On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed a dramatic executive order to dismantle his predecessor’s climate change policies, with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and coal miners at his side. Framing it as a lifeline to coal jobs, Trump said, “We’re ending the theft of American prosperity.”
Even coal industry executives doubt that the order will lead to many new jobs. Its main actual function is to instruct Pruitt to withdraw and rewrite the Clean Power Plan, an EPA rule that requires states to make plans to cut carbon pollution from power plants. Under former President Barack Obama, the Clean Power Plan was the cornerstone of the U.S. strategy to meet greenhouse gas cutting goals contained in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which may now be impossible to reach.
But while Trump can overturn Obama’s orders, he can’t erase his signature climate achievement with the stroke of a pen. When it comes to the Clean Power Plan, Trump’s words are “legally not all that relevant,” said Ben Longstreth, a senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, because its powers are vested in Pruitt. And for Pruitt, undoing the Clean Power Plan will mean tackling a legal task so fraught and head-spinning that it contributed to the administration delaying this order for weeks.
That’s because the EPA is legally required to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act, and so to undo it, Pruitt will have to write a new rule. This will entail an extensive rule-making process under the Administrative Procedure Act that includes taking public comments (the Clean Power Plan alone gathered 4.3 million) and establishing an administrative record to support why the agency reversed course. This process, which will take years, is standard. Pruitt’s longstanding antipathy to the agency he now leads is not.
According to interviews with nearly a dozen environmental lawyers, it’s clear that Pruitt is in for a pitched legal battle—the next chapter in a longstanding war over climate change policy that is already being fought in the courts.
Currently, the Clean Power Plan is being stayed by the Supreme Court and is awaiting judgment by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has heard oral arguments from 18 states for and 28 states against the plan, along with environmental and industry groups.
As part of his executive order, Trump authorized Attorney General Jeff Sessions to ask the court to hold the case in abeyance, which lawyers said he is likely to do. But the judges could rule any day now, and in doing so limit how Pruitt might rewrite the rule, lawyers on both sides of the case said.
Tom Lorenzen, a Crowell & Moring attorney who is representing energy cooperatives challenging the plan, argues that by going beyond regulating individual plants to “shut down disfavored units”—namely, coal-burning plants—the EPA has “gone outside the fence line” and hence overstepped its legal authority. On the other side, Kevin Polancarz, an attorney for Paul Hastings LLP who is representing nine major U.S. power companies that support the plan, argues that this “generation shifting” is business as usual. If the Circuit Court upholds the rule and it passes Supreme Court muster, then Pruitt would not be able to claim this regulatory approach is off limits—which is significant, since it’s arguably the agency’s best way of curbing carbon dioxide emissions. Such a ruling “would make it difficult if not impossible” for Pruitt and Trump to “walk back the Clean Power Plan to the extent” that they want to, Polancarz told the New Republic.
Or, in another scenario, if the court vacates the rule under a drafting error, then the EPA could not make a replacement rule under the Clean Air Act as is, Lorenzen explained.
Pruitt, for his part, would have voters believe the case is already closed. On Sunday, Pruitt told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “This Clean Power Plan is something that the Supreme Court, as you know, has said is likely unlawful, and so there is a stay against this Clean Power Plan.”
This claim is both untrue and misleading: The Supreme Court gave no explanation for the stay, which was not related to the plan’s merits, as the EPA’s own website notes. So although it has never been put into effect, the Clean Power Plan is in place, as is the body of law behind it.
The Supreme Court has ruled that greenhouse gases are a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, a decision it has stood by three times, starting with the landmark 2007 case Massachusetts v. EPA. In that case, spearheaded by a dozen states, the court rejected the Bush-era EPA’s reasoning for why it could not regulate greenhouse gas emissions for motor vehicles, and ordered it to determine whether carbon dioxide endangered public health and welfare. In 2009, the EPA made an endangerment finding that was upheld by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“So long as the endangerment finding stands, then the EPA is required to regulate greenhouse gases from any number of sources, including existing power plants,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.
