What Reconstruction and the New Deal Can Teach Us About What Comes After the Pandemic Presidency

Yale professors and Pulitzer Prize winners David Blight and Greg Grandin are this week's guests.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept, Getty Images

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The 2020 election is six months away, more than 80,000 Americans have been killed by coronavirus, and official unemployment is inching toward 20 percent. This week on Intercepted: An in-depth historical look at some of the great crises in U.S. history and how the president, Congress, and social movements have responded. David Blight, Yale history professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” discusses the era of Reconstruction, the swift dismantling of its hard-fought gains, and the enduring power of white supremacy. As Joe Biden talks of building a presidency in the spirit of FDR and the New Deal, Greg Grandin, whose book “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America” won the 2020 Pulitzer in nonfiction, discusses the battle for the New Deal, who was left out of its gains, and analyzes what such a program would look like in the aftermath of the Trump presidency.

Evan Axelbank: The former vice president is, just like the rest of us, getting used to doing things in a new way. And for a major political candidate, that means campaigning virtually. 

Unidentified press conference host: [Choppy audio] Please welc — vice president — oe Biden.

Joe Biden: Good evening. — much for tuning in.

EA: His first foray into Florida, with a rally marketed for Tampa Bay, was filled with choppy video and even long periods of complete black. 

Unidentified press conference host: Please welcome former governor, Congressman Charlie Crist. 

Michael J. Anderson as The Man from Another Place: [Garbled]

EA: At one point, about 2,600 people were watching live on YouTube, though the number dropped to about 2,000 as the tech problems went on.

Unidentified press conference host: Please welcome Florida Senator Janet Cruz.

Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer: [Garbled]

EA: It’s only May. A general election is not until November, so there’s plenty of time for the Biden campaign to straighten out their digital operation.

Joe Biden: Nothing we cannot accomplish if we work together. 

[Squeaking noises]

We’re gonna prove it. I — gether now. Thank you. Thank you all for being — And god bless you all —

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted. 

[Music interlude]

JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from my basement in New York City. And this is episode 130 of Intercepted. The late Malcolm X once said that “of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.” And so today, amidst an unspeakable lethal public health crisis, we will together take a trip back in history, specifically to two periods of great importance to the evolution of U.S. society. First, we’re going to take a look at the era of Reconstruction that followed the U.S. Civil War and the official end to legalize slavery. And then we’re going to look at the stock market crash of 1929 and the launching of what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the New Deal.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory, and by their poverty, denying work and productiveness to many other millions. I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

JS: We are having these discussions at a moment when some of the coldest and harshest realities of how U.S. society can create both dreams and nightmares for the existence of its citizens, depending on your race or your economic, ethnic, gender and social status in society. We see the coronavirus disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable communities in the U.S., as all social, economic, and health crises do. And we face the fact that the president of the United States, Donald Trump, has utterly failed to provide any leadership in terms of protecting the country from the virus early when it mattered or in laying out a responsible vision for how to emerge from this crisis. He has been as terrible and inept and negligent as one could imagine at facing the moment we are in, by any and all meaningful metrics.

Donald J. Trump: Well, they’re losing their lives everywhere in the world. And maybe that’s a question you should ask China. Don’t ask me, ask China that question, OK? When you ask them that question, you may get a very unusual answer. Yes, behind you, please. 

Weijia Jiang: Sir, why are you saying that to me, specifically, that I should ask China?

DJT: I’m telling you, I’m not saying it specifically to anybody. I’m saying it to anybody that would ask a nasty question like that.

WJ: It’s not a nasty question. 

DJT: Please go ahead.

JS: But it’s not just Donald Trump who is flailing and failing. The Democratic Party leadership has shown little backbone in confronting this president’s recklessness. It has, to date, largely resigned itself to putting up an anemic battle to secure what amounts to economic crumbs for those who have been decimated or risk being wiped out. 

Just look at the latest round of legislation that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put forward this week. It’s legislation that will never pass Mitch McConnell’s Senate, but that’s not the point of this legislation. It’s intended to serve as a bold statement of contrasting priorities. Yet this symbolic offering is overwhelmingly filled with weak sauce, and it doesn’t include some of the most popular policy proposals put forward by progressive lawmakers. When you look at our reality and then read through the proposals from the Democratic leadership, it’s stunning in timidity and its deference to capitalism and capitalism’s winners, while simultaneously offering low-quality Band-Aids to those most in need of help from the government.

Nancy Pelosi: It is imperative that we address the needs of the American people with clarity on how we proceed. That is why today, House Democrats are introducing the HEROES Act, named for our heroes, whose provisions are largely based on the four previous bipartisan bills we have passed.

JS: Is what Nancy Pelosi is proposing different than what Trump and the Republicans want or believe? Absolutely. But it’s hardly a testament to big thinking or courageous and bold visions. If anything, it reeks of milquetoast think-tankery and paltry means-tested economic half-measures. Now, it’s hard to overstate how atrocious Donald Trump has been in his three and a half years in office. Even before this pandemic, he served at the helm of a concerted Republican-led campaign to dismantle social programs, to further destroy the health care system in this country. He presided over an unprecedented targeting of immigrants and a gutting of some of the most vital institutions in this country. 

Trump’s posture during this pandemic — maniacally tweeting against his perceived and real enemies while more than 82,000 Americans have died — it serves as a grim condemnation of how rotten he and his administration truly are. In the face of Trump’s lethal combination of incompetence, arrogance, and corruption, we all have every right to be angered and disturbed by the positions of the so-called official opposition to his presidency, particularly at this moment in history.

JB: But look, this, this — this needless complacency that the president has engaged in from the very beginning, he knew about this crisis all the way back in January and February. He’s been incompetent, the way in which he’s responded to it.

JS: Joe Biden’s campaign and supporters have recently taken to promoting the idea that Biden would, if he wins, create an administration with visions on the scale of FDR’s New Deal. At the same time, his selection of certain advisers and his stated policy visions undercut the veracity of these claims and comparisons. We also must remember that many of the best initiatives and radical changes to emerge from the New Deal era are the direct result of organizing, and protesting, and struggling from labor and justice movements. 

Later in the show, we’re going to be talking to the esteemed historian and friend of this podcast, Greg Grandin. He has just been awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for his powerful book, “The End of the Myth.” 

