Donald Trump has been accused of drawing a false equivalence between racists and anti-racists in his inflammatory press conference in Trump Tower on Tuesday. But if you listen closely to Trump’s remarks about the weekend clash in Charlottesville, they are actually much worse. The president goes out of his way to celebrate those who rallied under Nazi and white nationalists banners to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and to denounce the counter-protestors.
“There were people in that rally—and I looked the night before,” Trump said, referring to Friday. “If you look, there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day it looked like they had some rough, bad people: neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest, and very legally protest—because you know, I don’t know if you know, they had a permit.” By contrast, Trump scorned the counter-protesters, whom he called the “alt-left,” saying they “came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.”
By Trump’s account, on the one side you have a group of legal, peaceful protesters and on the other side violent, disruptive counter-protesters. This depiction is at odds with the facts. As John Podhoretz noted in The New York Post, there’s no reason to think the alt-right had “fine people” in it. On that supposedly peaceful Friday night, they chanted “Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi slogan “blood and soil.” Speakers at the event included:
Mike Enoch, who hosts a podcast called “The Daily Shoah.” And Augustus Invictus, an alt-right figure who once said, “I have prophesied for years that I was born for a Great War; that if I did not witness the coming of the Second American Civil War I would begin it myself.” And Christopher Cantwell, who calls himself a “fascist,” along with Johnny Monoxide, who just labels himself “fashy.” And Michael Hill, an ex-professor who said, in 2015, “Never underestimate the perfidy of the organized Jew.” And Matt Heimbach, who says only 27,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
Trump’s defense of the “Unite the Right” demonstrators is not just abhorrent, but politically foolish. After all, there are few groups more universally reviled than neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, both of whom were out in full force in Charlottesville. By take their side, Trump made himself even more unpopular with the public and worsened his already shaky relationship with the Republican Party and even his own staff, which was reportedly shocked by his performance.
Yet, however counterproductive it might seem, Trump’s full-throttle defense of the rally fits in with his larger approach to politics, which is all about keeping his die-hard followers happy. This tactic might seem odd for a president, who is expected to unite the country at times of crisis, but it makes sense when you consider that Trump is a product of the world of entertainment—reality shows and wrestling matches in particular—where satisfying devoted fans is a business imperative.
In the field of Japanese comic book production, there’s a term of art called “fan service”: the introduction of material, usually gratuitous sexual imagery, that serves no narrative purpose but to please the hardcore devotees. Trump is the fan service president: He’s all about keeping his cheering section happy, even at the risk of alienating everyone else. Unlike almost every other president, Trump doesn’t even pretend to serve the wider public. An outsider politician who upended the establishment, he remains in campaign mode, insulting not just the Democrats and the mainstream press but members of his own party. Trump has carved out for himself a uniquely agonistic and tribalistic persona. He’s polarizing, and proud of it.
The presidency is a hybrid position, having both democratic and monarchical features. To win the presidency, you first need to win the support of a major political party, which means having a partisan identity. But once in power, the commander in chief is supposed to preside over the whole nation, not just those who voted for him. This creates a delicate balancing act: trying to advance an agenda on the one hand, while also assuring those outside his party that he takes their concerns seriously. Democrats were often frustrated by what they saw as President Barack Obama’s overeagerness to placate Republicans. But in truth, Obama was working in the traditional mode of presidents, especially Democrats, who tend to put a greater emphasis on healing national wounds. (It’s also worth noting that he left office with the approval of six in ten Americans.)
But Trump has decided to forgo any attempt at conciliation. Instead, he’s run a bluntly partisan presidency, where his rhetoric is geared toward pleasing fanatical Fox News viewers more than creating a broad coalition. It’s a peculiarity of Trump’s behavior that he talks openly about his base, not even pretending to be the president of all Americans.
It’s very strange for a president to talk about his “base” in this manner. (George W. Bush joked about “the elite” being his base, though it was clearly in jest and happened before his election.)
There is some advantage for Trump in fan-servicing. It makes him seem more honest about his goals, and not beholden to cant about bipartisanship. But a president who serves only the base will lead to a further fraying of America’s social fabric and even greater polarization. “The ugly truth is that white nationalists, the KKK, neo-Nazis and other bigots are indeed part of the Trump base,” columnist Brent Budowsky argued at The Hill. “Trump should throw these bigots out of his base. He should say he does not want their support. He should name names and name hate groups, loudly and repeatedly, and say he does not want their votes, their support, their praise and that he believes they are a stain on America.”
Rather than heeding such advice, Trump is moving in the opposite direction—and paying a political price for it. His poll numbers are steadily falling, as the faint-hearted leave him, and even his supposedly unshakeable base is shrinking. But those who are sticking with Trump are even more intensely attached to him. As CBS News reports:
President Trump’s most ardent backers—who call themselves supporters, period, and whom we’ve labeled Believers since the start of this ongoing panel study—remain connected and loyal to the president by what seems a deep cultural and personal link, feeling he “fights for people” like them and speaks in a way they can relate to.... Their loyalty—which they say the president deserves—is to Donald Trump over other political parties and labels like conservative or Republican.
A mind-meld has formed between Trump and his base, vividly on display in the raucous rallies where Trump is most at home. The danger of this fusion is that it’s mutually enabling: Trump and his fervid fans will encourage each other to become yet more extreme. As the president is increasingly criticized from outside his base, he’ll increasingly use his passionate fans as a political shield. And as Charlottesville proves, if those fans end up killing someone, the president will defend them. Caught in the closed loop of fan-servicing, Trump is setting the nation on a path toward further radicalization and further violence.
The new Aubrey Plaza comedy Ingrid Goes West is about Instagram. The premise is fairly simple: Ingrid Thorburn (Plaza), onetime denizen of a psychiatric ward, becomes obsessed with pretty LA blonde Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an Instagram starlet. Ingrid manages to move to Venice Beach and to insinuate herself into Taylor’s life through a combination of stalking and strategic purchases (health foods, aspirational purses, hairdos). But the movie is not only about hating oneself and coveting other people’s selves, although Ingrid undoubtedly wishes she could chew and swallow every last piece of her IG crush’s life. It’s also a gleefully vicious critique of those coveted lives themselves.
Taylor Sloane is to-the-bone LA. She loves avocados and Joshua Tree, which she calls “J Tree.” Her hair is long and falls in loose white-lady waves. She wears white cotton and those ridiculous hats that only style bloggers and Williamsburg residents from 2009 sport. She fetishizes the craft traditions of the American Southwest, the kind sold for thousands of dollars in boutiques. Her home is filled with cacti and a large bearded man. She’s the film equivalent of an IG user like TheBalancedBlonde or any number of other banal wellness-peddlers.
In satirizing Taylor Sloane’s pretty, empty, commercial life, Ingrid Goes West points a finger at the proximity of silicon valley and venture capitalism to domestic aesthetics. Taylor calls herself “a photographer,” but she swaps IG posts for money from brands, which is not the same thing. Her husband, the bearded Ezra, hates her social media practice but the movie strongly implies that he resents her power and success more than he actually wishes for a more authentic life. He makes terrible art superimposing phrases like SQUAD GOALS over paintings of horses.
Instagram is owned by Facebook, and both companies trade in the currency of normal people’s images and information. In exchange for knowing everything about us and monetizing our friendships, Facebook builds a shadowy and superpowerful corporate empire that may well propel its founder into the White House one day. So, Ingrid Goes West portrays Taylor Sloane as a narcissistic and shallow young woman whose life is filled with low-grade human connections. But it also points out that “Instagram Influencer” is not a novel form. It’s that classic thing, the Sell Out.
As a youngish woman who uses social media, it is impossible for me to avoid “sponcon,” a genre of post in which users with a large enough following, or “influence,” are paid to post advertisements in their feeds. An Instagram user might post a picture of herself in a cute outfit by a particular fashion line, or pose in a bikini with a mug of laxative tea held next to her abs. On the one hand, there’s nothing very new about endorsement deals. Celebrities have always advertised products. I particularly love instances of outright contradiction, as when Naomi Campbell advertised Blackglama fur coats rather soon after posing for PETA’s “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign.
But there’s something so abject about social media shills. A few weeks ago on Twitter, I came across this Macy’s ad for shorts. This lady, a YouTuber named Sierra Furtado, wears the shorts and poses in front of a bicycle. She seems perfectly nice, and I suppose it’s good that she doesn’t have to share her paycheck with an agent or any of the other traditional intermediaries in advertising. But the fact that she is the brand, not Macy’s, is totally bizarre. Her look is as flattened and generic as any ad on the side of a bus, but she somehow also has to maintain the illusion that this is her authentic life. The whole thing feels recursive and dizzying. I think the ad sucks and I don’t want the shorts.
I don’t want the shorts, because being Sierra Furtado seems depressing. Being Taylor Sloane in Ingrid Goes West seems depressing. Being anybody who takes money to show images to their hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers seems depressing. Your life consists of voluntary participation in an advertising economy that exists to make money and . . . what else? I can’t figure it out.
Every time I see somebody posing with some figs with a look on their face that suggests they are taking their power to influence people seriously, I’m so embarrassed I want to die. And I felt that embarrassment again in the cinema while watching Ingrid Goes West, because all its best jokes are either making fun of Taylor or over the burning, wretched shame of Ingrid.
The final twist in Ingrid Goes West’s plot elevates the movie from near-sappy morality tale about Learning to Love the Real You into very dark territory indeed. I won’t spoil the ending, but Ingrid learns that she can get attention in ways other than eating avocados and looking hot. The movie cries out for a sequel.
Plaza is an excellent comic actress, and as her blank-eyed and disingenuous foil, Elizabeth Olsen does just fine. Newcomer O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Straight Outta Compton) deserves praise as Plaza’s weed and Batman-obsessed love interest; his goofy charm supports Plaza’s deathstare sociopathy and prevents her having to carry the movie alone. The movie also contains some excellently precise jokes: Taylor just loves Joan Didion, so Ingrid does too. Late in the movie, we see Ingrid desperately plunging her toilet after using pages from The White Album as toilet paper. Ingrid Goes West is an excruciating cinema experience, because embarrassment is the name of the Instagram influencer game. Like all great movie comedies, it hurts, but it’s true.
A week before this weekend’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, I got a call from a fellow journalist who was heading to Virginia and wanted to know if I was planning on bringing a helmet, a gasmask, or both. There had been much hype surrounding the rally, and both white nationalists and members of Antifa had engaged in a fiery tit-for-tat online about who was going to kick whose ass the hardest. “Virginia’s an open carry state,” my friend said. “Are you going to bring a flack jacket?”
I scoffed and told him that the talk of violence was wildly overblown. There was no way the cops were going to let the two groups come within a city block of each other. I advised him to pick a side to cover during the actual rally, since the police likely wouldn’t even allow journalists to pass between the two camps.
For the last six years I have spent an inordinate amount of time among the American radical right, reporting for my book. Among the first things I learned is that a white nationalist rally is much like the weigh-in of a professional boxing match. There is a lot of finger-pointing and why-I-ought a’s, but all from a safe distance, affording nationalists and counter-protesters the luxury of saving face while remaining blissfully unmolested. It is a song and dance that both far-right groups and Antifa understand, and have come to rely on.
Cases in point: At my first white nationalist rally, put on by the National Socialist Movement in Trenton, New Jersey, in 2011, there was plenty of talk of riots, counter-protester-bashing, and glorious battle. At another NSM rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a couple of years later, the nationalists stretched and did martial arts in the parking lot before heading to the city courthouse. It was all bluster. At both rallies the cops had arranged for the nationalists to park at a pre-ordained location so they could be marched safely to the rally site, give their speeches, and be marched off again. In Trenton the NSM were even bused in by police so they could maintain order. Furthermore, in both instances city centers were so tightly cordoned off that the NSM’s speakers weren’t loud enough to carry their message of racial superiority anywhere near earshot of bystanders and counter-protesters.
In April of this year, it was feared that a rally in Pikeville, Kentucky, hosted by the Nationalist Front, an umbrella white nationalist group that includes many of the most prominent groups from Charlottesville, would turn into a blood bath. Stores and businesses in downtown Pikeville closed for the day. Antifa was out in force, as were white nationalists. It transpired the way it usually did. The members of the Nationalist Front were escorted by police to a cordoned-off area from which they shouted at members of Antifa who were also cordoned off and shouting back. Mean stares, slurs, and threats of “You’re lucky these cops are here or I’d…” abounded. Then everyone went home.
There have been notable exceptions. In June of 2016 both nationalists and Antifa members ended up in the hospital when the two sides fought in Sacramento, California. But for the most part, white nationalists, Antifa, and law enforcement know their parts and play them well.
On Saturday morning in Charlottesville, things were already amiss. I was on the upper level of a downtown parking structure talking to Matthew Heimbach, the leader of the Traditionalist Workers Party, a fascist white nationalist group and one of the key players in Saturday’s rally. He told me that there had been no co-ordination with law enforcement in advance of the rally. “Nobody told us to use this parking garage,” he said. “We’ve asked the cops to provide us with a way into the rally site, but they haven’t responded at all.”
A few minutes later, a phalanx of 150 or so nationalists filed out of the parking garage, into East Market Street next to the Charlottesville Police Station. They were met by no one. There wasn’t a police officer in sight. I walked at the front of the line, interviewing the leaders as they marched. We approached Emancipation Park, and to my surprise I saw Antifa ahead. There were no barricades and no police, and as the nationalists marched into the waiting arms of their enemies, mayhem ensued. Pepper spray, paint, frozen water bottles, sticks, and clubs flew. The cops had blown their cue and the choreography of the white nationalist rally was thrown into chaos.
An order of sorts was re-established when a contingent of police officers corralled the nationalists into the park, but their control was tenuous, and multiple skirmishes occurred. Then, quite suddenly, the cops were gone, and all hell broke loose again. The barricades that had been erected in the park fell, and fights both large and small broke out. There were puddles of blood on the sidewalk, and terrified onlookers were shouting for police. I ran down a side street and saw cops in riot gear bravely guarding an empty plaza, seemingly completely uninterested in the pandemonium a block away.
Later, riot police emptied the park, but only after multiple people had been injured. Further up the street, outside the Charlottesville Police Department, officers looked on in profound disinterest as a band of nationalists beat a black kid by the entrance to the parking garage, while a handful of counter-protesters beat an elderly nationalist in the street. A policeman armed with a Taser and the look of someone who had just had a good nap ruined eventually broke up the latter fight. As people who had been pepper-sprayed, beaten, or Tased cried for help and begged the police to stop the violence, the officer grumpily motioned to the crowd to move on to anywhere but in front of police HQ.
By the end of the day 14 people had been injured in the fighting in Charlottesville. Additionally, one woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and 19 others injured when white nationalist James Alex Fields drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
Heyer’s death and the injuries of the 19 were the result of a heinous act of cowardice and hate. The 14 injured were the result of Charlottesville authorities dropping the ball.
It was no secret that hundreds of armed and angry nationalists were about to rally in the city. They had been given a permit to be there. Antifa had also made it abundantly clear that it had no intention of letting the nationalists rally unchallenged. Every year nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members march in American streets, and every time they do counter-protesters are there to meet them. There are dozens of cities and towns that Charlottesville authorities could have looked to if they needed tips on how to deal with the threat of racist extremists marching in their streets.
Yet they chose to do nothing until it was too late. The radicals may have brought violence to Charlottesville, but the police chose to let it loose.
Antonio Muñoz Molina is a writer at home in history, having fashioned novels out of the Spanish Civil War, the Holocaust, and the killing of a leader of the Spanish communist party. Like a Fading Shadow, the Spanish author’s latest novel to be translated into English, is a bold attempt at imagining his way into the mind and the life of James Earl Ray, the assassin who killed Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. Ray, who was already an escaped convict when he shot King, spent two months on the run afterward. Ray eventually traveled under a fake name to London and then onto Lisbon, where he spent 10 days trying to get passage on a ship to Africa. He hoped to become a mercenary in Angola, the Congo, or another colonial state where his white supremacist beliefs would be welcomed. Instead, he idled away his time before going back to London, where a typo in his passport led to him being recognized and arrested.
At times, the James Earl Ray of Like a Fading Shadow recalls the Lee Harvey Oswald of Don DeLillo’s novel Libra. Both men were at the mysterious heart of some of the most consequential assassinations of the twentieth century, and the stories of both remain mired in conspiracy. (Ray, who wrote two books while in prison, at first confessed and then later maintained his innocence until he died of cancer in 1998.) The obsessive reconstruction of events that attended the last years of their lives somehow leaves both Ray and Oswald as essentially unknowable. There seems to be an inherent tension between the kind of historical detail that Molina accumulates and the ability to understand a character’s motivations. I finished the book feeling that I had come to understand the author himself (or at least his fictionalized counterpart) far better than his subject.
Like a Fading Shadow is a peculiar novel that comes that comes freighted with a scaffolding of meta-commentary, authorial second-guessing, and boozy, romantic homilies to youthful excess and the artistic life. Ray’s story is only one of three strands that make up the novel, which ends up being as much about Molina’s artistic development as it is about the notorious assassin. The other sections look at Molina’s early years as a writer and conflicted family man and a period, later in his career, when he had a passionate affair with a woman he met while on book tour. It’s a book about its own creation that lays bare the mechanics of fiction, questioning whether they work at all while simultaneously arguing for the importance of fictionalizing history. “Being close to this place,” Molina writes of Lisbon, “and knowing that I can approach it, infuses wonder and reality in what was previously almost fiction.” For Molina, history sacralizes the novel, granting it a kind of integrity and real-world relevance that raises fiction to a higher plane—“almost fiction.”
Whether this technique charms readers may be another matter. “Even the most secret lives leave an indelible trace,” Molina writes of Ray. Yet it’s hard to say what the traces of Ray’s life add up to, what they mean beyond reflecting the behaviors and habits of an ugly soul. “Sometimes,” the author explains, “fiction wants to supplant reality, sometimes it settles for adding certain secondary details.” The secondary details here threaten to become the main event, and Molina risks exhausting readers with extensive reportage of what Ray ate, who he met, and where he went.
There’s almost nothing from Ray’s journey that seems to have escaped Molina’s notice during his archival research. Molina tells us as much, explaining that “it only takes a few seconds online to access the archives containing detailed accounts of almost everything he did, places he visited... even the names of women who slept with him or shared a drink at a bar.” The level of specificity is laughably precise, as when Molina learns “the brand of salted crackers left open and half-eaten in a rented room in a boardinghouse in Atlanta where his name never made it to the register because the owner was too drunk to ask for it.” Molina seems to be trying to prove a point here, something about what can be lost by emphasizing the facticity and evidentiary value of archival research. But these kinds of remarks don’t do much for readers who might be more interested in a scene of Ray at that Atlanta boardinghouse, with its sozzled proprietor, than a description of the author discovering this information.
In Molina’s theory of history, anything might be revealing. “No one is a mere passing silhouette, an extra, an auxiliary figure in the stories of others,” he argues. Every encounter must be named, described, plumbed for relevance. After all, “the more precise the topographical and temporal details, the more emphatic the beginning or end of the story will seem.” Molina plays with this rubric first by giving us one ending, which he calls “a possible ending if we look at this story under the austere clarity of facts.” But that’s only one potential outcome, and another ending shows Ray as a bit player in a larger conspiracy led by a shadowy man named Raoul. (In real life, after renouncing his confession, Ray claimed that someone named Raoul led a conspiracy to kill MLK—a belief that some members of the King family eventually supported.) The Raoul ending is very well done and it provides another resonance of DeLillo, with a sense of the sweep of history overwhelming Ray, who doesn’t understand the scale of what he’s signed up for.
“The flow of ordinary life weaves and unravels its arguments, its symmetries, its resonances,” Molina writes, “without anyone having to invent anything, just as the waves of the river draw themselves.” Life unspools in its own time, Molina seems to say, according to its own natural but inscrutable rhythms. “In a way, a novel also writes itself,” he adds. Like a Fading Shadow might be seen as a mongrel kind of auto-fiction (lately in style through writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard). Through frequent info-dumps and editorializing on the nature of the novel, Molina seems to be trying to construct a novel that writes itself, drawing on the raw materials of history and of the author’s own life.
Molina concludes that “literature is the desire to dwell inside the mind of another person, like an intruder in a house, to see the world through someone else’s eyes.” But there are times when the author better resembles a burglar who is cataloguing a house’s possessions, assessing each for its value, chucking aside those that are worthless and stuffing the rest into his satchel. The result is a strangely cobbled together novel that shows a deep attention to historical fidelity but not to narrative immersion. A highly decorated author, Molina has in the past proved himself to be a major novelist. But Like a Fading Shadow, with its compulsive regurgitation of facts and its awkward mix of memoir, history, and fiction, has a wayward feel to it, as if the author got lost in the thicket of his own investigation. For some, there’s pleasure to be found in these intellectual peregrinations. But others, when faced with the “austere clarity of facts,” will be left wanting more, namely a sense of invention.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday introduced a new nemesis to join the “fake news” media, Crooked Hillary, and Mexican rapists: the alt-left. “What about the alt-left?” Trump raged at a press conference at Trump Tower, seething over demands that he condemn the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend. “What about the fact that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.”
We shouldn’t be surprised that Trump is unwilling to blame white supremacists for the fatal violence that struck Charlottesville on August 12, even when one of their cohort murdered an innocent woman, Heather Heyer, who was protesting their presence in her city. We shouldn’t be surprised because his every deed and utterance has shown that he either holds similar views or is merely content to let them flourish. Nor should we be surprised by his use of the term “alt-left.” The only way he can excuse the actions of violent racists is to create a false equivalence. The press, Trump rambled, had treated the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville “very unfairly.”
But we should be at least partly surprised by the origins of this misleading and corrosive term. It is beloved by the likes of Sean Hannity and former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, who have used it to denigrate Trump’s opponents. And it has also been popularized—and legitimized—by red-baiting liberals who fear the rise of a progressive populist movement.
Unlike the term “alt-right,” which was coined by white supremacists to give their age-old movement a modern edge, the “alt-left” is an insult. As my colleague Clio Chang wrote in March of liberals who choose to use the term: “A graver sin is the adoption of a term that was created by conservatives to smear the left and discredit criticisms of the growing clout of the racist right.”
It should go without saying, but the left does not promote hate crimes or commit them. It does not strive for an ethno-state. It is explicitly anti-racist and feminist. It demands the redistribution of wealth. You may find that terrifying, but it’s not actually terrorism. And when a horde of white supremacists overran Charlottesville with their tiki torches and Confederate flags, the left was at the front lines, defending everyone else’s right to freedom. A member of the left died for those rights.
But if you pay attention to a number of prominent liberals and Democrats, you would think the American left poses some existential threat to the United States. Here’s Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, the most influential Democratic policy shop in the United States:
Here’s The Nation’s Joan Walsh:
Here’s Tom Watson, founder of CauseWired, a consulting firm that allegedly “helps organizations inspire people to support causes that change the world:”
Here’s Joy Ann Reid, the host of MSNBC’s AM Joy:
And here’s Eric Boehlert of Shareblue, the social media network that was created by David Brock to help lead the online resistance to Trump:
Liberals often use “alt-left” to describe progressives they consider rude or with whom they have Twitter beef; it is personal animus disguised as politics. James Wolcott, writing in Vanity Fair in March, captured the general spirit of disdain and irritation:
Disillusionment with Obama’s presidency, loathing of Hillary Clinton, disgust with “identity politics,” and a craving for a climactic reckoning that will clear the stage for a bold tomorrow have created a kinship between the ‘alt-right’ and an alt-left. They’re not kissin’ cousins, but they caterwaul some of the same tunes in different keys.
The events of Charlottesville should clarify that the only tune the so-called alt-left is singing is that it hates fascists. And yet Markos Moulitsas, founder of what is supposed to be one of the most progressive blogs in the world, decided to regurgitate red-baiting canards the very day a white supremacist killed a counter-protester:
The function of the term “alt-left” is to collapse the distinction between the activist left and the racist right. That’s why reactionaries like Sean Hannity use it. That’s why Donald Trump has taken it up. We are likely to hear a lot more about the alt-left in the coming months and years—and if liberals continue to use it, they will be doing the right-wing’s work.
So it is time for the entire left to permanently retire the term. It insults the dead and the work the left is doing to stop the rise of fascism in our country. It serves the cause of the right wing, amplifying its noxious tactics of delegitimization. These liberals have invested a lot of energy in an effort to discredit anyone sitting to their left. They are so furious, so disturbed by the emergence of this invigorated movement, that they paint them with the brush of fascism—even while the very people they vilify are on the streets fighting the Ku Klux Klan. In so doing, they have served the purposes of Donald Trump and no one else.
Given a second opportunity to revise and extend his original, ignominious response to the deadly, racist violence in Charlottesville last weekend, President Donald Trump instead descended to the lowest point of his squalid presidency. Flanked in the Trump Tower lobby by smiling cabinet officials, including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (and as Chief of Staff John Kelly looked on glumly), Trump volunteered praise for some of the white supremacists who rallied around a monument to the confederacy.
“You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” the president said. “Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now. You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.” Referring to the “Unite the Right” demonstrators, Trump said, “You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. The press has treated them absolutely unfairly.” He added, “You also had some very fine people on both sides.”
It may not have dawned on Chao, as Trump’s comments ended, just how severe the backlash would be. Asked by reporters afterward to comment on Trump’s ongoing feud with her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Chao remarked, “I stand by my man. Both of them.”
The right answer would have been: “The president’s feelings about my husband are of no concern to me any longer, because I resign.” That’s the only morally acceptable conclusion at this point for any senior Trump officials who don’t consider themselves tribunes for white nationalism. The related issue of the GOP Congress’ complicity in Trump’s wide-ranging misconduct is an important one, but it is inherently more complex than the question of continued service in the executive branch—as are most legislative decisions, dependent almost by definition on large-scale collective action.
These collective action problems can be hard to resolve, but nearly every solution arises from cues members of Congress take from influential figures outside of their branch of government. There is a small but powerful cohort of presidential advisers and cabinet members who will happily leak to the press that they continue to serve to protect the country from Trump’s unfitness for office. They want to be seen, in Axios’ words, as “The Committee to Save America.”
They will only live up to the image they’re trying to project by resigning immediately.
It would be unprecedented for a U.S. president to be forsaken by his cabinet, but Trump’s own conduct makes it necessary. The proper consideration here isn’t how frequently senior officials resign for reasons of conscience—it’s exceedingly rare—but what kinds of moral and ethical breaches have driven officials to resign in the past.
Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned in 1915 because he believed President Woodrow Wilson’s response to the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania by a German submarine was too belligerent.
Assistant Treasury Secretary Dean Acheson resigned in 1933 because he could not abide President Franklin Roosevelt’s abandonment of the Gold Standard.
Trump’s earlier conduct has recalled Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, in which the senior leadership of the Justice Department resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox—though it can be fairly argued that Nixon essentially pushed them out.
In more recent history, the most high-profile resignations-on-principle have been lower level public servants.
Joseph N. Cooper, a black Ronald Reagan official who helmed the Labor Department office that enforced equal opportunity hiring among federal contractors, resigned because the administration paid “lip service” to anti-discrimination laws.
Bill Clinton lost two officials—White House adviser Mary Jo Bane and Department of Health and Human Services adviser Peter Edelman—who resigned in protest of the 1996 welfare reform law.
George W. Bush almost presided unwittingly over the collapse of his own Justice Department when his senior aides tried to subvert the DOJ leadership’s conclusion that a post-9/11 warrantless spying program had been implemented unconstitutionally. But his late intervention forestalled such a fiasco.
These were extraordinary moments, but there was at least some moral grey area within the four corners of each underlying dispute—some substantive decision at hand that people of good faith could decide to live with or not. There is no moral gray area in Trump’s racism, let alone in his wielding of the power of the presidency to give succor to neo-Nazis.
Trump has done his aides a favor in stripping all ambiguity from the dilemma of serving under him. He has not issued a controversial order and asked ideologically rigid people to follow it. He has instead confronted them with the question of whether a racist president who vouchsafes neo-Nazi violence deserves to be propped up by government executives of good conscience. It’s an easy call, and those who don’t see it that way will be noted in the public record when they keep showing up to work.
Last summer, just weeks after being crowned the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump scored major political points by visiting flood-ravaged southern Louisiana. The flooding was America’s worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy, and yet, President Barack Obama had not yet interrupted his vacation to tour the damage. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, hadn’t visited either. Victims felt ignored. But some saw hope in Trump. “It just lets you know that somebody on the national level is doing something,” flood victim Sandra Bennett told the New York Times. Reverend Bill Engelhart told the Los Angeles Times, “[Trump] really cares, and this is his way of showing it.”
A decision Trump made Tuesday, nearly a year to the day after his Louisiana visit, suggests otherwise: He signed an executive order that, among other things, rescinds flood protections for federally funded buildings and infrastructure. First reported by E&E News, Trump’s order undoes an Obama-era executive order that required new public infrastructure projects—like subsidized housing, hospitals, and fire departments—to be built a few feet above the so-called “100-year floodplain,” or the height at which there is a 1 percent chance you’ll experience an enormous flooding event. The requirement accounts for future sea level rise predicted by “the best-available and actionable science,” the order reads.
As the Washington Post noted in 2015, Obama’s order was the first time the federal government took sea level rise projections into account, instead of relying only on historical data. It was also the rare climate change policy that was praised by both conservative and progressive interest groups. That’s because sea levels are undeniably rising. Conservatives might always deny and fight about the fact that humans caused that sea level rise, but adaptation to storms and flooding is far less controversial that ascribing blame to humans and acting to prevent it. Groups on the right and the left also mostly agree that it’s dumb to spend taxpayer dollars on expensive projects that are at a high risk of being destroyed by natural disasters.
But Trump is on a mission to undo as many of Obama’s policies as possible, no matter now reasonable they were. In a press conference announcing his executive order—the same press conference in which he again blamed “both sides” for the fatal violence in Charlottesville—Trump said approvals for new infrastructure projects take too long because of the regulatory process. Trump wants to spend $200 billion on infrastructure projects, including repairing bridges and roads, building new airport terminals, reconstructing the Northeast Corridor rail line, even financing a clean energy power plant on the Hudson River. Ostensibly, undoing Obama’s flood standards will be a way to speed up these projects. (Trump did not say that was the specific reason, nor did a reporter ask.)
But speedily built projects are worthless if they become damaged beyond repair in just a few years. They likely will, as flooding is the country’s most common natural disaster. It’s also the costliest: FEMA estimates that flood damage cost Americans $260 billion from 1980 to 2013. Federal flood insurance claims are also through the roof, averaging $1.9 billion annually from 2006 to 2015. And as we work to fix these projects that weren’t protected from flooding, the working class people who Trump promised to protect will suffer most from the loss of their rail line, bridge, fire station, housing project, or hospital. “This is climate science denial at its most dangerous, as Trump is putting vulnerable communities, federal employees, and families at risk by throwing out any guarantee that our infrastructure will be safe,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement.
What makes all this so confounding is that Trump clearly recognizes the threat of sea level rise. Last year, he applied for a permit to build a sea wall to prevent erosion at his oceanfront golf resort in Ireland. Trump later withdrew that permit—because of opposition from locals, not because the threat disappeared. As Politico reported, the application included an environmental impact statement that said, “If the predictions of an increase in sea level rise as a result of global warming prove correct, however, it is likely that there will be a corresponding increase in coastal erosion rates ... around much of the coastline of Ireland. In our view, it could reasonably be expected that the rate of sea level rise might become twice of that presently occurring....”
It’s not just Trump’s foreign properties that are at risk from rising seas. “In 30 years, the grounds of Mar-a-Lago could be under at least a foot of water for 210 days a year because of tidal flooding along the intracoastal water way, with the water rising past some of the cottages and bungalows,” The Guardian reported last year, citing an analysis by Coastal Risk Consulting. And The Hill reported that “Trump’s oceanfront condos in Miami and his Doral golf course would also be threatened, according to projections by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the South Florida Regional Climate Change Compact.”
And yet, Trump has made clear that he thinks climate change is a “hoax.” That’s why Democratic Representative Earl Blumenauer in June introduced a bill, “The Prohibiting Aid for Recipients Ignoring Science (PARIS) Act,” to block the president’s properties from federally subsidized flood insurance. “The American people should not be responsible for bailing out leaders who ignore science to gain political points, while subjecting the United States—and the rest of the world—to the catastrophic effects of climate change,” the congressman said. “Trump may choose to reject science, but he can’t ignore the impacts—especially as they happen in his own backyard.”
The bill will never become law, but Blumenauer is right about the president’s hypocrisy. When Trump visited Louisiana last year, he said, “I came here to help.” But now he’s showing little concern not only for future flood victims, but the taxpayers who will have to cover the damage to public infrastructure wrought by rising seas.
The political momentum on the left for Medicare for All, fueled by Republicans’ dramatic failure to repeal Obamacare, has been tempered lately by an attack of the piecemeals. Some liberals are warning that the political hurdles for government-provided health care cannot be surmounted at once—that advances must ushered in slowly and incrementally, to minimize disruption.
Joshua Holland argued in The Nation earlier this month that, “from a policy standpoint, Medicare-for-All is probably the hardest way to get” to universal health care. Moving to single-payer within a year or two “would cause serious shocks to the system,” and “compelling the entire population to move into Medicare, especially over a relatively short period of time, would invite a massive backlash.” The New York Times’ Paul Krugman, meanwhile, wrote last week that single-payer “would be much harder politically than its advocates acknowledge; and there are more important priorities.” He recommended “improving the A.C.A., not ripping it up and starting over...”
Holland and Krugman endorse a public option, a government-run competitor to private insurance that individuals or employers can purchase. Several Senate Democrats have introduced a bill that would allow people aged 55-64 to buy into Medicare. Gradual access, the theory goes, can flower into one of the various program designs that industrialized nations use to provide universal health care to their citizens. But why is increased access to Medicare, which is solid but inadequate, the obvious first step? If the plan is to transition to something like Medicare for All, shouldn’t the strategy begin with making Medicare great?
The secret about Medicare is that it should fulfill many more health care needs than it currently does. Making Medicare great would be politically popular and eliminate needless fragmentation in the system. And yet, nobody wants to talk about it.
I don’t mean to suggest that Medicare is a bad program. It’s very popular, although that’s in comparison to other forms of insurance for Americans. People like employer-based insurance, but have seen co-payments and deductibles grow, and the individual market, both before and after Obamacare, has always been fragile.
Medicare—and also Medicaid, which generally is for low-income Americans—represents a basic bargain: You pay into the system, through taxes, so it’s there for you when you need it. As the Trumpcare debate showed, public-run systems have lots more support than private alternatives. Medicaid covers more enrollees (75 million), but the universal nature of Medicare—everyone over 65 gets it, or 55 million people—makes it a more attractive launching pad for single-payer enthusiasts.
But Medicare has holes in it. There’s no routine dental, hearing, or vision care included in Medicare parts A and B (otherwise known as “Original Medicare”). Some standard foot care like removing corns or buying orthopedic shoes, a significant problem for the elderly, isn’t covered. You pay for copies of your X-rays.
More important, Medicare deductibles, hospital costs, and co-payments have been on the rise. The standard premium is between $109 and $134 a month, and for hospital visits, the first $1,316 per year is on the patient. Long-term care assistance for nursing or rehabilitation is capped at 100 days. Prescription drugs through Medicare Part D have various premiums and co-pays. And there are no annual or lifetime limits; patients keep paying cost-sharing regardless of how many bills pile up. Even Obamacare exchange insurance caps how much you have to pay over a year or a lifetime.
For this reason, nearly 12 million Medicare enrollees purchase a privately issued, supplemental “Medigap” policy to cover copayments, deductibles, coinsurance, and other costs that Medicare doesn’t; that represents almost one in four people in Medicare. Most countries’ universal programs shield the vulnerable from runaway health costs; in Medicare, you have to buy that protection.
As if this isn’t complicated enough, there’s also Medicare Part C, or Medicare Advantage, which is privately offered insurance that usually has narrow networks like an HMO. Often Medicare Advantage offers special perks that neither Original Medicare no Medigap plans do: dental care, vision, and “wellness programs” like free gym memberships. And by law, these plans cap out-of-pocket expenses, unlike Original Medicare.
The promise of more benefits and ease of use has made Medicare Advantage popular: one in three seniors have a Part C plan rather than Original Medicare. This is supposed to save taxpayer money, but it’s actually a private boondoggle. The government pays more for Medicare Advantage than Original Medicare, while those plans pay out 10-25 percent less in services, according to recent studies. And stories of Medicare Advantage plans systematically overbilling Medicare are alarming.
Private insurers, and partners like AARP, make lots of money from this status quo. But it just adds unnecessary confusion and waste into the system. As Adam Gaffney writes at Jacobin, we can jettison these privately run supplements and add-ons and just build them into the Medicare benefit. That’s what Democratic Congressman John Conyers’ longtime model bill, HR 676, does: It makes Medicare coverage comprehensive for a non-elderly population, and eliminates cost-sharing. But incrementalists who caution against a Conyers or Bernie Sanders–style sudden change never consider improving Medicare to prepare the ground for such a change.
Naysayers might consider improving Medicare too expensive a burden for the government to take on. But you wouldn’t have to spend much more for better quality; savings can be found within the current program. For instance, private pharmacy benefit managers negotiate with drug manufacturers for discounts in Part D, when they have been shown to extract profits at the expense of consumers. Direct negotiations with drug manufacturers would lower costs. Medicare Advantage also costs the government more. A unified service, single-payer activists have long insisted, would be simpler and cheaper to administer.
