Photo courtesy of Eric Haynes / Edward M. Kennedy Institute

Eric Holder Talks Trump, Democracy, and the Need for “A New American Engagement”

When former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder looks at the problems posed by the Trump administration, he views the dangerous “wearing down of norms” as a common thread. As the political disorder of the Trump era becomes increasingly normalized, Holder makes a point to remind people that this is not how things have been under previous administrations, nor how they should be.

On Wednesday, May 30, Holder shared this message with a packed audience at Boston’s Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate. In a discussion moderated by Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer for The New Yorker and Chief Legal Analyst for CNN, Holder shared his experiences and insight on the current state of the American political system.

Holder served as Attorney General under President Obama from 2009 to 2015, making him the first African-American Attorney General and the third longest serving. For the past two years, he has held the role of Chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, aiming to reverse the partisan gerrymandering that creates an unfair system within congressional and legislative districts across the country.

While gerrymandering was intended to be the evening’s main topic of conversation, it was clear from the start that there was much more for Holder to weigh in on.

“I can tell that this audience is not just interested in gerrymandering,” Toobin pointed out early on.

“Are there other things going on?” Holder joked in response.

Gerrymandering, as Holder defines it, “is the drawing of districts for partisan advantage so that the party in power maintains its power and makes it close to impossible for the opposition party to gain that seat at the state or federal level.”

Citizens tend to suffer within gerrymandered districts, according to Holder, because representatives feel overly secure in their elected seats and often act in ways that are inconsistent with the will of those they represent.

“If you look at this whole problem of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and voter ID laws, the way in which our country has thought of itself and tried to design our representative democracy is under attack,” Holder told the audience.

Toobin then asked Holder to comment on the broader environment under President Trump and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Holder described the changes Sessions has made to the Justice Department as “radical,” viewing them as part of the wearing away of norms that is characteristic of the Trump administration. He also pointed to former President Obama’s understanding that the Department of Justice must act independently, contrasting that with Trump’s attempts to influence Sessions.

“You don’t want [the Justice Department’s] power to somehow be seen as a function of political wins or political desires, and yet this president will tweet ‘prosecute this person’ or ‘investigate this person’...we have never seen that before,” said Holder.

The former attorney general went on to discuss the fact that shifts in the way citizens view the justice system—evidenced by the well-known call to “lock her up” during the 2016 election—also represent a dangerous threat to democracy. He explained that while this attitude is new to American history, it’s been seen before in other parts of the world.

“I don’t want to be too alarmist,” he prefaced. “[But] if you look at Europe in the 1930s, authoritarian regimes took over, not because they were strong, but because democracies were weak… we should not delude ourselves into thinking we can’t lose the country we have.”

During the question and answer portion of the event, audience members asked Holder to shed light on a range of current issues.

When asked about the recent report that the federal government lost track of almost 1,500 immigrant children after separating them from their parents, Holder emphasized that, “this is government at its worst.”

Holder denied the Trump administration’s argument that their actions on immigration are the result of an Obama-era policy. “This is a policy determination that this administration has made to separate children from families as a way to try to thwart people either coming to this country illegally or seeking asylum,” he pointed out.

He stressed the need for comprehensive immigration reform that would change these policies in order to, “stay true to who we are as a nation.”

Holder was also asked about the recent arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks and the company-wide racial bias training that took place in response.

“What happened in Philadelphia, in that Starbucks store… people should not think that’s a Starbucks problem,” he explained. “That’s a problem that this nation has to confront.”

While recognizing that this incident is indicative of broader, deep-seated racism, Holder also believes that the country has the potential to make progress in confronting racist attitudes and biases, beginning with difficult conversations.

“I would hope we would use the Starbucks problem as an indication of what this nation can do, to talk about race in ways that we frequently do not,” he said.

As Holder weighed in on these political issues, Toobin asked about rumors that he may run for president in 2020.

“I’m thinking about it,” Holder replied amidst applause. “It’s something I’ll decide in the early part of next year.”

While his possible candidacy came up several times throughout the evening, Holder turned the focus away from himself and instead emphasized the need for a “new American engagement” on the part of citizens. He believes that it’s essential for everyone to become more active and involved on a day-to-day basis, speaking out in opposition to government policies when necessary. He pointed to the Women’s March following the 2016 election as well as the Parkland students’ fight for gun reform as two key examples.

Holder’s closing remarks served as an optimistic call to action. He referenced the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

“That only happens when people like you put their hands on that arc and pull it towards justice,” Holder told the audience.

“I think that’s the responsibility that we all have, to make sure we do all we can for the nation we love, to make it better, to make it perfect, to make it all it can be,” he concluded. “We have that capacity, we have that power, we have that ability… so get out there and do it.”

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