Greg Grandin: How does a kind of ideology of freedom as freedom from restraint — which is founded in centuries of chattel slavery in which white people identified and forged a conception of liberty that was juxtaposed and contrasted with this servitude of people of color — how does that reproduce itself in other social arenas? How does it reproduce itself down the decades and down the centuries, where it’s echoed in protests against any kind of government restrictions? And now we’re seeing this in a very intensified form, literally about life and death, where people are protesting any kind of government regulation when it comes to such a profound health crisis as we’re living through.

JS: That discussion with Greg Grandin is coming up in the second half of this show. But we begin with an examination of the period immediately following the U.S. Civil War, an era known as Reconstruction. I’m joined now by one of the preeminent scholars on this period, professor David Blight. He’s professor of American history and the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University. He is the author most recently of “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” for which he won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for history. Professor David Blight, thank you very much for being with us on Intercepted.

Yale Professor David Blight on the Era of Reconstruction and the Enduring Power of White Supremacy

David Blight: Thank you, Jeremy. It’s great to be with you.

JS: To begin, the period of Reconstruction, spanning between 1863 and 1877, the years during and after the Civil War, has been called the era of the second revolution, or the second founding. Can you walk us through what the major questions and debates that were taking shape in the initial proposals for Reconstruction looked like?

DB: We now often refer to this era as the second founding because the United States Constitution was in effect rewritten, redesigned, in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and even in the first Civil Rights Act of 1866. The federal government — for a while, anyway — became much more centralized. And it’s a second revolution in the sense that 80-some years into its existence, the United States tore itself to pieces. The Civil War is a rending, a breaking up of that original union. And the only way it could be preserved was to reinvent it. 

Now, exactly where and who’s running that revolution is always what’s debatable, because every revolution, as any student of history tends to know, always initiates at some point a counterrevolution. So Reconstruction really is a revolution first led by the radical wing of the Republican Party. They become known as the Radical Republicans. They design the Reconstruction system by which the 11 Confederate States were brought back into the Union. They drafted the three great amendments. They put in place black suffrage — black male suffrage. They reinvented Southern governments into at least somewhat more democratic structures, and they created a whole new experiment in forms of racial equality. 

But of course, what that stimulated was a virulent counterrevolution of white supremacy led by the reviving Democratic Party in the South. And Reconstruction faded, or eroded, or was defeated — which is I think the more proper term — almost as fast as it was created. Reconstruction is created in the 1860s in the wake of the Civil War. The retreat from it and the defeat of it occurs through the 1870s. This reinvention of an American republic around the results of the emancipation of 4 million slaves did not just end in 1877. 

Scholars love to debate: When did Reconstruction end? And I think what we’re finding today, over, and over, and over, and over – and I’ve written about this in various places — is that Reconstruction, at least the issues of Reconstruction, have in some ways never ended, especially the two big ones, race relations and racial equality being one of them, and how we ever managed to truly develop this on the ground between human beings. 

And the other is the nature of government, the function of federalism, the relationship of states to the federal government. Where does power properly lie in our federalist system? And are we ever getting a lesson in that again right now. So in a sense, Reconstruction has never ended, and it probably never will, at least the great issues of Reconstruction, because it was this remaking of an American republic around fundamentally new conceptions of the idea of equality. And any kind of revolution like that always inspires a counterrevolution. We’ve seen it again, and again, and again. We saw it again after the great triumphs of the modern civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King Jr.: We’ve had many legislative and judicial victories that, in a sense, change the architecture of Southern society. But now we’re faced with, in a sense, greater problems. We’re faced with hard economic problems which will be much more difficult to solve. It’s much easier to eradicate segregation, for instance on buses or in public accommodations, than it is to eradicate slums. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to create jobs.

DB: A counterrevolution against that. It found its first fruition in the Republican Party. Reagan, lest we forget, ran against the ’60s. We’re finding it again in the counterrevolution against — I mean, to put it simply — against two terms of the Obama administration. What is Trumpism but a counterrevolution against a lot of things his followers hate or do not like?

DJT: Obamagate. It’s been going on for a long time. It’s been going on from before I even got elected. And it’s a disgrace that it happened, and if you look at what’s gone on, and if you look at now all of this information that’s being released — and from what I understand, that’s only the beginning — some terrible things happened, and it should never be allowed to happen in our country again.

DB: So we’re always going to be living with the fundamental issues of Reconstruction. The question is always how well we do with it. 

JS: You’ve written — and this is a quote — “The task was harrowing,” talking about this period of Reconstruction, “how to make sectional reconciliation compatible with emancipation, and how to square black freedom and the stirrings of racial equality with a cause — the South’s — that had almost lost everything except its unbroken belief in white supremacy. This would be a testing of even more magnitude than the one Abraham Lincoln described in his Gettysburg Address.”

In practical terms, Dr. Blight, just explain what materially changed for black people in the United States as a result of the policies of Reconstruction. 

DB: There were two fundamental changes for the freed people — black Americans on the ground in the South, which is where most of them were. They did overnight begin to experience a certain degree of civil and political liberty. They were voting by 1867. It was black male voters in 1868 who were in part responsible for electing Ulysses Grant to the presidency in Southern states. They did experience a degree of civil rights and civil liberty. On the other hand, the vast, vast majority of course of African American freedmen were still farmers. Most of them will end up on the same land they had lived on as slaves, although some will begin to migrate in increasing numbers to cities.

But what happens to their economic lives is so crucial, because Reconstruction on the ground in the South meant you had to have a transformation from a slave labor system to a free labor system of some kind. But how do you do it economically in a society that was utterly cash poor? There just were no bank loans on the ground in the South in 1866 to ’68, ’69. There was no credit. It was a credit-poor society. The idea of actual land ownership was only marginally attainable. And so what set in very quickly and indeed by about 1868, we see it already developing across the landscape, is this system of tenant farming, what ultimately is called sharecropping — working a piece of land and giving a share of the crop to your landowner, hoping that this system will balance and work out.

It of course did not, over time, and it became a system of debt which, by and large, riveted most African American freedmen to the soil and to this system of what to some degree became ultimately a kind of debt peonage. We have a rough statistic that around the 1880s or by 1890, approximately 20 percent of black freedmen and their sons and daughters now did manage land ownership, property ownership. There are lots of varying reasons for that in different regions, but it means about 80 percent of them roughly, across the South, never attained any kind of capital of their own, property of their own. And it has a great deal to do with why the South remains so poor, way into the late 19th century. 