Pruitt thus has a menu of legally imperfect options. Most end with him being sued by the same coalition of states and environmental groups now supporting the plan—which will make for a piquant reversal given that, in his last job as attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the EPA fourteen times, with four challenges to the Clean Power Plan alone.
Legally, Pruitt’s safest bet is to write a new rule that is less effective and less expensive for the industry, said Burger—“like the Clean Power Plan repeal and replace.” But to make a rule that holds up in court, Pruitt will have to do something he currently seems loath to do: Admit that carbon dioxide contributes to global warming and that the EPA has the right to regulate it. Given his climate-denying ideology, he may try to repeal the endangerment finding itself.
During his Senate confirmation hearing, Democrats troubled by Pruitt’s deep ties to fossil fuel industries pressed him on this precise point. Pruitt told Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, “I believe that the EPA...has obligations to address the CO2 issue.” But then, in a headline-grabbing interview on CNBC March 9, Pruitt said he did not believe that carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to climate change.
“He’s choosing what may be characterized as alternative climate facts,” Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon told the New Republic. “That’s certainly contrary to his pledge to base his actions on objective scientific data.”
But to undo the endangerment finding, Pruitt would have to challenge the massive body of scientific data on climate change that the EPA compiled in the first place—a “heavy lift,” said Lorenzen. “If anything, the science since 2007 has become even more irrefutable,” said Vermont Law School professor Pat Parenteau. “I think he’d be challenged and he’d lose.” The case could likely wind up in the Supreme Court, lawyers agreed.
Less dramatically, instead of rewriting the rule or reversing the finding, Pruitt could simply stall and do nothing. “At some point, we and others can sue them for unreasonable delay,” said Martin Hayden, an executive at Earthjustice. “But there’s no hard number that goes with that,” since the statute does not set a deadline for action.
And so, like rewriting the plan, challenging Pruitt in court will also take years. This delay is itself an obvious win for states and the industry groups that do not want to be regulated, and an obvious loss for the climate. As Hayden noted, “This is time lost that the nation and the world can’t really afford to lose.”
Of course, the fate of Clean Power Plan won’t just lie in the courts.
The battle could move to Congress, as Pruitt hinted in his CNBC interview: “Nowhere in the equation has Congress spoken. The legislative branch has not addressed this issue at all.” Indeed, the House occasionally floats bills that would declassify carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. So far these bills have gone nowhere, but in this Republican-controlled Congress, who knows?
“It’s an easy fix if you go in and write a sentence or two saying that carbon dioxide is not covered,” said Stanford environmental law professor Deborah Sivas. “That does away with the conflict.”
But other environmental lawyers said that rewriting the rule or eliminating the Clean Air Act altogether would not overcome a Senate filibuster. Senator Merkley said, “It would be extraordinarily difficult to do it,” explaining, “I just don’t think there are 60 votes for the fictional alterative vision Scott Pruitt is putting forth.”
Also, people actually like the idea of a clean, healthy environment.
Out in real world, the Clean Power Plan has already done part of its job, with states and local governments beginning to meet its terms. In a letter to the New York Times, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote, “We have already achieved two-thirds of the emissions reductions envisioned by President Obama’s yet-to-be-implemented power plant regulations.”
Thanks in part to federal subsidies for wind and solar, states are already riding the renewable energy wave, throwing into doubt whether Trump’s executive order will be a job creator or destroyer. Some companies that don’t like the Clean Power Plan do like renewable energy. Jim Matheson, an electric cooperative chief challenging the plan, told E&E that 75 percent of solar installations are owned by electric co-ops: “Particularly in the last year, we’ve doubled our solar capacity, and that trend is going to continue.”
Does this mean climate lovers can breathe a sigh of relief? Alas, no, because although the Trump administration will need years to undo the Clean Power Plan, they will never put it to work.
“The actions that the Obama admin took to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the United States were not enough to get where we need to be—they were a great step in the right direction, and we need to do more,” said Joanne Spalding, an attorney at the Sierra Club.
