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How Heather Cox Richardson Became a Breakout Star on Substack

Dr. Richardson confounds many of the media’s assumptions about this moment. She built a huge and devoted following on Facebook, which is widely and often accurately viewed in media circles as a home of misinformation, and where most journalists don’t see their personal pages as meaningful channels for their work.

She also contradicts the stereotype of Substack, which has become synonymous with offering new opportunities for individual writers to turn their social media followings into careers outside big media, and at times appears to be where purged ideological factions go to regroup. That’s true of Never Trump Republicans pushed out of conservative media, whose publications, The Dispatch and The Bulwark, are the largest brands on the platform (just above and below Dr. Richardson’s revenue, respectively). And it’s true of left-leaning writers who have broken bitterly with elements of the mainstream liberal consensus, whether around race or national security, from the Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald to the Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias to the firebrand Matt Taibbi, whom Dr. Richardson unseated from the top slot in late August.

Dr. Richardson happened into this frontier of the media business pretty much by chance. When readers on Facebook started suggesting she write a newsletter, she realized she didn’t want to pay hundreds of dollars a month for a commercial platform, and jumped at Substack because it would allow her to send out her emails without charge to her or her readers. Substack makes its money by taking a percentage of writers’ subscription revenue, and she said she felt guilty that the company’s support team wasn’t getting paid for fixing her recurring problem: that her extensive footnotes set off her readers’ spam filters. She seemed intensely uncomfortable talking about the money her work is bringing in.

“If you start doing things for the money, they stop being authentic,” she said, adding that she knew that was both a privilege of her tenured professorship and “an old Puritan way of looking at things.”

Like the other Substack writers, Dr. Richardson is succeeding because she’s offering something you can’t find in the mainstream media, and indeed that many editors would assume was too boring to assign. But unlike the others, it’s not her politics, per se: She thinks of her politics as Lincoln-era Republican, but she is in today’s terms a fairly conventional liberal, disturbed by President Trump and his attacks on America’s institutions. She’s a historian who studied under the great Harvard Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald, and her work on 19th century political history feels particularly relevant right now. This spring, she published her sixth book, “How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America,” an extended assault on the kind of nostalgia that animates Mr. Trump’s fight to preserve Confederate symbols. The face of the South in Dr. Richardson’s book is a bitterly racist and sexually abusive South Carolina planter and senator, James Henry Hammond, who called Jefferson’s notion that all men are created equal “ridiculously absurd.”

What is unusual is to bring a historian’s confident context to the day’s mundane politics. She invoked Senator Hammond when Representative Kevin McCarthy and other Republican leaders signed on to a Texas lawsuit seeking to reverse the presidential election, comparing the Republican action to moments in American history when legislators explicitly questioned the very idea of democracy.

“Ordinary men should, Hammond explained, have no say over policies, because they would demand a greater share of the wealth they produced,” she wrote.

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