In their desperation to salvage the American Health Care Act, House Republicans adopted a provision that would allow states to waive Affordable Care Act rules prohibiting insurers from price-gouging sick people and selling plans that don’t cover basic benefits like hospitalization, doctors visits, and maternity care.
By addressing the objections of its most conservative members, they solved a political problem within the House GOP conference but created a new political problem with the broader public, which overwhelmingly believes insurance companies shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions.
House Republicans have tried to address this political problem, in turn, by lying about it outright. “People will be better off, with pre-existing conditions, under our plan,” House Speaker Paul Ryan insisted last month. President Donald Trump said these protections would be “guaranteed.”
Republicans knew this was untrue when they passed the bill, and we know they knew it was untrue, because they hustled it to a floor vote before the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office had a chance to publish an analysis of its impact on health insurance coverage.
That impact analysis arrived on Wednesday. On a top-line level, it finds the effects of the updated AHCA would be broadly similar to the original draft of the legislation—14 million would lose their insurance right away and, relative to the Obamacare baseline, 23 million fewer people would be insured after 10 years. But now the CBO notes that many of those uninsured would be sick people driven out of the markets by price discrimination.
Fully one-sixth of the population, CBO analysts conclude, live in states that would likely waive essential health benefits and pre-existing protection rules. In these states, they believe healthy people would voluntarily opt in to underwritten plans, which take into account a patient’s medical history, leaving the pooled-risk market filled with high-risk consumers, and thus unstable.
“Because many healthy individuals would be able to obtain plans with underwritten premiums as long as they remained healthy, CBO and JCT anticipate that less healthy people or those with preexisting medical conditions would opt for community-rated premiums and that those premiums would rise over time,” the report states. “Eventually, CBO and JCT estimate, those premiums would be so high in some areas that the plans would have no enrollment. Such a market would be similar to the nongroup market before the enactment of the ACA, in which premiums were underwritten and plans often included high deductibles and limits on insurers’ payments and people with high expected medical costs were often unable to obtain coverage.”
“[P]eople who are less healthy (including those with preexisting or newly acquired medical conditions) would ultimately be unable to purchase comprehensive nongroup health insurance at premiums comparable to those under current law, if they could purchase it at all,” the report adds. And those who do buy insurance will find that “out-of-pocket spending on maternity care and mental health and substance abuse services could increase by thousands of dollars in a given year for the nongroup enrollees who would use those services.”
House Republicans’ health care bill would gut pre-existing conditions protections for one-sixth of the population. And they just flatly lied about it.
The Washington Post published a moving column on Tuesday that, for good reason, became one of the most widely read articles on the site. It was written by Mary and Joel Rich, who are public figures only insofar as they’re the parents of Seth Rich, the 27-year-old staffer at the Democratic National Committee who was shot dead late one night last year in Washington, D.C. Police, who haven’t solved the case, believe it was a botched robbery. But because of Rich’s place of employment, and some reckless (and retracted) suggestions by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, denizens of the right-wing fever swamps have concocted a conspiracy theory that Rich was murdered for supplying DNC emails to WikiLeaks. And they won’t let it go.
“Imagine that every single day, with every phone call,” the Riches wrote, “you hope that it’s the police, calling to tell you that there has been a break in the case. Imagine you have no answers—that no one has been brought to justice and there are few clues leading to the killer or killers. Imagine that instead, every call that comes in is a reporter asking what you think of a series of lies or conspiracies about the death. That nightmare is what our family goes through every day.” There is no evidence “that Seth’s murder had any connection to his job,” they added. “Still, conservative news outlets and commentators continue, day after painful day, to peddle discredited conspiracy theories that Seth was killed after having provided WikiLeaks with emails from the DNC. Those theories, which some reporters have since retracted, are baseless, and they are unspeakably cruel.”
That article was published at 6:04 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, Fox News host Sean Hannity tweeted this to his 2.4 million followers:
This qualifies as “unspeakably cruel,” but came as no surprise to Hannity observers. He has used his three powerful platforms—Twitter, an afternoon radio show, and his primetime Fox News gig—to spread the demonstrably false conspiracy theory about Rich’s death, causing unimaginable grief to the slain young man’s family and friends. Now is the moment of truth for his employer: Fox News must fire him.
I should make clear that I have no expectation that Fox News will fire Hannity, and I fear that calling for the network to do so could make a martyr of the vile host. Nevertheless, when it comes to journalism ethics, there are hints that Fox the network is capable of doing the right thing—especially if it’s in their best interest from public relations perspective.
Fox’ website ran a story on May 16 that said there is “tangible evidence” from Rich’s laptop “that confirms he was talking to WikiLeaks prior to his murder.” The source of the story was Fox 5, the D.C. affiliate, which in turn was sourced to a private investigator who also happens to be a longtime Fox News contributor. Fox 5 has since appended a rather unapologetic editor’s note to the article, and on May 23 FoxNews.com took down its own article and issued an equally unapologetic statement saying the report was “not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.”
Some rightly argue that Fox News’ retraction was too little, too late. “They were airing it so steadily, and so stubbornly, that the retraction now will have extremely little effect,” The Atlantic’s Megan Garber wrote. “The impression of Seth Rich as an agent of conspiracy, rather than a victim of violence, is out there, among the public. It will be there for his family and friends to see; it will be there forming and informing public opinion.... So what Fox has provided is a retraction of something that can no longer be taken back. The network waited too long. It didn’t care enough.”
But at least Fox News, however weakly, admitted wrong. Hannity has done no such thing. On his radio show on Tuesday, he said, “All you in the liberal media, I am not Fox.com or FoxNews.com. I retracted nothing.” After being contacted by Rich’s family, Hannity did refrain from discussing the case on his show on Tuesday night. “Out of respect for the family, I am not discussing this matter at this time,” Hannity told his TV audience. “But to the extent of my ability I am not going to stop trying to find the truth.” Near the end of the show, he tweeted:
Despite the heart-rending pleas of Rich’s family, Hannity continues to create a conspiracy theory circus, one in which he is both the real victim and a martyr journalist, the only one brave enough to risk his job to tell the truth. Except that the truth is a pure fiction, one that exploits the sad death of a promising young man and which exists solely to distract from the investigation into Russian interference in last year’s presidential election.
One could argue that Hannity and Fox deserve each other. After all, the network has a long history of spreading conspiracy theories, dating back to its origins in the 1990s as an anti-Clinton outlet. Still, the struggling network is an a new phase after the forced departure and death of founder Roger Ailes, and it showed some sense in forcing out Bill O’Reilly last month after it was revealed he’d been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment. Retracting stories is not enough, nor is prohibiting Hannity from discussing Rich on his show. As long as Fox News employs him, it is responsible for his journalistic malpractice. The choice is clear: Fire Hannity, or be further tainted by yet another reprehensible host whose leash was unforgivably long.
Fox News’ firing of Bob Beckel last week was hardly a crushing loss for liberalism in the public discourse. As co-host of The Five from 2011 to 2015, and again this year, the Democratic commentator routinely disgraced the progressive cause. He once proudly declared, “I’m an Islamophobe.” He repeatedly made misogynistic comments and dropped racial slurs on air. Just earlier this month, he complained that Democrats talk too much about being “the party of labor, women, minorities, you know, LBGT, whatever,” when they should be focused on “working people.” Fox says it terminated Beckel “for making an insensitive remark to an African-American employee,” but any network that valued progressive ideas would have permanently cut ties with him long ago.
Of course, Fox News has never valued such ideas. The network has a long tradition of bringing aboard liberals who are either poorly equipped for televised combat with conservatives, or are willing, as Beckel was, to validate right-wing narratives. While he’d toe the Democratic line on health care and push back on climate change denial, his anti-Muslim rantings and other offensive and antiquated views kept conservatives comfortable. “That’s the challenge of being the Fox News liberal,” said Marc Lamont Hill, a progressive contributor to Fox in the early Obama years. “You have to concede something you shouldn’t have to in terms of being seen as reasonable as a long-term presence there.” But as Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple told me, the Beckel model is the ultimate way to advance the Fox News agenda. “For Fox News, you can’t ask for a better liberal than that,” he said.
And yet, the network used to feature better left-of-center voices. Though he was maligned as a milquetoast patsy, Alan Colmes’s run as the original Fox News liberal looks better in retrospect. Kirsten Powers, who left for CNN last year after more than a decade at Fox, held her own in any debate. “She’s a ferocious advocate for her points of view,” Wemple said. “I do think she was tremendously effective in rebutting Bill O’Reilly.” He called Hill, another frequent O’Reilly sparring partner, “one of the great TV polemicists of all time.” Sally Kohn, a contributor from 2012-2013, brought a remarkably left-wing perspective that often went viral online. “I felt like I was making a difference,” Kohn told me.
Today, Fox News is facing an existential crisis. Founder and CEO Roger Ailes was forced out amid allegations of serial sexual harassment, as was O’Reilly, Fox’s biggest star. (Ailes has since died.) Bill Shine, a Fox executive close to Ailes, was elbowed out, too. Megyn Kelly left for NBC News, Greta Van Susteren for MSNBC. The network that dominated cable-news ratings for years recently fell to third place, behind CNN and MSNBC. Amid this wreckage, Fox News must figure out how to carry on without the (white) men who built it, how to compete with increasingly prominent right-wing outlets like Breitbart and InfoWars, and how to position itself with regard to President Donald Trump.
One thing’s sure, though: liberalism has never been more poorly represented on the network. “It’s virtually unwatchable,” Hill told me. The notion of a Fox News liberal, he added, is “almost an oxymoron at this point.” This may seem like a lesser concern right now, given the aforementioned turmoil, but the decline of liberal opinion on Fox News and the network’s broader struggles go hand in hand.
“When Fox was ruling the roost, everybody wanted to go there, despite what these liberals say about Fox this and Fox that,” the conservative host said Tuesday on his show. “You will know as well as I do that many liberal Democrats, guests and otherwise, showed up on Fox all the time despite the things they were saying about it. Why? ’Cause that’s where the eyeballs were. CNN and MSNBC, zero. I mean, they had asterisks. They had so few viewers it made no sense to go there. It made sense to go to Fox.” But the network’s ratings nosedive changes that calculus. “With Fox no longer ruling the roost, these people will not have to pretend to take Fox seriously any longer,” he said. “They will not have to acknowledge that Fox is credible as their reason for going on, and what’s gonna happen is they’re now gonna calculate, many of these people, that MSNBC and CNN are the best places to go to get face time.”
“I would say Fox News liberals these days are auditioning for a job at CNN,” Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, told me. It’s “a total breakdown of not just the Fox liberal but the Fox business model.”
The downside is that Fox viewers may have an increasingly warped understanding of what progressives believe. Sean Hannity invited contributor Dennis Kucinich on his show last week and promised that the former Democratic congressman from Ohio “is making major news.” Kucinich unleashed an extraordinary rant, putting a veneer of bipartisanship to the notion that “our country itself is under attack from within.” “You have a politicization of the agencies,” he said, “that is resulting in leaks from anonymous, unknown people, and the intention is to take down a president. This is very dangerous to America. It’s a threat to our republic. It constitutes a clear and present danger to our way of life.”
“You’re saying President Trump is under attack by the deep state intelligence community?” Hannity later asked.
“I believe that,” Kucinich replied.
Kucinich is among the most recognizable liberal regulars on Fox these days, and his frequently pro-Trump posture reflects the sad state of progressive representation of the network. Kucinich has heaped praise on Trump’s dystopian inaugural address, saying “there might be some way we can bring this country together on the kind of principles he laid out.” He has volunteered that “Donald Trump didn’t create these wars. Wars create refugees, and President Obama both in Syria and in Libya backed conflicts which created refugees.” He even agreed when Bill O’Reilly said to him, “When you say you don’t want Americans abroad, you have more in common with Trump than you do Obama, because Trump doesn’t want to go into these countries.”
The quality of progressive discourse on Fox has never been comparable to liberal or even centrist media outlets, but Carusone says it’s fallen even further since the Obama era. In 2014, Columbia Journalism Review described “an increasingly prominent group of news analysts at the conservative network—those on its left wing. Call them punching bags, foils, or the engines of honest debate, Fox’s flock of liberal commentators lay out the nation’s partisan battles in real time—on a network where coastal elites would argue that no dissenting voices exist.” The piece cited Kohn, Powers, and Tamara Holder. James Carville, Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign strategist and once the liberal half of Crossfire, had signed as a Fox News contributor. None of them work there anymore—and Holder settled with Fox for $2.5 million after allegations of sexual assault.
In their place, Carusone observes, are lesser-known “Democratic strategists” or one-off guests. Tucker Carlson, recently given a primetime show, frequently invites liberal guests—“to debate them or berate them,” Carusone said. Wemple, who has sparred with Carlson on TV and online, said the show “exists in large part to ridicule or bloody liberals or critics of Donald Trump.” “He’s basically ‘slay the liberals, embarrass them, mistreat them,’” Wemple said.
There is some new liberal blood on the network, like Jessica Tarlov, in addition to longtime Fox personalities like Jehmu Greene and Juan Williams. But Tarlov is often brought on to play the Reasonable Liberal—the one who’s willing to agree with Sean Hannity and Tomi Lahren that Samantha Bee shouldn’t mock a man with cancer or NBC News’ Trump tax returns “scoop” was disappointing. It’s not that she doesn’t disagree or make her case; sometimes she even scores points. It’s just that, all too often, the die is cast with the framing of these segments—a two-on-one pile-on against Tarlov.
Williams, meanwhile, is another classic example of the Fox News liberal dynamic. “Juan Williams is a moderate Republican to me, not an actual Democrat,” Hill said. (Indeed, Williams said late last year that he could see himself joining the GOP someday.) Fox might bring on Kucinich to trash Trump’s enemies, but, Hill said, “when it’s time to bring him on to argue why we shouldn’t have intervened in Iraq, why we should denounce settlement expansion in the West Bank, and why we should have a public opinion in health care, it’s like, ‘We don’t need him for that; let’s call Juan.’”
Carusone attributes the lack of liberal opinion on Fox to its current woes. “I think that’s why you haven’t seen a ton of new people added to that crop,” Carusone said. “They’re in that weird limbo.” As Jack Shafer, Politico’s senior media writer, told me in an email, “Right now, Fox is a little like a wounded animal, trying to recover from its recent wounds.” But he preached patience, saying Fox will bring aboard more liberals in due time. “Fox needs a few liberals in its contributor heap for comic relief, to spar with,” he said. “That it might not be as adventurous in its programming may be disappointing to the [Media Matters] people, but I suspect as the wreckage clears they might return to their old programming practices.”
Carusone doesn’t think Fox’s long-term strategy will mirror its old one, but he’s surprisingly hopeful about the network’s role in the broader media landscape. Since Fox is now having to compete with a growing far-right media pushing conspiracy theories, he said turning Fox into a channel focused on even-handed coverage would be “the fastest way for them to shed themselves of all this baggage.” “I don’t think Fox News can survive serving up leftover right-wing chicanery,” he said. “At some point, there’s going to be demand again for just some damn news.” (This tension is already manifest at Fox; many in its news division are striving for serious coverage of the Trump administration, and news staffers were embarrassed by Hannity’s recent peddling of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory.)
But Limbaugh, of all people, has the most hopeful take for the left: that the dearth of liberals on Fox News could be good for American liberalism overall. On Tuesday, he warned his audience that if progressives shun the network, “the extreme liberalism and anti-American leftism is going to get louder, it is going to become more common, it’s gonna be all over the place.” If that’s true—a big “if”—then we shouldn’t lament the decline of the Fox News liberal at all. We should, like a growing number of Americans, simply change the channel.
Robert De Niro has been in some bad comedies in recent decades, but there’s no altering the fact that he is one of Hollywood’s great treasures. Now he’s back, in HBO’s The Wizard of Lies, doing what he does best: playing a gangster who is difficult to get a moral read on. White-collar the crime may be, but Bernie Madoff is a character cut straight from the mob-flick tradition.
Michelle Pfeiffer, meanwhile, is one of cinema’s most compelling molls. There’s something very similar between the characters of Madoff’s wife Ruth and Elvira Hancock in Scarface (1983). Neither women smile, ever, and their blonde hairdos look like helmets designed for defense. Both women have knifelike bodies which communicate the combination of strength and fragility that is the definition of the word “brittle.”
The Wizard of Lies tells the story of the Madoffs’ unravelling, from the day that Bernie has to break the news of his vast Ponzi scheme to his sons Andrew and Mark (Nathan Darrow and Alessandro Nivola), to Andrew and Mark’s eventual death and Bernie’s estrangement from his wife.
The question of whether the sons are really innocent animates the plot—much as it animated public coverage of the case in real life—but it is eclipsed by the portrait of the Madoffs’ marriage. Bernie was, we hear, a lifeguard when they were teenagers. Every day that summer, Ruth laid out on the beach, guarding her lifeguard from the attention of other girls.
Pfeiffer is perfectly cast as the wife who slowly realizes the deliberateness with which she avoided learning anything about her husband, his business, her complicity in it all. “What’s a Ponzi scheme?” Ruth asks in an early scene. When her hairdresser of 15 years refuses to keep Ruth on as a client, we see the reality of her husband’s crimes finally hit home.
As Ruth’s role in the financial crimes comes under scrutiny, the couple discuss their past together. Ruth expresses exasperation at the way the investigators assume her guilt. Bernie agrees, saying she was never involved. She recoils, and he has to placate her by acknowledging that, yes, she did do the bookkeeping for a year in the 1960s. But she was “no mastermind,” Bernie says. “Gee, thanks,” she responds.
When Bernie gets out on bail after the big arrest, the pair attempt suicide together. They go around the house collecting her housewife-y secret stashes of Ambien. Bernie can’t sleep without the TV on, and Ruth grouses that they’re going to spend their last night on earth under the gaze of Judy Garland. She curls into his body and draws the sheet up.
Michelle Pfeiffer hasn’t worked in television since 1996’s Muppets Tonight, which just goes to show how much things have changed for HBO. The grinding music and the dour blueish lighting betray director Barry Levinson’s ambitions to make this into a David Fincher movie, but you barely notice these derivative features because Levinson has been mostly successful. Aside from the excellent casting for the two leads, Levinson has chosen his scenes from the family’s life well.
In advance of a big family party, Bernie, standing in a bathrobe, with the Florida beach behind him, moves his hand up and down in the air, indicating what volume he wants his music to be played. A lackey makes adjustments to the song, which is “The Great Pretender.” Bernie acts like an asshole to the staff all the way through the party, and forces Andrew to eat lobster when really he wants to eat duck (after having, of course, sent the lobster back to be served differently under a hail of recriminations). But we also see Ruth in her son’s arms, dancing to “Sweet Caroline,” before the whole family huddles and does that dumb, wonderful arms-around-the-shoulders thing that we all do on dancefloors at weddings.
Within the marriage, Bernie’s own personality holds the core of The Wizard of Lies. As in life, Madoff’s embrace of his guilt paradoxically makes his victims feel hard done by. It’s hard to rage at a man who apologizes so much. It’s especially infuriating when—as this movie displays at great length—Madoff negotiates his way through confession with the same aura of “trustworthiness” with which he committed his crimes.
De Niro delivers an extraordinarily coherent performance of a man riven by contradiction. In one scene, at a big, fancy cocktail party where a jazz drummer is playing a solo, Madoff’s business is tanking, and he needs money badly. But when a rich guy comes up and offers to invest $100 million, Madoff says no. His investor list is closed, he says. Despite the enormous pressure he’s under, he plays this guy like the drummer. As percussion thrums through the scene, Madoff talks this anonymous party guest up to a $400 million investment, cool as a cucumber.
Does that make Bernie Madoff a psychopath? I don’t know: Did the vigilante violence of Taxi Driver make Travis Bickle a psychopath? It would be a mistake to suggest that The Wizard of Lies is close to Scorsese’s film in terms of quality—none of the actors besides De Niro and Pfeiffer are worth looking at twice. But De Niro has approached the role of Bernie Madoff with an evenhandedness, even a minimalism, that places his performance among the greats of his career. The Wizard of Lies is a movie with a terrible name and some mediocre aspects. But great central performances from two icons of the silver screen make it necessary watching: The screen is smaller this time, but this is the kind of story where De Niro and Pfeiffer belong.
The Environmental Protection Agency is thrilled with Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018. According to an agency press release on Tuesday, the budget “provides $5.655 billion to help the agency protect human health and the environment.” It “aims to reduce redundancies and inefficiencies and prioritize EPA’s core statutory mission of providing Americans with clean air, land, and water,” and it allocates millions of dollars for clean air programs, Superfund and Brownfield site cleanups, and safe drinking water.
Given such rosy language, one would be forgiven for missing the fact that Trump’s budget would reduce the EPA’s funding by 31 percent—the highest percentage cut to any federal agency—and ax 3,200 employees. The Superfund program would get cut by 25 percent, the Brownfields program by 36 percent. And while the agency says the budget is “improving America’s air quality” and “ensuring clean and safe drinking water,” it ignores the dramatic cuts to programs that aim to do both things.
The EPA isn’t alone. Several other agencies with scientific and environmental missions would also be decimated by Trump’s budget, and they’re putting an equally positive spin on the proposed cuts—using conspicuously similar, euphemistic language.
Take the Department of Interior, which controls national parks and energy development on public lands. Trump proposed hacking its budget by 11 percent, crippling programs to restore abandoned coal mines, acquire more federal land, and financially assist National Heritage Areas. But in a statement, the agency applauded the proposal, saying it “allows Interior to carry out its core mission of responsible multiple-use of public lands.”
The Department of Agriculture’s funds would fall by 21 percent, the third-largest proposed cut by percentage, hacking crop insurance and rural development for farmers and eliminating initiatives like the Farm Safety Program. Sonny Perdue, the agency’s administrator, applauded the proposal, saying in a statement that he would fulfill “the core mission of USDA.”
The U.S. Geological Survey would be cut by 15 percent, which the department said represents “a continued commitment to the bureau’s core mission.” And the Department of Energy, which would be cut by 6 percent, said the budget would allow the agency to “reprioritize spending in order to carry out DOE’s core functions efficiently and effectively.”
The idea that massive cuts will allow these agencies and departments to return to their “core missions” or “core functions” is laughable—it’s not the only similarity in language between these press releases.
Four out of five of the releases applaud Trump’s “efficiency.” The USGS says Trump’s proposal is “increasing efficiency across the federal government.” The USDA said Trump was ensuring agencies “are efficiently delivering services.” The EPA said the budget would “reduce redundancies and inefficiencies.” And the DOE said the budget would help it run more “efficiently and effectively.” Two agencies also insisted the cuts would eliminate redundancies: to “eliminate duplication or redundancy,” in the USDA’s case, or “reduce redundancies and inefficiencies,” as the EPA put it.
Of course, “redundancies” and “efficiency” are just euphemisms. The point of the cuts is not to make these agencies more streamlined and cost-effective, but to force them to do less with less, curtailing their ability to enact and enforce regulations.
The stark similarities between the language in these press releases raises the question: Was their messaging directed by the White House? Anne-Berry Wade, a USGS press officer, said she “did not work in consultation with the White House” on their release, and that the phrase “core mission” is “fairly standard and often used by the USGS,” not something the DOI inserted. Wade did add, however, “Each agency’s press release has to be cleared by OMB and the DOI. This has been a standard practice for many many years, regardless of Administration.” That may be, but the USGS press release about President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget request, for instance, made no mention of “a continued commitment to the bureau’s core mission,” as this year’s does—perhaps because Obama recommended a 9 percent increase, not cuts.
The other agencies in question did not return my request for comment. But if their celebratory press releases are to be believed, perhaps their public relations officers are too busy celebrating the Trump administration’s proposal to return them to their core mission of efficiently accomplishing nothing at all.
There’s plenty to criticize about Donald Trump’s plans to massively expand the U.S. military. His requested $54 billion increase in defense spending, combined with his bellicose rhetoric, seems tailor-made to lead America into more violent conflicts. And aside from Trump’s obsession with owning “the best” of everything, it’s not clear that the United States needs to boost military spending by 10 percent—particularly when Trump campaigned on a pledge to avoid foreign entanglements.
Yet there’s one area of national security where America might benefit from more spending: outer space. In recent years, China has demonstrated its ability to shoot down satellites that the United States relies on for everything from processing credit card transactions and balancing the power grid to collecting intelligence and directing troops on the battlefield. The opening salvo came in 2007, when China launched a missile that destroyed one of its own satellites—a clear demonstration of military and technological prowess. Six years later, the Chinese tested an anti-satellite weapon system that reached a more distant orbit 20,000 miles above the Earth—right where America parks its GPS and national security satellites. The test served as a wake-up call for the Defense Department, which suddenly realized that its national security apparatus was no longer secure.
Such attacks could have a devastating impact. If another country were to take out U.S. satellites, our military would essentially be flying blind. “We are entirely dependent on satellites,” says retired General Jim Armor, former head of the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office, the agency responsible for coordinating the military’s space operations. If an enemy were to attack America’s satellites, “it would put us back into the Industrial Age.”
China is not the only country that poses a threat. Russia has launched satellites that intentionally bumped into their own rocket stages—demonstrating that seemingly benign pieces of scientific equipment can be turned into weapons, sent to crash into enemy targets. North Korea, meanwhile, has developed technology to jam GPS signals. Sophisticated ground-based lasers can now blind satellite cameras and fry electronics, while malicious viruses can wreak havoc on satellite systems.
To counter such threats, the U.S. military is scrambling to weaponize space on a scale not seen since Ronald Reagan’s ill-conceived missile defense system. Last fall, Trump advisers Peter Navarro and Robert Walker resurrected Reagan’s pledge of “peace through strength,” promising that their boss would “significantly expand” the military’s space budget. “We must reduce our current vulnerabilities,” they wrote in Space News, “and assure that our military commands have the space tools they need for their missions.” When Trump sat down for his first meeting with the Joint Chiefs on January 27, “we talked about space more than any other topic,” says General David Goldfein, the head of the Air Force. That same month, Trump announced he would place particular emphasis on missile defense, and he has held extensive consultations with the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a lobbying group that promotes anti-missile systems.
The Trump administration also plans to revive the National Space Council, which used to help private industry develop military projects. The government is currently working with defense contractors Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, for example, to develop a new fleet of GPS and military satellites that are less vulnerable to hacking—a project that will take another decade to complete. Bringing back the council “indicates that they want to improve coordination across the military” with NASA and the private sector, says Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That was the job of the National Space Council when it used to exist decades ago.”
Since China demonstrated its ability to target America’s national security satellites, the Pentagon has also worked to better coordinate space programs across the Defense Department. President Obama shifted $5 billion toward space defense, and agencies have begun participating in war-game scenarios involving space combat at the recently activated Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center. The Air Force has also created a new Space Mission Force, reorganizing crews in an effort to keep military satellites safe from potential adversaries.
Some Republicans, however, feel that such efforts don’t go far enough. At the annual Space Symposium in April, Representative Mike Rogers proposed creating a new branch of the military called “Space Corps,” which would be devoted solely to space defense. “My vision for the future is a separate space force within the Department of Defense,” Rogers said, noting that the Air Force was originally created by splitting it off from the Army. “Simply put, space must be a priority.”
While it’s not clear yet exactly how much of Trump’s military budget will go toward space defense systems, it’s a direction that enjoys strong bipartisan support. Back in 1983, when Reagan first proposed a missile defense system, the idea of using lasers, microwaves, and particle beams to shoot down incoming missiles sounded like something straight out of science fiction. But the “Star Wars” initiative, however wasteful and misguided it proved to be, fit squarely within the government’s militarized view of outer space. America was forced into the stars, after all, by the fear of Sputnik, and the space program has always retained a military edge. The more we rely on satellites to operate the most basic functions of our economy and infrastructure, the more space will become a potential battleground. “The problems are not hypothetical and in the future,” says Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project. “They are happening now.”
After the 2016 election, Donald Trump and Republicans gloated that the Democratic Party was in its worst shape since the 1920s. Democrats had not only lost the White House and both houses of Congress, but were decimated at the state level. They were in the midst of an existential crisis, stemming from Hillary Clinton blowing her race against the least popular presidential candidate in modern American history. Where had the Democrats gone so wrong?
The Democrats haven’t done much to address this question, failing to even release an autopsy report. And yet, they are poised for massive gains in the 2018, thanks to the fact that the president is an incompetent idiot who keeps doing self-destructive and possibly criminal things. His behavior in office has been shameful and scandalous, and his White House perpetually seems on the verge of collapse. Less than four months into his presidency, calls for impeachment have become deafening. And to be fair, these calls are eminently reasonable.
In this environment, running on impeachment—on pledging to take back Congress and prosecute Trump—will be tempting for Democrats in 2018. Midterm elections are always referendums on the president, so why not turn 2018 into the biggest referendum of all? Elect us, Democrats can say, and we’ll take the president down. But while the legal arguments for impeaching Trump are strong—and they will probably only get stronger—there are serious pitfalls to impeachment as an electoral approach. “Is that really the winning argument for picking up seats on Republican territory?” political scientist Sarah Binder of George Washington University asked me.
To take back the House, Democrats will have to win a number of Republican-leaning districts. Although the sample size is limited, early indications suggest that they have a good chance of picking up a substantial number of seats. Even if populist Montana Democrat Rob Quist were to lose his special election on Thursday by four points, that result would nevertheless suggest that more than 100 Republican seats will be vulnerable in 2018.
The i-word may fire up the party’s already frothing base, which is clamoring for action and taking to the streets and social media to demand that Trump be confronted as aggressively as possible. And after all, Nate Silver did suggest that Trump has an eye-popping 50 percent probability of not finishing his first term. But the task for Democrats is to persuade enough Republicans to switch sides, while keeping their base activated and involved. “I think it’s highly premature to begin talking about impeachment,” Bill Galston of the Brookings Institute told me. “The factual predicate has not been raised, and I think that it would be very, very difficult to defend that position beyond the most energized portion of the Democratic base.”
The most effective midterm campaign might be the more traditional one: characterize the election as a referendum on what has been accomplished during the president’s first two years. “If you want to try to flip seats and produce shifts in areas where you didn’t do so well in 2016, you wouldn’t look at 2016 and say, ‘The lesson here is to talk more about how bad Trump is,’” says Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress (CAP). “Maybe the lesson is you need to talk more about what’s wrong with what Trump proposes to do or has done.”
So far, Democrats appear to be hewing to that line. Trump has arguably already admitted to obstructing justice by telling NBC’s Lester Holt that he fired former FBI Director James Comey because he wanted to undercut the FBI’s investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia. Since then, there have been a number of troubling reports that Trump tried to interfere with the investigation in other ways. But Democrats have been cautious not to go too far out on a limb. “On the issue of impeachment, I am doing my homework,” Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii said at a recent town hall.
The few Democrats who have called for Trump’s impeachment are, for the most part, back-benchers with little power. The party’s leadership has stayed quiet, neither fanning the flames nor attempting to quell their base. They have vociferously criticized Trump while stopping just short of impeachment. At last week’s CAP-sponsored Ideas Conference, only Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California explicitly called for Trump’s removal from office.
The question facing Democrats is similar to the dilemma faced by the Clinton campaign in 2016: Do you try to make an inspiring, big-picture policy argument, or do you focus your campaign on the fact that Trump is a nut? The Clinton campaign focused on the latter, a decision that certainly played a role in her loss. The difference is that Democrats now have a wealth of material to work from: Trump’s disastrous health care bill, as well as budget and tax proposals that would favor the interests of the extremely wealthy over everyone else.
Importantly, these policies are more unfavorable with the general public than impeachment is favorable. Asked about impeachment, Kyle Kondik of UVA’s Center for Politics told me, “I don’t know if this ranks as the most important issue for the public. If you make the election next year about impeaching Trump over his campaign’s connection to Russia it may be that the general public doesn’t care about that stuff as much as it does about the AHCA or whatever the state of the economy is.”
Because so many of these elections will be held in Republican-leaning districts, they may come down to a tactic the Clinton campaign largely abandoned during the 2016 election: persuasion. “If we’re thinking about the ground on which Democrats might be able to pick up—independent-leaning voters, no-party-attachment voters, weak-party-attachment voters—you gotta go after the big issues, which are typically the economy, jobs, possibly trade,” Binder said. “It’s just a different pitch. It’s not a pitch to a Democratic base, which might eat up impeachment.”
Indeed, it’s likely that running on impeachment will backfire with the people who voted for Trump. “It’s hard to get people to shift,” Galston told me. “If the campaign was simply to impeach Trump that would force a lot of voters who voted for him in 2016 to confess that they made a mistake. Getting people to confess they made a mistake is hard because that confession is painful.”
Teixeira said Democrats should learn lessons from the campaign to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in 2012. “Everybody got talked into how Scott Walker should be recalled, and that just polarized things to a point that actually wasn’t useful for the Democrats in the state,” he said. An impeachment message could also play into one of Trump’s most consistent themes: that Democrats are just mad because they lost an election. “The danger for Democrats is being seen as trying to nullify the presidential election,” Binder told me. “Just keep it an up-or-down referendum: Is Trump working for you or not?”
That doesn’t mean that impeachment should have no part in the Democrats’ strategy in 2018—in some districts it may very well work. It just shouldn’t be the focal point.
One of the reasons an impeachment campaign is tempting is because it papers over divisions within the Democratic Party. The biggest danger may be that Donald Trump’s terrible, unpopular, attention-sucking presidency will prevent the party from articulating a vision for governance in the post-Obama era. “Talk of impeachment is at most a convenient diversion from the main task facing the Democratic Party, which is to come up with themes and policies that can attract the support of a new American majority,” Galston said.
Trump’s presidency gives Democrats an opening to establish core policies on a number of key issues, like health care, tax reform, trade, and entitlements. The question is: Will they take it?
The political durability of conservative economic doctrine owes a great deal to euphemisms. As the main exponents of that doctrine, Republicans seek to distribute income from the poor to the wealthy by gutting social programs and returning the savings to high-income earners through tax cuts. Euphemisms obscure the brutality of that underlying moral vision. The affluent, in the language of the right, are “job creators,” the poor are “dependents,” the central goal (reducing top marginal tax rates) is a “simplification,” the programs losing funding are being “reformed” or “saved,” and the purpose of this reordering, stripped of ideological valence, is “growth.”
This familiar jargon survived the wreckage of George W. Bush’s presidency, and remains bog standard Republican spin when tax cutting season rolls around. It is, to state the obvious, highly tendentious. But it is at least decodable.
It took a swindler of Donald Trump’s shamelessness, and the unexpected consolidation of power in Republican hands, to expose the limits of this spin. The breaking of Trump’s campaign promises, and the substitution of the old Republican agenda in the place of those promises, has forced Republicans to supplement spin with outright lies. Those lies were critical to the passage of the American Health Care Act, and to the advancement of other Republican priorities. This week—through the unveiling of Trump’s budget, and the coming Congressional Budget Office analysis of the AHCA—the lies are encountering reality for the first time.
Trump distinguished himself from his Republican primary rivals by repeatedly promising not to cut any of the three largest social spending programs: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Trump’s first presidential budget breaks that promise quietly with respect to Social Security (by proposing to cut the program’s disability benefit) and outlandishly with respect to Medicaid (which it would essentially halve).
Conservatives gloss over this betrayal by ignoring Medicaid and pretending the first two words of “Social Security Disability Insurance” don’t exist. But CNBC’s John Harwood pinned down Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, on the Medicaid question.
Quaint supply-side spin can’t resolve this contradiction. When Mulvaney said one Trump promise would override another, what he meant was Trump made two incompatible promises and will honor the one that does more harm to the poor and sick. But Mulvaney was not simply covering for the fact that Trump lied. He layered a lie of his own on top of Trump’s.
It was clear during the campaign that Trump’s promise to repeal Obamacare and replace it with “something terrific” was in tension with his promise not to cut Medicaid, because the Affordable Care Act included an expansion of Medicaid that many states, including GOP-led ones, have adopted. If Trump and Republicans were proposing now to simply phase out that expansion, Mulvaney’s claim that one promise had “overridden” another would match the facts. But Trump’s proposed Medicaid cuts, which assume both the enactment of AHCA and further cuts to Medicaid, go hundreds of billions of dollars beyond phasing out Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.
Even if Trump had not taken over the Republican Party, conservative shibboleths would be practically useless for the purposes of resolving the party’s contradictory promises to repeal the ACA without throwing millions off of their health insurance, and to leave people with pre-existing conditions vulnerable to discrimination by insurance companies. Republicans were only able to pass the AHCA in the House by deceiving themselves and their voters–in the face of widespread, cross-ideological criticism–about what the impact of the legislation would be. They cast votes on the bill, and then used it as the basis of Trump’s foundational governing blueprint, before the Congressional Budget Office could analyze its impacts on coverage and cost, and settle the dispute.
When that analysis finally lands on Wednesday, it will give form and scope to the lies Republicans told the public about what the bill would do—just as the CBO’s report on a previous, failed version of the AHCA did when it determined that the bill would cause 14 million people to lose their insurance immediately and leave 24 million uninsured over 10 years. Assuming Republicans continue to pursue their agenda as the evidence of their deceptions grows, the question will be whether reality asserts itself before they can enact the AHCA and other priorities, or they beat reality to the punch and deal with the consequences later when the truth catches up to people.
A lot has changed in the two months since former chief Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller joined us to discuss the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s role in subverting the 2016 election: President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey; Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstine appointed Comey’s friend, former FBI director Robert Mueller, to oversee the investigation as Justice Department special counsel; and a large number of leaks points to the likelihood that Trump himself has attempted to obstruct justice. With the similarities to Watergate mounting, we brought Miller back to the program to reassess the scandal and where the investigation might lead.
Senator Ed Markey went on CNN earlier this month and appeared to break major news in the investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia. “There are very strong allegations the Russians had relationships with people inside of the Trump campaign,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “In fact, subpoenas have now been issued in northern Virginia with regard to General Flynn and General Flynn’s associates. A grand jury has been empaneled up in New York.” While it was known that federal prosecutors in Virginia had subpoenaed associates of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, the grand jury investigation was news to political reporters who were watching.
Fake news, it turned out. Pressed later for details, Markey’s office revealed the source of the bad information:
Louise Mensch is a British journalist, but only her Britishness is unquestioned; whether she can rightly be called a journalist is up for debate, for she has become a chief promoter of Russia-related conjecture online, principally on Twitter. The Palmer Report is a fellow-traveler.
Markey’s mistake was the latest and perhaps most prominent example of the rise of conspiracy-mongering on the left, prompting some to worry that liberals are heading into the same fever swamps that have swallowed up the Republican Party. “Mensch and The Palmer Report are part of a disturbing emerging trend,” the New Republic’s Sarah Jones wrote after the Markey incident. “Liberals desperate to believe that the right conspiracy will take down Donald Trump promote their own purveyors of fake news.”
The left ought to be concerned about this trend, but some have gone so far as to apply a false equivalence to conspiracy-mongering. The Russia theories haven’t taken hold among Democrats in nearly the same way that countless right-wing theories—like those about Barack Obama or Seth Rich—have gripped the Republican imagination. That’s because the two parties are fundamentally different: Only one of them acts responsibly when faced with politically convenient, but obviously fantastic, stories.
Vox’s Zack Beauchamp calls it the “Russiasphere.” For an article last week, he interviewed political scientists about this “new and growing sector of the internet that functions as a fake news bubble for liberals.”
They worry that the unfounded speculation and paranoia that infect the Russiasphere risk pushing liberals into the same black hole of conspiracy-mongering and fact-free insinuation that conservatives fell into during the Obama years.
The fear is that this pollutes the party itself, derailing and discrediting the legitimate investigation into Russia investigation. It also risks degrading the Democratic Party — helping elevate shameless hucksters who know nothing about policy but are willing to spread misinformation in the service of gaining power.
There’s no doubting the existence and growing popularity online of conspiratorial—and borderline demented—commentary on Russia. Mensch often veers into surrealistic fan fiction, saying she believes Russian President Vladimir Putin “murdered” Andrew Breitbart in 2012, “funded riots in Ferguson” against police violence, and entrapped Anthony Weiner in a sexting scandal with a 15-year-old girl. Simple common sense tells us it doesn’t take a Russian plot to get Weiner to send inappropriate photos of his penis, and Weiner’s recent guilty plea only further complicates Mensch’s theory.
The “key danger,” Beauchamp wrote, is “that this sort of thing becomes routine, repeated over and over again in left-leaning media outlets, to the point where accepting the Russiasphere’s fact-free claims becomes a core and important part of what Democrats believe.” We should worry that Democrats will fall for the likes of Mensch, just as Republicans fell for Alex Jones, but Beauchamp’s analysis is weakened by a false equivalence. “The basic thing you need to understand, these scholars say, is that political misinformation in America comes principally from partisanship,” he wrote. “People’s political identities are formed around membership in one of two tribes, Democratic or Republican. This filters the way they see the world.”
Brendan Nyhan, of The New York Times’ Upshot, made a similar case in February:
A simple explanation for this shift is that misperceptions often focus on the president and are most commonly held by members of the other party. Just as Republicans disproportionately endorsed prominent misperceptions during the Obama years (like the birther and death panel myths), Democrats are now the opposition partisans especially likely to fall victim to dubious claims about the Trump administration.
In other words, losing the presidential election made Democrats more likely to blame secret conspiracies for the state of the world, while making Republicans less willing to indulge these sorts of claims. If you don’t believe me, just compare your social media news feeds with what you saw during the campaign—or ask yourself who you think is behind the news you are seeing.
It’s true to an extent that, “pure independents” notwithstanding, partisanship drives conspiracy-mongering on both ends of the political spectrum. But it’s also the case that the two tribes are very different. There are no easy parallels between Democrats’ and Republicans’ propensity for believing conspiracy theories. The anti-Trump theories haven’t traveled nearly as far as anti-Obama and anti-Clinton ones have because the left and right are not symmetrical political tendencies in America.
Democrats are much more heterogeneous than Republicans, which makes it harder to spread conspiracy theories among their ranks. While the Republican Party is solidly a party of the right, with some variation between the Tea Party wing and conventional conservatives, but within a narrow spectrum. Democrats are divided into factions that run from Bernie Sanders leftists to Hillary Clinton liberals to Heidi Heitkamp centrists, and even have earned temporary support from a smattering of Never Trump conservatives like David Frum, who voted for Hillary Clinton.
The ideological mishmash of the Democratic Party helps explain an interesting fact about the Russia conspiracy theorists themselves: They often aren’t from the left at all.
Beauchamp’s article focuses on three major conspiracy theorists: Mensch, the Observer’s John Schindler, and photographer Claude Taylor, who tweets under the handle @TrueFactsStated. Of the three, only Taylor is anything close to a liberal Democrat. Mensch was a Conservative member of Parliament and until recently led Heat Street, Rupert Murdoch’s attempted Breitbart imitation. Schindler is a former National Security Agency analyst with hawkish foreign policy views. In 2015, National Review wrote, “Schindler has amassed a loyal following, particularly among conservatives, for his blunt missives on cyber-security, foreign policy, and intelligence.... Conservative pundits and scholars alike have made Schindler their go-to authority on national-security matters. He’s featured regularly on conservative talker Hugh Hewitt’s popular radio show, and his blog posts are often cited in top Republican consultant Rick Wilson’s commentary.” Wilson, as it happens, is another member of the Russiasphere cited in Beauchamp’s article, along with the anonymous Twitter account @counterchekist, whose author identifies as Republican.