Many (not all) universal programs around the world have some form of cost-sharing inside the government system, and virtually all allow residents to purchase supplemental plans that go beyond the basic benefit. But Medicare passes off too many of these costs to individuals. Its patient pool is big enough that it can fight the dominant health industry and get better outcomes for its users, reducing the need for supplemental protection.
It would be far cheaper to improve Medicare in its current state than to do it while simultaneously opening it up to everyone. That’s not a reason not to go for both in one shot. But I’m curious why you never see the promoters of caution arguing to improve Medicare before expanding access. Helping 55 million on Medicare would benefit exponentially more people than a public option or partial opt-in, which the Congressional Budget Office found in 2013 would have “minimal effects” on the number of uninsured. And if universal coverage is the goal, creating a great government plan that’s ready for expansion goes a hell of a lot further than making available a cramped, confusing benefit that isn’t designed for the people it will be taking in.
Even if you don’t think such change should be gradual, it’s not like President Donald Trump is signing a single-payer bill anytime soon. So where are the messaging bills to simply improve Medicare? There are political benefits, after all, to advocating for better health care for the target group that turns out to vote more than any other. The Democrats’ “Better Deal” plan does call for negotiating Medicare drug prices directly, which is a good start (they broke that promise in Obamacare). But there’s lots more value to be gained in showing people what a really great Medicare program could look like.
I fear that incrementalists are more interested in putting off single-payer supporters than actually devising the best step-by-step process that gets you to a universal system. Access is important, but so is adequacy. Bloated health care spending is crowding out the progressive agenda. Either you have the ambition for better health care for everyone, or you just want to put some spackling on a creaky building.
The appropriation of faux-medieval culture by modern racists happens everywhere. The Nazis did it when they used medieval-obsessed German Romanticism of the nineteenth century (Wagner, fairytale castles) as a template for a new national identity that was founded on the extermination of minority groups. White nationalists do it in Britain and France when they want to claim that the country “belongs” somehow to white people, looking back to an imaginary time of long-lost racial purity (a time that never existed, as Mary Beard patiently explained recently). White supremacist American murderers love Vikings.
Medieval studies scholars and cultural historians call this practice “medievalism” because it doesn’t actually refer to a real time or place in history: It’s all about fantasies, most of them set in an imaginary past that bears little resemblance to the real one. The white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville this weekend wore their medievalism on their sleeves. Medieval studies scholars of my acquaintance have been noting particular far right tropes on Facebook and Twitter, pointing out how they like to design little “heraldic” crests for their organizations. They take symbols like the “fasces” of fascism and cross them like swords and paint them on shields like crusaders. In the photograph above, Matthew Heimbach carries a shield engraved with the bastardized “Celtic cross” that the Norwegian Nazis designed to look like the high crosses of early medieval Ireland and Britain. And the KKK, after all, has always had “white knights.” (The SLPC has compiled a helpful index of the far right symbols used over the weekend.)
For scholars of medieval studies, it can be tempting to “fact check” such appropriations, at least in part because white supremacy represents a grotesque abuse of something for which they care deeply. And in some examples, racist medievalism can be not just morally abhorrant, but also deliciously stupid. As the excellent Twitter account @medievalpoc pointed out, certain factions at Charlottesville have appropriated the Black Eagle of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire, which is strongly associated with its patron saint, Saint Maurice. Who was black.
But what medieval studies scholars like myself—the history of race in medieval art and literature was my doctoral field—are less aware of is the history of medieval appropriation in the race discourse of the United States. Since racialized medievalism draws upon an essentially imaginary category, it is extraordinarily flexible and easily adapted: the historical detail of America’s past is woven into the racist medievalism that we saw on the streets of Charlottesville.
Annie Abrams is an American Literature scholar with a special focus on medievalism in the conversation around race in nineteenth-century America. I asked her about the particular valence of “medieval” iconography in white supremacy today, in light of its history in America. “White Americans have long imagined themselves the heirs to some long medieval political tradition of freedom and superiority,” Abrams told me. She pointed me to an extraordinary piece of writing by John L. O’Sullivan, who coined the term Manifest Destiny, in support of the racist Mexican War in 1845:
In the case of California [resistance] is now impossible. The Anglo-Saxon foot is already on its borders. Already the advance guard of the irresistible army of Anglo-Saxon emigration has begun to pour down upon it, armed with the plough and the rifle, and marking its trail with schools and colleges, courts and representative halls, mills and meeting-houses. A population will soon be in actual occupation of California, over which it will be idle for Mexico to dream of dominion.
Abrams explained that, “Despite O’Sullivan’s own Irish ancestry and the nation’s complex demographics, he imagined American forces as united in a lineage beginning in Anglo-Saxon England, which ceased to exist during the Norman Conquest in 1066, and stretching west and into the Californian future.” If this rhetoric reminds you of anybody, don’t be surprised, says Abrams. Medievalism’s “elastic sense of historical narrative” allowed O’Sullivan, just like Trump, to allude “to some imaginary Edenic past to which we might return under an otherwise-controversial political agenda.” Abrams calls this kind of sloganeering “convenience over accuracy.”
So, the imbrication of American whiteness with an “imaginary Edenic past” associated with medieval Europe has a long, long tradition. “American whiteness is real and hard and institutionalized,” Abrams says, but “at the same time, medievalism reveals how it’s built on imaginary genealogy.” Medievalism, says Abrams, is “one attempt to try and unify an amorphous population by fixing it to a common historical record” amid the “illusory and difficult to parse” state of American whiteness. It leads Americans and their leaders into contradictions, as when Thomas Jefferson wanted to put the early medieval heroes Hengist and Horsa on the currency, and insisted on Anglo-Saxon being taught at UVA despite his own Welsh heritage.
If violent extremists can be relied upon for one thing, it is their ability to make hyper-visible the latent prejudices and assumptions taken for granted by the “moderate” general public. When Annie Abrams and I were in graduate school, the idea that medievalism and American whiteness would come to the attention of the mainstream press seemed like a very remote possibility indeed. But what once felt like a fringe research topic has become a site of violent, ugly conflict in America’s public forum, brought out from the cultural subconscious by an administration which has legitimized hate speech.
In countries where the Nazis set foot, laws concerning incitement to racial hatred govern public speech. But this is America, where the ACLU defends the rights of the KKK to express itself. Historians of medieval Europe and historians of America alike have a duty under these circumstances to intervene and to condemn, where misunderstood pasts are lending intolerable fringe groups a pseudo-genealogy. The past is always imagined; it is a country to which we cannot go. But we do not have to cede that territory to white supremacists.
Many years ago, I went to a conference of the Jane Austen Society of North America. We met in the Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies, which was said to be the original of the hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining. But this time it was the setting for a different kind of eerie displacement: nearly 600 Austen enthusiasts, many wearing Regency costumes, decked out in ribbons and bonnets, and carrying reticules, fans, and parasols.
While Janeites love partying and cosplay, they are interested in much more than cream teas. Most have an expert knowledge of Austen’s six novels, as well as two centuries of scholarship, and their conferences include panels and talks by learned Austen scholars, alongside the balls and excursions. This year is an especially big one for Austen devotees. The bicentennial of her death brings the release of annotated anniversary editions of her novels and critical studies such as The Making of Jane Austen by Devoney Looser and Reading Austen in America by Juliette Wells. There will be dozens of exhibitions and commemorations from America to Australia. The Bank of England will even issue a ten-pound note with Austen’s picture on it.
Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, a new book by Oxford lecturer Helena Kelly, shares the Janeites’ obsessiveness, but not their fondness for the novels’ genteel settings and closely observed manners. Insisting that Austen’s work has always been misread as “an undifferentiated procession of witty, ironical stories about romance and drawing rooms,” Kelly promises to reveal a hitherto unknown and unrecognized Jane Austen. This “radical” Austen meticulously constructed her books to show a “complicated, messy” world, “filled with error and injustice.”
To uncover this subversive text, Kelly argues, “we have to read carefully.” Austen couldn’t be “too explicit, too obvious” in her writing, because she lived in a society “that was, essentially, totalitarian.” Instead, Austen planted clues and codes, trusting her readers “to mine her books for meaning, just as readers in Communist states learned how to read what writers had to learn how to write.” In Kelly’s view, Austen’s novels are a kind of samizdat, concealing radical messages beneath their conventional surfaces.
Kelly never says, however, what she means by “radical.” Is Austen’s radicalism a political agenda, a feminist critique, a theological question, or just feminine self-assertion? Kelly provides very few clues. At one point, she describes Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice as “a radical” because she “knows her own mind” and “reserves the right to decide questions for herself.” Does accepting the idea that Austen was a secret radical, who wrote, according to one reviewer, “about the burning political issues of the time,” make reading the novels any more pleasurable or interesting? Or is it necessary for us to redefine Austen as politically engaged and indignant in order to respect her as a serious woman writer?
Kelly is far from the first critic to engage with political issues in Austen’s fiction. In her 1987 study Jane Austen and the State, Mary Evans called Mansfield Park a “radical critique of bourgeois patriarchy.” For at least 30 years the novel has been at the center of a controversy about how much Austen knew about slavery and what she thought about it, as the heroine’s uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, owns not just Mansfield Park but also a sugar plantation in Antigua. In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said accused Austen of indifference to the slave trade and, because of her silence about it, complicity. Said’s interpretation inspired the 1999 film of Mansfield Park, in which Harold Pinter plays Bertram as a bullying, belligerent, slave-owning patriarch.
Yet Kelly does not credit or address these scholars and their critiques. Her case for the radicalism of the novels rests instead on a mixture of psychological interpretation and political hypothesis—sometimes ingenious, but more often speculative and circular. She loves solving “word games and anagrams” that she alone has detected in Austen’s fiction, all of which somehow turn out to support her argument. She finds a political theme in each of the novels, and they all make the comedy darker and the happy endings questionable. Northanger Abbey is about the “terrifying risk” of marriage and childbirth for women. Sense and Sensibility is a world in which “love and family, honor and duty, have hardly any meaning.”
When we get to Austen’s most sunny and beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice, Kelly admits that a radical reading is more difficult. Still, she maintains, “any reader fully sensitized to the loaded language of revolution and counterrevolution would have read Pride and Prejudice for what it is—a revolutionary fairy tale.” In Austen’s many references to soldiers, Kelly sees “images of a rebellious populace, of government repression, and, more distant but insistent nevertheless … of mutiny.” Austen’s novels show English society is as snobbish, class-determined, cruel, and unequal as pre-revolutionary France, but rebellion against a repressive class system, Kelly concludes, is symbolically prevented in the plot by the “radical marriage” across class differences of Elizabeth (moderately wealthy gentry) and Darcy (very wealthy gentry).
Unlike Said, Kelly views Mansfield Park as commenting intentionally on the hidden evil of slavery in Britain. The book’s title, Kelly argues, recalls the name of William Murray, Lord Mansfield, a judge who ruled in 1772 that English law did not permit the ownership of slaves. “It would have been unforgivably careless of Jane,” Kelly writes, “to attach Mansfield’s name, out of all the names she could have chosen, to this novel unless she meant her readers to think about him and about slavery.” She proposes that Austen left a series of such clues linking the “unforgivable sin” of slavery to the Church of England, which gave it “a veneer of Christian respectability.” Yet the evidence is hardly persuasive: Since the novel was not reviewed when it was published, we have no idea whether a contemporary reader thought of Lord Mansfield in connection with it, or noticed any critique of slavery in Austen’s satire of the clergy.
Kelly finds a much more elaborate political scenario in Emma, which she reads as a coded attack on enclosure of common land by the gentry. Recalling a scene in which gypsies are camped by a roadside, she views Emma as a novel about the hardship, desperation, and need of the poor, whose access to the common land has been stolen. Mr. Knightley, far from being a perfect partner for the heroine, Kelly contends, is an exploitative, hard-hearted lord of the manor with pedophilic inclinations. (In a “shocking moment,” he confesses to Emma that he has been in love with her since she was 13.) Likewise, Kelly insists that the allegedly happy reconciliation of two long-estranged aging lovers in Persuasion is a romantic illusion. The real message of the book, less Shakespearean comedy than existential despair, is that history is “random, chaotic, filled with death and destruction.” So much for the delights of the Jane Austen book club.
Kelly presents herself as an authoritative guide not only to Austen’s secret political meanings, but also to her intentions. In novelistic introductions to each chapter, she recreates several periods in Austen’s life, even channeling her deathbed musings. “She has done them justice, to the best of her poor ability, her books, her children,” Kelly imagines Austen thinking. “What will become of them all, after she’s gone?”
Kelly’s claim to have read each of the six novels “as Jane intended us to” is a bold one, but it’s undermined by her own writing and perspective. She describes Austen as “an authoress,” an antiquated feminine form that, like “poetess,” serves to trivialize Austen as a woman writer. And throughout the book she refers to her subject as “Jane”—a strange usage in a work that seeks to present Austen as a great artist. No critic, after all, writes about Charles’s critiques of injustice, Henry’s complex style, or Joseph’s revolutionary ideas.
Some Austen experts, while critical of Kelly’s methods, have been amusedly tolerant of what John Mullan calls her “divertingly unlikely” discoveries. Indeed, Kelly is an ingenious and entertaining critic, and an engaging writer. She asks a lot of rhetorical questions and disarmingly admits to uncertainty. What did Jane Austen write between 1803 and the spring of 1809? “Maybe she was working on preexisting drafts or on pieces that were later incorporated into the other novels. Maybe she was writing something she later destroyed. We simply don’t know.” Kelly also points out the sexual subtexts of Austen’s decorous prose, from the “thinly veiled description of female masturbation” in Northanger Abbey to the “close, rough, forcible” hug that Fanny Price’s father imposes on her, “a pressing together of bodies” implicitly illicit and intimate.
Writing in The Times Literary Supplement, Devoney Looser compares Kelly to Virginia Woolf, who also speculated wildly about Jane Austen: “Both are skilled, provocative literary critics who make lousy, error-ridden literary historians.” The comparison to Woolf is a big stretch. Woolf grasped the fundamental concerns of the novels—unsentimental acceptance of the economic realities that forced women into marriage; respect for the natural aristocracy of intelligence, humor, and kindness; social satire; and the subtle morality of human relationships—whereas Kelly’s book leads us away from them. Austen’s novels have survived for 200 years on her art, her characters, her wit, and her profound portrayal of women’s lives. That should be sufficiently radical to sustain her reputation a while longer.
On Monday morning, after two days of flailing around with ambiguous statements, President Donald Trump finally denounced the racist violence that led to the death of a counter-protester in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and white supremacists,” Trump remarked in a prepared statement. The words themselves were unremarkable, but it’s astounding that it took a behind-the-scenes struggle to get Trump to utter them, after he had weaselly blamed “many sides” for the fatal violence.
There are several possible explanations for Trump’s reluctance to condemn racism, starting with the fact that the president is personally a racist, as evident by his long history of housing discrimination and incendiary remarks, including his lead role in promoting in birtherism. More strategically, Trump might have feared alienating white nationalists who supported him in the election.
But a bizarre memo from a fired National Security Council official, made public on Thursday by Foreign Policy, offers a window into the larger ideology that makes Trump so loath to say anything critical of white supremacist groups. The memo, written in May by NSC official Rich Higgins, who was later fired, blames “cultural Marxism” as the root ideology animating political opposition to Trump.
“This is not politics as usual but rather political warfare at an unprecedented level that is openly engaged in the direct targeting of a seated president through manipulation of the news cycle,” Higgins wrote. “It must be recognized on its own terms so that immediate action can be taken. At its core, these campaigns run on multiple lines of effort, serve as the non-violent line of effort of a wider movement, and execute political warfare agendas that reflect cultural Marxist outcomes.” According to Higgins, “cultural Marxism” is either allied with or animating such disparate anti-Trump forces as Islamists, Black Lives Matter, the ACLU, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Brotherhood, the academy, the media, the Democratic Party, globalists, international bankers, late night TV comedians, the “Deep State,” and moderate Republicans.
The memo has been immensely polarizing within the Trump administration. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster forced Higgins out over the memo, but Trump reportedly was a fan of it. As Foreign Policy reports:
Trump Jr., at that time in the glare of media scrutiny around his meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower during the presidential campaign, gave the memo to his father, who gushed over it, according to sources.
In a comedy of errors, Trump later learned from Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and close friend of the president, that the memo’s author had been fired. Trump was “furious,” the senior administration official said. “He is still furious.”
The memo itself is now a source of tension between Trump and McMaster. But the implications of it are far greater than whatever comes of the latest fued in the White House. Trump’s apparent support for the views expressed by Higgins suggests that the president’s denial of racism, sexism, and homophobia in America is not merely the result of a political calculation, but a deep conviction.
At first glance, it’s hard to see how the memo, written in barely coherent academic jargon that sounds like a parody of a professor, could have any appeal to Trump. “While the attacks on President Trump arise out of political warfare considerations based on non-kinetic lines of effort ... they operate in a battle-space prepared, informed and conditioned by cultural Marxist drivers,” Higgins wrote. “As used in this discussion, cultural Marxism relates to programs and activities that arise out of Gramsci Marxism, Fabian Socialism and most directly from the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt strategy deconstructs societies through attacks on culture by imposing a dialectic that forces unresolvable contradictions under the rubric of critical theory.”
It takes some effort to translate this gibberish into English, but here is the gist of Higgins’s argument: Trump embodies traditional American values, which are under siege by political forces that accuse him of racism, sexism, and homophobia; but these critiques are not valid because they are “memes” created by cultural Marxists for the express purpose of destroying Western civilization.
Holding up “cultural Marxists” as the mastermind of all evil in the world is not original to Higgins, but an old trope on the conspiratorial far right. The actual historical “cultural Marxists” were the Frankfurt School of social thinkers who formed in the 1920s, notably T.W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse (some parallel thinkers like Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs are also sometimes grouped with them). The Frankfurt School emerged during the rise of Nazism and Stalinism, both movements they opposed. What defined the Frankfurt School was their argument that a purely economic account of history was inadequate for accounting for the new dictatorships. Instead, there was a need for cultural analysis of authoritarianism, racism, and patriarchy.
During the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse, then teaching in San Diego, rose to prominence as a mentor to the New Left. Angela Davis, who also studied with Adorno, was Marcuse’s protege, and some New Left activists cited Marcuse’s abstruse works. Right-wing groups, notably the John Birch Society, made Marcuse a scapegoat for the upheavals of the 1960s. Marcuse himself received death threats from a right-wing militia. In a 1971 interview with Playboy, actor John Wayne blamed Marcuse for student protests, saying, “Marcuse has become a hero only for an articulate clique. The men that give me faith in my country are fellas like Spiro Agnew, not the Marcuses.”
The conspiracy theory was later revived in the 1980s by the paleo-conservative thinker William S. Lind, who claimed that the Frankfurt School was the foundation for political correctness. Via Lind, it has become a popular argument on the far right, often cited by figures like columnist Pat Buchanan and the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik. In a 2012 interview, Buchanan said, “Cultural Marxism has certainly been more successful than the economic Marxism of the 19th century and the Leninism associated with it.”
The theory that the Frankfurt School is the root of political correctness is historically absurd. Anti-racism, feminism, and the gay rights movement all have roots that well precede the Frankfurt School and owe far more to the activism of women, people of color, and LGBT individuals than to any German theorist. While Marcuse was friendly with the New Left, his main work dealt with themes of the impact of technology that are far removed from political activism. Although nominally they were on the political left, Adorno and the other members of the Frankfurt School had little truck with activism (and indeed were often accused by their students of being hermetically removed from practical politics). In an infamous 1969 incident, feminist students mocked what they saw as Adorno’s prudishness by baring their breasts to him. Adorno was a deeply Eurocentric thinker who hated jazz. Horkheimer defended the Vietnam War and admired the Catholic Church’s stance against birth control. These are not thinkers than can plausibly be seen as the creators of modern political correctness or debates about identity politics.
But the “cultural Marxism” myth persists because it’s convenient for the right, allowing them to pretend that bigotry is not a real problem but rather an ideology created by sinister thinkers, who, as it happens, were Jewish. As Jason Wilson noted in The Guardian, “The theory of cultural Marxism is also blatantly antisemitic, drawing on the idea of Jews as a fifth column bringing down western civilisation from within, a racist trope that has a longer history than Marxism. Like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the theory was fabricated to order, for a special purpose: the institution and perpetuation of culture war.”
The fact that Trump reportedly loved this memo is deeply disturbing. It’s one thing to say that the extent of racism, sexism, and homophobia can be debated. It’s much more extreme to argue that racism, sexism, and homophobia don’t exist at all, but are illusions created by crafty thinkers to fool the masses.
The memo offers a clue to the extent of Trump’s bigotry. It’s not just that he’s a visceral bigot, but also, on some level, intellectually committed to bigotry. With the encouragement of white nationalist advisers like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Sebastian Gorka, Trump is attracted to ideas that absolve society of the need to deal with racism, sexism, and homophobia. There’s no surprise that a president who “gushed” over the cultural Marxism memo had to be dragged kicking and screaming into saying “racism is evil,” since on some level he probably doesn’t think racism even exists.
Though a reminder was hardly needed, occurring as it did against a backdrop of reckless nuclear threats against North Korea and a campaign of intimidation directed at Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, Donald Trump’s ignominious response to the deadly white-supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, served as a fresh testament to the fact that the president is unfit for office and deserves to be removed.
It is possible to imagine circumstances under which a Republican Congress would impeach a Republican president, but not for conduct they have already decided to look past—including conduct reported to be in Mueller’s files. So, as welcome as it would be for Mueller to issue a withering indictment of the president and to present evidence of conduct worthy of impeachment, Trump’s detractors should prepare themselves for the possibility that Mueller makes the case of the century and Republicans in Congress respond by doing nothing.
Though it didn’t end his presidency as it rightly should have, Charlottesville did expose and deepen Trump’s real political vulnerabilities. Only a few dead-ender loyalists and paid employees defended Trump after he essentially sided with racists over counter-protesters. Most leading Republicans issued statements, in implicit contrast to Trump, against white supremacy. Some condemned the president directly.
Others insisted Trump’s Justice Department launch a federal civil rights investigation of the murder of Heather Heyer, who was run down by a Nazi sympathizer behind the wheel of a speeding car. The Justice Department announced late Saturday that it was doing just that.
By Monday, Trump’s daily Gallup job approval numbers had reached an all-time low, and he was forced to issue a less ambiguous (though by no means unambiguous) statement condemning hate groups. “Racism is evil,” he said. “And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
Though better concealed, the coded language embedded in this statement was apparent to white supremacists, too. “Donald Trump’s most recent condemnation of racism was also good and was appropriate as the head of our entire country,” American Freedom Party leader William Johnson told TPM. “I note that he condemned all racism INCLUDING that coming from the KKK and neo-nazis. The use of the word ‘including’ indicates that he believes there is a larger, over-arching source of racism besides those groups named.”
Incidents like these trace the path to a near-term future in which Trump’s approval ratings slide below 30 percent and elected Republicans finally see their way clear to letting Trump go. But by then, they will have already made their peace with a stunning quantity of misconduct. Even in breaking with Trump this weekend, most congressional Republicans chose not to see his actions as disqualifying, and aimed instead to pressure him into making a better statement, so they could put Charlottesville behind them.
In the course of Trump’s short presidency, these same Republicans have already looked past his self-enrichment; his potentate-like deputization of his children as U.S. emissaries; his firing of FBI Director James Comey, along with other extraordinary efforts to quash or interfere with the federal investigation of his campaign’s involvement in Russian efforts to subvert the election on his behalf; evidence that his son, son-in-law, and campaign manager were eager to collude with the Russian government to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign; and an impulsive threat to preemptively nuke North Korea. That is just a partial list.
It will be very difficult for Republicans, if they ultimately decide Trump should be removed from office, to cite any of these offenses as grounds for impeachment proceedings months after they decided they were merely worthy of statements of “concern.” Mueller could send Congress a report concluding that Trump engaged in a lengthy and barely-concealed effort to obstruct justice, and Republicans might still find it easier to chalk it all up to Trump’s imagined inexperience, and move on, than to explain why Mueller’s formal statement of the blindingly obvious changed their minds about the consequences Trump should face.
In a perverse way, Republicans’ early reluctance to impeach Trump for the impeachable things he did in plain sight could transform into the reason they won’t impeach him for that same conduct once his political collapse is complete. Their willingness to enable him when they thought he might be useful would inhibit them from holding him accountable once they’ve concluded he’s not, creating a self-fulfilling kind of impunity.
Of course, Trump makes even the unthinkable possible. He could commit a brand new raft of offenses severe enough to give Republicans an offramp if they’re looking for one. Alternatively, Mueller could uncover a level of wrongdoing none could have predicted and nobody can defend. But ending the Trump presidency speedily is by and large a political project, and a daunting one. The serene faith that Mueller can make Republicans do what Trump’s naked unfitness hasn’t done already is a blind and self-defeating one.
The neo-Nazis and white supremacists who marched and brawled in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend wore their whiteness like a shield. It was proudly evident in their uncovered faces and their arms outstretched in Hitler salutes. It was displayed on their bare skin, which flaunted tattoos of swastikas and Confederate flags.
Mark Peterson’s photographs capture the baleful scene, illuminating the protesters’ faces and eyes, some of which are joyful in their hate. They bludgeon and stamp on counter-protesters, who scramble and care for the fallen, including Heather Heyer, struck and killed by a white supremacist’s car.
Their assailants had no need for hoods and masks, not when they have a defender in the White House. In these photos, they are naked and unafraid. The faces of the white supremacist leaders Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler are eerily pale, almost incandescent. But the face of David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, is partly cast in shadow, as if gesturing at the deep darkness from which this virulent brand of American hatred springs.
A white nationalist punches a counter-protester, knocking him to the ground on Market Street.
Medics rush to help 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed when white supremacist James Fields Jr. allegedly rammed his car into the crowd.
White nationalists use homemade shields to defend themselves from flying objects.
Jason Kessler, organizer of the “Unite The Right” rally, stands in front of the Robert E. Lee statue, whose planned removal was the nominal reason for the march.
A counter-protester walks through a cloud of tear gas.
Richard Spencer, president of a white nationalist think tank known as the National Policy Institute, surrounded by his personal security guards. “I love the smell of tear gas in the morning,” he tells the crowd.
A shirtless neo-Nazi displaying his swastika tattoo.
Former KKK grand wizard David Duke tells reporters at the rally, “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump.”
A member of the National Guard stands on top of an armored personnel carrier. He is pointing his weapon into a crowd of injured people, moments after Fields crashed his car.
A white nationalist throws a smoke grenade canister that he picked up from the ground, aiming at counter-protesters.
A white nationalist beats a counter-protester with a Confederate flagpole.
A man with a fascist-style haircut, covered in pepper spray, wields a police baton.
A neo-Nazi makes a sieg heil salute. Protesters could be heard chanting the Nazi slogan “blood and soil” during the rally.
On Saturday afternoon in Maumee, Ohio, it fell to a pair of Associated Press reporters to break the news to Samantha Bloom that her 20-year-old son was an alleged terrorist and murderer. The reporters found her outside her son’s apartment building, where she’d gone to feed his cat while he was away in Virginia for the weekend. “I just knew there was an—,” she said, struggling to take it all in. “He did mention, what is it ... allbright?”
“Alt-right,” one of the reporters gently corrected her, and proceeded to inform her what the term really means: organized white supremacy.
“I didn’t know it was white supremacist,” Bloom said. “I thought it had something to do with Trump.”
She had the last part correct. Unite the Right, the “alt-right” rally in Charlottesville that attracted the largest contingent of white supremacists in recent American history—and culminated, police say, in Bloom’s son plowing his Dodge Challenger into a line of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others—had everything to do with President Donald Trump. This was not a rally in support of a Confederate statue; as The Atlantic’s Matt Thompson put it, it was a “pride march” for America’s resurgent white supremacists. No masks; no hoods; no shame. And why should there be? The ideology on parade not only has official sanction and mainstream respectability in 2017; it also happens to be the ideology of the president of the United States.
“From this day forward a new vision will govern our land,” Trump promised in his apocalyptic “American Carnage” inaugural address. “From this day forward, it’s only going to be America first, America first.” It was, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie wrote, the “one real, coherent defining theme for his administration—the only thing that counts is America. And the only Americans who count are white.”
After this weekend, surely, it is finally time to retire the euphemisms about Trump and the movement he leads. The storm troopers and meme-wielders of the “alt-right” (not to mention the “new right” and “alt-light”) no longer get to define themselves by cutesy names designed to obscure their neo-Nazism. And, if facts still mean anything in America, Trump will also be recognized henceforth for what he is: the chief recruiter and Dear Leader of a gang of domestic terrorists.
Trump’s reaction to the horrors in Charlottesville left no doubt about this. But for all the clamor and condemnation of his Saturday statement, when he went off-script to condemn “violence on many sides, many sides,” almost everybody in the world of “normies” still got it wrong. What was so offensive about Trump’s statement on Saturday, to most observers, was the “moral equivalence” he drew between the neo-Nazis and the counter-protesters who confronted them in Charlottesville. “Trump spoke in platitudes; he was a man looking for gray areas where there are none,” Jelani Cobb wrote at The New Yorker.
That’s far too generous an assessment. Trump was not merely equating Richard Spencer, David Duke, and Charlottesville’s resident fascist agitator Jason Kessler with anti–white supremacists like Heather Heyer. He wasn’t speaking of “gray areas.” He was endorsing domestic terrorism in the name of white supremacy, in the only vaguely passable way that a president could. The president went off-script and spoke from his gut when he blamed the violence on “many sides.” And his minions heard it for exactly what it was.
“There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all,” said a commenter on Daily Stormer, which bills itself as “The World’s Most Genocidal Website.” “He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about white nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
In the coming days and weeks, Trump will undoubtedly take pains to clean up the mess he left on Saturday. He will get on script and echo the sentiment belatedly tweeted by his daughter, Ivanka, on Sunday: “There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis.” He may even symbolically purge his administration of some of its leading white supremacists: Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka, Kris Kobach. And a lot of people will be fooled. Some will continue to maintain, as Samantha Bloom did on Saturday, that “Trump’s not a supremacist.”
But Trump’s foot soldiers will know better. When he veered from his prepared remarks on Saturday, he spoke his real truth. It is no coincidence, as NBC’s Benjy Sarlin observed, that “Trump tends to interpret any request to condemn hate as a personal attack.” Of course he does: It is personal for Trump, just as surely as it is for Spencer or Duke or Bannon. The president is the most powerful hate-monger in America. He is the imperial wizard of the new white supremacy. He is “GEOTUS” to his followers on 4chan and Daily Stormer: “God Emperor of the United States.” It’s hard to conceive of an acronym that would please this president more.
Before this weekend, the chief form of terror practiced by Trump’s white nationalists was online. As Angela Nagle writes in her indispensable book about the “alt-right,” Kill All Normies:
Multiple journalists and citizens have described in horrifying detail the attacks and threats against those who criticize Trump or figures of the online Trumpian right, especially if the critic is female, black or Jewish, but also if they’re a “cuckservative.” They now have the ability to send thousands of the most obsessed, unhinged and angry people on the Internet after someone if they dare to speak against the president or his prominent alt-light and alt-right fans.
Trump has long endorsed that form of terror, too, with equally unmistakable signaling—namely, retweeting some of the worst. He’s also sent clear wavelengths not only through his anti-Hispanic hate speech, but with (among other things) his failure to denounce David Duke after his campaign endorsement; his drumbeat of degradation of women like “bleeding” Megyn Kelly; and, more tangibly, his reorienting the federal government’s counter-domestic-terrorism efforts to focus only on Islamic extremism, not white supremacists.
Trump does not merely “play footsie” with the new white-supremacist movement in America, as Jennifer Rubin wrote in an otherwise blistering condemnation of his “moral idiocy” at The Washington Post on Sunday. He embodies the movement—in his rhetoric, in his actions, and in his person. Just as white people created America and made it great, in the view of the white nationalists, Trump built his business empire all on his own, with no help from his real-estate mogul father. And just like the neo-Nazis—who spent Sunday spreading Alex Jones’s message that Charlottesville was a George Soros conspiracy—Trump is always blameless. And if you challenge his paranoid version of truth, he will not engage with you, he will not try to persuade you—any more than Spencer or Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin will. He will mock you, and intimidate you. Rhetorical violence is his stock-in-trade.
Perhaps most important, Trump’s vision of the world is identical to the apocalyptic fantasies of “white genocide” peddled by his followers. What, after all, is white supremacy in America in 2017? It is, first and foremost, an expression of delusional self-regard and white male entitlement run riot. It is the insistence that some people—white American males—are inherently better than others, and deserve preferential treatment. To his supporters, and to himself, Donald Trump is the living embodiment of Hitler’s concept of Aryan Herrenvolk (“Aryan Master Race”). He is our first neo-Nazi president. And until we acknowledge that unthinkable truth, and treat Trump’s presidency as the anti-democratic crisis that it is, he will not be the last.
Each Monday, the New Republic staff will discuss the newest episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which is in its seventh and penultimate season. Join us as we chat about the latest plot developments, a pregnant encounter with a dragon, and Jorah in the friendzone.
Ryu Spaeth: One of the great pleasures of this season, as we finally hasten toward the end, is to see how various expected plot developments actually play out. We know from countless fan boards that Jon Snow is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, and the notion that he may be more than the bastard of Ned Stark dawned on both Jon and Daenerys in exhilarating fashion in “Eastwatch.” He gingerly pets Drogon’s snout as if he were an immense dog, while the dragon’s oily eye seems to recognize that there is Targaryen blood in the man before him, a nerve-wracking scene that was reminiscent of an iconic encounter between Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and the alien in the Alien franchise.
But this season has also introduced entirely unexpected plot developments. If you had Jon leading an expedition north of the Wall to fetch a wight for Cersei Lannister on your bingo card, congratulations. Is it me or is this whole idea just a bit batty?
Sarah Jones: I don’t think Cersei will care very much, even if a wight is dropped into her bedchambers. She is getting nuttier as the season progresses, which is an interesting parallel to what could be a dark turn for Dany, too. There was a cold logic to her punishment of Randyll and Dickon Tarly, but publicly burning soldiers to death with dragon fire is not really a good way to unite people under your banner.
That said, it was a fitting end for Randyll, the xenophobic Republican of Westeros; and for Dickon, who just wanted to make his father proud. RIP, Dickon.
Clio Chang: If Dany wanted to show she isn’t an extremely cruel leader who enjoys burning people alive, she could deploy her three dragons to the North to wage war against an army of the dead. Or, you know, why not send six dudes to try to capture one undead person instead? The only way this plot twist will be worth it is if one of these big burly boys die and turns into a wight himself. All my bets are on Jorah. I want to see undead Jorah return that coin to Tyrion and then finally have the courage to ask Daenerys out on a date.
I loved the scene with Jon and Drogon. But the worst part of the episode was when it was revealed that Jon is probably the legitimate son of Rhaegar and Lyanna through Gilly reading it in a dang book, before she is promptly bulldozed by Sam’s ego.
Rachel Stone: Good boy, Drogon! I loved that scene too because it was really the first time we’ve seen Daenerys in the presence of an equal; Jon isn’t an adversary Dany can burn, nor is he a member of her crew of infatuated acolytes. For a while their chemistry seemed shaky, but I’ve come to enjoy Jon and Dany’s tentative admiration for each other, which Jon’s connection with Drogon seemed to only deepen further.
I don’t know what to make of the Jorah/Jon/Daenerys relationship in an episode filled with moments of Dany gazing at Jorah with admiration and Jon lurking somewhere behind them, though maybe the northward expedition will develop that plot line some more.
Ryu Spaeth: I think this means that Jorah is about to go deeper into the friendzone, if that is even possible.
Sarah Jones: Jorah’s fate is to be friendzoned forever. It is known.
Ryu Spaeth: As Sarah mentioned, Dany took a dark turn this episode, incinerating Randyll and Dickon Tarly. Cersei took her malevolence a step further, threatening to shiv her brother if he ever betrayed her. And then there is Arya, who is skulking around Winterfell, spying on Littlefinger, and accusing Sansa of selling Jon out for her own gain. I am worried about Arya. Anyone else?
Sarah Jones: I am also worried about Arya. I imagine that going to Magic Assassin School teaches you that everyone is a threat, but that’s not particularly conducive to politicking. Sansa clearly has to mollify these lords; she’s right that she can’t afford to lose their support. And though Arya is probably right that Sansa has considered taking over, she’s clearly decided not to. Here’s hoping these two finally put aside their differences and focus on the real threat: Petyr Baelish, who needs to be shanked.
Clio Chang: When it’s revealed that Littlefinger was standing behind a wall watching Arya the whole time she was in his room, I almost expected the camera to cut again to Arya standing behind another wall watching Littlefinger. An infinite loop of Littlefinger watching Arya watching Littlefinger. Alas.
But while the show is setting us up for a showdown between Arya and Littlefinger, I stand behind my prediction that Nymeria will be the one to rip Petyr “What Accent Shall I Use Today” Baelish apart.
Rachel Stone: New Dany seems more in line with old Dany, even with more firepower and some nice rose-gold eyeshadow. She’s burned people alive before, and she is concentrating on what matters most to her: breaking the wheel of violence that oppresses all the people of Westeros. But Tyrion and Varys’s little huddle about how best to control her doesn’t bode too well for their alliance.
Cersei, on the other hand, seem to have gone completely bonkers, and I love it.