Instead of doing more, the Trump administration will do less, nominally to revive coal. The real effect of this order is to enthrone climate-denying fossil fuel interests, with Pruitt as their mouthpiece in the EPA.
The failure of Trumpcare last week, amid opposition from Republican moderates and extremists in the House of Representatives, is certainly a sigh of relief for Obamacare supporters and the millions of Americans who rely on the law. But as the New Republic’s Brian Beutler wrote on Tuesday, “ACA supporters shouldn’t become complacent simply because a Republican health care bill is not going to become law anytime soon. Republican opposition to Obamacare is about to become more dishonorable than at any point since Obama signed it seven years ago.”
No sooner was that column published than Republicans indicated they might yet attempt to pass the American Health Care Act, which House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled from the floor after realizing he didn’t have the votes to pass it. The New York Times reported Tuesday that “Republican leaders and the White House, under extreme pressure from conservative activists, have restarted negotiations on legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act.” And according to The Washington Post, the White House has reached out to Democrats in search of compromise legislation.
These are likely dead ends, leaving the Republicans to move ahead with their simplest route to replacing Obamacare: to sabotage the law administratively, then push for changes after it falls apart. On Saturday, stung by the AHCA’s failure, Trump tweeted:
But Obamacare won’t “explode” on its own unless he lights the fuse. As Greg Sargent notes at The Washington Post, Trump’s plan seems to be to “allow the law to collapse, or even further undermine it through executive action, and pin the blame for the resulting human toll on Democrats. As it happens, Trump does have the tools to inflict immense damage on the Affordable Care Act and hurt a lot of people in the process.” Doing so would deprive millions of health care, including many Trump supporters.
Even if we take Trump’s statement as fact—that Obamacare is flawed and will collapse on its own—it would be a remarkable dereliction of duty. Trump is the president, and his party controls Congress. If Obamacare is so flawed, Republicans have a responsibility to fix it, or to replace it with a humane alternative. To simply wait for the ACA to “explode” would be to knowingly doom countless Americans to uncertainty about one of the most fundamental matters in life: their health.
That Republican leaders in Congress would attempt such a cynical, callous plan should come as no surprise given their increasingly extreme positions under President Barack Obama. But Trump’s apparent intention to sabotage Obamacare shows that his campaign’s empathetic populism was always a sham—or, more generously, that he lacks the power to rule his party. Either way, it’s clear the president is succumbing to the central policy of conservative Republicans: cruelty to the needy.
Trump never hid his nasty side as a candidate, but he did make clear that this viciousness would be reserved for the imagined enemies of his supporters: He would build a wall to keep out immigrants from Latin America, deport undocumented immigrants in America, empower police to abuse minorities, create a government database to track Muslims legally in the U.S., and commit war crimes in the fight against terrorism.
By contrast, Trump promised to help Americans in need—not just by creating more jobs, but by improving health care. “You’re going to end up with great health care for a fraction of the price and that’s gonna take place immediately after we go in,” he told a Las Vegas crowd. “Okay? Immediately. Fast. Quick.” In a town hall that same month, he guaranteed that every American would get healthcare. “We’re going to take care of them,” he promised. “We’re going to take care of them. We have to take care of them. Now, that’s not single payer. That’s not anything. That’s just human decency.” Trump also promised that he wouldn’t cut Medicaid, and that nobody would lose health insurance.
Trump isn’t just failing to keep these promises; he’s trying to do the exact opposite of what he promised. Trumpcare would phase out Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, which is one of several reasons the Congressional Budget Office estimated that 24 million Americans would lose health insurance by 2026 if the Republican bill became law. No wonder Trump’s popularity, even among his most hardened supporters, started to spiral downward once the harshness of his Obamacare replacement clear.
Trump’s incredible cruelty might come as a surprise to his fans, but it’s entirely consistent with the Republican agenda of the Obama years.
Paul Ryan, who was chairman of the House Budget Committee before he became speaker in 2015, has long advocated for cutting programs that help Americans in need. The Ryan budget last year, brazenly titled A Better Way, “would cut programs for low- and moderate-income people by about $3.7 trillion over the next decade,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “In 2026, it would cut such programs overall by 42 percent—causing tens of millions of people to lose health coverage and millions to lose basic food or other support.” These budgets were consistent with Republicans’ broader, longstanding war on the poor.