In other words, the Russiasphere is not particularly liberal—nor are liberals especially fond of the Russiasphere. Debunkings of Mensch and company have become standard fare in left-wing, liberal, and centrist publications (Beauchamp’s own article is an example of the genre). Current Affairs describes Mensch as “legitimately paranoid and deluded.” BuzzFeed has counted 210 people and organizations that Mench has accused of being under Russian influence, dryly remarking that “in many cases, she lacks strong, or any, evidence connecting her targets” to Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 election. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi described Mensch as “a noted loon.” And the former Obama aides who host the podcast Pod Save America have warned their listeners to avoid these conspiracy theorists.
“Luckily for the Democratic Party,” Beauchamp correctly pointed out, “there isn’t really a pre-built media ecosystem for amplifying this like there was for Republicans. In the absence of left-wing Limbaughs and Breitbarts, media outlets totally unconcerned with factual rigor, it’s much harder for this stuff to become mainstream. But hard doesn’t mean impossible.” The most “worrying sign,” he added, “is that some mainstream figures and publications are starting to validate Russiasphere claims.” As evidence, he cited scattered cases of prominent liberals briefly giving credence to the conspiracy theorists. The New York Times published a Mensch op-ed column, one that was criticized by the Times’ own reporters. Donna Brazile, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, tweeted Mensch’s article and thanked her on Twitter “for good journalism.” And Markey, the Massachusetts senator, parroted the grand jury lie while on CNN.
But Markey’s mistake illustrates the difference between Democrats and Republicans: He apologized. There still exists a feedback loop on the left, so when a prominent person falls for a conspiracy theory, they are challenged by the media and willing to correct themselves. Conversely, conservatives tend to adhere to a “no apologies” ethos that makes admitting error verboten.
The few scattered cases of liberals echoing the Russiasphere are minuscule compared to the vast infrastructure that’s spreading conspiracy theories on the right. First and foremost there is Trump, the erstwhile birther who has continued to promote conspiracy theories from the White House, like his claim in March that he was wiretapped by Obama. That lie, which originated from right-wing radio hosts Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh, gained currency thanks to Trump’s pulpit and the power of partisanship: A CBS poll in late March found that 74 percent of Republicans believed it was “very” or “somewhat” likely that Trump’s campaign was wiretapped or otherwise surveilled by the government.
Beyond Trump, major conservative figures like Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House, and Fox News’ Sean Hannity are spreading the most dishonest smears imaginable. Gingrich and Hannity have both recently pushed the lie that Seth Rich, the slain Democratic National Committee staffer, was murdered because he provided DNC emails to Wikileaks.
“We have this very strange story now of this young man who worked for the Democratic National Committee, who apparently was assassinated at 4 in the morning, having given WikiLeaks something like 53,000 emails and 17,000 attachments,” Gingrich said Sunday on Fox and Friends. “Nobody’s investigating that, and what does that tell you about what’s going on? Because it turns out, it wasn’t the Russians. It was this young guy who, I suspect, was disgusted by the corruption of the Democratic National Committee. He’s been killed, and apparently nothing serious has been done to investigative his murder.” Neither Gingrich nor Hannity have apologized.
Whereas left-of-center publications have criticized Mensch, most conservative outlets have been silent about the Rich conspiracy theory (National Review, The Weekly Standard) or have given voice to it (The Federalist); The Daily Caller, in a rare exception, refers to the Rich conspiracy theory as “debunked.” Conservative media tends to be strongly tribalist and self-pitying, adhering to the idea that liberal bias is the biggest problem in news coverage. Such ideological tunnel vision disinclines these outlets right to counter conspiratorial thinking in their own ranks. It doesn’t suit their narrative about the “lamestream media,” and it’s bad for business.
Figures like Mensch are pests, but they will almost certainly not gain the same audience on the left that Alex Jones and Hannity command on the right. The key members of the Russiasphere have Twitter followings in the hundreds of thousands, at most. Hannity hosts a primetime show on what was, until recently, the most watched cable news network in the country; he has millions of viewers. The real lesson to learn from Mensch and company is not that the left is suddenly falling for conspiracy theories with the same fervor as the right has for decades. It’s that these theories can be largely smothered if you have a vibrant and diverse political party that is open to debate and beholden to a fact-based press. The tragedy of modern American politics is that only one of the two major parties fits that bill.
Of all the corrupt, unqualified, and extremist characters Donald Trump has tapped to lead his administration, none has generated the tsunami of liberal outrage whipped up by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. And with all due respect to Jeff Sessions, there’s good reason for the backlash: The billionaire Amway heiress from Michigan, who long ago made “school choice” her passion project, is the first education secretary in history to be hostile to the very idea of public education.
Prodded by grassroots activists and what’s left of teachers’ unions, Democrats went all out to defeat DeVos. George Miller, the former congressman from California, slammed her plan to create a $20 billion “school choice” program that would underwrite private and religious schools, calling it “a perfect storm of ignorance, money, and power.” Senator Al Franken grilled DeVos at her confirmation hearing, drawing out her jaw-dropping ignorance of federal programs. Senator Michael Bennet called her nomination an “insult to schoolchildren and their families, to teachers and principals and communities fighting to improve their public schools all across the country.” And when DeVos was confirmed by a vote of 51 to 50, over unanimous Democratic opposition, Senator Cory Booker went on Facebook, “frustrated and saddened,” to sound a sorrowful note: “Somewhere in America, right now, there is a child who is wondering if this country stands up for them.”
Listening to their cries of outrage, one might imagine that Democrats were America’s undisputed champions of public education. But the resistance to DeVos obscured an inconvenient truth: Democrats have been promoting a conservative “school reform” agenda for the past three decades. Some did it because they fell for the myths of “accountability” and “choice” as magic bullets for better schools. Some did it because “choice” has centrist appeal. Others sold out public schools for campaign contributions from the charter industry and its Wall Street patrons. Whatever the motivations, the upshot is clear: The Democratic Party has lost its way on public education. In a very real sense, Democrats paved the way for DeVos and her plans to privatize the school system.
Thirty years ago, there was a sharp difference between Republicans and Democrats on education. Republicans wanted choice, testing, and accountability. Democrats wanted equitable funding for needy districts, and highly trained teachers. But in 1989, with Democrats reeling from three straight presidential losses, the lines began to blur. That year, when President George H.W. Bush convened an education summit of the nation’s governors, it was a little-known Arkansas Democrat named Bill Clinton who drafted a bipartisan set of national goals for the year 2000 (“first in the world” in mathematics, for starters). The ambitious benchmarks would be realized by creating, for the first time, national achievement standards and tests. Clinton ran on the issue, defeated Bush, and passed Goals 2000, which provided grants to states that implemented their own achievement metrics.
The Democrats had dipped a toe in “school reform.” Before long, they were completely immersed. After George W. Bush made the “Texas miracle” of improved schools a launching pad for the presidency, many Democrats swallowed his bogus claim that testing students every year had produced amazing results. In 2001, Ted Kennedy, the Senate’s liberal lion, teamed with Bush to pass No Child Left Behind. For the first time, the government was mandating not only “accountability” (code for punishing teachers and schools who fall short), but also “choice” (code for handing low-performing public schools over to charter operators).
When Barack Obama took office in 2009, educators hoped he would return the party to its public school roots. By then, even Bill Clinton was calling No Child Left Behind a “train wreck.” Instead, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan doubled down on testing, accountability, and choice. Their Race to the Top program was, in essence, No Child Left Behind II: It invited states to compete for $5 billion in funds by holding teachers accountable for test scores, adopting national standards, opening more charter schools, and closing low-scoring public schools.
The Obama years saw an epidemic of new charters, testing, school closings, and teacher firings. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 public schools in one day. Democratic charter advocates—whose ranks include the outraged Booker and Bennet—have increasingly imported “school choice” into the party’s rhetoric. Booker likes to equate “choice” with “freedom”—even though the entire idea of “choice” was created by white Southerners who were scrambling to defend segregated schools after Brown v. Board of Education.
It’s fitting that Trump and DeVos rely on the same language to tout their vision of reform. They’re essentially taking Obama’s formula one step further: expanding “choice” to include vouchers, so parents can use public funding to pay for private and religious schools. Democrats are up in arms about the privatization scheme, as they should be: It’s a disaster for public schools. But if they’re serious about being the party that treats public education as a cornerstone of democracy, they need to do more than grandstand about the consequences they helped bring about. They need to follow the money—their own campaign money, that is.
As Democrats learned years ago, support for mandatory testing and charter schools opens fat wallets on Wall Street. Money guys love deregulation, testing and Big Data, and union-busting. In 2005, Obama served as the featured speaker at the inaugural gathering of Democrats for Education Reform, which bundles contributions to Democrats who back charter schools: Among its favorites have been those sharp DeVos critics George Miller, Michael Bennet, and Cory Booker. Conservative funders like the Walton Foundation also give generously to charter schools and liberal think tanks such as the Center for American Progress.
The money had its intended effect. When Andrew Cuomo decided to run for governor of New York, he learned that the way to raise cash was to go through the hedge funders at Democrats for Education Reform. They backed him lavishly, and Cuomo repaid them by becoming a hero of the charter movement. Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, often celebrated for his unvarnished liberalism, is another champion of the charter industry; some of its biggest funders live in his state. California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill to ban for-profit charters in the state, and has resisted efforts to make charters more accountable. As mayor of Oakland, he opened two charter schools.
There are plenty of reasons that Democrats should steer clear of the charter industry. Charter corporations have been repeatedly charged with fraud, nepotism, self-dealing, and conflicts of interest. Many charters make money on complex real-estate deals. Worst of all are the “cybercharters”: mega-corporations that offer virtual schools, with high attrition, low test scores, and abysmal graduation rates. The biggest cybercharter chain is K12 Inc., started by former junk-bond king Michael Milken and listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
But it’s more than a matter of sleeping with the enemy. School choice doesn’t work, and “evidence-based” Democrats ought to acknowledge it. Charter schools are a failed experiment. Study after study has shown that they do not get better test scores than public schools unless they screen out English-language learners and students with profound disabilities. It’s well-established that school choice increases segregation, rather than giving low-income students better opportunities. And kids using vouchers actually lose ground in private schools. Support for charters is paving the way for a dual school system—one that is allowed to choose the students it wants, and another that is required to accept all who enroll.
This is what Democrats should be yelling about. And if there’s ever a moment for them to reclaim their mantle as the party of public education, it’s now. The misguided push for “reform” is currently being led not by Obama and Duncan, but by Trump and DeVos, giving Democrats an opening to shift gears on education—though they’ll lose some of that hedge-fund money. But if 2016 taught Democrats anything, it’s how unwise it was to allow the demolition of organized labor—including teachers’ unions, once a great source of money and grassroots energy. The party needs strong teachers’ unions and it needs their enthusiasm.
The agenda isn’t complicated. Fight privatization of all kinds. Insist on an evidence-based debate about charter schools and vouchers. Abandon the obsession with testing. Fight for equitable funding, with public money flowing to the neediest schools. Acknowledge the importance of well-educated, professional teachers in every classroom. Follow the example of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who vetoed a bill to expand charters in March. Or Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who insists that charters employ certified teachers, allow them to unionize, and fall under the control of local school districts. Democrats should take their cue from Bullock when he declares, “I continue to firmly believe that our public education system is the great equalizer.”
There is already an education agenda that is good for children, good for educators, good for the nation, and good for the Democratic Party. It’s called good public schools for everyone. All Democrats have to do is to rediscover it.
Cary Grant was there. So was the distinguished silent film star Mary Pickford. Tyrone Power, handsome swashbuckler of stage and screen, showed up with his new wife, the glamorous French actress Annabella. As they did every summer, the world’s rich and famous had descended upon Venice to toss back flutes of prosecco at the Biennale and step out at the Film Festival. In August 1939, however, the guest of honor was Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief propagandist and the cultural czar of the Third Reich. Goebbels made a dramatic entrance by gondola, gliding down the Grand Canal as swastika flags rippled from bridges and windowsills. Italian newsreels show the propaganda minister sunning himself aboard a sailboat and leading a nighttime rally in the Piazza San Marco. Within weeks of Goebbels’ Venetian tour, German tanks thundered into Poland. Europe was once again at war.
Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany formalized their military alliance in May 1939. Yet both powers recognized that hegemony in Europe and the Mediterranean required the projection of cultural influence as much as the force of arms. And so they set about remaking European civilization in their own image. During the 1930s, Berlin and Rome built a right-wing network of international organizations for film, music, literature, and academic scholarship. These bodies lent prestige to the Nazi–fascist project while laying the groundwork for a new idea of Europe itself: not liberal and cosmopolitan but racially pure and authoritarian—a sharp rebuke to the mixed, messy democratic modernity of France, Britain, and the United States. The Venice Film Festival was the finest jewel in the Nazi–fascist cultural crown, founded by Mussolini’s regime in 1932 as an aesthetic counterweight to Hollywood commercialism.
This is the story narrated with great erudition and grace by Benjamin Martin in his new book The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture. The insidious spread of what Martin calls “the soft power of Nazi and fascist imperialism” is a staggering tale of geopolitical and intellectual ambition. It is all the more astonishing for having been overlooked for so long. Drawing upon libraries and archives in five different countries, Martin’s work is a dazzling transnational history of ideas and institutions as well as a major contribution to our understanding of fascism and the Third Reich: Martin reveals how cultural initiatives unlock the political imagination of the interwar radical right. It was in concert halls and boardrooms and along red carpets that sinister ideologues like Goebbels most fully revealed their plans to remake European civilization and overturn the global order.
The book also lands with more shuddering force than its author could have anticipated. More than any moment since the 1930s, we suddenly face the prospect of a world system principally shaped by the extreme right. With the European Union in peril, Russia extending its reach, and authoritarian nationalists seducing the disaffected, Martin’s study of “totalitarian internationalism” turns out to be precisely the sort of history we need at this particular moment: a deft and disquieting account of how easily the noblest of liberal principles may be hollowed out and swiftly renovated for darker purpose.
On November 1, 1937, Hermann Goering opened an exhibition of Italian art in Berlin—one of many events organized by the Nazis to bolster their vision of European culture. Goering, who liked to style himself a patron of the arts when he wasn’t commanding the German air force, explained to the gathered dignitaries that fascist Italy and the Third Reich both “considered cultural questions to be as important as political and economic questions.” Five years later, Goebbels told film industry professionals in Berlin that European hegemony would be impossible “if we do not also make ourselves supreme in the cultural field.” These men were not merely telling their listeners what they wanted to hear. Within months of assuming power in 1933, the Third Reich began establishing new intergovernmental bodies for European arts and culture that would draw resources and leadership from Nazi Berlin: the Permanent Council for International Cooperation among Composers, the Union of National Writers, and the International Film Chamber. Italian fascists supported these efforts while founding cultural institutions of their own. These new organizations granted both powers a kind of “capillary reach” across Europe, Martin contends, helping Rome and Berlin “to penetrate other nations’ cultural markets, influence their cultural policies, and steer their citizens’ attitudes and values to a new moral vision.” A new aesthetics would usher in a new political order.
Nazi–fascist leaders believed that good art was defined most of all by its racial integrity, its reflection of a single national tradition. This meant, for instance, the classical strains of Beethoven or the folk-inspired music of Hungarian composer Béla Bártok, rather than the syncopated, jazzy compositions of Maurice Ravel or the atonal modernism of Arnold Schoenberg. Hitler believed that the very notion of international art was “vacuous and idiotic,” praising instead “the underlying racial determination of style.” Goebbels explained that great artists were always “in the end children of their nations.” Literary giants like “Goethe and Wagner, Shakespeare and Byron, Molière and Corneille,” he suggested, had only “become global cultural property because, in the end and in the deepest sense they were the best German, Englishmen, and Frenchmen.”
German and Italian officials believed that modern states had the sacred duty to defend national art against the degenerative force of global cosmopolitanism. This made the Axis not merely a military alliance—it was also the founding charter of a dynamic civilization. Concerts, film festivals, student exchanges, and academic conferences allowed Rome and Berlin to grandly argue that they offered, in Martin’s vivid formulation, “a renewal of Europe’s soul.” Against vulgar American consumerism, laissez-faire capitalism, liberal democracy, and the threat of revolutionary Bolshevism, Nazi–fascist leaders offered an alternative framework for European society: spiritual rather than materialistic, organic and traditional rather than abstract and cosmopolitan, overseen by strong and racially pure states. Promoting these racist and anti-Semitic ideas, institutions like the Permanent Council and the Venice Film Festival also modeled a new style of global cooperation: a “totalitarian international” in which ethnic and racial differences were not transcended but rather proclaimed, celebrated, and deepened.
Schemes like these make one’s skin crawl. But the Nazi–fascist way of thinking about European culture found wide appeal, and it’s worth understanding why. Martin argues that artists and industry professionals began looking to Berlin and Rome for new solutions to genuine economic problems. They hoped that the authoritarian right would strengthen copyright protections in a global age, improve the collection of royalties, and aggressively develop a common European market. After all, Europe was beleaguered by a profound sense of spiritual and cultural crisis. New technologies had transformed the nature of work and the structure of politics, women enjoyed greater economic and sexual independence than ever before, and the continent was in thrall to American goods and the alluring spirit of mass consumption. Bedrock bourgeois values appeared to be under siege on every front—an impression worsened by a string of devastating economic crises that had erased middle-class savings and eroded livelihoods. Liberal democracy, once the bearer of great promise and possibility, seemed sluggish and spent by the mid-1930s. As much of what they recognized melted into air, Europeans hungered for stability and reassurance. “For a brief but important period in the 1930s and 1940s,” Martin explains, “locating the centers of European culture in Hitler’s Berlin and Mussolini’s Rome was more appealing to a good number of European elites than having them in Paris or London, New York or Moscow.”
Music was especially welcoming terrain for the Nazi-fascist civilizational project. The Third Reich attracted support from across the continent by promising to champion national musical traditions that had been snobbishly overlooked by elites in New York, Paris, and London. Classical repertory loomed large. Modern works—breezily rejected by one Nazi critic as “unmusic”—were only acceptable if they exemplified the composer’s national spirit. The Permanent Council, founded under Nazi auspices in 1934, was comprised of delegates from a wide range of European countries including Great Britain, France, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, and Iceland. The legendary German composer Richard Strauss, who personally loathed jazz and other frivolous modern musical inventions, directed the group’s campaign against cosmopolitanism. The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, held up as a sterling example of national musical achievement, was named one of the Council’s vice presidents.
Italy, meanwhile, began hauling the international film industry into the Nazi–fascist orbit. It was Mussolini, after all, who had called cinema “the strongest weapon” of any political movement. In 1928, he convinced the League of Nations that it ought to establish an International Institute for Educational Cinematography in Rome. And after its birth in 1932, the Venice Film Festival earned praise from directors and critics with its implicit argument that cinema was not a commodity but rather high art. The Third Reich signaled its own plans in April 1935, inviting several thousand delegates to Berlin for a massive European film conference. The Nazis welcomed their guests with the formal trimmings of interwar diplomacy: dinners and flags and receptions; working sessions at the legislature and the opera house; tours of nearby film studios and the Reich Film Archive; and a formal ball presided over by a tuxedo-clad Goebbels. The event culminated with the creation of the Nazi-led International Film Chamber, a new venture formally announced several months later in Venice—during the Film Festival. Moviegoers then fêted the foreign premiere of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, an exemplar of Nazi ideology and a masterpiece of modern propaganda.
Curiously absent from Martin’s story, however, are the visual arts: Did Nazi-fascist officials seek to organize the future of painting, sculpture, and photography as forcefully as they did music and film? Perhaps the quiet study of paintings in museum galleries seemed less obviously useful to Axis elites than musical concerts or film. Yet this was also a cultural field about which the Third Reich expressed some of its strongest and most surprising preferences. From Italian Futurism to German Expressionism, many avant-garde artists bristled at bourgeois culture and sought to express something more dangerous and vital. At first blush, modern painting seemed especially well-suited for the Axis dream of European culture. But Hitler loathed these works, and in 1937, the Nazi regime denounced modern art by displaying canvases by Paul Klee, Georg Grosz, Pablo Picasso, and others as part of the infamous—and distressingly popular—Exhibition of Degenerate Art in Munich.
Nazi–fascist cultural diplomacy ambitiously sought to redefine the idea of Europe itself, an ambition lost on very few. One fascist writer argued that the Axis represented “the spine of the renewed Europe, the ray of light towards its spiritual reinvigoration, the bulwark for the defense of its culture.” While some observers praised this agenda, others vocally resisted. Exiled to Los Angeles, Thomas Mann declared in a 1942 radio address that “Hitler-Europe is a macabre farce… the most heinous perversion and violation of a great idea.” Nazism, he continued, was “really about to spoil for us even the idea of ‘Europe.’” After the war, Jean-Paul Sartre reflected that the word “Europe” now evoked “the sound of the boots of Nazi Germany.”
Historians have generally assumed that Nazi officials did not think all that much, or all that deeply, about what European civilization meant and how its future might unfold. Martin’s impressive study will force historians to reconsider. Hitler himself was not so explicit, Martin concedes, but his top lieutenants were consumed by the dream of ruling and reordering an entire continent. Itineraries of concert tours, minutes of conferences, snapshots taken of Nazis along the Grand Canal—these sources, creatively assembled by Martin, make it difficult to ignore the fact that Nazi Europeanism was a remarkably vigorous idea and a real civilizational project.
This is also why Martin’s work is so rattling. Over the past decade, the idea of Europe has been questioned by voters and markets, tried by geopolitical adversaries, tested by humanitarian crisis. Confident debates about expansion have been traded for darker discussions about the very possibility of a free, united, and democratic continent. The idea of Europe, in other words, has lost its postwar aura of rational necessity. The history of Nazi–fascist cultural diplomacy warns us that there is nothing inevitable about European unity under liberal-democratic auspices. As Martin sharply concludes, “the political values inherent in our cultural systems … are not dictated by history, but are a matter of choice that lies with us.” Europe has always been a grand idea. But it is more flexible than we realize. We must deliberately invest it with the meaning we wish for it to have. If we don’t, others will.
Martin’s fine study of cultural diplomacy reminds us that ideas are mercenary creatures, always available to serve new masters. In the 1930s and 1940s, the extreme right borrowed the prestige of artistic genius and the internationalist spirit to smash the idea of a free, tolerant Europe. The example is a chilling one. And as authoritarian nativists reach once again for the reins of the international system, we will need to remember, perhaps desperately, that the trappings of civilization are not the thing itself.
Right now in America, there are more than 1,300 large swaths of land and water where toxic stews of chemicals like asbestos, mercury, PCBs, and arsenic linger, threatening the health of tens of thousands of humans. They’re called Superfund sites, some of the country’s most contaminated places—and on Tuesday, President Donald Trump reportedly will propose cutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund budget by 25 percent. According to The New York Times, his fiscal 2018 budget proposal will also call for a 36 percent cut to a separate program for cleaning up contaminated former industrial sites.
It’s no surprise that the White House would recommend harsh EPA cuts, given Trump’s open hostility toward environmental regulations. His initial “skinny budget” for 2017 sought a 30 percent overall cut to the agency, including deep cuts to Superfund and other cleanup programs. Those proposals ultimately didn’t make it into the final 2017 budget approved by Congress, but they’re expected to be mirrored in his 2018 proposal. “Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was fairly straightforward—we’re not spending money on that anymore; we consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that,” Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, said in March. “So that is a specific tie to his campaign.”
But Trump’s proposed Superfund cut, specifically, is unexpected in light of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s stated priorities. He has previously said he does not support cutting the Superfund program, and earlier this month he announced a new directive to prioritize it. Also, in recent media appearances, he has been highly critical of the EPA’s direction under President Barack Obama, claiming the previous administration was too focused on climate change at the expense of contaminated sites. This is not true, as I pointed out last week. Moreover, can Pruitt really improve Superfund cleanups if its budget is cut by a quarter?
Superfund cleanup advocates don’t think so. “Funding is, I think, the most significant driver of sites not getting cleaned up,” said Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. An attorney who currently represents the town of DePue, Illinois, the entirety of which is a Superfund site, she said that without proper funding, the EPA can’t clean up contaminated sites itself and force polluters to pay them back. The EPA would be forced to negotiate cleanup deals with polluters from a weaker position, extending the time needed it takes to create an acceptable plan.
The Superfund program is already underfunded. It has been ever since 2003, years after Congress let expire the so-called “Superfund tax” on oil and gas companies, which was able to raise billions for cleanup per year. But now, the Superfund program only operates on about $1 billion per year in federal dollars. “Losing even that minimal amount of funding will essentially bring the program to a halt,” Loeb said.
But even in the best-case budget scenario, where the 25 percent cut to Superfund is not realized, Loeb and others worry about Pruitt’s plan for the sites. That’s because Pruitt, who has a history of close and friendly ties to polluting industries, has said he will prioritize Superfunds by handling negotiations with polluters himself. According to the EPA’s press release, his directive this month puts “the decision of how to clean up the sites directly into the hands of the Administrator,” rather than other members of the bureaucracy.
That directive is “quite disheartening,” said Peter deFur, an environmental consultant and Superfund cleanup expert. Both deFur and Loeb expressed concern that Pruitt would be more lenient when negotiating cleanup deals with polluters, allowing them to pay less for plans that are less comprehensive. “There is grave concern in the environmental community, myself included, that what Pruitt will do is get faster but much less rigorous cleanup,” Loeb said. DeFur agreed. “I’m not sure that Pruitt’s idea of improving the program and mine would agree at all,” he said. “To me, improving the program means more aggressive cleanups that move contamination to lower levels, and more aggressive pursuit of potentially responsible parties. What does Pruitt mean by improve?”
EPA’s spokespeople did not respond to my request for clarification on that point, but late afternoon on Monday the agency issued a press release announcing a new “Superfund Task Force,” which it said was part of Pruitt’s “continued effort to prioritize Superfund cleanups.” That task force is expected to provide recommendations in 30 days on how the EPA can “streamline” the Superfund program—perhaps a coded way to insist it can operate more efficiently on less money. It’s not clear yet how Pruitt’s EPA would do that—apparently we’ll find out in a month—but the press release gave some vague indications, including “incentivizing parties to remediate sites” and “encouraging private investment in cleanups and sites.”
The polluting companies themselves have reason to believe Pruitt will be more lenient. Last week, the New York Times reported that the oil and gas company Devon Energy, which donated thousands to Pruitt when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general, recently stepped away from an environmental settlement it had planned to sign with the Obama administration. According to the Times, the company “had been prepared to install a sophisticated system to detect and reduce leaks of dangerous gases” for one of its gas plants, and “had also discussed paying a six-figure penalty to settle claims by the Obama administration that it was illegally emitting 80 tons each year of hazardous chemicals, like benzene, a known carcinogen.” After Pruitt took office, though, Devon said it was “re-evaluating its settlement posture,” and would no longer install emissions controls or pay a large fine. Devon Energy has also strongly opposed the effort to renew the Superfund tax on energy companies.
The revelations about Devon worry cleanup advocates like Loeb. “I’m really concerned that Pruitt will make quick deals with companies, and they will be superficial and inadequate cleanups,” she said. But she still holds out some hope that Pruitt will keep his promises. “Superfund is an area that is absolutely essential,” the administrator said in March. As with the word “improve,” it remains to be seen what exactly he means by “essential.”
On Monday, the Supreme Court held that two gerrymanders passed by the North Carolina legislature were unconstitutional. All eight justices to hear the case—which was heard before Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the Court—agreed that one of the majority-minority districts in question, District 1, was a gerrymander based on race and hence unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. With respect to District 12, however, the Court was divided 5-3. The swing vote, joining the Court’s four Democratic nominees, might seem surprising: Justice Clarence Thomas. And yet his vote was in keeping with his longstanding, idiosyncratic approach to cases involving race.
This vote, despite what some liberals might hope, is not a sign that Thomas is becoming more moderate. Referring to the leftward “evolution” of some Republican nominees, like Harry Blackmun, Thomas would tell his clerks, “I ain’t evolving.” No justice’s jurisprudence remains entirely static, of course, but in broad ideological terms Thomas hasn’t evolved, and won’t. His views on race and the Constitution are ultimately conservative ones—but they’re conservative in a distinctive way.
In part because he rarely speaks at oral argument, there was a common perception that Thomas is just a clone of the late Antonin Scalia. This assumption—which, in some cases, carried the odor of racist condescension—is profoundly wrong. “What [Thomas] has done on the Court,” wrote Mark Tushnet, now a professor at Harvard Law School, in his 2005 book A Court Divided, “is certainly more interesting and more distinctive than what Scalia has done and, I think, has a greater chance of making an enduring contribution to constitutional law.” Thomas and the recently retired Justice John Paul Stevens are the two most idiosyncratic Supreme Court justices of the last 40 years, the most likely to stake out a unique position on a particular issue.
Thomas’s approach is particularly visible in cases involving race. Typical Republican nominees like Chief Justice John Roberts and Antonin Scalia combine a belief in formal colorblindness with the view that racism is no longer a major problem in American society. This willful optimism reached the point of self-parody with Roberts’s 2013 opinion gutting a section of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination to get approval from federal authorities for any changes to election law. Roberts held that because the Voting Rights Act had been so effective in addressing race discrimination in voting, Congress no longer had the power to enact its most important enforcement mechanism.
Thomas also generally believes in formal colorblindness, but for very different reasons rooted in (sometimes explicit) black nationalism. Thomas believes that the state should be race-neutral not because he has any illusions that racism has ended in the United States, but because he believes that color-blindness is the best that African-Americans can reasonably expect from the state.
Thomas’s fatalism can be seen even in opinions where he ends up in the same position as his conservative colleagues. His 2003 dissent from the Court’s opinion upholding the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action program is a powerful argument even if, like me, you ultimately disagree with the bottom line. Beginning by quoting Frederick Douglass, he makes a subtle, complex argument with pointed discussions about the fallacious assumptions that predominantly black institutions must be inferior; the dubious necessity of the state maintaining an elite law school; the disgrace of legacy admissions preferences; and the false “merit” reflected by standardized tests. Even if one ultimately finds it unpersuasive, it’s certainly not the boilerplate defense of American “meritocracy” that underlies Republican arguments against affirmative action.
Sometimes, because of his unique perspective on race, he has ended up entirely alone on the Court. The last time Thomas substantially participated in an oral argument was the 2003 case Virginia v. Black, which involved several people who had been convicted under a Virginia statute banning cross-burning. The key constitutional question in such cases is whether the relevant statute penalizes white supremacist expression (which is speech protected by the First Amendment) or intimidation or threats (which, legally, are “conduct” not protected by the First Amendment).
Under Virginia law, the intent to intimidate could be inferred from the act of cross-burning itself, and the burden of proof was on the defense to show that the intent of the act was purely expressive. A majority of the Court found this unconstitutional, essentially holding that to be consistent with the First Amendment the burden of proof had to be on the state to show that a cross-burning was intended to be threatening.
In his dissent, however, Thomas pointed out that the statute was enacted by a segregationist legislature. Obviously, the Jim Crow legislators who voted for the law were not trying to suppress white supremacist expression, but simply realized that cross-burning was virtually always done with the intent to intimidate. And therefore, Thomas concluded, the statute “prohibits only conduct, not expression.” Thomas was right—but no other justice joined him.
Nor is yesterday’s opinion the first time Thomas has joined the Court’s liberal faction to be the swing vote on a race-related issue. In a 2015 case, Thomas provided the fifth vote to an opinion holding that Texas was not required to issue license plates with the Confederate flag as part of its option of personalized license plates. It is not terribly surprising that even a conservative African-American who grew up impoverished in the rural Jim Crow South would have a different perspective on the Confederacy and its legacy than the typical conservative.
Thomas’s votes yesterday were squarely within that tradition. His brief concurring opinion emphasized that the result comported with two of his longstanding views. First, he believes that any use of race by the government, for any purpose, triggers strict scrutiny, a high burden North Carolina could not meet. Since the state conceded that District 1 was intentionally created as a majority-minority district, this made the case easy for Thomas as well as the other conservatives.
He also explained that he joined the liberal faction with respect to District 12 in part because of his belief in deferring to the findings of the trial court unless it clearly errs. Here, Thomas was tweaking the Court for not finding the gerrymander unconstitutional in a 2001 case after a district court did. Interestingly, Thomas is the only holdover from the 2001 case who didn’t switch sides, which is both a credit to Thomas and a demonstration of how partisan views of racial gerrymanders have changed. (At issue is whether majority-minority districts facilitate the election of minority officials in those districts, or packs minorities in such a way that the overall power of their vote is lessened.)
“His race fatalism,” says Jeffrey R. Dudas, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and author of the new book Raised Right, “leads him to consider all governmental actions around race (even those that are intended to be ameliorative) as illegitimate and having the eventual effect of harming racial minorities.” This belief generally produces conservative results—but not always. Yesterday, Thomas put his deeply rooted beliefs about race and the Constitution above partisan self-interest.
While Thomas opposes affirmative action, his tenure on the Court is actually an object lesson in the value of diversity. He was selected in part because George H.W. Bush felt he could not realistically replace Thurgood Marshall, the only African-American in the Court’s history to that point, with a white person. But not only has he been a more than able justice (whether one substantively agrees with him or not), he has brought a unique perspective to the Court that could not have been provided by a more generic Republican nominee.
Last week, Saily Avelenda sat alone in her quiet backyard in West Caldwell, New Jersey —her husband at work, her two young sons at school—and, glued to her phone, watched her story go viral.
That morning, WYNC had broken the news: New Jersey Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress, sent a form fundraising letter to a board member of the bank where Avelenda had worked. The conservative agenda was under attack by “organized forces,” it warned. At the bottom, in a handwritten note, the congressman added, “P.S. One of the ringleaders works at your bank.”
That “ringleader” was Avelenda, senior vice president and assistant general counsel at the Lakeland Bank, at its headquarters in Oak Ridge, New Jersey. After the election, she had helped found a grassroots group, NJ 11th for Change, that was publicly urging Frelinghuysen to meet with his constituents in a town hall.
Avelenda first saw the letter in March, when her boss came into her office and showed it to her. He asked her to describe her involvement with the group, and to write a statement explaining the situation for the bank’s CEO. In April, after six and a half years at the bank and a recent promotion, Avelenda resigned.
Then the WYNC story aired, and Avelenda’s phone started to ring. She spoke with a reporter from The Washington Post, one of the first of 14 interviews she fielded that day. A video she filmed that day for NowThis Politics has accrued 1.15 million views.
For the media, the story’s appeal was undeniable: An elected Republican official, newly embattled due to his Trump-friendly votes, had taken a shot at an activist—and bloodied his own image in the process. The headlines agreed: Frelinghuysen’s “tattling” had cost his constituent her job.
But the story had one nagging loose end: Avelenda had not been fired. She had left. Was losing her job the cost of her activism?
I first met Avelenda in early April, in a Montclair coffee shop. I was curious about the letter, which she had not yet made public. Avelenda was perfectly made-up and crisply dressed in a pantsuit, her dark hair neat despite the rain. Even discussing the letter made her uneasy.
So at first we spoke of other things—why she helped start NJ 11th for Change in the first place. Avelenda described how, on the morning after Trump’s election, she felt a personal sense of responsibility for the results, even complicity, due to her own complacency that Hillary Clinton would win. While Avelenda had given money to Clinton’s campaign, she had not called or canvassed. “It was me and every other me,” she said.
Brought together by a Facebook post, Avelenda met with a group of strangers who would become the steering committee for NJ 11th for Change, which now counts more than 7,000 Facebook members. (The 11th District, a wealthy, suburban region in the north of the state, has a population of about 650,000.) Their main demand was that Frelinghuysen hold an in-person town hall, which he had not done since 2013. In February, they held “constituent town halls” to highlight his absence.
When the group decided to register as a nonpartisan super PAC, Avelenda handled the paperwork. They received $30,000 in contributions with no formal fundraising effort. (Ever cautious, Avelenda also elicited legal advice to be sure she could pursue these activities at her job; she could.) Members of the steering committee, which met weekly, said they felt like a new family—one with ambitious plans.
After running virtually unopposed for twelve terms, Frelinghuysen was newly vulnerable and on the 2018 target list of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He had won his last campaign by 20 points, chaired the powerful House Appropriations Committee, and was the scion of an aristocratic family who had served in Congress for centuries. But in part due to a 2010 redistricting, his moderate district went for Trump by just .9 percentage points. And Frelinghuysen, a professed moderate, was voting “yea” on every bill on the Trump agenda.
NJ 11th for Change members began to rally outside Frelinghuysen’s offices every Friday, demanding a town hall. The media began to notice. After Frelinghuysen said he’d vote no on Speaker Paul Ryan’s first try at a Republican health care bill, the group received a tearful thanks from Rachel Maddow. (Frelinghuysen has since voted yea on the American Health Care Act.)
The day before I met Avelenda in the café, the group had chartered three buses with the progressive group Blue Wave to bring constituents to Frelinghuysen’s D.C. offices. In a last-minute concession, he agreed to meet with them. When they arrived, Frelinghuysen stood in the doorway to greet them like a grandfather, wearing ill-fitting pants and a somewhat lost expression. His appearance was utterly at odds with the considerable power he wields, as every government bill must pass through his committee for funding.
Avelenda told me that Frelinghuysen cultivated that “grandpa” image, posing for photographs with schoolchildren and veterans at the IHOP. “But would grandpa send a letter to your employer?” she asked.
The letter showed a very different Frelinghuysen—reckless, bullying. Avelenda felt obligated to make the letter public, because her group’s purpose was to show constituents “the real Rodney.”
But Avelenda could not publish the letter while working at the bank. She had promised her boss not to use the company’s name in her political activities—and she hadn’t—but her own name was unusual and easily searchable. (That was how, she suspected, Frelinghuysen’s staff traced her from a quote in a Politico article to the bank. The board member who received the fundraising letter, Joseph O’Dowd, is a Frelinghuysen donor, and the Politico article was included with the letter.) “It would be different if my name were Mary Smith,” she told me.
I called Avelenda two days after the story broke, an event she called “the hurricane.” She had a television interview later that day and needed to get her hair done, in part for her mother’s sake. Avelenda’s mother was a Cuban exile who, as a teenager, spent 27 months in a government labor camp. When she heard the Frelinghuysen story, Avelenda’s mother—a staunch Republican—went on a diatribe: She had not left Cuba at great cost for her daughter to be bullied in a free country! And before Avelenda went on the news, she was going to get her hair cut and dyed.
Frelinghuysen’s words were intended to intimidate her, Avelenda told me. This assessment is shared by nonpartisan ethics experts, including Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center. McGehee told me, “A reasonable person would look at this letter and say it was intended to intimidate” with “an insinuation of retaliation.”
But did Avelenda feel intimidated, and compelled to stop her activism? No, she laughed: “There is only one person on the planet who can intimidate me, and that is my mom.”
did not comment for any news story (including this one), apart from a brief,
disavowing statement his campaign office provided to WNYC
that called the letter “innocuous.”
The Lakeland Bank commented only on its Facebook page, quoting from a code of ethics that they “promote our employees’ full awareness and interest in civic and political responsibility” so employees could support “the political process in the manner that she or he desires.” (This sentiment was doubted by many of the thousand comments the post accrued.)
So why had she resigned? Avelenda described her last weeks on the job: sleepless nights, uncharacteristic panic attacks, and an intolerable office dynamic, of which the letter was one integral part. She came to realize that, by passing on the letter, the board member and her boss had enabled Frelinghuysen’s attempt to intimidate her.
Avelenda foresaw more conflict between her bank, with its characteristic conservatism, and her activism, particularly as the 2018 election neared. She could not promise to keep her name out of the news. She resigned and, three weeks later, published the letter.
the cost of her activism was a dilemma: She could not continue to both hold
Frelinghuysen accountable and keep her job. She had to choose.
It is extraordinary that a mere member of a constituent group—a good citizen exercising her civic rights—felt she had to give up her job to demand that her congressman represent her interests. While some companies, like The New York Times, ask that employees refrain from political activities for ethical reasons, Avelenda’s bank claimed to support employees’ political engagement as a part of their ethic. After Avelenda’s story came out, I wondered if other new activists would face surprising costs for confronting their representatives.
Reassuringly, McGehee told me that Frelinghuysen’s actions were unusual. Less reassuringly, she read them as part of a larger “Trump effect,” created by a president who every day overturns the norms of political behavior. She likened it to the body politic moving from a smooth stream into the rapids. “I’d say Frelinghuysen got caught up,” said McGehee. Indeed, the letter was sent shortly after the February recess, when a slew of raucous town halls swept the nation.
Dan Weiner, a lawyer at the Brennan Center, told me that many people wrongly believe they have free speech in their private workplace. He said, “In most states you can be fired if people don’t like your politics.” (USA Today ran a story on this pinned to Avelenda.)
In what is shaping up to be a viciously partisan midterm election, the battle may become more personal than activists thought, and with higher personal stakes—and not everyone will be free to make Avelenda’s choice.
Avelenda does need a job eventually. Her husband works, she said, but she is the family’s breadwinner. And considering how conservative banks tend to be, she told me, she’s worried no bank will hire her. The cost of the letter’s publication may be this particular career, which was not, she said, “a cost I thought I would pay.”
For Frelinghuysen, too, the letter has costs that are still being tallied. While his letter was not necessarily illegal, McGehee and other experts say, it was politically unwise. A day after Avelenda’s story broke, the Campaign for Accountability filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics, asking it to investigate whether Frelinghuysen broke House ethics rules.
For its part, the DCCC took out a digital ad campaign against Frelinghuysen quoting Avelenda: “My congressmen ... used his name, used his position, and used his stationary to try to punish me.” On Friday, outside Frelinghuysen’s Morristown offices, in New Jersey, Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor who is the first Democrat to challenge Frelinghuysen, said, “I want him to apologize to Avelenda.” In Avelenda, Frelinghuysen inadvertently created a liberal rallying point and maybe even a “hero of the resistance,” as one Facebook post put it, to her own incredulity.
One final cost for Frelinghuysen is clear: Now that she’s no longer at Lakeland Bank, Avelenda can be on his case full-time.
Monster, machine, and man: together they plot the Alien franchise’s territory. Each corner of the triangle is not a type, but a unique interpretation. Ellen Ripley is no ordinary human being: She holds a jawline full of emotion, and sweats like she is crying tears through her skin. The alien is not just a monster, but a sculpture of wet beauty whose jaws punch through people and whose blood melts the instruments we use to survive. Those tools are special, too. The metal objects in Alien movies are factory-industrial. Chains and trucks and big digger-like gadgets creak and groan, clanking bells tolling for the dead. And then there are the androids.
Every installment in the Alien franchise takes its energy from the interactions between humans, technological thought experiments (space travel, androids, reproductive science), and the alien itself. Every movie orients itself around a different combination of these three.
Alien: Covenant is a sequel to 2012’s Prometheus, which itself was a prequel to Alien. But although this movie brings us another female lead in the tradition of Weaver, Winona Ryder, and Noomi Rapace (Katherine Waterston, who plays Daniels), Alien: Covenant is not about the human heart, let alone a woman’s. The android at the center of the two most recent movies is played like a violin by Michael Fassbender, and he is the point at which the weight of Alien: Covenant falls.