There were a lot of white sharecroppers, too, the poor white class of the South, that survived and came out of the Civil War. Many of them never attained land ownership either. But one should never mistake understanding that for a while during Reconstruction, there was a revolution on the ground. And the greatest manifestation of that was the way in which black people elected other black people. Hundreds of black men served in state legislatures, in administrative positions, in cities and states. Several were elected, of course, to Congress, two to the U.S. Senate, during the period from basically 1868 to the end of the 1870s. It’s a revolution politically that is ultimately — slowly, not overnight — defeated by this white Democratic Party counterrevolution, which was determined to destroy black political life and to some degree even to destroy the integrity of black economic life. 

But most of the violence and terrorism that people may be aware of that was committed by the Ku Klux Klan and its many imitators was directed essentially at politics. They wanted to destroy the Republican Party on the ground in the South and particularly to destroy black power politics. And by and large, in most states, they did succeed in destroying black political life by the 1880s.

JS: What was the actual difference in approach between Abraham Lincoln and Radical Republicans in talking about Reconstruction?

DB: Reconstruction actually — in terms of its policies and plans — begins during the war. As early as 1863, Lincoln began to present a plan of his own, it became known as the “ten percent plan.” And then he was opposed by members of his own party, the Radical Republicans who wanted a harsher system of Reconstruction. But Lincoln essentially wanted a rapid Reconstruction, of course he doesn’t live to oversee any of it. So we don’t know exactly what he would have done in response to actual events on the ground. 

But Lincoln wanted a rapid Reconstruction. He wanted it under presidential control, because the war was still on. He wanted to run it out of the power of commander in chief, and he wanted only a limited degree of constitutional experimentation. Just before Lincoln was murdered, he had come out for some variations at least of black suffrage, the right to vote, particularly for black soldiers. And he probably was moving even further on that with time if he had lived. 

But Lincoln saw Reconstruction as a time of the renewal of the Union. He wanted the Union put back together as quickly as possible, because his greatest fear, and not without some good reason, was guerrilla war — a war that would somehow just never end, that would end in constant insurgencies across the South. The kind of nightmare scenario with which most modern civil wars have ended, if you think about it, throughout the past 150 years. The other wing of his party, led by Charles Sumner in the Senate, Thaddeus Stevens in the House of Representatives, and others, wanted a slower Reconstruction, a more radical Reconstruction. They wanted more constitutional experimentation. They believe that their party had overseen the emancipation of 4 million people from slavery and that they had the responsibility now to put in place some kind of regime — at least the beginning of a regime — of racial equality. 

Plus, they were determined to punish the leadership of the South, at least with temporary disenfranchisement, if not permanent in some cases, perhaps some exile. But they wanted a congressional leadership of Reconstruction on the theory that no new state can be admitted to the union — except by Congress, that’s in the constitution. And their vision — Sumner, Stevens, and others — their vision of Reconstruction is that the Southern states would cease to exist. 

Secession meant, as Sumner put it, state suicide. Therefore, the Southern states don’t get back into the Union in their vision without going through the territorial process of new states. Lincoln’s view was they had never truly left the Union because they couldn’t, that secession was constitutionally impossible. The reality was, there had been the bloodiest war ever fought that demonstrated that they had indeed left the Union. So these were two fundamentally different visions of how to run Reconstruction. Now, would they have ever managed to compromise these visions had Lincoln lived out a whole second term? Everyone speculates, nobody knows. Probably to some degree, because Lincoln was so politically adept and had close relationships with many of these Radical Republicans. 

Of course, he’s gone, he’s murdered in April of 1865, and his replacement, Andrew Johnson, had if anything a much more presidential and lenient conception of Reconstruction than Lincoln ever did. In fact, Andrew Johnson was a virulent white supremacist, only accepted the end of slavery because it was forced upon him by history. Andrew Johnson wanted no experimentation with the Constitution. In fact, his slogan was, “Constitution as it is, and the Union as it was.” Put the Union back together, don’t change the Constitution. In Andrew Johnson’s visions, the 4 million freed slaves would become some kind of legal serfs, some kind of peasant class with no civil and political rights, still a labor force and probably a paid labor force — although he never was clear even on that. 

So these were very different visions of what Reconstruction should be. And I guess the important thing to note here is that no one had ever had to do this before. There was no blueprint for this. There wasn’t a place you could look up in the Constitution where it said, “Well, what if 11 states secede from the Union, and you fight a war that kills 700,000 people, what do you do now?” They had to make it up as they went. I think it’s important to note here that even though Lincoln and the Radical Republicans in their own party differed sometimes greatly with each other, they both had this idea that Reconstruction was going to have to be a form of experimentation. And that was what was ahead of them. We’re using the word unprecedented now — aren’t we? — all the time for what we’re experiencing right now. They were dealing every day, too, with unprecedented results of this all-out civil war that had finally ended.

JS: Well, you also had in 1865, former Confederate states starting to pass so-called “black codes.” Section 1 of Mississippi’s vagrancy law reads in part, “all rogues and vagabonds, idle and dissipated persons, beggars, jugglers, or persons practicing unlawful games or plays, runaways, common drunkards, common night-walkers, pilferers, lewd, wanton, or lascivious persons, in speech or behavior, common railers and brawlers, persons who neglect their calling or employment, misspend what they earn, or do not provide for the support of themselves or their families, or dependents, and all other idle and disorderly persons, including all who neglect all lawful business, habitually misspend their time by frequenting houses of ill-fame, gaming-houses, or tippling shops, shall be deemed and considered vagrants, under the provisions of this act, and upon conviction thereof shall be fined not exceeding one hundred dollars, with all accruing costs, and be imprisoned, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding 10 days.” 

Professor Blight, what were these so-called “black codes” that started emerging during Reconstruction?

DB: You know, when you were reading that, Jeremy, I couldn’t help thinking that sounds like something that might have come out of the imagination of William Barr today from the Justice Department — all those horrible things that he thinks have gone to hell in a handbasket in American society. Well, the black codes, though, were attempts in the fall of 1865 by these ex-Confederate states. For a matter of months they were under Andrew Johnson’s edicts that said simply if they could pull together some state legislature, they would be readmitted to the Union by the president of the United States under his war powers. Period. You know, an ex-Confederate could run for office, some ex-Confederates were going to be disfranchised, at least for a while, but not very many. 