That is, Trump ran as a Republican at a time when his GOP cohort in Congress embraced ever more extreme economic austerity, as evidenced by the rise of the Tea Party-ite House Freedom Caucus and Ryan’s elevation to speakership. Conservative orthodoxy notwithstanding, Trump’s cruelty was indeed predictable based on his biography. He has spent his entire adult life embodying the ideals of unfettered plutocracy, enriching himself without any concern for the public good. Such conditions and character don’t usually lend themselves to a committed populism.
In theory, President Trump could’ve tried to cut himself loose from his party and tried to gain support from Democrats and moderate Republicans. But such a move would involve caring about the details of policy, which Trump has never shown any interest in. That’s why, in economic terms, Trump is a much less revolutionary figure than many feared or hoped. To live up to his campaign rhetoric, he’d have to battle the economic conservatives who dominate the Republican Party. It’s now apparent that he lacks the will or wits for such a fight, and his many struggling voters will suffer further as a result.
For Democrats, the one great policy legacy of 2016 was the party’s embrace of free tuition for public colleges and universities. After Bernie Sanders made it a signature policy proposal and proved its political potency (especially with millennials), Hillary Clinton adapted and adopted it when she won the nomination. Over the course of the campaign, the idea evolved from a progressive pipe dream into a concept with massive momentum. This thing was going to happen!
But when Donald Trump won and Republicans took control of Congress, a federal free-tuition program became a pipe dream again. The only chance for free college was to start at the state level—in one of the few remaining blue states—and create a model that could spread nationally. Given the popularity of the idea, it’s not surprising that two ambitious Democratic governors–both presidential prospects for 2020—have taken up the call.
Both New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Rhode Island’s Gina Raimondo are vying to be the governor who made free college happen—and both their plans are running into resistance from their own party’s lawmakers. Some of the controversy was to be expected: It’s no surprise that fiscal conservatives think it’s another costly social program with uncertain returns. Other legislators and educators worry about how it will affect enrollment at state schools.
But for liberals, the legislative battles have exposed a series of tricky policy trade-offs that cut to the heart of a larger national debate: What kind of “progress” should Democrats be fighting for? Should a new social program benefit everyone equally, like Social Security, or help low-income families the most? And how valuable is tuition relief, really, if the state doesn’t help students with other college expenses, like room and board and books?
The surface simplicity of the whole idea is one of its great calling cards: Free college. How complicated could that be? The debates in New York and Rhode Island have sometimes been acrimonious and divisive. But that’s far from a bad thing: Democrats will ultimately have to hash through some complicated questions to forge a viable free-college model for the country. Why not start in New York and Rhode Island?
Cuomo unveiled his free-tuition program on January 3 with great fanfare—and with Bernie Sanders on hand to help sell it. Cuomo’s plan would cover every in-state student at two- or four-year public colleges whose families make less than $125,000 a year. Sanders hailed the initiative as “a revolutionary idea for higher education,” and vowed: “If New York State does it this year, mark my words, state after state will follow.”
Not two weeks later, Raimondo rolled out her own proposal. Her plan has no income cap—families with incomes above $125,000 are included. It covers two years of free tuition at her state’s public institutions—both years at the Community College of Rhode Island, or the last two years at the University of Rhode Island or Rhode Island College. The $30 million plan is structured to raise graduation rates, on the theory that funding the last two years will prevent financially struggling four-year students from dropping out—often with a bunch of debt—halfway through their education.
One prominent progressive commentator recently suggested Raimondo follow Cuomo’s lead and means-test her program. “But the reality is that means-testing would leave out too many middle-class families,” Raimondo wrote early this month in a blog post for the Campaign for Free College Tuition. Her office pointed out that, under Cuomo’s $125,000 income cap, a family of three making $124,000 would qualify for free tuition, while a family of six making $126,000 wouldn’t.