As the android wakes from his android sleep, a figure towers behind him. It is a replica of Michelangelo’s David with his feet sunken into the floor and his head poking into the ceiling. The effect is of a figure that we can only see from ankle to neck: a beautiful but injured superman. The android is invited by his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), to choose for himself a name, and thus the villainous robot David is born. He loves Wagner from the start.
A little later, in space, another android cares for a shipful of human beings. On the Covenant, a crew and colonization force drift in hypersleep as the android Walter tends to them. Walter looks just like David, but he speaks like an American newscaster instead of a British fin-de-siècle cocktail party host. He is a later synthetic of the same techno-lineage.
After a galactic mishap throws their colonization mission off course, the Covenant decides to follow a beamed message to a nearby planet. There, for reasons I will not spoil, Walter comes face to face with David. The latter android is an eighth-generation synthetic, invented by Weyland to assist in his hubristic mission to discover the creators of mankind, far out in space. Are these two androids relations, or iterations of one another? What’s the difference?
However we might categorize their relationship, they are marked with different cultural codes. Alone in his shadowy cave, the place he calls “this dire necropolis,” David sings “The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.” That nineteenth-century music hall ditty was also sung by Peter O’Toole, also into an echoing abyss of rock, in Lawrence of Arabia. Like O’Toole, David’s voice is quavering cut glass but his body seems ravaged by time and exposure. The condition of his mind is much less clear.
Walter sounds like a newscaster precisely because he has no markings whatsoever. Where David seems to belong to a time and a place in human history, Walter is an android of ultimate globalized neutrality—white and male, he is like the idea of a man on television turned three-dimensional. David sees Walter as a tragic victim whose life is devoid of art. In a scene of startling beauty, one android teaches the other to play on a recorder-like instrument, which apparently he has whittled himself. One android’s fingers hold down the other’s as he keys the notes. “You have symphonies in you, brother,” one says to the other.
In this duet between Walter and David, Fassbender plays out a counterpoint of dyadic ideas. Love versus duty; beauty versus function; ancestor versus inheritor. The terms of these conversations are Romantic. The androids talk of “Ozymandias” as trees dance in the wind, and of alchemical experiments in candlelit caves. The Romantics believed in sublime things and saw invisible worlds. They are long gone.
As Walter and David dance around one another, the ship with beautiful golden sails hovers in space. A “covenant” is a promise, and the word here recalls the Ark of the Covenant, the wooden chest containing the Ten Commandments tablets. By shifting the intellectual focus of the movie away from the human and towards the machine—thereby redefining the very idea of “monster”—Alien: Covenant breaks with the franchise’s tradition of leaning towards the female lead as its center. Why?
Alien: Covenant marks the sixth movie in the franchise, and a return to tradition after some strange (though valuable) sideways wanderings. Aliens (1986) was just as good as the original Alien (1979), but Alien 3 (1992) was a little ropey and Alien: Resurrection (1997) may as well have been from a totally different universe, though it was fun. Prometheus, helmed by original director Ridley Scott, was meant to restart the Alien engine, replacing the dynamo of Ellen Ripley with a newer, firmer mythology but keeping many of the same beloved hallmarks. Many viewers found Prometheus over-elaborate and beset by throat-clearing. It took too long for us to see Noomi Rapace rip a squid out of her own abdomen, some critics felt. The film was too much about history, not enough about abdomen squids.
Many traditions are revived in Alien: Covenant. Torsos are busted, a character named Tennessee wears a hat, an alien gets squished by a bit of factory equipment. But this movie marks a shift away from the human. The motifs of the movie further clarify this new focus. We see moss on rocks, and think of geological time. We see a planet full of green leaves and water, but silent of birdsong and totally without animals. Alien: Covenant contains multiple apocalypses within its narrative—some in the past, some in the present, some in the future—and each is about the extinction of a race or civilization.
This is a movie, in other words, about climate change, the anthropocene, and the posthuman. The ravaged planet that hosts the crew of the Covenant looks so much like our own, and yet it has violence and death lingering on its surface. Because it is a prequel, Alien: Covenant does some fascinating things with time. Without the earth to orient these human stories in history, where does the era of human supremacy begin, and where might it end? Has it ended already? The androids live for so long and the aliens are so pervasively murderous that the human lifespan seems to lose all its meaning. “How do you feel?” Peter Weyland asks his creation, at the start of this new film. “Alive,” David replies.
President Donald Trump continues to benefit from the soft bigotry of low expectations. In a major speech in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, he avoided the incendiary Islamophobic rhetoric of his campaign last year and instead adopted the more moderate language of his predecessors, calling Islam “one of the world’s great faiths.” “I stand before you as a representative of the American people, to deliver a message of friendship and hope,” Trump said. “That is why I chose to make my first foreign visit a trip to the heart of the Muslim world, to the nation that serves as custodian of the two holiest sites in the Islamic faith.”
That the president did not say “Islam hates us,” nor “radical Islamic terrorism,” was apparently enough to warrant praise. Axios summed up the conventional wisdom that Trump “gave a measured, disciplined speech to the Muslim world in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, reading entirely off TelePrompTer.” National Review called the speech “pretty good.” On CNN, Rick Santorum ludicrously argued that it would convince the courts to allow his ban on immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. “To judges in this country who are looking at his immigration ban, it’s going to be very hard to say, ‘This is a Muslim hater, he hates Islam, you know, he wants to ban Muslims,’” said the former Pennsylvania senator.
It’s foolish to give Trump credit for showing the elementary common sense needed to distinguish between the acts of a small number of terrorists and the faith of more than a billion people. It’s also premature to declare that Trump has “pivoted away from his strident assessment of Islam as a religion of hatred,” as The New York Times did in its report. One speech does not a tolerant Trump make. Peter Beinart, writing on Trump’s speech for The Atlantic, has a more convincing theory to explain the chasm between Trump’s hateful campaign and his more politically correct presidency: “Trump is a coward. He says wildly offensive things when the objects of his derision aren’t around, but crumples when he actually meets them.”
This is true of many of Trump’s dealings with foreign leaders. He invariably drops his earlier tough talk—promising to withdraw from NAFTA and label China a currency manipulator—and becomes much more propitiative. But Trump’s cowardice doesn’t fully explain why he was an outright bigot on the campaign trail and has mollified foreign leaders as president. Trump is a salesman who tailors his pitch to different audiences. In his rally speeches, Trump is addressing the masses, but now he’s making his pitch to the elites of other nations. When Trump advocated for a Muslim ban, he was appealing primarily to Islamophobes in America, and perhaps also issuing a warning to prospective Muslim immigrants. With his speech in Saudi Arabia, Trump was sending a message to a much smaller audience: the Saudi royal family and like-minded autocrats in the Middle East.
Unlike George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Trump did not deliver a message for the Muslim masses. He carefully eschewed talk of liberty or democracy, which has been standard presidential rhetoric since Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, Trump made sure that the autocrats in the room knew that the days of democracy promotion were over, saying, “We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.” This was the sole part of his speech that faced widespread criticism across the political spectrum. “I think it’s in our national security interest to advocate for democracy, freedom and human rights,” Senator Marco Rubio said. “I would tell you the White House and I have a different approach on the issue of human rights.” Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff called it “a terrible abdication of our global leadership when it comes to advocating for people who are the subject of persecution.”
What was disturbing about Trump’s speech was how completely it accepted the Saudi royal family’s view of the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia is the beacon for modernizing Islam and Iran is the chief instigator of violence. “Saudi Arabia’s Vision for 2030 is an important and encouraging statement of tolerance, respect, empowering women, and economic development,” Trump declared, an absurd claim considering that Saudi Arabia is a theocracy where women can’t even drive and atheists are beheaded. By contrast, Trump described Iran as a “regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region.... From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.”
As Beinart noted, Trump’s speech “endorsed the agenda that Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab dictatorships have been urging for years: Help us confront Iran and kill ‘terrorists’ (which includes anyone who opposes our hold on power) and all will be well.” By so wholeheartedly embracing the core tenets of Saudi foreign policy, Trump is closing the small but real opening with Iran since the 2015 nuclear deal orchestrated by the Obama administration. Trump’s anti-Iran turn is especially regrettable since Iranian voters reaffirmed their own desire for greater openness to the West by re-electing President Hassan Rouhani, the most moderate candidate in the race, by a landslide on Saturday.
An anti-Iran policy makes political sense for Trump. It’s a way to please conventional Republicans who are worried about his foreign policy heterodoxy on Russia. It unites different factions of his government, bringing together the military hawks, like national security adviser H. R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis, and the Islamophobic nationalists like chief strategist Steve Bannon. And it helps Trump justify the 10-year, $350 billion arms deal he just struck with the Saudis. As the Times reported on Saturday, “Trump and his team made clear they were willing to publicly overlook repression in places like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations whose leaders met here over the weekend—as long as they are allies in areas the president considers more important, namely security and economics. To the president and his advisers, human rights concerns can be an impediment to the flow of commerce between countries and a barrier to beneficial partnerships for the United States.”
In his speech, Trump described his foreign policy approach as “Principled Realism,” but there is nothing realistic about the United States’ buying into the Saudis’ sectarian understanding of the region as principally a conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The Saudi royal family uses this framework to justify their Sunni dictatorship, writing off all social upheaval—whether inside Saudi Arabia or in neighboring countries—as the fault of Shiites. Earlier presidents thought America’s interests were better served in defusing such sectarian divisions and critiquing the dictatorships that oppress Sunnis and Shiites alike.
Though a profane and irreligious man, Trump sees the Middle East and broader foreign policy through a religious prism (a sign, perhaps, of Bannon’s influence). It’s no accident that his foreign trip is organized, as he said in his speech, around “visiting many of the holiest places in the three Abrahamic Faiths”—Riyadh, Jerusalem, and Rome (the Vatican). But in saying this, Trump implicitly accepts Saudi claims to leadership of global Islam, comparable in authority to the Vatican as seen by Catholics. But just as many Christians reject the centrality of the Vatican, so many Muslims (not just Shiites) would have trouble accepting Saudi Arabia leadership. For America to start taking sides in such theological disputes risks inflaming sectarian tensions.
In broad outlines, Trump’s foreign policy overlaps with what any conservative Republican would do. After all, Saudi Arabia has been a pillar of American power in the region since World War II, and Iran a regional foe since the 1979 revolution. The Trumpian twist is his emphasis on bilateral relations—prioritizing deal-making with the Saudi elite—at the expense of soft power that engages with the broader public. Trump is offering the Saudi elites a blunt deal: “The U.S. will arm Saudi Arabia, and shut up about human rights, if you join our fight against terrorism.”
Every time Trump follows a script and avoids demonizing an entire people, he gets praised for being “presidential.” Yet the actual implications of Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia are disturbing: Trump is committing the U.S. to an unwavering alliance with one of the most repressive regimes in the world, and is dismissing the democratic aspirations of the Muslim masses. Morality aside, his policy risks inciting tension and conflict. In effect, Saudi Arabia’s enemies, including those fighting for democracy and human rights, would also start seeing America as a hostile force. So let’s call Trump’s foreign policy what it really is: Unprincipled Dealism.
In 1982, an ambitious U.S. attorney named Jeff Sessions sent his boss in Washington, D.C. a letter offering some advice on matters above his pay grade. Ronald Reagan had won the presidency two years earlier and was reviving Richard Nixon’s harsh rhetoric on crime and drugs, promising Americans protection from “the human predator.” At the Justice Department, the legislative wish list included the introduction of harsh sentencing guidelines and bringing back the federal death penalty. But there was a problem: How were they going to get such measures by the liberal Democrats who ran the House?
In a memo I discovered at the National Archives, Sessions recommended a partisan, scorch-the-earth strategy in Congress, and a fear-mongering campaign with the public. The young U.S. attorney urged then-Attorney General William French Smith to take a more aggressive approach and begin the next round of negotiations by demanding “all the legislation we want.” And then the Democrats would hang themselves. “The liberals will buzz about with agonizing whines,” Sessions predicted. “After they have come forth and identified themselves as sympathizers for drug smugglers and other assorted criminals, congregating about the bait, they should then be flattened by the President in a full-scale campaign on behalf of the legislation.”
Reagan’s message to the public, selling his tough-on-crime measures, would then be beautifully simple, Sessions said: “We support stability and order; they wander about wringing their hands crying for the criminals while violence everywhere escalates.”
Thirty years later, Jeff Sessions himself is the boss at the Department of Justice, and he’s looking to inject new life into the war on crime. His methods haven’t changed, judging by his performance as attorney general thus far—or by the “law-and-order” fear-mongering of his close ally Donald Trump. Sessions recently appalled criminal-justice reformers by ordering his U.S. attorneys to file the most serious charges possible in criminal cases. That reversed guidance from his predecessor, Eric Holder, that encouraged the federal prosecutors to think twice before triggering the heaviest penalties.
It was also the latest salvo in a distorted campaign to convince Americans that the nation is on the brink of a violent-crime epidemic, and that naïve criminal-justice reformers are heightening the risk. Trump set the template during the GOP primary campaign. In his dark acceptance speech, he warned that “decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by (the Obama) administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.” He persistently linked immigration with crime, and of course, he rolled crime into his dystopic “American carnage” inaugural.
Sessions, the only senator to endorse Trump early in the campaign, and an adviser throughout, echoes the false claims about immigration and crime and the incendiary rhetoric so familiar from the ’70s and ’80s. In April on Long Island, Sessions was in vintage “crime war” form, according to the prepared version of his remarks: “Groups of murderers, rapists, traffickers and thugs are carrying out a frontal assault on the decent, law-abiding men and women of this community and others like it across our country,” he declared.
In fact, the last two years have seen worrying increases in the nation’s violent-crime rate, and some American cities have developed a full-blown homicide crisis. That is a serious problem anybody who cares about criminal justice should be watching closely. But it does not justify the Sessions-Trump imagery of marauding gangsters terrorizing an entire nation. Overall, the United States today remains a much safer country than it was 30 years ago.
So the attorney general of 2017 faces a dramatically different climate than the unknown Alabama prosecutor of 1982. Even conservatives are now leading criminal-justice-reform efforts in several red states. But reformers must keep their guard up. Because for Sessions, crime is an inherently polarizing issue—and that’s the best news for Republicans who want to crack down. “We should relish the fact that there will be opposition,” Sessions wrote back in 1982. “We want opposition because it defines who we are and who they are. The bigger the confrontation, the clearer the definition.”
There is no evidence that Sessions’s 1982 memo had any impact on the Reagan administration, but his vision certainly was fulfilled. Incarceration soared in all states during the 1980s and 1990s. By 2013, the number of inmates locked up by the federal government, in particular, had septupled. But then the trend began turning around. By 2016, the federal prison population had shrunk by a stunning 14 percent. That meant 30,500 fewer people behind bars, and provided some relief from an overcrowding crisis that was threatening to get out of hand.
Sessions will certainly stop that progress, and he may reverse it. Sentences will get longer as a result of the May 10 charging memorandum. But the order may have a greater effect that isn’t so obvious: It may result in not only longer sentences, but more cases being brought, period. In the last five years of the Obama administration, the number of defendants charged in federal cases plummeted from about 103,000 to about 77,500, the lowest number since 1998. A number of factors drove that decline, including a hiring freeze that reduced DOJ’s bandwidth. But John Walsh, who served as U.S. Attorney for Colorado in the Obama administration, says Holder’s policy requiring prosecutors to justify the use of mandatory minimum sentences was also a contributing factor: The rule forced prosecutors to hone in on the worst offenders. That is now history.
Sessions has another way to influence sentencing guidelines: Trump will be appointing five new members of the seven-member U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines that judges use to sentence defendants, by the end of the year. In 2014, the Commission rolled back guideline sentences for drug offenders, reducing sentences by about 17 percent.
Fortunately, the federal government has limited influence over the calamity of mass incarceration. The feds do operate the nation’s largest prison system, but that still accounts for only 10.5 percent of people incarcerated in the U.S. Otherwise, it’s up to the states (with roughly 1.2 million prisoners) and counties (roughly 600,000 jail inmates.)
The only way that Sessions and Trump can really change a political culture that has moved away from the tough-on-crime consensus of the 1980s and 1990s is to lead a public law and order crusade. The campaign started it, but there’s a long way to go—and a lot of fear-mongering to do—to shift the tide. Democrats now largely condemn the prison policies they once went along with. Republicans are more circumspect, but the conservative movement for prison reform has achieved impressive incarceration reductions in some bright-red states.
Despite fears that state and local politicians would be scared off by the tough talk coming out of Washington, the momentum for reform has continued through the beginning of the Trump presidency. “So far, we haven’t seen much of an impact at all,” said Adam Gelb, who runs a unit of the Pew Charitable Trusts that advises states on criminal-justice reform. “States have built up a strong head of steam, with broad support across the political spectrum for policies that work better and cost less.”
The kinds of states you’d imagine getting behind Sessions’s new “law and order” campaign are actually among those getting behind progressive reforms. Louisiana is on track to pass a plan that could cut its prison population 10 percent over a decade — probably not enough to shed its status as the nation’s leading per-capita jailer, but significant progress nonetheless. Utah approved a big juvenile-justice reform in April. The same month, North Dakota legislators voted to favor probation over prison for low-level felonies, among other changes. Most surprising, Alabama is poised to restore voting rights for thousands of felons.
The America of 2017 is much less hospitable to a crime war than the America of 1982. The fact that, despite recent increases, crime remains way down makes it harder to stir up panic than it was back in the 1980s and 1990s. The rural dimension of the opioid epidemic has contributed to a new understanding of drugs as a problem of public health. Years of activism and aggressive reporting on the ravages of mass incarceration are also beginning to register in the public conscience, especially among millennials to whom the excesses of the past look simply bizarre.
Of course, scandal is drowning out most of the administration’s policy agenda these days, and incompetence is impeding progress otherwise. All this makes it seem unlikely, perhaps, that Jeff Sessions will succeed in a long-shot bid to return America to the crime-war posture of years past. But in some ways, the administration’s own failures increase the risk. If Trump cannot deliver the policy “wins” he so desperately needs out of Congress on health-care, taxes, and infrastructure, he will search for other ways to assert his leadership.
But as Sessions realized years ago, the mix of race, drugs, and crime is a powerful force in American politics.
The fact that Sessions’s sentencing memo was met with deafening silence from Republican members of Congress suggests that spines on Capitol Hill remain as gelatinous on this issue as any other involving the administration. The onus is not entirely on conservatives, though. Liberals should do more than simply bat down Sessions’s inaccurate portrayal of the whole country as being in the grips of a violent-crime meltdown. They should emphasize that the recent uptick in violence is worrying, that some American cities are indeed having a crisis-level problem—and that Sessions has absolutely no idea what to do about this.
We know much more than we used to about fighting crime. Prisons surely play a role, but we’ve long ago reached the point of diminishing returns from warehousing people. If Donald Trump cares about Chicago as much as he tweets about it, liberals should argue, then rather than blowing the city off, he would deploy federal money to support policing and violence-prevention programs that work, there and in other high-homicide towns.
If reformers play their cards right, Sessions may ultimately find that the crime war whose terms he understood so well as a young man has been redefined in ways he can no longer grasp.
Tom Perriello draws a Bernie crowd. At a town hall at the University of Mary Washington, bearded college kids in flannel buzz at the back of the room, while older voters in khakis and checked shirts occupy the folding chairs up front. They’re all eager to hear Perriello, who’s running for governor of Virginia, rail against the corrosive influence of money in politics, a political system rigged against workers—and, of course, the new president of the United States.
“Donald Trump ran the most viciously racist campaign of my lifetime,” Perriello says to applause, pacing back and forth in front of his audience like a hopped-up high school teacher. “This is our chance to keep Virginia as a firewall against that kind of hate and division.”
Before Trump’s election, no one expected Perriello—who left Congress in 2011 after serving a single term—to return to politics. Heading into November, the Democratic Party had a seemingly foolproof plan in place: Tim Kaine would be in the White House as Hillary Clinton’s vice president, and Ralph Northam, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, would take over the governor’s mansion from Terry McAuliffe. Much to Perriello’s dismay, Trump’s victory didn’t seem to alter the party’s thinking. “The day after the election, the entire political landscape changed,” he says. “But everyone in the establishment was scared and wanted to run the same playbook and act like nothing had changed.” So two weeks before Trump was sworn in, Perriello shocked party insiders by announcing that he would run against Northam for the Democratic nomination.
“The coronation was called off,” says Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University. “Many of the party establishment types were very surprised—and very annoyed.”
As the nation’s first election for a statewide office since Trump was elected, the June primary between Perriello and Northam will reverberate far beyond Virginia. In essence, it’s a Hillary versus Bernie rematch—the Democratic Party’s old guard squaring off against its younger, grassroots base. Northam is the reliable and cautious party stalwart: A former Army doctor, he speaks in a slow, deliberate drawl, is wooden on the stump, and carefully calibrates his message around proven talking points. An economic centrist, he sees little reason to overhaul a system that has brought jobs to the state. He even voted for George W. Bush—twice. (“Politically, there was no question, I was under-informed,” he says now.) But he has millions of dollars in his campaign war chest—crucial to a run in Virginia’s multiple media markets—and the endorsement of virtually every party heavyweight in the state, including Senator Kaine and Governor McAuliffe, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the living embodiment of a Clinton insider. “The entire party apparatus is behind him,” says Quentin Kidd, a Virginia pollster and political scientist.
Perriello, by contrast, has made a name for himself as an energetic champion of social and economic justice who can connect with voters in both blue cities and rural red districts. In 2008, after nearly a decade as a human rights lawyer and peace negotiator in Darfur and Afghanistan, he overcame a 34-point deficit to unseat six-term Republican congressman Virgil Goode in a conservative southern district. In Congress, he was a staunch supporter of Obama’s agenda, voting for cap-and-trade, economic stimulus, and the Affordable Care Act. To sell Obamacare to his conservative constituents, he held more town halls in 2009 than any other congressman—and the following year he was rewarded as the only individual House candidate for whom the president campaigned. If he wins, it will be a major victory for the left wing of the party, which argues that the future lies not in cautious, Clintonesque triangulation, but in forceful, Sanders-like appeals for economic equality. “People are looking for a progressive fighter who can stand up and call Trump out for what he is,” Perriello says.
The party itself has been slow to adopt that view. After Trump’s victory, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi blithely insisted that Democrats did not need to rethink their policies: “I don’t think people want a new direction,” she told Face the Nation. In February, Democrats selected Obama’s former labor secretary, Tom Perez, to serve as chairman of the DNC—beating out Representative Keith Ellison, a Sanders supporter who promised to put the party more in touch with its populist roots. But in recent weeks, emboldened by their initial victories over Trump’s travel ban and the Affordable Care Act, Democrats have gradually begun to embrace their role as the party of resistance. Even Perez acknowledges that the status quo isn’t working. “We have to rebuild our party,” he told Meet the Press. “We also have to redefine our mission.”
Virginia, however, didn’t get the memo. While the party hasn’t been open about its opposition to Perriello, he faces an uphill fight. Since announcing his candidacy, he has crisscrossed the state, appearing at anti-Trump protests like the one outside Dulles Airport in the hours after Trump’s immigration ban went into effect. He’s also been meeting with groups of Trump supporters every week, promoting his plans to revitalize rural communities and fight the opioid epidemic. He talks about the threat of automation to Virginia’s manufacturing jobs and the need for free higher education, and pitches a $15 minimum wage wherever he goes. When health care comes up, as it often does, he emphasizes his long-held support for a public option. “He’s the Bernie Sanders of the Virginia Democratic Party,” says Rozell, the political scientist.
Such stances have endeared Perriello to the Sanders wing of the party. Some of his most ardent supporters are young volunteers from Indivisible, which has emerged as perhaps the leading grassroots organization against Trump. Leah Greenberg, one of the group’s founders, worked for Perriello in Congress and served until recently as his policy director; Perriello officiated at her wedding. “It’s a situation where the energy within the Democratic electorate is on the progressive side,” says Kidd, the Virginia pollster. At a town hall in Manassas, one supporter hails Perriello as “not the chosen son of the establishment.” Another voices her disgust with politics as usual. “I’m sick of the Democratic Party,” she tells him. “But we’re with you!” In April, a town hall at the University of Virginia had to be moved mid-speech because so many college students showed up to hear Perriello that it violated the fire code.
Such grassroots support has enabled Perriello, like Sanders before him, to make up ground quickly. Despite entering the race nearly two years—and millions of dollars—behind Northam, Perriello was tied with his opponent by mid-February, and the candidates have remained in a dead heat ever since. In the first month of his campaign, Perriello raised more than $1.1 million, and he doubled that amount by the end of March. A Sanders-like 86 percent of his donations were $100 or less. It’s a sign “that Perriello is competitive—that this is a real race,” says Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report.
It’s clear that the party establishment isn’t thrilled about Perriello’s late entry into the race. “They were angry then, and they’re angry now,” says University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato. “They’re puzzled and hurt, and they feel betrayed.” A former Virginia governor recently complained to Sabato about Perriello’s decision to run. “That was one of the most selfish things I’ve ever seen in politics,” the ex-governor groused, “and politics is a selfish profession!”
While both candidates have agreed to the standard pledge not to attack each other during the primary, it was clear at several town halls I attended that the Northam campaign has adopted a somewhat loose interpretation of the cease-fire. At the Mary Washington event in February, a young woman in the audience asks Perriello about his stance on abortion. As a congressman, Perriello had voted to block federal money from going to abortion providers—a position for which he has since apologized. “You used to say that you were not pro-choice,” the woman says, “and now you are pro-choice.” How could Perriello explain the flip-flop?
“I’ve always been pro-choice,” Perriello replies, practically sighing with exasperation. “I marched for Roe 25 years ago. I had a 100 percent NARAL rating my second year in Congress and supported funding for Planned Parenthood. After Congress, instead of taking a big lobbying job, I ran a progressive nonprofit organization”—the political action fund at the Center for American Progress—“that was central in fighting back against the war on women.”
I notice that the woman who asked the question is recording Perriello’s responses and carrying a spiral notebook. Assuming she’s a reporter, I approach her after the event and suggest that we compare notes. It turns out, in fact, that she’s an operative for the Northam campaign, dispatched to ask Perriello embarrassing questions about abortion. By early April, Northam had made the issue a centerpiece of his campaign, touting his endorsement by the pro-choice group NARAL and even holding rallies inside abortion clinics.
Gun control has also been a weak spot for Perriello. As a congressman, he opposed a federal ban on assault weapons and boasted about having an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. In January, seeking to bolster his progressive bona fides, Perriello called the NRA a “nut-job extremist organization.” The Northam campaign has seized on the issue: At another town hall, I watch as a woman in the audience challenges Perriello about his views on guns. Afterwards, a veteran Democrat who is not affiliated with either campaign tells me that she recognizes the woman as another Northam operative.
Northam’s allies and supporters “have been raising unfair and inaccurate characterizations of Tom’s record for some time now,” says Perriello’s communications director, Ian Sams. “It’s unfortunate that the Northam campaign is allowing that to stand, and in some cases promoting it themselves. We would much prefer it be a positive campaign where both candidates lay out their positive visions for the state and let people decide based on that. But some of his allies and supporters have taken a different tack, and we certainly wish that the lieutenant governor would ask them to knock it off.” Asked about the town hall incidents, the Northam campaign declined to comment.
While such candidate-tracking is standard practice in political races, efforts by the Northam campaign to disrupt Perriello’s town hall meetings underscore the lengths to which the party establishment will go to tamp down enthusiasm for a grassroots candidate. And Northam’s focus on social issues comes straight out of Hillary Clinton’s playbook for taking on Bernie Sanders. In the final debate of the Democratic primary, Clinton attacked Sanders for supporting a bill that prevents victims of gun violence from suing gun manufacturers. “We hear a lot from Senator Sanders about the greed and recklessness of Wall Street, and I agree,” she said. “Well, what about the greed and recklessness of the gun manufacturers?”
The similarities between Perriello and Sanders are far from precise. In terms of style and temperament, Perriello is more jovial than Sanders, fond of corny jokes and the minutiae of policy. While he speaks passionately about corporations screwing middle- and working-class Americans, he lacks Bernie’s blunt outrage—he’s more Adlai Stevenson than William Jennings Bryan. And while his campaign manager, Julia Barnes, served as the national field director for Sanders, Ian Sams was a member of Clinton’s rapid response team. Perriello has also received endorsements from John Podesta and Neera Tanden—close allies of Hillary who worked with Perriello at the Center for American Progress—as well as Jennifer Palmieri, Teddy Goff, and other senior members of Clinton’s campaign staff. If the race between Perriello and Northam exposes the rift between the party’s establishment and its grassroots, it also suggests that the establishment can get behind an insurgent—provided the insurgent is affable rather than angry.
“I’m not sure that the gap between the wings of the party is actually as big as people think that it is,” Perriello says. He has taken to calling himself a “pragmatic populist”—someone who shares Bernie’s outrage over economic inequality, but who is intent on finding workable solutions. He has endeavored to pitch himself as a successor not so much to Sanders as to Obama: a young political outsider working to shake up the establishment, free of any personal or political baggage from the often acrimonious battle between Hillary and Bernie. Like Obama, he’s dynamic on the stump—though he lacks Obama’s trademark charm. At 42, Perriello is both single and single-minded, a man who gives the impression of being married to his job.
Still, despite resisting comparisons to Sanders, Perriello has enlisted Bernie’s digital outreach firm to shape his own fund-raising strategy. And in April he gladly accepted the support of Our Revolution, the nonprofit group that grew out of the Sanders campaign—as well as the endorsement of the senator himself. “We need to elect progressives at every level of government if we are going to beat back the dangerous agenda of the Trump administration and its Republican allies,” Sanders said. “Now more than ever we need people in elected office who will fight for middle-income and working families.”
Whatever happens in June, the outcome of the primary is likely to inform the party’s direction going forward. Virginia is shaping up to be the kind of state Ohio used to be: a microcosm of the nation itself, albeit one with a significantly higher number of people who work for the federal government. Virginia is a purple state that’s tracking blue—the only former Confederate state to throw its lot behind Clinton last year. “Virginia seceded from the South in 2016,” laughs Kidd, the Virginia pollster. Clinton won the state by five points, largely by running up the score in the wealthy, more liberal areas of suburban Washington.
But particularly in the aftermath of the 2016 debacle, a Democratic candidate for governor must perform well throughout the state—including in the coal-country counties of southwest Virginia that were dominated by Trump. Perriello’s campaign is an experiment: Can a left-wing candidate win back blue-collar and rural voters without sacrificing liberal votes? Is full-throated progressivism the best strategy for combating Trumpism? The idea that voters will rally behind a populist Democrat has yet to be tested, especially in a state like Virginia, and many veteran political observers are convinced that Northam’s down-home style will trump Perriello’s liberal substance. After all, much of Perriello’s fund-raising has come from outside Virginia, whereas 90 percent of Northam’s donations are from within the state. “Northam has a Virginia accent,” Sabato says. “He is rural by nature—grew up on the eastern shore. He went to the Virginia Military Institute. There’s no question in my mind that if anyone can draw in some conservatives, it’s Northam, not Perriello. They’re very suspicious of Yale-talking candidates.”
If Perriello loses, it will be seen as proof that the party establishment is right when it insists that left-wing policies don’t win elections. But if he wins, it will be yet another sign that the Sanders wing—and its more inclusive economic message—represents the party’s best hope for the future. In November, the winner of the primary will likely square off against Ed Gillespie, a former adviser to George W. Bush who served as chair of the Republican National Committee.
The high stakes aren’t lost on the people at the center of Perriello’s campaign. At his election headquarters, located in an office park in Alexandria, the walls smell of fresh paint, and the only decorations are a few haphazardly hung sheets of easel paper marked with illegible scribblings. Until recently, the campaign had been working out of Perriello’s Alexandria home. There’s no receptionist, so I just walk in and wander around until I find Julia Barnes and Ian Sams, the political odd couple who have helped engineer Perriello’s swift rise. After their stints with Bernie and Hillary, both contemplated getting out of politics. But inspired by what Perriello could mean for the party’s future, they signed up for one more round.
The campaign, Barnes says, will determine whether “the establishment in Virginia—and, by proxy, the establishment in the country—is going to be brave enough to set aside their fear and judgment.” The Democratic Party may be scared of change—of “being shaken to our core,” she says. “But we’ve got to shake a little to get there.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Leah Greenberg, one of Indivisible’s founders, serves as Tom Perriello’s policy director. In fact, since this story was reported, she left the Perriello campaign to serve full-time as Indivisible’s chief strategy officer.
Cory Booker would get to the subject of President Donald Trump and the resistance. He would get to the disunited Democratic Party and his vision for its future. But the New Jersey senator began the closing keynote of the Center for American Progress Ideas Conference last Tuesday with a story about Alice in Wonderland and his mother. He had recently watched her play the Red Queen in her retirement community’s production of the Lewis Carroll classic, and was moved by one of her character’s famous lines. After Alice declares, “one can’t believe impossible things,” the queen responds, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice then.... Why, sometimes I’ve believed in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Booker had lots to say about the impossible on Tuesday. He quoted James Baldwin: “I know what I’m asking you is impossible, but in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least we can demand.” He spoke of “an impossible dream in America that has yet to be made real.” It was an earnest and emotional speech about finding light in a time of darkness, and it set Booker apart from several other senators—and potential 2020 presidential candidates—who gave speeches that day. Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris each gave shorter remarks, focused on their pet issues of paid leave and criminal justice reform, respectively. Elizabeth Warren delivered the lunch keynote, railing righteously, as she always does, against concentrated money and power in politics. None of them held the crowd’s attention like Booker.
Booker’s rousing rhetoric is a key reason he’s considered a 2020 contender, but his crowd-pleasing performance on Tuesday belied the hostility he’d face in a Democratic primary. A neoliberal who’s cozy with the monied elites of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, he’s distrusted by many on the left. “He’s a non-starter right now,” Markos Moulitsas, founder of the influential liberal website Daily Kos, told me. “He hasn’t proven his ability to distance himself from the Wall Street and Big Pharma interests that have basically been the bedrock of his support.”
Booker’s defenders have long refuted this criticism. He has taken on the financial industry in the Senate, most recently by opposing the attempted rollback of Wall Street regulations and an Obama Labor Department retirement-savings rule finalized last year. Nor is Booker as centrist as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, another blue-state 2020 prospect. But in this populist moment, as some progressives demand ideological purity from Democrats, Moulitsas’s widely held criticism might be enough to sink Booker’s chances in 2020.
There’s also the problem of Booker’s brand, which is perhaps best described as positivity politics: He embraces bipartisanship, and refuses to vilify his political opponents. His warm and generous spirit would be welcome under normal political circumstances, but his style has lost currency under a unified Republican government, as the Democratic base demands outright obstruction. Booker has shown of late, albeit haltingly, that he can move left with the times. But could he be convincing as a more combative progressive, or would his reputation overwhelm his rhetoric? More importantly, would doing so erase what makes Booker unique—the very qualities that enabled his swift ascent to national stardom, and which no doubt would serve him well in a general election against Donald Trump?
As mayor of Newark, New Jersey, from 2006 to 2013, he became a political celebrity thanks to his social media savvy and self-publicized acts of heroism, like saving a woman from a burning building. But the further he rose, the more critics he faced from the left.
“Cory Booker Is Even Worse Than His Critics Say,” the New Republic declared after he won the 2013 Democratic primary for Senate. “What Booker has in mind when he alludes to being an agitator is agitating for the cause of himself,” Noam Scheiber wrote. “Booker shares a worldview with the financial elites who fund his campaigns. If one can deduce from his record and his public statements, he believes the economy functions best when wealthy people are allowed to deploy their capital freely, and that progress ensues when they train some of their gains on society’s ills.”
That same year, The Atlantic’s Molly Ball asked the question, “Why Do Liberals Hate Cory Booker?”
What Booker’s critics mainly take issue with are his associations, his persona, and unprovable allegations about his “worldview.” Exhibit A is always Booker’s notorious appearance on Meet the Press in May 2012, in which he called the Obama campaign’s attacks on private equity “nauseating” and pleaded for more civility in the campaign. Booker subsequently attempted to clarify that he supported the specific critiques of Mitt Romney’s record that had been leveled, but for some liberals, the betrayal was complete and irreversible. “When the predatory nature of America’s business elites threatened to become an actual political issue, Cory Booker leaped to salve the wounded fee-fees of the crooks,” Esquire’s Charlie Pierce wrote this month. “Which is why I would not vote for Cory Booker.”
None of this derailed Booker’s political rise. He won his 2013 special election for Senate by 10 points, and won re-election a year later by 13. Hillary Clinton considered him to be her running mate last year, and he gave a well-received speech at the Democratic National Convention. “We cannot be seduced by cynicism about our politics, because cynicism is a refuge for cowards, and this nation is and must always be the home of the brave,” he declared, with obvious echoes of then-Senator Barack Obama’s convention speech 12 years earlier. “We will not falter or fail. We will not retreat or surrender our values. We will not surrender our ideas. We will not surrender the moral high ground. Here in Philadelphia, let us declare again that we will be a free people. Free from fear and intimidation. Let us declare, again, that we are a nation of interdependence, and that in America, love always trumps hate. Let us declare, so that generations yet unborn can hear us. We are the United States of America. Our best days are ahead of us.”
That speech had some wishing Booker were accepting the nomination rather than Clinton, but the Trump era has brought renewed scrutiny of his record from progressives. Like all of his Democratic colleagues and even two Republican senators, Booker voted against the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But he was rightly called out for hypocrisy, given that he previously worked with DeVos to promote “school choice” policies, including private school vouchers. Booker also voted against an affordable drug proposal from Senator Bernie Sanders, before ultimately backing a compromise bill. Booker said his initial opposition was based on the need for safety provisions, but critics weren’t buying it. “This is silly, given that Americans already import drugs from Canada illegally and it hasn’t resulted in a public health emergency,” argued the New Republic’s Alex Shephard. “Similarly, the Canadian drug industry doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being dangerous.” Vox’s Jeff Stein wrote that “while it’s true that his vote may have had more to do with the concentration of the pharmaceutical industry in his home state, it’s also only served to confirm some progressives’ suspicions that he’s too closely allied with corporate interests in the Democratic Party.”
Much of the criticism of Booker is still about tone. Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign committee said Booker has been getting better over the years, but still needs to do more:
One of the biggest issues some people had with Cory Booker over the years is an unwillingness to name villains—which is an essential part of story telling and which Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders do very well. Unfortunately, Trump did this in 2016 and sold people on the idea that their economic pain was the result of immigrants and other races as opposed to corporate CEOs who aren’t sharing wealth with workers. Fortunately, Booker has begun to be more aggressive in the Trump era, and it’s a pending question as to whether he will be willing to call out Wall Street bank CEO’s for defrauding millions of Americans and hurting our economy. We shall see, but things are progressing.
Moulitsas argues anyone thinking about 2020 needs to catch up with the grassroots—or ideally get ahead of them—when it comes to stopping Trump and the Republican Congress. He foresees a massive field of Democratic candidates: “I’m absolutely convinced that we’re going to have an embarrassment of riches.” That means progressives “don’t need to settle for second best. Our bench is growing,” he said. “The reason I’m even taking a call about 2020 is because Democrats today need to think about what 2019 looks like. The first question anybody in the resistance is going to ask is where was this person in 2017? If they weren’t with us in 2017, that will make it really easy to whittle down that list.... You’re either with the resistance today or I would say don’t even bother running.”
Booker sees himself as very much with the resistance. He took a big stand against his colleague Jeff Sessions’s nomination for attorney general, joining Representative John Lewis to testify against him. In January, NJ Advance Media called Booker “a leading voice of dissent in the Democratic Party as the Donald Trump era begins,” adding, “It’s a sudden turn of events for a lawmaker who arrived at the U.S. Capitol with a reputation for liking the spotlight but instead sought to hide from its glare, working quietly with members of both parties to advance legislation and using his celebrity status to help elect more Senate Democrats.” At CAP on Tuesday, Booker said, “I want to fight in this climate. I want to dedicate myself. But we cannot just be a party of resistance—we’ve got to be a party that’s reaffirming that American dream.”
Booker has long preached unity and transcendence. Progressives may want him to “name villains,” but he told Salon in 2013, “I don’t believe in wholesale vilification of any industry in the United States.” The title of his book last year says it all: United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good. He’s worked across the aisle for good, as with his work on criminal justice reform with Senator Rand Paul, and for ill, as with his corporate school reform efforts in Newark with Governor Chris Christie and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Last summer, in a sign that he sees Booker as a political threat, Trump attacked the senator’s impassioned convention speech:
Booker responded neither with snark nor insult, instead telling Trump, “I love you, I just don’t want you to be my president.”
Booker has long been compared to Obama, for reasons both lazy and legitimate. Their race aside, they’re both gifted orators who call for healing divisions, building bridges, overcoming political cynicism and partisan rancor—in other words, they evangelize for hope. They’re also not easy to pin down ideologically, and have angered their fair share of progressives and centrists. Tad Devine, who served as Bernie Sanders’s senior strategist last year, said any comparisons to Obama would serve Booker well. “I think voters would say they’d like another round of that, thank you very much,” he said.
But the message that worked for Obama in 2008, after eight years of hopeless wars under President George W. Bush, may not work for Booker in 2020, after four years of chaos and incompetence under Trump. If progressives’ mood today is any indication, the Democratic base will demand anger and fiery obstructionism, which is hardly Booker’s style. If he adopted such a persona in the party’s primary, would the Bernie wing believe it? Not likely.
Booker also thinks it’s a mistake for Democrats to “become what we’re trying to replace,” treating Trump and Republicans like the GOP treated Obama. “I literally have these arguments with supporters or fellow Democrats all the time,” he said earlier this month on The Ezra Klein Show, “where they say, ‘Enough with the love and kindness stuff, Cory. We’ve got to fight.’ And I say, ‘When are those mutually exclusive?’.... I think, again, we lose a bit of our moral compass when we are demonizing other people.” He added, “I just don’t believe you need to be mean, you need to be deceitful, you need to practice the dark arts in order to win elected offices.”
Booker may not have to completely transform himself to win the Democratic nomination, either. If he can monopolize support from black voters—which may require outmaneuvering Kamala Harris—and pick up enough moderate Democrats, he could conceivably be the party’s pick to take down Trump. While Booker’s lack of populist bona fides could prove damaging in a general election, too, a constitutional crisis may well override concerns about, say, his Wall Street ties. But even in that scenario, it’s hard to imagine Booker succeeding with his same old message. It’s hard to be both a lover and a fighter—and you certainly can’t kill Trump with kindness.
Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce, the gender-nonconforming musicians behind PWR BTTM, were the darlings of indie pop-punk until last week, when allegations of sexual assault emerged against Hopkins, which in turn led to what seems to be the band’s immediate demise.
The release of the group’s sophomore album, Pageant, was pulled from streaming platforms as more people stepped forward with stories of abuse. Seems like where there’s smoke, there’s a garbage fire. Touring musicians and opening acts fled the band’s upcoming tour, and PWR BTTM was declared dead within days. But there is little to lament in the loss of this band. This was a bad band, and with any luck the speed with which it was stamped out of existence will make space for more and better queercore artists.
A “power bottom,” in the adorable gloss of the New York Times, means “a reins-taking, enthusiastic sexual partner on the receiving end of the experience.” The duo began recording together in 2015, after meeting as undergraduates at Bard College. Their performances, two EPs, and a debut album, Ugly Cherries, garnered rave reviews.