And in that environment of the fall of 1865, in these fledgling jerry-rigged legislatures that the southern states concocted, they passed these kinds of laws, which in effect was trying to reinstate a form of slavery. What they were really doing with vagrancy laws is trying to keep black people on the land, to make them stay put, because there was a lot of moving around — a lot of people just searching for loved ones, and friends, and dead soldiers, and so on, and so on, and so on. Those vagrancy laws were an attempt to keep the labor force of the South riveted to the land, so that land owners in this chaotic economic environment could once again begin the production of staple crop agriculture, especially cotton.  

At the root of those of those black codes was this desire to get an economy running again and to keep black people from exercising — or even entertaining the idea that they could exercise — civil and political rights. Actually, and in some of the Deep South states, they passed as many as 60 and 70 of these codes. And I should say, those black codes quickly got a reputation back in Washington and in the Northern press, because you had all kinds of Union officers, Freedmen’s Bureau agents — the Freedmen’s Bureau just been created in the winter of 1865 — all across the South, who were who were writing letters to congressmen. 

In fact, I worked in the papers of Thaddeus Stevens, Sumner, and others. They’re getting letters from the ground in the South saying, whoa, you’re not gonna believe what they’re doing down here. They’re trying to reinstate slavery. You guys have got to act. And they did. Congress did act. They refused to allow the readmission of any of those Southern states, and the black codes had a good deal to do with stimulating the kind of political impulse that drove the Republicans now by December of ’65 and in the winter of 1866 to call off Andrew Johnson’s attempts to readmit the Southern states so rapidly. And out of that came, for the next two years, the Civil Rights Act, the Reconstruction Act, the 14th Amendment, the 15th Amendment, and everything that we call the revolution of reconstruction.

JS: You know, in one of your lectures on the Civil War and Reconstruction — all of these are available on YouTube — you read a passage from a freed man in the South named Bayley Wyat, who was giving a speech at a Union League meeting in 1866. And let’s listen to a clip of that.

DB: “Our wives, our children, our husbands has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon. For that reason, we have a divine right to the land. And then, didn’t we clear the lands and raise the crops of corn, and of cotton, and of tobacco, and of rice, and of sugar, and of everything? And then didn’t them large cities in the North grow up on the cotton, and the sugars, and the rice that we made?”

JS: So, Professor Blight, talk about black political organizing that was taking place in the South at that time and its impact.

DB: This political revolution on the ground in the South among the freedpeople was extraordinary. There’s never been anything like it in American history. They organized themselves into what were called Union Leagues. They organized themselves into Republican Party clubs. They held Freedmen’s conventions. The first Freedmen’s convention was actually held in an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Raleigh, North Carolina in early fall 1865. These were extraordinary gatherings where black folk, in conjunction sometimes with Union officers and missionaries from the North, would get together and try to explain to each other: So what is this freedom going to mean? And in that passage from Bayley Wyat, it’s one of these Freedmen’s gatherings in, I believe, Virginia. And Bayley Wyat, a Freedman, he got up and basically gave the argument of the labor theory of value. He was saying, as so many others did, look, we built the economy of the South. We work these plantations. We created those rice fields out of swamps. We plant the cotton, we harvest it, we pick it. We are the backbone of this economy. So why can’t we own any of it?

It’s basic, old-fashioned labor theory of value. It’s out of John Locke’s Second Treatise, and Bayley Wyat, it turns out, didn’t need to read John Locke to understand that if you work something and you improve it, you ought to have a right to own some of it. There’s that kind of economic spirit in so many of those gatherings across the South in 1865, ’66, ’67. But then it got converted into a political impulse. People wanted, now, to vote. They wanted to have some power. They wanted to be in a state legislature. Some of them imagined themselves in the U.S. Congress, and a bunch of them got elected — I think 16 of them over the course of Reconstruction. 

And it’s a classic example, one of the best we have in all of our history, of where for a short while, at least, the idea of economic liberty and political liberty got mingled, got mingled in reality and got mingled in rhetoric. But one of the lessons we get from this, of course, and we’ve seen this lesson happen again and again other times, is that it is sometimes much easier to advance political rights or political liberty than it is to advance economic rights and economic liberty. Because economic liberty obviously involves property, it doesn’t involve just officeholding or political power, which is not to diminish political power, because ultimately, everything depends on that. It’s a period for a while, a couple of years — three to four years — of tremendous spirit, or what one historian once called “explosions of hope,” among people who had been enslaved for generations, and now actually could imagine that they could run something.

JS: I also want to ask about the role of the Ku Klux Klan and other sort of quote unquote, “non-official forces” operating in the United States at the time. And of course, you know, we talk about this a lot with Donald Trump as president where, you know, he had his moment after Charlottesville —

Reporter: They showed up at Charlottesville —

DJT: Excuse me. [Inaudible] And you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.

JS: At times, he says just overtly racist things, but the general tenor of his presidency has been to wink and nod at some of the most vile and violent white supremacist or neofascist forces in the United States. And you’ve laid out sort of what Andrew Johnson’s view on these issues was at the time. I’m wondering if we can also talk about how the Ku Klux Klan operated, in addition to the so-called “black codes” that we discussed. The Klan was founded in Tennessee in 1865, and the historian and author of the book “They Left Great Marks on Me,” Kidada Williams, says on the podcast “Scene On Radio” —

Kidada Williams: In the first election in 1868, where African Americans have access to the right to vote, African American men have access to the right to vote, you see the beginnings of violence designed to stop them from voting and to stop them from serving in office. And that only increases in 1869 headed into the 1870 election.

JS: Professor Blight, talk about the violent backlash that African Americans faced in the years after the Civil War and during Reconstruction and the role of the Ku Klux Klan.

DB: The period of Reconstruction, especially from 1868 on, is really the only time in American history when violence and terror actually became a nearly normal part of American politics in election years. The numbers of people killed at voting polls, or on the way to voting polls, or in the process of electoral politics is in the thousands. The most famous or infamous of Reconstruction era massacres occurred because of or around electoral politics. The biggest one was the Colfax massacre in Louisiana in 1873. This can happen, in part, because on the ground in the South, there is an absence — or let’s just put it this way — of police. There’s an absence of a police force. Yes, there are still occupying Union troops in parts of the South, although most of them are located only in coastal forts, such that in the hinterland of the South, which is a huge region, of course, there was rarely any Union Army force to stop this kind of violence. 