Sarah Jones: Much to my delight, the show seems to be setting things up for Jaime to finally turn on his sister. I don’t believe for a second that Cersei is actually pregnant, though this could be wishful thinking; it seems like an attempt to enmesh Jaime more thoroughly in their mentally unhealthy and biologically unsound relationship. I can’t fathom what Jaime’s thinking: Their first three children are dead, one of them because Cersei drove him to commit suicide. Not exactly mother-of-the-year material. Jaime can do better.
Ryu Spaeth: In addition to Jon and Jorah, the merry band of warriors heading beyond the Wall includes The Hound, Beric Dondarrion, Thoros of the Hipster Topknot, and … Gendry? I confess I don’t quite understand why Gendry is back, and how he got so good with that hammer.
Sarah Jones: Gendry is back because this is an epic fantasy series and he’s a king’s bastard who is generically good-looking. He will probably die heroically, and BuzzFeed will publish a listicle in his honor.
Rachel Stone: True, or he’s back to provide a segue into the buckets of aphrodisiac fermented crab?
Clio Chang: Personally, I loved Gendry’s reintroduction to the show. His friendship with Jon shows that solidarity can run through generations, even for bastard sons. When god takes a Dickon, he gives you a Gendry. Gendry is the new New Dickon. Long live Gendry!!!
Sarah Jones: Clio. No.
As the crisis this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, reached its depressing nadir, a grim joke (is there any other kind anymore?) circulated through social media that went something like this: We are going to miss those days when all we had to worry about was a nuclear war with North Korea. The days in question, of course, came earlier that very week, when President Donald Trump ratcheted up tensions with Kim Jong-Un’s regime by declaring that he would unleash “fire and fury” on the country if it continued to threaten the United States. On Friday, mere hours before hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched on Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, Trump tweeted that a military option for North Korea was “locked and loaded.” For no apparent reason at all, he then threatened Venezuela with possible military intervention.
What followed was a weekend of miserable hate theater: a sea of angry white faces, suffused with torchlight; the swastikas and Confederate flags on parade through the streets of an American city; the anti-Nazi counter-protests, which were disrupted when a car slammed into the crowd, scattering demonstrators like so many bowling pins and killing one woman; and the president of the United States refusing to condemn all this, saying “many sides” were responsible for what had happened in Charlottesville. It was a moment that will live in infamy, a low point for a presidency that seems to be composed of nothing but low points. And North Korea faded into what seemed like the distant past, another pile of wreckage in the great ruin that this president has made.
It would seem that the only thing these two crises have in common is Trump. He instigated both of them: in one case, by turning an impoverished totalitarian state thousands of miles away into his personal bête noire; in the other, by legitimizing the grievances of a pathetic group that believes people of other races are inherently inferior. In both instances he was guided by his north star, a white nationalist base that, depending on whom you ask, is either in its final reactionary throes or is experiencing a resurgence alongside its sister movements in Europe.
But what these crises also have in common is the psychological effect they have on the rest of us, joining a long chain of crises to form a single ur-crisis that hangs over our heads like a sword and from which there is no guarantee of reprieve. America has long been a country of hate and prejudice, of war and belligerence, but the last week was the latest evidence that there is something new and disorienting and dangerous afoot. It feels as if the whole world is coming off its hinges, and the vast majority of us can do nothing but watch it happen.
If my daughter were to one day ask me where I was when the tragedy of Charlottesville took place, I would tell her that I was in a playground in New York City as she fooled around on a jungle gym. I watched four different videos on my phone of a muscle car—sleek as a bullet, dark like a bat from hell—smashing through a wall of people. I made some stupid, useless exclamation to no one in particular, to a playground full of screaming kids. I looked up from my phone, at the gleaming slides and bright monkey bars, and it was as if a pall had been cast over our lives.
There was a profound disconnect between the nightmare of insane violence and hatred on my phone and this playground where my child was happily playing. But these two worlds were one and the same, a surreal mingling of its placid surface and its monstrous depths.
I am hardly alone in feeling this way. On one level, there is a widespread feeling of paralysis in the face of a rolling catastrophe that is impossible turn away from. But on another, there is also a creeping sense of meaninglessness, a suspicion that so many of the things we used to cherish—reading a novel, going to work—are not quite as important as we once thought, especially when compared to the national disaster that encompasses our lives and threatens to upend them.
As Morgan Jerkins recently reported for the New Republic, publishers are having a difficult time selling books that aren’t somehow associated with Donald Trump. There just isn’t interest. People have told me that they worry that their jobs are trivial, even when those jobs are the fruition of lifelong dreams. And though I work at a political magazine and engage in these issues every day, I confess that I felt a similar pang of pointlessness when I saw a photo of a young black man coolly torching a Confederate flag with what appeared to be an aerosol can. In a universe that has been tipped on its head, it was a rare act with meaning.
Charlottesville and Donald Trump’s response to it were uniquely upsetting. When there are literal Nazis and Klansmen on the streets and the president refuses to condemn them by name, it both takes us to new heights of despair and provokes a desire for a more visceral response—to spit in the face of evil. But Charlottesville was merely one incident, and there have been countless more that have prompted similar feelings of helplessness, from the splitting up of immigrant families to the near-death of Obamacare.
Take North Korea. There is no person in this country—not the generals, not the civil servants, certainly not the Republicans in Congress—who can influence what Trump does vis-à-vis the Hermit Kingdom. In fact there is evidence that his bellicosity is paying political dividends, which means we can expect more of the same. As The New York Times reported, there are plenty of Trump voters who believe that he should go to the hilt when it comes to aggravating Kim. As one Trump supporter from Colorado told the paper, war with North Korea, which would entail an untold number of deaths on the Korean Peninsula, didn’t concern him because he would not personally be in danger. “We live in the safest part of the country,” he said.
There is so much selfishness and ignorance and hatred in this county, and they have found their concentrated embodiment in Trump, who bludgeons us with the worst aspects of humanity every single day. This is self-evidently traumatic for the body politic, harming our capacity for empathy and reason and decency. And yet it is difficult to express just how awful it is: how it makes us worry for our children in existential terms, how it makes our lives a little more sordid every day, how it slowly bleeds our world of joy and purpose.
The traditional response to bad presidents is to resist, to organize, to prepare for the next election—to have faith, even if everything else fails, in democracy. But democracy already failed us once, handing the presidency to a man who lost the popular vote by a resounding margin. It has been subverted by gerrymandering, and is being weakened by those working to keep minorities and the poor from the polls. It was compromised by the intervention of a foreign government, and the president is reluctant to even acknowledge that fact, let alone make sure it doesn’t happen again.
And even if Trump were to be swept from office in 2020, this country will not magically return to the pre-Trump status quo. The damage he has already inflicted, and that he will undoubtedly continue to inflict over, God help us, three more years, will take a long time to undo, if it can ever be undone. A malevolent force has been loosed on the world, moving great invisible gears in unpredictable ways, and no one can say with an iota of certainty where we will be five, ten years from now.
This is the point in the essay where I should say that we mustn’t lose hope, that we must impede Donald Trump at every step, and I do believe that. Still, to quote Howard Beale, everyone knows things are bad. I wake up each morning prepared for something terrible to happen. But something terrible is happening, every day, all around us. The most frightening part is that we’re not sure if Trump’s America is rock bottom or if we have further to fall.
It is tempting to view President Donald Trump’s response to the weekend mob of murderous neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a logical, if morally heinous, extension of Southern Strategy politics.
Liberal journalists, including Judd Legum and Chris Hayes, have adopted an analysis of cynicism, in which Trump has intuited the importance of white supremacists to his political coalition, and will thus go to great lengths to placate them, so the coalition doesn’t splinter.
This thinking feels so plausible in part because the Southern Strategy is such a well understood facet of modern Republicanism. It can’t be a stretch to accuse the Republican president of deploying the most elemental of Republican political tactics.
The truth is in fact far worse. Trump and many of his closest advisers aren’t making common cause with vile racists for political advantage. They are the vile racists, and are supporting fellow racists at substantial political risk because they want the racist vision to prevail.
The argument that Trump appeases and placates white supremacists as a form of coalition management is an argument that proves too much. If it were correct, Trump would have something to show for it that other Republicans who flirt with only subtler bigotries do not. Instead, Trump ran behind nearly every Republican senator who was in cycle in 2016. He managed to win the presidency despite garnering fewer votes not only than his opponent, Hillary Clinton, but than any victorious president since 2000, in population-adjusted terms.
In his remarks on Saturday, when he infamously condemned bigotry “on many sides,” Trump also admonished citizens to “love each other, respect each other, and cherish our history.” This all sounds banal enough until you place it in the context of the unrest itself. Nazis and neo-Confederates gathered in Charlottesville, nominally at least, to protest plans to remove a monument to Robert E. Lee from a city park. The generic appeal to history is the pretext racists use to support the valorization of a slave society and its military leaders. Trump didn’t just draw a moral equivalence between Nazis and counter-protesters, but took the Nazis’ side in the dispute that motivated their violence.
Trump is most likely not literate enough to have composed those words. His affinity for white supremacists is more atavistic than intellectual. It is almost certain, though, that this particular coded language was written into his prepared text by one of three fascistic advisers: Stephen Miller, a one-time fellow traveler of Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right”; Sebastian Gorka, the bellowing ogre who was affiliated with the Nazi-aligned Hungarian nationalist order of Vitézi Rend; or Steve Bannon, the anti-modernist Breitbart impresario who idolizes Nazi propagandists.
Not everyone who works for Trump supports the same ends as the racists in Charlottesville, but those who do have created a formidable power center within the White House. Contrary to myth, the caretaker generals of the Trump administration have not fully cleaned house, and to the extent that they’ve driven some messianic right-wingers from the administration, the imprint those departed staffers have left behind is unmistakable.
Most recently, The Atlantic reported that national security advisor General H.R. McMaster had removed a former Pentagon official named Rich Higgins from the National Security Council after discovering that Higgins had written and circulated a paranoid and wildly inappropriate memo, which argues that conducting “political warfare” against Trump’s enemies is a matter of dire urgency for the country.
Last week, Foreign Policy obtained the memo and published it online. It is seven pages long and completely demented. Higgins posits a vast alliance spanning establishment Republicans and Marxists who together with Islamists employ “Maoist insurgency” tactics, including the formation of a “counter-state” which “function[s] as a hostile competing state acting within an existing state,” aimed at eventually “seizing state power.” It is all the way around the bend. But its existence is no accident, and its content reflects a non-outlying viewpoint, held by many senior officials in the administration, including the president himself. According to Foreign Policy, the memo made its way from the NSC to Donald Trump’s eldest son. Trump, Jr. reportedly shared it with his father who “gushed over it” and became “furious” when he learned that Higgins had been fired.
The memo is, in a critical sense, a governing incarnation of the notorious pro-Trump treatise “The Flight 93 Election,” published in September of last year. That essay, nearly as unmoored from reality, held out similar enemies as foils to motivate Trump-skeptical conservatives to vote for him nonetheless. First, saving the country from imagined forces like “cultural marxism,” and real forces like white demographic decline, required conservatives to abandon their moral bearings. Now that he’s president, it requires enlisting the national security apparatus into political war against those same enemies—their own countrymen. “The Flight 93 Election” was published pseudonymously, then revealed to have been written by Michael Anton, who now serves—where else?—on Trump’s National Security Council.
The arrival of these ugly people and their ugly views into the halls of power would be alarming even if they hadn’t infiltrated the security services. Upon Trump’s election, the National Rifle Association transformed almost overnight from an organization that posed as a civil liberties advocacy group into, essentially, a pro-government paramilitary outfit. The fantasy of mowing protesters over with cars became so potent among Trump’s core supporters that Republicans in several states introduced legislation aimed at indemnifying motorists who strike protesters with motor vehicles.
The killing in Charlottesville wasn’t an unintended consequence of allowing white supremacists to coexist with others in the conservative coalition. It was the realization of concerted efforts to make their vision of politics a dominant strand within the party. That white supremacists and Nazis feel redeemed by Trump’s election, permitted by his words to stir up more Charlottesvilles, isn’t a consequence Trump and his brigade of racists have simply made peace with. It’s the thing in itself.
President Donald Trump’s domestic agenda is a shambles, and his administration is besieged by scandal. He has been badgering Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell all week for failing to repeal and replace Obamacare, a futile exercise in browbeating. The good news is that, as Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer noted recently, institutions have proven willing to stand up to Trump, ranging from the military (which won’t carry out his ban on transgender people serving) to the Senate (which defended Attorney General Jeff Sessions from Trump’s attempt to elbow him out of office) to the Boy Scouts (which criticized the president for politicizing his appearance at their annual jamboree). “The institutions of both political and civil society are holding up well,” Krauthammer wrote. “Trump is a systemic stress test. The results are good, thus far.”
But the more ineffectual Trump is in domestic politics, the louder and scarier he is on the international stage. Even if we accept Krauthammer’s contention that the “guardrails” of political and civil society are preventing Trump from fundamentally damaging American society, Trump still enjoys enormous unchecked power abroad. Perhaps precisely because he is thwarted at home, Trump is now more prone than ever to lash out against foreign foes. This week, he used the incongruous setting of a photo op at Trump National Golf Course in New Jersey to threaten North Korea with nuclear annihilation. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” he warned. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” He doubled down on those remarks on Friday, tweeting:
What makes these words terrifying, even if we make every allowance for Trump’s bluster, is that he has the power to make them true. America’s nuclear chain of command grants a president absolute authority to launch preventive nuclear strikes whenever desired. In 1974, as his presidency was capsizing, Richard Nixon reflected that, “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone, and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.” Trump enjoys that same power.
Much has been made of Trump’s manifest authoritarian tendencies: that he sees politics only in terms of domination, his habit of praising extrajudicial violence, and his proclivity for breaking norms. Yet Trump’s authoritarian tendencies would not get him very far without a mechanism for enacting his wishes, and his nuclear threats make clear what that mechanism is: the Imperial Presidency. The powers of the office are not just those enumerated in the Constitution, but the extra-constitutional powers the presidency has acquired over the decades—especially the ability to start wars at whim. It’s taken someone as frightening as Trump to make plain that Congress must act to restrain not just the sitting president, but the office itself.
Historians and political scientists often use the term “Imperial Presidency” to refer to the fact that the American president, at least since the dawn of the Cold War in the 1940s, has war-making powers closer to that of an absolute monarch than an officeholder in a republic who is bound by the rules of law. If we are worried about Trump inflicting great harm on the world, it’s the powers of the Imperial Presidency that enable him to do the most damage.
The Imperial Presidency rests on an ambiguity in the Constitution. In theory, the president is coequal to Congress and to be held in check by it. But in times of war, the requirement of national unity almost always leads Congress to defer to the president. As Alexander Hamilton noted in “The Federalist 8,” “It is of the nature of war to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority.” Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the American political system seesawed: in times of war, the presidency was dominant; in times of peace, Congress was.
The permanent emergency of the Cold War created an unrelieved wartime footing in which presidents entered America into large conflicts, like the Korean War and the Vietnam War, without a formal congressional declaration. The emergence of nuclear weapons further centralized power in the hands of the president. Under the nuclear deterrence theory that America adopted in the 1950s, a president had to be prepared to launch an attack immediately, which meant no time to consult Congress.
The consequence, as the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote in his classic study The Imperial Presidency (1973), was “the all-purpose invocation of ‘national security,’ the insistence on executive secrecy, the withholding of information from Congress, the refusal to spend funds appropriated by Congress, the attempted intimidation of the press, the use of the White House as a base for espionage and sabotage directed against the political opposition—all signified the extension of the imperial presidency from foreign to domestic affairs.” The end result was “by the early 1970s the American President had become on issues of war and peace the most absolute monarch (with the possible exception of Mao Tse-tung of China) among the great powers of the world.”
Schlesinger was writing during the Watergate scandal. The Nixon presidency was both the height of the Imperial Presidency and also the beginning of its decline, at least for a few years. In the wake of Nixon’s abuses, Congress pushed back. In 1973, over Nixon’s veto, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, which limited a president’s war-making ability, requiring the White House to notify Congress about the use of force and forbidding deployment beyond 90 days without a congressional authorization for use of military force. Other measures of the period include The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act (1974) which reasserted congressional control of spending.
Writing in The Wilson Quarterly in 2002, Donald R. Wolfensberger, then director of the Congress Project at the Wilson Center, listed other examples of Congress rolling back the Imperial Presidency:
The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 was supposed to eliminate the taint of big money from presidential politics. Subsequent years witnessed a spate of other statutes designed to right the balance between the branches. The National Emergencies Act (1976) abolished scores of existing presidential emergency powers. The Ethics in Government Act (1978) authorized, among other things, the appointment of special prosecutors to investigate high-ranking executive branch officials. The Senate, in 1976, and the House, in 1977, established intelligence committees in the wake of hearings in 1975 revealing widespread abuses; and in 1980 the Intelligence Oversight Act increased Congress’s monitoring demands on intelligence agencies and their covert operations.
As Wolfensberger noted, these restraints on the Imperial Presidency were only partial and often ineffectual, as post-Nixon presidents found ways to work around them. The Reagan administration, with the pretext of a renewed Cold War, tried to undermine congressional limits on aid to the Contras by using funds from secret arms sales to Iran. President George H. W. Bush tried to finesse the issue by getting congressional authorization for the Gulf War, but also saying that it wasn’t necessary. President Bill Clinton bombed Kosovo with support from a Senate resolution that failed in the House of Representatives.
Whatever limits there might have been on presidential power ended with 9/11. After President George W. Bush delivered a stirring speech in the weeks after the attack, presidential historian Michael Beschloss cheered on television that “the imperial presidency is back. We just saw it.” Under the auspices of the unitary executive theory promulgated by Vice President Dick Cheney, the U.S. entered the era of warrantless wireless searches, the kidnapping and torture of terrorist suspects held indefinitely in secret prisons, and an undefined and undeclared global war on terror.
While President Barack Obama might have tried to bring some semblance of legality to Bush’s expansion of presidential power, there was no real curtailment of it. Instead, with his use of drones and assassination of Osama Bin Laden, Obama’s goal was to act as a more efficient and focused Imperial President. As Alex Emmons noted earlier this year in The Intercept, Obama left behind a presidency with vast, unchecked powers that could easily be abused by Trump. “President Obama has spent much of his time as commander in chief expanding his own military power, while convincing courts not to limit his detention, surveillance, and assassination capabilities,” Emmons wrote. “Most of the new constraints on the security state during the Obama years were self-imposed, and could easily be revoked.”
Trump is not just the heir to the Imperial Presidency; he represents a new crisis of it. His blatant incompetence and instability demonstrates the dangers of investing so much power in the hands of one person. At the heart of the Imperial Presidency is the “thermonuclear monarchy” enjoyed by the president, who has the ability to launch a nuclear war at will. Writing in Politico Magazine on Friday, Garrett Graff outlined how it works: “That the president has almost unlimited and instantaneous authority to push the [nuclear] button. It’s undoubtedly the most powerful unilateral action that a commander in chief can take. Whereas there are careful multi-branch checks on most presidential powers, over many decades the U.S. carefully honed its nuclear launch procedures to strip away any check or balance that could delay or stymie a launch.”
The journal Scientific American has just published an editorial in its August issue, calling for an end to the the president having sole power over nuclear weapons:
With the exception of the president, every link in the U.S. nuclear decision chain has protections against poor judgments, deliberate misuse or accidental deployment. The “two-person rule,” in place since World War II, requires that the actual order to launch be sent to two separate people. Each one has to decode and authenticate the message before taking action. In addition, anyone with nuclear weapons duties, in any branch of service, must routinely pass a Pentagon-mandated evaluation called the Personnel Reliability Program—a battery of tests that assess several areas, including mental fitness, financial history, and physical and emotional well-being.
There is no comparable restraint on the president. He or she can decide to trigger a thermonuclear Armageddon without consulting anyone at all and never has to demonstrate mental fitness. This must change. We need to ensure at least some deliberation before the chief executive can act.
One alternative to the thermonuclear monarchy is to require the president to have the support of high-ranking members of Congress before he can call for nuclear strikes. Graff suggested that America consider “whether our nuclear command system should include a second voice, either from the vice president, the secretary of defense or a congressional leader.” In this new system, there would be a “two-person rule” from the top of the chain of command to the bottom. An order to launch an attack would require the authorization of the president and a second person. Making that person the speaker of the House would be more in keeping with the original balance of the Constitution, restoring to Congress a say in war-making decisions.
Stripping Trump of sole control of nuclear weapons should be part of a larger rollback of the Imperial Presidency, one that could take lessons from the laws enacted by Congress in the 1970s and indeed go even further. Beyond nuclear weapons, the heart of the current Imperial Presidency is Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress passed three days after the 9/11 attack. The AUMF is the blank check that allows U.S. presidents to wage an endless global war on terror, a war without border and without any foreseeable conclusion. Democratic Representative Barbara Lee has been waging a lonely battle against the AUMF, calling for its repeal.
Trump’s unstable behavior should worry all of Congress, both Republican and Democrats. He often blurts out threats—sometimes, as in the case of his rant about North Korea, saying things that are contradicted by his own secretary of state and secretary of defense. Trump’s erratic actions show how dangerous the Imperial Presidency can be when the president is a madman. The power he enjoys is far beyond what any one person should have in a democracy.
The remedies for Trump have to be institutional rather than just personal. It’s not enough for Trump to be impeached and removed; Congress must address the fact that the presidency has too much foreign policy power. The thermonuclear monarchy must end, the AUMF should be repealed, the drone program should only continue with congressional approval, and the NSA surveillance program should be tightly monitored by Congress. The courts are doing their part to check the White House. It’s time the other co-equal branch of the government do the same, and put an end to the Imperial Presidency for good.
It was hard not to draw a couple of conclusions about current cinema from the 1970s New York program on at Film Forum last month: that the gentrification of the city has been accompanied by a gentrification of filmmaking styles; and that the New York-based thriller has undergone a sharp decline. The New York of The French Connection and Klute is still with us—the architecture and the elevated train rails, if less of the street signage and none of the old-model cars—but it tends to be omitted onscreen in films that show the cobblestoned streets of DUMBO, SoHo, and TriBeCa (it’s so often obviously those three neighborhoods) as trash-free zones of glossy self-realization and not quite tragic heartache. New York is now a city of respectable careerists. Missing are the sort of inept policemen who in Aram Avakian’s Cops and Robbers hit on a scheme to rip off a gangster in order to liberate themselves from their daily hours stuck in traffic on the BQE.
The terrain of the gritty street crime thriller has meanwhile largely been ceded to a kitchified Boston (as in The Departed or The Town) or a sweaty Atlanta (last year’s Triple 9). The New York period piece still thrives—see A Most Violent Year or American Hustle—but feeds on the notion that sleaziness and crime are things of the past. There are exceptions, of course—like James Gray’s The Yards or We Own the Night, or Michaël R. Roskam’s The Drop—but more typical is a shiny moralizing piece of trash like Allen Hughes’s Broken City. The presence in Broken City of Griffin Dunne, as the developer behind the corrupt mayor’s machinations, was a reminder of how far we are from After Hours, Martin Scorcese’s nocturnal SoHo freakout. In After Hours Dunne starred as a yuppie on the loose when there was still plenty of danger to be found downtown on any given night.
It’s the spirit of After Hours and Cops and Robbers that pervades Good Time, the new thriller by the brothers Josh and Benny Safdie. If future revivalists ever program a New York in the Teens festival, Good Time will have to be at its center. Connie and Nick, two brothers played by Robert Pattinson and Benny Safdie, are a pair of less than competent bank robbers. Nick is actually mentally disabled—rendered with moving pathos by Safdie—and the point of their heist is a windfall that will allow them to retreat somewhere south of the city and live in the woods, far away from the sort of invasive social services workers we see counseling him in the film’s opening scenes and the not entirely sweet grandmother who’s a source of Nick’s traumas. Connie’s plan involves a note, hoodies, and a pair of somewhat lifelike masks that make the brothers look like black men, then a getaway by bus from the Port Authority. It would be a hare-brained plan even if it weren’t for the cloud of incriminating red dye that bursts from the backpack full of cash just after they leave the bank.
Movie bank robberies have grown increasingly technical over the decades: enough blueprints, hardware, sangfroid, and hours in the library researching metals and we could all be Robert De Niro in Heat. Good Time restores the desperation and dirtbag absurdity of the endeavor. The film has room at once for pain and outrageous twists that lend the film an outlaw jocularity. Nick loses his nerve when approached by the cops and is arrested after running through a plate glass window. He’s taken to Riker’s Island, where his face is soon further bloodied. Connie spends the rest of the film trying to raise his bail (in clean bills) or break him out of hospital lockup. The overnight quest takes him to the apartment of a girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing the pliable lover of a significantly younger man), a bail bondsman’s office, Adventureland in Long Island City (in a scene that plays like a deranged version of the funhouse finale of Lady from Shanghai), and to the Tivoli Towers apartment complex in Crown Heights. The cramped dwellings, grimy White Castle franchises, and exhaust-filled expressways of this nightmare are parts of the city that sit beside the gentrified zones that prefer to pretend they don’t exist.
Pattinson, the Twilight vampire and the vampire capitalist in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, is deglamorized almost beyond recognition, then bleached blond when he sees his mug on the local news. Brotherly loyalty sparks new powers of resourcefulness in Connie, and he takes advantage of anyone unlucky enough to come into his orbit, including a stoned teenage girl (Taliyah Webster), a security guard (Barkhard Abdi), and another criminal (Buddy Duress). The filmmakers at times seem at pains to portray him as someone more sympathetic and selfless than a mere common criminal, though he lies, steals a car or two, kidnaps someone, poisons somebody else, and commits multiple assaults. But we root for him, mostly.
That’s because the Safdies have hit on a magical combination of the hyper-realism of their earlier films Heaven Knows What (2014), a searing portrait of a heroin addict (Arielle Holmes) on the Upper West Side, and The Pleasures of Being Robbed (2008), about a charming kleptomaniac (Eleonore Hendricks) adept at stealing handbags, and a purely cinematic ethos of amateur criminality derived from the sleazy 1970s. Their filming style—tight shots that follow characters as if attached to their necks by a leash—has the weird effect of making even the outdoors seem claustrophobic. There was something of this mix of the light and the heavy in Daddy Longlegs (2010), but that film was ultimately an endearing portrait of a loving father (based on the Safdies’ dad) just bumbling enough to knock out his sons for days on sleeping pills but not neglectful enough to convince the audience he’d let them come to real harm. Daddy Longlegs is sentimentality at its edgiest. Good Time is considerably grimmer but also considerably more fun. It suggests a dark, shadowy future—occasionally pierced by blinding neon lights—for a genre that’s lately seemed broken.
When Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama warned last year that Donald Trump was unfit to control the U.S. nuclear arsenal, it wasn’t partisan campaign trail hyperbole, but rather a point of nearly global consensus. Nuclear deterrence experts said that his presidency would slightly but meaningfully—and thus unacceptably—increase the risk of a miscue, and even Trump’s supporters seemed to understand as much. The psychotic, but influential pro-Trump treatise “The Flight 93 Election” began with a stark admission.
“2016 is the Flight 93 election,” wrote Micheal Anton, who has gone on to serve in a senior national security role in the Trump administration. “[C]harge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.”
Trump may destroy the world, in other words, but that’s better than another few years of liberal rule. Nobody needs to love liberalism to grasp, a year later, that this cost-benefit analysis was demented, and that the country made an error in embracing the logic, wittingly or otherwise. Now, as Trump makes unhinged threats to begin a nuclear war against North Korea, those who deluded themselves into taking a flyer on the Trump presidency no longer have any excuse for ignoring what’s been plain all along: It is not remotely safe for him to hold this office.
Politicians like to frame their agendas in terms of the ways policies will shape the world they’ll leave behind to future generations. Conservatives (who don’t actually care about federal debt, but whatever) promote the retrenchment of the welfare state by describing it as the source of unsustainable debts our “children and grandchildren” will have have to pay down. Nearly everyone else treats global warming in essentially the same way. The risks of climate inaction will mushroom in the future, making it immoral for the masters of today’s universe to be indifferent to greenhouse gas emissions.
The right’s embrace of Flight 93 thinking has accelerated this generational logic, but only as it applies to the policy end of removing Trump from office. It was overwhelmingly old people who handed Trump the power to end all life on the planet, against the overwhelming wishes of people who will inherit it from them. Young people don’t simply regard Trump as a less-than-ideal steward of their futures, but as a poison forced upon them by elders who have disclaimed any responsibility for bequeathing their offspring a bright and kind and healthy civic life. In exchange for this darkened future, Trump’s enablers were promised everything from lower taxes (financed by cutting health care for younger people) to culture war to a nonspecific assault on the political establishment.
In a best-case scenario, Trump supporters will pocket few of these spoils. On the other hand, we may end up in a massive war.
I’d hazard to guess that most of the experts who believed Trump’s presidency would increase the risk of a nuclear exchange don’t now think such an exchange is likely, let alone inevitable. But this reckless ratcheting up of the threat should be unacceptable to everyone, and is most proximately offensive to the generation of people who will be forced to answer for such a horrifying legacy.
A willing Congress could remove Trump, and swiftly, if majorities were so determined. That there is no such willingness or determination, least of all from members of Trump’s own party, may prove to be a greater generational crime than any his narcissistic cohort has inflicted thus far. Republican leaders have proved they can’t be trusted to take anything other than narrow self-interest seriously. Our best hope is that they can now see that Trump no longer serves those interests either.
Just this week, Trump turned on one of them. For several days now, he and his state-media allies have engaged in a coordinated assault on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom they blame for the failure of Obamacare. McConnell, to be clear, couldn’t be worthier of this reckoning. The basic deceit at the heart of the Obamacare repeal campaign was his creation, as, in meaningful ways, is Trump’s presidency itself. That the madman McConnell brought to power is now wise to, and frustrated with, McConnell’s cynicism is a Shakespearean subplot in our otherwise quotidian flirtation with Armageddon.
Republican elected officials aren’t happy about it. All who’ve had the temerity to speak up have risen to McConnell’s defense. But Trump’s disloyalty to his protecters in Congress isn’t specific to McConnell.
In a statement accompanying his signing of a bill weakening his discretion over Russian sanctions, Trump scolded the entire Republican Party for handing him “seriously flawed” legislation. Days later, when asked about new sanctions Russian President Vladimir Putin had imposed on the United States through the expulsion of scores of U.S. diplomats, Trump literally thanked him. He’s broken faith not just with his own party but with the people sworn to serve our interests abroad, at real personal risk. It is White House policy that the sanctions we impose on an adversarial government betray America, but the sanctions that country imposes on America are a blessing in disguise.
Trump’s core supporters can’t see this disloyalty for what it is, because conservative agitprop media will reframe any developments like these as evidence of disloyalty to Trump—or, where they can’t spin inconvenient facts away, they simply won’t report them at all. But the people who have the power to end Trump’s presidency—to protect the public from someone who has no business holding high office—can see it, because they are now the victims of it, too.
It has been widely noted that conservatives lack the empathy to consider the consequences of their decisions until those consequences hit home. Trump is threatening Republican lives and Republican priorities right now. If only on that selfish basis, please remove him from power.
Jean M. Twenge published an article in the Atlantic this year about how smartphones are making teenagers suicidal, lazy, and friendless. The long and short of it seems to be that teens have no interest in driving cars but a lot of interest in lying in bed scrolling through Instagram, and that this is making them commit suicide. In eras past, Twenge has written other condemnatory volumes about the youth, like 2007’s Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before and 2010’s The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.
Twenge, who is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, appears to be a self-appointed thinkfluencer whose bonnet is inhabited by the bee of the youth. O tempora o mores! Twenge cries. She is our anti-cellphone Cicero.
Now, Twenge and two colleagues, Hannah VanLandingham and W. Keith Campbell, have published a paper called “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television: Increases in the Use of Swear Words in American Books, 1950-2008” in SAGE Open, a peer-viewed but non-specialist online “mega-journal.” It seems to be the place to publish if you want your little academic splash to ripple out through the media.
The group studied incidences of the “seven words you can never say on television” that George Carlin listed in 1972—shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits—in American English titles living in Google Books’ corpus. They found “a steady linear increase in the use of swear words, with books published in 2005-2008 twenty-eight times more likely to include swear words than books published in the early 1950s.”
The group’s big conclusion is that American culture is drifting towards greater “cultural individualism,” a system “that favors the self more highly than the collective.” Since swear words allow individuals to express themselves, especially in anger, a more individualistic society will use more swear words. Furthermore, swear words are taboos. The erosion of taboos in language reflects social taboo erosions in America, for example “against premarital and homosexual sex.” On the downside, however: “Research suggests that swearing is linked to personality traits such as extraversion, dominance, narcissism, and neuroticism.” Meanwhile “individualism” itself is also sadly linked to “high extraversion, especially boldness and assertiveness,” as well as “low agreeableness, especially low modesty and high grandiosity.” Rats!
It seems that Twenge has found another link between the production and consumption of culture and the great bottoming-out of America. Instead of grabbing her data and running with it, however, as some have done, one might offer alternative explanations for what is really happening.
The paper’s method section has some worrying aspects, for a start. It is very difficult to know exactly what kind of books the researchers were looking at: “The American English corpus does not note any changes in the types of books (fiction vs. nonfiction).” And there were years when the balance between fiction and nonfiction certainly changed. The researchers got stats from the Statistical Abstract of the United States to find out roughly what proportion of books published were fiction. In 1982, the abstract noted that “an increase in the number of books between 1980 and 1981 was ‘due in part to a major improvement in the recording of paperbound books,’ and more of these paperback books are likely to be fiction.” But, in any particular year, they couldn’t know this proportion for sure. In the end, they decided that their “interest was not specific to either nonfiction and fiction books.”
So, this supposed window into the soul of the American people is a very broad and ill-defined one. That Twenge et al are not interested in the types of book that they are looking at is odd, because of the enormous differences in the registers used by different literary genres. It’s true that in fiction and nonfiction alike, it might be that the industry gatekeepers (agents, editors) have been more willing to publish works with transgressive content and “bad” language as social taboos around, say, sex have relaxed.
But in novels, words like shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits might have appeared more in recent decades because novelists are on the whole less interested in writing in a register of respectability and more interested in social verisimilitude.
On a broader level, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the art of a culture and the psychology of the society that produced it. Furthermore, noting word frequency in published writing does not have a one-to-one correspondence with spoken language in everyday life. Further furthermore, without any contextual information about how these words are used, we just have semantic fragments floating in history’s void, free of any of the things that turn them into actual language.
Twenge’s depressing Atlantic piece was a hit online, which ironically enough meant that a bunch of Americans read it miserably while staring at their mobile phones instead of frolicking through the fields. Commenters like Twenge seem awfully keen on being visible online, for people who supposedly think it represents the death of civilization.
It is easy to see why an internet journalist might chew this study up and spit it out into a blog post decrying the degradation of American English, like some kind of swallow building a self-defeating nest out of its own neuroticisms. But may god forgive the literary critic who swallows the guff of Twenge and her ilk. Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits may all be on the rise—but so is bad science.
It is the year 2017, a full three years out from the next presidential election, and yet we are already talking about 2020. We dream of a savior, and alas for the left, the Democratic Party is responsible for producing one.
Kamala Harris, the junior senator from California, is widely considered one of the party’s rising stars, with as good a chance as anybody else at this very early stage to earn its nomination in 2020. And that possibility is a problem for the left. “The former attorney general of California, Harris is mistrusted by the left mostly because of her roots as a prosecutor,” Ryan Cooper wrote in an August 3 piece for The Week that also criticized two other theoretical candidates, Senator Cory Booker and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.
This article ignited days of outrage, much of which revolved around the issue of race, but that outrage threatens to obscure a legitimate point. Harris has a deeply troubling record: As a district attorney, she implemented a law that penalized the parents of truant children with a fine of up to $2,000 and a year in jail. Later, as California’s attorney general, Harris fought a transgender prisoner’s attempts to access necessary health care. And her record on prosecuting financial crimes is poor, particularly her decision to refrain from going after OneWest Bank for allegedly breaking foreclosure laws. And she’s not the only one—as David Dayen wrote for the New Republic, virtually the entire Democratic Party has been criminally negligent when it comes to taking on corporate malfeasance during the housing crisis.
The Democratic Party hasn’t met the left’s standards in this area, and that is a problem with the party, not the left. But all of this prompts a question: Under what circumstances could the left accept a flawed candidate for high office?
To understand where the left might draw that line, it is necessary to first understand the substance of its critique. By questioning Harris and the party’s other rising stars, the left performs necessary political work. It’s vital to criticize Harris’s record as a prosecutor, Cory Booker’s ties to pharmaceutical companies and school reform groups, and Deval Patrick’s work for Bain Capital, as Cooper did in his article for The Week. The problem of extreme income inequality in this country, in which the vast majority of wealth goes to the very people these politicians have either protected, solicited, or worked for, can only be combatted with a similarly drastic redistribution of wealth. Activists are right to wonder if a Patrick or a Booker will deliver the changes the country needs.
Which is precisely why the left doesn’t restrict its criticism to Harris, Patrick, and Booker. As Cooper noted in a follow-up piece on Monday, the same left-wing concerns apply to the white, male members of the party’s establishment. “Leftists like myself believe that in addition to traditional civil rights policy, nothing short of a total overhaul of American capitalism will suffice to actually eradicate oppression from our society,” he wrote. “Neoliberals like Andrew Cuomo and Joe Biden, by contrast, believe that the capitalist framework only needs minor tweaks.” The left’s real focus is beyond Harris or even the Democratic Party: It has more systemic concerns.