This praise was undeserved. The single “I Wanna Boi” is no more sophisticated than, say, the Katy Perry anthem “I Kissed a Girl,” and it’s less singable. Way less singable and shining than, say, The Scissor Sisters’s “She’s My Man,” and less punk than Sleater-Kinney’s “Modern Girl.” PWR BTTM’s songs are short and campy to a degree that suggests not exuberance but an absence of artistry. Nor do they seem to have any meaningful connection to the homocore and queercore bands of the ’80s and ’90s. This is queer music that doesn’t seem to know or care that it’s part of a long lineage of gay pop: if anything, PWR BTTM’s music seems to exist out of time, giddily oblivious to its own history.
That’s not to say that there was nothing to enjoy about the band. Hopkins plays decent guitar; Bruce plays decent drums; from what their fans have to say, they put on a rollicking good show. But there’s something about PWR BTTM’s sound that reminds me of the pop punk I used to listen to when I was a Warped Tour attendee, standing on the edge of a mosh pit filled with crater-faced teen boys. PWR BTTM isn’t any better than Blink-182. And perhaps because I spent my adolescence wearing whatever I could find that didn’t make me look like a girl (huge t-shirts, khaki shorts, Airwalks) I don’t find PWR BTTM’s shtick convincing. The pair perform in vivid drag: Bruce wearing neat, dark lipsticks, Hopkins with a face smeared in glitter. But it’s a mistake, I think, to confuse queerness with glamor and vice versa. Lots of queers are dumpy, ordinary, shy, poor, or tacky: We look to artists to sublimate our awkwardnesses into art.
And these artists are not themselves always queer. Lots of cis-het musicians—bands like MGMT, or Yeasayer—can write beautifully uneasy songs. These are artists who can bend a melody into eeriness, disembody it—and often, they are divinely glittery. Miley Cyrus drags. You can spend a delightful three minutes filling up your ears with Lady Gaga’s deliciously fag-haggy “Born this Way.” The applause aimed at PWR BTTM makes queer life and queer culture seem clandestine, which it isn’t any longer. The Times was right to call PWR BTTM the “latest flare” of a simmering queer culture in New York City; that PWR BTTM is a necessary or essential flowering therefrom doesn’t follow.
For what it’s worth, Bruce’s lyrics about her transition seem achingly simple and sweet, glimpsed at least through the few reviews of the album that came out before their label, Polyvinyl, dropped the band. Hopkins came up in the New York drag scene, at least sort of, and is a protégé of Justin Vivian Bond. But Hopkins’s considerable physical beauty is cis beauty. Hopkins looks like Johnny Depp, if he had borrowed Steven Tyler’s mouth. A comparison with David Bowie makes one weep for queer youth.
The trauma young fans will suffer—and already have suffered, judging from Twitter—at learning of the assault allegations against Hopkins is real. But that trauma might be mitigated if they figure out that there are just as many artists celebrating their identities as there were before. Nobody needs Hopkins around to be able to to rage and to feel as brightly as ever, not when they have Tegan and Sara, Kimya Dawson, Freddie Mercury, Black Fag, Bikini Kill, Pansy Division, and more.
In the case of PWR BTTM, the entertainment industry rewrote this history, creating a false scarcity of queer art to suit what it wanted to sell. Fame can do this: transform something available or even ordinary into something precious, rarified. Likewise, celebrity is hierarchical and exploitative—not of artists, but of fans. It churns out alibis, both for the persons who chase fame and for the socio-economic system which turns the things we buy into our most meaningful markers of identity. Like a lot of pop punk, PWR BTTM foregoes one critical function of punk: its critique of consumer society. The band’s video for the single “West Texas” could be mistaken for a trailer for Coachella, or one long, sponsored Instagram story—though it, too might soon be removed from its home on Vimeo.
As the scandal surrounding the band picked up, defensive projection bounced all over the internet. These guys have had their careers ruined. What about due process of law? In the aftermath of the allegations, much of the band’s music was removed from the internet, prompting some of their defenders to allege censorship. But such aggressive rejections of alleged abusers are often the only way vulnerable communities have of defending themselves. The first allegations against Hopkins came from the Chicago DIY scene, on a closed Facebook group, as a warning to queer women and girls to steer away from the band for safety reasons. One of the other terrible things about celebrity culture is how it encourages us to offer the famous the forgiveness we perhaps ought to direct elsewhere; to our children, our parents, our friends, and our family.
More generally, the narrative of meteoric rise and then well-deserved fall has seemed to do little to mitigate a deeper problem. The familiarity of the rise-and-fall narrative adds a sort of sickening extra predictability to the PWR BTTM affair. You can set your watch by certain rotten things about people: their violence, their cupidity, the way that manipulative artists know how to pass off cliché as revelation to vulnerable communities—to queer teenagers, for instance.
The band’s response to the allegations was noncommittal and confused. Then, in a Facebook post made on Friday, Hopkins related a successful attempt to suss out the identity of a woman who gave her account of being assaulted to Jezebel. Both of these responses centered on the murkiness of consent: the claim was that the encounters were consensual, or at least that Hopkins understood them to be. Certainly, it is possible not to know that someone doesn’t want to have sex with you, or to be touched by you. But that’s why you have to ask, and why you stop if any circumstance might mitigate the reliability of that consent. You do not try to find out the identity and particulars of the allegations being brought against you in order to argue against them. These are not the actions of someone trying to make amends or learn; they are they actions of someone trying to squirm out of responsibility.
You can always tell where people stand, whether they can take a long enough view. No person is guilty until they are proven guilty, but no person has to listen to tepid pop punk if they don’t want to, either. It’s usually better to side with justice, with the kind of effortful humanity that refuses to risk any harm to those whose unchosen life entails a history of harm, precarity, and fear. It gives a certain peace to the soul not to traffic in ugliness, which is—wonderfully enough—almost always moral and aesthetic at once. If the soul of an artist isn’t strong and capacious and sweet, often their work won’t be, either. There’s one particularly bad PWR BTTM song called “New Hampshire.” It’s almost too easy to read as a blasé valediction to the band itself.
Someday all the birds in the sky
Will just die
Oh, well. Turn up the Sleater-Kinney.
There are very smart lawyers who believe Donald Trump entered the White House in violation of the Constitution, which forbids the president from receiving emoluments from foreign and local governments, and that he remains in violation of it today. But the list of reasons he could be impeached keeps growing.
When Trump disclosed code-word intelligence to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador to the U.S. in the Oval Office on a lark two weeks ago, he endangered the life of an Israeli spy who had infiltrated the Islamic State.
Trump told those same Russians that firing FBI Director James Comey—whom he described as “a real nut job”—relieved “great pressure because of Russia.” Weeks earlier, he reportedly asked Comey to wind down his investigation of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, and when he decided to fire Comey, he told NBC’s Lester Holt, “I said to myself, I said, you know this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”
Every individual item on this devastating bill of particulars eclipses the combined level of wrongdoing Republicans have sought to pin on Democratic leaders over the past decades, starting with President Bill Clinton’s sexual depravity, through the confusing miasma of Benghazi conspiracy theories under President Barack Obama, and ending with Hillary Clinton’s rule-breaking email protocols.
Each Trump scandal is well-documented, and a source of enduring national humiliation. It’s why some rank-and-file Democrats, like House representatives Maxine Waters and Al Green, are calling for his impeachment now. And yet, it is the position of nearly every leading Democrat that for both political and substantive reasons—the fear of “crying wolf,” the procedural obstacles, the lack of a completed investigation—liberals should not be calling for Trump’s impeachment.
“No one ought to, in my view, rush to embrace the most extraordinary remedy that involves the removal of the president from office,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the sober-minded senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He warned that Democrats should not let their actions “be perceived as an effort to nullify the election by other means.”
Most people conceive of political overreach as a mishmash of tactical measures and legislative objectives (like government shutdowns or huge tax cuts for the rich) that are dumb and morally wrong and counterproductive. But if the Obama years proved anything, it’s that the conventional wisdom of how “overreach” translates into political consequences is murky and unintuitive. Democrats accomplish nothing by pretending Trump hasn’t earned at least an impeachment inquiry, except to remind their core supporters that they remain uncomfortable with their own convictions.
What’s ultimately making Democrats uncomfortable with the word “impeachment” is not any doubt that Trump has earned it, but the shambling speed with which he did so. It is undeniable at this point that Trump has committed impeachment-worthy offenses, and that—should the political atmosphere in Washington ever allow it—he should be removed from office.
Trump’s central defense against his critics is that his most outlandish acts have all been legal. “The president can’t have a conflict of interest,” he’s famously said, just as he claimed an “absolute right” to breach national security in his meeting with Russian emissaries, and to fire the FBI director. Each of these claims is narrowly true, but completely obfuscatory—and not just because impeachment is a political process, rather than a legal one.
Retaining ownership of his business empire doesn’t place Trump in violation of any laws per se, but he is in violation of the Constitution and of laws, if he’s used that business to accept bribes from governments. Trump has the unquestioned authority to fire the FBI director, but if his purpose in firing the FBI director is to cover up a crime, then he is nevertheless guilty of obstruction—much as my authority to own a kitchen knife does not allow me to use it as a murder weapon. (Ironically, none other than Comey himself once investigated Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich, even though the pardon power is plenary, because plenary powers can still be used in corrupt and illegal ways.)
Unless the Trump-Russia nexus is much deeper and darker than it appears, the intelligence disclosure to Russia most likely doesn’t expose Trump to any legal jeopardy, but the legal scholars of the website Lawfare—which is not exactly a hotbed of resistance organizing—reasoned persuasively that the breach may have violated his oath of office.
“Congress has alleged oath violations—albeit violations tied to criminal allegations or breaches of statutory obligations—all three times it has passed or considered seriously articles of impeachment against presidents,” they wrote. “There’s thus no reason why Congress couldn’t consider a grotesque violation of the President’s oath as a standalone basis for impeachment—a high crime and misdemeanor in and of itself.”
It is certainly awkward that Trump made himself vulnerable to impeachment so quickly after inauguration, but that is a testament to his overreach, not Democrats’.
The central risk of admitting this publicly isn’t overreach so much as over-promising. Republicans in Congress aren’t likely to impeach Trump, and even if Democrats reclaim control of both the House and Senate next year, removing him from office would require many Republicans to vote to convict him. But this is only a problem if Democrats are incapable of distinguishing between the abstract merits of impeaching Trump and the political feasibility of it. By impeaching Clinton, Republicans demonstrated that it’s possible for the political climate to allow for the impeachment of officials who do not deserve it. Our current circumstances are precisely backward. Trump deserves impeachment urgently, but politics will insulate him from it for the foreseeable future.
But that shouldn’t spook Democrats out of telling voters they understand how critical removing Trump from office is—and that they will fight as hard as they can to do so, even if they ultimately fall short. In many ways the 2016 Democratic primary underscored the importance of finding this very kind of middle ground between promising to deliver popular ends—like Medicare for all—and opposing those ends outright on political-feasibility grounds. The promise to fight is an easy promise to keep.
“I know that there are those who are talking about ‘Well, we’re gonna get ready for next election,’” Waters, the House Democrat, rightly said last week. “No. We can’t wait that long. We don’t need to wait that long. He will have destroyed this country by then. We cannot wake up every morning to another crisis, to another scandal.”
It is extremely unlikely that Trump will find remedies for the problems he’s created for himself by the end of next year—that he will liquidate his business, disclose his finances, nominate a consensus FBI director, and be fully exonerated by Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller. Unless Trump does, he should not be president, and politicians aren’t serving the public well by pretending otherwise.
Chris Burden, who died in 2015, will always be known as the artist who had himself shot. Unless he is known as the one who had himself crucified (nailed through the hands to the roof of a Volkswagen). Either way, he is the most famous performance artist of the 1970s after Yoko Ono, and the father of the avant-garde movement that uses the human body’s capacity for suffering as a medium.
“Endurance art” feels like the natural form for our times, since we love spectacle and violence and people causing drama in public. Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight was endurance art (she carried a dorm-room mattress around campus, declaring she would put it down only at graduation or her alleged rapist’s expulsion). Marina Abramovic is the most famous endurance artist of our time, pitting herself against the body’s limits in works like 2003’s The House With the Ocean View (in which she went 12 days without food) and the Rhythm series of the early 1970s (in which she submitted to, among other things, cuts with a razor blade). But “stunt” performance of the kind that drifts through the news cycle now (the guy who nailed his scrotum to the ground in Moscow, the guy who showed up naked in a box to the Met gala this year) has not always felt so familiar.
In the 1970s art that involved the body was a genuine innovation. Burden, a new documentary by Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey, looks back over Chris Burden’s career, inviting his old college friends and critical talking heads alike to opine over archival footage. There is new footage here too, following Burden as he wanders across his California estate in the months before his death.
The documentary affirms the traditional view of Burden’s career as falling into two main parts: A dark and manic 1970s full of violent performances, then a considerably more chilled later output. From the mid-80s until his death, he produced large and often mobile sculptural installations of surprising sweetness and generosity. The best known must be Urban Light (2008), the forest of lampposts installed outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where tourists like to propose to each other and Instagram themselves and so on.
“Evel Knievel and I are two different people,” Burden once said. He had to make this statement after profiles in Newsweek and Esquire made him famous to Americans as a stuntman of the art world. In 1971’s Shoot, he was just supposed to be scratched lightly. But at the last minute, the conscripted friend pulled slightly to the left; Burden was shot right through the arm.
The violence of that piece captured American imaginations. Guns are part of the mythology of American identity, from cowboys to cops, while the Vietnam War made shooting an intimate and recent experience for many young men. In the documentary, a friend of Burden’s describes how quiet the room went before the shot, the visceral tension, the direct connection she felt between her body and his. “Everybody fantasizes about being shot,” Burden says. The intimacy of the footage of the work is shocking.
Burden was the right artist for America at that moment, and he became a celebrity. He also became an unstable asshole, by all accounts. His work could be aggressive to others. In 1972’s TV Hijack, he held a knife to his friend’s throat on screen and demanded to “go live.” He also confessed to an extramarital affair on television, which his then-wife Barbara describes in the movie as unpleasant. He became obsessed with guns and began to carry around a loaded Uzi.
Ironically, his most productive time artistically was when he was settled quietly with Barbara: She supported him while he worked on his endurance projects, and even considered nailing his hands for him in Trans-Fixed (1974), though she later bailed. In that decade he certainly seems to have been a man of two halves. In the documentary, a friend of Burden’s describes having a stoned hallucination during a performance, in which Burden split into two identities. One was kind, trustworthy, genuine, the other a clever trickster whom you “wouldn’t trust for a second.”
Does it matter that Burden could be an awful man? In a way, it does, because gender is always pertinent to discussions of fine art. It is tempting to posit that endurance art has always been coded male in the public discourse, since physical strength and violence are associated with masculinity. One thinks of early works like Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1971), a marathon piece in which the artist masturbated eight hours a day under a boardwalk in a gallery.
But women have made work like this for at least as long as men. Valie Export was born six years before Burden, and in 1971 filmed herself rolling on broken glass and then paper, leaving marks of blood. In 1973’s Hyperbulie, she crawled naked through a maze of electrified wires, receiving a shock each time she actually touched one. The comic stereotype of a performance artist is maybe intrinsically female, a deranged woman painting with her genitals. Complicating this question are the new dynamics of celebrity and spectacle in performance art of the early 1970s, which make it difficult to trace its contours accurately.
Nonetheless, Burden does a sterling job. The documentary makers have worked hard to celebrate the artist’s later works, showing captivating footage of pieces like Beam Drop (1983) and Metropolis (2011). They have also roped in an extraordinary array of talking heads, from the moronic Brian Sewell to Peter Schjeldahl to Frank Gehry to, bizarrely, John McEnroe (a big Burden fan, apparently). And the movie shows that the historiography of Chris Burden is at least as interesting as the work itself. Perhaps they could do Valie Export next.
If there’s any key to Donald Trump’s electoral appeal, other than his sheer entertainment value, it’s his pledge to be the biggest jobs president of all time. “I am going to bring your jobs back to America,” he promised a Michigan crowd last October. “A Trump administration will stop the jobs from leaving America,” he assured an audience in Florida the day before the election. “I will be the greatest jobs producer that God ever created,” he boasted just before he was sworn in. All told, Trump has vowed to create an additional 25 million jobs within a decade.
Since taking office, however, Trump has done nothing concrete to put more Americans to work, beyond the deal he struck with air-conditioning giant Carrier to keep some 800 jobs from being outsourced to Mexico. Instead, he has moved in the exact opposite direction. On his third day in office, Trump instituted a hiring freeze across the federal government. And in April, declaring that there are “too many federal employees,” Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, told agency heads to “begin taking immediate actions” to reduce the government’s workforce dramatically. So far, God’s greatest jobs producer is starting out his term by destroying them.
It’s more than a little dissonant to hear a president who paid such lip service to job creation kick off his administration by calling for people to be fired. But Trump’s attack on the federal workforce makes complete sense, given the overarching political goal laid out by his strategist Steve Bannon: the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” What’s more, the workers who will be most affected by Trump’s staffing cuts are women and minorities—constituencies that make up the base of the Democratic Party. Trump, in essence, doesn’t see public-sector jobs as real jobs. If they’re not held by white, blue-collar men in hard hats, working on factory floors or construction sites, they don’t appear to count.
Trump’s hiring freeze was intended to reduce the size of the federal workforce through attrition, and that’s just what it has done. Since January, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal government has shed more than 8,400 jobs, in many cases due directly to the freeze. And while Trump lifted the freeze in April, federal agencies are now preparing to start firing employees and developing a long-term plan to slash the size of the federal government. “We think we could run the government more efficiently than the previous administration, and with fewer people,” Mulvaney says. “This is a big part of draining the swamp.”
The upcoming cuts will disproportionately hurt women and minorities, who have benefited from the government’s commitment to fair practices in hiring and promotions. Roughly one in five black workers in America are currently employed by the government; they’re 30 percent more likely than whites to hold such jobs. Women make up 60 percent of public-sector jobs, and black women make up more than 20 percent of the public-sector workforce, compared to less than 13 percent for white men. They also end up feeling the sharpest effects of layoffs: During the Great Recession, black workers, and especially black women, lost government jobs at a disproportionate rate.
Trump’s supporters, who are overwhelmingly white and male, are far more likely to hold jobs in the private sector. Manufacturing, one of his favorite industries, is nearly three-quarters male and 10 percent black. Construction is more than 90 percent male and less than 6 percent black. For Trump, it appears, these are the only jobs worth saving.
But even workers who wear hats that read MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN stand to lose out under Trump’s plan to slash the federal government. As studies have repeatedly shown, fewer public servants means less consumer spending and lower tax revenues, which hurts the entire economy. Employing fewer teachers has been found to reduce children’s future wages by billions of dollars. And gutting the federal workforce dampens job growth elsewhere: Between 2009 and 2012, one report shows, the failure to hire more government workers cost Americans some 500,000 jobs in the private sector.
It was never feasible that Trump would follow through on his pledge to resurrect American jobs all on his own. One-off deals like the one he struck with Carrier do nothing to alter the underlying forces of the U.S. economy. But Trump can single-handedly decimate employment among federal workers. Women and people of color who have found steady, middle-class jobs working for the American people are about to be handed a pink slip by the biggest jobs president of all time.
Scott Pruitt, who spent six years fighting federal public health regulations as Oklahoma attorney general, has long railed against the “environmental left.” That hasn’t changed since President Donald Trump tapped him to run the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The past administration is viewed as the environmental savior,” Pruitt said in a radio interview last week. He accused President Barack Obama of not adequately enforcing clean air and water regulations, among other alleged failures. “Superfund sites, we have more today than when President Obama came into office. Water infrastructure, you had Flint and you had Gold King,” he said. “The regulations that they issued on carbon, they failed twice. They struck out twice. So when you look at their record, what exactly did they accomplish for the environment that folks are so excited about?”
Pruitt made almost identical remarks in a Fox and Friends interview on Wednesday:
Pruitt, a climate-change denier, says Obama’s EPA failed because it was “was so focused on climate change and so focused on CO2 that some of those other priorities were left behind.” Expect to hear this talking point as Pruitt continues his tour of friendly, right-leaning media outlets across America.
It’s an argument the “environmental left”—or anyone who adheres to facts—shouldn’t let him get away with. There remain serious environmental problems in the U.S., of course, and environmental activists largely agree that Obama could have done more during his presidency. But the Obama administration made significant improvements to both clean air and water—improvements that were accomplished despite the dozen or more lawsuits that Attorney General Pruitt filed against the EPA, in his attempt to dismantle and delay public health protections.
In other words, a man who made his name by trying to break the EPA now admonishes the agency for not accomplishing enough. It’s a brazen act on Pruitt’s part, and one entirely in keeping with a Trump administration that’s shown nothing but outright disdain for accepted truths.
Pruitt does get a few things right. In the radio interview, he said that “when you look at air attainment in this country, we’re at 40 percent non-attainment right now on ozone. About 140 million people live in non-attainment areas for air quality, under air quality programs.” The EPA does confirm that 40 percent of the U.S. population lives in areas that exceed federal standards for ground-level ozone, a harmful air pollutant. In 2008, the U.S. had about 1,200 Superfund sites—highly contaminated areas that require federal cleanup—and now we have more than 1,300. The EPA was partially responsible for both the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the Gold King Mine blowout in Colorado that turned the Animas River turn orange. And Obama’s signature anti-carbon regulatory accomplishment, the Clean Power Plan, has indeed been halted by a federal court.
But Pruitt is wrong that these facts somehow prove that Obama boasts few environmental accomplishments.
“It’s a misleading and hypocritical statement,” said Dan Cohan, an environmental engineering professor at Rice University who specializes in air quality management. Cohan takes particular issue with Pruitt’s focus on air quality in America. “In fact, air pollution emissions have come down dramatically since Obama took office, and much of that progress came in spite of attorneys general like Pruitt,” he says.
Pruitt’s claim that the U.S. is at 40 percent non-attainment for ozone is true, but it’s also an incredible improvement from years past. When Obama took office in 2008, 60 percent of Americans lived in counties with unhealthy air. Pruitt says the environment would fare better if the federal government just got out of the way; and yet, the American Lung Association credits this huge improvement in air quality to federal clean air regulations. “These trends demonstrate the continued need to support and enforce the Clean Air Act to protect the nation from unhealthy air,” the report reads, while also encouraging the EPA to maintain and strengthen clean air regulations on automobiles and oil and gas operations.
Pruitt has expressed opposition to those very same regulations, and has spent his career suing the federal government over several more of them. He sued to challenge implementation of Obama’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which attempts to regulate air pollution that drifts across state lines. He sued to dismantle the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which limits the amount of toxic heavy metal pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants. Pruitt also represented Oklahoma in three separate suits against the Clean Power Plan, which attempts to limit carbon emissions but, as as side effect, would also reduce general air pollutants like ozone and particulate matter.
Pruitt claims that Obama’s EPA focused on climate change at the expense of clean air and water. In fact, it is because of the EPA’s focus on climate change that it was able to tackle air pollution more aggressively. “The idea that addressing air pollution and climate run in conflict with each other is completely false,” Cohan said. “Much of the best progress we’ve made on climate has been by addressing air pollution, and visa versa.” For example, the mercury rule was created to reduce air pollution; and yet, it also brought down carbon emissions, due to the closures of several old coal-fired power plants. Climate change was the justification for clean fuel economy standards and the Clean Power Plan, and yet both were expected to reduce air pollution as well. Pruitt’s EPA has already started the process of weakening or withdrawing both of those regulations.
Pruitt’s argument that Obama ignored Superfund sites—large, highly contaminated industrial sites that are difficult to clean up—is “frankly obnoxious,” according to Lukas Ross, a climate and energy campaigner at the environmental group Friends of the Earth. “How effectively we’re able to clean up Superfund is a question of money, and Congress never gave Obama enough money in that regard.” The EPA’s Superfund program has indeed suffered from dismal funding. The program used to be largely funded through excise taxes, called “Superfund taxes,” on petroleum and chemical companies. But those expired in 1995, and the $3.6 billion raised by the tax dried up in 2003. As a result, according to Politifact, cleanups plummeted: The agency restored just 19 sites in 2009, down from 89 sites 1999. Obama repeatedly asked Congress to re-implement Superfund taxes, arguing that polluters, not taxpayers, should bear the responsibility of cleanup. Congress never obliged.
And yes, the EPA must take partial blame for the Flint water crisis and Gold King Mine disaster. But that’s hardly evidence that Obama was ineffective in fighting for clean water. He signed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act of 2016, which included $170 million for Flint’s drinking water systems. He started the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has “has led to improved water quality and pollution control and a bustle of waterfront development,” according to PBS, and aggressively spearheaded cleanup of the highly polluted Chesapeake Bay.
Pruitt, the self-proclaimed champion of clean water, has opposed the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. And Trump, who said he nominated Pruitt to “restore the EPA’s essential mission of keeping our air and our water clean and safe,” has proposed cutting the Great Lakes Restoration program—to help pay for his Mexico border wall, no less.
It’s not that Obama’s environmental legacy is flawless. “There’s no question that the Obama administration could have done more, and we held them to account for that,” said David Baron, managing attorney Earthjustice’s D.C. office. “We challenged them when they weren’t going far enough, and they didn’t in some cases.”
In 2011, for example, environmental groups including Earthjustice sued the Obama administration for not tightening controls on ground-level ozone pollution, which EPA scientists had proposed doing in 2009. The groups said Obama’s decision to reject the recommendation “puts thousands of Americans’ lives at risk.” Environmentalists challenged Obama in 2012 over his decision to extend “weak” limits on particulate matter pollution, and in 2010 “for failing to regulate power plant water pollution.” The administration was also sued by environmentalists in 2016 over its failure to put limits on carbon emissions from airplanes.
Obama was also criticized for dragging his feet on his environmental agenda—that he should have started implementing climate change policies early in his presidency, when he had a Democratic-controlled Congress. “He waited until too late in presidency to enact some of his toughest policies, and therefore had to do so by executive order or EPA action,” Cohan said. “And because they were enacted so late, that makes them subject by being overturned by Congress, or means that haven’t been fully implemented, and thus can be reversed.”
But none of this is evidence that Obama accomplished nothing on the environment, nor that he was—as Pruitt claims—obsessed with climate change to the detriment of the EPA’s core mission. “It’s not as though they took money away from limiting mercury from power plants and put it into carbon regulation,” Cohan said.
Pruitt, having been on the job for four months now, must know this. But he will keep making his case that Obama’s EPA spent its time creating job-killing regulations and ignored the real problems of clean air and water, because it’s effective political rhetoric for a populist administration. After all, everyone agrees that we should have clean air and water, while a third of Trump’s supporters refuse to believe that climate change is real. Moreover, who suffers when a struggling small city’s drinking water is poisoned, or a rural mine leaks sludge into a river popular with fishermen? A lot of Trump voters.
And yet, when you consider that Pruitt has spent his first months on the job meeting with coal miners instead of public health advocates and concocting ways to delay, withdraw, and remove regulations that protect everyday Americans, it becomes clear who his real constituency is: corporate polluters, who for eight years under Obama were prevented from doing what they do best.
Democrat Joe Manchin has represented West Virginia in the U.S. Senate for seven years. Manchin calls himself “pro-life,” voted to confirm all but four of President Donald Trump’s administration appointees, and recently praised Trump for overturning some of Barack Obama’s environmental regulations. Indeed, after serving as governor of West Virginia for five years, he rose to national prominence with a television ad showing him firing bullets into a copy of the House’s 2009 cap and trade bill.
His conservative positions are part of the political triangulation some Democrats say is necessary to win seats in red states. In the case of West Virginia, the formula is a strain of social conservatism mixed with deference to Big Coal, the dominant industry in the state. Both Republicans and Democrats use this template to varying degrees, and it has stoked the ire of grassroots activists who say that Manchin is part of a corrupt political class that props up coal barons at the expense of voters.
Now one of those activists seeks to unseat him. Paula Swearengin, 42, is an accounting clerk and single mother of four from Coal City, West Virginia. On May 9, she announced that she would challenge Manchin in the Democratic primary. She is a newcomer to politics and an early beneficiary of Brand New Congress, a political action committee founded by former members of Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.
Swearengin herself recently appeared in a March televised town hall with Sanders and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, where she appealed to Sanders for help with the state’s environmental woes. That’s a concern partially informed by her own family’s experiences: Her grandfather died of black lung, and her uncles all suffer from the same condition. Here, she talks to the New Republic about her campaign, and explains what motivates her long-shot bid to replace Manchin. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How does your background inform your policy positions as a candidate?
I was born here in West Virginia, though I spent a little time in North Carolina when my step-dad got laid off from the coal mines. I’m really not a politician: I don’t have a political background, though I’ve been an activist fighting for my community for years. So I had to learn a lot about my government. The reason that I decided to get into politics is because I have begged, pleaded, and cried for years for our government to listen to us and they haven’t. I think they’re corrupt. It’s time for West Virginia to rise up because the economic structure that we have now is detrimental to our health, our heritage, and the environment. We don’t have a Plan B when coal is gone except for service jobs and possibly fracking. We deserve a diverse and clean economic infrastructure for our future.
Joe Manchin has had a long career in West Virginia politics. He’s been in the Senate since 2010. Why did you decide to run against him now?
What’s happening in West Virginia is that, whether they’re Democratic or Republican, they serve their pocketbooks and industry, but they don’t serve the communities here. I’ve been begging him for a lot of years to listen to us, to talk to us. I think that he’s been a politician for so long that he’s out of touch with our struggles. It’s time for an awakening for West Virginia. It’s time for us to fight back.
Was there a particular vote or policy that tipped you over the edge?
The last time I talked to Joe Manchin was at a town hall meeting in Charleston. I told him we all deserve clean and safe jobs, and he said, “We have to agree to disagree.” He pointed at the coal miners in the crowd and tried to pit them against me. But my family is connected to coal. There’s hardly anybody in West Virginia that doesn’t have a connection to the coal industry. So we’ve been divided. We don’t have the jobs like we used to have, and we don’t have the clean water that we deserve, so we fight each other to put food on our table. And I think that’s unacceptable. We’re family, neighbors, and friends, and we shouldn’t have to bid against each other for basic human rights.
We hear a lot that only conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin can win elections in a state like West Virginia. How do you respond to that?
I disagree. I wholeheartedly disagree. Bernie won the primaries here because Bernie was offering solutions. Donald Trump won the election here because he was offering jobs. West Virginia is ready for change, and ready for solutions, and ready to build a good economic infrastructure. The only reason that we’ve held onto an economy based on a single industry is that’s all that’s been offered to us. For men in their 60s, that’s all they’re going to know. They’re going to know black lung and cancer like my family did. But I think our children are ready. They deserve health care and education and jobs. Appalachians are strong, we’re proud, we’ve always been united. Our ancestors fought labor struggles and won.
You support Medicare for All. Can you explain to me why that is?
We live in one of the sickest and poorest states in the nation even though this nation was built on the backs of coal miners. We have higher rates of cancer here, higher rates of asthma. We do have black lung. And the next generation of miners, since the union’s been busted, they have no promise of health care. Healthier people are going to build a healthier workforce. We’ve powered this nation with our blood, sweat, and tears, and we do deserve health care. Health care is also going to combat the opiate abuse here.
Some commentators have raised concerns that a populist position on economics could come at the expense of issues like abortion and LGBT rights. What is your position on those social issues? And do you think that being pro-choice or pro-LGBT rights is a non-starter in a state like West Virginia?
We need to think outside the box on abortion. If they banned abortions tomorrow, there are still people who are going to have abortions. You cannot be pro-life if you don’t think about people after birth too, and about sick people. If you build up the workforce, you give women access to health care so they can have adequate birth control. You can give them better, livable wages so they don’t have to worry about bringing a child into this world and not being able to take care of them. And you increase the educational opportunities here.
And I honestly don’t even understand the argument against LGBT rights. We have real issues to worry about and I think worrying about somebody’s sexuality is just ridiculous.
You mentioned that West Virginia doesn’t seem to have a Plan B for the end of coal. I know that service jobs have cropped as an alternative to coal jobs, but so far they have been insufficient. Do you support raising the minimum wage to $15?
Absolutely. We deserve a livable wage. And we’ve seen trillions of dollars go out of this state for industry. I think it’s time to put that trillions of dollars back in our infrastructure. We also need to bring back manufacturing and industry to this state. It’s been feast or famine for us, so we need to invest in small businesses, focus on new cash crops, and build a sustainable energy economy And I want to throw hemp farming in there too.
In April, Politico reported that Joe Manchin will probably have $2.17 million in cash on hand for his reelection bid. That’s a steep obstacle for primary challengers. What are your strategies for overcoming that obstacle?
What I love about this campaign the most is that we’re working on small donations. There’s more power in the people than in the government. We can start funding each other and get all this corporate money out of the Democratic National Committee and out of the Republican Party.
What’s the local reaction been to your decision to challenge Manchin?
I’ve heard nothing but positive, nothing but positive. Because Democrat or Republican, nobody seems to like Joe Manchin.
Do you intend for your campaign to send a message to the Democratic Party?
Oh yes. I don’t care if the DNC backs me or not. This is a people-funded campaign. The DNC has failed us in many ways here in West Virginia. They failed us when they nominated one of the biggest-polluting coal barons in West Virginia: Governor Jim Justice, who mines three miles from my house and puts silica dust in my children’s lungs. That’s a failure of the Democratic Party. I hope we rise up and realize that, Democratic or Republican, we all have the same set of values. We all want clean water for our children, clean air for them to breathe, and to not worry about our families getting buried miles deep in a coal mine and suffocating to death. We also want a clean and stable economic infrastructure so West Virginia can live. We have given so much to this nation. It’s past time that we invest in ourselves.
An American president’s maiden voyage to the Middle East is a harrowing high-wire act under the best of circumstances. Suffice it to say: this ain’t that.
Rarely if ever has a new president undertaken his first major trip so damaged. But if Donald Trump’s myriad scandals won’t remain at the water’s edge, waiting politely for his return, he may find a good chance to change the subject.
And make no mistake: Trump is likely to receive a warm welcome from Arab and Israeli leaders. They project their deepest hopes onto each new American president. And, unlike their citizens, leaders in the region are willing to overlook serious trespasses for an American president who shares their hostility toward Iran, political Islam, and lectures on human rights. America’s partners want Trump to succeed.
In traveling to 20-plus countries as a staffer to former Vice President Joe Biden, I saw firsthand the ever-present risk of diplomatic mishap and the headlong rush to produce “deliverables.” Undoubtedly, Trump’s trip will feature its share of these, including talk of an “Arab NATO” (an old idea whose details will determine whether it’s anything more than arms sales and a press release) and apparently an “inspiring” Trump address on Islam (a morbidly fascinating prospect given that the most ardent defender of Trump’s travel ban, adviser Stephen Miller, has the pen).
But beneath the storm of controversy that follows the president wherever he goes, how is Trump’s policy toward the region actually taking shape? Four months into a presidency is too soon for verdicts—and even the most seasoned, grounded presidencies (and again: this ain’t that) open with a period of fluidity, jockeying, and experimentation. But it’s not too soon to consider the tendencies animating Trump’s approach to date.
Despite his bombastic rhetoric, Trump’s initial approach has not marked a wholesale departure from the broadest strokes of former President Barack Obama’s policies. While this week’s limited U.S. strike inside Syria could portend a bigger shift, Trump’s earlier strikes against a single Syrian air field are the exception that proves the rule: While marketed as a repudiation of Obama’s unwillingness to intervene militarily, Trump afterwards rushed to reassert his predecessor’s restraint. Notwithstanding the strikes that lit up the Thursday night sky, Trump’s policy on Friday looked suspiciously like the one he inherited.
That’s not to say their respective policies are remotely the same. Beneath these continuities lie significant shifts in emphasis that, unless corrected, risk doing serious damage to America’s interests and position. As Trump embarks on his first trip to the Middle East as president and the region wonders what to expect, I see four trends—one encouraging, and three worrying—that have emerged:
First, encouragingly, the Trump administration is reckoning with reality and grasping its constraints. In several key policy areas, Trump is setting aside, at least for now, the most disastrous policy proposals he honed on Twitter and the campaign trail. The Iran deal he promised to shred remains in force. The American Embassy he pledged to move to Jerusalem, risking a firestorm, remains in Tel Aviv. Torture remains banned. The hyper-politicized scheme to designate the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists under U.S. law seems spiked, at least for the moment. Obama’s much-derided anti-ISIS military plan for Iraq and Syria is still essentially in place. The many instances in which Trump has trashed and then embraced Obama’s policies call to mind the old joke: “Waiter, this soup is terrible ... and such small portions!” The glaring exception, the travel ban from Trump’s first days in office, is tied up in court.
The second major theme of Trump’s policy approach is an uptick in military operations across the region and a loosening of White House oversight—without a corresponding effort to connect them to a diplomatic strategy. For example, in one week in Yemen Trump reportedly launched more airstrikes than President Obama did in any year of his presidency. But largely absent has been any meaningful pressure on Gulf countries to end a conflict that has fragmented Yemen, starved millions of its people, and empowered Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, a troubling rise in civilian casualties risks angering local populations. Syrian jets once again torment civilians from the airbase Trump bombed. Fighting continues close to where the “Mother Of All Bombs” shook the ground in Afghanistan. It is hard to conclude that the untested solution to the region’s politico-military-economic-societal thickets is more and bigger bombs.
This brings us to the third trend: reassurance without responsibility. You don’t have to share Arab leaders’ critiques of Obama’s policies—on the Arab revolutions, on Syria, on Iran’s nuclear program—to recognize that Trump has an opportunity to repair relations with longtime U.S. partners that grew frustrated with Obama. In contrast to his reputation as a hardnosed dealmaker, and to the shabby treatment of democratic allies like Australia and Germany, Trump has offered reassurance to Arab authoritarians. But he has not challenged them to address their contributions to domestic and regional instability. Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have been conspicuously silent on domestic repression in the region—when not actively endorsing it or questioning America’s moral standing to object.
Repairing ties to Arab regimes is worthwhile. But warmer ties are not an end in themselves. What matters is the leverage they unlock and how Trump decides to use it. What is Trump asking for? An “Arab NATO” is a slogan until you can articulate what Arab countries will do to make it real. Will Trump convince Gulf countries to do their part to resolve destabilizing proxy wars that have polarized the region? Will he ask them to bring into the daylight their quiet intelligence cooperation with Israel? To address the discrimination, economic stagnation, and societal divisions that make Iran’s low-cost, high-yield regional meddling possible? Or will Trump simply sell more American weapons to a region awash in them but in dire need of jobs, institutions that work for citizens, and voices of progress and reconciliation? The success or failure of any “Arab NATO” will depend on the answer.
To a striking extent, Trump has looked past the people of the Middle East to speak directly to their leaders—though the people have heard plenty. Given Trump’s comments on the region’s people to date, that may be for the best.
Making everything else harder is the fourth major trend, which is Trump’s evisceration of civilian power in foreign policy. Trump’s approach seems to put defense first, diplomacy last, development never—and don’t even ask about democracy. From huge proposed budget cuts, to a glacial appointment process, to the president’s unfortunate habit of describing his foreign policy team as “my generals,” it’s clear how little Trump values the civilian institutions of foreign policy. A massive exodus of talent and institutional memory has already begun from the State Department. It will take decades to recover.
Worse still, these are the very tools America will need to assist a region in sustained upheaval. The widespread crisis of political legitimacy that sparked revolutionary protests in 2011 is unlikely to stay cryogenically frozen no matter how much Trump and Arab rulers may wish it to. As Vice President Biden often reminded his team, “Reality has a way of intruding.” When it does, the hollowing-out of America’s diplomatic capacity will look like unilateral disarmament in the face of turmoil.
Americans cannot help but view this trip through Trump’s presidency-threatening crises and the pathologies that launched them. That’s fair. But anytime a U.S. president ventures to the Middle East—even this president, even now—it represents a significant opportunity to help or harm America’s interests. In mid-1974, as his administration crumbled, a shaken President Nixon visited Anwar Sadat and helped orchestrate Egypt’s flip from the Soviet camp into the four-decade U.S. partnership Trump now seeks to resuscitate. It’s a reminder that, even when an administration looks impossibly wobbly to us, the region still looks for U.S. leadership. For all our shortcomings, the post-American Middle East remains a myth.
This trip is an opportunity to at least attempt to put forth a coherent underlying approach. Foundational questions remain unanswered. How does Trump expect to curb Iranian influence without provoking a war or shattering divided societies like Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon? Can he and America’s partners, with their capacity challenges, integrate one-off gestures into a long-term plan that meaningfully shifts the regional balance of power away from Iran? And what are Trump’s plans to stabilize areas liberated from ISIS? The closest thing to a Trump strategy to rebuild Middle Eastern societies ravaged by civil war is to close America’s doors to their people. To understate the obvious, that falls short of the mark.
Fixing Trump’s problems at home requires a team of lawyers, psychotherapists, and maybe a few priests, in case political last rites are required. A successful foreign trip, in contrast, is a more achievable goal. If Trump wishes to channel favorable optics into successful policy, he needs to look more deeply at the region’s problems, recognize that personal charm backed by military might is no substitute for a strategy and a working State Department, and ask for more from America’s partners than a lavishly friendly welcome.
Last month, President Donald Trump called his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, and gave him a simple message: “Stay strong.” This bears an eerie resemblance to a conversation, more than four decades ago, between another scandal-ridden president and a fired staffer under investigation. On April 30, 1973, Richard Nixon fired his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, and called him later that day to say, “But let me say you’re a strong man, goddammit, and I love you.” In the context of the unfolding Watergate scandal, the meaning of Nixon’s words were clear: “Stay loyal, don’t testify against me.”
The current investigation into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign hasn’t yet reached the clarity of Watergate, so we can’t be so certain of the meaning of Trump’s words. But we know for certain that Trump and Flynn have a strong bond, one that has survived Flynn’s forced resignation in mid-February after just 24 days on the job. Time and again, Trump has stood up for Flynn even when it undercut the president’s position or went against advice he received from trusted sources. According to a Daily Beast report on Thursday, the president would even welcome Flynn back to the White House if the former adviser emerges unscathed from the federal investigation.
The question is: Why are Trump and Flynn so loyal to each other? Innocent and sinister possibilities abound.
Less than 48 hours after Trump was elected in November, President Barack Obama reportedly warned him against hiring Flynn. As NBC News noted, “The Obama administration fired Flynn in 2014 from his position as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, largely because of mismanagement and temperament issues.” Trump ignored Obama’s warnings. On November 18, Flynn accepted Trump’s offer to be national security adviser.
On January 4, Flynn told the Trump transition team he was under criminal investigation by the FBI for secretly lobbying for Turkey. Trump continued to have faith in Flynn. On January 26, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates told White House counsel Don McGahn that Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian government because he had lied about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Trump stuck with Flynn, and only forced his resignation after leaks from the Russian investigation revealed Flynn had misled the White House about his conversation with Kislyak, making it politically impossible for Trump to keep him on.
Days after Flynn’s resignation, Trump met with then-FBI Director James Comey. According to Comey’s notes from that meeting, Trump told him about the investigation into Flynn and said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Finally, on multiple occasions since Flynn left his post, Trump has asked White House lawyers if he could contact Flynn. Trump was repeatedly told that it would be inappropriate, but he ignored legal counsel and called Flynn in April to say, “Stay strong.”
