Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers
Burn the Boats is an award-winning podcast featuring intimate conversations with change-makers from every walk of life. Host Ken Harbaugh interviews politicians, authors, activists, and others about the most important issues of our time.
Rep. Seth Moulton: Understanding the Threats to American Democracy
| S:1 E:129
Rep. Seth Moulton discusses right-wing extremism within Congress and the dangers to American Democracy
Representative Seth Moulton is a former Marine Corps officer who has represented Massachusetts’s 6th district since 2015. He appears in the upcoming documentary film, Against All Enemies, where he delivers a prophetic warning about the threats to American Democracy posed by extremist organizations that target and recruit military veterans.
There are some idiots here in Congress, but the vast majority of my colleagues are pretty smart. It's not the easiest thing to get elected to the House or the Senate. So, what's lacking in Washington is not intelligence, it’s just courage. So many of these Republicans know the right thing to do, they're just goddamn scared to do it.
I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.
My guest today is Representative Seth Moulton, a former Marine Corps officer who has represented Massachusetts 6th District since 2015.
He appears in the upcoming documentary film Against All Enemies, where he delivers a prophetic warning about the threats to American democracy posed by extremist organizations that target and recruit military veterans.
Seth, welcome to Burn the Boats.
Good to be here. Always good to see you, Ken.
You too. Your interview, which I did for the film was a while back, and I think that in the months since, a lot of Americans have assumed, especially with the ringleaders of the January 6th insurrection being rounded up and locked away, that that danger is past us. How would you assess the threats to democracy today posed by violent extremist groups?
Well, look, the U.S. intelligence community has said that for 2023, for the year we're living in today, the single most lethal threat to Americans is these extremist groups. Greater threat than Russia or China, greater threat than North Korea, greater threat than Mexican drug gangs or terrorism. I mean, any other sort of threat that you hear about in America, actually, what you have to be worried about most are these homegrown extremists.
So, this is very real and it's very relevant, and I mean, to be perfectly honest, I think it's getting worse, not better.
And Trump's own IC, his own intelligence community, offered that same assessment. This isn't some partisan take. The danger is very real. It's clear and present.
But what would you say to those, even those in our veterans community who look at these people dressing up in tactical gear and parading in front of state houses, and they think of them as cosplay clowns. How do you address the comic nature that some of them present against the real threat that they pose?
No, I mean, this is not theater. This is deadly serious. And a lot of Americans are dying at the hands of these extremists. A lot of extremists are responsible for the deadly gun violence that we see across America. Extremists are responsible for really the worst coming out in our country. Like we saw Charlottesville that looked like it was out of a Nazi film from the 1930s.
So, this is not something to joke about. This is not something to laugh about. This is something to work hard to stop.
One of the points the film tries to make is that there is a moral burden that needs to be appropriately placed on the shoulders of leaders and lawmakers who are provoking this behavior, who are inciting this kind of violence.
And you have amongst your own colleagues on the other side of the aisle, people doing this out loud. It's not a dog whistle anymore. You responded to one such tweet from Clay Higgins, a Republican representative who said, “Buckle up, 1/50K, know your bridges. That is all.” Can you decipher that for us and tell us just how provocative that is?
This is Clay Higgins, an elected United States Congressman and a veteran using military terminology to say, get ready for a mission and get ready for a mission on the home front. He's essentially sort of in cryptic terms saying, get ready for an insurrection.
I mean, these are the kinds of messages that Confederates must have been sending around before the war broke out. Again, this is not only deadly serious. I mean, this is traitorous, frankly. He's talking about rising up against our own government.
What does know your bridges mean?
I mean, it's know your battle space, know what we call avenues of approach, know how you might cut off the enemy. But of course, the problem here is that for Clay Higgins, the enemy is us. It's fellow Americans.
What do you say when you run into these people in the halls of Congress, who always, of course provoke from a safe distance? I think the exemplar of this is Josh Hawley who instigated the insurrection and then ran as fast as he could when the danger approached him.