However, that broad goal is impossible without allies in government, and the left is not spoiled for choice. A cluster of lawmakers—Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Ro Khanna, Keith Ellison, Mark Pocan, and other members of the House Progressive Caucus—come closest to the mark, on issues including Medicare-for-All, free college tuition, a federal $15 minimum wage, trust-busting, immigrant rights, and police brutality. But with the exception of Sanders and Ellison, these politicians did not come up through the ranks of the activist left. They have flawed records, as most politicians do, marked by bad positions and dubious compromises.
But that is grounds for criticism, not outright dismissal. The left’s most realistic hope is for a candidate with a spotty record who enthusiastically and sincerely takes up its cause. And that means approaching the party’s Kamala Harrises with flexibility.
In theory, this shouldn’t be difficult for the left to accept. It prides itself on emphasizing policy over personality, in contrast with the establishment. This is what makes the left such a necessary force, and it also implies a certain responsibility. If policy, not personality, is what really matters, there’s no reason to shun a candidate who checks the necessary boxes and pledges to do the necessary work. Harris herself is for universal health care, a $15 minimum wage, and free college tuition.
The point of establishing litmus tests is to embrace candidates who meet them. If Harris, or a Democrat like her, moves left, then that is a victory for the left. If Harris were to run, this would inevitably entail a transparent reckoning with her record as attorney general. And if she were to win the nomination, this doesn’t mean that the left should refrain from criticizing her or pressuring her to enact progressive populist positions. It does mean turning up to vote—and maybe knocking on a few doors.
This all requires serious commitments from a party that seems unwilling to grant them. Democratic leaders are so allergic to the notion of litmus tests they’re willing to equivocate on abortion rights—an issue that has long formed a key plank of the party’s platform and that crosses the left-center divide, uniting Clintonistas and Berniecrats. Indeed, they view demands for such commitments as a threat. Politico reported on Monday that Democrats fear that the issue of Medicare-for-All will torpedo some of its candidates. “There’s a concern that [Sanders-allied] people will try to make a stir,” a party aide told Politico. “You can’t just be a liberal Democrat in a lot of these states and be elected. [So] the question is how we improve the lives of these people without playing political games.”
There is always going to be a push-and-pull between a dissatisfied progressive base and a Democratic Party superstructure that is unable to meet its needs. Each side will ask the other to make compromises. At some point in the not-so-distant future, however, the left should have more options—thanks largely to activists who demand vision and purpose from a party that they feel is lacking in both. Meanwhile, formal organizations like Brand New Congress and Democratic Socialists of America are working to create a political climate that is friendlier to the left, and to recruit candidates committed to the cause. But these efforts will take years to bear fruit, and in the meantime, the left’s rank-and-file must decide exactly what their standards are going to be.
They could do worse than to campaign for candidates who are late converts to, say, free college or genuine universal health care. When a politician changes course, recognize this for what it is: a concession, won by a newly invigorated movement. It’s too soon to say #NeverKamala.
After eight years with a black man in the White House, the left still has no idea how to talk about African American politicians. Nowhere is this clearer than the ongoing conversation around Kamala Harris of California, the first Indian-American and only the second black woman to be elected to the Senate. Harris is the Berkeley-bred daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica. The former California attorney general grew up attending civil rights rallies, and she recently dominated headlines for her tough questioning during the Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearings on Donald Trump’s campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. And her rising star status has set her up as a focal point of the the latest battle between the center and the left.
As Mic’s Andrew Joyce reported in July, Harris has a “Bernieland problem.” Joyce homed in on the hypocrisy of leftists who criticize Harris for her allegedly lukewarm support for progressive causes, quoting a Bernie Sanders organizer who had called on Harris to support universal health care, free college, a federal $15 hour minimum wage, criminal justice reform, and the expansion of social security programs. Harris, it turns out, had already announced her support for all five of those proposals.
Joyce was hinting at a broader criticism often leveled at Harris’s detractors—that racism and sexism, not real policy differences, are the driving forces behind the left’s animosity toward Harris.
Three days later, writing in The Week, Ryan Cooper tried to make the case that policy, in fact, is at the heart of the debate. Don’t worry, he assured us in a column titled “Why leftists don’t trust Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Deval Patrick,” it has nothing to do with bigotry—the left objects to these three possible presidential contenders because they would fail a progressive purity test. Cooper pointed to Harris’s controversial track record as a prosecutor; to Patrick’s ties to Bain Capital, the much maligned private equity firm Mitt Romney founded in 1984; and to Booker’s close relationship with Wall Street and “the despised donor class.”
It was easy to recognize the one thing Harris, Booker, and Patrick all had in common: their race. Big hitters on the center left—from Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, to former Clinton adviser Peter Daou—joined a chorus of voices dismissing the critiques leveled at these three black politicians as bigoted vitriol. “So odd,” Tanden wrote on Twitter, “that these folks have it in for Kamala Harris and Cory Booker….hhhhmmm.” Leftists fired back, pointing to their support for black politicians like Keith Ellison and Nina Turner as proof positive of their tolerance, the political Twitterverse’s equivalent of “I have a black friend.”
No side, in other words, has come out looking good. And on a deeper level, the debate about Harris lays bare the myopic way in which liberals engage with blackness. On the one hand, black politicians, as symbols of the Democratic commitment to diversity, are portrayed as infallible, never to be questioned or critiqued. On the other, they are held to standards of perfection that white politicians rarely have to meet. Lost between these poles are black politicians themselves, who have instead been reduced to pawns in a fight between left and center.
In Democratic politics, the cachet of black women has never been higher. Hours after Trump won the presidency last fall, #Michelle2020 started trending nationwide. After enduring a years-long ethics investigation, Representative Maxine Waters underwent a full-blown rehabilitation when she refused to attend Trump’s inauguration, telling MSNBC in no uncertain terms, “I don’t honor him. I don’t respect him, and I don’t want to be involved with him.” Democrats collectively fawned over her, and “Auntie Maxine” is now fodder for the viral news cycle, inspiring gospel remixes and headlines like “Maxine Waters is Back and She’s Not Here to Play.” And when Kamala Harris was interrupted as she interrogated Jeff Sessions during a Senate hearing, she “became the new face of ‘Nevertheless, she persisted.’”
It’s as though Democrats have agreed that supporting members of their most loyal voting bloc with hyperbolic headlines and adoring tweets is the same as actually addressing their concerns. But in the end, these testimonials are a creepy form of fetishization that denies black women their full humanity, particularly when they fail to account for their very real failings.
The centrist reaction to Cooper’s article in The Week was more of the same. Tanden and others batted down Cooper’s concerns without a second thought—because Harris, like Obama and Waters before her, was apparently above reproach. And yet there are many valid critiques that can be leveled at Harris. Most, rightfully, stem from her tenure as California’s top cop, where she gained a reputation for talking the progressive talk but not following through “in a vigorous way,” as Think Progress put it.
She defended California’s death penalty law when it was challenged in federal courts; she declined to take a public position on two state ballot initiatives that would have reformed the sentencing practices for common drug and theft crimes that disportionately keep young black men behind bars; she declined to join in other states’ efforts to remove marijuana from the DEA’s list of most dangerous substances; and, perhaps most damningly, she refused to prosecute Secretary Treasury Steven Mnuchin’s old company OneWest for numerous foreclosures that were likely illegal.
Simply dismissing these critiques as bigotry, as Tanden and others did last week, is a lazy political strategy that smacks of tokenization, especially because much of the criticism comes from people of color on the left.
However, there’s no denying that there is a racial undercurrent to the intense scrutiny that Harris has received in recent weeks. The left is demanding that Harris, Booker, and Patrick adhere to progressive dogma to a tee. It’s a far higher standard than Bernie Sanders ever faced during his own presidential campaign. In 1990, he accepted money from the National Rifle Association. And last year he fluctuated between tone-deaf and hostile when asked about issues that affected African Americans. As recently as 2006, he was bragging that he was tough on crime due to his support for Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which has since come to be seen as a disaster for a disproportionately incarcerated black population.
It is telling that there are certain issues—mostly related to Wall Street and its corrupting influence on the party—that are considered red lines for the left, but not others, including those that directly affect African Americans. Some issues are apparently more important than others: Sanders was readily forgiven for his record’s blemishes, while Harris, Booker, and Patrick are being raked over the coals for their ties to corporate interests. That black politicians are held to different standards than white ones is particularly egregious when Harris, Booker, and Patrick are lumped together in the same breath, as though their records are identical.
Ultimately, both refusing to acknowledge that black politicians can commit political wrong and summarily dismissing them as insufficiently progressive speaks to a broader problem within the Democratic Party. Rather than seeing black politicians—and by extension black people—as human, they are instead deployed as marketing tools to bolster a narrative, whether it is one of racial progress or one of righteous class war. As Democrats head into 2018 and beyond, they have to change the way they engage with African American politicians and voters—to treat them as more than just black faces.
Last month, I wrote a story, “Climate Change Is Killing Us Right Now,” about how extreme heat wreaks havoc on humans. Though the piece didn’t go viral, it somehow crossed the desk of a certain conservative talk radio host. “This is a story I’ve been holding onto,” Rush Limbaugh said on his July 27 show, which I listened to later that day. “Emily Atkin is the infobabe that wrote it. And it’s typical. The New Republic is a respected journal of liberal opinion.” Limbaugh misrepresented my article and the science behind climate change, saying in his trademark marble-mouth, “The climate of the planet is so complex that I don’t think anybody can really predict it, explain it.”
I could barely pay attention, though. The man had just called me an infobabe.
Conservative and right-leaning folk have been calling me names for as long as I’ve been reporting on global warming. The employed critics usually limit themselves to “alarmist.” Among random Twitter eggs, “libtard” and “snowflake” are the most common insults. But I also get gendered jabs like “sweetie,” “honey,” and “dear,” and every now and then the delightful “dumb bitch.” I’m used to it, as most women journalists are. We can’t let it faze us.
But there was something special about “infobabe.” It made me laugh for a full five minutes. When I wrote about it on Facebook, comments poured in faster than anything I’ve ever posted on the site, including major life events. “I’ve never been so proud of you,” one friend wrote. Another friend’s mom suggested turning the phrase into a custom-made badge of honor to wear across my chest: “Now I know what to get you for Christmas,” she wrote. “An ‘INFOBABE’ tshirt!”
If I’m getting a T-shirt, then a lot of other women in journalism should get one, too. A Google search reveals I’m in illustrious company. CNN’s Kate Bolduan, Alisyn Camerota, and Brooke Baldwin—plus former CNN anchors Heidi Collins and Carol Costello—are all Limbaugh-certified infobabes. So are MSNBC’s Katy Tur and Elise Jordan, and CBS’ Norah O’Donnell. They’re all part of the club—a longstanding one, it turns out. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd noted back in 1993 that Limbaugh “calls women who work for newspapers ‘reporterettes’ and women who work on television ‘info-babes.’”
Clearly, Limbaugh no longer limits his use of “infobabe” to female cable news personalities. There’s me, as well as Darlene Superville from the Associated Press, author and roving columnist Nicole Hemmer, Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum, and Katie Couric, most recently of Yahoo! News. Limbaugh has used the term at least two dozen times since last year alone, according to Media Matters’ Julie Millican.
Indeed, a near-quarter-century of usage has created a formidable army of infobabes—and after speaking with a few of my newfound sistren, it’s clear we have the numbers to do something about Limbaugh’s sexist moniker. Rather than simply laugh it off, let’s appropriate it. This, my infobabes, is a call to arms.
Limbaugh did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. If he had, he likely would’ve been very proud of himself, because he takes credit for inventing and popularizing the term. “Infobabe is sort of a patented comment now,” he said on his show in April. “I mean, the infobabes even like being called infobabes. They might publicly tell you they don’t, but they privately do.”
I have confirmed that infobabes do not privately like the name. “It’s sexist, of course,” said Camerota, who has been called an infobabe multiple times. Other infobabes agreed. “Coming from a guy of Limbaugh’s age and gender, ‘babe’ is meant to reduce you to the fact that you’re a woman,” said Hemmer, whom Limbaugh called “a Politico infobabe” after the outlet published an excerpt of her 2016 book, Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. “Maybe in a soft way, babe suggests an attractive woman. But it’s about reducing your work to your gender in this way that foregrounds the fact that you’re a woman in a field that is predominantly male.”
The word does even more than that. Whereas “babe” is a slang term for a woman, its literal definition is “infant” or “baby.” So Rush is not only reducing these journalists to their gender, but equating them with children. And there’s no question, given how Rush uses “infobabe,” that he intends to demean his targets. This is how Limbaugh described Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of Rolling Stone’s retracted campus rape story, last November: “You know, an infobabe reporter made it all up and then blamed it on a source. Well, the source may have made it up and the infobabe didn’t question it because the infobabe wanted the story to be true, but none of it was true.” This past May, Limbaugh set up an audio clip in which “a CNN infobabe and reporterette loses her mind on a pro-Trump guest. We’re talking here about Kate Bolduan. She’s the blonde girl who has the perpetual scowl...” Limbaugh uses the term almost exclusively when he’s criticizing women’s reporting—and sometimes their facial expressions, too.
And yet, Limbaugh maintains that “infobabe” is only a joke, and a complimentary one to boot. In 2009, after a poll found a massive gender gap in his approval ratings, Limbaugh held a “Female Summit” on his show, opening his call-in line to women only. One caller suggested he quit using the words “babe” and “infobabe” if he wanted to attract more female listeners. “But what if the fact that being a babe is the most notable thing about a particular liberal blogger?” Limbaugh responded. “If she’s a babe, she’s a babe.” The caller persisted, saying professional women might not find the term complimentary. Limbaugh hit back: “I would say they need to lighten up, for crying out loud! Why do I have to change who I am? Why can’t they just lighten up? Infobabe! Why can’t they laugh?”
A better question would be: Why does Limbaugh think it’s OK? Last year, after Trump famously called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” during a debate, The New York Times’s Claire Cain Miller wrote that, according to research by Rutgers psychologist Laurie A. Rudman, “People tend to be most bothered when men and women don’t fit the stereotypes they expect—men as confident, strong leaders and women as humble, cooperative and supportive.... Insults of powerful women by men perform a particular role, researchers say: cutting them down to size, and playing into discomfort with women in power. Attacking women’s appearance serves a dual purpose: the attack itself, and the implication that a woman is valuable for her looks more than her brains.”
For Hemmer, the timing of the insult only compounded it. Limbaugh called her “infobabe” on October 12, 2016—five days after The Washington Post released the bombshell Access Hollywood tape in which Donald Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. That morning, Hemmer was discussing her book on C-SPAN’s morning show when a male caller made sexually explicit comments about her, using the same language Trump had used in the tape. The host cut the call and apologized. Limbaugh called Hemmer “infobabe” on his show a couple hours later. (Early on the same C-SPAN show, another caller said, “If you could ask Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton one question, what would that be,” then casually added, “and by the way, you’re cute.”)
“I had really reached my limit with sexist bullshit at that point, and it hit home a little harder than I think it normally would,” Hemmer told me. “In that period of time, in places where I was doing my actual job, to have this kind of focus on me being a woman and a reduction to that, I was kind of like, ugh. I didn’t love that.” But she started telling her friends, embracing the ridiculousness of the term. It became what she calls her “Nasty Woman moment.” Just as Clinton appropriated Trump’s insult—both for political messaging and merchandise sales—Hemmer turned “infobabe” into a badge of honor. “I recorded [Limbaugh’s insult] and made it my ringtone,” Hemmer said. “I went and got it printed on a tote bag. I said, ‘Fine, I’ll be your infobabe.’ I said, ‘I’m going to reclaim this and be powerful.’”
“Infobabe” is an easy word to reclaim. It’s sexist, yes, but also a parody of sexism, which lends it humor. (To be clear, though, Limbaugh is no satirist; he’s just an unfunny misogynist.) It’s also a combination of two objectively good words. Daum, of the L.A. Times, likes the “info” part. “It implies that I have information,” she said. “If he had called me, ‘predictable-babe,’ or ‘boring-babe,’ I would have been much more offended.” Even “babe” isn’t necessarily derogatory. As one infobabe, who asked not to be identified, pointed out to me, the word is a term of endearment between women. “When I was a waitress, the other waitresses would call me ‘hun’ or ‘babe,’” she recalled. “So I have a positive connotation about the word.”
Perhaps the best way for women in journalism to take ownership of “infobabe,” though, would be in the service of mocking Limbaugh for his outdated, retrograde humor. “There’s nothing more alarming than laughing at people,” Daum said. “It’s much more effective than outrage.” And there’s probably little that Limbaugh hates more than a bunch of smart, powerful women laughing his insults into irrelevance.
Rutgers professor Ross Baker was vacationing in Spruce Head, a tiny village on Maine’s Penobscot Bay, when word reached him that President Donald Trump was attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Twitter.
It was a stunning attack by Trump on the single most important legislator for kickstarting his stalled agenda, and it all stemmed from the news that McConnell had said in a low-profile speech Monday in Kentucky, “Our new president, of course, has not been in this line of work before. I think he had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.” In Washington, Trump’s broadside left Republicans bewildered. “This makes about as much sense as sidelining Tom Brady because you didn’t like his answer at a news conference,” a senior GOP aide told Politico. “The reality is both men need each other to succeed.”
Baker, whose books on Congress include Friend & Foe in the U.S. Senate, racked his brain: Had a president ever been so openly critical of his party’s Senate leader?
“Without actually making a detailed search, certainly in terms of the openness and highly critical nature of the remarks, this is without precedent in modern times,” Baker told me. He marveled at the “real acerbity” of Trump’s tweet. “It’s really quite, quite pointed,” he said.
And yet, not completely unexpected either.
“At one level, it’s not surprising to me,” Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute scholar, told me. “This is a guy who’s not going to accept blame for anything himself.” The co-author of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, Ornstein said Trump’s “pretty bizarre” tweet was “just another sign of dysfunction.” But he agreed with Baker that the tweet was sui generis. “There’s nothing like this,” he said. “We’ve seen presidents and congressional leaders at odds with each other, but always from different parties.”
Earlier presidents certainly have sparred with leaders of their own party on Capitol Hill. When Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court the late 1930s, Democrats opposed him. But as Ornstein pointed out, “You didn’t have Roosevelt doing a fireside chat slamming the majority leader.” Lyndon Johnson was at odds with a fellow Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, over Vietnam, but they didn’t have public spats. “There are a lot of examples of quiet frustration,” Baker said.
When rhetorical sparks do fly from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, Ornstein said, the fiercer words have tended to come from congressional opponents, as when Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich laid into President Bill Clinton. “The president tends to be above that,” Ornstein said. “Not this president.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are enjoying the show. Baker is working on a biography of Harry Reid, the former Democratic Senate majority leader from Nevada, and the two spoke on the phone after Trumpcare failed in the Senate. Baker asked Reid if he had any sympathy for McConnell, given the devastating legislative loss his old rival and successor had just endured. “Not a bit,” Reid replied. “He got everything he deserved.”
Last summer, the idea of being Donald Trump’s running mate was so fraught and distasteful that Trump was forced to choose from a shortlist of Republican Party mediocrities, has-beens, and hangers-on—including ethical basket-cases like Newt Gingrich and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Among up-and-coming Republicans, Trump was still an object of derision and scorn: vulgar, ignorant, embarrassing, and destined to lose to Hillary Clinton. Hitching one’s wagon to Trump would entail enormous, potentially career-ending risks, with only far-fetched upsides.
Trump’s optimistic or desperate supplicants had to hope that Trump would shape up and lose in a somewhat dignified manner; or that he’d win unexpectedly and (just as unexpectedly) govern well; or that he’d win unexpectedly and then self-destruct so thoroughly that the vice president would enjoy a short cut to history.
This is the backdrop against which Trump rejected also-rans in favor of then–Indiana Governor Mike Pence, the best credentialed of his bad options. It is also the backdrop against which we should consider Pence’s conduct since taking office.
Most recently, he issued a laughably defensive and equally nonspecific official condemnation of a New York Times article in which dozens of Republican sources said influential party actors, including Pence, “have begun what amounts to a shadow campaign for 2020—as if the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue weren’t involved.” The “sheer disarray surrounding this presidency,” the report said, has “prompted Republican officeholders to take political steps unheard-of so soon into a new administration.”
Protesting too much, Pence called the article “disgraceful and offensive to me, my family, and our entire team.” But in truth Trump’s failure as president has been so abject, and his exposure to collapse so acute, that Pence would be practically derelict not to undertake at least some preparation for an abrupt transfer of power.
We don’t need to ask whether Pence is making contingency plans, because he quite plainly is. A better question would be whether he’s taking active steps to turn his self-serving motives for joining the ticket into a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the best question is whether Pence is too tainted by his obsequious enabling of Trump to ever enjoy the spoils of Trump’s demise.
Pence has raised eyebrows for hiring Nick Ayers, a campaign veteran, to be his chief of staff—departing, as the Times noted, from a long tradition of vice presidents naming people with bureaucratic experience to that position. But this isn’t the first curious move Pence has made.
The vice president has either implicated himself in, or been hung out to dry for, a tremendous amount of malfeasance since the election. As the chair of Trump’s transition team, Pence was at best too incompetent to protect the incoming administration from making ruinous staffing decisions.
Under his watch, Trump made Michael Flynn his national security advisor, and thus gave him access to the nation’s most heavily guarded secrets, despite knowing that Flynn was under federal investigation for being a paid foreign agent for the Turkish government during the presidential campaign. Pence either wittingly lied to the public about Flynn’s misconduct during the campaign and transition, or allowed himself to be used.
Pence also repeated, seven times, Trump’s dishonest pretext for firing FBI Director James Comey—that he was merely acting on the advice of his deputy attorney general—only to see Trump confess his true motive for the firing to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office. (“I just fired the head of the FBI,” Trump told them. “He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”)
That, by sheer coincidence, is when reports citing unnamed sources painting Pence as the victim of a “pattern” of “malpractice or intentional [deception]” began to emerge. Poor Mike Pence didn’t realize he had been enlisted to deceive the public about Flynn and Comey—he was just following orders.
It’s also when some of the most damaging leaks about Trump’s official conduct began spilling out to the press—including top-secret information from that Oval Office meeting with the Russians that Pence may have the authority to declassify.
And finally, it’s when Trump’s allies started noticing something amiss.
Assuming Pence isn’t simply readying himself for Trump’s downfall, but taking steps hasten it, we should note that he won’t be well situated to make the most of his coup.
The most recent historical analogue, Gerald Ford, served in a care-taking capacity after President Richard Nixon’s resignation, before losing to Jimmy Carter two years later. But Ford, unlike Pence, could credibly disclaim complicity in the controversies that brought Nixon down. Ford wasn’t elected vice president, but was elevated to the position after Nixon’s actual running mate, Spiro Agnew, was driven from office by scandals unrelated to Watergate. Pence may or may not be Agnew, but he isn’t Ford either, and if he inherits the presidency from a beleaguered Trump, he won’t ever be able to escape Trump’s fetid aroma.
Ron Klain, a chief of staff to vice presidents Gore and Biden—told The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza on Tuesday, “Over all, I would say that whenever Mike Pence runs for office in the future, the liability he will carry from this period is not how he distanced himself from Trump but, rather, how he deepened his ties to the President.” But Pence may not be waiting until 2020. And just because he might be misguided about the spoils that would await him if Trump resigns or is impeached doesn’t mean he isn’t striving for that outcome anyhow.
Trump and his loyalists have been speculating publicly that the “deep state” is behind all of the damaging disclosures we’ve been swimming in for months. They should also wonder whether the president’s suspiciously fawning heir is behind some of them, too.
The signs and wonders of Colebrook, New Hampshire, begin a few miles outside town. BRAKE FOR MOOSE IT MAY SAVE YOUR LIFE; TRUMP/PENCE 2016—these placards dot the highway and continue into town, where they become gradually more depressing. GOING OUT OF BUSINESS FINAL SALE one storefront admits; it will soon join several empty neighbors. Colebrook occupies Coös County, the poorest, least populated, and least healthy county in New Hampshire. It suffers from rampant opioid abuse and a high suicide rate, not to mention the less visible hardships, both psychological and economic, that followed the loss of several major factories in the region. Residents overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in 2016, four years after voting for Barack Obama.
Coös County desperately needs jobs. Eversource Energy, the utility company that provides electric power to wide swaths of New England, says it has a solution: The Northern Pass project, a proposed hydroelectric 192-mile-long power line that would begin in Des Cantons in Quebec and snake through New Hampshire. According to Eversource and other backers, the $1.2 billion project will create 2,600 jobs in addition to bringing clean energy to New England. The people of Colebrook and surrounding townships, however, aren’t all persuaded. In yard after yard, alongside the ubiquitous tributes to Trump, orange signs announce NO TO NORTHERN PASS.
For seven years, a network of residents has vociferously opposed the project. They’ve staged protests, while the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests filed a failed lawsuit to halt part of the line. Now their time is nearly up. Eversource has pieced together a final route for the line despite local holdouts. It now awaits word from the federal government—the Department of Energy is set to approve or reject the permit in August, according to Eversource—and New Hampshire’s Site Evaluation Committee (SEC), which is scheduled to weigh in in September. To sway the SEC, Coös residents have constructed an unlikely alliance that crosses political, racial, and socioeconomic lines, joining hands with lefty activists from Yale and members of the Pessamit Innu First Nations in Quebec.
It is the kind of coalition that seems unique to the Trump era, when all the lines have been scrambled, pitting a restless 99 percent against the corporate interests that have infiltrated both political parties and the country’s most venerated institutions. And while it may lose this battle, its very formation points to a different sort of political solidarity, one that is emerging from the ruins of Washington, D.C.-style bipartisanship.
The unlikely diversity of this alliance stems from the opaque tangle of entities involved in Northern Pass. Yale University owns a limited liability company, Bayroot, that has partnered with Wagner Land Management to manage a 125,000-acre working forest in Coös County. Wagner is in a lease with Eversource, which is working with the Canadian utility Hydro-Québec to midwife Northern Pass into the world. The Pessamit oppose the power line because they say it will endanger their ancestral home, while the Yale activists believe that their university could pull the plug on the project by denying Eversource access to the swath of land under Wagner’s management. There’s a lot of money at stake, and the power line has enthusiastic support from Governor Chris Sununu (R), a position opponents attribute to the $18,000 he has received from Eversource executives.
The final factor is the land itself. The county sits mere minutes from the Canadian and Vermont borders. It is almost unfairly beautiful, all rolling knobs and dense forest, wreathed by fog in the morning and crowned by unblemished sky at night. It is black bear and moose country, a haven for fly-fishermen and ATV and snowmobiling enthusiasts, and many of its residents belong to families who have lived there for well over a century. For them, the thing that matters—the only thing that matters—is preserving the land. “A scar is a scar is a scar,” John Harrigan, who once owned The Colebrook News-Sentinel, tells me at his home in Colebrook. “We don’t need it.”
On this night in July, he’s joined by Rick Samson, a Republican Coös County commissioner, and Robin Canavan, a Yale doctoral student in paleoclimatology and an organizer with Local 33. Samson admits Coös is “a depressed area,” but says, “We live here because we love it.” Harrigan, whose devotion to New Hampshire’s woods has earned him the moniker the King of the North Country, adds, “There’s a great passion for the land. And Northern Pass has cut to the core of the issue.”
Samson and Harrigan don’t believe Eversource’s project will create lasting jobs or significant energy savings for New Hampshire consumers. Construction jobs are temporary by nature, and a recent analysis of the project estimates that it will save New Hampshire residents an average of only $18 a year on electricity costs. Samson and Harrigan agree that it would be preferable for the company to bury the entire power line—an option Eversource says is cost-prohibitive. (It does, however, plan to bury at least part of the line if the SEC and the Department of Energy approve the project.)
The Yale contingent represents the newest addition to the fight against Northern Pass. Yale students have made five trips to New Hampshire since discovering the university’s tangential involvement. Harrigan and Samson both believe the university could get out of its contract if it wanted to, and so do a number of Yale students and alumni who have joined the cause. Yale insists that its hands are tied, and that it has long allowed endowment partners like Wagner managerial discretion.
“The only good thing about Northern Pass so far are all the people we’ve met,” Samson says. “They’re amazing. Who would have thought we’d all work together? We’re farmers, loggers, millworkers, lawyers, doctors, and now the Yale students.” He says they even found an accidental point of solidarity: the color orange, which is worn both by opponents to Northern Pass and by members of Yale’s Local 33. “I wore my orange tie,” he says, during a trip to Yale, only to discover Yale’s union organizers in the same shade.
Liz Wyman, a 2004 graduate of the Yale University School of Forestry who is from New Hampshire, has accompanied Samson on trips to Yale’s campus in New Haven, Connecticut, to rally students against the project. Those visits haven’t always gone smoothly—Samson says that when he tried to drop off a letter for the head of the school of forestry, Yale campus police threatened to arrest him if he returned to the school. Yale spokesman Tom Conroy refused to comment on Samson’s allegations, and repeated the school’s position that it did not have the ability to intervene in Northern Pass.
Wyman doesn’t buy it. “Yale has taken the position that the lease is a done deal and that there is nothing we can change,” Wyman says. “We feel that there is definitely wiggle room for them to do the right thing and cancel their lease with Northern Pass and try to stop the project.” Canavan says, “Yale is a first-class institution, it has people who should be interested in what’s happening to the Pessamit and in New Hampshire.”
“The thing that’s really striking is that Yale posits itself as a positive force in the world,” Hannah Schmitt, a senior anthropology major at Yale, tells me. “What Yale is doing by leasing this land really goes against those values; they’re ignoring this really fierce opposition.”
Rodney McAllaster, a spare figure in worn clothes and a baseball hat, is in his barn when we pull up in Harrigan’s truck. He is milking dairy cows, which provide most of his family’s income. The McAllasters have farmed the same land for decades, and they’ve lived in the area for more than 100 years. “Just struggling,” McAllaster says. He tells me that Eversource representatives offered him $4 million for his land via an intermediary—what he calls an “unofficial” offer. He rejected it.
McAllaster owns the only operational dairy farm directly in the path of the proposed power line, and he says the project represents an existential threat to his livelihood. His farm occupies a steep hillside off Bear Rock Road in Stewartstown. Like many roads in Coös County, Bear Rock is narrow, a descendant of the ox cart trails used by early settlers. McAllaster says it’s the only maintained road available for Eversource to use, and that the presence of construction machinery will “put us out of business.” He adds, “This thing is a killer.”
“No one’s against hydro power out of Canada,” he says. “It’s just how you get it down here.” Like Harrigan and Samson, he doesn’t believe the project will actually create many jobs. “This is all about money,” he says, “it’s not about what’s best.” He alleges that Eversource representatives are so eager to piece a route together that it has encouraged families who have accepted offers to “profile” families who haven’t—making them informants of a sort. (Eversource spokesman Martin Murray dismissed this article as a “four-year-old” story in a conversation with the New Republic, and reiterated that Eversource has secured all the land it needs for its line.)
Arlene Placey, McAllaster’s neighbor on Bear Rock Road, says Eversource representatives offered her $1.4 million for her 82.6 acres of land. She also refused the offer. “This has been in my family for years, I’m not interested,” she asserts. “They said, ‘Name your price.’ I said, ‘I don’t have a price.’ The land belongs to God and I can’t take your money with me.” According to Placey, Eversource tried to sweeten the pot by offering her life tenancy on twelve remaining acres of land. This did not sway her: She says that much of her property is swampland, and that corporate representatives would not tell her which 12 acres she would be allowed to keep.
In Pittsburg—once home to the autonomous Republic of Indian Stream—John Amey takes a respite from haying to explain his opposition to Northern Pass. “It’ll be three miles from here,” he tells me in the kitchen of his farmhouse. “I’ve been against it from day one, for the whole state not just me.” Amey, who describes himself as “fairly conservative,” says he is particularly moved by the plight of the Pessamit, who believe the construction of Northern Pass would result in the construction of more dams in their already-fragile watershed. “If the whole thing was buried all the way to Deerfield, I’d stop fighting, but I’d still feel like I’ve thrown the aboriginal people under the bus,” he says. “As an old New England dairy farmer, I’ve got a lot of feelings for the Pessamit, who just want to take care of the land the way they have for centuries.”
On July 20, at the end of a suburban street in Concord, activists pack an SEC hearing on Northern Pass. The SEC has allotted three hours for testimony on the project. The audience is heavily orange, and by the time the hearing finally ends only two speakers—a small business owner and a representative of the defense contractor BAE Systems—have expressed support for the project. (BAE has offices in New Hampshire, and believes the power line will reduce energy costs.) The ratio doesn’t appear to be an anomaly: It corresponds to polling that says most New Hampshire residents now oppose the project.
“The project scares me personally,” says state Rep. Steven Rand (D-Grafton) in a prepared statement. He tells the SEC that his business, Rand Hardware, sits directly in the path of a proposed portion of Northern Pass’s buried line. “For me and my neighbor businesses, it’s a survival issue.” That sentiment is shared by the Pessamit Innu First Nations: A Pessamit delegation has traveled from Quebec to speak at the hearing, the culmination of a listening tour it conducted in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
At the hearing, the Pessamit tell the SEC that while they have no position “on the impacts of the Northern Pass project in New Hampshire,” they seek “to make New Englanders aware that 29 percent of the electricity that Hydro-Québec intends to sell was acquired in an immoral and illegal manner, to the detriment of the Pessamit.”
The Pessamit have a turbulent history with Hydro-Québec, which one Pessamit representative, via a translator, sarcastically describes to me as “a history of love.” “From the very beginning nobody from Hydro-Québec ever consulted us on anything regarding these projects. We heard nothing about it until work actually started on the project and we saw different things happening on the territory,” says another representative, Jean-Noel Vachon. The result, according to the Pessamit, is the flooding of their traditional territory and the decimation of the salmon population they’ve fished for centuries.
Another representative, Gerald Hervieux, says, “Bit by bit people are beginning to realize what the impact is on us.” Later, during a presentation at Concord’s Nature Conservancy, members of the tribe assert that Hydro-Québec’s previous constructions flooded traditional hunting grounds and dispersed fur-bearing animals, in violation of historic treaties.
Hydro-Québec disputes the Pessamit’s assertions. A spokeswoman, Lynn St. Laurent, tells the New Republic that the interconnected nature of its power grid—in which it evenly draws from multiple sources—means that the Pessamit will not bear the brunt of Northern Pass. In an email, St. Laurent adds that Hydro-Québec has “diligently consulted” with indigenous people, that it has worked to preserve the region’s river salmon population, and that the company is working with the Pessamit on another project, the Micoua-Saguenay high voltage transmission line.
But Louis Archambault, a biologist and spokesman for the Pessamit, tells me that fluctuations in energy demand mean that the salmon population may not be spared. “Even though the HydroQuebec network is integrated, when they will need peak load electricity part of it will definitely come from the Betsiamites power station,” he says, which is located smack in the middle of Pessamit territory.
With Yale sticking to its guns, the fate of Northern Pass now rests with the SEC and the very presidential administration Coös County helped vote into office. But Trump voters’ concerns about marred landscapes can’t be dismissed as small-minded NIMBYism. There are deeper currents at work here, uniting a variety of groups that, in their own ways, feel marginalized and ignored in the face of forces beyond their control.
Northern Pass’s supporters effectively say that the dispossession locals fear is no reason to halt the project. Their argument is that the collective need for clean, renewable energy outweighs the sentiments of individuals, and that the ecological impact will not be as severe as many fear. “We absolutely respect the feelings and the concerns of the people of Coös County and elsewhere here in New Hampshire that oppose the project,” says Murray, the Eversource spokesman. “But we also honestly believe that the project can be done and will be done in a way that does not detract from tourism or from the natural beauty of the state.”
This is not a necessarily conservative or liberal argument; in fact, it cuts in both directions. But though development means progress to many—to corporations selling projects, to politicians who want to create jobs—to farmers and smallholders and indigenous people it often means destruction, not just of the land itself, but of the way they live. As such, it is a question of identity.
This dilemma is not unique to Coös County. It exists in southwest Virginia, where landowners in a rural, conservative area have filed suit to halt construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline; and in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where locals are working with an order of nuns to try to stop the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline. “It’s not a political issue of the ‘left’ or ‘right’ but rather a pure issue of constitutional law and individual property rights,” an attorney for opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline told The Roanoke Times.
But in a more profound sense, the issue is about whether our institutions—be they located in government, education, or the corporate world—are capable of responding humanely to criticism and legitimate grievances. There is a gap between landowners and corporations, between voters and the statehouse, between students and university endowments. It is the kind of gap that sows distrust between urban and rural voters, many of whom wrap their resentment of big-city dwellers in a broader animosity toward an aloof and unresponsive government. It is a democracy gap, one that leads to the likes of Donald Trump.
The question is where people will go, and how they will express their frustration, once Trump inevitably disappoints them. Most Coös County residents wouldn’t call themselves progressive, but they are comfortable speaking in a language that resembles solidarity. They are wise to the dangers of an extraction economy, and understand in their bones the value of protecting the environment. They distrust corporations almost as much as they distrust state government and the loathed politicians in Washington, D.C. They are by no means natural constituents for the Republican Party.
But for now, they have more immediate concerns. The SEC must rule on Northern Pass by the end of September, and there is only one more public hearing left to attend.