The pattern is clear: Trump has some sort of unusually intense devotion to Flynn, which leads him to override wise advice. Trump has been exceptionally loyal to Flynn and Flynn has reciprocated. “Thank God Trump is president,” Flynn told a friend after losing his job. “Can you imagine if Hillary had won and what she would be doing?” On Thursday morning, Flynn’s lawyer indicated his client won’t honor the subpoena from the Senate Intelligence Committee to speak on his Russian connections. If there’s a code of silence between Trump and Flynn, it’s holding strong.
A close associate of Flynn explains that this bond between Trump and Flynn is a personal one. “These are two men who bonded on the campaign trail,” the Flynn associate told Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff. “Flynn always believed that Trump would win. They were together so much during the campaign that Flynn became family. There has been zero sign of anything but supreme loyalty.”
The idea that Trump would show “supreme loyalty” to anything other than his own best interests is laughable. Trump is a thrice-married man who has repeatedly betrayed those who have done business with him. During an inheritance battle, he cut off health insurance for a nephew’s chronically ill child. When Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn contracted AIDS, Trump cut him off from his life. Trump is not, in other words, a many for whom loyalty is a value in and of itself. If Trump does value loyalty, it’s loyalty as understood by mobsters: the reciprocal loyalty of those who stay true to each other because betrayal would cause both men to be punished.
The relationship between Trump and Flynn is murky. Perhaps Trump sticks with him for some complex emotional reason: because Flynn was an early supporter, they share similar foreign policy views, Trump loves men in uniform, or because Flynn was fired by Obama, whom Trump hates. More broadly, Trump has a defiant streak and might be loyal to Flynn out of sheer obstinacy, a rejection of interference from figures like Obama, Yates, and Comey.
But we must also consider Trump’s depraved character, and the fact that Flynn is under investigation for something that could easily entangle Trump’s administration, perhaps even bring down the president himself. Given this, perhaps there’s a more sinister reason for Trump’s fierce loyalty. When he tells Flynn to “stay strong,” the message might simply be: “No snitching.”
Samuel R. Delany,
the acclaimed science fiction writer, was dyslexic as a kid. He wrote, but his
markings were completely incomprehensible. Because he was obviously intelligent
and dyslexia was virtually unknown at the time, his parents, teachers, and
doctors thought he was just lazy. They told him to write his way through the
problem. So he began filling notebooks. He would work from two directions:
front to back, he would write stories, poems, and homework; back to front,
sexual fantasies. “The entries in the back and the front of the book, over a
period of four to six weeks, would move closer and closer together,” he recalls
in one of his memoirs, The Motion of
Light on Water. “Writing itself would seem to be […] marginal to a vast,
empty, unarticulated center called reality that was displaced more and more by
it.” Now, with the publication of six volumes of his private journals, readers
can see how Delany’s writing produces a double vision of his life. Where,
among all these renderings, can he find something solid?
This question haunts his writing—strange, beautiful, and complex science fiction that won him acclaim from the very beginning of his career. His novels appeal to readers both in and outside the genre—perhaps surprising, given his penchant for experimentation, graphic (for the time) portrayals of homosexuality, and deliberate allusiveness of language. Delany contributed to the elevation of science fiction, helping to father a more literary genre known as the New Wave. In 2013 the professional association of science fiction writers honored him with the title “Grand Master.”
Delany’s quintessential novel is The Einstein Intersection, in which an alien tries out various human myths to make sense of himself. The project of sense-making is also at issue in Delany’s various memoirs, and now in the publication of his private journals—including some of the notebooks Delany used to conquer dyslexia.
The first volume, In Search of Silence, begins in 1957, when the author was just fifteen, a student at the academically exclusive (and very white) Bronx High School of Science. It ends in 1969, when he was already a successful novelist, about to leave for San Francisco to spend arduous years crafting the novel Dhalgren, his masterpiece. Traversing Delany’s youth, we see a precocious mind grappling with his own talent. Remarkably absent are extended reflections on the difficult circumstances of his outer life: At the time, Delany was navigating through the racism and homophobia of his era, and struggling with poverty, an early marriage, and his own disability. In light of this, the diaries’ portrayal of his serenely intellectual inner life is startling.
Delany’s youth was full of contradictions. A black kid from Harlem, he attended all-white schools, like Bronx Science and the tony Dalton School. He wed his high school sweetheart, the poet Marilyn Hacker, when he was just 19, and they remained together for years—even though Delany had known, since he was ten, that he was gay. (Hacker has identified as a lesbian since the couple’s divorce in 1980.) Long days of writing were punctuated by trips to Times Square movie theaters for quick, anonymous sexual encounters with other men. Despite towering literary and intellectual aspirations, he found himself penning pot-boilers as fast as he could to survive in the city. At one point early in the journals, a long entry about the nature of authority reveals itself to be the work of Delany as a schoolboy, planning to run away from his home that very night. The record continues as he takes a bus across the city and waits in a shabby hallway for a friend to wake up and let him in. In another passage, he notes that he’s writing in a gas station lavatory. He lived with uncertainty, a sense of not belonging, and he confronted all this discomfort with the power of his prodigious intellect. One gets the sense that writing for him is a sanctuary, a way out of the difficulties of an at times confounding life.
But Delany’s life is not only one of isolation. He’s rarely closed-off or solipsistic. Keenly alert to the sensual world, he liked to put his face close to things, to smell and feel them. In the journals, we see him pressing his cheeks against cold museum walls, wet stone steps, a bronze lamp base. “To have talent you must be able to see and feel things [around] you,” he says. And occasionally, the inward focus dramatically reverses, becoming piercing, nearly obsessive observation. In Search of Silence includes two extended experiments in what Delany calls “simultaneous journaling.” He would set himself the task of recording everything that happened as it occurred for a set period of time. He was so pleased with one of these experiments, the record of a trip to the Newport Folk Festival, that he wanted to publish it. We see the writer interacting with those around him, noting their reactions to what he has put down. Writing becomes a social act, not an escapist one.
Delany offers the best explanation of his practice when he writes about “the insane double level on which I function, experiencing & recording, commenting and committing and never able to fulfill my purpose in either one.” In other words, he lived on two registers, participating in the world and also observing it, living simultaneously as a kid in NYC and, as he immodestly observes, “a writer of genius, whether I like it or not.”
Artists by necessity possess a double vision of things as they are and as they could be. Writers are aware of life as a palimpsest overwritten by fantasy and desire. Imagine this tension heightened in a writer whose conflicted life mirrors the complexity of his artistic vision, and you will begin to understand Samuel Delany. “Edited forms of the constant commentary that I make upon my life constitute my art,” wrote the teenager. His disability, race, and sexuality presented challenges for him, but they were also the conditions for developing his consciousness as a writer.
The same years covered by In Search of Silence are discussed in Delany’s memoir, The Motion of Light on Water. In matters of detail, the autobiographer was scrupulous. But there are striking differences of emphasis. The notebooks and the memoir present a parallax view of Delany’s life, and the measure of its angle is the figure of Marilyn Hacker, his wife.
They married in Detroit, because it was the nearest city where state laws permitted an interracial marriage. They passed their bus trip to Michigan inventing a new language and co-writing a novella—this was the nature of their partnership. Marilyn was—and is—a talented poet. In The Motion of Light on Water, Delany presents her as the leader in their literary relationship. He quotes her poems more than anything he wrote himself in those years, and writes:
Watching this thin young woman in thick glasses write her early poems, being around her while the detritus of daily life was transmuted into lines of dizzying musicality, not to mention being the poems’ first reader, was unspeakably exciting. It made my whole adolescence and early manhood an adventure—an adventure I was thrilled and pleased to be sitting at the edge of.
The reader of In Search of Silence is surprised to find Marilyn relatively absent from Delany’s journals. Certainly she does appear, both as a character in Delany’s thinking and in her own hand—she offers witty, acerbic commentary from the margins. Delany duly records her visit from W.H. Auden; and a vivid description of her miscarriage, in the first year of their marriage, marks one of the dramatic highpoints of the journals. But the impression of Delany we receive is hardly that of a figure “at the edge” of someone else’s life.
Instead, he has the casual arrogance of someone fully committed to his own adventure. He likes to invent imaginary blurbs for his imaginary future publications. Kenneth James, the editor of the journals, includes half a dozen such blurbs from different notebooks. Perhaps the later ones were written for the dustjackets of actual books, or perhaps, like the lengthy, imagined critical essay Delany pens as if from a future critic on his own juvenilia, they simply mark stages in the author’s self-conception. He was always conscious of his talent, and in the journals he frequently compares himself to other literary child prodigies like Chatterton, Rimbaud, and Radiguet. When his career took off, occasionally he felt overwhelmed by work—he once had to spend several weeks in a hospital after a nervous breakdown—but he never seemed to doubt his abilities. Instead, he exhorts himself to relish them. “I must make sure my book does not lack the language gouged from the mouth and heaped on the subject, tongue sprung and magnificent,” he writes. “Mine—my book—can hold torrents.”
The self-conscious young genius of the journals is not the subordinate young husband of the autobiography. Does this make one or the other a truer account? I don’t think so. “‘History’,” says Delany, “is what we create by the scratching, the annoyance, the irritation of writing, with its aspirations to logic and order, on memory’s uneasy and uncertain discontinuities.” Neither version of his life is wrong because neither claims to be complete. Even in his experiments with simultaneous journaling, Delany discovered the inability of writing to fully capture reality: “Prose suffers from the illusion that it parallels, or is capable of paralleling, all of thought.” In his thinking about the representative power of language, his dyslexia speaks to the dilemma:
Since I am “orally regressed” [dyslexic] I think pictorially. In my verbal recount of an image, no matter how complete I make it, I am always aware of having left out some detail. A square inch of white porcelain has details enough to occupy the alert mind for hours. A human action is inconceivable!
Delany’s journals and his autobiography are both inevitably inadequate to the task of reproducing a life. Like the double-sided notebooks of his youth, displacing reality from its margins, they are two halves of an empty picture frame, outlining an absence. “These journals,” he observes, “are not to remember the things I record, but for all the things that pass unwritten, and forgotten.” They leave us not with satisfying answers as to who Delany was, but with greater appreciation for the depth of the question.
All politicians, even the most polished, say things they wish they hadn’t. In the jargon of Washington, the process of resolving these self-inflicted crises is usually called the walk back. Compelled to provide more context, politicians will—usually through their press aides—admit they they “misspoke” or “regret their remarks.”
Donald Trump forgoes the walk back in favor of irresponsibly disclaiming the seriousness and implications of his statements. He responds to criticism of his remarks with a kind of all-purpose social-media insouciance—“j/k, lol!” After the Washington Post in October published the infamous Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump boasts on a live mic about sexually assaulting women with impunity, he said in a statement, “This was locker-room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago.” After Trump, in a televised press conference in July, solicited Russian hackers to commit crimes against Hillary Clinton on television, he responded to criticism by telling Fox News, “Of course I’m being sarcastic.”
Just about any Trump utterance, apparently, can be written off as yet more locker room talk—including his private request to FBI Director Jim Comey to abandon the federal investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. “I hope you can let this go,” the president said, according to a Comey memo revealed by The New York Times on Tuesday. After 12 hours of conspicuous silence, White House aides and several Republicans on Capitol Hill, chalked up the whole thing to a misunderstanding. Trump was probably just pallin’ around!
In so many ways, including this one, Trump’s complete absence of integrity is rubbing off on the party at large. Of Wednesday’s many news bombshells, the most contested story was about a year-old conversation among House Republican leaders in which Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin was funneling money to then-candidate Donald Trump. Speaker Paul Ryan then swore the group to secrecy.
McCarthy: There’s…there’s two people, I think, Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump…[laughter]…swear to God.
Ryan: This is an off the record…[laughter]…NO LEAKS…[laughter]…alright?!
Aides to Ryan and McCarthy initially told the Post the quotes were fabricated, but when the Post alerted them that their conversation was caught on tape, their story changed just as you’d expect Trump’s would: j/k, lol! “This entire year-old exchange was clearly an attempt at humor,” said Ryan’s spokesman. “This was a failed attempt at humor,” said McCarthy’s.
After reading the transcript, some reporters—from outside the Post—instinctively sided with Ryan and McCarthy.
These tweets aren’t obviously access-seeking apologetics or competitive jealousy, either: The portion of the transcript in question can be read generously to suggest a half-serious kind of hyperbole. But as with every other “locker room talk” controversy, an obsessive focus on controversial phrases obscures more than it reveals. In each of the above cases, the real story emerges from surrounding events and context.
The most damning thing about the Access Hollywood tape wasn’t that Trump said his celebrity empowers him to “grab” women “by the pussy,” but the ample testimony from women who say Trump pulled that very move on them. The best indicia of Trump’s collaboration with Russian intelligence wasn’t his saying, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Clinton] emails that are missing.” It was his reflexive need to sow doubt about the identity of the hackers (“If it is Russia, which it’s probably not. Nobody knows who it is.”) in the face of broad consensus that the hackers were, indeed, Russian—all while reveling in the contents of the theft, and rewarding Russia with policy concessions. And the clearest sign of Trump’s frame of mind in his exchange with Comey wasn’t the special pleading on Flynn’s behalf, but what he did before asking Comey to “let this go”:
Mr. Comey had been in the Oval Office that day with other senior national security officials for a terrorism threat briefing. When the meeting ended, Mr. Trump told those present — including Mr. Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — to leave the room except for Mr. Comey.
Comey did not let Flynn go. And less than three months later, as Comey’s investigation heated up, Trump fired him.
We may never know if McCarthy and Ryan thought Trump was literally taking money from Putin. But we don’t even need to reach that part of the transcript to see just how resolved they were to allow Trump to benefit from Russian interference in the election, whether money changed hands or not.
Payroll questions aside, the conversation between the leaders was, at bottom, a long lament about Russian subversion of democracies, followed by a recognition that Trump was already benefitting from it.
Ryan: Russia is trying to turn Ukraine against itself.
[Cathy McMorris-] Rodgers: Yes. And that’s…it’s sophisticated and it’s, uh…
Ryan: And guess…guess who’s the only one taking a strong stand up against it? We are.
Rodgers: We’re not…we’re not…but, we’re not…
McCarthy: [unintelligible]…I’ll GUARANTEE you that’s what it is.[Unintelligible]
McCarthy: The Russians hacked the DNC and got the opp research that they had on Trump.
Ryan: The Russian’s hacked the DNC…
[Patrick] McHenry: …to get oppo…
Ryan: …on Trump and like delivered it to…to who?
The basic nature of the pro-Trump subversion effort was known to GOP leaders before the parties’ conventions last year: The above conversation took place on June 15. Several weeks after the GOP officially nominated Trump in mid-July, in a secure setting with Obama administration officials and other members who receive classified briefings, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to politicize any effort on the part of the government to reveal that Russian intelligence was intervening in the election to help Trump. “According to several officials,” the Post reported, “McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.”
Despite Ryan’s clear awareness of the truth, we can infer that he sided with McConnell, tacitly or otherwise, because the Obama administration backed down in the face of McConnell’s threat. An official government assessment that Russia was helping Trump in the election didn’t reach the public until after the election, as Trump was transitioning to the presidency.
Unless this story has a second act, McCarthy and Ryan will stick to the explanation that their Putin-paying-Trump speculation was meant to be a joke. But even if that part of the conversation had never happened, the rest of it, and the later briefing with Obama officials, tell a perfectly rounded story of congressional Republicans’ complicity in Russian sabotage of the Clinton campaign. There is no way to walk this one back—and it wasn’t locker room talk.
A year ago, the idea of an election culminating in a presidency that no one saw coming seemed, to me, like pretty good television, but also a story that had little to do with American democracy as we knew it. Veep’s fifth season hinged on a series of unprecedented reversals, beginning when President Selina Meyer’s bid for reelection ended in a tie in the Electoral College. That triggered a House vote between the two candidates—a process that also resulted in a tie and ultimately forced Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) to cede the Oval Office to Laura Montez (Andrea Savage), her opponent’s running mate. In its need to keep pushing its characters into one unpredictable situation after another, it seemed at the time, Veep had depicted an alternate version of the 2016 election that was far too outlandish for reality ever to keep up with.
What a difference an election makes. By November, the emotions we saw in Veep’s fifth season looked a lot like the real outrage that Hillary Clinton’s supporters felt at her defeat. As Selina’s fate hung in the balance, she was forced to watch every senator and staffer she had intimidated, manipulated, and then forgotten in her bid for the presidency remember the promises she had made to them and then reneged on. The election of a brand-new—prettier! younger! allegedly Hispanic!—woman in her place amounted to a communal backstabbing, with Selina in the role of Caesar. To add insult to injury, Selina’s bid to free Tibet, meant to be her October surprise, came to fruition minutes into Laura Montez’s inauguration. So now, at the start of season six, Selina has also had to watch her successor undeservedly claim the Nobel Peace Prize that Selina hoped to claim (undeservedly) for herself.
This final blow, however, is about as close as the new season comes to portraying the workings of the democratic process. Instead of following the victor back into the chaos of the White House, Veep sticks with Selina in her loss. Facing the end of her political career, she hates Washington, hates America, and hates D.C. insiders maybe slightly more than she hates “regular Americans,” whatever they are. Wrenched out of a world that, despite her misery in it, was still the only world she really understood—the only game she knew the rules to, even if it was one she could never win—Selina doesn’t know how to function as a regular person, greeting her ex-husband (who is also her current lover) as if he’s an anonymous caucus-goer. (“Well, I know you!” she chirps when she sees him on the street.)
Selina is figuring out how to be human, and she doesn’t like it much. Watching that struggle—and the struggle of those around her not only to find their own footing in this brave new world, but to aid her journey in whatever ways they can—is the most captivating part of the new season of Veep, just as Selina Meyer’s troubled relationship with her own humanity has always been the most surprising and revealing aspect of the show. It is the story that many of the post-election photographs of Hillary Clinton walking in the woods of Chappaqua tried to piece together—the picture of a life long shaped around politics, suddenly absent its animating force.
Taking Selina out of the White House is a wise move on showrunner David Mandel’s part, though perhaps as disappointing to some viewers as it is to Selina herself. When Veep premiered in 2012, critics hailed it as a mordant satire that was, if anything, just a bit too broad and nihilistic to adequately reflect the complexity of American politics. Along with shows like House of Cards, its appeal lay in identifying the Washington archetypes of our time, however crudely sketched. Veep, Carina Chocano wrote in The New York Times, captured “our post-Reagan, post-Clinton, post-Bush, 24-hour tabloid news and internet-haterade dystopia.”
Like its creator Armando Iannucci’s previous comedies The Thick of It and In the Loop, Veep painted a grim world where no one ever accomplished anything, where all power was illusory, where every promise of progress was used cynically to manipulate voters or (worse) was rendered impossible to execute by a hopeless political system. “We all know the White House would work so much better if there wasn’t a president,” Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn), the White House chief of staff, wearily reminds Selina in season two. “But there is, so we work around that.”
While this sensibility proved a rich seam for satire in the Obama years, White House politics as usual have now yielded to something altogether more chaotic. With the real-world targets of Veep’s first five seasons ushered off the stage, the show reckons with the disappointed personal ambitions of those who surrounded Meyer. Her staffers are all dramatically worse off than they were when we saw them last, forced to weather the kind of disorder and humiliation that generates the most riveting character drama. Amy (Anna Chlumsky) is managing a gubernatorial campaign for her Nevadan fiancé, for whom she exhibits almost as much open contempt as she does for his constituents; Dan (Reid Scott) is co-hosting a CBS morning show, limited to terrorizing his rivals through puff pieces instead of attack ads; Ben is hired, then quickly ousted, by the millennials at Uber. But there is good news for the Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) fans out there: Jonah, who began the series as a powerless underling, is now a freshman congressman—the sole political survivor of the Meyer era.
In the year since she left office, Selina herself has spent some time at the spa (a Meyerism for a psychiatric facility), launched an obligatory foundation, and started work on her memoir. Only her body man, Gary (Tony Hale), and former Ryan staffer Richard Splett (Sam Richardson) remain by her side—the two Fools left to care for their exiled Lear. They do their best, which doesn’t count for much, because all Selina really wants is to be president again. Before the season premiere is over, she announces her plans for another run, then scraps them just as quickly. One thing seems certain as we embark on Veep’s sixth season: Selina Meyer will remain, at least for now, a private citizen.
Which leaves us to confront what is, by now, the only reason for watching the show: not to spy on the imagined (and authentically filthy) inner workings of our nation’s capital, but to follow the characters and relationships we already know so well. In this shift, Veep reminds us that it has always been about the human fears and anxieties and desires that are the smallest but most recognizable unit of any political system. Relieved of its original, insidery focus, Veep feels not like it has drifted away from its center, but as though it has stripped away everything but its core.
During Veep’s run, we’ve been given the tools to understand Selina as a power-hungry, capricious, and ultimately sympathetic character—in no small part due to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s nuanced portrayal. Dreyfus may have taken home five Emmys for her work in what the awards define as a comedy series, but her performance evokes the darkness at the heart of all dramatic tales of the deaths of kings: laying claim to all the power you can dream of; discovering that it isn’t enough to make you whole; and then, even more painfully, losing it. This kind of role is, simply put, not one that women often have the chance to play—either in prime time, or in the ongoing 24-hour reality series we know as the presidency—and Veep is a reminder that women don’t need equal power to be equally corrupted.
Most gratifying of all is what Julia Louis-Dreyfus does with the material. Selina’s finely-honed political persona, the shards of which painfully work their way even into the moments when she is actually trying to be genuine, is a performance within a performance—one that, by now, viewers probably understand better than Selina herself does. That’s partly because Tony Hale’s performance as Gary, Selina’s emotional punching bag, is no less stunning than Dreyfus’s. His, by necessity, is a quieter role; as in pairs figure skating, he’s the stem that holds the flower. Selina projects her persona so relentlessly that her interior life sometimes seems like a void, but Gary has the opposite problem: After years of delivering his most meaningful communications in a manner inaudible to anyone but Selina (“Wife, not his daughter! Wife not daughter!” he croons in her ear as she greets a party guest in a first-season episode), Gary struggles to speak in a way the rest of the world can hear.
Hale communicates his character in large part through a masterful array of inarticulate sounds. His repertoire includes the groan of half-concealed disgust, elicited when he’s shocked by Selina’s vulgarity; the grunt of repressed nay-saying; the whinny of apprehension, which Selina seems to register almost subconsciously when she’s about to embark on a disastrous track while speaking to someone, and occasionally uses to her advantage; and the mortified laugh of theatrical indignation, always on Selina’s behalf, but called off in a split second if Selina doesn’t require his outrage after all.
It’s in these relationships that Veep’s new season offers the defeated some small redemption. Maybe Jonah will get a heart, maybe Mike will get a brain, maybe Gary will grow in courage, and maybe Selina will do something more than simply returning to her electoral roots in Kansas, as she did in a particularly arresting moment last season. In that episode, Selina wandered out of the Oval Office and into the path of a White House tour, soaking up the opportunity to be surrounded by people who adore her—a vivid reminder that a persona developed over many years can still mean something to voters.
“I love you!” a Kansan woman tells Selina, and the tour group applauds, and Selina drinks it in, looking at her people—are these the American people?—with a combination of gratitude and despair. Because after decades of training herself to connect with the public, she knows this is as good as it gets.
In 1811, Charles Deslondes, a mixed-race slave driver from Saint-Dominique, Haiti, led what would become the largest slave rebellion in American history. Composed of 500 men, many of whom had participated in the successful Haitian revolution only a few years prior, Deslondes’s army advanced on New Orleans with a military discipline that surprised many of their adversaries. As they marched along the Mississippi River—drums rumbling, flags held high above their heads—they attacked several plantations with an assortment of scavenged weapons. Within 48 hours, local militia and federal troops had suppressed the rebellion and Deslondes was ruthlessly executed—his hands were chopped off, he was shot in both legs, and then burned to death in a bale of straw.
The rebellion’s import has changed over time. In the immediate aftermath, the backlash was brutal. Alarmed slaveholders in Louisiana invested resources in training local militia, and slave patrols began surveying slave quarters with increasing frequency and ruthless violence. Meanwhile, the federal government realized that in order to defend Louisiana, it would also have to defend the institution of slavery. It formalized this commitment in 1812, when the United States officially granted Louisiana statehood. Louisiana remained a state until 1861, when it seceded from the Union. There is no doubt why it did this, as its leaders said so explicitly: “Louisiana looks to the formation of a Southern confederacy to preserve the blessings of African slavery.”
Today, the rebellion of 1811 is a historical cornerstone in an ongoing attempt to foster an honest reckoning with the past. Last week, a statue of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis, originally erected in 1911, was removed in New Orleans. This week, an equestrian statue of the Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard was also pulled down by authorities. Along with the removal of a monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, which commemorated a Reconstruction-era insurrection by white supremacists, three of a planned four monuments have been taken down. At the forefront of the effort to have the statues removed is a group of young, black activists known as Take ‘Em Down NOLA.
Michael “Quess?” Moore, an educator, poet, and playwright, has become one of the faces of this movement. On a recent evening in his New Orleans home, his long dreadlocks draped over his shoulders and chest, he told me what had inspired him to get involved in this project, his stories moving fluidly between past and present. When he moved to New Orleans, Moore, originally from Brooklyn, attended a lecture by two black New Orleans historians, Malcolm Suber and Leon Waters, to whom he attributes the development of much of his political education. Suber and Waters, who run a tour in New Orleans called “Hidden Histories,” have made it their mission to bring to light the parts of black history in the Crescent City that you won’t find in your typical textbook, including Deslondes’s rebellion.
“Malcolm and Leon had this kind of pedagogy that was integrated into organizing work and a Marxist/Leninist framework … then taking that and integrating it with black history and what it meant for black people to live under systemic oppression,” Moore says, shaking his head as if he should have made the connection himself long ago. He says they pointed to those monuments of Davis and others and told him, “‘Okay, this shows you what the state thinks about you; this shows you what the state thinks about the system that oppressed your ancestors and how they still feel about it to this day.’” He pauses and raises his hands on either side of him. “Long story short, it just all clicked for me.”
Moore is far from alone in this sentiment. For Angela Kinlaw, a co-founder of the organization who works as an educator in New Orleans, the relationship between the monuments and an enduring racism is clear. “Symbols are used to bond people around cultural values, ideas, political ideologies, and those ideas show up in systems that are protected by the state,” she told me early one morning before attending the graduation ceremony for her students. “When we look at our environment and we see that all of the major street names, all of the most revered monuments, all the parks that these kids and families are playing in … All of this stuff is messaging, all of this stuff is psychological, all of this stuff has an impact.”
For Kinlaw, Moore, and many young activists in New Orleans and around the country a painful confluence of events—Trayvon Martin’s death, Ferguson’s uprising, Dylann Roof’s massacre—created a storm of political outrage that has started to convene around enduring symbols of white supremacy, like the Confederate monuments. Dylann Roof’s 2015 attack on members of a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, which led to the removal of a Confederate flag at the South Carolina State House, may have been the final catalyst needed to push for the removal of the monuments in New Orleans. At the same time, to see the Charleston massacre as the sole cause would negate the work that activists in New Orleans have been doing for years.
Take ‘Em Down NOLA began as a loose collection of activists, many of whom had been involved in other local and national racial justice organizations like the Black Youth Project. Moore describes it as “a black-led, multiracial, intergenerational coalition,” with a strong emphasis on intersectional awareness. He reminds me the organization wouldn’t exist without Kinlaw and other women who have been on the frontlines of this work. “Even our elders, as an intergenerational coalition, I watch get somewhat of an education on this,” he says. “[Men] gotta learn how to step back, right? Because that’s what damaged a lot of the movements in the past.”
Take ‘Em Down NOLA was birthed out of a recognition that the Confederate statues were the physical manifestation of an ahistorical worldview, one which valorized and apologized for the very champions of slavery. The group does not equivocate about its purpose:
We the people of New Orleans demand that the Mayor and City Council take immediate action to remove all monuments, school names and street signs dedicated to White Supremacists. These structures litter our city with visual reminders of the horrid legacy of slavery that terrorized so many of this city’s ancestors. They misrepresent our community. We demand the freedom to live in a city where we are not forced to pay taxes for the maintenance of public symbols that demean us and psychologically terrorize us.
Kinlaw emphasizes that when the group says all, it means all.
The organization identified more than 100 statues, 24 streets, seven schools, and two hospitals that it says pay tribute to slavery. These include Tulane University, named after Paul Tulane, who was the largest donor to the Confederacy in New Orleans; several schools named after John McDonogh, who was a prominent slave owner in the city; and Governor Nichols Street, named after a Confederate general.
After the Charleston massacre, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for the removal of four statues: Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, and the monument commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place. “Those were easier to stigmatize because they were all in the Confederacy,” Moore notes. I ask him about the possibility of removing the statue of President Andrew Jackson—a slaveholder who also presided over the Trail of Tears—in the middle of the French Quarter. Moore laughs, “When it’s Jackson, now you’ve gotta have a larger conversation.” But it’s a conversation the activists want to have, as they see these four statues as only the beginning of their work to remove tributes to and namesakes of confederates and enslavers throughout the city.
After Ferguson, in 2014, the group began holding events at Robert E. Lee’s monument, initially as a means of giving people the space to vent, grieve, and heal. Soon, however, the group saw an opportunity for political education. Activists learned about the 1811 slave revolt, the struggle for civil rights in the city, and the previous work that had been done throughout the 1980s and 90s to change the names of 23 schools so they were no longer homages to Confederates. These forums were often led by local historians like Suber and Waters, and they urged the young activists to think of their work as being both in conversation with and an extension of the work that had been done by their predecessors.
Some have pushed back against the monuments’ removal by suggesting that they are not meant celebrate these Confederates, but instead to help us remember how far we’ve come. But this is simply not the case. We know why these statues were erected because, again, it was explicitly stated. When Beauregard’s statue was dedicated in 1915, Judge John St. Paul stated: “Well, indeed, may they worship at his shrine, for he was one, and not the least, of that galaxy of heroic men whose glorious deeds have placed their age and the struggle in which they took part among the grandest that adorn the annals of all times.”
The goal of Take ‘Em Down NOLA—to remove the name of every Confederate, white supremacist, and slave-owning individual from New Orleans—may sound unrealistic. But it’s worth noting that throughout history some of our most celebrated figures are those whose demands seemed untenable during their lifetime. Abolition seemed a fantasy when Frederick Douglass called for all slaves to be released. That black men would cease to be lynched by mobs throughout the South would have seemed farfetched when Ida B. Wells took on the task. But the role of the activist has never been to ask for what seems politically feasible, but that which is morally incumbent. It has been to make the sorts of demands that encourage us to consider what a different world might look like. Entirely erasing tributes to the Confederacy from New Orleans might never happen, but the work of Take ‘Em Down NOLA forces us to consider what it might say about us if we did—and what it says about the fact that we have not yet done so.
Talk of impeaching Donald Trump began only a couple of months after he declared his candidacy for president in 2015. Former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, in a “dispatch from the future” for The Atlantic, wrote that “there’s no need to belabor the details of how the next four years unfolded: the budget crisis, President Trump’s impeachment, Vice President Cruz’s inauguration, the second budget crisis.” But the subject didn’t truly gain steam until Trump won the Republican nomination and then the general election—with Mike Pence, rather than Cruz, as his running mate.
The impeachment fantasy—which was confined to Democrats, journalists, and anti-Trump conservatives like New York Times columnist David Brooks—spawned a new genre of concern trolling on the left: that Mike Pence would be a worse president. With Trump now an increasingly scandalized president, and impeachment being discussed openly by elected Democrats and even some Republicans, the aforementioned liberals have returned to warn that kicking Trump out of the White House would not be an improvement over our current situation—that, in fact, a President Pence would be a bigger disaster for the progressive project than Trump has been.
“If Trump were impeached and convicted, Vice President Mike Pence, a right-wing, evangelical ideologue, would be a much more reliable and competent rubber stamp for the conservative policy agenda,” wrote Jeff Alson at In These Times. Megan Carpentier, writing at Dame, argued that “Pence may not tweet like a Ritalin-addicted teenager with an impulse-control problem, a deep sense of entitlement, and something to prove, and he probably has the good sense not to yell at other world leaders and constantly publicly praise the most murderous ones ... but in terms of actual, actionable policy decisions, the idea that Mike Pence would somehow be preferable to the man who is enacting every policy Mike Pence would himself enact is, and always was, the product of a fevered imagination.”
But Cliston Brown, a columnist at the Observer (which is owned by the family of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior adviser), offered the most apocalyptic take on a Pence presidency. “While Pence clearly has more self-control and self-awareness than Trump, that’s exactly what makes him more dangerous. He has all the same ideas and goals as Trump—and, as an added bonus, a religious-right agenda that’s even worse—and a much better chance of actually implementing them,” Brown wrote. Trump’s presidency will continue to be a smoldering ruin, allowing Democrats to retake the House in 2018 and the White House in 2020 and putting the party “in a position to control the country for a decade.” By contrast, Brown argued, President Pence would win broad approval, cementing Republican control of government until 2024— at which point the Republicans could have a 7-2 Supreme Court majority that would cast a reactionary shadow for the next half-century.
There’s no question that Pence, a creature of the religious right, would be a terrible president, although in ways different than Trump. As I argued in mid-November, when this meme first took hold on the left, “A Pence presidency would be one particular nightmare, the rule of Trump another one entirely. To use the language of Dungeons and Dragons: Pence is Lawful Evil and Trump is Chaotic Evil.” Trump is more likely to blunder into a nuclear war, while Pence is more likely to push America down the road to a rigid theocracy. The worst-case scenario under Trump is the world of Mad Max, while under Pence it would be The Handmaid’s Tale.
But aside from their policy differences, there is another way to distinguish between Trump and Pence, which is the likely impact of their presidencies on the political landscape. It’s true that Trump’s trainwreck of a presidency has been a boon to the Democrats, as his mounting scandals and wholesale incompetence stall the GOP’s anti-Obamacare, tax-cutting, deregulatory agenda. Thanks to Trump, Democrats have a reasonable shot of winning at least one chamber of Congress in the 2018 midterm elections, and of rebuilding their party in state houses and legislatures across the country.
But it’s a mistake to think that Pence would be a more competent or popular president, one capable of enacting the right-wing agenda that has eluded Trump. It’s possible Pence would enjoy a honeymoon after taking office, with most Democrats and many Republicans grateful to see Trump gone, but it would be only a honeymoon. President Gerald Ford’s brief period of grace after taking over for Richard Nixon in 1974 ended when he pardoned his predecessor. Once Pence tried to implement his agenda, Democrats would remember Pence’s complicity in helping Trump become president. Indeed, Democrats would have readymade 2020 ads showing Pence praising his now-disgraced former boss.
Nor would there be widespread support for Pence among Republicans. Though he’s a more conventional Republican, he will inherit a party that is even more fractured than it is now. Trump has had a hard time governing not only because of his own ignorance and blundering, but because there’s nothing holding the Republican Party together other than hatred of the Democrats. There is no unity of purpose between the House Freedom Caucus, the House moderates, and GOP senators. As president, Pence will have much in common with mainstream Republicans but he will find, as Obama and Trump did before him, that a small number of far-right congressmen can sabotage legislation.
Trump’s impeachment would indeed create a new faction in the party: the disaffected Trumpists. Consider the Obama-to-Trump voters who made a difference in the 2016 election: white working class people who normally distrust Republicans like Mitt Romney, but took a chance on Trump because of his populist message. How would they feel about a Republican Party that impeaches Trump and gives them Pence instead? They’d think, quite rightly, that they’ve been betrayed. It’s likely they’d sit out the next election or return to the Democrats.
Meanwhile, those in the right-wing media who have championed Trump or Trumpism—figures like Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, and Ann Coulter—would accuse the Republicans of stabbing Trump in the back. With their ample access to the right-wing base, they’d lambast the party and sow division, and an extended civil war would erupt in the GOP.
They’d have a powerful ally in the form of Trump himself. He has never held his fire against his own party, saying Senator John McCain wasn’t a war hero “because he was captured” and suggesting that Senator Ted Cruz’s dad was involved in John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Now betrayed by the GOP, Trump would go nuclear, attempting to take the party down with him. Lest you think Trump’s political voice would weaken outside the White House, remember that he would still have his 30 million Twitter followers and his choice of TV networks eager for an interview. And unlike Nixon, Trump has a formidable personality cult, so his followers will believe his tales of betrayal by the Republican elite.
There are still many hurdles to impeaching Trump, not least that it would require the complicity of a significant minority of Republicans in Congress. But impeachment is no longer just a liberal fantasy, so it’s worth dispelling the liberal fear of a President Pence. His Republican Party would be shrinking and wounded, and would struggle just as mightily in carrying out its agenda. Anyone who doubts that should consider one simple question: If President Pence would be so much better for the GOP than Trump, why are nearly all Republicans in Congress refusing even to discuss impeachment?
There is little more annoying than an academic “expert” pissing on the parade of a new, creative take on their specialty. Actually, the expert interrupts to say, it wasn’t like that at all. Hollywood has never cared for accuracy, and neither has the American viewer, so why does the academic bother? Nobody is listening to the emeritus professor whining in The New York Review of Books that HBO is putting the wrong kind of historical stocking on its anachronistic hotties of yore.
With that said, it’s tough out there for a medievalist. This week sees the release of Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. A chapter of my own dissertation was about King Arthur and the man who invented most of his legend, Geoffrey of Monmouth. I had been interested in the way that landscape is depicted in the ur-Arthur text, Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain. But as I sat nearly alone during an afternoon screening of Ritchie’s movie, watching a comically massive war elephant lumber across the screen as arrows whiz by and the war drums go dum dum-dee dum, I thought: Maybe this won’t be so bad.
In Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the hero dies by the hand of his own illegitimate child Mordred. After a long and bloody fight, Arthur takes up his spear and runs across the battlefield, “cryeng tratour now is thy deth day come.” He smites Mordred right through the body. But then Mordred suddenly thrusts himself along the spear. He inches forward, pushing along the shaft with his doomed body until his father is within arm’s reach. Once close enough, he deals Arthur a blow that pierces the skull. Mordred falls “starke deed to the erthe.” Arthur faints, his death wound sustained.
Death is an important part of the Arthur legend, which is a mish-mash of old, old stories. And most Arthurian literature, as we know it, is like the Mordred-killing scene: balanced, beautiful, humming with Christian themes about sacrifice, and very sad.
When Geoffrey wrote his “history” of King Arthur, he set the story in the mythic past. Geoffrey lived in the twelfth century, but Arthur was supposedly king in something like the fifth or sixth. Geoffrey’s is an origins story for the nation of Britain. To the medieval people of Britain these stories said, Arthur came from here, we are from here, and thus we Britons all share a special and deep relationship to our land. Arthur becomes a metonym for indigeneity, for “native” belonging. In Ritchie’s movie, Arthur’s called the “born king.”
Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) does not die in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Instead, he’s a flash cockney bastard in some kind of floor-length shearling coat, trained in martial arts by a neighbor named George. This Arthur wears maroon trousers and calls his group of retainers his “crew” and flashes a cheeky grin between high kicks. He dodges swords with balletic hip swings reminiscent of Keanu Reeves’s Matrix best. He’s not much of an Arthur at all.
That’s why it’s so surprising that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is faithful to obscure elements of the medieval plot. In Arthurian literature, Vortigern is a king whose ill-advised allegiance with the Saxons must be cleaned up by Arthur later on. In the movie, Jude Law plays Vortigern, who in this version is Arthur’s uncle. Mordred is a “mage,” a wizard of some kind, with whom Vortigern plots to overthrow Uther Pendragon (Arthur’s father, played by Eric Bana). Lion King-style, Arthur struggles for power against his usurping uncle, though it’s obvious to everybody from the sword-in-the-stone episode that the tawny young lad is destined for the throne.
In the movie, Vortigern also must build a tower: The taller it gets, the greater his power becomes. He’s feeding a horrible squid-woman in the basement, too, for bonus powers that make flames shoot out of his cloak and big horns grow out of his hat. But the tower hearkens back to an important leitmotif of Arthur’s story.
In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s text, Vortigern is having problems building a structure, which won’t stay upright. “Whenever they completed a day’s work,” Geoffrey writes of the tower, “It would be swallowed up by the ground the next day, so that they had no idea where it had gone.” Baffled by these architectural setbacks, Vortigern’s magicians suggest sacrificing a fatherless youth. “Kill him and pour his blood over the cement and stones,” they instruct.
So, they find one. His name is Merlin. When summoned, Merlin produces his own version of the cause of the literal instability of Vortigern’s royal project. “My lord king, call your workmen and set them digging; you will find a pool beneath the tower which prevents it from standing,” he predicts. In the pool, he says, they will find two hollow rocks containing sleeping dragons. And, what do you know! There they are.
Merlin’s prophecy shows that he understands the nature of the landscape itself, the true material of Britain. The phony magicians just want to kill people and pour their blood around. The pool and the dragons that lie at its bottom are the true cause of Vortigern’s instability, but they also embody the political future of Britain. After the dragons have been located and Merlin is proved correct, they do battle. The dragons’ fight represents the struggle between the Saxons and the people of Britain to come.
The residency of the prophetic dragons beneath the earth, and the psychic connection between them and Merlin, demonstrate the key role of landscape in organizing the national identity of Britain.
The most interesting innovation
of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
lies with the famous stone itself, where Excalibur lay unbudgeable for so long.
As Arthur eventually sees in a vision, the stone was once in fact the body of
his father. Rather than suffer ignoble death at Vortigern’s hand, Uther
Pendragon throws Excalibur into the air and receives it, kneeling, to the back
of the neck. His body turns to stone and sinks into the bedrock, where his
heir’s inheritance awaits his coming.
And so, for all its silly, winking jokes and massive fight scenes and enormous flying bats (at one point Arthur goes on a quest and finds himself in a monstrous place called the “Darklands”), King Arthur: Legend of the Sword understands something central to Arthurian legend. It matters who your father is, because your blood, your right to govern, and the very earth of Britain upon which you walk, are made of the same stuff. The sword-in-the-stone is as much about the stone as it is about Excalibur.
Told and retold by writers from Monmouth to Chaucer to Malory, this ancient set of tales weave together intrigue, magic, piety, and the idea that the one true king can bring together a faltering nation. The story of Arthur is a national and, in many ways, a nationalist epic. That makes it simplistic in some respects, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is not a very smart movie (Arthurian stories usually add in some good material about love and fealty and noble quest, but I suppose there wasn’t space for any of that once Ritchie was done with all those war elephants.).
But the movie is fun to watch and it repeats almost none of the damaging tropes about the medieval period that shows like Game of Thrones promulgate. Ritchie has cast a diverse group of actors, and made no fuss about it. There are no women raped or gratuitously tortured. The enemy is not coded as racially other. There are no plague boils. Ritchie has reached into the medieval quiver of tales for material, but has not imposed the meta-narrative of Western history onto those stories. For this restraint medievalists should be thankful, and the critics should be a little more forgiving. It’s really not so bad.
It’s no surprise that Stone was celebrating. He had been lobbying Trump to fire Comey for weeks, according to multiple sources. This was staggeringly inappropriate in a way that’s become commonplace in the early days of the Trump administration: Stone, alongside his former lobbying partner Paul Manafort, was being investigated by the FBI for possibly illegal contact with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.
