was later revealed that a major reason why Democrats opposed Estrada was the fear that if Bush later nominated him to the Supreme Court it would be hard to oppose since he would be the court’s first Hispanic member. During the emotional hearings Estrada’s wife miscarried and died the next year after overdosing on alcohol and sleeping pills.

To “fix” America, Richardson says the country should reach back and embrace the legacy of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and LBJ. The idolization of Theodore Roosevelt is an odd stance. If the former president were alive today, Richardson and her ideological cohorts would certainly denounce him as a proponent of the “white replacement theory” for his concern if not obsession with population decline. When German Social Democrat and the leader of reformist Marxism Eduard Bernstein was asked about Germany’s declining birthrate, he jibed that such a question was of concern to only an “Imperialist” like Roosevelt. Nor do I think they would care for his support for immigration restrictions and demanding that all learn the English language. For that matter, given her obsession with tying the conservatives with the Confederacy, I wonder what she makes of FDR’s praise of Robert E. Lee or Harry Truman saying that his mother was put in a “concentration camp” by the Union (he was also a proud member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans). Thus, it is not their actual legacy that Richardson wants reclaimed, but instead a historical veneer to her progressive politics, which, conveniently, are the only acceptable positions for “true believers in Democracy.”

Going by polling, the progressive history championed by Richardson, the 1619ers, and like-minded individuals does not create a greater love for this nation, history, or its ideals. Richardson uncritically defends the 1619 project despite the numerous flaws in its approach and substantial criticism from historians. Four out of ten Gen Zers think the Founding Fathers are better described as villains than heroes, according to a recent book by psychologist Jean M. Twenge.

This all finally turns to Richardson’s laudatory embrace of the 46th President. In her eyes, Biden is the embodiment and true heir to these men. The reality is more mundane. Despite his attempts to claim the mantle of FDR, Biden was one of the major figures in his party’s rejection of the New Deal, its neo-liberal turn, support for the banking industry, and social liberalism. Republican claims of him being the worst are nonsense, but Biden is simply a mediocre president. Richardson’s claims that Biden has worked to unify the country are unconvincing. In 2019, after two days of pressure, the then Vice President reversed his decades-long support for the Helms and Hyde Amendments, which polling repeatedly shows that most Americans support. This shift happened even though he felt so strongly on defending this position according to his 2007 memoir. During the 2020 riots, Biden, despite claiming to be the head of the Democratic party, said that (39:04) it was not his responsibility to get Democratic leaders to call for help to stop the rioting. Richardson extols Biden for restoring America’s standing in the world, a questionable assertion given the lack of respect afforded to Secretary of State Blinken during his recent visit to the Middle East. On a personal level, while she condemns Mr. Trump’s character, she is silent that Mr. Biden’s own character can just as easily be criticized.

No party has a monopoly on partisan hack pieces that insult lovers of honest history. Dinesh D’Souza, Mark Levin, and others have built careers demonizing liberals as wannabe communists, fascists, etc. Red-meat and confirmation bias for their followers, no matter the absurdity, they search far and wide to say their political opponents are the heirs to the worst of humanity. No lover of history or believer in improving American democracy should take such Manichean works seriously. Heather Cox Richardson’s work is rarely better.

Image credit: via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Wow, Paul. A real tour de force debunking. Thanks.

    No mention by you (and I assume her) of the false history of Juneteenth. Slavery continued for another year after that celebratory “event” because some Indian tribes that had been allies of the confederacy retained slaves until forced to free them.

  2. “No lover of history or believer in improving American democracy should take such Manichean works seriously.”

    Well stated. Books of this sort are simply the print version of the same type of bubble-think on exhibit on Fox or MSNBC. Young progressives will often speak of “critical thinking” as applied to what they were taught growing up, and which caused them to move in a progressive direction. In general however, they do not apply the same critical thinking to ideas originating on their own side of things, but instead accept it at face value. This is captured well by a bumper sticker that I saw online not long ago that went something like this:

    Save pregnant men from climate change inequity!

    Obviously you could say a similar thing about some on the right as well. But generally speaking they’re not the ones going around crowing about “critical thinking.”

  3. The digital has been very unkind to the historical discipline. I’ve perused Professor Richardson’s Substack a few times over the past few months to see why there has been so much interest, but each time I came away believing that publishing a newsletter every day will lead inexorably to diminishing returns. Even with the best of intentions, the intellectual rigor will suffer. When it’s blatantly partisan, you’re doomed to fail.

    I’m not surprised to see that her book suffers from the same weaknesses as her newsletter. Kudos to Paul for suffering through it and living to tell us about it.

  4. The subject essay manifests a lack of appreciation of the writing of history. I have read three of the referenced books he disparages. Each was intended to redress a significant degree of imbalance in “consensus” history.
    Zinn particularly lived enough of history to have valuable insights to be shared.

    Having gone to Catholic schools there was little good, if anything was said at all, anout Debs, the Wobblies, Thomas Watson, and other reformers. All was as Richard Hofstadter wrote.

    Rather than anti intellectualism as a defining characteristic of folks Zinnreflects a conviction that all the people were able to understand the complexity of the genius of Madison and other founders; and of the debates about basic values that commit us to today. THE PEOPLE, YES ! as Carl Sandburg wrote.

  5. I followed Letters from an American for a while during the Trump years. Richardson often did a good job highlighting complex or under-the-radar political news and contextualizing it (albeit with a distinct and sometimes distorting bias). But after Biden was inaugurated, her Substack became little more than a puff outlet for #46. I’m saddened but not surprised she has continued in that vein.

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