In September of this year, Gabi Dunn and Allison Raskin, two twenty-something YouTube stars who host a popular talk show about being “co-dependent besties,” will publish their first YA novel. An epistolary compendium of imagined e-mails between friends, it will be titled I Hate Everyone But You. The basic premise of which is, well, the tightest bonds are formed from mutual acrimony—that any two schmucks can adore the same books and movies and Haribo varietals, but it is in specific, shared disgust that two people become truly magnetized. Playful animosities are where the us slices off from the them, it’s where gauntlets are thrown down and the stakes are heightened, personal.
In Dunn and Raskin’s book, which is told from the perspective of two college freshmen, this joint scorn for the world outside their double-helix is intended to come off as charming, if not a bit callow. Like any other protective shell forged in adolescence, blithe, chirpy hatred is supposed to be a phase, a hardness you grow out of, a meanness that stops looking cute around the time your smile lines stop bouncing back into shape. Adulthood requires a backbone, but also a softening (at least towards humans in your day-to-day life). Once you live long enough with your own defects, it becomes much less fun to find the emotional fontanelles of others and push on them to see if they give.
Difficult People, which debuted the first three episodes of its third season on Hulu this week, is a riotously funny comedy about two thirty-something friends who hate everyone and everything but each other. They see no reason to abandon this life philosophy until the day they die (where one will almost certainly make a joke at the other’s funeral). It stars Billy Eichner, the absurdist comedian who barks at strangers as part of his pop-culture game show Billy on the Street (now migrated to Hulu) and who played the lovably misanthropic Craig on Parks and Recreation, and his real-life BFF Julie Klausner, a bawdy redhead who hosts the garrulous podcast “How Was Your Week?” (which just re-emerged from a year-long hiatus), where she cracks wise about topics as various as Terry Gross, depressive episodes, Sondheim, and the Cannibal Cop at lightning-round speed.
On Difficult People, the pair play jaded New Yorkers, also named Billy and Julie, who are perhaps less-successful sliding doors versions of themselves, the people they might have been had their roads not diverged into TV deals, late night interviews, and published books (Klausner has written two). “Billy” Epstein is a striving actor who waits tables at a chichi Manhattan restaurant (owned by Gabourey Sidibe, who brings a droll deadpan to the restaurant scenes). He is on a constant and fruitless hunt for a boyfriend. “Julie” Kessler is a wannabe comedienne and screenwriter toiling in the content mines as a TV recapper well into her thirties. The two have big dreams, but do not suffer from delusions of grandeur; they share a keen sense of just how hard it is to make it in this town, and they are willing to cut corners (and other people) if they have to in order to get ahead.
In Seinfeldian fashion, Julie and Billy tend to thwart their own ambitions before anyone else has the chance. Their cartoonish failures are almost always unforced errors caused by a collision of ruthlessness and solipsism. For example, in season two, they accost Nathan Lane in a public bathroom and ask him to stick his hand in the toilet for part of an Internet “charity” campaign they are staging with hopes to go as viral as the ice bucket effort. When Pat Kiernan announces on NY1 that Lane has died of a bowl-water related disease, they gain notoriety not for philanthropy but for endangering public health. “Fucking charity,” Billy mumbles as the episode ends. In the Difficult People universe, the only downside to any action is one that dents Billy and Julie’s self-interest. Any other outcome is fair game. They are tribalistic, selfish and merciless—and yet, it is all extremely fun to watch.
I didn’t always feel this way about Difficult People. Watching the first season, I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the blurred area between satire and cruelty, where Eichner and Klausner’s comedy lives. When the show began, the tone was more inward-facing and breathless than it is now, jam-packed with obscure, cutting cultural references that flew out of each episode like a springy green-eyed viper shoved into a potato chip can. A typical exchange from season one went something like this
Julie: As far as the whole be nice to celebrities thing, I’m not in favor of it, particularly because Chrissy Teigen just weighed in on the Greek elections.
Billy: Oh, well, she doesn’t have quite the shrewd political mind of a Naya Rivera.
Their compounded ressentiment felt like wet cement, like a centrifugal, binding force of “the world is unfair to us and it will pay.” While often hilarious (the first season is a cornucopia of quotable one-liners), this outlook could verge on acrid. Bitterness is often the mother of comedy, but it can be hard to swallow quip after quip with no room for sweetness or air. Difficult People ambled into territory that was somewhat occupied by Broad City (a half-hour comedy about two eccentric city strivers whose idiosyncratic friendship is an epic romance), but seemed to lack the latter’s warm heart. Where Abbi and Ilana bumped up against a cruel world as a unit, Julie and Billy were often cruel when bumped into.
But then, in the second season, something shifted. The jokes felt more confident, less weaponized. Difficult People expanded its universe, and allowed oxygen to flow around its secondary characters: Marilyn, Julie’s narcissistic therapist mother (Andrea Martin, doing some of the best comedic work on television), Arthur (James Urbaniak), Julie’s beleaguered boyfriend who wears a bowtie and works in programming at a dying PBS affiliate, Matthew, a jaunty little imp who is Billy’s fellow waiter and professional foil (Cole Escola, who is gifted with impeccable comic timing), and Lola, a bellicose transgender waitress at Billy’s cafe who believes 9/11 was an inside job (Shakina Nayfack). In allowing more characters into their judgmental bubble, the show makes Billy and Julie’s self-absorption all the more poignant; they are not just failing together, they are part of a bizarre constellation of ambition and need, support and sabotage.
Perhaps that season’s funniest—and most tender—episode is “Italian Piñata,” in which Julie and Billy go to New Jersey and discover that, at a local bar outside of the five boroughs, they can take vacations from being themselves. Julie finds girlfriends at long last in a gaggle of women with teased manes and leopard coats who mistake her for one of their own. (Later, she tells her mother and Arthur that she now “identifies as Italian,” a joke that really landed at the height of the Rachel Dolezal news cycle.) Billy pretends to have only recently come out as gay, in order to woo a macho, dim-witted suitor who wants to teach him about LGBT history. One of the best gags involves Billy pretending to be riveted in a West Village shop as his date asserts that the Stonewall riots “happened right after Princess Diana died.” The humor is crass and nimble as ever, but reveals a lonesomeness at the core of Julie and Billy’s shared cynicism. They belong nowhere, really, except to each other. Their distrust of the world is like a fortress, and throughout the second season we get to see glimpses of why they have built up their defenses so high.
If the show’s earlier seasons sometimes wallowed in sarcasm, then the third season is its most mature iteration of the show yet, and where it has finally found its groove and its glory zone: Billy and Julie’s gimlet barbs have become political. The latest season of Difficult People takes place in a vague future where we are still living under Trump, but we’re even deeper in. An early episode centers around Mike Pence’s plan to pay any gay citizen $6,000 to convert to heterosexuality. Billy of course, tries to take the money and run. Meanwhile, Julie auditions as a cigarette girl for Woody Allen’s new TV project. She asks if the show is set in the past; the auditioner answers, “No, Woody just thinks cigarette girls still exist and black people don’t.” She then must pretend to turn down the job when confronted by the crusading leader of a Women-Against-Woody-Allen protest group. Another plotline in the same episode involves Billy and Julie walking around town with a giant fake “strike rat,” as they realize it can get them into the hottest restaurants and shows in town. (One is David Blaine’s final magic trick, “Suicide”: “It’s supposed to be amazing,” Billy says in line).
They exploit labor unions for their own gain, which is about as monstrous as anything they’ve ever done, even in 2017. They are the victims of oppression and also deeply exploitative of it, all in the span of 30 minutes. It is pungent satire; their anger has taken on the national mood, and for once their fury toward the system feels in concert with, rather than in opposition to, the greater world. In 2017, so many of us have become difficult people, the rage that we held on a low simmer has boiled off into vapor. Now, when I watch Difficult People, I still see Billy and Julie as tragic clowns, but their bile makes sense to me. Julie and Billy have always lived inside a comic universe where the world kicks them in the teeth. Now I root for them to spit back.
In a normal world, every politician in Washington would be alarmed if the U.S. president threatened to use nuclear weapons to destroy another nation, as President Donald Trump did on Tuesday. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” he said during a photo op at his Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” To someone who had just awoken from a years-long coma, his remarks would have suggested that the world was on the brink of nuclear war. Indeed, historians in search of a rhetorical precedent had to go all the way back to President Harry Truman’s 1945 announcement of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima.
But everyone in Washington is all too familiar now with Trump’s flatulent mouth. Thus, most powerful figures, including members of Trump’s own party and administration, discounted his words as mere hyperbole. “Don’t read too much into it,” a White House source told Politico reporter Josh Dawsey. Senator John McCain criticized Trump’s words, but added, “I don’t pay much attention anymore to what the president says because there’s no point in it. It’s not terrible what he said, but it’s kind of the classic Trump in that he overstates things.” The unanswered question is whether this habit of overstating things is not itself a massive problem.
The dilemma here is composed of two separate problems. One is the stalemate on the Korean Peninsula, which dates to the end of war there in 1953, but is now made more tense by North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities. The other is Trump himself, an uninformed and undisciplined oaf who likes to shoot from the hip. The first problem, the Korean standoff, is worrisome but also fundamentally stable; a solution is preferable, but not urgent. The second problem, the current American president, could trigger an actual war—and though the solution is urgent, no obvious one exists.
There’s a reason why the stand-off on the Korean Peninsula has lasted for nearly seven decades. It’s like the Cold War in miniature, where the furious rhetoric between opposing parties belies their fundamental commitment to the status quo. North and South Korea claim they want unification, but to judge by their actions over many decades, they think any shift from their uneasy peace would cause more trouble than it’s worth. The communist elites in North Korea have enough trouble maintaining power without an expanded territory, and the costs and complications of unification is one of the most divisive issues in South Korean politics. The impasse also works in the interests of outside powers. For China, an armed North Korea is a way to keep regional rivals South Korea and Japan, as well as the U.S., on their toes. For America, the threat of North Korea is the cement holding together its alliance in the region.
By this reading, dictator Kim Jong-un and the rest of the Korean elite are fundamentally rational, albeit cruel. They’re committed to maintaining absolute power, but not suicidal. They use nuclear brinksmanship to maintain their grip on society, the fear of outside attack helping to fuel nationalism and suppress dissent. As with the Cold War, the main danger is that the nations blunder into nuclear war through miscommunication, where one party misinterprets ritualistic brinksmanship as a genuine threat. This almost happened on several occasions in the Cold War, notably in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Enter Trump. There is a massive discrepancy between the actual policies of the U.S. government, generally a continuation of President Barack Obama’s approach of containment, and Trump’s bellicose words. In a series of tweets, New York Times reporter Max Fisher laid out the case that America’s actions are more important than Trump’s words, giving five reasons that “I wouldn’t worry too much.”
The second reason, he wrote, is that in international relations, “actions speak eleventy billion times louder than words. And US actions right now scream continuity and status quo. The U.S., in its lack of actions, is telling North Korea very clearly that it should ignore Trump’s words as largely meaningless.” Third, “No side benefits from escalation to conflict.” Fourth, “States are biased toward assuming other states will maintain status quo approach.” And last, “If we can’t even agree what Trump meant, North Koreans sure won’t know. So they’ll simply disregard it.”
Fisher’s argument is plausible so long as the North Korean elite interprets Trump the way Washington does: as a bullshit artist prone to blunder. But is that something North Koreans are likely to do? Is it even wise on their part to do so?
Nuclear deterrence theory is predicated on a world governed by rational actors. In the standoff with North Korea, Trump is a destabilizing force because there is no reason to believe he is rational. Aside from his well-documented ignorance and history of erratic behavior, there’s the added complication of his presidency being under siege by the investigation into Russian collusion with his presidential campaign. As Jonathan Chait recently argued in New York magazine, war would provide Trump with a much-needed diversion from scandal: “Trump could regain public standing through the rally-round-the-flag effect that usually occurs following a domestic attack or at the outset of a war.” Veteran reporter Elizabeth Drew noted Wednesday on Twitter that during the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon twice put the American military on high alert. But Nixon, though a madman in his own right, was much more assured in foreign policy than Trump is.
The Western press is calling this “the North Korean crisis.” That’s not really accurate. There exists a longstanding deadlock with North Korea, one which a normal, rational U.S. president would be able to manage with firmness. But America doesn’t have a normal, rational president. The real crisis is not on a distant peninsula in Asia; it’s on a golf course somewhere in New Jersey.
In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump promised he would create 25 million new jobs over the next ten years, more than any American president before him. As proof that he’s living up to that pledge, he has taken every opportunity to crow about various companies’ plans to invest in the country.
He had two opportunities recently to brag about the art of his deal-making. First, Wisconsin boasted that Foxconn, a Taiwanese tech supplier, would build a massive plant in the state in exchange for a record-setting tax incentive package. Then Toyota and Mazda announced that they will soon team up to build a $1.6 billion plant in the country—exact destination to be determined.
“A great investment in American manufacturing!” Trump tweeted after the Toyota and Mazda news, following up with a reminder of the Foxconn deal. Behind the scenes, his team took credit for the president’s business prowess.
Similarly, Trump, to great fanfare, took credit for Carrier’s decision not to relocate hundreds of jobs to Mexico back in December, a feat pulled off with $7 million in tax benefits from the state of Indiana.
But in reality, no one wins under these kinds of deals except the companies themselves. The Foxconn and Toyota-Mazda agreements represent the latest escalation in a growing arms race between states to devise wildly lucrative incentives to lure companies and their jobs. These deals don’t actually have much of an impact, however, despite their big price tags. The jobs Trump can most reasonably take credit for represent the worst kind of deal-making.
It’s already a risky bet, since Foxconn does not have a great track record in following through on its promises. In 2013, the company said it would invest $300 million in Pennsylvania and create 500 jobs. But it never came to fruition: No factory was built and no one was hired. It has also promised a $5 billion investment to India that has yet to move forward and $10 billion to Indonesia even though no plant has been built.
If Foxconn’s Wisconsin factory actually does create 13,000 jobs, the upper limit of what the company estimated, that would mean the state is spending $230,769 per job that will pay an average annual salary of $53,000. But so far the company has only actually committed to 3,000 jobs—which would mean Wisconsin shelling out a whopping $1 million per job.
That is far out of range of what is typical for these state incentive deals. On average, states offer more like $2,500 per job.
But Foxconn isn’t done. Now it’s shopping around to find a nice package from another state for other facilities.
Toyota and Mazda will be suitors’ next target. Its new partnership was a blatant invitation for bids from state governments. The announcement was made without any details on the location of the new plant; instead, as Toyota North America chief Jim Lentz told Reuters “All of it boils down to an economic arrangement.” We can expect to see states rushing to throw money at the companies for the honor.
If they were smart, though, states would keep their money to themselves. Even deals with smaller dollar amounts than Wisconsin’s are questionable. Incentive packages have tripled in size since 1990, as states feel increasing pressure to up the ante to attract jobs for their residents. Yet research has found that these packages rarely change companies’ behavior. One study found that companies receiving tax incentives wouldn’t have left the states that offered them anyway. On top of that, the tax breaks had no discernable impact on job creation or company expansion.
An examination of a Texas program that offers companies tax abatements in exchange for economic investment found that, despite the state spending an estimated $7 billion, including $4 billion subtracted from local schools, between 85 and 90 percent of the projects would have located there even without such enticement. It didn’t even attract new investment from abroad; most foreign applicants weren’t considering locating in any other country anyway.
Meanwhile, these packages don’t correlate with better economic performance. State tax regimes don’t have a substantial impact on economic activity. Rather, they represent a hefty giveaway from a state’s taxpayers to a large corporate entity.
But despite their poor track record, they are beloved by politicians, who can point to the packages as proof that they are doing something concrete to create jobs for their constituents—whether it pans out that way or not. Trump is using a well-worn playbook when he talks these deals up on Twitter.
That’s exactly the playbook he relied on with Carrier. Trump flew to Indiana for a photo-op tour of the plant at the end of last year, before he was inaugurated, to showcase the deal he supposedly struck to save American jobs. While Trump said he promised the company that he would lower the corporate tax rate and undo business regulations, the real sweetener was likely the millions of dollars Indiana residents will hand over to the company. Even with the $7 million price tag, only about 1,000 jobs were preserved; the company started moving another 600 to Mexico last month.
Unfortunately for Trump, these terrible deals are the only ones he can really lay any claim to. Although he’s tried to take credit for numerous other job-creating announcements companies have made since he entered the White House, most of them stem from plans that were announced long before he even ran for president. So now he has to hang his hat on expensive, useless state tax deals.
On December 23, 2015, in the middle of her “Christmas Eve eve” broadcast, Rachel Maddow took stock of an apparent shift in American politics. “This year, for whatever reason, ads basically don’t work. Spending lots of money on ads doesn’t seem to have an effect on the polls,” the MSNBC host said, referring to the Republican presidential primary underway. “Donald Trump has spent less ad money than any other significant candidate. He spent, I think, zero dollars on TV ads specifically.” And yet, Trump was leading the polls. Jeb Bush had spent more than $35 million. “For his troubles, he is 3 percent in the polls.” Maddow rounded up her favorite ads of the cycle thus far, and concluded the segment by saying, “We are still good at telling these stories about American politics, and that is something. And someday it will matter again.”
The idea that campaign ads didn’t matter—or didn’t work, anyway—had surfaced early in the race. “The most conspicuous truism that Trump has smashed to bits,” The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove wrote a couple weeks before Maddow’s broadcast, “is that whoever outspends his competitors on media consultants for brilliantly persuasive television commercials, and the savvy purchase of advertising time, also possesses an intimidating edge.” The following month, Paul Waldman at The Week called TV ads “less important than ever,” concluding that “this election must surely make TV advertising a less appealing tool.”
The failure of campaign ads became the conventional wisdom over the ensuing months, with the general election seen as the ultimate judge. “Nearly everywhere the race is competitive, Mrs. Clinton has run far more ads,” Lynn Vavreck, a political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted in The New York Times. The massive ad imbalance is, she wrote, “a rare chance to learn two things: whether all the effort exerted by Mrs. Clinton is moving the flag, and whether Mr. Trump’s method is a good substitute for a conventional ad campaign.” She concluded that Trump was letting Clinton “dominate the ad war in competitive battleground states and it seems to be costing him votes.”
Clinton’s ads didn’t do enough to win her the White House, but Vavreck objects to the notion that they didn’t make a difference. “That is faulty, faulty, logic, because again, you don’t know what the counter-factual is where she’s not advertising,” she told me. “The race was incredibly close overall. You just don’t want to be making big inferences about what was effective and what was not based on a race that was essentially a coin flip.” Vavreck was also skeptical that Trump’s competitors in the Republican primary ran worthless ad campaigns. “Just because those guys couldn’t beat him in the primaries with all that advertising, it doesn’t mean those ads didn’t have an effect,” she said. “Without that anti-Trump advertising, he might have shored up the nomination even earlier.”
But even if Trump proved ads didn’t matter as much in the 2016 race as in previous campaigns, experts are confident that it’s an anomaly. Ads will have plenty of utility in next year’s midterms, they say, and Democrats are already deploying them to great effect in their campaign to take back the House of Representatives.
Last week was a good one for Mark Putnam. The Democratic consultant generated a lot of buzz with his introductory campaign ad for Democrat Amy McGrath, a retired lieutenant colonel hoping to unseat Republican Representative Andy Barr in Kentucky. “This Is the Kind of Campaign Ad That Keeps Paul Ryan Up at Night,” raved Mother Jones. Even the conservative site Townhall conceded the ad was “utterly fantastic.”
The spot was well produced, but Putnam is the first to admit that its power comes from McGrath’s narrative about her path-breaking military service. “What still matters more than anything else in politics is having a great candidate with a great story to tell,” he told me.
Putnam doesn’t think Trump’s success in eschewing a traditional media strategy is applicable to down-ballot races. “There is an enormous difference between a presidential campaign and every single other type of election,” he said. “Drawing any conclusions about the efficacy of television advertising because of Donald Trump is a fundamental misreading of how voters consume information.”
Of course, it’s in Putnam’s professional interest to convince politicians that ads still matter—that they’re worth spending millions on. But Travis Ridout, a government professor at Washington State University, agrees with him. “There is a different dynamic at play,” said Ridout, who co-directs the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads. “When you’re dealing with, say, a House race, oftentimes the challenger isn’t someone people have heard of before. Advertising can be very effective at introducing a candidate.”
But at the presidential level, the importance of ads remains an open question thanks to the sitting president. “Trump was and still is a force of nature who is uniquely talented at getting himself attention and can do that through all sorts of mediums,” Putnam told me. “He is extraordinarily rare.” Indeed, no other presidential candidate in modern U.S. history succeeded without engaging in an ad-spending war. Trump’s reliance on social media, and the free media coverage generated by his massive rallies, may well have established a new blueprint for future national campaigns—at least those run by insurgents and outsiders.
But Fred Davis doesn’t see that happening. A Republican ad maker who worked for John Kasich’s presidential campaign, he said commercials “will remain the primary tool by which you communicate with voters.” Whereas “Donald Trump didn’t need to run one ad,” he said, “That isn’t going to happen again unless someone like Oprah runs for office—someone of that magnitude.” He added, “What will be interesting to watch will be the tone of the ads. Will they be more Donald Trump-like? Will they be wilder and crazier? I think yes, probably.”
Vavreck is skeptical. “I don’t think this is a new equilibrium,” she said. “I think it’s a blip.” Most candidates won’t have Trump’s appetite for generating media controversy—to embrace his conclusion in The Art of the Deal that “bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all.” “I’m not sure your typical political candidate is going to be willing to do that,” Vavreck said. “In order to do that, Trump had to be controversial. He had to say outrageous things nearly every day.”
Ridout offered a simpler reason why few will try to replicate Trump’s strategy: “Most candidates are not that interesting as human beings.”
Working mothers’ horror stories have been piling up. In the past two weeks, The Washington Post and Nieman have reported about women’s struggles to pump breast milk at work and the difficulties of being a mother in the journalism industry. This adds to years of reporting on the hardships working mothers face because of a lack of protections and a lack of a national paid leave policy. These stories also showcase the nearly superhuman efforts mothers have made to secure workplace rights that are common in other developed countries, all of which amount to a kind of penalty mothers have to pay on top of their actual labor.
The difficulties these women face range from the humiliating to the life-threatening. As one woman who worked in a Silicon Valley tech start-up told the Post, “The CEO of the company used to announce when I was going to pump by singing a little song for everyone to hear: ‘Pump, pump, pump it up!’” Then there’s the heartbreaking case of Reyna García, who filed a lawsuit against her employer, a grocery store, after it required her to lift heavy boxes despite her request to accommodate her high-risk pregnancy, culminating in the death of her baby.
The problem has become so persistent and the United States has lagged so far behind—at least 190 countries have, at minimum, some kind of paid leave for mothers, whereas the U.S. offers none—that the drive to protect working mothers has found backers across the political spectrum. The conservative think tank AEI calls paid leave an “issue whose time has come.” Ivanka Trump’s last remaining shreds of credibility are tied to the issue, which at the very least shows that she understands how its political cachet helps her brand, even if her actual policy would not really benefit women who work. Tech companies, eager to show that they are at the vanguard of a progressive corporate culture, have led the way on offering generous paid family leave policies to attract talented employees and stay ahead of the competition.
But in the absence of a federal family leave policy, many women have had to demand it from their employers. As detailed in the Nieman report, five senior women at The New York Times spent months preparing a proposal that made the case for better family leave benefits, which they then presented to Mark Thompson, the newspaper’s president and CEO, as well as members of its executive committee.
One of the women, Erin Grau, detailed to the New Republic what she and her team had to go through to prepare the proposal. Grau estimated that, collectively, they spent somewhere between 100 and 150 hours doing research, interviewing colleagues, analyzing data provided to them by human resources, and preparing for the actual meeting with Thompson. “That’s not to mention all the mental tax,” Grau told me. “We thought about this all the time.” During this process, four of the five women were already on or began maternity leave, meaning that they did all of this on top of taking care of newborns and doing their actual jobs.
“We all worked in product development, and were all experts at building products,” Grau said. “We built a program as thoughtfully as possible, applying the same rigor that we applied to our normal jobs.” They went to the company’s legal department with questions, and leaned on research from articles that the Times itself had published. They were fortunate to have allies in HR and in the Times’s senior leadership, one of whom brokered the meeting with the company’s executives.
After the meeting, the higher-ups immediately accepted the women’s proposal—a credit to the enormous amount of work they put into it. The Times extended the company’s leave policy from 11.1 weeks to 16-18 weeks for birth mothers, as well as 10 weeks for adoptive parents, fathers, and partners. Grau says that they started the work in the spring of 2015 and the new policy went into effect in March of 2016—a whole year from beginning to end.
Grau advises other working mothers to be proactive. “Don’t wait for someone else, or HR, to do the work for you,” she told Nieman. She also recommends organizing in numbers and finding advocates in the higher echelons of the company. This is certainly good advice for women who work in industries where they can interact with executives and where they are valued. (The women at the Times implied that if the company wanted to retain them, it would have to update its family leave policies.) And it’s amazing that these women spent so much of their own time and resources to secure better policies for all the families working at their company. Grau told me that, since their success at the Times, ten people from different media companies have reached out to her for advice on how to tackle paid leave in their own organizations. All ten of them were, of course, women.
But this extra work—all unpaid, all shouldered by women—can also be seen as a burden. And while there are many lessons to be learned from Grau’s project, this is an unsustainable strategy for women in the country overall. As Grau acknowledges, “We were all senior enough and we had the education that we could apply to this business problem in our daily lives.”
Low-income mothers are much less likely to have the time and the career security to force their employers to offer better leave policy. Unionization is one recourse—in Minnesota, young state employees won six weeks of paid family leave from the governor through their unions—but right-to-work laws have been steadily crippling unions across the country. (In fact, Minnesota’s new paid leave policy is now in limbo because the Republican-controlled legislature needs to vote on it to make it permanent.)
Paid family leave varies heavily by race and class in the United States; only 5 percent of the bottom quartile of earners have access to paid family leave, while 22 percent of those in the top quartile do. People of color are nearly twice as likely to have an unmet need for leave than white workers. Family leave also varies by industry—a recent Pew Research study showed that 37 percent of workers in the finance and insurance sector have access to paid family leave, versus 5 percent of construction workers.
When left to the goodwill of corporations, these disparities will only persist. Even tech companies, which are lauded for their forward-thinking family-friendly policies, sometimes offer different benefits to white-collar and blue-collar workers within the same organization. This is why activists are pushing for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro’s FAMILY Act, a national policy that would provide 12 weeks of family and medical leave at two-thirds pay. “There’s a lot of effort to fight for the FAMILY Act so you don’t have to win the boss lottery or the state lottery,” Julie Kashen, policy director at Make It Work, told the New Republic.
No matter what strides individual working mothers make, the country’s lack of a paid family leave policy remains a burden to women and parents, in ways both big and small. Women shouldn’t have to spend hundreds of hours getting their companies to implement sensible leave policies. Others might not even have that option.
In September 2005, the New Orleans real-estate developer Finis Shelnutt told a German newspaper of the opportunities Hurricane Katrina had created for his business. “The storm destroyed a great deal,” he said, just weeks after Katrina had killed more than one thousand people and expelled tens of thousands more from the city. “And there’s plenty of space to build houses and sell them for a lot of money.” Moreover, he added, “the hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city, and we hope they don’t come back.”
Shelnutt’s uniquely forthright comments distilled the essence of gentrification, as Peter Moskowitz explains it in How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood. Gentrification, in this account, is not just about twenty-something white dudes with beards riding their fixed-gear bikes into unfamiliar neighborhoods, nor filament-bulb-lit craft beer bars opening up alongside bodegas. It is not really a cultural phenomenon, as it is so often depicted, nor one driven by individuals with a little more disposable income than their new neighbors. It is about profit and power, racism and violence on a massive scale. It is, in Moskowitz’s words, “the urban form of a new kind of capitalism.”
How to Kill a City is one of several new books that seek to deepen our understanding of this widely used but little understood term and the upheaval it describes. The most recent additions to this collection—Gentrifier, by John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill and Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make It in New York City by Brandon Harris—share Moskowitz’s goal of probing the structural, socioeconomic forces that drive gentrification. Like Moskowitz, who was raised in the West Village and wrote How to Kill a City in Brooklyn, each of these authors grapples with their own paradoxical position in the process: that of being both gentrifier and gentrified. The authors of Gentrifier even write themselves into their definition of the term:
We are gentrifiers. That is to say, we are middle-class people who moved into disinvested neighborhoods in a period during which a critical mass of other middle-class people did the same, thereby exerting economic, political, and social pressures upon the existing community.
These authors scoff at the “everyone but me” attitude that so often characterizes conversations about gentrification: “Gentrifier,” much like “hipster,” is almost always a term reserved for someone else. Instead of trying to avoid guilt, they examine how the places we live and socialize reproduce and exacerbate inequalities. What role do individual residents play in shaping the process of gentrification, and what responsibility do more affluent new residents bear toward those displaced? Who, ultimately, pulls the levers? And what the hell do we do about it?
Moskowitz does not dwell long on the personal stakes. Instead, How to Kill a City sets out to expose the forces that are pulling the rich back into America’s cities and pushing everyone else further and further out. Drawing on earlier urban scholars, Moskowitz breaks the process down into four basic steps. First, individuals seeking cheap rents begin moving to a disinvested neighborhood, sometimes forming their own sub-communities: artists, radicals, and so on. Before long, more middle-class people follow, and real-estate interests catch on. Soon enough, the new middle-class residents take their place in the neighborhood’s institutions and begin reshaping power dynamics, attracting more amenities (and, notably, police), as well as bigger-money developers. By the time “managerial-class professionals” find their way to the neighborhood, the original gentrifiers can no longer afford it and get pushed out, starting the process over again in another neighborhood.
To these four steps, first laid out by MIT urban studies professor Phillip Clay in 1979, Moskowitz adds two more. The culmination of the process, Moskowitz writes, is when global capital so defines a neighborhood that it serves more as an investment portfolio than a place to live: Midtown’s “billionaire’s row” and its empty condos, worth tens of millions of dollars each, are the quintessential example. One developer summed up this phenomenon neatly when he described today’s luxury buildings as safe-deposit boxes for the global elite.
At the other end of the process, Moskowitz adds “stage zero”: a crisis that opens the door to sudden change. In New Orleans, Moskowitz argues, it was Hurricane Katrina; in Detroit, it was the 2013 municipal bankruptcy that allowed Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to install an unelected emergency manager with powers over the city government. While the “stage zero” chronology doesn’t always hold up (many Detroit gentrifiers, from the aspiring urban farmers to Quicken Loans’ Dan Gilbert, set their sights on the city long before it officially went bankrupt), Moskowitz makes a strong case for the broader logic: Gentrification, at its most elemental, is a form of disaster capitalism, and its widely bemoaned cultural flourishes mostly just add insult to debilitating injury.
The New Orleans case is perhaps the most extreme. Half of the city was still underwater when developers, politicians, and pundits alike began celebrating the unique opportunity Katrina provided. Nearly half of the city’s population—some 250,000 people—was displaced as a result of the storm, and columnists like David Brooks encouraged them to stay out while the city lured in more “ambitious and organized” people to take their place. Federal agencies, consciously or not, fulfilled Brooks’s prescription: FEMA vouchers offered one-way tickets out, sending people to Houston, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, even as far as Utah and Minnesota rather than sponsoring their return home. The displaced were overwhelmingly black, and tens of thousands of them never came back. As of 2015, New Orleans has some 100,000 fewer black residents than it did in 2000.
This wholesale displacement of one-fifth of the city’s population created the kind of opening that real-estate developers and their political allies could only dream of in other cities. Property values were at a low, and the potential for remaking the city unprecedented. What Marxist geographer Neil Smith called the “rent gap”—the difference between the current value of a property and its potential value—was at an all-time high across much of the city. Little surprise, then, that the city’s demographics shifted, as developers courted wealthier, whiter residents who could stomach the higher rents. Today, with some 35 percent of New Orleanians devoting at least half of their income to rent, the city has become the second-least affordable city to live in nationwide.
The developers couldn’t have done it without government support, from the federal to the state to the city level. Take Freret, a once-derelict neighborhood near Tulane that is now a near-caricature of a gentrification hub, complete with yoga studios, a farmers’ and flea market, cocktail bars, and $4 coffees. It even has its own website, theNewFreret.com, and associated social media accounts.
What happened? The explanation is simple enough: Freret was designated a “cultural district” by the state in 2012, allowing new businesses—but not existing ones—to operate tax-free. A slew of restaurants opened in quick succession, turning Freret Street into a “dining hot spot” for young, white, subsidized crowds while long-running businesses like the local barber shop were left to fend for themselves. “It’s not sharing the table,” as longtime New Orleanian Ruth Idakula told Moskowitz. “It’s coming here and shoving our shit off the table and then demanding we eat your shit.”
As Idakula notes, it’s not the new residents’ food and drink preferences that are the problem so much as their attitude toward the neighborhood’s longtime residents. Moskowitz reports a 2013 meeting where a hundred-odd residents debated a proposal to hire a new private security patrol in Freret, which would be paid for by hiking local property taxes. The proposal’s defenders, all white, eventually conceded to their black counterparts’ concerns that an additional patrol would only add to already severe police harassment of black residents, and the proposal was scrapped. But the fact that it was even proposed betrays a reflexive invitation to state—or, in this case, para-state—violence that never lurks far from the surface of gentrification debates.
Critics of gentrification have long noted its link to heightened policing. But Moskowitz goes a step further, portraying the subsidies and incentives that fuel the process as a form of state violence in themselves. Moskowitz offers as exhibit A “one of Detroit’s premier new loft conversions,” a building christened “The Albert” by its new owners:
Broder and Sachse bought the building at 1214 Griswold Street in 2013…. Before 2013, the building housed about a hundred low-income seniors who were able to afford the building thanks to Section 8 housing vouchers. All were evicted by Broder and Sachse, given vouchers to move elsewhere, and scattered throughout the rest of the city. Now the building houses mostly white millennials. Apartments at the Albert now start at $1,200 a month. Broder and Sachse received a ten-year tax abatement from the city when they began their conversion.
In a few plain but cutting sentences, Moskowitz links the two chief actors driving gentrification—profit-hungry real-estate firms, on the one hand, and the state on the other—and exposes the fundamental violence of the process. As Jerome Robinson, a 72-year-old-former autoworker, says of his former apartment at 1214 Griswold, “People can say whatever they want about these rich people coming in and doing this that and the other, but I was comfortable down there. I wanted to stay there. And they kicked me out.”
The authors of Gentrifier are skeptical that a definition of gentrification that includes Katrina-level disasters is a useful one at all. And it’s true: The shock-doctrine template doesn’t quite transfer to cities like San Francisco, which was doing just fine economically before it became a Silicon Valley playground.
Yet they largely agree with Moskowitz on the set of factors that have driven today’s gentrification crisis. The most important is the segregation that resulted from a combination of suburbanization and urban renewal programs around the midcentury. Both suburbanization and urban renewal were backed by copious federal spending: Mortgage subsidies and highways encouraged an ascendant white middle class to escape the city, while redlining and redevelopment schemes kept the mostly black urban poor in. White areas were neatly demarcated from the black ones that didn’t. This set the stage for widespread disinvestment from urban cores. To secure a federal loan, one Detroit developer in the late 1930s built a literal wall separating his new homes from an adjacent black neighborhood. Direct federal construction played a role too: As Richard Rothstein documents in his landmark new book The Color of Law, the years leading up to and during the Second World War saw a spate of aggressively segregated public housing construction, which homogenized even previously integrated neighborhoods.
After the war, cities began to deindustrialize as factories followed whites to the suburbs, leaving the urban poor increasingly stranded in ghettos with diminishing job prospects. Neoliberal spending cuts, beginning in the late 1970s, compounded their plight, further starving the inner cities of amenities and services. Sometimes the neglect was targeted: In 1976 alone, the city of New York shut down thirty-four fire stations in poor, largely black and Latino neighborhoods; by the end of the decade, seven Bronx census tracts had lost virtually all of their buildings, and another forty-four tracts had lost more than half.
Economic isolation and the fraying of the social safety net contributed to record levels of crime in inner cities, with public housing complexes hit particularly hard. Policy elites’ response was to blame the buildings themselves and, wherever they could, tear them down. Between 1990 and 2008, some 220,000 units of public housing were razed nationwide—about half of them under Bill Clinton’s signature “redevelopment” program, Hope VI, which provided for only 60,000 mixed-income units to replace them.
Federal, state, and city governments did not feed this vicious cycle out of pure malice, transparently racist as officials’ motives often were. Rather, their decisions corresponded to the interests of business: those of the realtors who lobbied to demolish slums but not to replace them, for example, or of the builders who lobbied for new housing towers but no funds to maintain them. Where necessary, realtors also took matters into their own hands. The notorious blockbusting schemes of the postwar period provide just one example of how real estate has actively courted racial tension in the service of profit.
The path from the rampant deregulation, privatization, and financialization beginning in the late 1970s—the explosion of the finance, insurance, and real-estate sectors and their increasingly arcane methods of packaging debt—to the housing market crash of 2008 is by now well documented. So is the decimation of black wealth in the ensuing mortgage meltdown: In 2007, the average black family had a net worth of one-tenth the average white-family’s; by 2011, that number had dropped to one-sixteenth, or roughly six cents in black wealth to the average white family’s dollar. Wall Street, as ever, found innovative ways to profit off the collapse: hedge funds, large investment firms, and private equity companies snapped up foreclosed homes and converted them into rentals, making them some of . “The reach of global capital down to the local neighborhood scale,” as Neil Smith puts it, has reached a new extreme. And with it, Moskowitz writes, has come the “destruction of black urban life ... the canvas on which gentrifiers now paint.”