It had the approval of white Democrats. In fact, the Ku Klux Klan and then after it, its many imitators, were really the violent subsidiaries of the Democratic Party. They were an arm of the Democratic Party, without a question, from ’68 on. It has to be seen in the conditions of this almost frontier-style, still largely rural society, full of the raw memories and raw hatreds born of the war. I’ve often said Reconstruction ultimately is a kind of long referendum on the verdict of Appomattox, or the verdicts of the war. And what the Klan and its imitators demonstrate in the South is that so many — not all, but so many — white Southerners had never accepted that verdict. And their obvious target of rage, and of revenge, and of retribution were black people themselves and the Republican Party, white Republicans indeed, and especially if they were Northerners who were transported down to the South, the so-called “carpetbaggers” — became the targets of this kind of violence.

And it was terrorist violence. It was violence as we’ve come to know it in our own time, designed to intimidate a community, to terrorize a community. The point of it was to drive black people out of politics and to try to destroy the Republican Party. Now, you made the comparison to today. Well, you know, so much of our modern history has rendered the overt expressions of virulent racism very rare. Now, the march in Charlottesville is a very rare phenomenon. Now we have these guys appearing at state capitols. I grew up in Michigan, and to see those guys with their assault rifles inside the Michigan Capitol was just appalling to me. It was just overwhelming, almost.

Reuters reporter: Hundreds of protesters, some armed with guns, entered Michigan’s state capitol in Lansing on Thursday, objecting to Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer’s request to extend emergency powers to combat Covid-19.

DB: Why are they even allowed inside of a state capitol with an assault rifle? That’s one question. But overt expressions like this don’t happen very often anymore at all. We live in an age of code language about race, winks and nods, as you suggested. And indeed, Donald Trump and his minions are very, very good at this. At the deep base of Trumpism is a desire — I don’t think there’s any question about this, now, there’s plenty of evidence for it — is the desire to try somehow to recreate an essentially white-dominated society. They may even know they can’t do it. But they may then go down fighting to do it.

JS: You know, as we watch this coronavirus pandemic take its toll on people around the world and in this country, what has emerged is the reality that the virus itself does not discriminate, as everyone is fond of saying, but the system that we have in this country — socially, economically, with health care — does discriminate. It’s an essential factor in why we’re seeing African Americans, Latinos, indigenous people in this country all being hit disproportionately harder than white people are right now. And going back to this discussion that we’re having, you recently wrote that “some events, usually unanticipated, cause seismic breaks in time.” You’re referring to the Civil War and the Great Depression. And I’m wondering, given the realities that I just described of how this virus is impacting different racial groups, ethnic groups, economic groups, what do you see as the historical lessons that we can learn and apply to the history we’re living through right now?

DB: When a fundamental crisis like this happens, or a fundamental crisis like the Civil War, a fundamental crisis like the Great Depression, no society can come out of that the same. The question is, what do you do? How do you struggle politically to gain control of how your society comes out of that? The coronavirus has just revealed all of our deepest fissures — racial fissures, economic class fissures — in American society. We have so obviously seen now, that as soon as we started using that term “essential workers,” most essential workers are at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. It has always been thus. So the question now is, where do we look in the past? Because that’s the only guide we have. Look, I’m a historian, so I’m obviously going to say that, but what other guide do we have but to look back? 

How did Americans put themselves back together in the wake of the Civil War? By what visions, by what conceptions of their own constitution, by what conceptions of their own history? How did America respond to the Great Depression? How did it imagine its way through that, even if not completely out of it? Where did that New Deal impulse come from? And how did we indeed survive the [19]60s? The ’60 is a big bundle of ideas, of course, it meant war, the civil rights revolution, it meant violence and assassinations. How did we come out of that? Well, each of these examples shows us that it took great political experimentation. It took great political experimentation with the very idea of the role of government and its relationship to individuals. 

Each time we’ve had one of these, we have to answer that fundamental question: What do people owe their governments, and what do governments owe their people, if a republic is truly to exist? And in this republic, we are now, obviously, more pluralistic, more diverse, more a representation of all the peoples of planet Earth than we’ve ever been. How do you put this pluralistic society back together in the wake of this crisis, which actually has no clear end — nor did Reconstruction, nor did the Great Depression? We don’t know what is coming in the fall, in the summer, and next winter, but what we do know is we’ve been revealed to ourselves and frankly to the world. 

One of the things this has revealed now since March, since we began to think about this, is that we are once again thrown right back on our fundamentals. What’s the role of government? Sometimes the role of government is to save society. How will we save ourselves out of this crisis? By what means, by what models? And are we — do we even know yet — are we so — God, I’ve come to hate the word, polarized, that we can’t remake it anymore? Hopefully not.

JS: In the Democratic primary, you had in Bernie Sanders — and to a lesser extent, but it was real, Elizabeth Warren — offering up a very different vision for how to proceed, not just in the time of coronavirus, but coming out of eight years of Obama, then [three] years of Donald Trump. And what has emerged from that primary is this old guard, a so-called moderate, Democrat Joe Biden. And then you have in Congress Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, really not showing all that much spine during the era of Trump. And it just seems like the official opposition is not rising to the occasion of everything that Donald Trump represents and the threats that we see. So how do you set this moment in a historical context on a political level, which you’re referencing, where you have Donald Trump and all he represents, and then you have what I think objectively can just be declared as a kind of very soft, contradictory, and not well-organized official opposition to him?

DB: That’s an interesting analysis, and I mostly agree with you, except, I don’t know — we’re not ex post facto yet to know exactly what has happened, but that sudden reversal in the primaries may have less to do with Joe Biden and his centrism or moderation than it does do simply with colossal fear of Donald Trump. I mean, Trump is the issue. Trump is what everybody has had to reposition themselves to. The fact that Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders did not succeed — and there are a lot of factors behind that — but it may have more to do with just fear of Trump than it does with anything else. 