You're with these people, this is your workplace. Do the conversations ever come up face-to-face when you are reacting to colleagues literally inciting violence against fellow Americans?
So, I think the first thing to understand is that if you're a casual observer, hearing a tweet like the, the thing that Congressman Higgins put out might sound strong, but actually you look at these people and they're pretty pathetic and weak.
This comes not just from the veterans community, of course. I mean, Matt Gaetz is one of the most infamous names in Congress. Someone who incites all sorts of terrible behavior, not to mention his own personal terrible behavior for which he's gotten in plenty of hot water, but he's not a veteran. But he says terrible things.
And you have to … look, I had a lot of debates just last night as we were marking up the defense bill with Matt Gaetz. And in fact, there was a point where we were debating diversity programs in the Department of Defense, something that the department is very proud of.
Of course, the military integrated the services long before America was integrated as a country. So, this has been a longstanding practice, but the Republicans have suddenly connected a drop in recruiting with what they call the wokification of the military because we're doing diversity training in the military. That must be why Americans aren't signing up to serve.
They've been able to show no evidence for this connection whatsoever. But one of them brought up last night that also in 2017, there was this precipitous drop in confidence in the military as an institution, in Americans confidence across the country in the institution of the United States military.
And so, I spoke up in debate and just said, this may be a radical idea. You like to say that Democrats have radical ideas, but I wonder if the drop in confidence in our military is because we had just elected the year before a commander-in-chief who slammed the military, who politicized the military, who said that the troops who died in World War I, over in Belleau Wood, a famous marine battle were losers for getting killed.
Who said that John McCain was not a hero for being a prisoner of war. I like people who aren't captured. And when he died, President Trump was furious at his own staff because the flags were lowered to have staff in honor of John McCain, a true American hero. He said at the time, McCain's not a hero, he's a loser.
So, we had a commander-in-chief really for the first time in history who politicized the military, who attacked Americans for serving. Maybe just maybe that's why American's confidence in the military has gone down.
So, the point is that this is happening at the very highest levels of our government. It's not always veterans like Clay Higgins. Sometimes it's non-veterans like Matt Gaetz or draft dodgers like Donald Trump. But it is a pervasive problem in the Republican party and in conservatives in America, and it needs to be stopped because it's dangerous.
It is. I suspect there's not a whole lot that the military itself can do, that the DOD can do to answer the charges by a commander-in-chief who is demeaning them at every turn.
But are there other measures the DOD can take to strengthen the civic mindedness of the rank and file? And this is a leading question because one of the things I believe strongly in-
Yes, of course, and this is exactly what DOD has been doing, and exactly what Matt Gaetz and several of his Republican colleagues condemned last night during the annual defense bill markup, where we debate amendments and changes to the defense bill before we take a vote on it as the House of Representatives and send it to the Senate.
They’re trying to end these diversity programs and the working group on extremism, which is targeted specifically at this issue.
Now, there's a recent RAND study that just came out saying that veterans are no more likely to be radicalized than ordinary Americans.
That's right. You have the essence of that report.
It was the veterans or active duty. I just want to make sure I got that right.
The distinction, that's a great question. We'll look it up. We'll link to it in the show notes.
No, it is. It's veterans. So, they were trying to assess the prevalence of support for violent extremist groups and causes among veterans, and they found that statistically there's no difference between veterans and the rest of the U.S. population.
But frankly, what I was hoping they would find is that there's a major difference. And that is that people who have served the country, who've sworn an oath to protect our constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, would be far less likely to be co-opted by these violent extremists.
So yes, there's work that DOD should do. DOD should remind everybody who raised their hands to serve the country that they should honor that oath for the rest of their lives. That DOD should make sure that those who have training in conducting war, because we need them to be trained that way for our national security, DOD should be especially careful to make sure that those skills are not ever used against fellow Americans.
So, there is work that DOD can do, and it's conservative Republicans in Congress who are actually trying to prevent the Department of Defense from doing that work.