As such, it turned out to be a good week for Netflix to release the documentary Get Me Roger Stone. He’s a man whose fingerprints are all over some of the worst aspects of American politics in the past five decades: Watergate, lobbying, negative advertising, the 2000 recount, the Clinton conspiracy complex, and, perhaps most famously, Donald Trump. He’s a consummate Republican insider—he’s worked in various capacities for Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes, and Trump—who nevertheless presents himself as an anti-elitist crusader, a link between GOP officials and angry members of the white working class. (Stone, who dresses like a mix between Tom Wolfe and the Penguin, refers to the bulk of voters as “non-sophisticates.”)
Still, there is also a sense that Stone has fooled the media into thinking that he’s a puppet-master when he has actually played only a bit part. Get Me Roger Stone takes its name from one of Stone’s few moments of genuine self-awareness. “First they say, ‘Who is Roger Stone?,’ then they say, ‘Get me Roger Stone,’ then they say, ‘Get me a Roger Stone type,’ and finally, they say, ‘Who is Roger Stone?,’” Stone says. It’s a good encapsulation of the transience of fame, of the political variety and otherwise. But Stone’s fluctuating relevance also gets at the documentary’s main problem, which is that it seems uncertain if Stone has engineered our bad political moment or is merely a symptom of it.
Get Me Roger Stone opens with Stone looking on from the shadows as Trump, a giant visage on the screen, gives his “law and order” acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in July of 2016. The message is unmistakable: Roger Stone helped create Donald Trump.
Trump’s outsized presence turns out to be one of the movie’s great weaknesses: Too much of it feels like one long inevitable march to Trump. At times, this works to great effect, especially when we see Stone’s role in degrading public trust in government and pouring corrupt money into elections. But other times it feels like a host trying to resist a virus. Stone himself, with his Cheshire Cat grin, proves elusive, lost somewhere in the role he wants to project. “My name is Roger Stone and I’m an agent provocateur,” he says while sipping a James Bond-ish martini at the film’s beginning.
Still, like its subject, Get Me Roger Stone is enormously and effortlessly entertaining. A cast of talking heads—Jane Mayer, the late Wayne Barrett, Jeffrey Toobin, a surprisingly thoughtful Tucker Carlson—provides context and righteous indignation. (On the last point, Barrett and New York Daily News columnist Harry Siegel are both indispensable.) Stone portrays himself as a trickster practically from birth and a fully-formed ratfucker—a term of art for those who specialize in political dirty tricks—by the time he entered the political big leagues as a mere teenager. He was the youngest person to go before the Watergate grand jury, which he is still very proud of. And his love for Richard Nixon seems entirely genuine, though Nixon’s appeal is more a matter of style than substance. Stone admires Nixon, whose face he has tattooed on his back, for his perseverance and his “anti-elitism,” which for Stone mostly means telling liberals to piss off.
Stone’s mostly conventional work for Reagan is presented as a precursor for the creation of the lobbying group Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, which would become infamous for representing some of the world’s worst dictators and human rights abusers. The film moves at a brisk pace when dealing with Stone’s backstory, and that’s a shame only when dealing with this chapter in Stone’s life, which may very well be his most important endeavor. Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly helped transform Washington, D.C., and American political culture in more insidious and overt ways than Stone’s other claims to fame, with the exception of his role in creating the Donald Trump we know today.
As Siegel notes, the firm pioneered one of Washington’s most destructive revolving doors—they elected politicians, then lobbied them—and helped finesse the reputations of some true monsters, like Mobutu Sese Seko. The firm “really created the modern sleazeball lobbyist,” Toobin says. Stone, typically, doesn’t give a shit. “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist,” Stone shrugs. “I’m proud of the job I did at Black, Manafort and Stone because I made a lot of money.” These sections are Get Me Roger Stone at its best, when the film depicts Stone as the embodiment of everything rotten in American politics without getting too caught up in his web.
We then rush through Stone’s other brushes with fame—the sex scandal that got him fired from Bob Dole’s campaign in 1996, his role in the “Brooks Brothers Riot” that disrupted the Florida recount, his manipulation of Donald Trump to destroy the Reform Party in 2000, which helped elect George W. Bush—before getting back to the main attraction: Donald Trump.
Stone’s role in Trump’s political evolution—the two have worked together since the mid-1980s—is undeniable, but the film struggles to capture it. Trump is interviewed but it’s clearly a courtesy and he says nothing remotely interesting. “Roy [Cohn] thought Roger was a very tough guy,” Trump says. Get Me Roger Stone tries to capture the essence of their relationship by tagging along with Stone as he calls Bill Clinton a rapist in a number of different settings—outside the RNC, inside the RNC, in Florida, on the streets of Manhattan. But these moments say little about Stone, besides the fact that he clearly enjoys getting under people’s skin.
At the same time, both Stone and his allies—particularly Paul Manafort—overstate his influence on contemporary politics. “Roger’s relationship with Trump has been so interconnected it’s hard to define what’s Roger and what’s Donald,” Manafort says. “While it will be a Trump presidency I think it’s influenced by a Stone philosophy.” But Toobin hits the nail on the head. “I think he sees the Trump campaign at once as his creation but also as something that he’s not allowed to participate in day to day,” he says. “And that understandably makes him sad.”
The Stone that emerges is no Svengali. Instead of the man responsible for what ails the country—or, in his parlance, what is making America great again—Stone appears to be exiled from both the Republican Party and Donald Trump’s inner circle. Recent events suggest Stone is still playing a role in Trump’s presidency, but it’s just as likely that Stone is writing himself into another political story. In fact, his penchant for media attention got him fired from Trump’s campaign (Stone claims he resigned). His attachment to the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones seems born of loneliness more than anything else—Jones will have him when no one else will.
So even though the film ends on a note of triumph—or horror, depending on your perspective—it rings hollow. This is probably Stone’s last turn on the big stage, using his on-and-off relationship with Trump as a springboard. “Even if Donald Trump loses I still win because I’ve been front and center and my brand of politics have come into their own,” Stone says before the election.
But even if you give him credit for our wrecked political landscape, Get Me Roger Stone shows that there’s little for Stone to be proud of, beyond his cockroach-like ability to stick around. “I ask you,” Carlson asks near the end of the film, “is it more brilliant or impressive to influence world events or to stand on the periphery of world events and yet get recorded as having influenced world events? Maybe the latter!” It isn’t the latter.
Every four years, American political journalists, who rarely interest themselves in spiritual matters outside of election cycles, act out their own sort of religious ritual: foretelling “the evangelical vote.” Think back to February 2016, after Donald Trump had won his large victory in the Republican primary in New Hampshire, but before South Carolina had voted. He was not supposed to win that state, because there are a lot of evangelicals there, and evangelicals, our soothsayers told us, did not like Donald Trump. They did not like him because he was Donald Trump, and we all know that story, but also because he mistakenly referred to “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians” when he spoke to evangelicals at Liberty University.
As it turned out, Trump’s biblical mishap didn’t matter. He won South Carolina handily, and went on to capture 81 percent of the white evangelical vote in November, beating the previous high of 78 percent for George W. Bush in 2004. (By comparison, Ronald Reagan won only 67 percent of evangelicals, and Jimmy Carter—a Southern Baptist whose candidacy marked for many secular observers the emergence of evangelicalism as a political force—won even fewer.) The outcome called into question plenty of assumptions about evangelicals and their political agenda. How could the so-called “Christian Right,” believed to vote according to a fiercely moral agenda, embrace the most impious presidential candidate in American history?
Frances FitzGerald’s new book, The Evangelicals, would seem to be one that might explain to secular readers this puzzling turn of events. She opens with Carter as the beginning of the modern evangelical presidential era, and concludes with Trump, whose very nomination was supposed to be that era’s tombstone. In between she sweeps through nearly three centuries of American religious history. She draws on her long experience of modern evangelical politics, which she has chronicled for four decades—most famously in her novella-length profile of Jerry Falwell, one of the preeminent warlords in the Christian Right’s crusade for political power. Her massive accounts of the Vietnam War (Fire in the Lake) and the Cold War (Way Out There in the Blue) have been praised for FitzGerald’s ability to wed the “inner histories” of complex political events, as the historian Alan Brinkley put it, with their cultural contexts. The promise of this similarly vast, new history—all 752 pages of it—lies in its subtitle: The Struggle to Shape America. Here, it suggests, is a book that will speak to our times.
But despite its size, the scope of FitzGerald’s history is oddly narrow. Like many historians, she sees the 1980s as the moment when the Christian Right “reintroduced” religion into politics—a focus that makes it difficult to persuasively connect recent events, like the rise of Trump, with the long and extraordinary history of compromises and shifting allegiances among evangelicals. For her, Trump’s victory reflects the waning power of the Christian Right’s leaders more than the actual priorities of millions of evangelical voters. Her story follows a single path through evangelical history, from the big men of the Great Awakening to the big men of today’s Southern Baptist Convention. As a survey of the political inclinations of evangelical white male leaders, The Evangelicals is a valuable book, but it leaves out too many other people to yield much insight into the state of American politics, much less the varieties of evangelical experience. A tradition rooted in a belief in a personal Jesus and an intimate—if sometimes terrifying—divine can’t be defined by its pulpits alone. To understand “the evangelicals,” even just within the context of politics, means exploring what it feels like not just to preach, but also to sit in the pews. It requires us to examine evangelical Christianity as a religion lived by people who are also concerned with race and class, art and music, fear and ambition.
FitzGerald begins her history in the 1730s, with the First Great Awakening—the revival that did much to give American evangelicalism its intertwined public fervor and personal intensity—and its most notable figure, Jonathan Edwards. The Evangelicals devotes only two pages to this most central of early figures, and FitzGerald spends them mostly on the “vivid rhetoric” of his “most quoted sermon, ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.’” Preached in 1741, “Sinners” is vivid in its blistering account of human unworthiness, its description of “the God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.” Edwards, writes FitzGerald, was “telling people what they already believed.”
Yet by focusing on the ferocity of his sermons, FitzGerald understates the influence of Edwards, one of the most learned men of his day. He was responsible for turns both bold and subtle in American Protestant thought, imbuing its blend of sentiment and “heart” with a kind of empiricism of the supernatural. Still taught in Christian academies and studied by pastors, Edwards is channeled in ways obvious and implicit into contemporary church life. His sense of storytelling can be seen in contemporary evangelicalism’s concern for “relevance,” a buzzword that animates churches large and small, with sermons that might pass muster on The Moth, and his sense that “science” served to create a godly community can be seen in science-flavored “messages” among evangelicals about “creation care” and “intelligent design.” These strands are essential in understanding how evangelicalism thrives in the twenty-first century as a broad faith—one not only of moral control, but also of curiosity about a world that so many evangelicals say they are “in but not of.”
In her sketches of early American Protestant evangelists, FitzGerald emphasizes two arguments uncontroversial in American religious history: the centrality of revival to early American life, particularly the ways in which it fostered a kind of raw democracy, and the winnowing down of Protestant intellectualism into “a simplified religious system well adapted to frontier communities.” For every Jonathan Edwards, there’s a George Whitefield, a revival preacher most famous not for his thought but for the loudness of his voice, or a Gilbert Tennent, who, called to arms by Whitefield’s bellow, launched an attack on milder clergymen. (He argued, as FitzGerald puts it, that only ministers who had “undergone a conversion experience”—rather than those whose calling was a matter of choice or intellectual attraction—“had the power to save souls.”) Then there’s Francis Asbury, who rode a 5,000-mile circuit each year during the early nineteenth century’s Second Great Awakening to make Methodism a major Christian current in America, and William Miller, who persuaded some 50,000 souls that the Bible foretold the end of the world in 1844. Many of his believers, disappointed to find themselves still among the living, went on to found the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
Such men relied on fervent preaching that would inspire spiritual feeling in their listeners. By encouraging congregants to display those feelings publicly, they created a style of worship that, while deeply personal, would exert a strong influence on national politics. That’s particularly true in the life of Charles Grandison Finney, the best-known and most significant figure of the Second Great Awakening. FitzGerald offers a succinct account of Finney’s “new measures,” crowd-pleasing preaching innovations that anticipated the megachurches of the latter half of the twentieth century and laid the foundation for much of contemporary evangelicalism’s performativity. When someone in the congregation was “on the verge of conversion,” FitzGerald writes, Finney made them sit “on an ‘anxious bench’ in the front of the church, where the whole congregation could see them when they felt the spirit and stepped forward.”
Prayer and conversion thus became public, intensely social events, where men and women expressed their deepest feelings before a crowd. After people had humbly asked for mercy and watched many others do the same, they found a new sense of trust in one another. Family ties were strengthened, enemies made up, and strangers found a sense of community.
Out of this “spiritual democracy” sprang much of what would become the abolitionist movement. This early history, widely known within evangelical circles, if not beyond, is essential to understanding the sense of righteousness that continues to propel evangelical politics, even in its embrace of a man such as Trump. He might be a sinner, but so, too, was Finney before he was saved; and so, too, was the biblical David, even after God made him king. God uses who he will to achieve his virtuous ends, and it is the job of the believer to follow, not to lead.
There was, of course, plenty of self-interest within the church in Finney’s day, just as there is in ours. Finney’s works were made possible by major American financiers, who saw in his religion not just righteousness but also an answer to the labor troubles of the era, when workers were responding to industrialization with the angry stirrings that would give rise to the labor movement. It’s too simple to say that Finney urged them to wait for their pie in the sky, but not by much. Like many moral leaders, Finney was both a friend to the poor and an enemy to their efforts at self-organization.
Such antecedents help explain the continued closeness between evangelical politics and moneyed interests. Just as merchants funded Finney, big oilmen backed the National Association of Evangelicals and Billy Graham in the 1950s. They were bound together by what Max Weber famously described as The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, a kind of theological myth of WASP thrift combined with a fear of atheist communism. Christian best-sellers of the last century glorified big business, from Bruce Barton’s 1925 book The Man Nobody Knows, which presented Jesus as a modern CEO and his apostles as his executives, to Dennis W. Bakke’s 2005 self-help guide Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job, which urges faith in Jesus but not unions.
Students of American religious and business history increasingly emphasize how evangelicalism has served capitalism—a relationship touted by some believers as “biblical capitalism,” in which the “Protestant ethic” is whittled down to the conviction that scripture prophesies supply-side economics. Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise and Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America are two recent works that explore the sincerity of such a seemingly self-serving faith and the ways in which “business conservatism” and “social conservatism” are not at odds so much as they are entwined strands of Christian nationalism.
But FitzGerald relies for her synthesis on a number of respected but increasingly dated sources. As I read, I began making a list of the dates of publication of her sources: 1957, 1967, 1966, 1975, 1962, 1977. More recent publications were much rarer, and many were from evangelical or conservative intellectuals. As FitzGerald uses them, these sources emphasize the formal theological and political decisions made by evangelical elites. What’s missing from her account are elements that might have complicated this familiar narrative—elements, in short, that might have helped readers understand how the evangelical surge for Trump, a philandering celebrity businessman, fits into the longer history FitzGerald tells.
That’s not all that’s missing. FitzGerald makes clear from the beginning her intention to write a history of white evangelical politics, but is there really any such thing as a white American history without black history? Can we speak of evangelicalism, slavery, and abolition without mentioning figures such as Sojourner Truth, or Maria W. Stewart, another black woman who, in 1831, just as Finney was coming to fame, published an influential abolitionist pamphlet titled “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality”? In 1957, or even 1967, well-intentioned white historians evidently thought we could. But in 2017, with race at the heart of the politics that gave rise to Trump and what may well be the most fundamentalist cabinet in history, any account that seeks to place our religious past in “contemporary history,” as FitzGerald puts it, must make race central to its concerns.
Curiously, FitzGerald skips the Civil War, a conflict in which religion provided a powerful undercurrent to the more visible crises of race and region. And in her account of the years that followed, she considers class more closely than race. Fundamentalism, she shows, emerged not, as Marx and cliché would have it, as the consoling religion of the poor, but as a faith of ambition for those less concerned with Christ’s Sermon on the Mount than with the theological currents that decades later became known as the “prosperity gospel.” Dwight L. Moody—a nineteenth-century revivalist who preached to crowds of tens of thousands—appealed not to “the wretched factory laborers,” FitzGerald writes, “but to people much like his younger self: rural-born Americans with Protestant backgrounds who were making their way in the cities in white-collar jobs.” Evangelicalism is nothing if not aspirational in its theology. If its explicit commitments once hewed to that of an “old-time religion,” its aesthetic has always been shaped by a keen sense of the new, the fresh, and the modern—terms which can be read, in America at least, as euphemisms for the middle class.
Partly because of this class anxiety, efforts to lump evangelicals into the very voting bloc the political class now describes were not so simple. In 1942, a group of evangelicals formed the National Association of Evangelicals, hoping to escape the label “fundamentalist,” which had gained low-class connotations as rural and uneducated, even though in its origins it was an urban and intellectual phenomenon. “The term ‘evangelical’ didn’t mean very much,” FitzGerald observes, “because liberals also regarded themselves as evangelicals, [and] fundamentalists used the terms ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘evangelical’ interchangeably.” The NAE, for that matter, defined itself in fundamentalist terms. Created to oppose “the terrible octopus of liberalism,” the group wanted political influence, but its elite leadership had not been very effective at directing, via its many member denominations and their many pastors, the hearts and minds of the evangelicals in their pews—not to mention the evangelicals who sat in pews beyond the organization’s reach.
The best-known evangelist of the twentieth century, Billy Graham, was more effective than most at influencing large swaths of evangelicals. Born on a farm in North Carolina in 1918, he combined evangelical class anxiety with fundamentalist theological certainty, the myth of the country boy with the reality of the Washington sophisticate. Graham was a synthesizer. Among his many gifts was an ability to build coalitions—between fundamentalists and evangelicals, between urban and rural conservatives and moderates. But while he jettisoned the fundamentalist emphasis on separatism that would have obstructed the growth of his influence, the faith he made was ever the “old-time religion,” which was really a modern creation, a synthesis itself of theology, nationalism, and capitalism as authentically old-fashioned as Cracker Barrel’s front-porch rocking chairs.
FitzGerald, however, mostly hews to the school of thought that sees Graham as somehow more moderate than the Christian Right that emerged in the late 1970s. Graham, she insists, “wasn’t a racist.” As evidence, she quotes his banal statement in 1950 that “all men are created equal under God.” But while Graham integrated his revivals, he also believed that Martin Luther King Jr. had gone too far with the civil rights movement and should have “put on the brakes a bit.” That duality—a sincere denial of racism, accompanied by its thinly euphemized perpetuation—is essential to the Christian Right politics that thrived after Graham withdrew from politics in the 1980s, and forms the evangelical backbone of Trumpism today.
The political formation known by news magazines as the “Christian Right”—the lifespan of which occupies as much space in FitzGerald’s book as the previous 200 years combined—might be fairly said to have emerged in the ’70s or ’80s. FitzGerald, following the conventional wisdom of American political history, calls it a “reintroduction.” And yet the very evidence of her book, as well as much recent scholarship, suggests that the “Christian Right” was more of a revolution in branding, coinciding with regional realignments of the Democratic and Republican parties, than it was, as FitzGerald puts it, an “eruption.” Evangelicalism had been engaged in conservative political action since the last major rebranding in 1942, which emerged from the embrace of the term “evangelicalism” over “fundamentalism.” Still, it’s here that The Evangelicals is at its strongest and most detailed, relying on the excellent reporting that FitzGerald did in the 1980s and ’90s. But it’s also where her work is at its weakest: Exceptional as her reporting was in its day, it remains embedded in the logic of its moment, mistaking the sensation of a strident new generation of evangelical political leaders for an authentically new development.
FitzGerald describes, for instance, televangelist Pat Robertson as a figure “who didn’t fit any of the old categories,” even as she neglects the fact that Robertson’s father, a right-wing Democratic senator, had long led attempts to push evangelical values in national politics. A board member of a fundamentalist organization known as International Christian Leadership, the elder Robertson met with President Harry Truman in 1947 to ask him to attend the organization’s meetings, comprised almost exclusively of political, business, and military leaders. Truman didn’t take him up on the offer, in part because the Moral Re-Armament movement already provided him with a similarly powerful network. Six years later, though, International Christian Leadership bagged its first president when Billy Graham and Senator Frank Carlson persuaded a newly elected President Dwight Eisenhower to attend the first occasion of what became known as the National Prayer Breakfast. Just one year after that, as President Trump noted at this year’s Prayer Breakfast, Carlson and other members of Congress sent Eisenhower a joint resolution that added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. (“It’s a great thing,” Trump added.)
Conservative evangelicalism has been an essential part of American politics going back much further than 1980. International Christian Leadership was the Christian Coalition of its day, less visible mainly because its aesthetic was establishmentarian. By contrast, Robertson and his peers, following the example of Reagan, emphasized the populist aesthetic of their tradition—even as they encouraged their followers to cling ever more fiercely to the corporate economics that had once been more of a concern of the men who paid for revivals than for the men and women who attended them.
What did change with the rise of the Christian Right was its emphasis on the politics of the body. Not so much actual bodies as imagined ones: particularly those destroyed by what some evangelicals came to call the “holocaust” of abortion. Towards the end of The Evangelicals, FitzGerald pays special attention to the case of Terri Schiavo, whose brain-dead body became a cause célèbre for evangelicals in the 2000s. The why of this turn toward the body—beyond the past interventions of fundamentalist intellectuals like Francis Schaeffer and Chuck Colson—remains an important question in evangelical history. FitzGerald would certainly be excused for failing to come to any strong conclusions. But she explores neither the significance of Schiavo’s fate in the lives of believers, nor the ways in which, for evangelical leaders, it was as much a stylistic change as a substantive one, a substitution of one jeremiad of cultural collapse for another.
Before its current obsession with the body, as FitzGerald observes, evangelicalism expressed itself politically through extreme and often paranoid anti-communism. My favorite example is the 1958 horror film The Blob, which told of a carnivorous mass of red Jello. Conceived at the Presidential Prayer Breakfast in 1957 by Shorty Yeaworth, an evangelical filmmaker, the movie was widely viewed as either pure kitsch or an anti-communist metaphor free of religious overtones. American evangelicalism before the 1980s was no less political in its theology; its theology just happened to align with the anti-communist beliefs of the secular sphere.
Today, the political expression of evangelicalism seems strongest in its opposition to Islam. In this sense, it may be aligning, once again, with widely held secular anxieties. During last year’s campaign, evangelical elites confidently assured FitzGerald and other journalists that evangelicals would not back Trump, even as the rank and file roared its support for him at his huge rallies, many of which opened with sermons. Millions voted for Trump because, like Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick to head the CIA, they see Islam not as a world religion but as America’s enemy number one—a threat “not just in places like Libya and Syria and Iraq,” as Pompeo has said, “but in places like Coldwater, Kansas, and small towns throughout America.” Evangelicals also voted for Trump because of what religion scholar Jason Bivins calls the “politics of horror in conservative evangelicalism”—a theological strain that predisposed them to support a candidate who could portray the current low ebb in the national crime rate as nothing short of “American carnage.” Others gravitated to Trump because, after half a century of the prosperity gospel, they saw his gold-crusted campaign as evidence of God’s blessing.
Such is the complexity of evangelicalism in the pews—a spiritual tradition deeply intertwined with American ambitions and American fears. If FitzGerald misses the deeper historical undercurrents of evangelicalism, it is in no small part because the leaders she focuses on—the white men in the pulpit—are equally blind to the lives and beliefs of those who worship in their churches. The preachers of religious conservatism would be wise to remember their own sermons. We are, as evangelical leaders are fond of observing, a revival nation. Which is another way of saying that in America no politics—or maybe just no theology—ever truly dies.
Last Friday, several days after firing FBI Director James Comey, President Donald Trump tweeted something that continues to invite confusion and speculation on Capitol Hill and in the press corps:
Did Trump really tape his conversations with Comey, or was he bluffing? If Trump does have tapes, would they really vindicate him—or would they support the story, reported by The New York Times, that he asked Comey for a loyalty pledge?
We now know that at least one person was keeping records of their conversations: Comey himself.
The Times reported Tuesday that, according to a memo Comey wrote immediately after meeting with Trump in February, the president had asked him to end the federal investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had misled the White House about his conversations with the Russian ambassador and made himself vulnerable to Russian blackmail. “I hope you can let this go,” Trump allegedly told Comey. As the Times notes:
The existence of Mr. Trump’s request is the clearest evidence that the president has tried to directly influence the Justice Department and F.B.I. investigation into links between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia.... The memo was part of a paper trail Mr. Comey created documenting what he perceived as the president’s improper efforts to influence an ongoing investigation. An F.B.I. agent’s contemporaneous notes are widely held up in court as credible evidence of conversations.
Whether or not Comey’s notes end up as evidence in court, they will be of great interest to those who are leading investigations into the Trump campaign’s involvement in Russia’s subversion of the U.S. election—including in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Comey has declined to testify to a closed Senate Intelligence Committee meeting, but on Tuesday, as news broke about Comey’s memo, Senator Lindsey Graham said he invited Comey to testify before the Judiciary Committee. “I think it would be good for him if he did,” Graham said. “It would be good for the country.”
If Comey consents, the Senate will demand more information about Trump’s alleged appeal for loyalty and his attempt to shut down the Flynn investigation—and that, in turn, will help resolve the ambiguity surrounding the purported tapes. And whether or not tapes exist, or contain any damaging information, the resolution of this ambiguity will be disastrous for Trump.
After Trump fired Comey, it took mere hours for people in the administration and Trump’s inner circle to begin leaking word that Trump’s stated rationale for the decision had been pure pretext, and only 48 hours for Trump to volunteer that, yeah, he was going to fire Comey with or without supporting memos from the Justice Department because he’d grown sick of Comey’s Russia investigation.
By contrast, ever since Trump tried to blackmail Comey into silence, suggesting he’d secretly recorded their conversations, the White House has been relatively consistent, if completely vague. At his daily briefing on Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly deflected questions about the tapes by insisting “the president has made it clear” that he “has nothing further” to say on the matter. The president’s own response about the tapes is slightly more revealing than Spicer’s: He doesn’t simply say that he won’t talk about them; he says that he “can’t.”
For a White House as undisciplined as this one, the tape stonewalling scans less as a political position than a legal one. White House counsel Don McGahn, or someone else who understands the potential gravity of the situation, may well have told everyone to keep their mouths shut. If the White House were to acknowledge that there are no tapes, Trump would be caught in a very troubling fabrication to intimidate a witness, but if the White House confirms that tapes exist, Trump would face the legal obligation to preserve them and perhaps even surrender them to Congress.
We know to a near certainty that the White House will come under immense pressure to come clean. If Comey testifies publicly before the Senate, it is likely he will confirm under oath that Trump sought his personal loyalty, thus resolving the mystery of the White House tapes one way or another. Trump might dispute Comey’s claims, but if he doesn’t release any tapes to prove his case, it would suggest either that the tapes don’t exist or that they vindicate Comey. The question at the heart of the tape scandal would tighten from “Do the tapes exist?” to “Did the president lie about the existence of the tapes, or about their content?” That’s a question people working in the White House will feel much more pressure to address than the one they face today.
It strikes me as overwhelmingly likely that the truth lies in one of these two scenarios. But even if Trump has recordings of his conversations with Comey, and they vindicate Trump—as he coyly suggests in his tweet—it is small solace because he will have recorded himself using his power to fire Comey as leverage to discourage an FBI investigation. That is, he will have gathered evidence against himself, documenting his attempt to obstruct justice.
For well over a year now, people have predicted Twitter would be Trump’s political undoing, but for the first time it’s possible to see how it might undo him. Unlike his March tweets baselessly accusing President Barack Obama of wiretapping him, Trump’s tweet about a possible Comey tape hasn’t plunged the government into a wasteful, humiliating charade. But that underscores rather than undermines the argument that the Comey tweet is far more damaging.
Trump might have libeled Obama, but he was ultimately, in his inimitably garbled fashion, just passing along false allegations he’d heard on Fox News. The ensuing farce, in which congressional Republicans and members of the administration sought to reverse-engineer a scandal that would give Trump thin cover, was disgraceful for everyone who participated. But it was only undertaken to appease the president and muddy the political consequences to him of having told a terrible lie about his predecessor.
The White House’s recoiling over questions about potential Comey tapes suggests the administration knows that the implications of the tweet are far more severe. In fact, though it wasn’t readily obvious in the swirl of events last week, the tape tweet is proving to be the most damaging Trump tweet of all time.
Having apparently forgotten what it is they do for a living, or where it is they do it, many Republicans in Congress are aping President Donald Trump’s justification for disclosing highly classified intelligence to Russian officials as a way of explaining their own seeming indifference to his disastrous presidency.
The defense that Trump’s disclosure was technically legal is an unresponsive dodge, a non sequitur. If it were widely understood over the 241 years since the founding that presidents were expected to be unconstrained except by the subset of federal laws that applies to the president, many of the powers vested in the Congress, including impeachment, would not exist.
Here, for instance, are some things Trump could theoretically claim as his “absolute right.”
1. Bombing Mexico.
2. Tweeting out the locations of every covert U.S. operative in the world.
3. Hiring a hitman to murder former FBI Director James Comey, to thwart his congressional testimony, then pardoning the hitman and pardoning himself.
4. Dressing the nuclear football up in a blond wig, dancing with it on the South Lawn, and uploading footage to YouTube.
Members of Congress ought to know that the technical legality of an action taken in office doesn’t make it acceptable. After all, it would be technically legal for Congress to:
1. Impeach and remove presidents on ludicrous pretenses.
2. Simply refuse to ever fund the government.
3. Declare war on Europe.
4. Impose a tax on people who refuse to purchase broccoli.
Norms and political considerations constrain politicians from abusing their powers in a constant and ongoing way; serious politicians understand this at such a deep level that the thought of committing a naked abuse of power never occurs to them.
When Congress shuts down the government, the president uses the bully pulpit and invariably forces Congress to pass appropriations. When presidents do wrong, Congress can issue subpoenas, compel testimony, withhold bills, confirmations, program funding, or impeach. When they choose to do so is entirely within their control, but it is in their control.
It is only barely a stretch to assume the Republicans insisting on the legality of Trump’s disclosure have forgotten all of this, because they spend all day lately pretending they have. When asked whether Trump should face consequences, Senator John McCain responded:
McCain, as a long-serving U.S. senator and a player in the Keating Five scandal, knows damn well what the consequences could be: all the arrows in the congressional quiver. That’s why the key question for Republicans isn’t “What’s your response to the latest Trump outrage?” but “Where will you finally draw the line?”
Update: A previous version of this article implied that Senator Marco Rubio said “it is what it is” in reference to Trump’s disclosure to the Russians, when in fact Rubio was referring to the impact the disclosure might have on the Republican agenda in Congress.
President Donald Trump’s reported disclosure of classified information about the Islamic State to Russian diplomats is, like many of his reckless acts, both shocking and entirely unsurprising. In fact, it was predicted even before Trump became president. In mid-January, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, relying on the reporting of investigative reporter Ronen Bergman, reported that “Israeli intelligence officials are concerned that the exposure of classified information to their American counterparts in the Trump administration could lead to their being leaked to Russia.” Those concerns were justified. The information that Trump let slip “was provided by Israel, according to a current and a former American official familiar with how the United States obtained the information,” The New York Times reported on Tuesday.
Trump’s actions will have a profound impact on America’s relations with all of its allies, who will wonder where the United States can be trusted to keep a secret.
This news couldn’t come at a worse time for Trump, who’s about to embark on his first foreign trip as president, one that will include a NATO meeting in Brussels. Trump, shortly before taking office, famously raised doubts about America’s commitment to the venerable alliance by calling it “obsolete.” Under pressure from the Republican foreign policy establishment, Trump walked back his position in April: “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”
But perhaps this reversal was premature. Through sheer incompetence, narcissism, and stupidity, Trump may well achieve his original goal of an “America First” foreign policy better than if he had pursued it in a more calculated fashion. By making America an unreliable ally, he is calling into question the value of NATO—and providing Europe with an opportunity to reinvent its own foreign policy.
Trump’s original doubts about North Atlantic Treaty Organization deserved more serious inquiry than it received from the panicked foreign policy establishment. When the alliance was created, in 1949, the world was very different than today. Europe was still shattered by the Second World War, with its industrial capacity a smoking ruin. The threat of Soviet expansion in Europe was real. Countries like Italy and France had major communist parties, which enjoyed enormous prestige for their role in fighting fascism.
Created to fend off the Soviets, NATO has had a strange afterlife since 1991, when the USSR dissolved. It’s been an alliance system in search of a mission. It expanded to the east, bringing in former members of the Soviet Union’s alliance, the Warsaw Pact. But this has created more problems than it has solved, since each move closer to Russia’s borders has made war both more likely and also more dubious, with NATO members in Western Europe wondering if they want to fight wars over disputed borders far to the east. A putatively defensive alliance has become a powder-keg.
The other major way NATO has justified itself is by assisting American missions in the Middle East and South Asia. NATO has been active militarily in Afghanistan, trained Iraqi troops, and provided earthquake relief in Pakistan. Here again, the mission creep is troubling. If these activities are needed, wouldn’t it be better to have an alliance system that includes countries from the Middle East and South Asia taking the lead in such acts? All but one NATO member nation is predominately Christian, which feeds the critique that the alliance system is a tool of a new Western imperialism, providing a thin cover of multilateralism for American power projection.
Nor is there any clarity about why NATO countries are engaged in such tasks. Are they in Iraq because it is in their national interests to do so? Or is this a cheap way to stay in the good America’s side, for continued U.S. protection against Russia?
The preparations for the Brussels meeting make clear that NATO has become a sclerotic, top-heavy organization with no clear reason to exist. A report in Foreign Policy on how NATO is trying to adapt to Trump is damning not just for the president, but for the doddering alliance system:
“It’s kind of ridiculous how they are preparing to deal with Trump,” said one source briefed extensively on the meeting’s preparations. “It’s like they’re preparing to deal with a child — someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re freaking out.”
Still, despite these changes, experts are wary of how Trump will react to NATO meetings and their long-winded, diplomatic back-and-forth among dozens of heads of state, which can quickly balloon into hours of meandering discussions. One former senior NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described these meetings as “important but painfully dull.”
With Trump blurting out Israeli secrets to the Russian government, the Europeans should ask themselves, “Do we really need NATO as it currently exists, providing uncertain American protection and dragging us into Middle Eastern wars?” It might make more sense to recreate NATO as a strictly European alliance, one that negotiates directly with Russia. After all, the core European powers are no longer flat on their back as in 1949. They are wealthy, well-run democracies. France did a better job than the U.S. in protecting itself from Russian interference in their election. This might be the time for the Europeans to ditch America and create a leaner, more focused NATO.
It’s true that NATO does allow America to channel aid to smaller countries in Eastern Europe, but could easily be done by wealthy Western European nations that aren’t paying their share for NATO membership, notably Germany. Remaking NATO might seem like a radical solution, given that Trump will be around only four or eight years. But Europe doesn’t have the luxury of waiting until he leaves office, since they have to deal with pressing issues surrounding Russia and Ukraine. Moreover, even with a new president, the U.S. has shown that it’s willing to elect an erratic figure like Trump, and could do so again. A question mark will always hover over America’s reliability.
NATO was born at a moment of crisis, in the early days of the Cold War. But the world is now facing a very different crisis, with not only Russia but also the U.S. acting as destabilizing forces. The best response to this crisis is to take Trump both literally and seriously, and recognize that NATO as it exists is obsolete indeed.
There’s a certain kind of woman who looks like she’s made of solid gold. Golden women have hair that is about the same color as their skin, and light bounces from their cheekbones and lips and ponytails and earrings as if the whole package was carved from one gorgeous material. Golden women are gold all the way through, and that must be how Goldie Hawn got her name.
With Hawn in her first movie role in 15 years (Snatched, with Amy Schumer), people everywhere are thinking about Goldie Hawn. Her story is a happy one: At 71, she flounces with leonine beauty and contentment. This month, she and her partner of 34 years, Kurt Russell, were honored with a double star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Her kids, including Kate Hudson, are happy and successful. So, there’s not much torture to this particular star. She neither flopped into obscurity nor did she develop from cute comedy girl into grande dame thesp. She’s a happy lady who has made happy movies, and now she’s back.
How does cinema deal with that kind of legacy? In order to make sense of her, I attended almost every screening of the Quad Cinema’s Goldie Hawn retrospective last week. I sat there mostly alone. She’s a blind spot in cinematic history, except for connoisseurs of camp. “Goldie Hawn, huh,” one movie buff mused in the Quad lobby. “Weird choice for a retrospective.”
“These gnats keep landing on my wet nail polish,” Joanna Stayton wails. “I guess I’m supposed to walk around with their little corpses stuck to my fingers?” Thus begins Hawn’s starring role in 1983’s Overboard, in which she plays the nemesis-turned-beloved of Russell. While she screams her demands, the brittle Joanna wears sunglasses that that could have come straight off Elton John’s face, atop a swimsuit from space. “I’m not bored!” she screams as she pushes Russell overboard. “Everyone wants to be me!”
True enough. Overboard was the highlight of the Quad’s “Golden Goldies” season, which also featured classics like Private Benjamin (1980), Swing Shift (1984), Seems Like Old Times (1980), and more. Hawn’s hairstyle is exactly the same in each of these movies except for Swing Shift, a period flick set during World War II. In that, she also has blonde hair that hangs a little past her shoulders. But bouncy bangs were a no-go, so they stuck her in a wig—a bad one.
Legend has it that Hawn convinced Reese Witherspoon to take the lead role in Legally Blonde, likening the opportunity to her own in Private Benjamin. Indeed, the two movies are substantially similar: Blonde, overprivileged idiot shows up unprepared for rigorous training, ends up excelling against everybody’s expectations. Hawn is a better physical comedian: When shoved over by a military man, she flails to earth, ankles wobbling off her high heels. If pushed, I’d say that Private Benjamin is the funnier picture. After all, Private Judy Benjamin ends up in the army while grieving over a husband who dies in the throes of passion on their wedding night, as the couple has unsatisfactory sex on the bathroom floor.
Swing Shift is a ridiculous movie, although I enjoyed it because it was the only time I had company at the movie theater throughout my Hawn-athon. In Swing Shift, Hawn plays a housewife who finds both love and autonomy in a factory manufacturing airplanes for the WWII troops. She’s really not a great serious actress, but the film is palatable fun. The movie is in the history books anyway, bad or not, since on that set Hawn met Kurt Russell, her co-star through life.
The Russell-Hawn dynamic is perfect. He’s beefcake mixed with an elegance that may only derive from his resemblance to Patrick Swayze. Her goofball fluff bounces off his big bronze chest. Today, the couple appear to have remained very much in love. Hawn regularly instagrams Russell above captions that beam with their luck and joy. When Russell leaps into the sea to unite with Hawn at the end of Overboard, it’s like watching a rainbow shine out of a Greek statue.
Goldie Hawn’s oeuvre is marked by a consistency enjoyed by few comic actors in Hollywood, let alone women. Her style reminds me of Steve Martin (they both smile through their jokes and open their eyes very wide) but her early career echoed that of the British Carry On star Barbara Windsor. She was the giggling bikini babe in black and white, a moment of attractive respite among punchlines. After stints as a go-go dancer, Hawn started out on Good Morning, World in 1967-68, then got famous on the sketch show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. She was a regular on that show from 1968 to 73.
In 1970 Goldie Hawn was in There’s a Girl in My Soup, a bad movie with an extremely good title. By then she had won an Oscar for 1969’s comedy Cactus Flower. In that The Apartment-esque movie she played a suicidal girl named Toni who is revived by a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation that becomes an actual kiss. It’s kind of a dumb movie, but Oscars for comedies are few and far between, and one can’t imagine Hawn winning for a similar role if she had started her career 30 years later.
The early ‘80s saw Overboard, of course, as well as movies like Protocol and a Playboy cover. But most viewers of my generation know her from the 1990s classics Death Becomes Her (1992) and The First Wives Club (1996). It’s hard to tell whether I mix up those movies because they were on TV a lot when I was little or because she actually plays similar characters. In both, she is the ur-Goldie Hawn: a pretty blonde lady whose intelligence is hidden by an obsession with her own looks, pratfalling likeably through a good plot.
It takes serious skill to play so dumb, especially to do it over and over again without wearing out the trope. Part of it must be down to Hawn’s golden looks. She’s beautiful, but she’s always had that funny extra element to her face, specifically a lower lip that goes rectangular when she smiles. She can act through her whole body, walking snootily across the deck of a ship, wet toenails splayed. She’s great with dogs (she has six in Seems Like Old Times), and she can act while swimming, crying, and pretending to be fluent in French.
Hawn’s career is a gem from Hollywood’s past, a beautiful thing from an archive. She has no equal in our time, in that there is simply no equivalent actress who is so comedy-exclusive and also so successful. As she returns to our screens, mourn the loss of this archetype. The persistence, levity, and glow of Goldie Hawn has lit up the American cinema of my lifetime. We will not see her like again.
On March 8, the Center for American Progress, the preeminent Democratic-aligned think tank in Washington, D.C., announced the Ideas Conference, loosely modeled after the Conservative Political Action Conference. The idea, CAP President Neera Tanden told Politico at the time, was to attempt something that often seems impossible in the Donald Trump era: think about and discuss issues that were not wholly related to our attention-grabbing president. Just four days before CAP’s announcement, Trump had accused former President Barack Obama of a “Nixon/Watergate” conspiracy to bug Trump Tower—precisely the type of wild, news-dominating provocation that can eat up the national conversation for days, even weeks.
“It’s obviously critical that we provide a positive alternative of how we’re going to address the country’s challenges,” Tanden told Politico.
Still, the Ideas Conference will not solely be about developing progressive alternatives during the Trump administration. Its very existence is also an implicit recognition that Democrats could have done a better job furnishing that alternative during the 2016 election. “I don’t think the recent challenges we had in the election were just message problems,” Tanden told the New Republic. “We have had ideas challenges. People who haven’t gone to college have had a real struggle for the past 40 years and we need better answers for them.”
This is actually CAP’s third Ideas Conference, though its first in the Trump era. Even though it’s oriented toward the future, it is also haunted by the recent past, particularly the most devastating election for Democrats in recent memory. In addition to keynote addresses, the conference will feature panels on economic policy, national security, the resistance, and civil rights and democracy—all of which have become especially critical over the past four months.
A number of participants are people who are considered to be 2020 presidential contenders: Senators Kirsten Gilibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Chris Murphy will all address the conference, as will Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who won a state Trump won by 20 points, will also address the conference, as will Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who has been accused of several offenses by the sitting president.
“We should keep in mind that we’re in month four of the Trump administration,” Tanden said about the shadow Trump will cast on the conference. “It’s reasonable for people to be focused on his actions because they’re such an assault on vulnerable people, on progressive values, on other Americans. There is a lot to criticize. But our expectation is that people will provide an alternative vision and that our speakers, whether they’re senators or governors or even a mayor, will provide a positive alternative as well.”
No one who has already run for president was invited to speak at the conference, underscoring its goal of highlighting progressive rising stars. “Our focus is really on trying to highlight people who other people don’t see every day,” Tanden said. “People who are fighting and have positive ideas about how the country can move forward.”