There’s some news coming out of the Biden camp that, you know, he may be moving toward kind of New Deal-like ideas. I hope to God they are, because we’re going to have to have that. If Biden can somehow win in the fall, he’s going to inherit a situation worse than Obama did in ’08. We’ve got a collapsed economy and a deeply divided country. It’s going to take enormous imagination. So, I hope he reaches to the people who had, as you suggested, the greater imagination to help him move forward, because he’s desperately going to need them. And politically, he needs them, to say the least. The Democratic Party has an opportunity now, though, to lead, and to lead with imagination, because people are terrified.

JS: On that note, we’re going to leave it there. Professor David Blight, thank you so much for your incredibly important work and also for being with us here on Intercepted.

DB: Thank you, Jeremy. I enjoyed the discussion very much.

JS: David Blight is a professor of American history and the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University. He is the author of many books, most recently, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” for which he won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for history.

[Music interlude] 

Pulitzer Prize Winning Author Greg Grandin Discusses the Battle for the New Deal

JS: From the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, we shift now to a few decades later to explore the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash, the Great Depression, and the emergence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Joining me now is Greg Grandin. He also teaches history at Yale University. And his most recent book, “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America,” won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction. Greg Grandin, thanks so much for joining us again on Intercepted, and first of all, just congrats on the Pulitzer Prize. 

Greg Grandin: Thanks. Thank you so much. 

JS: You and I last spoke on this podcast in January of last year. And at the time, I asked you to describe “The End of the Myth,” and this is what you said.

GG: Well, it’s the way that the U.S. moved away from the central myth of American exceptionalism, the myth of the frontier, with the frontier standing as a symbol of openness, of political equality, of moving out into the world.

JS: Greg, how do you think that this coronavirus pandemic has challenged this myth of American exceptionalism and of the frontier?

GG: You know, it’s a confirmation in some ways of what I was arguing and certainly an acceleration of trends that I was trying to identify and grapple with in the book, “The End of the Myth,” this idea that social problems could be solved through the promise of expansion, through the promise of endless growth. And before the coronavirus hit, I had identified three reasons for the end of the myth. One was the demise of militarism as a venue of righteousness, of justification, of this notion of spreading democracy and spreading political liberalism. That was a result of the ongoing consequences and blowback from the disastrous post 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then elsewhere. 

And we also identified the collapse of the growth model, the 2007-2008 housing crisis that — even though we had entered into some kind of recovery — it revealed a kind of social stagnation and mobility, and what political scientist Thomas Ferguson called two economies, 70 percent of the population that doesn’t benefit from globalization and 30 percent that does. Hanging over all of that was climate change and the reality that endless growth was no longer possible, but climate change and climate catastrophe was forcing a kind of reckoning. And now, the coronavirus and Covid-19 reveals all of those trends and some ways in extremis. It highlighted them, and brought them into relief, and accelerated many of the trend lines that I was trying to talk about and identify in “The End of the Myth.”

JS: What are some of the analogues or examples that come to mind when we try to set Donald Trump, his response to this pandemic, in the context of the history of American administrations?

GG: Well, in the history of U.S. administrations, he is exceptional. And that’s one of the things that I was also trying to get at: The argument that Donald Trump either revealed a deep racism, a deep settler colonial barbarism, or he represented something completely unique and exceptional to the United States. He is unique in the sense that he is presiding over the end of the frontier, the end of expansion, the end of the invocation of endless growth as a solution for domestic problems. I would say there is no other example that is equitable, that is comparable. A lot of people like to talk about Andrew Jackson —

DJT: Had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, there’s no reason for this. People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War. Think about it. Why? People don’t ask that question. But why was there the Civil War? Why could, why could that one not have been worked out?

GG: Trump talks about Jackson as his favorite politician, and certainly Trump represents a settler colonial racism. By that I mean an embrace or trumpeting of the notion of freedom as freedom from restraint. We obviously see this in its most extreme form, these protesters demanding that the United States open.

Unidentified protester 1: Free Tennessee!

Unidentified protester 2: Free Tennessee! Who’s ready for Tennessee to open up? 

Unidentified protester 1: Everybody!

GG: — equating being told that they need to social distance, or wear masks, or adhere to other policies that are meant to limit and mitigate the spread of Covid as akin to slavery.

Diane Ventura: My biggest fear right now is how quick American patriots crumbled and hid in their homes because their government told them that they should, because of a virus that may kill us.

Unidentified protester 3: I got every problem with the government saying we can’t go out. It’s a prohibition. It’s illegal. It’s against the constitution. 

Unidentified protester 4: Prolonged lockdown basically is slavery.

Andrew Callaghan: Do you feel enslaved?

Unidentified protester 4: I do. I’m a “Type A” lawyer, and I am bouncing off the walls of my living room, because I can’t go out. 

GG: And that is at the heart of settler colonial racism, this notion of freedom as freedom from restraint. And Trump obviously represents that, and that does have echoes with Andrew Jackson and other presidents. But Trump is presiding over a country turned inward. Andrew Jackson came to power as the United States was moving out into the world, and that moving out into the world took place on the back of Indian removal, the expansion of chattel slavery, war with Spain and Mexico, and an enormous amount of violence. Trump is presiding over, in some ways, the end of the project. 

So on the one hand, he represents the worst of that kind of historic racism that in the past was projected outward towards enemies on the frontier. But he doesn’t have that option, in many ways, and we can go into the details of that. So there were other administrations that presided over downturns or turns inward, the period after the Civil War, where the United States was forced into a brief reckoning with Reconstruction. And then there was the New Deal, when the collapse of the stock market and the protracted recession and Great Depression led to an embrace of government intervention in the economy that had been unheard of in U.S. history.

FDR: I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require.

GG: Trump in some ways is the worst of both worlds, right? He represents the racism of settler colonialism in its most extreme form. At the same time, he rejects out of hand — because of the political coalition that he represents — any kind of public policy that might lead to a more solidaristic and humane policy options. So we have a really kind of a perfect storm of some of the worst trend lines in U.S. history.

JS: There’s one story that you tell in “The End of the Myth” that deals with Andrew Jackson before he became president. In 1811, Jackson, who at the time was a Nashville lawyer and a slave-trader, was transporting a group of enslaved people in Mississippi when he’s stopped by a federal agent. Explain what happened there, what that story is and its significance.