I had the exact same reaction to the RAND study that you did, and a couple of days after that study came out, a Companion study accompanied it, making the point that Fortune 500 companies, elite nonprofits and extremist groups recruit veterans for the exact same reason, because they are incredibly capable. And when they put their mind to a task, they tend to see it through completion.
And the fact that veterans in any percentage are being siphoned off and joining organizations like the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers is a cause for enormous alarm. And the more DOD can-
It's dangerous for the country for all the reasons that we laid out. Also, just to be clear, it's illegal to behave this way in the military, so you're going to get kicked out. So, if you have this behavior, not only is there a risk that you use your military skills to do harm to fellow Americans, but you just are also a loss to the DOD because we have to get rid of you. And all the money that we've spent and invested in your training to date goes to waste.
So, there are a lot of good reasons why the DOD should make sure that this behavior isn't happening among service men and women.
Here's the especially heartbreaking part for me, and it's something that a colleague of yours for whom I have enormous respect, Jason Crow had a lot to say about in the film when he was trapped in the house galley, one of the few areas unable to be evacuated on January 6th. They actually had the presence of mind to realize that there were people on the other side of the barricades trying to get to him and his colleagues who thought they were the ones fighting for the country.
When you think about that what is your emotional response and where do you place the moral burden?
People thought that because they were told that by the country's leadership at the time. And every week we see in the newspapers the result of another one of the trials, the violent extremists who attacked the Capitol on January 6th.
And yet the leader who instigated that attack, the leader who told these fellow Americans that attacking your own government is the patriotic thing to do. That leader, Donald Trump, has yet to be held accountable at all.
I read in the paper today that one of the assaulters on the Capitol got a 12-year prison sentence. Shouldn't the mastermind behind the attack be getting at least that or more? That's what leadership is about, right? Is about accountability. And yet there's been no accountability for Donald Trump.
That insurrectionist you're referring to, got 12 and a half years for tasing Michael Fanone in the neck. And as he was being let away in cuffs shouted, “Trump won.” The derangement goes so deep; how do we begin to address it?
And I'm asking you this, as someone who spends hours of every day around people who not only propagate this derangement, but I'm beginning to believe sincerely invest in it themselves, the Marjorie Taylor Greenes and Lauren Boeberts of the world. How do you work with people or even spend time around people like that?
I don't do either. I don't work with them. I don't spend time around them because I think you have to draw a line.
But the reality is to do this job to simply get bills passed into law, you have to work with some Republicans. And so, you obviously try to find Republicans that you can respect, that share at least some of your values, that you feel like can be honest brokers, even if you don't agree on all the issues.
But that's becoming increasingly difficult to find, and it makes it harder to simply do the country's business here in Washington, DC.
You recently tweeted this out and coined a phrase, the chaos wing of the GOP. You said, “Representative Luna has filed six bills since coming to Congress. Five of them are resolutions about Adam Schiff, the chaos wing of the GOP here for political stunts, not for governing.”
I know you're a student of history. Is there any part of America's history that we can draw lessons from, or are we in completely unchartered territory? I just can't think of a time when trolling existed as its own virtue and activity, and there was really no other point to being in Congress than provoking the other side. I don't know how to divine lessons from the past to address the present.
Well, I'm not a great student of history, Ken, so I think you've inappropriately boosted my resume there.
But I do know that there were times during the 19th century culminating, of course with the Civil War, but also in times after that, during reconstruction when there was — I mean, there's literally violence in the House of Representatives. There's still blood stains on the steps from a representative who was shot by a fellow member of Congress.
So, there are other times when this has been bad, there have been bad representatives of Congress, unpatriotic Americans who nonetheless serve here in the Capitol throughout our history.
What's unusual, I think, is for them to be completely hijacking an entire party. Kevin McCarthy is beholden to these people because he needed Marjorie Taylor Greene's vote to get elected. He needed Matt Gaetz's support to get elected speaker, and he never forgets that.
So, having them essentially in charge of the reins of power here in the house, that's what's so dangerous about this moment in American history.