That’s the first key distinction between the plans, and experts say they both have merits. “If you make it free for everyone,” said Seton Hall University professor Robert Kelchen, “then wealthy people benefit, and they don’t need the money to go.” At the same time, Kelchen said, “If you try to target more narrowly, you run the risk of needy students not thinking they’re eligible, or not hearing about the program.”
That might sound like a strange argument in favor of Raimondo’s approach: You’d expect the case for including well-off families would be philosophical or political—that it’d be all about making sure “free college” can’t be cast as another “handout” to lower-income Americans, and become another political wedge issue for Republicans to wield. But a major problem in higher education is students, especially those from low-income families, not knowing what aid is available to them. That’s why Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, said there’s marketing value to making a free-tuition program universal. In practical terms, he said, “The question is whether it’s enough to justify the cost of making it free for people who don’t need it to be free.”
Another question is how much the Cuomo and Raimondo plans will truly benefit low-income students. Both proposals are what’s called “last-dollar” initiatives, meaning the states would only pay the balance of tuition after students use up existing state and federal aid, including Pell Grants. These current state and federal programs couldn’t be used to fund other college costs.
This approach stands in contrast to “first-dollar” plans that Sanders and Clinton proposed at the federal level. They would have fully funded tuition for all eligible students up front, freeing up current aid programs for use on those other expenses. “The difference between first-dollar and last-dollar is pretty big and fundamentally changes how progressive a plan is,” said Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at the liberal think tank Demos. He stressed that non-tuition costs are “a big area of college affordability that students face—it’s a huge driver of the student-debt crisis.”
Chingos went even further: “People who consider themselves progressives should be less sympathetic to the New York and Rhode Island plans than they were to the Clinton and Sanders plans.”
Still, there’s an obvious, pragmatic reason for governors to pursue the last-dollar approach: It’s much cheaper. “From a state perspective, last-dollar makes all the sense in the world, because then you’re having the federal government pay a lot of the price,” Kelchen said. In New York, at least, “it’s just the only way they can make the numbers work,” he added. Cuomo says his program will cost $163 million a year. Kelchen said that estimate is likely low.
Cuomo is taking flak from all directions. Some Democrats in New York want to increase Cuomo’s income cap to $150,000, to include more “middle-class” families, while providing low-income students help with room and board. The Republican-controlled Senate, meanwhile, wants to ditch his plan altogether and focus on investing in the state’s Tuition Assistance Program. That initiative funds private as well as public colleges, many of which—surprise!—oppose Cuomo’s plan.
“The private college lobby is strong, and they’re nicely spread among the state in different legislative districts,” Kelchen said. And when they claim that free public college will spike the price of a private college education for New York students, they may have a point, Chingos said: “If you change the relative price of something, it’s Econ 101 that people’s demand for it will change as well.”
But should private-school tuition be a priority for a program intended to benefit kids who can’t afford even public schools? Maggie Thompson, executive director of the liberal group Generation Progress, likens the private schools to the insurance interests during the Affordable Care Act fight. This time, will Democrats hinge “reform” on keeping the marketplace happy, or do what’s best for the people? “I actually think there’s a lot of parallel with the health care fight,” she said. “I view this as like the public option.”
As Bernie Sanders is fond of saying, free public tuition isn’t a radical idea—or at least it shouldn’t be. It was the reality in many states, California included, until recent history. And there’s a related, bipartisan movement across the country for tuition-free community college—an initiative championed by former President Barack Obama that continues to flower in states and localities.
If the Cuomo and Raimondo plans emerge from budget negotiations currently underway, other states will have two more important models to build on. But liberals in other states—and eventually in Congress, when Democrats win it back—won’t want to follow either roadmap blindly. As Chingos said, the concessions to middle-class (and upper-class) families “raise the concern that the drift is in helping politically vocal middle-and-upper-middle-class families as opposed to doing more for lower-income families.”