GG: Jackson was the only president — that we know of — that personally transported slaves in coffle. A coffle is when they chain humans together with irons around their neck. And he was moving a group of enslaved people along a road between Nashville and the Gulf, along an indigenous road through indigenous territory, and a federal agent had stopped him and asked if he could see his papers, because there’s a lot of illegal contraband slavery. And this was a period right after the Congress had cut off the Atlantic slave trade, so slave trading was taking place legally domestically, but not internationally. And Jackson flew into a rage. He basically equated being asked to prove that he was the legal owner of the enslaved peoples that he was transporting with slavery itself, and I take this as the kind of crystallization of what I had just talked about, a notion of freedom as freedom from restraint. 

And Jackson spent a year hounding this agent and getting him fired, letter after letter that just showed a kind of a kind of resentment that echoes down through the ages, and what we would think of as white supremacy, or white privilege, or white resentment, a kind of notion that any kind of federal intrusion in individual liberty is itself a form of slavery. Oftentimes that’s understood metaphorically — “taxes are slavery,” you know, “gun control is slavery,” etc, etc, that we saw a kind of discourse that came to prominence with the Tea Party, and has continued with Donald Trump, and is now very prominent in these anti-social-distancing protests. But in this case, it was over actual slavery. 

This I take as the heart of settler colonial racism and what we call white supremacy, and the way it spills out and ripples out through political culture, down both to cover areas beyond slavery itself — but why we can’t ever actually escape slavery, why everything always is about slavery when it comes to political discourse in the United States, even when it’s not about slavery — but also ripples down the years to the present. It really is a remarkable moment. 

JS: It’s, I think, worth noting that this is all taking place at a moment where, as of Monday of this week, at least 31 U.S. states around the country have begun to “open up,” despite the majority of these states, continuing to report increases in cases of coronavirus. Do you see this as sort of the logical conclusion or byproduct of Andrew Jackson’s vision of absolutism when it comes to individual rights?

GG: Yeah, absolutely. But this is the methodological question. This is the kind of conceptual conundrum: How does it reproduce itself? How does a kind of ideology of freedom as freedom from restraint — which is founded in centuries of chattel slavery in which white people identified and forged a conception of liberty that was juxtaposed and contrasted with this servitude of people of color — how does that reproduce itself in other social arenas? How does it reproduce itself down the decades and down the centuries, where it’s echoed in protests against any kind of government restrictions?

And now we’re seeing this in a very intensified form, literally about life and death, where people are protesting any kind of government regulation when it comes to such a profound health crisis as we’re living through. So the question is, how does it reproduce itself? I think it reproduced itself through expansion, through the constant promise of growth. Other countries that didn’t have that prerogative, didn’t have that privilege, didn’t have that experience of limitless expansion, and didn’t have the political culture of politicians invoking limitless expansion eventually had to reckon with themselves. Liberalism socialized. It either led to social democracy or it led to a certain kind of acceptance of the legitimacy of government regulation in moderating the marketplace. The United States never had to have that reckoning. 

It did — I’m talking in very sweeping terms — it did after the Civil War, as you know, in terms of Reconstruction. It did during the New Deal. But the reaction and the counter movement moving back towards this absolutism when it comes to individual freedom — freedom as freedom from restraint — is one of the through-lines of U.S. history, and we see it over and over again after the Civil War, there was a reckoning, but then the U.S. pushed outward. During the Great Depression, there was a reckoning, and then the U.S. pushed outward. And in the 1970s, during the period when people were talking about limits to growth and the age of scarcity, there was a reckoning. It’s most famous in Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech.

Jimmy Carter: It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.

GG: And then there was the Reagan reaction.

Ronald Reagan: In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem. It is time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden. And these will be our first priorities, and on these principles, there will be no compromise.

GG: So one can think of the broad sweep of U.S. history as a constant rejection of limits. And it’s become almost farcical in these protests, if it wasn’t so tragic in its implications.

JS: As we understand it right now from official statistics, there were more than 20 million jobs that were lost in the United States in April, bringing the official jobless rate to just under 15 percent, the highest rate recorded since the Great Depression. Now, there are other analyses that suggest that actually, it’s higher than that, but we’re just going on the official statistics right now. And even according to those statistics, unemployment could well rise above 20 percent in the very near future. 

Many people are suggesting that a mass mobilization by the federal government akin to that which was produced coming out of the Great Depression is going to be required to salvage the American economy. Describe the conditions within the United States and the broader political culture during the Great Depression or at that time in history. Paint a picture of all of this for us. 

GG: The Depression really brought into conflict two very competing notions of U.S. political culture. The Jacksonian consensus, this idea of minimal government, individual liberty, had really reestablished itself in the half century after the Civil War and reigned supreme, and the Great Depression dealt a blow to it that many at the time thought was fatal.

Unidentified news announcer: The richest country in the world began a bitter journey downhill. The stock market buckled and crashed, and the nation’s economy plummeted into the Depression. By 1932, nearly one man out of four was unemployed. Working men spent their days on park benches. The government set up public soup kitchens. New York, the richest city in the richest country in the world, found itself bankrupt, politically as well as economically. 

GG: It was around this time that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s brain trust began attaching the adjective “social” to all of these kind of categories we associate — social individualism, Social Security, social civilization.

FDR: The millions of today want and have a right to the same security that their forefathers sought in this nation, the assurance that with help and the willingness to work, they will find a place for themselves and the social and economic system of the time. Because it has become increasingly difficult for individuals to build their own security single-handed, government must now step in and help them lay the foundation stones.

GG: There was an idea that the government needed to intervene and to mediate social relations, and there was an acceptance of it. FDR, as we know, was no socialist, and he put into place a broad array of social policies. But the one thing that he was fairly consistently doing was putting forth a conception of citizenship based on social solidarity.

FDR: My friends, I still believe in ideals. I am not for a return to that definition of liberty under which for many years a free people were being gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few. I prefer, and I am sure you prefer, that broader definition of liberty under which we are moving forward to greater freedom, to greater security for the average man than he has ever known before in the history of America.

GG: He was well versed in what we would call the “frontier theory” — that American democracy was forged on the frontier, that political equality was forged in the movement outward across the landed frontier, and that one of the things that made the United States exceptional was this deep-seated political quality that was created in the experience of expansion. And he was able to kind of use that story to tell a different story: Those days are gone, what we need now is a new conception of citizenship. And that’s what — more than anything else, I think that that was the radicalism of the New Deal

FDR: — a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all, regardless of station, or race, or creed.