Landlords, developers, financiers, and the arms of the state that they twist to their advantage: these, all three books agree, are the real gentrifiers, “the true authors of this blood-sodden land’s next evolution,” in Harris’s words. The forces of gentrification, in short, are the same ones driving inequality at large. The squatters and punks who battled cops at Tompkins Square Park in 1988 summed it up neatly: “Gentrification is class war.”
So what is to be done? In cities ranging from Oakland to New York to Barcelona to Cape Town, grassroots movements have proposed, wherever possible, decommodifying housing—seeking to transform it from real estate into home, as David Madden and Peter Marcuse sum it up in their 2016 book In Defense of Housing. Steps along the way can include everything from enacting and strengthening rent control laws to taking land off the speculative market using community land trusts. Grassroots groups nationwide and internationally have long been fighting on these terms and, little by little, gaining ground. For gentrifiers conflicted about their own role in the process, there is no more straightforward answer than to recognize your own stake in these fights and join in. Your outrageous rent is not only making your life hell, it’s driving up everyone else’s, too. When you organize to reduce it, everyone wins.
But the fight against gentrification must go a step further. At its core, it demands a robust defense of the public sector—including, perhaps especially, public housing. Increasingly privatized or demolished, and dismissed as an inevitable hotbed of corruption and crime, public housing may be the most maligned iteration of New Deal-era social policy. In some respects, rightly so: there is no question that the projects of midcentury were designed to actively enforce segregation by race and income, with staggering consequences. Harris quotes Jay-Z’s description of the projects, including his native Marcy Houses, as “huge islands built mostly in the middle of nowhere, designed to warehouse lives.”
The housing projects of the twentieth century did much to concentrate poverty and anchor inequality in the urban landscape. But it is testament to the failings of the market that even these spaces of gross neglect, where they still exist, are not only fiercely defended by their residents but remain a highly sought-after housing option among the urban poor. (Some 257,000 families are on the waiting list for New York City public housing alone.) Nor are they spaces absent of community, as Jay-Z himself acknowledges in the 2011 memoir Harris quotes. Ashana Bigard, a longtime resident of New Orleans’s demolished St. Thomas houses whom Moskowitz interviews, looks back on the barbecues and music that were a constant feature of life in the complex and remembers, “That’s what connected us.” Even residents of St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe—perhaps the most notorious development in U.S. housing history, demolished after barely twenty years—looked back fondly on the sense of community at the complex when they first moved in. It was only after the elevators broke down and the trash piled up, through no fault of the residents’, that crime spiked. And despite it all, today a majority of residents in the New York City Housing Authority, the country’s largest, express satisfaction with their living conditions.
A new public housing, of course, would need to be carefully designed to remedy segregation and inequality rather than entrench them as the previous generation of projects did. It might take inspiration from the successes of limited-equity cooperatives like New York’s union-developed Penn South, community land trusts like Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, or offshoots of those models like mutual housing associations. (Publicly seeded coops have their precedents abroad as well as here in the United States.) If there is one consolation to be taken from the disastrous social engineering that produced today’s gentrification, it is that conscious policy decisions got us into this mess, and conscious policy decisions can get us out.
With the country’s most boorish real-estate tycoon of all now in the White House, it can be hard to avoid the feeling that the challenge for housing-rights advocates—as for all those fighting for justice—is Sisyphean. But the time to start building is now. Already, backlash to the Trump agenda has made popular appetite for a reinvigorated public sector all the more apparent. Some 57 percent of respondents to an April Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll believe that “the government should do more to solve problems and help people”—a record high since the poll began in 1995—and only 39 percent believe “the government is doing too many things better left to business and individuals.”
In New York, groups like FUREE, led by public housing residents, and Picture the Homeless have long been setting out blueprints for truly affordable, democratic, and achievable forms of housing, and politicians are finally beginning to take note. City councilmembers like the Bronx’s Ritchie Torres—who grew up in NYCHA’s Throggs Neck houses and testified at a recent rally to the “transformative power of affordable housing”—are also taking a proactive approach. Under pressure to counterbalance the Trump agenda, more liberal politicians can be swayed to do the same, and we have little choice but to keep pushing them.
Our own positions within the everyday class warfare of gentrification may be conflicted; certainly this is true of all the authors of the books under review here. And it is important not to lose sight of the ways that personal attitudes and actions daily aggravate the crisis of gentrification. But it is telling that even Harris—despite being black and, for most of his time in Bed-Stuy, poor—contributes in his own way to the “great social experiment” making the neighborhood unlivable for people like himself. If the forces of private profit are so irrepressible that even he cannot escape their grinding contradictions, clearly they need to be attacked at the root. Housing rights activists across the country have long been acting accordingly. Join them.
Parenting is a job. The hardest job one can have. No wonder parents, who are working so hard, tell kids that school is their job. Once the kids grow up, of course, their job will be their job. If they lose it, then looking for a job will become their full-time job. And if they decided to get married, that will be a job, too.
Americans struggle to describe worthwhile, long-term activities without turning them into jobs. We can’t imagine a good life that’s free from workplace logic. This narrow moral vocabulary makes our lives worse: more stressful, more guilt-ridden, and less able to appreciate anything that’s not work. It also reflects and reinforces a culture in which citizens are dependent on, indeed at the mercy of, their employers. That’s why we need a new, more expansive lexicon to describe the dominant responsibilities—not to mention the neglected pleasures—of our lives.
The job of motherhood is surely the most fraught of the job metaphors, which novelist Karen Rinaldi interrogated recently after her mother said to her, “Motherhood, it’s the hardest job in the world. All sacrifice!” Rinaldi disagreed. “When we cling to the idea of motherhood as sacrifice, what we really sacrifice is our sense of self, as if it is the price we pay for having children,” she wrote in The New York Times. “Motherhood is not a sacrifice, but a privilege—one that many of us choose selfishly.”
Rinaldi’s critique could have gone further. When workforce logic pervades parenthood, then child-rearing takes on the competitiveness and status-seeking of professional culture. We shame mothers who don’t perform “best practices” like breastfeeding or initiating skin-to-skin contact with their child within seconds of birth. And because raising kids is considered a job, we judge married couples who choose not have any; they’re shirking their work responsibilities, after all.
In America, doing work of any kind, no matter its usefulness, is seen as inherently more worthwhile than the alternative. Even Rinaldi succumbs to this mentality, writing, “Raising a family is hard work, but so is every other meaningful aspect of our lives.” In fact, there many meaningful aspects of life that are not hard work, notably leisure. But in America, leisure is defined solely by its relationship to a job. Even those who rave on Monday morning about having done nothing over the weekend (“I just vegged out”) are implying they worked so hard as to need a break, and at the same time are acknowledging the indulgence of inactivity.
This cultural norm—that it’s good and important to be busy—filters down to our children. We overload with homework and assess against state-mandated benchmarks. When they do well, we praise them with the ubiquitous, “Good job!” When they do poorly, we implore, “Work harder!” It’s no surprise, then, that when they get to college they focus joylessly on careerism rather than intellectual development. The college students I taught unanimously claimed that school was their job. Many thought that any courses outside of their professional interest were a waste of time.
It’s true that words like “job” and “work” have multiple meanings. To tell a child, offhandedly, that “cleaning up Legos is a thankless job” might not indicate that you live in a moral void. But all of those common terms point in the same direction. Their pervasiveness echoes and helps perpetuate the message in American culture that you exist to work. It’s a mindset that heaps guilt on the unemployed and disabled, discourages workers from taking vacation, and sets an absurd expectation that childbirth be minimally disruptive to work.
The job metaphor isn’t even very apt, because the dissimilarities between something like parenting and a job are much greater than the similarities. As Rinaldi noted, “In a job, an employer pays for services an employee agrees to perform. And there is a boss to whom the employee reports. In the case of parenting, who would that be?” Maybe we talk about parenting and marriage and school in terms of work because they demand effort. As Rinaldi wrote about motherhood, “No one will deny that there is exhaustion, fear and tedium.” It’s hard. But it’s also true that video games are hard. Making pottery is hard. Golf is hard. Difficulty alone isn’t enough for something to count as work.
Rinaldi proposes that we reframe motherhood as a privilege. In doing so, she wrote, “we redirect agency back to the mother, empowering her, celebrating her autonomy instead of her sacrifice. … [B]y owning our roles as mothers and refusing the false accolades of martyrdom, we do more to empower all women.” This might not be the ideal ideal, since “privilege” is an awfully charged term at the moment. (And for the record, whatever it means to be a parent, I’m not one.) But by calling attention to the importance of parenting without succumbing to the ideals of hypercompetitive work culture, Rinaldi is pushing us in the right direction.
A big reason we call motherhood a job is to impress upon our patriarchal, work-obsessed society the value, importance, and difficulty of women’s unpaid domestic labor. But in adopting the vocabulary of an oppressive system in order to improve women’s prospects within it, we concede the nature the system itself. If everything is work, then talk of “work-life balance” is a sham. If the only way to carve out respect and real benefits for new parents is to acknowledge that they have other work to do, outside of their day jobs, then those gains come at the cost of strengthening work’s ideological hold on us.
From the earliest English settlements forward, a person’s place in America has been contingent on their work. White settlers justified their claim to the land by toiling on it; in their eyes, the Natives had no property rights, because they didn’t seem to work. Soon after, millions of Africans would be brought here as slave labor. When Emancipation finally came, African Americans were still told they must work.
Even now, our political debates are shaped by the belief that only workers have value. One version of congressional Republicans’ failed health-care bill included a work requirement for people on Medicaid. Our leaders question the merits of admitting refugees on human-rights grounds, and demand guarantees that immigrants will work productively. Meanwhile, the labor force participation rate has been in decline since the beginning of the century, meaning there are more and more Americans every day whose value we will struggle to describe.
There are other paradigms available. The lower-key approaches to parenting in France and Holland seem appealing; less supervision, less homework, and more sleep supposedly mean fewer tantrums and happier kids. But those practices are of a piece with shorter European workweeks, mandated vacations, and generous support for new parents. Americans work 25 percent more than Europeans, according to some studies, and take far fewer vacations.
Policies don’t exist in a vacuum; they need cultural support. We can start by changing our metaphors for meritorious human activities like parenting, education, and marriage. A single word—whether it’s “sacrifice,” “privilege” or anything else—isn’t enough to capture something as complex as motherhood. But at least we can introduce a few alternatives: vocation and avocation, role and duty, service and contribution.
But we need to do more than expand our vocabulary; we need to reconsider our values and priorities as a society. We should support generous social policies for parents and children not because what they do is work, but because health, education, and time for caretaking—even time for sunbathing at the beach—helps them, and ultimately the rest of us, to flourish. That’s what our society should truly be working toward.
More than 130,000 Americans died in World War II, but MSNBC host Joe Scarborough wants us to look on the bright side: The suffering wrought by the war helped build character, which is sadly lacking among young people today. Linking to an American Conservative blog post on high schoolers’ and millennials’ smartphone use, titled “Deforming Teens’ Moral Imagination,” Scarborough tweeted:
Scarborough has never never served in the military, but many young people today do. In fact, Americans continue to die in the country’s longest conflict ever, in Afghanistan, now in its fifteenth year. Framing war as a character-building exercise also whitewashes the enormous damage it does to survivors and civilians alike. World War II was a necessary evil, but in an ideal world all young people would enjoy peaceful lives, whether playing video games or doing anything else.
Scarborough’s imbecilic tweets are merely an extreme example of an argument that’s gaining salience among centrists and moderate Republicans: Kids today are lazy, socially isolated, and immature. This complaint is as old as it is tired, but has a particular salience today as the U.S. population ages—and its politicians do, too.
“Smartphones and social media are creating a society where people are radically atomized, and do not know how to interact with other people—not even their families,” American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher declared in the piece Scarborough linked to. Dreher’s post, in turn, linked to a much-discussed article in The Atlantic’s September issue that poses a characteristically hyperbolic question, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The author, Jean Twenge, argues that people born between 1995 and 2012 are consumed by smartphone use and social media, and even “more vulnerable than Millennials”: more depressed, more suicide-prone, and more likely to stay home alone than hang out with friends or date.
Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a former university president, fretted recently in The New York Times that the hard physical labor he did as a farm boy was no longer the norm. “The time our students didn’t spend in school was mostly spent consuming: products, media and entertainment, especially entertainment,” he wrote. “Another thing I noticed was an unnerving passivity. When I saw students doing their campus jobs, they seemed to have a tough time. Over and over, faculty members and administrators noted how their students’ limited experience with hard work made them oddly fuzzy-headed when facing real-world problems rather than classroom tests.”
Complaints about technology leading to the moral degradation of the young are a venerable genre, perhaps as old as human innovation itself. The current moral panic over the smartphone echoes the anxieties of earlier generations about novelties like the bicycle, the landline phone, the automobile, television, and the personal computer. It’s a truism of civilizational history that old people love to whine about the young.
Yet the current wave of youth-bashing, while it borrows tropes from the past, is defined by the politics of the moment. It is telling that Scarborough, Dreher, and Sasse are all Never Trump conservatives, while the Atlantic is a centrist magazine that offers a friendly venue to conservatives unhappy with the Republican Party orthodoxy (David Frum is a senior editor). Among these complaints about smartphones and lazy young people we can see a new conservative politics forming that eschews President Donald Trump’s red-meat cultural politics, with its attacks on immigrants and people of color, and focuses on millennials and their successors.
For conservatives trying to carve out a niche apart from Trumpism, millennial-bashing has many attractive features. Over the last decade, a significant generation gap has opened up in American politics: The young are more socially and economically liberal than their parents or grandparents. “Beginning in 2004, when older millennials first became eligible to vote, the political divide between older and younger voters vote has widened,” Wired magazine reported in December. “That trend continued this year: Exit polls showed 55 percent of voters 18 to 29 supported Clinton, while just 45 percent of voters 65 and over did the same.”
The 2016 election showed the limits of the demographics-is-destiny argument; Clinton lost partly because she didn’t excite young voters in the way Barack Obama did. But a politician who could excite the young more than Clinton, as Bernie Sanders did last year, would present Republicans with a formidable challenge.
The natural response to this generational polarization would be to try to appeal more to the young. But the millennial-bashing of Scarborough and company suggests an alternative, one that parallels Trump’s doubling-down on the white vote in 2016. Instead of trying to win over the young, Republicans could consolidate support among the old. Mocking the young as shiftless layabouts who text all the time would further polarize the electorate along generational lines, and might earn the GOP even broader support among Baby Boomers than it currently enjoys. Indeed, it’s a move that might win over the minority of older voters who are Democrats, since complaints about these kids today transcend ideological lines.
Scorning young people has an obvious appeal to conservative voters, since it’s rooted in nostalgia. But it could also serve a broader psychological function, justifying a status quo in which the young are shut out of power. As Americans live longer, the political class is getting older, too. Donald Trump is 71, and many of his potential rivals (Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden) are also senior citizens. As Harold Pollock notes at Vox, “In the [Senate] as a whole, 23 senators are at least 70. Seven are 80 or older.... Five of the nine [Supreme Court] justices are older than 67, three are 78 or older, and several have serious age-related health problems.” Millennial-bashing is a way to justify the continued rule of the young by the old.
Scarborough is 54, Dreher is 50, Sasse is 45. None are elderly—or even Boomers, depending on where you draw the line. But in their polemics, these men are aligning themselves with the gerontocracy against the young. It’s a curious decision, for the pre-millennial generations have much to answer for politically. Over the last two decades, they gave us the Iraq war, the 2008 financial meltdown, a hotter planet, and the Trump presidency. This, perhaps, is the deepest reason why Scarborough and his ilk are so eager to kick the young. Deep down, these figures who have allied themselves with the Boomer generation know that their legacy is littered with policy failures. But rather than take responsibility for this, they’ve decided to blame the ills of the world on the rising generations. Bashing the young is, at bottom, a classic case of projection.
When a story like the Google diversity debacle unfolds, it comes in waves. It is like being six years old in the ocean and never getting a chance to stand up fully before the next breaker knocks you over and blasts seawater up your nose. First came Google’s dismal internal diversity report, published June 29 alongside the announcement that the company had hired Danielle Brown as Vice President of Diversity. Then came the buzz about how dismal those stats really were: a 31 percent/69 percent gender split in favor of men, and a 56 percent white workforce. Then came employee James Damore’s internal memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” decrying the very principle of gender equality. Then the memo became public, and then its author was fired.
Everything about this rollercoaster has been predictable, because actions have consequences. And just as things that go up must come down, people on the right are mad that Damore has been given the boot. In a statement, Danielle Brown described Damore’s internal memo as “incorrect.” Rich Lowry at National Review responded that her argument “would have been much stronger if she had actually rebutted any of the author’s statements about sex differences—assuming that she could.” Damore is on his way to conservative martyrdom, another victim of the leftist-feminist dogma that squishes free speech under its women-loving heel.
But Brown doesn’t have to engage with Damore’s arguments. His memo contained a bunch of “red-pill” nonsense about biological differences between men and women. The gender gap, according to Damore, may not be all down to “implicit (unconscious) and explicit biases,” as Google’s leadership claimed in its diversity report. Instead, he wrote, “On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways.” These biological differences—which are the product of evolutionary psychology, that most legitimate of all sciences—lead men to enjoy coding more than women.
Arguments that cite innate biological differences between the minds of men and women are incorrect, and they’re not an acceptable part of a public discourse about gender. Misogynists feed each other this stuff online because it makes them feel like righteous victims of feminism instead of privileged people who have to make concessions if we are to make progress towards equality. Taking Damore’s claims seriously would have done nothing more than make Brown look stupid. As Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s note to employees succinctly put it, “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”
Whether or not Damore’s views should have led to his firing is a different matter. He violated Google’s code of conduct pretty explicitly. But then again, people believe all kinds of poisonously crazy stuff, like vaccines causing autism, without being fired.
The conversation around Damore’s firing elegantly articulates a paradox around labor protections in America, and the way that our political conversation is not up to the task of addressing it. Conservatives who support Damore’s beliefs are outraged by his dismissal. However, the natural recourse for allegedly unfair dismissals would be to contact a union or draw upon another form of labor protection, and to insist that practices like at-will employment contracts, which allow employers to dismiss a worker for any reason, come to an end. It is very tempting for those of us on the left to say to Damore’s lamenting allies: Oh, now you want a union?
American conservatives have worked tirelessly to provide companies like Google with the freedom to do whatever they like to their workers. In 28 American states, a worker can be fired for being gay or transgender. The notion that management’s political whims can allow them to discriminate against workers freely is at the core of the contemporary American conservative ideology.
It’s not even clear that labor protections would have helped Damore keep his job. By circulating his views in a memo he committed a corporate act as an employee, giving Google just cause, rather than expressing a mere opinion in the office cafeteria. But this distinction is not for pundits to figure out. A company that extends fair rights to its workers and empowers them to exercise those rights should have a robust, transparent system in place for that. What’s more, a company with true commitment to diversity and gender equality in its workforce is much less likely to produce employees ridden by (biased) views like James Damore. Damore and his memo are products of a workplace ideology that doesn’t correct for prejudice.
And so this little knot of nonsense represents a perfect conceptual stalemate. The traditional left and right positions on hiring, paying, and firing your workers simply cannot gel into a conversation here. Both sides want workers to be protected, but only for entirely different reasons. America is a toddler trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, getting redder and redder in the face but, also, nowhere.
But when paradoxes are articulated in elegant ways, as in the case of James Damore and the mythical Female Brain Syndrome, opportunities arise. What if we used James Damore as a catalyst for conversations that cut through old oppositions? As mega-corporations like Google occupy an ever more intimate role in our lives, the space for individual freedom must be strengthened, whether it is through labor protections, the fostering of a more tolerant corporate culture, or some combination of the two. That should be an American agenda, not a leftist one.
When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ came out in 2004, there was much talk of the blood. The violence done to the hero’s body by his torturers seemed gratuitous. It was as if the camera wanted to lick his wounds. But as Roger Ebert observed in his review of that movie, Gibson’s film provided “a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of.” Violence is at the core of the Passion story, and so it is at the core of the movie adaptation: For many Christians, the physical torment undergone by Christ has a very important spiritual dimension. Then again, David Edelstein called it a snuff movie.
For similar reasons, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit has garnered multiple accusations of indulging in “torture porn.” Detroit is set during the 12th Street riot of 1967, focusing on an episode that historians commonly call the Algiers Motel Incident. Responding to what they thought was the sound of sniper fire—it was in fact the report of a starter pistol—white police raided the motel’s annex building. Three young black men died by the night’s end, and nine other people were terrorized by racist cops. The victims Aubrey Pollard, Carl Cooper, and Fred Temple were all teenagers.
“Torture porn” is an odd phrase, since it implies that somebody is getting off on something. That’s not quite the case here; the violence in Detroit is gratuitous simply because there is so much of it and it is so profoundly repugnant. We see a group of mostly young black men beaten and in some cases murdered by a few deranged white cops who have them essentially caught in a deathtrap. We see teenage boys on screen, representing teenage boys who died in real life, begging for their lives and receiving bullets point-blank anyway. It made me puke and it made me dizzy.
Like The Passion of the Christ, Detroit’s violence is its constitutive feature and the aspect of the movie that leaves the longest-lasting impression upon its audience. Unlike the Passion of the Christ, however, it is not clear for whom Detroit’s violence is intended.
The movie is filmed in ways that strongly echo Bigelow’s war movies of recent years, while calling back to an entire career obsessed with the moment of human death. Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography in Detroit shakes, the way it shook The Hurt Locker. It’s not the flutter of found footage-style movie-making, but instead a handheld technique that stutters the way that an exhausted but tensed muscle shakes. It works in very strange counterpoint to the hands and limbs and eyelids that tremble throughout Detroit.
As the brutalized civilians are made to line up against the wall with their hands against it, their fingers quiver like birds. Blood smears. When the character Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is arrested and thrown in the pen his whole body seems to dance. During the ordeal itself, Dismukes, a local security guard, acts as a sort of protective observer, a calm and quiet presence. But once on the cops’ turf, and under threat of unjust charges, the twitching becomes uncontrollable.
In a third melodic line around motion and space, Detroit is mostly set in an extraordinarily confined area: one hallway in the motel’s annex, and the rooms that surround it. Shaking camera; quivering bodies; one hallway. The overall effect is to make a viewer feel nauseatingly trapped. It feels like being in a room with death itself.
Detroit is not Bigelow’s first movie about racist violence by white cops. That would be the science fiction flick Strange Days (1995), a huge box office failure. In that movie, characters record so-called SQUID files from their cerebral cortex: essentially mini-movies of their memories, played out as point-of-view shots in the film.
Two LAPD cops kill a politicized rapper named Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer). Only a SQUID disc recorded by a sex worker named Iris reveals the cover-up of his death. In an extraordinary allusion to the footage of Rodney King’s beating, we see a woman’s memory of Jeriko One’s death, firsthand. Then, as she flees the scene, we see her running for her life. She’s on her knees, she dodges a train, she hyperventilates.
Bigelow’s movies take us so close to death that we are almost inside it. This is what is so disturbing about her films. It’s not the camerawork—it’s looking at a person lose hope for his own survival. It feels like watching Peeping Tom (1960), the movie that shows a murderer skewering his victims with a blade attached to his camera. You get to stare into the victim’s eyes as she realizes that she’s going to die.
Having made two films in two very different registers about racist police violence, it is fair to applaud Bigelow for her commitment to engaging in political conversations through filmmaking. Her two other recent movies, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, were also intimate political works: One followed a bomb disposal expert in Iraq, while the other depicted the hunt for and killing of Osama Bin Laden.
But the problem of Detroit is that it uses phenomenal rather than systemic violence as its core. The whole life that cop led up to and after the motel night was facilitated and nurtured by white supremacy. And the opening sequence of Detroit is a gorgeous animation based on Jacob Lawrence’s paintings of the Great Migration, overlaid with text describing in broad strokes the realities of racism in the North. But the majority of this movie takes place inside a single building. We see a maniac torture his victims. It is much too easy to ascribe the white cop’s crimes to his personal psychopathology.
The persistent and sickening violence of Detroit could work as a powerful purgative, a corrective medicine for deprogramming those who doubt the reality of police brutality. But what if you are not such a person? You do not need to see the bullet to know that racist cops kill. You do not need to see a man die to know that death is frightening.
In a Politico op-ed late last month, Jeff Flake, the pseudo-apostate Republican senator from Arizona, warned that his party was in “denial” about President Donald Trump. Conservatives, he wrote, “have maintained an unnerving silence as instability has ensued,” adding that this “unnerving silence in the face of an erratic executive branch is an abdication, and those in positions of leadership bear particular responsibility.” The press ate it up. “Flake makes waves with Trump takedown,” Politico declared days later. The Los Angeles Times called him the “one Republican willing to take on President Trump and his party’s ‘denial.’”
It is very unlikely that Flake particularly cares about winning plaudits from the establishment press or the left—not when his political career depends first and foremost on winning the GOP nomination in his own reelection campaign next year. But his reemergence as a vocal Trump critic, amid the collapse of his party’s legislative agenda, points to an awareness on his part that the president will be a drag on him and other similarly situated Republicans in general elections outside of throbbing-red Trump country.
There is nothing novel about down-ballot politicians attempting to distance themselves from their parties’ standard bearers, especially with hollow criticism. What makes Flake’s rendition unique is the irreducible nature of his criticisms. He isn’t calling out Trump for milquetoast sins like losing touch with the working class, or setting his legislative priorities in the wrong order. His recent broadsides against the administration more closely resemble establishment conservative efforts to expel Trump from Republican politics during the presidential primary than it does typical party frustrations with an unpopular president.
Considering Flake’s near-complete unwillingness to save himself or his party from what he describes as a serious threat, his half-hearted rebellion is a microcosm of the crisis that awaits Republicans if the Trump presidency collapses terminally. They won’t be left asking themselves, as Democrats are today, where they and the party went wrong, but explaining why they made a Faustian bargain with a known villain at unacceptable cost for the rest of us.
Flake’s recent trip off the reservation is doubly coincidental, timed as it is for the release of his new book, Conscience of a Conservative. But it is very hard to imagine Flake going about this rebranding exercise if Trump had been a capable steward of the GOP agenda or had managed to conduct himself less dishonorably–and thus enjoyed favorability numbers higher than the mid-30s.
But Trump has debased everyone who’s tolerated his corruption, indecency and ineptitude even briefly—such that they can’t really attempt to draw a contrast without looking ridiculous.
“I wish that we as a party would have stood up, for example, when the birtherism thing was going on,” Flake lamented on Meet the Press this past Sunday. “A lot of people did stand up, but not enough. That was particularly ugly.”
When host Chuck Todd asked Flake if he’d done enough to stop the scourge of that particular racist conspiracy theory, Flake calibrated his answer as an implicit confession that he hadn’t been a perfect role model, but had at least taken a hard line against the birthers.
“On that I think I did.”
An amusingly cursory review of the record underscores just how deep the Republican Party’s complicity with the ugliest aspects of Trumpism actually runs.
Just last month, Flake voted along with every single Senate Republican to confirm John Bush, a man who published birther screeds online, as a federal judge. On Monday, the Republican National Committee announced it had hired the pro-Trump apparatchik Kayleigh McEnany, who also flirted with birtherism, as a party spokesperson. Flake has not objected.
The limits of Flake’s complaints were similarly apparent last year. During the presidential race, he persisted in criticizing Trump even after Trump won the party’s nomination, and claimed to be considering a third-party vote.
Flake never revealed how he voted. And he also never told the country Trump deserved to be defeated, or that Hillary Clinton would make a far better president than Trump, despite keen awareness that Trump was a racist whose victory, however unlikely, would be immensely destabilizing.
Flake now professes alarm about Trump’s “affection for strongmen and authoritarians,” yet has done next to nothing with his extraordinary power—including a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee—to stop Trump from presiding over a pro-authoritarian administration.
Only a handful of Republicans can boast of having taken meaningful action to contain Trump. That may be changing now that it’s too late. Nearly all of them convinced themselves to hope for the best if Trump won, without expecting or preparing for the worst. They made their peace with a president they, like Flake, knew wasn’t good enough for America, which leaves them enormously exposed if the very things they agreed to overlook destroy his presidency and plunge the country into bitter chaos.
Back in January, after Donald Trump had nominated Steven Mnuchin as treasury secretary, I uncovered a leaked document from the California attorney general’s office that showed OneWest Bank repeatedly broke foreclosure laws under Mnuchin’s six-year reign as CEO and then chairman. Prosecutors in the state’s Justice Department wanted to file a civil enforcement action against the company for “widespread misconduct,” but the attorney general at the time, Kamala Harris, overrode the recommendation and declined to prosecute. She never gave a reason.
Months later, this revelation has been granted new life, wielded as a political weapon by those who oppose Harris’s possible presidential run—most prominently in Ryan Cooper’s column in The Week about why “leftists don’t trust Kamala Harris.” My report either confirms impressions of Harris as an ambitious sellout, or is breezily dismissed by her defenders as “propaganda” or even subtle racism. Though my story was published before Harris was seated as a senator, and was mostly about how OneWest Bank skirted the law in a rush to kick people out of their homes, it has become a flashpoint in the civil war over the Democrats’ future.
Missing in all of this are the victims of OneWest’s policies. Politicians and partisans only manage to care about the millions of families who saw their lives ruined over the past decade when they can be used as props against political enemies. The lack of accountability for the criminal enterprise in our nation’s boardrooms goes well beyond Harris and continues to this very day. But when actual issues sit on the periphery of our political debates, these problems will never get fixed.
Let’s recognize that no public official in this country, from Barack Obama on down, covered themselves in glory during the foreclosure crisis; to say that Harris failed to prosecute bankers is simply to say that she was a public official with authority over financial services fraud in the Obama era.
From the late Bush years through most of Obama’s presidency, at least 9.3 million American families lost their properties, whether to foreclosure or forced sale. The original sin of faulty loan originations, inflated appraisals, doctored underwriting, and improper placement into subprime loans led to fraudulent misconduct in securitization, loan servicing, loan modifications, and foreclosures, with millions of faked and forged documents used as evidence for the final indignity of eviction. There’s not a single step of the mortgage process that wasn’t suffused with illegal fraud during the housing bubble and its collapse.
The crisis resulted in a punishing recession and countless destroyed lives, not to mention what has been credibly described as an “extinction event” for the black and Latino middle class. Yet from New York to California, Arizona to Florida, Washington state to Washington, D.C., the political class and law enforcement elite responded largely with indifference. Powerful bankers with armies of lawyers were allowed to get away with the crime of the century (thus far).
Just look at the actual charge the Consumer Law Section wanted Harris to file in the OneWest case: a civil enforcement action. Though he was OneWest’s chairman, Mnuchin was never at risk of indictment or conviction. At best, California would have extracted a decent-sized fine from the company—paid for by shareholders—and guarantees meant to deter further law-breaking; it’s possible that Mnuchin, his reputation sullied, would not have ended up in charge of federal banking policy. This watered-down version of public accountability was seen as the best possible outcome, and Harris didn’t even go for that.
This doesn’t make her particularly special. Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer took hiatuses from their careers as corporate lawyers to join Obama’s Justice Department and ensure light punishment for financial abuses. Tom Miller, the attorney general of Iowa, ran the 50-state investigation of foreclosure fraud, which investigated nothing and moved directly to a weak settlement that delivered 90 percent less relief for homeowners than promised. Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, sold out supporters by agreeing to that settlement, saving it from the brink of collapse. He co-chaired a so-called “task force” on bank crimes that did nothing but ink more toothless settlements and proudly proclaim fake headline numbers about fines from behind a podium.
In other words, if you were to rank the performance of law enforcement officials during this period, everyone would be tied for last. They all deserve criticism for their inability to hold the perpetrators of the biggest incidence of consumer fraud in American history to account. They all displayed shocking cowardice and let down millions of vulnerable people, when they had reams of documentary evidence revealing the crime, enough to extract much more justice and far better outcomes for the victimized. They all ushered in the two-tiered system of justice that sapped people’s faith in democracy and at least partially led to the rise of Donald Trump.
There are plenty of reasons why bank executives avoided the fate they suffered in the late 1980s, when in the wake of the savings and loan crisis over 1,000 executives were convicted. But if we want to indulge in a litmus test over corporate crime, we don’t have to wait for the next wave of abuse to occur.
Every day in America, somebody gets tossed out of a home based on false documents. Their elected officials surely know this; if I get a steady stream of letters from people with consistent stories about mortgage fraud, then senators and congressmen surely do as well. So instead of debating who was “tough” on corporate criminals and who wasn’t—since no one was—we should implore these would-be leaders to speak the hell up about the perversion of justice happening every day in courtrooms and foreclosure auctions across the country.
Senator Harris represents California, where the unconscionable treatment of foreclosure victims continues to terrorize families. Senator Cory Booker styles himself a leader in New Jersey, home to the highest foreclosure rate in the nation. The last time Senator Bernie Sanders said a word about foreclosures was when he was trying to win a primary election in hard-hit Nevada. There are activist groups all over Massachusetts fighting foreclosures that could use some high-profile support from Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Homeowner victims have spent the past decade largely invisible from public debate. The only time their plight gets highlighted is when somebody has an axe to grind against a particular public official. Only then do homeowners get trotted out for sympathy, as if the country didn’t ignore them for years. This is the problem with a politics of personality, which is consumed more with doling out praise and blame for high-profile politicians than demanding justice for broad social problems. It’s time the left put the issues back at the center of public debate.
In 1970, while I was a student at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New
York, I moved away from campus and into an old farmhouse outside
of town. It took about fifteen minutes to get there, a longer drive in
bad weather, which Ithaca had plenty of, freezing winters and heavy
snows. The area was rural, country roads laid out in perfect mile
grids. It was dairy-farming country, some farms to my eyes appearing prosperous, others worn down, others abandoned.
I shared the farmhouse with a lumpy collection of people. I had known only one of them, a guy in my Romantic Poetry class. The others turned out to be my classmate’s sister, her excitable artist boyfriend with messianic tendencies, and an orange-haired guy who lived in a room off the back of the kitchen, whom I never got to know. A couple of others came and went, staying on the sofa in the otherwise empty living room. We didn’t exactly share the house. We took to putting our initials on the eggs in the fridge.
The house, on Halseyville Road, had occasional hot water and no heat to speak of. My room was upstairs, in an attic under a dormer roof. A small window overlooked the road, where there wasn’t much traffic. On clear nights, I could hear car wheels whispering on the macadam from miles away.
It was by no means a rural idyll. During the winter, farm dogs would run off and pack up, and no sane person strayed far from the house. Our landlord had leased the surrounding acres to a nearby farmer, and an evening of sitting in the field to commune with a sunset could quickly turn into the experience of seeing a plow crest over the hill heading for you, its rotating disks chewing up the earth.
The area was sparsely populated. We had rural mail delivery, boxes at the end of the road, and several households had to share a phone number. This was called a party line, which was an antique even then. You knew the call was for your house by the number of rings. But since we were unused to the whole idea, anyone near the phone picked it up automatically, which made us supremely disliked in the neighborhood. A usual response from a fellow party-er was “Hang up, you darned hippies.” Making a call involved waiting for the party currently on the line to hang up, which led to all sorts of angry interchanges.
And there was always the suspicion that someone was listening in, and the endless temptation to do the same yourself. I have always been an eavesdropper; I gave in to temptation. I heard gossip about unknown people, but mostly it was just husbands and wives reminding each other to run errands.
One of the people I sometimes heard on the line was a woman with a soft voice and a British accent. Unlike our other shared parties, she was always polite, saying things like “Oh, if it is not too much bother, may I ask you if I may use the phone in ten minutes?” I learned very little about her by listening in, except that they probably didn’t have much money: We paid according to our time on the phone, and her calls were always practical, quick, under a minute.
One morning, as we were finishing breakfast, there came a knock on the door. It was unusual—a shock, really, since no one ever had to knock. If there was a key to the house, I never knew about it. So someone called out “Who is it?” and in reply came a woman’s voice with a British accent saying, “Hallo, hallo. I am your neighbor from across and down the road.” I knew her at once as the woman from the party line. I felt a moment of panic over perhaps being discovered, and then, knowing I would never be caught unless I turned myself in, I yielded to the curiosity of seeing her in the flesh.
I was closest to the door and opened it. There stood a woman
with peppered gray hair tied into a messy bun. She seemed to be in
her fifties. She had on layers of well-worn men’s sweaters, stretched
out, hanging, one over another, the last one a cardigan.
She put out her hand and introduced herself (I’ll call her Mrs. Richard). I waved her in. We told her our names, and as she looked from one of us to another she said, “I know others in this area do not think kindly about your being here, but, well, a neighbor is a neighbor.”
We offered her tea, coffee, juice (which must have been the property of the guy in the back room), but she declined everything, saying she just wanted to “pop in.” She relayed the simple directions to get to the dirt road that led up to their farm and said, “Please feel free to visit us anytime.” She demurred (perfectly Britishly) our further offers for her to join us at the table, then wished us goodbye and left .
I didn’t hear a car. She must have come the half-mile on foot. “How weird!” said the sister.
“Oh wow,” said her brother.
Artist Boyfriend stood over the table, pronouncing in transcendent tones what a singular moment that had been.
I thought the visit was strange. Although there was nothing overt in it but kindness, there was also something of desperation. From overhearing her quick phone calls, and seeing the pile of old sweaters over her thin shoulders, I understood I’d just had my first real look at rural poverty.
Sometime later, we at our farmhouse got involved in the Richards’ life. The Richards never asked for
it, we never intended it, yet so it happened.
