Heather Cox Richardson, writer and professor, is taking this academic year off from her teaching duties at Boston College. A rare bird — a celebrity historian — she might be cutting back on her official line of work, but she’ll still have an audience, of course: More than one million people subscribe to the nightly email blast that has made her one of the leading voices of our political moment.
Richardson has a busy schedule planned in support of her latest book, “Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America,” including appearances at WBUR CitySpace, the Music Hall in Portsmouth, and the Boston Book Festival.
“Then we’ll see about [next] fall, because of course this election is going to be huge,” she said just after Labor Day, during a reporter’s visit with her in the coastal Maine town where she lives. (For privacy reasons, Richardson asked that the town not be named.) “I just don’t know what my future looks like.”
On the eve of a previous presidential election, in 2016, Richardson truly had no idea what her future would become. A historian whose specialty was the Reconstruction era of the late 19th century – “I wasn’t that plugged in then,” she recalled; “I followed the news like anybody else” – she soon found herself compelled to create some context for the mounting chaos of the Trump years.
Her nightly newsletter, “Letters from an American,” quickly became the most successful account on the subscription platform Substack, a distinction that only continues to grow. “Democracy Awakening” is a culmination of Richardson’s work of the past several years, presented in three sections: a prehistory of the recent efforts to undermine our democracy, a recap of the events of the Trump administration, and a blueprint for “Reclaiming America.”
“The whole point is to tell us how we got here, and where ‘here’ is, but then to tell us how to get out,” explained Richardson, sitting at a picnic table on the pier where her husband operates a lobster shack.
Just days ago, the small town where she lives and works bustled with summer visitors. Now, the season is over. The lobster shack was closed.
“Labor Day is history,” Richardson said, “and they roll up the roads.” Gazing out at the harbor, she noted that the water seemed “crazy calm. It looks like you could skate on it, which is very rare.”
Richardson has spent much of her life in this peninsular village of 600 or so residents. (She also keeps an apartment outside Boston, which she uses during the week when she’s teaching.) She has three adult children from a previous marriage; she and her husband, Buddy Poland, were married a year ago. Their great-grandparents knew each other from the local fishing community.
“We don’t all think alike,” she said of her neighbors. “But lots of us have roots that go way back. One of the things that really jumps out to me [about the place she calls home] is that it’s a curiously old-fashioned way to grow up.”
She was born in Chicago, where her parents met after World War II. They moved to Maine in the late 1960s, while Richardson, the youngest of four children, was still in elementary school. She attended Phillips Exeter Academy and eventually earned a Ph.D. at Harvard University.
Despite the tumultuous times that she’s been documenting, the optimism implied by the title of her book is no accident. It’s a better sales hook, she joked, than “We’re All Going to Hell in a Handbasket.”
“The truth is that I am more optimistic than I have been in a very long time, because people are paying attention,” she said.
By contrast, she recalled one “uh oh” moment from the mid-2000s, when then-President George W. Bush began making unprecedented use of the obscure tactic of “signing statements” – in effect, eroding congressional power by challenging certain aspects of a bill even as it is signed into law.
When she brought up the subject with colleagues and fellow historians, many of them shrugged. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh boy, this is not going in a good direction.’”
Now, however, even ordinary citizens are keenly aware of the daily threats to democracy, from voting restrictions and legislative stonewalling to certain leaders’ blatant disregard for the truth. Richardson has earned her huge following largely because of her even keel. But there are some things even she can’t abide.
“I really try always to be positive in public and on social media,” she said. “But I lose it on Marsha Blackburn,” the Republican senator from Tennessee.
“One of the things I find fascinating in this moment is that the Republican Party has simply given up on a reality-based world,” she says. “Marsha Blackburn just lies. And I find it, like, mind-boggling. I find it so deeply offensive.”
It’s been all but forgotten, Richardson pointed out, that during the 2016 primary season, Donald Trump “was the most moderate Republican. He was going to get better, cheaper healthcare, close the loopholes, bring back manufacturing and infrastructure. In fact, everything he promised, Biden did.
“You know, I should write about that,” she added.
The middle section of her book reads like a Greatest Hits of the Trump presidency – the attacks on civil servants and career diplomats, the “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, the photo op with the Bible. She knew that material frontwards and backwards from writing the newsletter, she said, and yet she still found herself “shocked” as she read through her own manuscript.
“When you strip out the noise in that section, it is the [story of the] rise of an authoritarian,” she said. “I was also shocked at how upset it made me.”
Richardson traces our democracy’s current peril back to previous episodes in the country’s history. During Reconstruction, for example, white Southerners began to complain about government “overreach”: With tax dollars supporting public works such as roads and schools, Black folks were benefiting disproportionately, they argued.
“So you’ve essentially got a redistribution of wealth,” Richardson explained, “and that’s ‘socialism.’”
The so-called “liberal consensus” – that civil rights should be codified by law, that government should protect consumers from corporations, and that the common good should be commensurate with individual freedoms – became a target for conservatives led by William F. Buckley beginning in the 1950s. Richardson also cites the rise of talk radio in the 1980s, “and then Newt Gingrich’s deliberate use of words in the 1990s, which said anybody who is our enemy is a ‘liberal.’
“Trump took that to a fine new height,” she said.
Just recently, she came across a quote from Abraham Lincoln. It addressed the need for Americans of goodwill to defend the democratic principles upon which the nation was founded.
“He said, ‘Right now people can get famous by’ – I’m paraphrasing – ‘by defending those principles. If we stop defending them, people can start getting famous by destroying them. And that’s something we need to be guarding against.
“‘You can be famous for creating or destroying,’” she reiterated. “I thought, ‘Wow,’ you know?”
She also thought that the water looked too inviting not to take her kayak out for a quick paddle around the harbor. Which she did, inviting her visitor to come along.
On the water, Richardson insisted that we venture around the bend to get a good look at the classic keystone bridge that straddles an inlet there. She never tires of marveling at it.
A keystone bridge, of course, is a time-tested symbol of strength.
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.