Among these are the right to a useful and remunerative job, the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation, the right of every family to a decent home, the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health, the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment, the right to a good education. For unless there is security here at home, there cannot be lasting peace in the world. 

GG: This was a period in which the Ku Klux Klan had nearly free reign. In the 1920s, reacting to Woodrow Wilson’s deep-seated racism is racism abroad and interventions in Haiti — for instance, when the U.S. Marines reestablished slavery in a country that was forged in an anti-slavery rebellion over a century earlier. Woodrow Wilson’s alliance with Southern states, built on kind of reviving the Confederacy and the culture of the Confederacy, and to a large degree the New Deal swept all of that away and put forth another idea that that was also in some ways deeply rooted — if subordinated, to settler colonial racism — the idea of diversity or what people started calling cultural pluralism. 

You know, despite all of the limits of the New Deal — the fact that African Americans didn’t benefit equally as white workers did, the fact that agricultural workers were cut out from some of the benefits of the New Deal because FDR needed to placate Southern planters in order to hold the Democratic coalition together — all of those shortcomings are real and profound, and they had deep-seated consequences, but the fact of the matter is that the New Deal also represented this kind of other tradition. This tradition of tolerance, and pluralism, and diversity, and acceptance, that I think is part of the U.S. story but has long played a subordinate role to this other more vicious and more brutal  tradition, which right now under Donald Trump has free rein.

JS: What exactly was the deal that FDR was pitching, and how did he pitch it to the American people at the time?

GG: Well, he was talking about democratizing capitalism. And he wasn’t a socialist, but he certainly had a vision of capitalism that was subordinated to the largest social good. And it’s a contrast to today, where both parties seem to be representing different wings of corporate monopoly — Democrats representing a kind of last gasp of a neoliberal consensus that can’t think beyond the horizon of corporate control, and Trump representing some more blatant forms of exploitation. 

But in both cases, I think it’s a perfect example of what a contrast, and how broad the vision, and how diverse the vision was in the 1930s compared to the constriction today and contraction of political imagination today. We just came out of the primary, we saw what an alternative vision could look like. We had a candidate, Bernie Sanders, that didn’t stop talking about what it meant to democratize the economy, to give people back some kind of control over their own lives, to restore some kind of dignity. 

We have two economies. There are two Americas. And the Republican Party bridges that gulf with racism, and it bridges that gulf with nativism, and it bridges that gulf with ludicrous expressions of the culture war, and the Democratic Party doesn’t even try. It just continues to imagine policies that benefit its corporate donor base. 

Lawrence O’Donnell: You are president, Bernie Sanders is still active in the Senate, he manages to get Medicare for All through the Senate in some compromised version, the Elizabeth Warren version or — or other version, Nancy Pelosi gets a version of it through the House of Representatives. It comes to your desk, do you veto it?

JB: I would veto anything that delays providing the security and the certainty of health care being available now. If they got that through, and by some miracle there was an epiphany that occurred, and some miracle occurred that said, “OK, it’s passed,” then you’ve got to look at the cost. I want to know, how did they find the $35 trillion? What is that doing? Is it going to significantly raise taxes on the middle class, which it will? What’s going to happen?

JS: The Democratic proposals are all minuscule scraps off the table, if you look at it in the scope of history or other major initiatives, and the Republicans seem to be primarily obsessed with protecting corporations or businesses from liability if the country opens up and their workers start getting sick. I’m wondering, if we look at what was proposed and how it was implemented by FDR’s administration coming out of the Great Depression, and then we look at just the proposals that are being offered or the first round of so-called stimulus that was passed by the Congress and signed by President Trump, what your analysis is of that as a legislative response to the wide-scale death and economic crisis that we’re facing right now.

GG: FDR was trying to widen the circle and trying to pull people into the protection of the government with an array of creative policies, ranging from make-work programs to more established and enduring programs like Social Security. Here we have the two parties basically talking about how to institutionalize a system that is blatantly, inescapably, and unavoidably founded on disposable people, and acknowledging their disposability and doing nothing about it. You know, some of the basic presumptions of citizenship and political culture are that people should have dignified lives, and that when there are social crises, the government will respond. And here we have a government that seems to be intent on making it worse. It really is a remarkable expression of American exceptionalism, and I think we really have a political leadership that seems to be intent on using it as a way to kind of increase corporate control.

JS: You know, we’ve increasingly heard people in the Joe Biden camp talking about how, you know, Biden is in part being guided by this sense that he needs to rise to the same occasion as FDR coming out of the Great Depression. New York Magazine published on Monday a piece with the title, “Joe Biden Is Planning an FDR-Size Presidency.” I’m curious what you think about that comparison that the Biden camp clearly is pushing, pushing, pushing right now.

GG: He’s had his hands on all of the worst bills over the last two decades — in terms of bankruptcy laws, in terms of financial deregulation, punitive criminal reform — that go hand in hand with new neoliberalization, right? That’s the essence. It’s not just the weakening of the state. It’s the weakening of the regulatory wing of the state and the strengthening of the punitive wing of the state, in terms of penitentiaries, in terms of empowering police and the militarization of police. Every step of the way, Joe Biden has been there.

I mean, look, anything can happen. FDR was no FDR before he was FDR. He was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he was an ardent imperialist, born and bred Hudson Valley gentry, [inaudible] traced his lineage back to some of the earliest white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and the ruling class of the country. And he was creative enough to meet the challenge, and social movements pushed FDR to the left. I don’t think anybody actually thinks that Joe Biden is capable of that, and not just because of his own history in leading to the current catastrophe, in terms of financialization and militarization of the justice system. 

He seems very much embedded in the corporate donor class that has taken over the Democratic Party. Can you rise up and throw off those shackles and create a space for a new movement? You know, we can’t predict the future. Maybe he can, and again, FDR is instructive, and FDR changed, and he transformed, and he became as he is remembered. And maybe that’s what we have to hope for, but it certainly doesn’t seem to bode well.

JS: Greg Grandin, once again, congratulations on the Pulitzer Prize, and thank you so much for being with us again on Intercepted.

GG: Thanks Jeremy. It’s always great.

JS: Greg Grandin teaches history at Yale University. His most recent book “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America” won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction. 

And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro, our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Ariel Boone. Special thanks to David Riker. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

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