What are the other major issues that you are tackling in this upcoming session, in addition, of course to protecting democracy? I have to believe Ukraine's near the top of your list. What are some of your key priorities?
Ukraine is absolutely near the top of my list, and I've been doing an awful lot of work behind the scenes. I was in Kyiv just a couple months before the invasion, came back and wrote an op-ed in the national newspaper to Wall Street Journal saying, “this could happen and we're not doing enough to prevent it.”
And I've been at the forefront of providing Ukraine the support that they need through my work on the House Armed Services Committee. And one of the reasons that that's so important is because the greatest threat we have on the horizon is actually a war with China.
And at the end of the day, for everything that's going well for us and NATO and the West and Ukraine, we have to admit that deterrence failed. And let me tell you, if there's a war with China, everybody loses.
So, we cannot let deterrence fail in the Pacific. We have to ensure peace and part of ensuring peace is peace through strength. Part of it is having a smart economic policy because we're economic competitors with China. Part of it is having diplomatic relations. That's why it's so important.
The Secretary Blinken paid a visit to China recently, even though it was much criticized by Republicans on the right.
So, working on Ukraine is also investing in the future of preventing a war with China, showing Xi Jinping that we're going to stand up for the little guys. We're going to stand up for democracy, and you can't get away with this kind of criminal war if you're the latest autocrat on the scene.
These are some of the things that I think about every day on the House Armed Services Committee and on the China Select Committee, on which I serve.
But I also think about all the people that I represent back home in Massachusetts who are just scared to send their kids to school because they're worried they might get shot. I have a two-year-old and a four-year-old. It's unbelievable to have to think about this. I know you have kids too. That's not American to have to worry about your kids getting shot because they're going to school.
There are people who are just trying to struggle to make ends meet. There are businesses who can't hire enough people because we have such a broken immigration system. So, there are a lot of issues that we're working on both abroad and at home in the United States Congress.
But if we can't just fix our democracy, then we're not going to be able to address any of these issues. Immigration is a great example. The solution to our immigration crisis is not that hard to see, and everyone knows that it's playing politics with immigration in Washington that prevents it from getting done.
The vast majority of Americans believe that we should not have military style weapons on the streets or in our schools, and we should have background checks for every gun purchase. That's not just liberal Democrats who believe that, that's all Americans. That's even the majority of Republicans and the majority of NRA members.
And yet the politics of guns, the politics up here from Republicans who don't have the political courage to support what their fellow Americans want, because they're so scared of the NRA. That's why we can't have reasonable gun laws to prevent massacres in our schools here in America.
So, it all comes back to fixing our democracy if we want to fix all these other problems that we have today in the United States.
There is so much I want to talk to you about from Ukraine to immigration to guns. If you had to identify a through line that helps explain why the other side refuses to contemplate progress on any of these issues, would it be what you just alluded to? Political cowardice?
Yes, yes. That's it. I mean, and we can talk about different potential solutions to this. Like it would help to get money out of politics. So, the NRA didn't have a voice, an outsized voice in our business here in Washington just because of the money they put into political races.
It would help to have less partisanship in our elections, to have districts that were drawn by nonpartisan committees as opposed to partisan legislatures. It would be helpful to probably lengthen congressional terms and maybe even have term limits.
I mean, there are a lot of things that we could do, but it all comes back to just finding political courage because there are am idiots here in Congress, but the vast majority of my colleagues are pretty smart. It's not the easiest thing to get elected to the House or the Senate.
So, what's lacking in Washington is not intelligence, it’s just courage. So many of these Republicans know the right thing to do, they're just goddamn scared to do it.
Well, thank you for your perspective, Seth. It's been great having you on. I know we have to let you go. You're in between votes and as I understand Prime Minister Modi in town, so you've got work to do. Thanks for giving us your time.
Alright, thanks Ken. Great to see you.
Thanks again to Seth for joining me. You can learn more about him at sethmoulton.com.
Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org. We're always looking to improve the show.
For updates and more, follow us on Twitter at Team_Harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.
Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia and David Moss.
I'm Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.