Unlike CPAC, the Ideas Conference will be much more focused—it has only one stage and lasts for only one day, unlike CPAC, which goes on for four. Like CPAC, the Ideas Conference aims to bring together grassroots and established organizations—Tanden highlighted Indivisible, Swing Left, Town Hall Project, Digital Democracy, Democracy Lab, and Our Revolution, as well as Planned Parenthood and the ACLU—with political leaders. But the more modest scope also means, however, that the grassroots groups won’t have the kind of prominence that they have at CPAC. Its panel on the resistance features Indivisible’s Leah Greenberg, civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, and immigration activist and DREAMer Astrid Silva, but the majority of the other talks are more dominated by politicians.
Asked about the influence of the grassroots, Tanden highlighted the resistance panel and a training session CAP will be hosting for groups and activists attending the conference. But she also stressed that the Ideas Conference is trying to fill a leadership void on the progressive side. “We wanted to have a mix” of politicians and grassroots leaders, Tanden said. “We really hear the deep demand for leaders and we definitely wanted to showcase them. We wanted to highlight the resistance. You’ll feel that throughout the day. People are anxious for leaders to step up right now.”
But the ideas that drive politics rarely come from politicians themselves. This means that the Ideas Conference will be useful in reflecting the status quo of progressive thinking. That it’s also a talent show for up-and-coming progressives will give voters an opportunity to see who the party will be focusing on in three years, if not necessarily what they’ll be working on. That said, CAP did release a “Marshall Plan for America,” which proposed a job guarantee, shortly before the Ideas Conference began.
The Ideas Conference’s tighter focus will also mean that it should be less of a circus than CPAC, which is better known for its controversial guests and flamboyant speakers than for its ideas. Asked about what differentiates the Ideas Conference from CPAC, Tanden joked, “Unlike CPAC we are not going to have any supporters of pedophilia!” That’s a reference to Milo Yiannopoulos, whose CPAC keynote was canceled after it emerged that he had once defended pedophilia.
“And number two, at CPAC they spend most of their time beating up on liberals saying how liberals are terrible and I don’t think anyone in the group tomorrow will say ‘conservatives are all assholes,’” Tanden added. “One of the issues with progressives is that actually providing answers on how to solve the country’s problems is how to best showcase yourself, whatever your ambitions may be four years from now.”
More than anything, Tanden stresses that the Ideas Conference will be about, well, ideas. Many of the politicians in attendance may be beginning to jockey for position in 2020, but at the conference they’ll have to talk about their vision for the future of the country. “We expect all of our speakers to bring substantive ideas to solve challenges like the fact that people who haven’t gone to college haven’t had a raise in 15 or 40 years, depending on how you measure it,” Tanden said. “Or the challenge of climate. Or the new assault on the civil rights of whole swathes of people. We see this as a real opportunity to talk not just about what Trump is doing but also how progressives can solve the country’s problems.”
The speed and ease with which an authoritarian engineered a hostile takeover of the Republican Party revived liberal interest last year in the work of the political scientist Juan Linz, whose seminal 1990 essay “The Perils of Presidentialism” theorized that the structure of constitutional democracies like ours doom them to devolve into legitimation crises over time.
Linz initially believed that the American system of government was uniquely immune from presidential peril due to the “diffuse character of American political parties.” But by the time he died in October 2013, the parties had polarized into ideologically disciplined, parliamentary-style parties, and under the stress of that polarization, the system was beginning to creak. (Linz passed away at the outset of a government shutdown, just two years after congressional Republicans had brought the country to the brink of defaulting on its debts.)
These crises, which grew out of conflict between a legislature of one party and a president of the other, reflected the same inherent instability Linz had seen destroy less mature presidential democracies. From the vantage point of one year ago, the rise of Donald Trump looked in many ways like a popular revolt against the crisis-generating gridlock of divided government in favor of autocracy.
From the vantage point of today—as the world learned that now-President Trump “revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador” in the Oval Office—Linz’s analysis, corrected for new developments that make America’s political system unique in the world, appears tragically prescient.
The fear that divided government itself would lead to a constitutional crisis and systemic failure passed in November, when Republicans consolidated control over all of its branches. Even in the darkest hours of summer 2011, when the risk of a manufactured national bankruptcy was at its highest, nobody was concerned that the military would rise up to enforce order, as it might in a younger presidential democracy. But it became clear in the Obama years that our governing institutions might not survive polarization-induced paralysis in perpetuity.
What Linz couldn’t have possibly foreseen was that a knavish autocrat would win the U.S. presidency through technically-legitimate-though-undemocratic means, and that he’d be allowed to arson the government by a coequal branch—Congress—that has the power to stop him.
In a profound way, what we’re witnessing right now is an inversion of the dynamics that nearly produced our moment of presidential peril a few years ago. And in an equally profound way, the source of our vulnerability in both instances hasn’t been rogue, unelected figures, but the duly elected members of one party.
The Republican method from 2011 through 2016 was to threaten harm to the country from within Congress, in order to beat back the agenda of the consensus-minded liberal democrat in the White House. The Republican method of the past four months has been to tolerate the threat of harm from within the White House in order to avoid finding consensus with the liberal democrats in the opposition party.
To chase a partisan agenda, Republicans in Congress have abetted a compromised, paranoid, and erratic president. Until four months ago, the party tossed around words like “lawless” and “tyrannical” to describe a Democratic president who promulgated policies they disagreed with; they now absolve a Republican president with vast financial conflicts of interest, who obstructed an FBI investigation of his campaign, and breached national security to impress Russian government officials, on the grounds that at the presidential level, conflicts of interest, firing the FBI director and disclosing classified information aren’t technically illegal. The degree of special pleading we’ve witnessed since Trump secured the GOP nomination would be laughable if a country, and international stability, weren’t at stake.
It is possible to imagine Trump losing the support of congressional Republicans by announcing he won’t approve a tax cut, or losing support of his core supporters through unexpected leniency to ethnic minorities. But it is worth remembering that the backdrop of Trump’s presidency is an anti-majoritarian electoral college victory, which he won with the help of extraordinary interference by both Russian intelligence and now-fired FBI Director James Comey.
The constitutional remedy for an unfit president who violates his oath of office and lacks a popular mandate is impeachment, but impeachment would almost certainly derail the Republican legislative agenda and redound to Democrats’ benefit in coming elections. It is thus off the table.
The government is teetering in Linzian fashion, the country at intolerable risk, because Republicans despise the wishes of the larger half of the country more than they respect the constitution and their oaths to it.
Since Donald Trump took office, many liberals have looked to cities and states as central fronts in the Democratic resistance. With a president hostile to progressive policies of all kinds, the thinking goes, state legislatures and city councils offer more hope for action on a wide range of issues, from regulating carbon emissions to defending immigrant rights.
Nowhere has the “think local” strategy seemed more promising than in the fight to increase the minimum wage. Since 2004, 34 localities from Maryland to New Mexico have raised the minimum wage above their state levels. In November, four states—Arizona, Maine, Colorado, and Washington—passed ballot measures to raise the minimum wage above its current federal level of $7.25 an hour. In a deeply divided country, it’s a policy that commands strong bipartisan support: 74 percent of Americans say they want to raise the minimum wage, and the Maine measure passed with 420,000 votes—more than any ballot initiative in state history.
But Republicans and their business allies are fighting back with a two-pronged strategy. First, they’re working to derail the minimum-wage increases that have already passed. Business groups in Washington and Arizona have gone to court to block the November ballot initiatives, and lawmakers in Maine have introduced a number of bills that seek to roll back or weaken the wage increase. Second, in violation of their much-lauded belief in decentralized government, Republicans are moving aggressively to block more cities and states from boosting the minimum wage. In Arizona, GOP lawmakers have approved bills that make it harder to pass citizen ballot initiatives, a democratic process enshrined in the state constitution for more than a century. And legislatures in 24 states have passed so-called “preemption bills” to block cities and counties from passing their own minimum-wage hikes. Many of the bills are the product of model legislation written by the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council, which has made the fight against minimum-wage increases a top priority.
In March, Iowa became the latest state to pass a preemption bill to block minimum-wage increases. The legislation not only bars any more local wage hikes, it also voids measures that already passed in four counties. The move was made possible by GOP victories in November, which gave Republicans in Iowa control of both the state legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time in almost two decades. “We’d heard rumblings last year, but nothing was even drafted,” says Bridget Fagan-Reidburn of the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund, a grassroots organizing group. “But once Republicans won the state senate, this was one of their priorities.”
The Iowa bill is particularly egregious because it actually lowered the minimum wage for 65,000 workers in the state who were already enjoying hourly increases of up to $3 in their counties. Those extra dollars make a huge difference to working-class Americans. Mazahir Salih, a community organizer with the Center for Worker Justice in Iowa, recalls meeting one woman who was able to stop working on weekends after her county raised the minimum wage, enabling her to spend more time with her children. Now, thanks to the GOP’s preemption bill, things look a lot worse for workers in the state. “A lot of people are really worried,” says Salih. “They tell me stories of how they were suffering at $7.25 and how they could not even make ends meet.”
Fighting for worker-friendly policies at the state and local level got a lot harder under Obama; over the course of his two terms, Democrats lost a staggering 960 legislative seats at the state level. All told, 32 state legislatures are now fully under Republican control, and GOP lawmakers are currently pushing preemption bills against the minimum wage in Minnesota, Missouri, and Illinois.
Republicans defend the measures by arguing that it’s too complicated to allow cities and counties to set their own wage levels. “This bill provides uniformity through the state on Iowa’s minimum wage,” Governor Terry Branstad declared after signing Iowa’s bill into law. Pat Garofalo, the Republican sponsor of Minnesota’s preemption bill, makes a similar argument. “There are 854 cities in Minnesota,” Garofalo says. “It is unrealistic and unproductive to have 854 labor laws across the state.”
But businesses across the country are already accustomed to dealing with a complex range of local laws on everything from zoning and licensing to taxes and construction. Preemption bills aren’t designed to reduce complexity—they’re intended to override the wishes of voters and promote the GOP’s business-first ideology, at the expense of working-class Americans. “Conservatives tout the virtues of local control all the time,” says Laura Huizar, a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. “But when it comes to local actions that raise wages for workers, that talk goes out the window. It’s a completely hypocritical agenda.”
Close to two years ago I on numerous errors, and a questionable commitment to accuracy, by the New York Times columnist David Brooks. In just one paragraph—which he reiterated in various forms in his column, his 2015 book The Road to Character, and in public statements—Brooks reported incorrect dates, cited the wrong polling organization, named incorrect participants in the study the polls were actually taken from, gave wrong statistics, and, according to the authors of the study, offered an incorrect interpretation of the study’s findings. This one passage, which served to illustrate a central thesis of his book about a historical decline in humility, functioned as a main talking point for him and the media during the book’s PR campaign.
would a distinguished writer like Brooks be so negligent—or purposefully
misleading—with such a critical passage? And why did the media repeat his
erroneous data over and over? I’ve thought about these questions a lot in the
intervening years, not only because I noticed routine misrepresentations of
data by other journalists, and by academics writing for lay audiences, but also because of the seeming inexorable ubiquity of data in journalism—and indeed in
our culture itself. We are in the age of data, and with that has come a tyranny
of data as requisite “proof” for any argument or idea.
With many of us feeling unmoored living under a president indifferent to facts, it’s tempting to view data as a beacon guiding our way back to reality. But while data can illuminate, too often—even when its citation is careful and well-intended—it only provides an illusion of clarity, certainty, truth. But when a prominent intellectual intentionally fudges cited data, or is just routinely careless with its citation, our trust in this person, the institutions that support him or her, and in the entire notion of objective truth dangerously corrodes. Which, alas, leads us back to David Brooks and a recent column in which I discovered yet more egregious errors.
I hadn’t read a Brooks column since I reported on his data debacle. Yet a couple weeks ago a link to one of his s showed up in my Twitter feed, and I clicked. As I made my way through it appeared to me an unremarkable—and even if you disagreed, not unreasonable—lament over the supposed decline in the liberal values of Western civilization. But near the end, when I came across a citation of a study and statistics, I breathed a heavy sigh—having been down this road “to character” before, I had a sense that something was wrong.
In the piece Brooks writes:
According to a study published in The Journal of Democracy, the share of young Americans who say it is absolutely important to live in a democratic country has dropped from 91 percent in the 1930s to 57 percent today.
The echoes of the erroneous passage I had last investigated were too resonant to ignore. They both cited studies or polls of young people, both named a respected source for the data, both used vivid language (“absolutely important”), and both featured percentages that shifted dramatically over a long period of time. After some digging, I got in touch with an associate editor at The Journal of Democracy, a small but influential political journal. She forwarded an exchange she had had with Roberto Stefan Foa, a co-author of several JOD articles that discussed the subject of Brooks’s quote, and which also spurred coverage in major media, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. The first line of Foa’s response noted that Brooks’s figures “don’t appear in our work.”
I looked up the Times and Post , and it was in the latter where I found Brooks’s data source. The Post article was authored by Foa and Yascha Mounk. However, though they wrote the article, the figures Brooks cited are not from them. And as the JOD editor later confirmed for me, they had never appeared in the JOD. The data source is a graph embedded in the Post article. It’s by a researcher named Joe Noonan, who is named in the body text literally right above the graph.
If you take just ten seconds to look at the graph, you’ll see that the 57 percent (57.1 rounded) and 91 percent are not exclusively for respondents who said living in a democracy was “absolutely important.” In the caption above the graph it clearly states that the data depicts responses given along a scale where 1 means “not at all important” and 10 means “absolutely important.” The 57 percent and 91 percent are for what Noonan has labeled simply “important,” for people who listed either 8, 9, or 10. Remember, only 10 means “absolutely important.”
Lastly, at the top of the graph it states that the dates are listed by “birth cohort,” i.e. people who were born in the 1930s and 1980s. The first two of Brooks’s errors—naming the wrong source publication and using incorrect language for the data—while inexcusable, are relatively minor. This third error, however, fundamentally changes what the data actually means. Brooks’s distorted representation of the data states that, back in the 1930s, the importance young people placed on living in a democracy was dramatically higher than it is for young people today. He is making a longitudinal claim about a change in beliefs of young people over time. In reality the data from Noonan’s chart shows a difference in beliefs between two different age groups during the same era.
I had a lengthy and congenial exchange with Foa in which he explained that, yes, “the survey data is showing birth cohorts—not years of the survey.” He went on:
We were always very clear on that in our published work and have never implied otherwise (you’ll find it clearly stated on all our graphs, tables and text). As the primary authors we know we’ll get held to a high standard so we have to be accurate, but sometimes the secondary discussions in the blogosphere aren’t so finicky on the details (though Joe’s chart also states at the top that these are birth cohorts).
If the dates in the graph aren’t the dates of the surveys, as Brooks claimed, when exactly were the surveys taken? If you look closely, under the graph it lists the source as the World Value Survey 2005-2014. Foa clarified for me that, strictly speaking, the U.S. data actually comes from surveys in 2006 and 2011. So Brooks’s “today” means anywhere from more than five years ago to more than a decade ago. Also, considering Brooks claimed the first statistic was from the 1930s, then that would imply he actually thought the second statistic was from the 1980s, which makes his claim of “today” even stranger.
Brooks’s errors not only materially support his thesis, but also bolster its credibility. Citing The Journal of Democracy rather than The Washington Post lends an air of sophistication, as if Brooks was doing a deep dive in an academic journal as opposed to reading the same opinion piece in a newspaper the rest of us read. Using the phrase “absolutely important” is more attention-grabbing than merely “important,” and certainly snappier than the clunky but accurate “gave an 8, 9, or 10 on a scale of importance, with 10 being ‘absolutely important.’”
Most grievously, the graph absolutely does not depict a drop in belief from the 1930s to today in the importance of living in a democratic country. It’s also worth mentioning that Brooks didn’t bother noting that Foa and Mounk’s analysis has been controversial, with spirited rebuttals printed in the Post and elsewhere, some of which were actually linked in the article that features Noonan’s graph. (N.B.: Foa told me he does believe there is data to support a longitudinal shift, but acknowledged that Noonan’s graph is not it. I only mention this because I don’t want Brooks’s errors to malign Foa’s research. If it’s not already clear, debating Foa’s research, or even Brooks’s thesis, is not the focus of this article.)
It is curious that Brooks’s errors, at least in the detailed instances I’ve uncovered, seem to always favor his arguments. But readers can decide if these errors are merely sloppy reporting or purposeful. More importantly, as I suggested two years ago, when your reporting is this error-prone, it ultimately doesn’t matter whether it’s on purpose or not. If someone is this negligent, shows such a blithe disregard for accuracy, they are just as accountable as if they willfully distorted the data.
The errors I uncovered two years ago were so flagrant that, according to a by the Times’s then-public editor, Margaret Sullivan, the paper issued a correction for the column and all future printings of his book were altered. In the same column Sullivan reported that Brooks told her, “Columns are fact-checked twice before publication.” And “in a year of 100 columns, Mr. Brooks said, he has had only a handful of corrections.” Considering this is literally the first Brooks column I’ve read in two years and I uncovered this many errors, it’s hard to see how that squares with a supposed double fact-checking procedure. (In response to a request for comment, the public editor’s office directed me to a recent column that included the following line from the editorial page editor: “We edit and fact-check columnists and ask them to provide sources for their facts.”)
Unfortunately, misrepresentations of data are not confined to journalists. Academics and scientists, most worryingly when writing for a mainstream audience, can be guilty of this as well. With them, the effect is worse because they enjoy a certain credibility among the public that journalists or politicians typically don’t. Read just about any op-ed written by a scientist that cites data to support a thesis, and you’ll find reasoned and often passionate rebuttals to the interpretation of the data, or the validity of the data itself, by those within the field or academia in general.
I regularly see intra-academic that cite data to make their case. These debates are typically carried out in narrowly read blogs or niche publications, but what they underscore is that experts have the ability and experience to question dubious claims. The lay reader is left merely to trust the expert.
The larger issue is not purposeful or negligent misrepresentations of data but the ubiquity of data and a zeitgeist that deems data the ultimate arbiter of truth. “People have a tendency to take anything that’s not data-driven as anecdotal and subjective,” with the implication that it’s of lesser value, Evan Selinger, a philosopher at Rochester Institute of Technology, and a frequent writer for lay publications such as Wired and The Guardian, told me. “This expectation creates an evidentiary burden.”
What people often fail to understand is that data, the purported hard evidence, has its own biases and is rarely neutral. Even when data is cited with care and the best of intentions it still is often misleading or simply unhelpful.
More than 20 years ago, in his book Technopoly, Neil Postman argued against the burgeoning reliance on statistics and data. In particular Postman was critical of using data in the social sciences. In an earlier , he wrote that, despite more than 2,500 studies having been conducted on television’s effect on aggression, few real conclusions could be drawn:
There is no agreement on very much except that watching violent television programs may be a contributing factor in making some children act aggressively, but that in any case it is not entirely clear what constitutes aggressive behavior.
In our data-driven age, when algorithms and metrics increasingly govern our lives in ways known and often unknown to us, our captive, near religious devotion to the supremacy of data is akin to a cultural Stockholm syndrome.
But quantification is seductive. As Sally Merry, an anthropologist at NYU, has written, “numerical assessments appeal to the desire for simple, accessible knowledge.” Yet they offer only an “aura of objective truth.” Most educated readers know, of course, that statistics and data can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and, moreover, that the mere reference of one study but not another is its own form of distortion. But our base instincts are hard to override. We know intellectually that photographs are not “real.” They can be doctored in post-production, but even before that the choice of framing, lighting, angle, and composition, and most importantly the decision about what to shoot, negates any claim that a photo is an objective representation of reality. Nevertheless, when we see a photo—a powerful and poignant image of a war-ravaged child or simply a Tinder profile shot—we have an immediate reaction that overrides our intellect. This is the same with data journalism.
Jonathan Stray, a research scholar at Columbia Journalism School, who recently wrote a guidebook on data journalism, views the prevalence of data less adversely, as long as it’s employed thoughtfully. “If you’re going to use statistics as part of an argument,” he told me, “you have a duty to be a methodologist.” I’m sympathetic toward David Brooks in one regard: At roughly 100 columns a year it’s hard to imagine how he’d ever achieve this journalistic standard. Novel and compelling arguments take time to develop. And employing data as a tool to persuade is not a shortcut to that end. Brooks could have written a perfectly convincing column about the need to defend democratic values without once resorting to data.
In this time of bogus charges of fake news, and actual, intentional fake news, it’s incumbent upon our most prominent journalists, scholars, and scientists, to be especially meticulous in their use of data. Incorrect data (especially habitually incorrect data) only serves to undermine whatever arguments it was employed to support.
When it’s needed—and it most certainly is at times—data should be employed, carefully. But otherwise let’s break from our collective delusion of its overinflated worth. The only way to get out from under its tyranny is through stories, empirical narrative as alternative and antidote. Why are we trying to be more like machines when we can differentiate ourselves from them?
“It’s going to be Trumpgate, it’s going to be Comeygate, it’s going to be FBI-gate, it’s going to be something-gate,” The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward crowed last week, the day after President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. He just might be right. Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, warned CNN viewers that the scandal could soon “turn into Russiagate”—a term employed by CNBC, Newsweek, Foreign Policy, HuffPost, and Politico. Meanwhile, Vanity Fair, Investor’s Business Daily, Mediaite, and AlterNet have referred to it as Comeygate. Some, like the Los Angeles Times, are using both -gates. (FBI-gate, it should be noted, has not become a thing.)
Donald Trump has been likened to Richard Nixon countless times since he entered the Republican presidential primary in 2015, proving a boon not only for Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who helped exposed the Watergate scandal, but for Nixon biographers: Garry Wills, Evan Thomas, Kevin Mattson, Rick Perlstein, Douglas Brinkley, and John Farrell. In force they have returned to center stage to assess whether Trump’s misconduct quite qualifies as Nixonian, their expertise increasingly in demand as the president acts more like Tricky Dick seemingly every week, every day. Trump’s firing of Comey, and Friday’s threatening tweet that implied he secretly recorded their conversations, has prompted another round of Nixonian comparison and invective.
In the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon forced the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox for refusing to stop his pursuit of secret White House recordings. Today, many have alluded to Comey’s dismissal as the Tuesday Night Massacre, and understandably so: The available evidence suggests that Trump fired the director to quash the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between his presidential campaign and the Russian government. Once again, it seems, one scandal leads to the uncovering of another. The White House trips over its thinly veiled excuses. In an attempt to halt an independent investigation, the president invites further inquiry. The murmurs of grand-jury subpoenas grow. And the nation, once again, waits to see if partisan loyalty will hold, or if Republicans will turn on their long-embattled president.
Nixon’s ghost reappears today, as it has for more than four decades, as the measure of presidential connivance, corruption, and cover-up. But for all of the trafficking in Nixonian allusion, does Trump’s behavior measure up—or rather, down—to the 37th president’s? Is Trump due for impeachment or on the brink of resigning? That is, are we witnessing a new Watergate, the undoing of another American president? Is it now or has it ever been a -gate? Bestowing the -gate label suggests a story that we are not quite sure we are ready to write. For the Nixonian suffix implies a prediction that this scandal will be Trump’s exposure and ruin. A Watergate comparison is a cudgel, a way of cutting a leader like Trump down to size, to forecast his demise. It is, by the light of journalists like Woodward and Bernstein, to outline the finite shape of the president’s seemingly boundless misrule by declaring that he is a threat as great as Nixon, and just as fallible.
Political scientists have calculated that between 1972 and 2008, 87 presidential scandals occurred, or one every five months: Benghazi, the targeting of Tea Party groups by the Internal Revenue Service, yellow cake in Niger, torture in Abu Ghraib, the outing of Valerie Plame, Swift-boating, the Monica Lewinsky affair, Whitewater, Willie Horton, Iran-Contra, Billy Carter and Bert Lance, the Pentagon Papers and the My Lai Massacre, phony claims of shelling in the Gulf of Tonkin, wiretapping of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Bay of Pigs, the trumped-up Soviet missile gap, vote-stuffing in Chicago, and packing the Supreme Court, to name a few. And yet, Watergate has overshadowed this waste-basketful of transgressions. No other scandal has matched Nixon’s violations of the presidential oath, and no other president has been forced to resign. So when a White House scandal hits, the comparisons are inevitably to Nixon.
The word “Watergate” has transformed through what linguists call “semantic broadening”: the process by which a word takes on additional meanings, most often toward the more generic or to an entity with an analogous trait. For example, the word “mouse,” a specific type of rodent, can also to refer to rodents more generically, to a timid person, to the handheld device for remotely controlling a computer’s cursor, and now to the definitely un-rodent-like trackpad on a laptop. “Watergate” began as the name of a popular office and residential complex in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C., drawing its name from the large water gate between the nearby Potomac River and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canals. Then, in 1972, “Watergate” became a stand-in for the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the office complex; the scene of the crime became the name of the crime. Within a year, “Watergate” had become shorthand for the cover-up of that burglary, then broadened to include Nixon’s entire portfolio of crimes and dirty-trickery, then to reference any major political scandal, then to any scandal—imagined or otherwise. Thus, we’ve had Envelopegate, Golden Shower Gate, Emailgate, Pizzagate, Gamergate, Nannygate, Deflategate, Spygate, Bridgegate in New Jersey, Nipplegate, Rathergate, Bibigate, and three different Troopergates, to name a few.
The late William Safire, a Nixon speechwriter, New York Times columnist, and perhaps the chief of -gatekeeping, observed in 1979 how frequently “the ‘gate’ of ‘Watergate’ is becoming the standard label for any new political shenanigans,” adding that “the excessive use of this suffix is becoming a linguistic gategate.” This semantic broadening enshrined “Watergate” as the standard for deviousness while, oftentimes, diminishing Nixon’s misdeeds through association to far less weighty, even silly affairs. Safire himself was guilty of this: He frequently referred to Whitewater, President Bill Clinton’s real-estate scandal, as “Whitewatergate,” implicitly (as well as explicitly) comparing Clinton’s controversy to Nixon’s transgressions—a presumptive prediction that Whitewater would prove to be Clinton’s demise. For to affix -gate to such a scandal is to project, not always accurately, the ultimate Nixon-like ruination—and public humiliation. And as Safire surmised after more than a decade of judging the -gate-worthy: “[A] scandal without an agreed-upon label lacks the identity that turns a story into history.”
Another key characteristic of a true Watergate tale is a pivotal, persistent and heroic press. The oft-commemorated protagonists of the Watergate saga are not the Republican congressmen who broke party lines to threaten impeachment, not the three congressional investigatory committees, not the countless staffers who toiled for those committees or the FBI agents whom Nixon was so intent to stop. They’re not Cox, nor the two men—acting Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus—who resigned rather than fire the special prosecutor on Nixon’s behalf. They’re not Cox’s replacement, Leon Jaworski, and his team of lawyers who carried out the prosecution, not U.S. District Judge John Sirica and his twelve grand jury members who voted unanimously to force Nixon to hand over nine of his secret tape recordings, not the countless “leakers” (aside from Deep Throat) who filled newspaper columns with insider information, and not Frank Wills, the Watergate security guard who originally found the duct tape left by the burglars on the door of the Democrats’ office. The felling of a conspiracy on the scale of a Watergate does, after all, take a village. And yet, in the popular memory of Watergate—principally in All the President’s Men—Woodward and Bernstein are remembered as the heroic figures, the rag-tag duo of Davids who felled the Goliathian Nixon administration.
To traffic in the language of Watergate is to invest implicitly one’s hopes in the free press as the lead detective and prosecutor. And under Trump, -gating and the language of the Nixon era has become a rallying cry for robust reportage. Consider the hallelujahs to the first amendment at last month’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where Woodward and Bernstein—seated on opposite flanks of the podium, as their mutual distaste seems never to abate—were the stars of the night. As a member of the Nixon generation, Bernstein gave a list of instructions for the next generation of journalists, the Trump generation, on how to (un)cover the next Watergate. “Almost inevitably, unreasonable government secrecy is the enemy, and usually the giveaway about what the real story might be,” Bernstein said in his speech, clearly identifying where he believed the bones were buried and by whom. “And,” he added, “when lying is combined with secrecy, there is usually a pretty good roadmap in front of us.” In turn, Woodward extolled the lesson that a reporter must “not have a dog in the political fight except to find that best obtainable version of the truth.” Theirs was a call-to-arms to the media, providing a path for writing a new Watergate. It was a night with one looming lesson. To fell another president, to earn an entry in the pantheon of presidential scandal, to get another -gate, the press would have to hold the shining light. Bernstein finished with advice he learned all those years ago at the Washington Post, not on how to do top-notch reporting, but, specifically, on how to cover a conspiracy, the next Watergate: “Yes, follow the money but follow, also, the lies.”
Donald Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey in order to obstruct Comey’s investigation into coordination between his aides and the Russian operatives who subverted Hillary Clinton’s campaign has shocked the conscience of nearly everyone in politics. But because Trump’s party controls Congress, it is scarily plausible that he will get away with it. If he does, the harm done to rule of law in the country will be difficult to recover from.
Susan Hennessy is a national security studies fellow at the Brookings Institution and managing editor of the website Lawfare. She joined us on episode 55 of Primary Concerns from the Brookings studio to assess the potential damage and what can be done to stop it.
Donald Trump’s path to the White House was bolstered by a conspiracy theory, which he peddled for years, that questioned the constitutional legitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency. Now, there’s widespread doubt about the legitimacy of Trump’s own presidency. The irony is surely lost on him.
Of course, there’s an important difference between these two cases. Birtherism was a preposterous lie, rooted in a racist desire to demean the nation’s first African-American president. Russia’s proven interference in last year’s election, and possible collusion with the Trump campaign, is a real and serious scandal. This is apparent from the many investigations underway, from the FBI and CIA to the House and Senate, but also from political damage thus far: the resignations of campaign manager Paul Manafort and national security advisor Michael Flynn; the recusals of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Congressman Devin Nunes from active investigations; and, last week, the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
But Trump himself provides the most convincing evidence of the impact of the Russia scandal, which has clearly gotten under Trump’s skin. He brings it up at inopportune moments, even when it goes against his interest. Last Thursday, in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump broke with the official White House story that Comey was fired on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wrote a memo critical of the FBI director’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won,’” Trump said. “I was going to fire Comey. Oh, I was going to fire regardless of [Rosenstein’s] recommendation.”
Trump not only revealed his true motives here, but also his obsession. “Rather than ignoring the Russia investigation and focusing on priorities like health care and taxes, he keeps drawing more attention to the subject with intemperate Twitter posts, angry interviews and actions like the firing of Mr. Comey,” The New York Times reported. “He is so consumed by the matter that he studies congressional hearings on the Russia case, scrolling through them using TiVo. The night before dismissing Mr. Comey, he invited Time magazine journalists to dinner and, on a 60-inch-plus television he has had installed in the dining room, showed them various moments from the hearings, offering play-by-play-style commentary.”
The Russia story is driving Trump mad, causing him to make increasingly poor decisions. The very firing of Comey, done impulsively and without sufficient preparation with his White House staff, was the work of an angry president lashing out, not a deliberative leader. As The Washington Post reports, “White House aides have felt bewildered and alarmed by how Trump arrives at his decisions—often on impulse and emotion and sometimes by rejecting the counsel of those around him—and how he then communicates those decisions to his personnel and the public. Trump is in some ways like a pilot opting to fly a plane through heavy turbulence then blaming the flight attendants when the passengers get jittery.”
To some critics, such behavior is evidence that “either [Trump is] worried about Russia because he’s got a significant vulnerability or he’s worried about Russia because it undermines his electoral win,” as Jennifer Palmieri, former communications director for Hillary Clinton, told the Times. While many Democrats hope the Russia scandal is the next Watergate, the myriad investigations are likely to take many months—perhaps years—to conclude, and the discoveries may prove negligible. But already the scandal is the major force shaping the Trump presidency. The daily drip of allegations and hearings will further enrage Trump, and his anger will only intensify as Democrats continue to use Russia as a cudgel against him.
Last July, Hillary Clinton called Trump “a man you can bait with a tweet.” We now know the most effective bait: Russia. He might be lashing out over the story because he’s guilty, and worried the investigation is closing in. Or he might be innocent, or at worst unaware of Russian collusion with his campaign, but resents the story because he knows it’s a potent weapon for questioning his legitimacy. But the cause of Trump’s anger is irrelevant to his opponents; what matters is that he can be provoked. And the angrier Trump is, the more likely he is to make boneheaded mistakes, like the sudden firing of Comey before the White House had got its story straight. And the more blunders Trump makes, the harder it is for him to execute his agenda.
The 2018 midterms are looking up for the Democrats, who have an uphill battle to retake the House and Senate, and an erratic Trump will only aid that effort. Republicans in Congress are likely to discover in the coming months that they’re as trapped in the Russia quagmire as Trump is, since they’ve run so much interference for him. “With the White House in meltdown mode,” Politico reported from last week’s Republican National Committee spring meeting, “strategists expressed alarm about a pair of upcoming special House elections and what they might portend for the battle for the lower chamber next year.... And, as often happens with a party in peril, fingers were already being pointed over next year’s races.” The three-day meeting got off to a particularly awkward start:
With the Comey firing and Russia investigation dominating the headlines, there were also moments of discomfort. During a welcome reception Wednesday, a national committeeman took the stage and, perhaps jokingly, referred to those assembled as “comrades,” drawing grimaces.
It’s safe to say the Russia story will have Trump and the Republicans grimacing for the foreseeable future.
On October 11, 2016, less than a month before Election Day, police in Liberal, Kansas, sat in their cruisers outside G&G Home Center, waiting for Curtis Allen to emerge. The mobile home dealership where Allen worked was nothing more than a prefab trailer hauled onto a patch of scrub grass along a remote stretch of Highway 83 on the outskirts of town. His GMC Yukon was sitting in the parking lot, so the officers felt certain that he was one of two men they could see moving around inside. When the men left in separate vehicles, police believed that Allen was in the Yukon—but it was getting dark and they had to be sure. After the trucks turned onto the highway, the officers signaled for both drivers to pull over.
The police had reason to be cautious. Less than an hour earlier, Allen’s girlfriend had called 911 to report that he had beaten her during an argument. When Sergeant Jeffrey Wade from the Liberal Police Department arrived to take a statement at the mobile home park where she and Allen lived, the woman showed him something unexpected: a room packed with handguns, gunsmithing tools, and boxes of ammunition stacked to the ceiling. Police later estimated that the trailer contained nearly a metric ton of bullets.
Now, with their lights flashing, officers warily approached the two vehicles on the highway shoulder. A search of Allen’s Yukon turned up magazines for AR-15s, AK-47s, and Glock handguns. Allen, who had an earlier conviction for domestic battery, was barred from possessing guns or ammunition; Liberal police arrested him on the spot. The other driver, Gavin Wright, Allen’s boss at G&G, was asked to submit voluntarily to a search of his Dodge Ram. He refused and was released.
Soon after, Liberal’s police chief was contacted by the FBI. It turned out that the bureau had been tracking Allen and Wright, as well as a third suspect named Patrick Stein, for months. The three men were the founders of a new anti-Muslim white supremacist group that called itself the Crusaders. As their inaugural act, the FBI said, the men were plotting to carry out a Timothy McVeigh–style bombing in Garden City, Kansas, about an hour north of Liberal. Their plan was to detonate two cargo vans loaded with massive amounts of ammonium nitrate in the parking lots of the Garden Spot Apartments, a sprawling complex straddling both sides of West Mary Street. The drab, one-story units were inhabited primarily by Somalis and other refugees, who had come to Garden City to work at the nearby Tyson meatpacking plant.
When the Somalis first began arriving, back in 2006, they had been hailed as the vanguard of a more diverse and tolerant era. “America’s future arrived early in Garden City,” declared the Wichita Eagle. NPR described the town of 27,000 as a hopeful bellwether—“a meatpacking town that embraces its new cultures.” The Somalis joined earlier waves of Cambodian, Vietnamese, Burmese, and Hispanic refugees drawn to the region’s beef-packing plants, and the town had gone out of its way to welcome the newcomers, rezoning lots for new housing, providing city services, and incorporating the workers into the life of the community. On the town’s main street, Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal Church, Bad Boyz Boxing Club, and Lam Gia Thai Restaurant all shared a parking lot. The new residents provided cheap and uncomplaining labor for the beef industry, a source of tax revenue for the town, and a steady stream of customers for local businesses. “Garden City saw ethnic diversity as a commodity they could exploit,” says Donald Stull, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Kansas who led a study for the Ford Foundation of the town’s shifting demographics.
The Crusaders didn’t see it that way. Curtis Allen, who had served in Iraq and returned with PTSD, sank into a hatred of Muslims. He worked at a tire shop in his hometown of Ashland for a while before drifting west to Liberal, where he fell in with a series of militia groups. He also met Wright, who had gone from working at a meatpacking plant to selling mobile homes to house the influx of new immigrants. Last summer, when Allen planted a MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN sign in front of his mobile home, his neighbors—most of them Hispanic immigrants—couldn’t help but notice. Allen told them he was angry at Muslims. He allegedly voiced outrage over the Muslim terror attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and was angry that “Crooked Hillary” was “openly running on disarming the American people.” He told another neighbor that the Somalis at the National Beef packing plant in Liberal were “taking all our jobs” and needed to be gotten rid of.
What his neighbors didn’t know was that Allen was getting ready to put his words into action.
The FBI had a decision to make. Patrick Stein, the unofficial leader of the Crusaders, was scheduled to meet with an undercover agent the day after Allen was arrested. Believing that the agent was a crime boss who had experience building massive bombs using cell phones as remote-control triggers, Stein had arranged the meeting to discuss payment in the form of cash and methamphetamines. But now that Allen was in jail, there was a chance that Stein would be too spooked to show. Should agents wait to see if he stuck to the meet, or arrest him and Wright immediately?
Allen’s girlfriend told agents that Allen had been learning to manufacture explosives by studying videos on YouTube. At G&G, she had watched him stir up hydrogen peroxide and fuel tablets to make hexamethylene triperoxide diamine—a common homemade explosive used to make blasting caps to detonate larger bombs. The Crusaders already had the means to detonate a large blast, but not reliably, and apparently only if they were willing to serve as suicide bombers. During an exchange of text messages to set up the meeting, the undercover agent had asked Stein what weapons the group was hoping to acquire. “High explosives,” Stein replied, “automatic weapons RPG shit brother if I could get a hold of a warthog or Apache helicopter I would be after that too.” The Crusaders, it appeared, had more ambition than actual firepower. The FBI decided not to arrest Stein or Wright, gambling that they still believed Allen was being held only for domestic abuse.
The next day, October 12, undercover agents met Stein as planned in a remote rural area outside of Garden City. To bolster their cover as mobsters, the agents offered him his pick from a cache of weapons. Stein selected an AR-15 and an AK-47, each converted to full-auto, then eagerly directed one of the agents to the Garden Spot Apartments. As they drove into town, Stein couldn’t stop talking about the residents of the complex. At almost any time of day, Somali women gathered outside the units, draped in brightly colored dresses, most with their heads covered by hijabs. Their children chased each other in the grass. They were everywhere. “Literally every fucking apartment,” Stein said in a conversation recorded by the FBI. There was even an informal mosque in one of the units. “That’s all it is, fucking goddamn cockroaches.”
The Crusaders had initially planned to carry out the attack on September 11, but then called it off, worried that a mass murder might help Hillary Clinton’s chances in the presidential campaign. “We cannot let Hillary back into the White House,” Stein told the undercover agent. So they decided to wait—until the night after the election. Under cover of darkness, the Crusaders would ease the cargo vans into place. The Somali workers would be sleeping after the second shift at Tyson or rising for morning prayers at their mosque, when the bombers made the deadly calls on their cell phones. After the explosions, they would swoop into the wreckage and shoot any survivors. “There’s no leaving anyone behind, even if it’s a one-year-old,” Stein said. “I’m serious. I guarantee if I go on a mission those little fuckers are going bye-bye.”
Two days later, Stein met again with the undercover agent, this time at a McDonald’s in Dodge City. He loaded 300 pounds of ammonium nitrate into the agent’s car, then went inside for breakfast. The FBI arrested him, and picked up Gavin Wright outside G&G Homes. A search of a storage locker Wright had rented turned up bomb-making materials and a safe full of semiautomatic rifles and handguns. When an agent asked if Stein had any misgivings about killing children, he expressed no remorse. Most of his targets, he insisted, were “fighting age.”
On October 21, Stein appeared at a bail hearing in Wichita. His attorney, Ed Robinson, offered a provocative defense: A steady stream of fake news, spread on social media, had convinced the Crusaders that America was in a state of emergency. Stein believed that the presidential election was rigged against Donald Trump, and that the Muslim Brotherhood had seized control of the government. Even if Trump somehow managed to win, Stein was certain that President Obama would immediately invalidate the results and declare martial law. United Nations tanks had already been sent into southwestern Kansas to subdue the populace. Everyone was in on it—from Obama to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, “even getting down to the local government.”
Such conspiracy theories, Robinson observed, weren’t just emanating from fake-news outlets. In the days before the election, the Republican Party had been mailing out election flyers in Kansas attacking Democratic candidates for “moving terrorists to Kansas.” In a high-profile speech on August 4, Trump himself warned that terrorists from Somalia and other Muslim countries were scheming to gain entrance to the United States by posing as refugees, calling it “the great Trojan horse of all time.” In the face of a coming revolution, the Crusaders saw themselves as a special breed of patriot, a self-chosen few unwilling to stand by while Muslim foreigners took over the country. In the words of Stein’s attorney, they decided to put together a plan to “deal with that mosque and those people.”
Immigrants have long been the backbone of American meatpacking. At the dawn of the twentieth century, just as skilled, small-scale butchering operations were being replaced by large, factory-style slaughterhouses, the United States was opening its borders to mass immigration. Jews targeted by the pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia, Italians and Greeks displaced by crop failures in the southern Mediterranean, Mexicans fleeing violence during the revolution, and Armenians escaping genocide in Turkey all poured into New York City and then migrated west along railroad lines. Few of the new arrivals spoke English, and many were illiterate in their native languages. But meatpacking jobs required little in the way of language skills, and immigrants were often given the most demanding and dangerous positions on the cut line. If they were exploited, they at least received better pay than they could find in other low-skill lines of work.
Midwestern cities thrived on the strength of immigrant labor; the stockyards in Kansas City grew into the second largest livestock exchange and meatpacking district in America. But the remote, southwestern corner of Kansas remained largely unpopulated until the 1960s, when advances in irrigation technology suddenly made it possible for ranchers to grow enough corn to sustain industrial-scale cattle feedlots. Within a decade, livestock trailers loaded with cattle from Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado were streaming into three vast beef-processing plants in Garden City, Dodge City, and Liberal, forming what came to be known as the Golden Triangle of American beef packing. And as the meatpacking industry surged west, immigrant workers came with it.
By the 1980s, when Iowa Beef Packers announced it would open the world’s largest beef plant just outside Garden City, the region was already feeding and slaughtering roughly a quarter of all the cattle processed in North America. IBP needed thousands of workers to get its new production lines running—far more than the area, which was already at near-zero unemployment, could provide. So IBP turned to a new immigrant population eager for work: refugees fleeing life-threatening oppression around the world. In 1980, Jimmy Carter had tripled the number of political refugees who could be admitted to the United States. Over the next decade, the population of Garden City soared, from 18,000 to 24,000. Two-thirds of the newcomers were Southeast Asian or Hispanic.