I think it must have begun in the early spring, after the evening when Mrs. Richard brought us a stainless-steel cylinder of milk just barely out of the udder. It had not been pasteurized, had not been homogenized. It was warm, frothy, rich, nutty, suffused with subtle flavors I could not name—clover? I knew I had just tasted milk as our ancestors had known it.
Mrs. Richard liked to tell the story of how she and her husband had come to live on Halseyville Road. Her husband had been a merchant seaman, she said, and when he retired, they affxed an anchor to the front bumper of their pickup and told themselves they would settle down wherever it fell off. It seemed an unlikely story. Did the anchor really fall off a half-mile down the road? Had that particular farm been for sale? Yet we listened and smiled as she told the tale multiple times. I could see it added a sense of glamour to their lives, of happy serendipity, of which they had very little.
It turned out that the family’s current situation was fairly dire. Their original farmhouse had burned down, and they were living in a converted outbuilding. It housed Mr. and Mrs. Richard, their ten-year-old son, and Mr. Richard’s mother, who occupied the only room that might have qualified as a true bedroom, where she lay slowly dying. Mr. Richard looked to be sixty but was probably ten years younger. He was cranky and pinch-faced, and it was hard to imagine he had ever been a lighthearted man. Their son was what was then called slow. It soon became clear that the boy would not be able to run the farm, and everything would fall to the weary Mr. Richard.
Soon we at the farmhouse were picking up items for them in town to save them the trips. As spring came on, we helped with the yearly thorough-clean of the house and barn. And as the summer ended, we joined the family in gathering the hay bales from the fields, then daisy-chaining them up into the loft of the barn.
Earlier in the summer, I had found myself driving a tractor to pull a hay rake, which turns the cut grass to help it dry. After a row or two, I somehow managed to clog the rake with wet hay. Mr. Richard arrived with a machete to hack away the tangle, all the while muttering, cursing, never turning up his creased face to look at me.
I was twenty years old then, and I still walked blindly from one experience to the next. Having had enough of the cold water and the crazy artist boyfriend, I left the farmhouse and moved into a cheap studio in Collegetown. I lost any connection with the Richards. I would see them again, months later, but not until I had become involved with a media group called the Ithaca Video Project.
The Ithaca Video Project was the conception of Philip Mallory Jones, then a graduate student at Cornell. What bound us together was our desire to get our hands on the newly released Sony Portapak. You could describe it as a small piece of gear for making videos. But that does not begin to describe a machine that effected a change in the culture. Its introduction was one of those technology-driven moments that ruptured an established order of society, or so we believed—and rightly, I think.
We worked on a grant proposal, and, miraculously, received ten thousand dollars from the New York State Council on the Arts. That was a fortune in 1971, enough to buy us a Portapak (for fifteen hundred dollars—eight thousand in today’s dollars), an editing deck (yet more expensive), tapes, cables, accessories, all we needed to get to work.
Making videos before that moment involved equipment that cost tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. What you could see on a television, that screen that beamed culture into homes across the world, was controlled by broadcasters and large corporate advertisers. Portapaks were expensive for an individual, but groups across the country were buying them through grants and collective funding. That small machine offered the opportunity to break the hold of the corporate controllers, a chance to redefine what one could see on a TV screen. What seems obvious now, video recording machines in the hands of the millions, began with the retail sales of a mass- produced media machine called the Portapak.
Here was the glory of it: One single person could make a video. People could have media-making machines in their own hands. No one could tell them what to produce or show to others. They were freed from the tyranny of censors. There were no limits on politics, on the arts, on porn. Indeed, a certain Frenchman smuggled in from Morocco a video of the fugitive Black Panthers Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver. He also brought some porn. The action would be tame by current standards, but we in the Project, and others around town, enjoyed it with great gusto.
Film requires expertise, but anyone handed a Portapak learned how to use it within minutes. The reel-to-reel recording deck came in a leather case with a strap, and it was light enough to sling over your own shoulder and carry for a while (even over my shoulder, and I weighed 110 pounds). The camera had a zoom lens with a mike on the top. You could zoom in and out as you wished. The machine did the exposures automatically. It even operated in low light. You could record political meetings held in dim rooms, people smoking cigarettes and dope and talking about revolution, the low-light exposure producing a peppering haze of black-and-white grain, adding to the sense of subterfuge, as in an underground movie. Protest, activism, art, guerrilla television—all was made possible by the coming of the Portapak.
I learned I had no fear of machines. I liked carrying coils of cables on my shoulder; it made me feel tough and cool. I enjoyed unrolling and snaking cables across a room: video out from the deck, video in to the screen; video out from that screen, video in to the next; etc. I liked pushing the buttons on the editing deck, rolling the tape back and forth to find the exact spot, cutting the tape at an angle and joining it to the next spot, cleanly, with dexterity, so the edit didn’t make a pop when the finished video played. I went off to a video workshop at Creighton University, in Omaha, which turned out to be a hotbed of art video. For my attempt, I pointed a camera at the screen of an oscilloscope and manipulated the sine waves, colorized the images, recorded my own voice, and added a deep echo. I had glorious fun.
Just up the road from the farmhouse on Halseyville Road, in the tidy town of Trumansburg, was the studio of Robert A. Moog, inventor of the music synthesizer, the first new musical instrument created since the saxophone. I remember going to Moog’s studio with someone from the Video Project. There were keyboards in mahogany-wood cases topped with stacks of electronic metal boxes, all with dials controlling the electronics—wave form, amplitude, frequency; the sustain of the notes—and others I had no idea of. The synthesizers were half fine piano, half basement electronics.
Just when the Project received its Portapak, in 1971, Moog released the Minimoog, a cousin to our machine, one that was portable and could be operated by one musician. Portable visual media, a portable new musical instrument; drugs, video, electronic music, media up for wild grabs: This was the charged atmosphere that surrounded us.
Among the works we produced was a video of a desperate addict shooting up, then showing it around town in the hope of dispelling any glamour that anyone might ascribe to heroin. We made one about the Onondaga Indians fighting to prevent the city of Syracuse from building a road through their land; it was shown to the New York State Assembly. On the local cable, then called Community Antenna, I did a piece trying (inevitably failing) to interpret visually a poem by the great A. R. Ammons, who lived in Ithaca and was later the recipient of a National Book Award. Phil did animations. We did photography. We held small classes on how to use the machine; I gave one for women. We were aware of being distantly related to Nam June Paik, the creator of video art, who was redefining the TV screen as an artist’s canvas, and to all the others experimenting with the medium, taking back control over that electronic eye that looked into every home, a change rippling through the culture. If this sounds like the coming of the personal computer and the internet— the machines in your hands, the heady dream of technology changing the world—it was.
But the best tape I worked on, I think, was a video about the Richards and the coming of the bulk tank.
In the four months since I had last seen the Richards, their situation had gone from dire to desperate. The local milk cooperative, the organization that sold the farmers’ milk into the marketplace, had decided it would no longer pick up the milk in the traditional cans. It would buy the milk only if a farmer installed what was called a bulk tank, which was what it sounded like, a big tank filled with the farmers’ milk production. The cooperative would then come around and pump it out.
The tank was expensive, tens of thousands of dollars. The Richards didn’t have the money and could not afford the debt. The coming of the tank affected not only their farm, but any small farm depending upon the collective. A farm had to have enough cows to fill the tank to a decent level—60, as I remember, double the number of cows on the Richards’ farm.
Bulk-tank collection was surely more efficient that picking up individual cans. Consumers might benefit from the lower costs of production. It was technology at what it does best: standardize and homogenize and monetize, create efficiencies in sales and markets and distribution chains.
It was also technology at its worst. The coming of the bulk tank was another of those ruptures in society. Yet this one did not widen the scope of individual freedoms. The tank would effectively drive the small family dairy farm out of existence.
One morning, Tod and I drove out to Halseyville Road to make a video about the Richards and their situation in the face of the bulk tank. Tod, with his billowing blond hair, was at the camera (and very ably), while Mrs. Richard and I walked around the farm, and I engaged her in conversation.
It was a bright early-spring day, and the light and shadows gave the stubble of the fields a bright sheen. In one particularly lovely moment, Mrs. Richard opened the barn door and the cows came galumphing out. “Oh, I love when they prance like that!” she called out. After a pause she added, “Well, of course it’s bad for the milk.”
She spoke of the bulk tank, the effect it would have on their farm. And the images of shining fields and happy cows fell into the emotional background. Near the end of our recording, Mrs. Richard stood on a rise, saying nothing for several seconds. When she rested her chin in the palm of her hand, looked out toward the fields, and said, “Oh, sometimes it is all so ... hard.”
Tod had kept the camera on her as the pause went on for long seconds. I said nothing, to let the silence continue. Then Tod slowly panned the camera in the direction of Mrs. Richard’s gaze and gently zoomed out. There was Mrs. Richard, still standing chin in hand, as the farm and its fields and its barn surrounded her in the frame.
We showed the video around as widely as we could, even at a meeting of the farmers who were part of the collective. The meeting hall was a small room with a rough wooden floor. The showing was sparsely attended. The stern-faced farmers were impassive; they asked no questions afterward. We were culturally suspect creatures, hippies from the college, renting on the cheap the houses of failed farms. What did we know of their lives?
In the end, the result was what one might have expected. The milk collective prevailed; their big disruptive machine trumped our little Portapak; we were powerless to prevent the coming of the bulk tank.
Ahead was the coming of the Mac and the PC, databases, networks, then the network of networks, the internet; soon the machine dreams, the belief that technology would change the world for the better. Then the corporations’ moves to control the net; the coming of commercial surveillance; the internet as a vast advertising-sales mechanism, a global retailer. Finally, the Edward Snowden revelations, when the populace finally understood that the United States government was spying on its own citizens and those around the globe—the internet as vast surveillance machine.
Through it all, I embraced the new technologies as they emerged but looked at them with a gimlet eye. I could not succumb to believing in the ultimate goodness of technology; something kept me from the dizzy addiction. I was not surprised to find out the worst of what had happened to the internet.
As I began to recall the story of the Richards, I understood what indeed had held me back, kept me skeptical, wary, even afraid of what technology could do. The bulk tank; the bulk collection of records. The end of the small family farm; the end of privacy. The cautionary tale about technology had come from my knowing the Richards, and their desperation, and the folly of my youthful, dumb belief that our small machine could help them change their lives.
This piece is excerpted from Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux) by Ellen Ullman, out August 8.
“A powerful figure looms behind Marx’s hunter, fisherman, shepherd, and critic,” Michael Walzer wrote in 1968, “the busy citizen attending his endless meetings.”
“Life,” he predicted of socialism, “will become a succession of meetings.”
Walzer, a longtime editor of the legacy socialist organ Dissent, was riffing on Marx’s description of day-to-day life in a leftist utopia. It is also an apt way to describe the Democratic Socialists of America’s convention held this past weekend in Chicago, the first since the group’s membership exploded into the tens of thousands following Donald Trump’s election.
As it builds on this momentum, there are several big questions facing DSA. What is its relationship to the Democratic Party? Should central leadership serve as administrators or ideological tone-setters? And how can its membership—which skews white and male—come to represent an increasingly diverse country?
Though discussed, none of these questions were resolved this weekend. What was clear, though, is that a new generation of American leftists is as committed to a new kind of democratic engagement as it is to socialist ideas.
Coverage of socialism’s resurgence has tended to focus on generational and ideological divides, and the fact that young people are voting in droves for old leftists like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Intellectually, the bedrock faith in capitalism as the global economy’s organizing principle has rarely been so shaky. But fledgling activists on the left are as excited to actually practice politics as they are to talk about politics. They want a movement that can organize, that is willing to engage in civil disobedience to stop Trump’s agenda, and that wants to field socialists for elected office. Because it offers the opportunity to do all three, many see DSA as a natural alternative to both Trump and establishment Democrats.
“As a bottom-up democratic organization, our members all want to have a voice in everything that happens. We want to foster that,” said Maria Svart, DSA’s national director. “We’re really working together to make sure there’s comradely debate.”
The result of a 35-year old merger between the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New America Movement (NAM), DSA existed for years in relative obscurity before Bernie Sanders’s 2016 bid for the Democratic nomination as a democratic socialist. Following Hillary Clinton’s concession to Trump in the early hours of November 9, membership shot up almost instantly, earning the group write-ups in publications ranging from Vox to Rolling Stone.
Yet despite DSA’s heightened profile, there were no big-name speakers or cocktail parties aimed at courting big donors at the convention—a near inverse of the Democratic National Convention’s pomp and circumstance last summer. The bulk of the agenda was devoted instead to deciding the group’s leadership, structure, and political priorities. This was accomplished via hours-long, Robert’s Rules-structured discussions between well over 700 elected delegates from around the country, who voted on scores of motions and resolutions drafted in the last months. Punctuating debates were caucus meetings and regional break-outs, plus meetings and parties outside the convention schedule.
“I woke up at 6 AM this morning and didn’t go to bed until 2 AM,” said Cathy Garcia, a delegate from DSA Santa Fe with a background in the labor movement. “And I feel pumped. I have only had one cup of coffee, because it’s not the coffee that is energizing me right now.”
Garcia joined in December after feeling frustrated with other leftist groups, which she said “weren’t like my union. It was just a lot of talking and having great ideas, believing things that I believe. But belief isn’t enough for me. You can’t just have a good idea. You have to execute that idea and make it viable. You have to mobilize. You have to organize.” Garcia added, “Reading a newspaper does not put people more money in people’s pockets.”
Veterans of the organization have been blown away by the enthusiasm now coursing through DSA. “What I see here is this real hunger for democracy,” Maxine Phillips told me. “People feel like their choices and their opinions weren’t paid any attention to in the election.” Phillips has been involved with DSA in one way or another for 40 years, first as DSOC staff, then as DSA’s national director, then as an editor of Dissent, a publication with deep ties to the organization. She retired from the magazine in 2013, and now edits the DSA newsletter, “Democratic Left.”
Phillips noted that the group experienced a steep decline in the Reagan years, leading many to question its future. “My feeling was that we were keeping the flame here, and when the time comes again we would be there. Now it’s set up to take in new people and to take advantage of the energy,” she told the New Republic.
Phillips says there’s “a lot more distrust” of the Democratic Party now than when she first got involved. Even so, votes this weekend showed a sense of pragmatism when it came to approaching a party that has enjoyed a near-hegemony over liberal politics in this country.
Chicago City Councilman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa—one of DSA’s few elected officials—advised an ecumenical approach to party politics. “The Democratic Party is not a monolith. It’s a label,” Ramirez-Rosa, 28, told the crowd at a side event Thursday night. “It’s not a membership organization like the DSA. It is a label that under state and local law has been given preference in getting access to ballot lines. It is also the preferred ballot line of a vast majority of people that prefer things like single payer and a fifteen dollar minimum wage.”
Delegates, meanwhile, resolved to prioritize putting electoral resources into bids for office by DSA activists and open socialists. A measure that would have seen DSA try to draft Sanders into a third-party presidential run was defeated handily, as was another to transform DSA into a political party and break formally with the Democrats. DSA’s priority now appears to be winning elections that can advance socialism, using whatever ballot lines will make victory the most likely.
Another priority for DSA is broadening its membership. Though eager to expand the gender and racial diversity of DSA, members are quick to reject the media narrative that 21st century socialism is a white man’s (or Bernie Bro’s) game. “That’s a narrative that is crafted by folks that don’t really know DSA,” Garcia told me. “If that’s what they see it’s because they’re choosing to see it and choosing to ignore someone like me, who is out here front and center in elected leadership. I don’t like being dismissed as a token.”
Still, few organizers hold illusions about either the current demographic realities of DSA or the historic disconnect between the white left—of which DSA has long been a part—and communities of color. Bianca Cunningham, chair of New York City’s DSA labor branch, joined DSA two years ago, and at the time was one of very few people of color in the organization. When membership spiked post-election, she noticed that the group was attracting an inordinate number of new recruits fitting a certain profile: white, male, and downwardly mobile.
“People were coming into the meetings and expressing discomfort about being in white-only spaces,” Cunningham noted. In response, she started convening regular Afro-socialist happy hours for both DSA members and other leftists of color in New York. “They grew and got really popular,” she told me. “People say that it’s made the difference as to whether they stay in DSA.”
Thus emerged the to form a national Afro-socialist caucus, an attempt to systematize the more informal structure established in New York. It would set aside national space and resources for people of color in DSA to plan how the organization approaches a wide range of racial justice work. The same motion also voiced strong support for reparations—as outlined in the Black Youth Project 100’s —and passed without controversy.
Like nearly everyone else I spoke with, Cunningham saw maintaining momentum as the biggest challenge for the organization moving forward. If the mantra that all politics is local is to be believed, then it is especially true under the Trump administration. Hope for transformative change at the federal level has been all but forsaken until 2018 or later. Campaigns for DSA and the left more generally—and the very hope of keeping hope alive—will shift increasingly to states and cities.
Given DSA’s modest size, it might also be the level at which the group is best suited to contest for power. Indeed, it already has, with the election of the DSA-backed candidate khalid kamau in South Fulton, Georgia, and ongoing campaigns in Seattle, New York City, and Minneapolis.
Whether future DSA-backed candidates run as Democrats or not, the group’s most recent convention shows that the divide between Democratic Party leadership and those to their left is about much more than the policies and ideologies each camp supports. DSA was able to absorb so many disaffected Democrats after November for a simple reason: It’s more directly democratic.
Millennials especially, who now make up a majority of DSA’s membership, might have fewer experiences with direct democracy than any other American generation in recent memory. Unions have been decimated, meaning today’s young people are far less likely than their parents to have participated in union elections or passed resolutions through their locals or internationals. As a result of labor’s decline, workplaces themselves are less democratic, too. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has in many cases handed the keys for steering strategy and policy over to political consultants and corporate donors. Congress is notoriously dysfunctional, and regressive state governments are making it harder for voters to get to the polls.
Having come of age in the wreckage of the financial crisis, millennials’ drift toward socialist politics makes sense. That they’re hungry to experience a responsive, democratic process should come as no surprise, either.
“The trouble with Socialism,” Oscar Wilde once joked, “is that it takes too many evenings.” For DSA members, that may not be a bad thing.
Late last month, the interests of President Donald Trump aligned neatly with the interests of the Washington press corps. A chaotic White House was in search of order, and restless journalists were in search of a new political narrative. Enter John F. Kelly, a retired general and former secretary of Homeland Security, whom Trump tapped as his new chief of staff. Almost immediately, media reports celebrated Kelly as the man who could finally “bring order to a chaotic and unruly White House,” as Bloomberg put it. It’s a story best told in two New York Times headlines, less than a week apart: “John Kelly, New Chief of Staff, Is Seen as Beacon of Discipline” and “John Kelly Quickly Moves to Impose Military Discipline on White House.”
Referred to simply as “General,” Kelly reportedly brought military rigor to Trump’s team in a matter of days. One of his first moves was to fire Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s boastful, indiscreet, and foul-mouthed communications director. Kelly has also imposed a strict chain of command so that everyone in the White House, aside from the president, has to answer to him. “After one week, other signs of Mr. Kelly’s taking the reins include the end of the unchecked flow of paperwork that crosses the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, and a new, more formal process for meeting with the president,” The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. “The new rules extend to Mr. Trump’s family. Son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump, who serve as official advisers in the White House and have their own staffs, now report to Mr. Kelly instead of directly to the president, as does chief strategist Steve Bannon.”
Prominent Trump ally Newt Gingrich claimed a “sense of relief” came over the White House last week, a feeling shared even by many of Trump’s political opponents, who fear that an anarchic administration could hurt the country. But the hope bestowed upon Kelly is misplaced. While Kelly might run a tighter ship than his predecessor, Reince Priebus, he still faces the same insolvable problem: how to impose order when the chief agent of chaos is the president himself.
The tumult in the White House isn’t a product of Trump’s inexperience with politics; it’s long been his preferred way of running things. As a real estate boss, Trump cultivated teams of rivals to compete for his approval, not unlike his reality TV show The Apprentice. This approach also defined Trump’s entire campaign for president, and now his presidency. Such factionalism hasn’t stopped under Kelly—and perhaps even has intensified, as Bannon’s allies wage a whisper campaign against national security advisor H.R. McMaster, who is derided by the Breitbart crowd as a “globalist.”
International relations scholar David Rothkopf on Friday compared the strife in the Trump White House to the palace intrigues of a monarchy, a situation impossible to reconcile with the bureaucratic order Kelly aspires to. “The Trump White House differs from those of the past because sometimes, with daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner as the president’s true primus inter pares advisers, it often more resembles a royal court than the pinnacle of a democracy,” Rothkopf argued in the Financial Times. “It is hard to impose a hierarchic military perspective on those who float above the system by virtue of birth. In addition, Mr Trump spends much of his time out of the White House in Trump resorts on the golf course where his behaviour is harder to control.”
Donald Trump might act like a spoiled teenager, but he is an independent adult. In practical terms, how can Kelly prevent Ivanka Trump and Kushner—or other family members and longtime Trump associates—from bending Trump’s ear over dinner or a game of golf? How can Kelly prevent Trump from watching Fox News or reading the Drudge Report, where the president will find stories planted by the Bannon wing and designed to push his buttons? The fact is, there is little Kelly or any other chaperone can do to limit Trump’s media access, whom he talks to, and what he tweets. “It wouldn’t work to try to isolate President Trump,” former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani told the Journal. “He would rebel against that. General Kelly has to balance on the one hand an orderly process, and on the other hand an orderly process that doesn’t in any way isolate the president.” Giuliani is, of course, one of the many cronies that Trump chats with, and there’s little reason to believe Kelly can change that.
So far, Kelly hasn’t even been able to exert control over Trump’s tweeting. Bloomberg reported Sunday that “Trump has shown a willingness to consult with his chief of staff before hitting ‘send’ on certain missives that might cause an international uproar or lead to unwelcome distractions,” but the president “has made it clear ... that he reserves the right to ignore advice on tweets.” And Politico reported Friday that Kelly knows “he cannot stop the president from tweeting and ... has privately conceded there will be late-night or early-morning missives he cannot review.” That’s exactly what happened on Monday morning, when Trump was his usual self: watching cable news, and raging about it on Twitter.
“Donald Trump learned about political infighting on The Apprentice, where his management technique was to provoke fights between the different candidates and teams, and then decide who prevails by saying ‘You’re fired!’” Robert Bear, a former Middle East case officer for the CIA, recently told Politico. “I don’t see him changing that style in the White House. When was the last time you saw a 70-year-old man change for the better?”
Trump is now 71, in fact. Even the most agreeable septuagenarian men don’t change, let alone someone like Trump, whose character has long been defined by orneriness. He chafes at rules and likes to test limits, always looking to see what he can get away with. As Kelly tries to rein him in, Trump is certain to buck and resist all the more. The General can implement all the rules and structures he likes, but there will be no order in the White House of Chaos so long as Trump is the commander-in-chief.
Each Monday, the New Republic staff will discuss the newest episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which is in its seventh and penultimate season. Join us as we chat about the latest plot developments, dragon fire, and brotherly love.
Ryu Spaeth: One of the central questions of this season is whether the show’s heroes—or the characters we have come to root for, anyway—are fit to rule. In a crucial scene in “The Spoils of War,” Jon Snow warns Daenerys Targaryen against using her dragons in warfare, saying, “If you use them to melt castles and burn cities, you’re not different. You’re just more of the same.” Dany responds with what might have been the most epic “you know nothing, Jon Snow” of the entire series, riding Drogon into battle to incinerate the Lannister army in the field. Meanwhile, Arya Stark returns to Winterfell, but a chill is cast over what should be a joyous reunion with her sister and brother, and it’s not only because Bran/Not Bran is lost in the multiverse. Sansa discovers that Arya has become a cold-blooded killer in the intervening years, her understandable desire for revenge quickened by an almost wolf-like thirst for blood. Should we be worried?
Sarah Jones: I think Daenerys split the difference. She initially wanted to attack the Red Keep, and restricted herself to attacking a military target after talking to Jon Snow. Nevertheless, the brutality of it clearly disturbed Tyrion and it’s something she’ll have to reckon with in later episodes. Furthermore, it’s still not clear if she’s actually good at anything other than riding dragons into battle. Even though that was extremely impressive. And cathartic.
Meanwhile, Sansa emerged as the sanest member of the Stark household. She seems alternately pleased and repelled by Arya’s abilities, but considering her ongoing evolution into the clearest-eyed leader among them, it seems likely that she will find a way to use Arya to the Starks’ advantage. Littlefinger should be worried. And it looks like he is, with both Arya and Bran unnerving him.
Ryu Spaeth: Lest there be confusion, watching a dragon light Lannisters up was very good. We can only hope Ed Sheeran was among them. I admit, though, that I feared for the lives of Bronn and Jaime, which I guess means I am not quite prepared to see them go.
Clio Chang: The most satisfying part of the episode was definitely seeing that scorpion, a.k.a. the large adult son of a crossbow, get burned up. Still, it landed a solid hit on Drogon, which may mean they’re setting us up for a dragon death by scorpion later in the series.
One of the things that bothered me most about this episode was that the chemistry was missing. Arya and Sansa’s reunion was supposed to be huge, but the writers played it much too cautious. I understand that they are both changed people, but they are actually more on the same page now than when they were children (e.g., they both finally agree that Joffrey is NOT cute). And the possibility of a Jon-Dany romance comes via the Onion Knight elbowing Jon in the ribs and singing, “K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” After years of buildup, the delivery on the relationships has been disappointing.
Except for Jaime and New Dickon’s budding friendship. Jaime and New Dickon for life!
Emily Atkin: Honestly, I really loved that amid all this talk of war and the future of human existence, everyone in Dragonstone is still gossiping about banging. That wide-eyed, “Giiirl, spill the deets” look on Dany’s face after Missandei said “many things” happened between her and Grey Worm was the most relatable moment of the season.
And as the resident climate reporter I’ve gotta bring this up: The White Walker/global warming metaphors are getting out of control. Last week we had Tyrion’s almost-too-obvious musing about the existential threat the White Walkers represent: “People’s minds aren’t made for problems that large.” This week, we had Jon taking Dany into the cave and showing her the data to prove the threat’s existence. Ancient cave drawings, in this case, are the equivalent of peer-reviewed historical temperature data. (Deniers, of course, will say that Jon fudged the data—he just went in there and drew all those pictures before Dany came in! Biggest. Hoax. Ever!)
Ryu Spaeth: There were two times in this episode when Tyrion’s commitment to Dany’s cause was called into question. One was when Dany half-accused Tyrion, an apparently inept military commander, of destroying her army to help the Lannisters. The other was when Tyrion himself very much wanted his brother to flee the scene of battle to save himself, instead of making a wild (and kind of glorious) charge at Dany while she was tending to the big arrow stuck in Drogon’s shoulder. What do we make of that?
Sarah Jones: It was inevitable. Tyrion’s hatred for his family always centered on Cersei and Tywin, and Tywin is already dead, thanks to Tyrion. There’s not much further for him to take his vendetta. But I don’t see him betraying Daenerys. He knows that means death by dragon, and I also think he genuinely believes in her cause.
Clio Chang: Yeah, the test of Tyrion’s loyalty was always going to come down to Jaime (and vice versa). This scene set the table—it’s now clear that the question isn’t whether or not a betrayal will happen, but who will do the betraying. If it comes down to it, will Tyrion kill the only family member that has ever loved him? (Probably not.) Will Jaime finally realize that the good of the kingdom is worth more than a blow job from his sister? (A little more likely.)
Emily Atkin: It would be very fitting if the fate of the Seven Kingdoms came down to one wealthy white man’s ability to resist a blow job.
Sarah Jones: I think Jaime’s going to turn against Cersei. You can already see the wheels in motion; Olenna Tyrell’s blows landed. And while he might be hopelessly in love, he’s not totally delusional, and he’s never been as cruel as Cersei. (This is where I admit that Jaime is my problematic fave.) My theory has long been that he’s going to be the one to kill Cersei and I’m sticking to it.
Emily Atkin: I, too, think Jaime is starting to rethink his blind love for Cersei. Why else would he attempt such a blatantly suicidal charge at Dany? At this point, it’s easier for him to die valiantly than it is to grapple with the idea that the woman he loves would be content ruling over a kingdom of ashes.
Ryu Spaeth: One other option, considering Arya’s lethal ways with that needle of a sword (I absolutely thought she was going to kill those two clueless Winterfell guards), is that she could be the assassin who does Cersei in? And while Sansa was a little disturbed by Arya’s prowess, Brienne seemed straight-up impressed.
Sarah Jones: I desperately want a spin-off starring Brienne and Arya. They are made to be BFFs. Give the people what they want! That said, I do think it stretches belief a bit that Arya is apparently Brienne’s equal. But this is probably an absurd thing to say about an episode that featured dragons lighting people on fire.
Emily Atkin: It was certainly a delight to see little Arya dunking on big bird Brienne. But it was also a display of the unique combination of training Arya has received since leaving Winterfell. From Syrio Forell, to the Hound, to the Waif and Jaqen H’ghar—I don’t think anyone is more uniquely suited to assassinate than Arya. Perhaps that’s why Sansa looks so disturbed. She’s never seen this from anyone, much less her little sister.
Clio Chang: I think Arya’s future is more likely to lay up North, especially now that she has Littlefinger’s Valyrian dagger. You don’t give someone Valyrian steel this late in the game and not expect them to wreck some White Walkers with it.
In November, 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen made an unusual discovery: He’d taken a glass vacuum tube, through which he’d run a high voltage currency, and covered it in black cardboard so none of its light could escape—and yet, when he turned off the lights to his lab, he found a paper plate coated with barium six feet away from the tube glowing. Röntgen didn’t immediately understand what was happening, so he tried different experiments, before finally, on December 22, he put his wife Anna’s hand in the path of the tube, with a photographic plate set up behind it. When he developed the photograph, it revealed her bones and her wedding ring, but none of the rest of her hand. When Röntgen showed his wife the world’s first X-ray, she screamed, “I am seeing my own death!”
Wilhelm and Anna were among the lucky ones. Because of Anna’s initial fright, Wilhelm took precautions to minimize his exposure to these strange new rays, and both lived well into their seventies. But as Röntgen’s technology spread (he refused to patent it), it quickly became ubiquitous as both a medical technology and an entertainment. In May of 1896, Thomas Edison set up a display at the National Electric Light Association exhibit in New York City, where visitors could hold their hands under an X-ray and see their bones on a glowing screen. In addition to their obvious medical use and novelty entertainment value, X-rays were touted as having medicinal properties as well: They could restore sight, rejuvenate the body, destroy any and all pathogens.
Certainly, there were reports that the skin exposed to X-rays often burned, or hair fell off, or developed necrotic lesions, but these were mostly ignored. Clarence Dally, a worker at Edison’s lab who tested each and every tube by placing his hands under the beam at full strength, first burned his hands, then had one—and then the other—arm amputated, before dying at the age of 39 in 1904, but this was a one-off. It was over 25 years before it became clear beyond a shadow of a doubt what we now know: that X rays have a powerful ability to disrupt cell tissue at the molecular level, and excessive exposure quickly leads to burns, hair loss, and potentially death. Anna Röntgen wasn’t too far off.
Bob Berman’s Zapped: From Infrared to X-Rays, the Curious Story of Invisible Light, tells the story of Röntgen’s rays, alongside so many other invisible waves we now take for granted. Despite the horrors of early X-ray usage, Berman assures us that “the main takeaway from this book is certainly not that we should be fearful. Rather, my purpose has simply been to open a window onto the enormous universe of omnipresent energies, most of them benign, that fill every moment of our lives.” Perennially curious and fascinated by this invisible world, Berman wants to bring to light these strange photons and wavelengths that went unseen for centuries, giving us insight into how they make and transform our world.
One of Zapped’s strengths is its reminder that so much of science involves fumbling, as it were, in the dark. Röntgen’s story is one of a handful in Zapped that chronicles how an unlikely experimenter discovered a new form of invisible light: infrared, ultraviolet, radio and microwaves, and alpha, beta, and gamma rays. William Herschel, for example, first discovered infrared in one of those great accidental moments. He’d been measuring the temperature output of sunlight from various bands on the color spectrum split by a prism, and had taken a break, leaving his equipment unattended. By the time he returned, the sun had moved enough that his thermometer that had been in the red band of the prism was now in the shadows just outside the red band—and yet, it registered a hotter temperature than any others in the spectrum; it was Herschel’s first clue that there were rays from the sun that were invisible to the naked eye, rays that could cause heat, which he terms “calorific rays” and later became known as infrared.
In addition to offering a history on how these various waves were discovered, Berman gives readers a primer on how each of them work—why, for example, UV rays are harmful to the skin while infrared is not. (UV rays are much smaller, which means they pulse at an exponentially greater frequency, vibrating atoms more energetically and thus having the potential to disrupt cells). Like any good pop science book, along the way Zapped offers an endless series of tidbits, from how GPS works to how a software glitch led to the worst incident of radiation poisoning from a medical device (the notorious Therac-25). Berman explains that the sky is actually violet, but since humans, unlike most other animals, have a more limited capacity to register that end of the spectrum, we see the next most prevalent color in the sky: blue. Meanwhile, because green is in the middle of our color spectrum, we’re far more adept at identifying different shades of it than any other color.
As Berman notes, the first such form of invisible light (infrared) was discovered by Herschel in 1800; the last (gamma rays) by Paul Villard in 1900. An even hundred years encapsulates the entire history of this invisible terrain. But in a far more real sense, it is the twentieth century that was the time of invisible light. It was the twentieth—not the nineteenth—that saw all of the great technological advances made possible by invisible light, such as radio and microwave ovens, remote controls and medical imaging. And it also became familiar with all of the dangers associated with these hidden wavelengths. It was the century that saw increased skin cancer from UV exposure, radiation poisoning, and the disasters of Chernobyl and Hiroshima.
Beyond the physical impacts these waves have had on our bodies, they’ve changed the way we view the world. Invisible waves have changed the scope of the world, bringing us closer through radio and satellite technology, exposing what was once hidden through sonar and radar technology, and they’ve taught us to fear what we can’t see.
They’ve also taught us to rethink the body itself: nothing is quite as an uncanny as seeing one’s own X-ray, and seeing one’s flesh and features obliterated to reveal an anonymous skeleton. By radically reducing the body to nothing more than its bones, X rays dissolved one’s entire identity—a denuding that shocked and scandalized. As Lisa Cartwright explains in her Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture, fin de siècle commentators often expressed a “pervasive cultural anxiety over the X ray’s perceived capacity to dissolve sexual identity by figuratively decomposing the organs and flesh. At stake is the loss of the cultural text inscribed in the skin, the organs,” a loss, she concludes, of “the presence of a surface that conceals living structure, a signifying surface of clothing or skin that can be read for signs of sexual and cultural difference.” It’s not a coincidence that the iconic image associated with X-rays (one often imitated) is of a hand with a wedding band, as though to assert gendered roles in even the most ghostly of photographs.
Berman himself never gets too far into these topics, but they lurk, all the same, just out of sight throughout Zapped. The history of invisible light is ultimately more than simply a history of technological discovery; it opens up news ways of thinking just as it closes others. These discoveries also helped bring to an end The Enlightenment—or at least, one of its central metaphors. For over a century, Enlightenment thinkers had relied on sight as the central metaphor for knowledge (it’s there in the very name of the movement), but what Herschel, Röntgen, and Curie all revealed is that some of the most powerful things on Earth exist beyond sight. Even perfect vision does not know all. In his book Downcast Eyes, Martin Jay notes that by the twentieth century, philosophy (particularly in France) “is in one way or another imbued with a profound suspicion of vision and its hegemonic role in the modern era.” It’s hardly coincidental that an age of invisibility would send its scholars in search of new metaphors for knowing.
Berman’s history ends with the present, where he discusses, among other topics, ESP and cell phone usage. For a science writer, he’s surprisingly bullish about the possibility of ESP. He throws in personal stories of dubious significance. Recounting an anecdote in which he guessed his opponent’s Scrabble play seconds before the word was laid down, Berman claims, improbably, that “Advance perception of such an unlikely event in two different people, at the exact same moment in time, seems too improbable to dismiss as bias selection.” After a few such thin examples, Berman confesses, “I simply cannot fully dismiss the possibility of ESP,” a disappointing admission from a science writer—precisely because he admits that such an effect cannot be duplicated in laboratory settings, and thus resorts to needlessly privileging anecdotal evidence over anything approaching science.
At the same time, he’s dismissive of fears that widespread cell phone use may cause harm. It’s true, nearly all of the available science on the matter agrees that we have yet to see any measurable health effects from cell phone use. But it seems odd—in a book detailing not only the harm of X-rays but the fact that this harm was unknown and/or ignored for almost thirty years before being understood—Berman would be so confident about the safety of as-yet-untested technology. The future of invisible light, it appears, remains to be seen.
On the second Saturday in July, more than 1,000 people showed up in a small Southern city to shout down the Ku Klux Klan. That very same afternoon, up North, left-wing counter-protesters chased a band of alt-right Proud Boys out of a public park where they’d tried to rally. It’s been like that throughout this Summer of Hate, fifty years removed from the so-called Summer of Love. Wherever they’ve tried to assemble, both old and new-school white supremacists have found themselves routinely outnumbered, outshouted, out-organized, and out-brawled by the left.