Garden City was completely unprepared for the sudden influx. Workers were forced to live out of cars, tents, and hotels. IBP lobbied the city to rezone, allowing the construction of mobile home parks. Before long, a trailer park on the eastern edge of town swelled to more than 500 units, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the town’s entire population. Crime and fires were rampant, and almost none of the new residents had access to essential services.
In an effort to improve conditions nationwide, the Ford Foundation sponsored studies of communities across the country that were grappling with the arrival of large numbers of new immigrants. Garden City was selected as the sole case study for small towns in middle America. Spurred by Ford’s involvement, the community came to see its growing diversity as good for business. Town police worked with new arrivals to ease crime; local leaders helped refugees set up their own businesses. For a small Kansas town in the middle of nowhere, Garden City had the feel of a bigger, more progressive city. “We described Garden City as a cosmopolitan place,” says Donald Stull, the anthropologist who conducted the Ford study. “But it became, in some ways, a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Even when tensions gradually emerged over the town’s shifting demographics, he says, many local leaders remained convinced that all was well: “These folks came in from outside with Ford Foundation money and said we’re really cosmopolitan, and, by golly, we must be.”
The unease was exacerbated by a wave of consolidation in the beef industry. As more and more meatpacking companies merged, American-born workers were systematically replaced by immigrant labor. The situation worsened in 2000, when the local ConAgra plant burned to the ground on Christmas Day, putting nearly 10 percent of Garden City’s residents out of work overnight. The sudden spike in unemployment, combined with the anti-immigrant sentiment that arose in the wake of the September 11 attacks, began to undercut Garden City’s welcoming posture. Tensions only increased in 2006, when George W. Bush unleashed a nationwide crackdown on undocumented Hispanic immigrants. Many meatpacking plants were forced to replenish their workforce—but instead of turning to the local labor pool, they doubled down on their reliance on refugees.
Refugees provide an almost ideal workforce for meatpacking plants. They have legal status, which protects their employers from immigration raids. They can’t afford to complain about the heavy and dangerous workloads they’re given. And they’re less likely to unionize than American-born workers. In 2007, employees at the Tyson plant, many of them refugees, voted to reject a unionization effort by a margin of 3 to 1. After trying to recruit African Americans in Chicago and Puerto Ricans in Cleveland, meatpackers in the Golden Triangle zeroed in on refugees from the Twin Cities—most of them from Burma and Somalia. “They have been recruited in poultry and beef plants quite systematically,” Stull says.
At meatpacking plants in Kansas and elsewhere, long-simmering tensions over immigrant labor soon boiled over. American-born job applicants sued the companies, claiming discrimination in hiring. Muslim workers were fired for taking unauthorized prayer breaks. Fistfights broke out among workers on the line. But Tyson, which had taken over the massive IBP plant outside Garden City, went out of its way to make Muslim workers feel at home. The company provided Somali employees with two prayer breaks per shift, in dedicated prayer rooms at its plants. Bathrooms were retrofitted with foot-washing stations, and workers were even given prayer rugs outfitted with a compass to allow them to pray toward Mecca.
In some towns, however, such accommodations only served to further stoke the anger of American-born employees. At the Tyson plant in Emporia, Kansas, wild rumors began to spread—that the Somalis were carrying tuberculosis and contaminating the meat, that a group of Somali men had raped a female co-worker in an equipment closet. Outside the plant, there were stories that Somali women who refused to use tampons had dripped menstrual blood through the local Wal-Mart, that a riot of Somali men had broken out in a local parking lot, that a gang of Somalis wielding machetes had been seen outside the Dairy Queen. The Ayan Café, a Somali-run market and restaurant in Emporia, was frequently vandalized; in January 2007, armed gunmen attacked the store. Patty Gilligan, a spokesperson for the town, viewed the resistance to the Somalis as more than religious. “I can’t help but think their skin color had something to do with it,” she told reporters.
Officials from the city, the school district, and the state held months of community meetings, trying to allay the fears and resentment of angry residents. Finally, in January 2008, Tyson announced that it was closing its Emporia slaughterhouse, eliminating the 1,500 jobs it had created barely a year before. The 400 Somali workers at the plant were offered bonuses to relocate to Garden City, and the rest of the Somali community in Emporia decided to go with them, including the owners of the Ayan Café. “If there’s no Tyson,” one of the café’s employees told the Emporia Gazette, “our business is going down.”
The workers who moved to Garden City felt like they had traveled to another planet. While all of the meatpacking towns in the Golden Triangle had recruited Somalis, none was as diverse as Garden City, where Somalis now make up nearly the entire second shift at Tyson. When the refugees arrived and began moving into the Garden Spot apartments, city officials were ready to receive them. “If you want to buy a house, if you want your own company, nothing can stop you,” says Mursal Naleye, a Somali refugee who moved to Garden City in 2011 to work for Tyson. “You can do everything you want in Garden City.”
By the time Naleye arrived, however, the climate was already starting to change. “There were always whispers,” a local elementary school teacher told CNN. But after the election of Barack Obama and the rise of the Tea Party, the whispers grew louder. In 2010, new census numbers revealed that white residents now made up only 43 percent of Garden City, leaving many feeling outnumbered in their own community. Whites are also a minority in four neighboring counties, including the towns of Dodge City and Liberal.
White residents who felt anxious or aggrieved over the demographic shifts didn’t have to look very far for support. Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who had risen to national prominence after he delivered a speech at the GOP convention in 2004 calling for the military to be deployed along the Mexican border, was openly working to prevent many voters of color from casting ballots. One group in particular, he claimed, was guilty of widespread voter fraud: Somali refugees. “We don’t know the entire number,” Kobach told the Wichita Eagle in 2010. “We just know people have been observed registering people outside the meatpacking plants.”
Kobach claimed that a Kansas City race for the state House had been “stolen” when J.J. Rizzo, a Democratic candidate, received “about 50 votes illegally cast by citizens of Somalia.” Although Rizzo’s own aunt and uncle later pleaded guilty to illegally voting in the election, there was no evidence of any wrongdoing by Somali refugees. But that didn’t prevent Kobach from repeating the claim in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “The Somalis, who didn’t speak English, were coached to vote for Rizzo by an interpreter at the polling place,” Kobach insisted. “Rizzo ended up winning by one vote.” The message from the state’s top voting official was clear: The newcomers from Somalia were being used to subvert American democracy.
On October 14, while federal agents were still busy searching the weapons-laden storage unit belonging to Gavin Wright, the FBI contacted Michael Utz, Garden City’s chief of police. Utz had been briefed on the case the day before, so when the bureau notified him that it had made its final two arrests, he was ready to move. First, he called together his staff and told them that an FBI field officer would be speaking to the Somali community about the planned attack later that day. Then he picked up the phone and called Mursal Naleye, whom he knew was respected by his fellow refugees.
“Hey, why don’t you come down to the police department—you, with all of the leaders from the community,” Utz said. “We need to have a meeting right away.”
Utz had been interacting with refugee families since he was a rookie officer in the 1980s. “I mean, we’re all immigrants in some fashion,” he told me. There were cultural differences, of course, but he had found that if he learned and respected those differences, the job got easier for him and more effective for the people he was sworn to protect. So when he was named chief in 2015, Utz organized monthly meetings with a group of leaders from the local African community. Most Somalis still respect the clan system, deferring to elders and members of honored families to make collective decisions. While Utz conferred with clan leaders, police officers played soccer with the kids and volunteers from a local nonprofit asked the women about social services their families might need. The clan leaders were wary at first, or perhaps just unconvinced of the sincerity of the gesture. But after nearly a year of outreach, Utz had managed to win over some support. He had also met Naleye, who had been promoted by Tyson to train new Somali workers and served as president of a community center that assisted African immigrants.
Utz wanted Naleye and other leaders of the community to learn of the planned attack directly from him, rather than hearing about it on the news. “It was important that we, as a department, reach out to the folks that live in the two apartment complexes,” Utz says. “I felt that they needed to know what was going on. My concern was the fear factor: people not going to work, not going to school, and wanting to get out of Garden City.”
Naleye was troubled by the call. Though he’s only 27, he exudes a calm, unflappable air. It takes a lot to make him nervous, but something about Utz’s urgency communicated the seriousness of the situation. He asked the chief what time he wanted to meet. “I need you here by one o’clock,” Utz replied.
Naleye checked his watch. It was almost 20 past noon. His anxiety grew. No one trusts the police in Somalia. There, a call like this would most likely be a trap—a setup to demand a bribe, the prelude to a kidnapping, or worse.
But Naleye knew Utz. “OK, Chief, I trust you,” he said. “We’ll make it happen.”
In a rush, Naleye started dialing, telling everyone he reached to be ready in five minutes. He picked up several people in his car and told the rest to meet at the African Shop, a few blocks west of the Garden Spot Apartments. The store sells comforts from Somalia—bolts of cloth for dresses, spices, and packaged sweets—but in the back, an old storage area has been converted to a kind of meeting place, still open and breezy enough to fill with the stench from the Brookover Feed Yard when the wind is right. Most days, the room is abuzz with the sound of international soccer games on television and an espresso maker blasting steam. But now, Naleye commanded silence. “There’s an emergency meeting,” he told everyone.
“Why do we have to go to the police department?” one leader asked in Somali.
“Is something wrong?” asked another.
“I don’t really know,” Naleye told them. “But don’t be nervous. Don’t be afraid. Nothing is going to happen to you guys.”
At one o’clock, Naleye arrived at the police station with a van-load of clan leaders. With little time to change, the men arrived in street clothes—tight-fitting t-shirts and jeans for the younger men, the elders in slacks, with embroidered koofiyads on their heads. As each entered the station, Utz was there to shake hands and welcome them. Once everyone was assembled in the conference room, the chief chose his words carefully.
“There has been a threat against your part of our community,” he said. “All three suspects are in custody—and there is nobody else involved. You are safe.” He told the group that an FBI field officer would explain the nature of the threat to them, so they could share it with their families and friends. But he also wanted them to gather the community together the next day, so they could hear directly from the police that they were going to receive additional protection. Utz had already contacted school officials, who would be sending counselors to classrooms and the apartment complex. And he had asked one of his police officers who is Somali to translate a letter into his native language explaining that the meeting would be a show of support. Officers would be going door to door to distribute the letter, Utz told the clan leaders.
Not wanting to alarm them, the FBI officer shared only the most basic details of the plot. But in the coming days, the clan leaders and their families would learn many graphic details from the media and the criminal complaint submitted to the court. One evening at G&G Home Center, the plotters had pulled up Google Maps on an office computer and begun dropping pins at various locations for possible attacks. Each pin was given the label “cockroaches.” The men then discussed what kind of attack they might carry out, including kidnapping and raping the wives and daughters of refugee workers, setting fire to their mosque during prayer time, and even shooting them with arrows dipped in pig’s blood.
“The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim,” Patrick Stein had told his fellow Crusaders. “If you’re a Muslim, I’m going to enjoy shooting you in the head.”
Now, after hearing from Utz and the FBI, the clan leaders were stunned. But the respect that Chief Utz had shown by calling them together had prevented a panic. “If they wait until the news says something and they don’t let us know, people would get shocked and just run away,” Naleye says. Instead, he was able to leave the meeting and head to the Tyson plant. By now, everyone would be arriving for the night shift.
Abdukadin Yusuf was less than an hour into the B shift at the Tyson plant, but it was time for him to take a break from the rib line and pray. Yusuf has worked at Tyson for a decade, transferring to Garden City in 2007 after almost a year in Emporia. He refuses to talk about his time in Emporia; he prefers to focus on how much better everything has been since he arrived in Garden City. He is grateful to Tyson for allowing him to move there. “It’s a good company,” he says. “They take care of the workers.” At more than a million square feet, the Garden City plant is one of the world’s largest slaughterhouses—processing some 6,000 cattle every day. The morning shift is nearly all Hispanic workers, and the afternoon shift, roughly 600 people, is entirely Somali and Burmese. Yusuf, after a decade of working in slaughterhouses, earns $40,000 per year.
On the rib line, men grasp old-fashioned meat hooks in their left hands, pulling racks of beef ribs onto individual cutting trays, where they execute a few quick cuts with a straight knife in the other hand, removing excess meat before returning the racks to the conveyers. The meat is often tough, and has to be pried from the bone using the hook and free fingers on the knife hand. Yusuf had been working at Tyson for only a few months when he started experiencing stiffness and numbness in his hands. He tried wearing gloves to keep his hands warm and limber in the freezing cold of the cutting-room floor, but it was no use. The tendons in his middle and ring fingers on his right hand were soon so swollen that they would click and lock in a closed position—a condition known as trigger finger.
Despite all this, Yusuf insists that he loves working for Tyson. For refugees like him, the dangers of the production line pale in comparison to life in Somalia—with its clan warfare, piracy, government corruption, and terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab. Besides, the company paid for the surgery on his hands. His supervisors gave him time off to go to Kenya twice—the first time to marry his fiancée, Ifrah Farah, the second to finalize her visa application and bring her to Garden City. The plant manager had hired leaders like Naleye to train workers to prevent repetitive stress injuries. Most importantly to Yusuf, the company allows Muslim workers to take breaks according to their prayer schedule. “The supervisors let us work it out ourselves,” he says. “There are no problems about the breaks.”
Now, as Yusuf returned to work from his prayer break, he noticed Naleye talking to several plant supervisors in the lunch room. Another Somali worker told him about the attacks, and they went into their supervisor’s office to watch the FBI press conference on his television. “We stand in the office and see it,” Yusuf says. Acting U.S. Attorney Tom Beall stood before an American flag and the seal of the Justice Department and announced that an eight-month FBI investigation had taken agents “deep into a hidden culture of hatred and violence.” He explained that three men had intended to detonate car bombs, one of them less than 50 feet from the one-bedroom apartment where Yusuf and his wife live. The men, Beall said, harbored “hatred for Muslims, individuals of Somali descent, and immigrants.”
Yusuf had lived in Garden City for nearly a decade, and had never once felt any hint of resentment, much less a threat of violence. Who were these men who wanted to kill him and his wife and everyone they knew? “Why would they do this?” he demanded, his hands cramping, fingers locking against his palms. “Why would they do this?”
Seeing the reaction from Yusuf and other Somali workers, the plant managers turned to Naleye for help. “Go department to department, and talk to the people,” they said. “Tell them they are safe. Don’t be afraid.”
Yusuf’s wife, Ifrah, was at home. He wanted to leave to be with her. But Naleye was already spreading the word to the workers that the police were guarding the apartment complex. They should all finish the shift, and not lose a day’s wages, too.
When the shift ended at 11:45 that night, Yusuf and other workers found the police waiting for them, lined up outside the plant in their cruisers. Other officers were stationed at the Garden Spot. By the time Yusuf got home, it was midnight, and he woke Ifrah up to talk. She had seen the police lights flashing outside earlier that evening, but didn’t go to the door when police officers had knocked, handing out flyers to explain the situation. Now, as Yusuf talked her through what was happening, her fears only grew. She wanted to pack their minivan and leave Garden City right away, driving until they reached Minnesota, where Yusuf had family.
“Nobody is above the law,” Yusuf reassured her. “Only God knows when it is time for us to die.”
That night, they lay in bed together but barely slept. They rose with the sun to pray, and then Yusuf returned to bed, tired after working the night shift. Ifrah went to the meeting that afternoon, when Chief Utz arrived. Hundreds of people—Somalis, Burmese, Mexicans, Malaysians, Vietnamese, Sudanese—gathered in the large parking lot on the north side of Mary Street.
“The individuals involved in this plot are all in custody,” Utz assured them, his words translated by the Somali police officer. “You are safe, and we will continue to make every effort to make sure you are safe.”
Utz started to introduce several representatives from the FBI team who had foiled the plot, as well as the county sheriff, whose office has jurisdiction over the Tyson plant. But before he could finish, several Somali residents pressed forward. They knew and trusted the chief and wanted to hear directly from him. Why had these men chosen them? Why were they targeted?
Utz had decided to be as straight with the Somalis as possible. There was no point in pretending that there were any motives other than hate and bigotry. But he also wanted them to know that he and his officers were there to protect them—that they were members not just of the community, but of a nation that had been created by immigrants and refugees.
“The only answer I can give you is that they wanted to attack your religious beliefs,” Utz told the assembled residents. “But you need to know that whether you are an immigrant or not, you are all Garden Citians. Some of you have said you can’t go to your mosque to pray, or that you can’t go to your homes because you are afraid. But we and the sheriff and the FBI are here to say that you are safe in Garden City, and safe in the United States of America.”
When Stein appeared before a judge on October 21, he rocked back and forth in his chair at the defendant’s table as Anthony Mattivi, assistant U.S. attorney for Kansas, presented the government’s case. Mattivi reminded the court that Stein could be heard on FBI recordings vowing that the apartment bombing would be simply the first of a series of attacks he intended to carry out as a response to the election, now just two weeks away. Mattivi read another text from Stein to the undercover agent, regarding Hillary Clinton. “If she was to be elected,” Stein wrote, the bombing “would be very soon after the election, ‘game on.’ ”
Ed Robinson, Stein’s attorney, countered with his fake news defense: His client’s fears about Somalis were a byproduct of screeds on Facebook and conspiracy theories not only from right-wing web sites, but from Donald Trump himself. At a rally in August, Trump had warned supporters in Maine that efforts to resettle Somali refugees had created “an enclave of immigrants with high unemployment” that was straining state resources, and quoted a Washington Times article claiming that this was creating “a rich pool of potential recruiting targets for Islamist terrorist groups.” The United States, he said, was accepting “hundreds of thousands of refugees, and they’re coming from among the most dangerous territories and countries of anywhere in the world. A practice which has to stop.”
Even after the arrests in Kansas, Trump continued to issue dire warnings about the influx of Somali refugees as a regular part of his stump speech. In the final days of the campaign, Trump spoke to a crowd in Minneapolis, the city with the nation’s highest number of Somali refugees. “You’ve seen firsthand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting,” he said, “with very large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state without your knowledge, without your support or approval.” He claimed that “large numbers” of Somalis were “joining ISIS and spreading their extremist views all over our country.” He described how Dahir Adan, a 22-year-old Somali college student who had come to Minnesota as a refugee, had stabbed ten people at the Crossroads Center shopping mall in St. Cloud, before being shot dead by an off-duty police officer. ISIS later claimed credit for the attack. “It’s happening, it’s happening, you see it happening, you read about it,” Trump told the crowd.
Whatever impact Trump’s rhetoric had on the Crusaders, it has little basis in fact. A study conducted by Nora Ellingsen, a Harvard Law School student, identified a total of 97 terrorism suspects arrested as part of FBI counterterrorism investigations over the past two years. Only two involved refugees from countries on Trump’s list of majority-Muslim countries. (Ellingsen omitted two violent attacks carried out by Somali refugees in 2016—the mall stabbings by Dahir Adan and another mass stabbing by Abdul Razak Ali Artan in Columbus, Ohio—because in both cases the perpetrators were killed rather than arrested.) “Since January 2015,” Ellingsen concludes, “the FBI has arrested more anti-immigrant American citizens plotting violent attacks on Muslims within the United States than it has refugees, or former refugees, from any banned country. The empirical data indicate that foreign nationals simply aren’t plotting attacks within U.S. borders at the same rate as U.S. citizens. Indeed, the rates aren’t anywhere close to comparable.”
Over that same span of time, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there was a “near-tripling of anti-Muslim hate groups—from 34 in 2015 to 101 last year.” Much of the increase has come from the III% movement, so named because its adherents say that it took just 3 percent of American colonists taking up arms against British rule to start the Revolutionary War. Stein was part of a Facebook group called the III% Security Force of Kansas, and his username for an encrypted communication app with the FBI undercover agent was “orkinmanIII%”—a reference not only to the movement but to his plan to “exterminate” Muslims, whom he considered “cockroaches.”
Miles Evans, the state commander of the Kansas Flatlanders Militia, which is part of the III% movement, confirms that Stein and Wright had contacted him about joining the group. But Evans insists that he turned them down. “They were just very extreme with the way they go about things,” he told the Kansas City Star. “Too extreme for us.” After the Crusaders were arrested, another militia called the Kansas Security Force posted a message on its Facebook page: “Our group is not at all about HATE, or by any means about extremism. Should any one feel differently about this please leave.”
Despite such disavowals, FBI statistics indicate that hate crimes against Muslims rose by 67 percent in 2015—the largest single-year increase since the September 11 attacks. In a new report on the rise of anti-Muslim groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center describes 2016 as “an unprecedented year for hate. The country saw a resurgence of white nationalism that imperils the racial progress we’ve made, along with the rise of a president whose policies reflect the values of white nationalists.”
In court, the judge denied Stein’s bail request.
Mursal Naleye says he still feels optimistic about life in Garden City. He sees progress all around him—especially since the bomb plot was uncovered. “Nobody moved out,” he says. Every family has decided to stay; in fact, the response by Chief Utz and the police made Somalis feel even more welcome. “From that day, it opened their minds,” Naleye says. “They don’t have to be scared of the police no more. From that day, we started monthly meetings.”
In a sense, the bomb plot backfired. The bridge between the Somali community and the police force—as well as fears over Trump’s proposed travel ban—has actually encouraged Somali workers at the Tyson plant to bring their families over from Somalia. “If you live in a city and you don’t really like it, you don’t bring your family,” Naleye says. “But if you really like it, and you want to be here, you start bringing your people out.” The city has continued its support, allowing residents of the apartment complex to open an English-language training school in one unit and an urgent-care clinic in another. “We feel like we have people helping us,” Naleye says.
The planned attack on the apartment complex, Naleye insists, was not simply an outrage against Somalis, or even Muslims. “There’s a lot of different communities there,” he says. “There’s Hispanic, other African people, Asian people—Vietnamese, Chinese, Burmese, Indian. We’re not going to say we were the only target, as Somalis. We’re not going to say that. We were all targeted.” He points to the FBI estimate that the bombs would have been large enough to blow up surrounding houses, many occupied by older white residents or white families with small children. “Thanks to God, nothing happened,” he says.
Still, there are other signs that Garden City is not as progressive and cosmopolitan as its leaders imagine. On Election Day, only 24 hours before the Crusaders were planning to massacre hundreds of local residents, voters in Garden City and the surrounding county turned out in record numbers—and they voted for Trump over Clinton by a margin of more than two to one. In the four local counties where whites are now a minority, Trump still captured roughly two-thirds of the popular vote.
After Trump’s inauguration, one of the accused conspirators—he was not identified in the article—contacted a reporter for The Guardian. After professing his innocence, he did admit to feeling “encouraged” by Trump’s victory. Stein meanwhile applied for reconsideration of his detention—but was denied a second hearing after authorities at the Butler County Detention Facility uncovered love letters he had been writing to a prison guard. A subsequent search of Stein’s cell phone revealed plans for “a small man team” to cut power to the jail and overtake the facility. Stein and his co-defendants are scheduled to stand trial in federal court in Wichita on June 13.
As for President Trump, he has made good on his promise to attempt to block immigration from Somalia and five other Muslim-majority nations. Although his policies have been tied up in court, he remains committed to instituting a 90-day ban on people from those countries, as well as a 120-day ban on all refugees, regardless of their place of origin. But Somalis hoping to enter the United States often come directly from refugee camps, where they have spent years undergoing rigorous screening. The American people, it would seem, have little cause for fear.
Over President’s Day weekend, Naleye organized a party to honor the election of a different president—Mohamed A. Mohamed of Somalia. Mohamed’s ascent is a parable of the promise and possibility of America’s refugee program. In 1988, Mohamed, then a secretary in the Somali embassy in Washington, was granted asylum to avoid returning to Somalia’s civil war. He earned degrees in history and political science from American universities, went on to work on several local political campaigns, and eventually landed a job in the Buffalo office of the New York Department of Transportation, enforcing nondiscrimination requirements among state contractors. He returned to Somalia in 2010, served briefly as prime minister, and had now been chosen as Somalia’s first progressive president in three decades. Naleye points to Mohamed’s success as evidence of what an enlightened refugee policy could achieve.
At the celebration, in a rented party space in a strip mall on West Mary Street, posters of Mohamed and a large Somali flag were taped to the wall. Under the glare of fluorescent lights, the party started quietly, with everyone dressed in their formal clothes and stiffly sharing a potluck of traditional Somali foods eaten on paper plates. But near midnight, as the older members of the community went home, the younger Somalis turned up the portable DJ machine, its lone speaker pumping African club songs and flashing multicolor lights. Ahmed Ali, an exuberant young man with a quick smile, started ushering everyone onto the dance floor. “It’s a new president, a new hope, a new era!” Ali shouted over the pounding bass. He elbowed Naleye toward the edge of the bouncing circle, where he fell into clapping with everyone else.
And suddenly, in a strip mall on the very street where the Crusaders planned to unleash their grim attack, the bobbing and clapping turned into joyous dancing, the tile floor swaying under leather shoes and bare feet with hennaed toes. The dancers now stepped, two at a time, to the center of the circle, the women gripping and swinging the hems of their dresses, the men flapping their sports jackets and passing a hand-knit scarf that read I LOVE SOMALIA, waving it like a flag. Naleye himself slid to the center of the circle, smiling shyly at the applause, and then shook his hips. For the moment he felt light, buoyed by hope and, perhaps, the sense of a second chance. He should be asleep, he thought, but who could sleep now? He was wide awake, there in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of America, wide awake and dancing.
This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a non-profit investigative news organization.
In February 1998, Madeleine Albright, President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, went on NBC’s The Today Show to defend America’s increasingly aggressive stance toward Iraq. “Let me say that we are doing everything possible so that American men and women in uniform do not have to go out there again,” she said. “It is the threat of the use of force and our line-up there that is going to put force behind the diplomacy. But if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”
“Indispensable nation” was a brand-new phrase then, though not of Albright’s invention. Presidential fixer Sidney Blumenthal claims to have suggested it to her, after coining it with historian James Chase “to describe the concept of the United States as the guarantor of stability as the sole superpower within the framework of multinational institutions.”
The phrase went on to become a bipartisan political cliche, and took on new salience in light of Donald Trump’s isolationist, “America First” campaign. Hillary Clinton said in August that “we are the indispensable nation. People all over the world look to us, and follow our lead.” President Barack Obama, days before the election, told HBO’s Bill Maher, “We really are the indispensable nation.... America is not just a great nation in the sense that it’s powerful, but that our values and ideals actually matter.”
Trump’s victory, consequently, was seen as potentially the end of America’s indispensability. In a post-election Financial Times column titled “Trump marks the end of America as world’s ‘indispensable nation,’” historian Robert Kagan feared “a return to national solipsism, with a much narrower definition of American interests and a reluctance to act in the world except to protect those narrow interests. To put it another way, America may once again start behaving like a normal nation.”
That prediction loses credence by the day, as Trump’s diplomatic moves as president have been anything but normal. And yet, Kagan’s headline remains no less accurate because Trump’s bizarro foreign policy is accomplishing what many thought his isolationist platform would do: make America dispensable again.
“The Syria strike, that Strangelovian bomb in Afghanistan almost no one even knew the Pentagon had, a flashpoint in Northeast Asia, and, as of late Wednesday, Secretary of State Tillerson’s uninhibited attack on Iran and the accord governing its nuclear program: This is not a collection of one-offs. This is not the indispensable nation rushing to put out the world’s flash fires,” Patrick Lawrence wrote last month at The Nation. “This is the ever-less-welcome nation lighting them, fair to say.” Other writers have gone so far as to anoint new “indispensable” nations, such as Germany and China.
Trump has ushered in a new era of American hegemony, one in which the hegemon is adrift, mercurial, and utterly irresponsible. Without a firm American hand at the wheel, the liberal international order will crumble and the world will descend into regional conflict—and, eventually, a global one. Or so says the “indispensable nation” theory. But what if a diminished America is a positive development for the world? What might countries accomplish when they can’t rely on anyone else?
Some argue that America was never an indispensable nation, that the concept itself is a myth. “If you consider everything encompassing global affairs—from state-to-state diplomatic relations, to growing cross-border flows of goods, money, people, and data—there are actually very few activities where America’s role is truly indispensable,” Micah Zenko wrote in Foreign Policy in 2014. He cited myriad foreign policy failures, from the persistent atrocities in Syria to the Nigerian schoolgirls still held by Boko Haram, before eventually concluding:
The reason that the United States is not the indispensable nation is simple: the human and financial costs, the tremendous risks, and degree of political commitment required to do so are thankfully lacking in Washington. Moreover, the structure and dynamics of the international system would reject or resist it, as it does in so many ways that frustrate the United States from achieving its foreign policy objectives. The United States can be truly indispensable in a few discrete domains, such as for military operations, which as pointed out above has proven disastrous recently. But overall there is no indispensable nation now, nor has there been in modern history.
The appeal of the “indispensable nation” theory to American politicians is easy to understand. It neatly—and arrogantly—encapsulates the core belief that elites of both parties have shared ever since the attack on Pearl Harbor: that America is the cornerstone for global capitalism, the linchpin holding together every nation committed to free trade, collective security, and international law.
Let us accept that while the indispensability of America is often overstated, there’s no question that many countries count on the U.S. for all sorts of reasons—military, economic, humanitarian, and otherwise. That assistance, as Zenko noted, is not always productive in the end, but no nation is more interconnected with the rest of the world than America is. That alone creates a sort of indispensability.
No matter: The world is about to discover whether the U.S. is indeed indispensable. Whether Trump fully implements his “America First” foreign policy vision, or continues to be unpredictable and unstable in ways that worry America’s closest allies, he represents a test to this longstanding international system. As Foreign Policy
reported in February, “The president of the European Commission, former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk ... said that Washington is ‘seeming to put into question’ 70 years of American policy, placing the United States alongside Russia, China and terrorism as a source of instability for Europe.”
The so-called “axis of adults” who are supposed to check Trump’s isolationist tendencies (establishment stalwarts like Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H. R. McMaster) might be pushing back against Trump’s erratic and isolationist impulses, but this only makes America’s foreign policy intentions murkier and harder to rely on. Bloomberg’s Eli Lake provided a vivid example of this last week:
Trump was livid, according to three White House officials, after reading in the Wall Street Journal that McMaster had called his South Korean counterpart to assure him that the president’s threat to make that country pay for a new missile defense system was not official policy. These officials say Trump screamed at McMaster on a phone call, accusing him of undercutting efforts to get South Korea to pay its fair share.
Reading a report like this, South Koreans officials would be hard pressed to know if they should trust McMaster’s reassurances, or expect Trump to act on his professed agenda.
But the chaos of Trump’s foreign policy might well be an opportunity for the rest of the world. We’re far removed from Nazism and Stalinism, when the U.S. provided a clear-cut leadership role that no other nation could. Many of today’s international problems require regional cooperation, which could easily be taken up by local alliances without America’s aid.
In January, after Trump called NATO “obsolete,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “We Europeans have our fate in our own hands.” Trump’s isolationism, and the United Kingdom’s impending exit from the European Union, is proving Merkel’s words true. “U.S. allies are resigning themselves to the likelihood that Trump’s administration will remain unpredictable and often incoherent, if not downright hostile, in its foreign policy,” noted the Foreign Policy report. “And they are beginning to draw up contingency plans to protect their interests on trade and security, as they adapt to a world where strong American leadership is no longer assured.”
Trump’s unreliability is likely to increase the ongoing push for European military integration, which would create a formidable force that could work independently of the U.S. to face challenges like Russian aggression. A more independent Europe could also take a stronger role in the Middle East—not just taking in refugees, as it does now, but using military and diplomatic force to solve the region’s problems. A more active European involvement in the Israel/Palestine negotiations could be a boon, since the Europeans, seen as more sympathetic to the Palestinians, could provide a counterweight to America’s pro-Israel policy. This might help break a stalemate that has lasted decades. At worst, it can’t be less productive than the status quo.
The same logic applies in other regions of the world, where promising new alliances are emerging as a response to Trump’s foreign policy. Earlier this month, in an implicit rebuke of Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric, the finance ministers of China, South Korea, and Japan signed a statement stating, “We will resist all forms of protectionism.” Historically, these three countries have been rivals, but here we see the seeds of a new alliance system. South Korea has been the victim of both Chinese and Japanese colonialism in the past, but in the new era they might find their Asian neighbors more trustworthy in dealing with North Korea than Trump’s America. Japan, for its part, now has an incentive to overcome its own isolationism, rooted in its defeat in World War II, and become a regional power.
A more isolationist America could also be a boon to Africa. The presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama brought a regrettable militarization of American policy towards Africa, with the creation of the United States Africa Command in 2008. Under the sway of AFRICOM, the continent has become the newest theater for America’s counterterrorism policy, to the determent of development aid. If African nations learn to distrust U.S. intervention under Trump, they won’t become dependent on American military spending via AFRICOM and end up with the top-heavy armies found in other U.S. satrapies.
Latin America offers a model for what a post-American world might look like. “After 9/11, Washington effectively lost interest in Latin America,” the journal Foreign Affairs lamented in 2006. “Since then, the attention the United States has paid to the region has been sporadic and narrowly targeted at particularly troubling or urgent situations. Throughout the region, support for Washington’s policies has diminished. Few Latin Americans, in or out of government, consider the United States to be a dependable partner.” But considering America’s long history of supporting coups and death squads in Latin America, this recent disinterest qualifies as benign neglect. Central and South America have enjoyed an era of often tumultuous and contentious politics—the winding down of a guerrilla war in Colombia, the botched socialist experiment in Venezuela, a presidential impeachment in Brazil—all taking place within a broadly democratic framework. It hasn’t been a perfect era, as Venezuela descends into authoritarian chaos, but it has experienced far less violence than earlier periods. Free from American interference, Latin Americans have proven they can tackle their own problems better than the U.S can.
What Latin America has learned this century, the rest of the planet could discover in the Trump era: The world doesn’t need America, and can work to solve its own problems free from the shadow of American hegemony.
Proponents of the “indispensable nation” argue that the U.S. protects the world from the rise of a more hostile superpower. If America cedes the throne, the theory goes, then Russia or China will fill the vacuum.
The risk of this is unclear. China is a status-quo power, eager to enlarge its sphere of influence in Asia and establish trade with Africa, but no desire to radically alter global politics. Under Putin, Russia has been increasingly adventurist, but it’s not obvious that the U.S. is the best nation to check Russia behavior. A more independent Europe is likely to have a stiffer spine in resisting Russian interventions in Eastern Europe (where, in any case, Russia is increasingly unpopular).
Others who argue that America is “indispensable” fear a return to the cutthroat global jungle of the 1920s and 1930s. For instance, in warning against America’s becoming a “normal nation,” Kagan wrote:
Americans after 1920 managed to avoid global responsibility for two decades. As the world collapsed around them, they told themselves it was not their problem. Americans will probably do the same today. And for a while they will be right. Because of their wealth, power and geography they will be the last to suffer the consequences of their own failures. Eventually they will discover, again, that there is no escape. The question is how much damage is done in the meantime and whether, unlike in the past, it will be too late to recover.
But having the stability of the world depend on one nation—and thus, on one democratically elected leader—is itself an inherently risky system, as we’re seeing with Trump. Learning to live without America might be the best way for the other leading nations of the world to create a more durable international order—one held up not by a lone Atlas, but the shoulders of many nations.
French philosopher Alain Badiou is, by his own admission, a strange voice to be addressing the youth. “Let’s start with the realities:” he begins his new pamphlet The True Life, “I am 79 years old.” Badiou is also a Maoist of May ’68 vintage, an ontologist who uses set theory, and an advocate for a resurrection of “communism.” Now, skateboard over his shoulder, he has a message for the kids. And some of it is pretty good.
The True Life is broken into three sections, the first of which, “To be young today: sense and nonsense,” is by far the weakest and least necessary. For a book of just under 100 pages, True Life has a lot of chaff. From the beginning, Badiou misunderstands his burden: Instead of trying to explain why the young would want to listen to him, he feels the need to think out why he wants to address them. It’s a question that I don’t imagine would trouble many young readers; an elderly person wanting to lecture the youth about youth is not quite as uncommon as the philosopher might imagine. Badiou answers himself later when he writes about how people of all ages are obsessed with the young.
Badiou wants to corrupt the youth like Socrates did: not sexually, or for money or power, but by planting another way of living in their minds. The youth are corrupted—in a good way—by a vision of the “true life,” or at least the pursuit thereof. But despite himself, Badiou can’t help adopting a chiding tone, writing off the efforts of Occupy for unclear, grouchy-sounding reasons. His read on the political-economic-generational situation is spotty: At one point he applauds Occupy Oakland as an exception for reaching down the class ladder to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which is silly because one of the thing occupiers were angry about is the small likelihood that they’ll ever have access to the kind of unionized jobs where workers feel empowered to take collective action. It’s the ILWU he should be applauding for reaching out.
The author is much better off working with large binaries and conflicts, both true and false. Capitalism, Badiou writes (following Marx), has broken down traditional relationships and modes of living. By way of response, we are presented with a choice that should seem familiar by now. Badiou calls the first option “the desire for the West,” which he describes as “never-ending defense of capitalism and its empty ‘freedoms,’ undermined as they are by the sterile neutrality of market determination alone.” It sounds bad, but in the binary, this is our easy pick. Call it the Clinton or Macron option. The alternative is “the reactive desire for a return to traditional—that is, hierarchical—symbolization.” This is the Trump/Le Pen/ISIS/Peter Thiel choice—not market conservatives so much as would-be tyrants. “In my view, both these alternatives are extremely dangerous dead-ends,” he writes, “and the increasingly bloody contradiction between them is pushing humanity into an endless cycle of wars.” It’s hard to argue with that.
Binaries sometimes get a bad rap on the left, but Badiou shows how they can be a useful tool to proceed through arguments. Once he establishes the false binary between liberalism and fascism, Badiou contrasts it (binarily) with the true binary between “two visions of the inevitable abandonment of the hierarchizing symbolic tradition ... : Western capitalism’s a-symbolic vision, which produces monstrous inequalities and pathogenic disorientation, and the vision commonly known as ‘communism.’” Since the collapse of the USSR and the marketization of the People’s Republic of China, the true opposition has been obscured, and fascism has stepped in to fill the gap as liberalism’s sparring partner. There are certainly liberals who prefer risking the false conflict to handling the true one. Maybe even most of them. But properly considered, the false conflict between liberalism and fascism collapses into a single term (hierarchy, or inequality), whose opposite is the egalitarian symbolic order of communism. The underlying idea isn’t new or unique, but Badiou’s formulation has—at times—a sparkling mathematical clarity.
In his latter two sections, Badiou divides his focus according to another binary: gender. First he addresses “the contemporary fate of boys,” and it doesn’t look great. One of the traditions that Badiou sees evaporating into thin air is the initiation ritual whereby boys become men. Without a clear transition, we are condemned to infinite adolescence in three different forms: the piercings, tattoos, and drugs of the deadened “perverted” body; the extreme discipline and self-renunciation of the “sacrificed” body; and the normie career-and-music-festivals pursuit of the meritocrat “deserving” body. The critique is almost a synthesis of the opposition between MTV and Jerry Falwell: careerism is the “hole-plugger of meaninglessness,” but pornographic sexuality is “the marking of the body in the repetition of inertia.” Thinking beyond these impoverished forms of life is a challenge.
You can tell Badiou is getting somewhere because he arrives naturally at the fascist right’s appeal, before dismissing it as the true enemy. “Perhaps it’s through our sons,” he writes, “that we are faced more than ever with the strategic choice between two opposite forms of the withering away of the state: communism or barbarism.” Badiou’s call for a “new violence” —especially under the male sign—walks the line between the two. He’d like us to enjoy “a political life that would be capable of providing a strong, effective figure of disinterested discipline to counter the law of commodified representation and suicidal adolescent inertia,” but that desire can take egalitarian and inegalitarian forms. Badiou’s failure to consider the particular myth of whiteness makes the whole analysis dangerous, perhaps irresponsibly so. And yet, he is right: the “non-deadening discipline” of organized collective action is the only way out, and that process will be at very least symbolically violent.
“I am hesitant as I approach the issue,” Badiou begins his section on the contemporary fate of girls. He’s aware that, as awkward as it is for an old man to tell young people about youth, it’s doubly awkward for an old man to tell young women about being young women. But it doesn’t stop him, and that’s (surprisingly) a good thing. Like boys, Badiou sees girls as deprived of their traditional initiation ritual: specifically, marriage and motherhood. That isn’t to say women don’t get married or have children, but their lives are no longer automatically structured around men. Unlike boys, Badiou doesn’t see girls as stuck in childhood. Rather, they are always already adults. “Basically, the idea is that not only can women do everything men do, but, under the conditions of capitalism, they can do it better than men,” Badiou writes, “They’ll be more realistic than men, more relentless, more tenacious. Why? Precisely because girls no longer have to become the women that they already are, while boys don’t know how to become the men that they are not.” To our dialectical guide, this could go one of two ways.
The first possibility is on Wall Street, glaring at the Bull. “The girl-woman is being urged to provide a tough, mature, serious, legal, and punitive version of competitive, consumerist individualism,” Badiou writes, while the boys provide a “weak, adolescent, frivolous, lawless, or even borderline criminal” version. “Bourgeois, authoritarian feminism” calls for “the world as it is to be turned over to women power.” Badiou warns young women away from this offer, and the future vision of “a herd of stupid adolescent boys led by smart career women” shouldn’t sound appealing to anyone involved. Saying that women and girls have more to fear from capitalism’s seduction than from men (as he does) is, however, a bit of a reach.
It’s in its conclusion that The True Life demonstrates real insight. Reading the pamphlet’s 105 pages is worth it to see on the last one, from the philosophe, “I don’t know what women will invent, given the predicament they’re in. But I trust them absolutely.” It’s charming to watch this elderly Frenchman arrive, by way of dialectical reasoning and Freudian anthropology, at the hashtag #TRUSTWOMEN. (Based on the book, I trust that he’d take the comparison of his intellect to a mob of women on the internet as the compliment it is.) Badiou is politically excited at the idea of what the abolition of gender inequality would mean: “What is a woman philosopher?” he asks, jumping out of his shoes, “And, conversely, what do creative politics, poetry, music, cinema, mathematics, or love become—what does philosophy become—once the word ‘woman’ resonates in them in tune with the power of symbol-creating equality?” Nothing else in the book seems to excite the author like the idea of women’s collective self-determination beyond capitalism. The gender binary splits like an atom.
Badiou’s guess at what women could get up to if they refuse the Lean In challenge is far more promising than the microwaved Maoism he reflexively points to in the first section, and he knows it. They will invent a new girl, he writes, and she will universalize the symbolization of reproduction “so childbearing and childcare will never again mean being a servant.” Men and women will share in “a new universal symbolization of birth and all its consequences.” The book ends with “the girl, as yet unknown but who is coming” proclaiming to “the sky empty of God” in the words of Paul Valery: “Beautiful heaven, true heaven, look how I change!”
He is far from the first communist to place gender at the center of his analysis, but Badiou’s True Life is especially encouraging because he seems totally disconnected from contemporary culture. When I first read it, Badiou’s vision of a political alliance between the young and a nonconformist segment of the elderly seemed implausible, but by the end I felt almost optimistic. If that’s the best that philosophy can offer, it’s something.