It’s been a long time—almost half a century, in fact—since liberal America has been in a proper street-fighting mood. Peaceful nonviolence and “engaging in dialogue” are approximately as relevant in 2017 as LSD and Jefferson Airplane. And in many ways that’s a glorious thing. Liberal passivity—tolerating intolerance, reasoning with insanity—has unquestionably played a role in the rise of Donald Trump and the new, increasingly dangerous form of white supremacy that he’s inspired. It’s thrilling to meet force with force when the assholes come to town. Hell, it’s thrilling just to read the headlines. “KKK rally in Charlottesville met with throng of protesters” has an undeniably gleeful ring to it, especially when you’re reading it in USA Today.
But there’s a downside, and a dark side, to the way we’re fighting back. By confronting both the various breeds of white supremacists with fury and violence, we’re giving them better media attention and recruitment tools than the worst of the worst could ever hope to muster for themselves.
Charlottesville is a case in point. A largely liberal university town in central Virginia, it has mounted the single most impressive show of resistance in the country. A pitched battle over removing Confederate monuments and renaming Robert E. Lee Park had been raging for years before the city council voted in February to finally rid the city of the statues and rename the park. But even when the dispute was seemingly settled, it wasn’t; the haters wouldn’t let it die. Several dozen white nationalists led by self-promoting, Hitler-saluting dandy Richard Spencer and The Daily Caller’s resident fascist contributor, Jason Kessler, organized a torch-lit procession to the park in May, while the city was holding a multicultural festival nearby—a perfect opportunity for trolling IRL.
The white supremacists gave Pat Buchanesque speeches about the death of Western civilization, and paid symbolic homage to both their Klan forefathers (with the torches) and to Hitler and Fearless Leader Trump, chanting “blood and soil!” and “Russia is our friend.” Kessler tore down a protest sign from the Lee statue and got arrested for disorderly conduct, while the rest of the crew celebrated their triumph. “After the event and a long day of winning, we went back and threw an Alt-Right house party and celebrated our victory,” wrote Wayne Peek at Altright.com. “We sang songs, laughed and most of all just enjoyed the mental high you feel after an incredible win.”
A tiny and largely defunct rural North Carolina chapter of the KKK, the Loyal White Knights, decided to get in on the fun and announced their own “save the statue” hoedown in Charlottesville on July 8. When the day came for these outside agitators to show their faces (and/or hoods), the ragtag band of bearded, wild-eyed white dudes numbered 40 or 50. By and large, this was the usual pathetic bunch of lowlifes from the hollow—whoever was drunk or pissed-off enough that day to put on a costume and come along for the ride and try to spook some liberal snowflakes. (Favorite sign, wielded by one of more official-looking ZZ Top doppelgängers in the crew: “Jews Are Satans Children / Talmud Is a Child Molesters Biblel!” [sic]).
This wasn’t a show of organized menace; it was a public display of the Klan’s profound irrelevance. Even with the spike in racist hate crimes and organized white supremacy we’ve seen in the Trump era, there’s been no KKK resurgence to speak of. A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League found a grand total of 42 Klan groups currently active in 33 states, most claiming fewer than 25 members. Even that small remnant is disorganized, squabbling and fractious; as one Klansmen lamented online, “there is more Imperial Wizards on Facebook then there is at Hogwart’s Academy.”
Only one thing gives the Klan a dollop of relevance and currency: The liberal and left-wing freakout every time they drop an ungrammatical leaflet in people’s yards in the dead of night, and especially whenever they announce a rally. A KKK rally is catnip for the left, and white supremacists—including the better organized, more menacing younger denizens of white nationalism who masquerade as the “alt-right”—know it. You only have to slap Klan or Nazi imagery on a poster announcing an event, or announce it on Facebook, and you’ve immediately sent every liberal and left-winger within shouting distance (which now means the global internet) into a world-class tizzy. They’ll organize to shut down the march, and tie up city council meetings for weeks with demands to revoke the First Amendment privileges of the worst of the worst. They’ll hotly debate the “best” way to respond, or not. Some—most—will naturally want to overwhelm the haters with shame and numbers. Others will want to peacefully counter-organize multicultural festivals and teaching moments. They’ll have the best intentions in the world. And they’ll all be expending a lot of organizing energy, not to mention emotional currency, on very little indeed.
And so the good people of Charlottesville, along with a fair number of masked anti-fascists and anarchists from god knows where, took to the streets on July 8. They drowned out the Klansmen with their own taunts and threats, tried to block them from driving away after the rally, and turned their ire toward the cops for “protecting” the Klan. The Charlottesville Police Department made matters worse, ordering the protesters to disperse in short order, then tear-gassing them in the ensuing chaos. Twenty-three protesters landed in jail. As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie noted in his eyewitness account, “if anyone was in danger, it was the Klan members, not the protesters.”
Counter-organizing against the Klan is a sucker’s game. Name any Klan rally in the last few decades, anywhere in the United States, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a single one that was not grossly overhyped by local (and thus national) media, turned into a community spectacle that leaves the left feuding with each other and battling police over cops’ “peace-keeping” tactics. And the faded remnants of that sad spent force of American Hate go away feeling strangely powerful and relevant, chuckling with delight at how easily the “socialists” can be duped.
We’re getting played. And the alt-right, which has all the momentum and currency that the Klan sorely lacks, understands this well. Every day, they’re scripting new episodes of American Hate Theater, and the left is dutifully playing its supporting role.
If we were only talking about the KKK here, there’d be nothing else to say: Before you organize against a Klan rally, follow the unheeded advice of Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer, who warned residents before the Klan rally in July to not “take the bait—to deny the KKK the confrontation and celebrity they desire.” But when it comes to the new white nationalists, it’s not quite so clear-cut. Despite the hype, the “alt-right” is another small band of squabbling ideologues and thugs, led by wannabes like Spencer and National Socialist Leader Matthew Heimbach, with the same sociopathic tendencies and runaway egos that crippled the old hate groups from within. But they’re also young—and young men in packs are the most dangerous people in America, both in terms of regular crime and hate crimes. And their ranks, unlike the Klan’s, are growing; they’ve been able to muster 200 of their fellow-travelers for public spectacles, and they’re planning to amass in Charlottesville again on Saturday for a “Unite the Right Free Speech Rally” they’ve been advertising for months.
The new white nationalists are not just putting misspelled leaflets on people’s doors in the middle of the night, as the Klan still does, or organizing rallies on the town square. The alt-lite Proud Boys, the brainchild of Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes, is for instance a sort of white-male-supremacist fraternity for overgrown nutjobs who like to doll up in fascist preppy drag and get their kicks infiltrating Black Lives Matter and other social-justice protests, taunting people and starting fights (it’s reputedly an initiation rite to “kick the crap out of an antifa,” or anti-fascist). They’re not alone: National Socialists, Oath Keepers, the whole alphabet soup of testosterone-crazed haters are (within their own considerable limits) better organized and more genuinely threatening than the Kluxers could hope to be. They don’t want to scare and intimidate city folk once in a while, and then crawl back in their hidey-holes. They want to troll and provoke the left non-stop, and they do. They want to recruit alienated young white guys to the cause, and they do. And they’ve learned valuable lessons from the old Klan in how to exaggerate their potency.
One of those lessons came to fruition on the same Saturday in July that KKK counter-protesters took leave of their senses in Charlottesville. In New Haven, Connecticut, the Proud Boys (and other groups, supposedly) had put out word that they’d have a “recruitment” event on the New Haven Green, smack in the middle of town, featuring a speech by Augustus Invictus, another self-glorifying (and goat-blood-drinking) “leader” who publishes The Revolutionary Conservative. They had no permit to protest; if a rally had transpired, it would have been a matter of minutes to call the cops and shut it down.
Instead, social-justice activists spread the word and turned out some 150 counter-protesters to meet a grand total of six Proud Boys who showed up—their speaker never did. (Stuck in traffic, Invictus claimed; it’s brutal in New Haven on a Saturday afternoon!) It became another classic episode of American Hate Theater, captured as always on smartphones by both sides, and by local media. “This is some of the most unproductive shit I’ve ever seen in my life,” one black protester (who says his brother was recently shot by police) tells a white activist:
To put it mildly, the counter-protesters of the nonexistent protest do not come off well in any video of the event. The few Proud Boys who showed up in their Fred Perry shirts and MAGA hats (wondering where the rally was, no doubt) were bombed with paint balloons, threatened, harassed, and in one case kicked around pretty good. The “counter-protesters” were the aggressors—they’d been primed for a fight, for a threat that wouldn’t materialize, and some of them proceeded as though there was one. The police overreacted too—it’s part of the established script—and showed their own stupidity about the state of twenty-first-century hate, blaming the organizers for claiming the Proud Boys were violent white supremacists (which they unquestionably are). “We told them there was no KKK,” said New Haven’s clueless police chief, adding that the Proud Boys were “no white supremacist group” but rather “a white nationalist group”—and thus not a menace to take seriously, apparently.
If the new white nationalists didn’t know it before, now they do: You don’t even have to organize and turn your people out to garner golden publicity and bolster recruitment efforts. Just say you’re showing up, and watch the fireworks.
The impetus to “smash” the haters is hard to deny, and in many ways impossible to argue with. But we’re losing the same street battles that we’re winning. And worse, we’re fighting the wrong fight: Instead of counter-trolling the haters online, in the arena where they’re actually winning converts, the left is organizing to out-taunt, out-number, and physically overwhelm them whenever they come up for daylight. And we’re inadvertently feeding directly into the new white nationalists’ own propaganda.
Spencer and his cohorts claim they’re not haters or aggressors, but rather the last defenders of a dying Western civilization. You’d have to be a gullible moron—or an alienated young white male—to fall for that logic, but America has been known to produce its fair share of gullible morons and alienated young white males.
It’s time for a new tactic. Let the alt-right declare a race war that nobody shows up for. They’re already vastly out-numbered. Surely they can also be outsmarted.
Al Gore is back in the spotlight with his new documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel, making him a top target again of the right-wing counter-intel complex. On Thursday, the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research released a report, “Al Gore’s Inconvenient Reality,” that paints the former vice president as a hypocritical climate advocate. In near-creepy detail, NCPPR author Drew Johnson maps Gore’s home in Nashville, Tennessee, down to the number of windows, and concludes that “Gore’s own home electricity use has hypocritically increased to more than 21 times the national average this past year with no sign of slowing down.” Johnson also slams Gore’s numerous attempts to modernize his home through energy efficiency, solar panels, and geothermal heating, saying they have been inadequate in offsetting his energy use.
“No matter how the numbers are viewed, Al Gore uses vastly more electricity at his home than the average American—a particularly inconvenient truth given his hypocritical calls for all Americans to reduce their home energy use,” Johnson writes. “Al Gore has attained a near-mythical status for his frenzied efforts to propagandize global warming. At the same time, Gore has done little to prove his commitment to the cause in his own life.” The report was a smash hit on the right. In less than 24 hours of its publication, it was picked up by Fox News, The Daily Mail, The Washington Times, The Washington Free Beacon, and The Daily Caller—which, in case there was any doubt about NCPPR’s political motivations, allowed Johnson a guest column so he could declare that “Gore’s hypocritical home energy use and ‘do as I say not as I do’ lifestyle has plunged to embarrassing new depths.”
Gore’s team disputes NCPPR’s claims—just as they did in 2007, when Johnson put out a similar report attacking Gore’s personal energy use following the success of his first documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. “Climate deniers, funded by the fossil fuel industry, continue to wage misleading personal attacks on Al Gore as a way of trying to cast doubt on established climate science and distract attention from the most serious global threat we face,” Gore’s communications director, Betsy McManus, told me in an email. She didn’t dispute Johnson’s claims of Gore’s energy use, rather his assertion that Gore has been ineffective at getting as much of his energy consumption as possible from renewable sources. “Vice President Gore leads a carbon neutral life by purchasing green energy, reducing carbon impacts and offsetting any emissions that cannot be avoided, all within the constraints of an economy that still relies too heavily on dirty fossil fuels,” McManus said.
McManus did not respond to a request for evidence of Gore’s offsets. But let’s set aside the dispute over Gore’s carbon footprint, because the report raises a much bigger question: Should prominent climate advocates be expected to live a carbon-neutral lifestyle? Are they hypocrites if they don’t? Right-wing critics would have you believe so—that these moralizing elitists are making rules for the public that they themselves don’t have to follow. This has a powerful appeal, especially today. But ultimately the argument is deceitful faux-populism, and the real hypocrites here are the purveyors of it.
Gore is hardly the only climate advocate whose personal energy use has been attacked by the right. It’s a familiar, longstanding tactic among conservatives who don’t accept the truth about climate change. Republican pollster and consultant Frank Luntz told me he thinks Rush Limbaugh “started the argument that the Hollywood Left flew their private jets to global warming conferences.” The first reference I could find was in 2006, when the conservative Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Debra Saunders, then writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, bemoaned what she called “Learjet liberals who burn beaucoup fossil fuels in the sky as they soar around the planet fighting global warming.” Fox News host Sean Hannity picked up “Learjet liberals” soon after, using it in numerous segments in 2007 and 2008 and as recently as January.
“Learjet liberals” isn’t as prolific as it used to be, but the underlying argument is. Leonardo DiCaprio has been a frequent target for his use of private jets and yachts. Elon Musk was called out in June for flying in a private jet. Conservative outlets attacked former President Barack Obama in May for attending a climate change conference in a private jet and a 14-car convoy. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson’s segment on this, featuring Ann Coulter, was an orgy of incredulous outrage.
The hypocrisy argument has even traveled beyond conservative circles, and it’s perfectly suited for today’s populist climate. “These multimillionaires are asking us to sacrifice by paying more for energy or using less of it,” Luntz explained. “But while we’re asked to sacrifice, they’re riding and flying in style.” To the average American, Luntz says, this is hypocrisy at its finest, “asking people to give up something while their lifestyle goes unchanged.” Even Donald Trump made this case as a candidate, using it to attack Barack Obama. “You know, he talks about the carbon footprint, OK?” Trump said during a July 2016 campaign speech. “He wants to solve the carbon footprint, but he gets on an old 747 that’s spewing stuff into the air.” (It’s worth noting that Trump’s travel habits are much more ostentatious than Obama’s.)
The claim that Gore and his ilk are hypocrites is a classic conservative attack strategy of redirection (because it ignores the core issue of climate change) and of poisoning the well (because it attempts to discredit the message by discrediting the messenger). This is much easier, and perhaps more rhetorically effective, than debunking climate science itself. That’s why you only see groups like the National Center for Public Policy Research releasing “studies” on Gore’s energy use. NCPPR, which has been funded by oil interests, advocates against policies to fight global warming because it denies that global warming exists. “The world isn’t warming,” the group falsely claimed in a 2014 paper arguing against climate regulations. Thus, it’s in their interest to try to undermine one of the most effective advocates of aggressive climate action.
But the hypocrisy charge simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. An anti-abortion advocate who believes abortion is immoral and should be illegal, but gets one herself, is a hypocrite. But climate change advocates who don’t live a carbon-neutral lifestyle aren’t hypocrites because, for the most part, they’re not asking you to live a carbon-neutral lifestyle. They’re asking governments, utilities, energy companies, and large corporations to increase their use of renewable energy so that you can continue to live your life as you please, without contributing to global warming.
Advocates like Gore certainly have suggested ways individuals can do their part. In 2007, he stated, “The only way to solve this [climate] crisis is for individuals to make changes in their own lives.” But just a year later, he said, “In addition to changing the light bulbs, it is far more important to change the laws and to change the treaty obligations that nations have.” Last month, he said the three best ways are to talk about climate change (which he does), look for environmentally responsible choices when making large purchases (which he does), and support climate-friendly political candidates (which he does). Individual action has never been the focus of his message.
As David Roberts pointed out in Vox last year, the reason climate advocates don’t intensely advocate for personal behavioral changes is that they’re “insignificant to the big picture on climate.” That’s true even for huge energy users. DiCaprio’s emissions “are a fart in the wind when it comes to climate change,” Roberts wrote. “If he vanished tomorrow, and all his emissions with him, the effect on global temperature, even on US emissions, even on film-industry emissions, would be lost in the noise.” And it wouldn’t be hypocrisy, since DiCaprio isn’t asking you to stop flying.
This is not to say that celebrities and other wealthy people should be given carte blanche to consume as much dirty energy as they want. If Gore and DiCaprio and Obama and Musk want to be good advocates of emission reductions, they should do as much as they can to signal that they’re doing their part. But if we’re to take this hypocrisy argument seriously, then every rich person who wants to advocate for climate action must live in the smallest home possible and bike to work and not fly anywhere; they’d have to give all their speeches via Skype, I guess. And unlike Tucker Carlson or Ann Coulter, who almost certainly have above-average carbon footprints, people like Gore are using their wealth for good. “He’s devoted his life to making sure we act in time to avert a global climate crisis,” the climate scientist Michael Mann told me. “The lowering of carbon emissions resulting from his efforts dwarfs whatever his own personal carbon footprint (which I know he is mindful of) might be.”
But the most unfortunate aspect of this argument is how it misleads vulnerable populations. Rich people like Gore and DiCaprio and Obama won’t be affected by climate change. If rising seas threaten their vacation properties, they can just move. And they will always be able to afford air conditioning, no matter how high electricity rates climb. That’s also true of Carlson and Coulter, but the irony is that their working class and rural viewers are likely to be hardest hit by climate change. So as the seas, temperatures, and energy bills rise, and America’s crops begin to fail, the vulnerable will be left screaming “hypocrites!” into the hot air—their cries aimed, too late, at the right.
One of the most revealing things about American politics, and of the journalists who cover it for a living, is the unspoken assumption that Democrats will rescue Republicans, and thus the country, from the reckless way they have treated the statutory debt limit since 2011. If this assumption is correct (and it almost certainly is) then it demonstrates a profound asymmetry between the parties, as well as an awareness on the part of the political media, which often treats the two parties symmetrically, that something is dangerously dysfunctional about one of them.
This conventional wisdom, which I mostly share, will be tested in September, when Congress has to increase the debt limit or plunge the country into an economic crisis.
Though Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Senate, many of them will refuse to increase the debt limit without accompanying policy ransoms, meaning Democrats will be expected to provide the decisive votes. And this is the best-case scenario. Until recently, cabinet officials in Donald Trump’s administration disagreed with one another over whether the president should side with the hostage-takers or the more responsible faction. They are fortunately all on the same page now—
—but we can’t dismiss the possibility that Trump will do something erratic, like refuse to sign any bills until Republicans pass a health care repeal bill. Democrats, in other words, might have to vote not in modest numbers, but in overwhelming ones, to make a clean debt limit increase veto-proof.
In either case, though, I’d like to challenge the unstated supposition that Democrats will and should provide these votes without reciprocation. It would be hypocritical and destabilizing for Democrats to demand policy concessions from Republicans in exchange for their votes, but that doesn’t mean Democrats have to play themselves by voting for whatever kind of debt limit increase Republicans propose.
Once Congress increases the debt limit, a precedent will be established that it is a weapon that Republicans are allowed to brandish against Democrats. It might be unprincipled for Democrats to equalize this double standard by taking the debt limit hostage the way Republicans did during the Obama years, but there’s no principle that says the Democrats must resign themselves to Republican extremism in perpetuity.
Democrats must insist on de-weaponizing the debt limit as a condition of raising it for a Republican president—and ideally do so when Congress returns from August recess, but at the very least before the end of Trump’s first term. In a rational world, Congress would respond to such a reasonable demand by abolishing the debt limit outright, and on a bipartisan basis, but the strange conventions of legislative politics make that outcome extremely unlikely.
Fortunately, there are creative ways around this conundrum.
Democrats can, for instance, demand that Congress turn the debt limit into something the president can increase unilaterally, subject to congressional reversal. Under such a regime, the debt limit would be rendered harmless, unless a president was determined to sabotage himself or a veto-proof majority in Congress decided that, for whatever reason, the debt limit shouldn’t be increased. Raising it would be a formality, occasioned by a bland statement to Congress and impotent grumbling by members of the opposing party.
Failing that, Democrats could insist on a decades-long debt limit increase, in the hope that Congresses well into the future won’t be populated by so many dangerous reactionaries.
One way or another, though, Democrats shouldn’t accept a state of affairs in which the debt limit is an extortion tool that Republicans can wield at them when they’re out of power. But if Democrats quietly help Republicans increase the debt limit as many times as needed to get through this period of Republican rule, that’s exactly what they’ll be submitting to.
On May 16, the day after The Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump had divulged intelligence secrets to two Russian officials in the Oval Office, Sean Hannity devoted much of his show to the murder of 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. Using a report from Fox 5, a Fox News affiliate in Washington, D.C., Hannity relayed the allegation that Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks prior to his death—the suggestion being that Rich was the source of the hacked DNC emails in the 2016 election, not Russian hackers. Hannity would continue to talk about Rich’s murder for the next week. Breitbart and the Drudge Report also led with the Rich story, not the story about Trump.
Then it all fell apart. It took Fox News over a week to retract this baseless story, during which it devoted a significant portion of its primetime hours to disseminating it. The final nail in the coffin of the Seth Rich-WikiLeaks story was driven home earlier this week. NPR’s David Folkenflik reported that private investigator Rod Wheeler—who was prominently quoted in the story–was suing Fox News, Fox News investigative journalist Malia Zimmerman, and GOP financier Ed Butowsky (who hired Wheeler, supposedly on behalf of the Rich family). Wheeler’s lawsuit alleged that Zimmerman and Butowsky had invented his quotes and that, shockingly, Butowsky had discussed the story with White House officials, including Trump, before it was published.
The White House’s involvement is scandalous, but beyond that the Seth Rich story provides a window into how Fox News spreads explosive but flimsy stories. Malia Zimmerman, the reporter accused of fabricating the quotes, has a history of publishing questionable stories for Fox News, which uses them for hours of rabid programming.
Before joining Fox News in 2015, Zimmerman spent two very controversial decades as a conservative-leaning investigative reporter in Hawaii. Zimmerman was well-known for her close relationships with Republican donors and politicians, her selective use of sourcing and documents, and for her pursuit of conspiracy theories. Her relationship with Republican state Senator Sam Slom was particularly problematic. “She would report on him favorably by praising his pro-business conservative stance,” Ian Lind, an investigative reporter based in Hawaii, told me. According to Lind, he would then praise her reporting, and his organization, Small Business Hawaii, would give her awards. “Meanwhile, they were sharing a home and lived together for about a decade,” Lind said.
Since Zimmerman joined Fox News in 2015, Fox News has repeatedly picked up her reporting and used it to legitimize the larger counter-narratives that form Fox News’s fevered worldview. These stories touched on alleged issues like voter fraud, gun confiscation, the Benghazi terrorist attack, the unmasking of Trump transition officials in confidential documents, and the murder of Seth Rich.
In June 2016, shortly after the attack on the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando that killed 49 people, Zimmerman reported that the shooter, Omar Mateen, had been radicalized by an imam and ex-con named Marcus Dwayne Robertson. Citing anonymous law enforcement sources, Zimmerman alleged that Robertson had been “rounded up” in the wake of the attack and that Mateen had been radicalized while attending an online seminary run by Robertson.
But Robertson and Mateen had never met. Furthermore, Robertson had never been “rounded up” by anyone. That didn’t stop Fox News from running with the story—or other outlets, including The Daily Beast, from picking it up—until it was finally debunked. Robertson was forced to defend himself on Greta Van Susteren’s Fox News show On the Record. As reporter David Gauvey Herbert wrote in Quartz, his explanation satisfied Susteren. But the damage was done. Zimmerman’s shadowy unnamed sources—whom Herbert and others have been unable to identify—fingered a man who had nothing to do with the terror attack and upended his life. Robertson lost his job and faced a barrage of death threats, despite having no connection to Mateen.
On November 7, 2016—a day before the presidential election—Zimmerman and Fox reporter Adam Housley published an “explosive charge” on FoxNews.com: that security contractors hired by the State Department provided a security detail made up of “hastily recruited locals with terror ties who helped carry out” the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. They cited multiple unnamed sources.
There were numerous problems with the story, the first being that Fox News had already reported it—in 2012. Information that had come out in the intervening four years had largely put these allegations to bed. The second was that, as Media Matters reported, Zimmerman and Housley’s sourcing was highly questionable. In what forms a pattern in Zimmerman’s work, the lead source was anonymous.
The second source, John Tiegan, was a military contractor at Benghazi, but the account he gave Zimmerman and Housley contradicted the account he gave in his own book, 13 Hours. And the third source came from the Citizens Commission on Benghazi, which Media Matters notes “is staffed by multiple birthers, anti-Muslim activists, and conspiracy theorists.” Between the sourcing and the actual newsworthiness of the claim, it’s clear that this report was published for little reason other than to damage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy on the eve of the election.
These types of flourishes are present in other Zimmerman articles. In 2015 a lawsuit to retrieve confiscated guns in Torrance, California, was used to suggest that the federal government was ramping up similar efforts. The story was given air time on Fox News. In February of this year, Zimmerman reported that California was susceptible to large-scale voter fraud, despite the fact that there’s no evidence that large-scale voter fraud has occurred in the state.
And then there’s the Seth Rich story. That story, which allegedly was based on fabricated quotes and drafted under the watchful eye of the White House, is a perfect example of how Fox News uses objective-seeming investigative reporting to drive bogus or exaggerated narratives. In this case, words were allegedly put into Wheeler’s mouth that he did not say to make the story seem more credible: Despite Fox News’s claims, Wheeler had never seen an FBI report linking Rich to WikiLeaks.
An unnamed “federal investigator who reviewed an FBI report” is cited. Wheeler’s quotes suggest that his investigation uncovered a link between Rich and WikiLeaks and that the link was being covered up by the DNC. “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks,” Wheeler’s first quote read. His second: “My investigation shows someone within the D.C. government, Democratic National Committee, or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward. That is unfortunate. Seth Rich’s murder is unsolved as a result of that.” Butowsky’s belief that such an FBI report exists seems to have come from legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who has been looking into Rich’s death. “I hear gossip,” Hersh told NPR on Monday. “[Butowsky] took two and two and made forty-five out of it.”
That Zimmerman was working closely with Butowsky, a GOP operative and fundraiser, is part of another pattern in her reporting. That the most egregious of her stories all rely on anonymous sources is enormously troubling, since there are plenty of people who would be more than happy to use Zimmerman to plant a kernel of a story that can be blown up into something far more sinister.
Fox News, meanwhile, is happy to use Zimmerman’s reporting to give its stories an illusion of actual journalism. As Herbert wrote in Quartz, the network “frequently uses Zimmerman’s reporting as a sort of feedback loop to establish a patina of credibility to on-air segments.” The larger narrative is the true impetus for the reporting, which gives that narrative credibility, and is then shouted back at Fox News’s audience for several hours in the afternoon and evening. This almost amateurish attempt to gin up stories was bound to be exposed, but it’s surprising it took this long. What’s less surprising? Zimmerman hasn’t stopped reporting for Fox News.
Correction: A previous version of this story identified Zimmerman as a local reporter with a Fox News affiliate. She is a reporter for FoxNews.com. We regret the error.
Sexual abuse in families is not rare. Yet it is almost made invisible by the layers of stigma in which it is wrapped, which are so dense as to be opaque. Consider The Incest Diary, a memoir by an anonymous woman that describes her father’s abuse of her from early childhood through adulthood. The abuse is violent and persistent. She describes his acts upon her child’s body in detail. When I saw this title in the catalog from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I could not understand what it was doing there. FSG is a literary outfit, not the publisher of misery memoirs for the prurient.
Such was my prejudice, and such is the prejudice of a society that thinks the victims of abuse do not quite have the right to their own experiences, including the right to turn them into literature in whatever way they please. The critical reception has demonstrated this assumption amply. In her cruel review in the Telegraph, Allison Pearson wrote that “the reader who would like it best is a pedophile,” because the book describes what pedophiles do to children. In the Times, Dwight Garner wrote, “This book offers more sensation than perspective.” He also called some of the author’s descriptions “porn lingo.”
The crimes committed against the author of The Incest Diary have so wholly shaped her sexuality that she comes to ambivalently enjoy these encounters, and to place the rest of her sexual life in relation to them. She writes about an orgasm she has with her father that is more powerful than any she subsequently experienced in a twelve-year marriage. So yes, she writes about her father’s “big hard cock.” Porn lingo such words may be, but they are the truth about the formative role that the abuse has played in her sexuality. How can one be polite, when what one means is “big hard cock?” Should she not use the word “pussy,” because she’s talking about her dad touching it? And if those words are what it takes to communicate the truth in writing, then what other words can she use?
“When Richard Serra was a boy,” the Diarist writes, “he was standing on the shore and he watched an old ship get launched into the sea.” The sight of “this gargantuan thing” held up by the water is the origin story of Serra’s obsession. “He says he thinks that all of his work might be about that day—about the transfer of mass and heavy things being buoyed up.” The vision of the old ship was a childhood experience that dictated aspects of Serra’s existence—his sight, his perception of shapes, the meaning of space. The Diarist relates. Even when she writes about the love that is mixed into her hate for her father, the author is aware of the shape of the story under her control. “Is this a love story? It’s a creation story,” she writes. “Maybe all of the things I do are about my father raping me before I knew how to read and write.”
The Diarist feels that people will know that she has had sex with her father just by looking at her. As a child, she “was too shy to stick out [her] tongue around other people,” fearing that “they would be able to tell that this tongue had licked a penis.” She was uncomfortable drawings birds, because her “vagina looked like a bird. Like how you draw a bird—an m in the sky, with soft tips, like a McDonald’s m.”
The relationship between art, the Diarist’s vagina, and the sky is a subtle but extraordinary motif in The Incest Diaries. When she was “eight or nine years old,” the father tied her to a chair and “put the knife inside and he cut.” The Diarist’s experience of this violent act approaches the sublime:
I was so uncomfortable and so frightened that it made me light. I floated up out of that bedroom and house. I lived in the sky. I played in the clouds. My body was down in that house, but I was up in the sky. I was the sky. I was endless blue sky when I was tied to the chair when he put the knife inside and cut.
This is not the kind of sublimity that lets a reader lose herself in the immersive detail of narrative. The effect is the opposite: instead of the reader being distracted from their disgust by marvelous details (see: Death in Venice, Lolita), the author disassociates herself from the discomfort, refusing to take the reader with her.
The Diarist uses art as a way to communicate. Her mother knows that the father is having sex with her, but she refuses to acknowledge it. The Diarist writes that the mother’s denial is more hurtful than anything the father did. In response, the Diarist speaks to her mother about violence, wishes to show her violent images. She shows her “pictures of the slain beauties at La Specola, the natural history museum in Florence.” Those beauties have “their innards exposed—intestines and livers and stomachs, hearts, kidneys spilling out of their perfectly made, peeled-open, and glowing wax skin. Their faces are peaceful; they wear pearls; they lie on beds of lace.”
The visual becomes a means of communication, as well as a space of identification for the Diarist, especially when she looks at works from the past. The second part of the book describes her time living in Chile and a man she loves there. She likes to look at his “art books.” She looks at “the carnivals in Ensor, the contorted pink and yellow faces, his fat pope, the death mask.” She looks at “the breastfeeding Byzantine virgin with her long, stretched-out nipple between her baby’s lips.” She looks at beautiful images of Saint John the Baptist, she looks at “Fede Galizia’s cherries, her pears, figs, rabbit, sliced-open melon. Piet Mondrian’s sharp and pure country drawings. Morandi’s bottles and vases and jars.”
These passages stand in stark contrast to the Diarist’s descriptions of the abuse at home, which are spare and unsparing. Her descriptions are simple and almost resistant to imagination. She refuses to buy grapeseed oil “because it had the word rape in it.” She describes her sexual relationship with a man named Carl in harrowing language. “The fact that my father raped me makes him want me more.” Her father had tied her up and put her in the closet. So Carl tied her up and put her in the closet. “He let me out and face-fucked me. How could I not love the man who set me free?”
There are three main genres of abuse-writing. There is the autobiographical account—the so-called misery memoir of A Child Called “It.” Then there is the high literary abuse novel by an established author like Nabokov or Mann. These books are part of the broader literary genre of sexual transgression, the home of writers like Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, his partner in idiom the Marquis de Sade, Algernon Charles Swinburne, D. H. Lawrence, and so on. This genre is totally dominated by men. The third category covers the salacious, hacky books, such as The Flowers in the Attic.
The Incest Diary does not fit into any of these categories. Instead, it belongs to the tradition of intensely autobiographical women’s literature, or women’s life-writing, of the kind brought into the mainstream this century by Maggie Nelson. The Diarist sees herself as such a writer through a metaphor. Her father pulls a “blanket with a hole” over her, a blanket that is embarrassing because it does not fully do its job. He cloaks her in that layer of secrecy and stigma—“All of me was to be hidden”—but shames the part of her that shows through. She makes of it a “confessional blanket. I’m talking through the hole in the blanket and all you can see is my mouth.”
As a symbol of a woman’s anonymous authorship, the blanket with a hole is appropriately degrading. This book is no more than a broken thing, a gap in the covering of nakedness. And so the degradation of the Diarist’s language, which has so appalled her newspaper critics, comes to represent a kind of nakedness in communication. When a person tries to use language to describe the experience of being fucked by her father who stinks of white wine under a blanket that does not even cover her, what parts of herself and what parts of speech can be adequate to the task? She remembers “the embarrassing and sexy feeling” of her nipple showing through it. She puts her eye to the hole, to see; her mouth, to speak.
Both in content and in context, the official transcripts of Donald Trump’s January phone calls with Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto—which were leaked to The Washington Post and published Thursday—depict a president whose very presence in high office is destabilizing, and whose continued service constitutes a dangerous crisis.
We learn, in intimate and excruciating detail, the ways the president’s mental limitations make basic requirements of the job (such as understanding what allied leaders are talking about) impossible for him. We see not for the first time that Trump will lie about anything, even when he knows, or should know, that foreign governments can produce evidence of his deceit.
The most immediate effect of the disclosures, though, wasn’t to recenter the national political debate on the question of Trump’s obvious unfitness for his job, but to prompt a separate debate over the propriety of the leak.
“Leaking the transcript of a presidential call to a foreign leader is unprecedented, shocking, and dangerous,” argued The Atlantic’s David Frum. “It is vitally important that a president be able to speak confidentially—and perhaps even more important that foreign leaders understand that they can reply in confidence.”
National leaders should indeed need to be able to trust that their discussions with one another will remain secure. But we are far from the point where foreign leaders assume transcripts of their calls with Trump, let alone future presidents, will end up on the front pages. Many have been quick to assume that this leak will have a chilling effect on U.S. relations with other countries, without stopping to ponder the likelihood that some foreign leaders might be relieved to learn that factions within the U.S. government are taking extraordinary steps to weaken this particular president.
If there are norms worth fretting over here, they aren’t the ones that govern whistleblowing, but the ones that should govern what U.S. political leaders do when the president is too incompetent to serve. It is because of their cowardice—their refusal to uphold norms they were elected and appointed to guard—that these transcripts leaked in the first place.
Since the conversations with Turnbull and Nieto first took place, Trump has been through one national security advisor, one chief of staff, one FBI director, two communications directors, and a press secretary.
His complete failure to grow into the job has allowed multiple power centers to emerge and vie for ascendency within the administration. It has impelled other institutional actors to essentially expropriate from Trump governing tasks that should be his exclusively. In some cases, as when he gave military leaders a free hand in fighting terrorism, he has willingly parted with these obligations. In others, as when Congress wrested discretion over Russian sanctions away from him, he has been layered over reluctantly.
But the most alarming development is the one that ironically has official Washington the most relieved: the emergence of a trio of military officers (two retired, one actively serving) as de facto caretakers of the presidency.
It is perfectly consistent to say that the growing clout of generals John Kelly (the White House chief of staff), H.R. McMaster (the national security advisor), and Jim Mattis (the defense secretary) is preferable to an alternative in which Trump shambles through his presidency unencumbered, but also dangerous in its own right, and evidence of serious institutional failure. The hope is apparently to keep Trump’s administration within certain guardrails, so that if and when it fails, he doesn’t take the country and the world off the road with him.
To that end, this trio has met with some modest success.
Kelly has—in his brief tenure, and for now at least—managed to impose more control over the flow of aides, information, and other forms of presidential influence in and out of the Oval Office better than his predecessor, Reince Priebus, ever could.
McMaster has, after months of setbacks, successfully removed two corrosive figures from the National Security Council—both holdovers from the abbreviated Michael Flynn era.
Where the generals haven’t been empowered to run the show, they have asserted themselves nonetheless. “In the earliest weeks of Trump’s presidency,” the Associated Press reported Tuesday, Mattis and Kelly agreed “that one of them should remain in the United States at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House.”
It would be sensationalizing things to call this a soft coup, but it is impossible to deny that real presidential powers have been diluted or usurped. Elected officials have decided that leaving the functioning of the government to unelected military officers is politically preferable to invoking constitutional remedies that would require them to vote.
When a president can no longer serve faithfully, there are means available to Congress and the cabinet, through the impeachment power and section four of the 25th Amendment, to remove him.
Pushing Trump out of office would be a politically destabilizing event in its own right, perhaps more acutely so than handing the reins of government over to a cadre of generals and hoping for the best. But the processes are legitimate, and were created for precisely the kind of situation that confronts us today. It is often said that impeachment is a political process, but it is also a normative one. Or at least, it should be the norm that elected officials step in to protect the public from a president who is lawless and befuddled—even when the president happens to be from the same party.
If you fear the creep of autocracy or the crisis of absentee leadership in Trump’s White House, then the truly troubling thing isn’t that government officials, current and former, are sounding the alarm. It’s that the people who have the power to end these crises are leaving us all at risk by placing their faith in generals and looking the other way.