Democrats will continue to face hard choices on these issues. That’s what happens when you take a “radical” idea and try to make it happen. But the debates in New York and Rhode Island, ultimately, show that free college is moving forward the way it should, being hashed out in the “laboratories of democracy.” As Huelsman said, “it’s really nice to see states taking it upon themselves to do something, even if they feel cost-constrained. It shows the idea isn’t going away anytime soon.”
Donald Trump may admire Vladimir Putin, but Russia’s neighbors are readying for war. Over the past few years, the government of Lithuania has ramped up defense spending, begged NATO for troops, proposed building a fence along its border, and distributed detailed manuals briefing its three million citizens on what to do if Russia invades. The country has also reinstated military conscription, which was abolished in 2008. Men between the ages of 19 and 26 must now complete nine months of compulsory military service. So far, though, the move has proven premature: So many citizens have volunteered for duty that the government hasn’t needed to implement the draft.
Lithuania has a long history with Russian aggression. After Soviet tanks rolled into Vilnius in 1944, resistance fighters battled the Red Army for nearly a decade from rickety hideaways in the country’s vast forests. Twenty thousand died, and Lithuania remained under Soviet control for nearly half a century. Today, Putin is stoking fears of another invasion: In 2014, he dispatched 9,000 soldiers and 55 ships for war games in Kaliningrad, a small Russian territory on the Lithuanian border.
As Lithuania gears up for war, Italian photographer Mattia Vacca traveled to the Rukla forest to document basic training exercises for the country’s new recruits. Lithuania’s swelling military ranks, Vacca says, reflect the upsurge in patriotic fervor stoked by Russian hostility. “We are ready to fight for our freedom,” Defense Minister Juozas Olekas declared recently, “for every centimeter of our land.”
Cadets are shown a video of a recent bombing and ground assault in which pro-Russian rebels fought Ukrainian soldiers in Donbass, Ukraine.
The first week of training is spent on a military base located near the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Cadets are required to carry their own stools everywhere, even between classes. In January, NATO began to deploy 1,200 troops to Lithuania, with soldiers from Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and other member countries.
On weekends, reservists and cadets participate in army training sessions. Here, a female reservist and a male soldier in the Lithuanian infantry take a break before boarding armored personnel carriers to return to their base.
During nighttime war games, cadets in the forest study a topographic map to plan an attack on another platoon.
A soldier plays dead during the war games in the forest.
Cadets listen to speeches before receiving their diplomas. Besides the army, Lithuanian police officers and firefighters are also required to complete a month of military training as reservists. The goal is to create a deterrence force against Russia, with combined Lithuanian forces reinforced by NATO troops.
In Paris, late in 2015—a year that had opened with terrorist attacks at the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo—reporters and photographers thronged at the Drouant restaurant to learn which book had been awarded France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. As the name was uttered, flashbulbs went off and journalists clamored around a rotund face: That of Mathias Énard, who had just won for his magnum opus, Compass.
It was a hefty volume, four hundred close-set pages, with a seemingly simple subject: How the West views the East. A timely subject, too. Ten days after Énard’s win, a second, even bloodier set of attacks drew the world’s attention to the Bataclan concert hall and other Parisian locales struck by terror. The president, François Hollande, ordered that the country’s borders be closed. If France’s Muslim population had already been viewed with suspicion, the following days and months subjected them, along with a fresh influx of immigrants and refugees fleeing the Middle East, to extraordinary levels of scrutiny. Even now, the country is in a state of emergency.
The book indelibly associated with that time period is not Compass, but Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. It was published the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and his caricature also happened to adorn Charlie Hebdo’s cover: A wizened man drawling, “In 2015, I’ll lose my teeth; in 2022, I’ll do Ramadan.” This was a reference to Submission’s premise: In the year 2022, the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen gains enough popularity to be within reach of the French presidency. To forestall such a fate, a group of political parties forms a coalition headed by a fictional Muslim Brotherhood. Upon winning the lion’s share of votes, the new president, as amiable as “a Tunisian neighborhood grocer,” puts France under a benevolent form of Sharia law.
Was Submission meant as a satiric critique of Sharia? Or did it imply that Houellebecq was actively exploring what opportunities Islam might offer? Houellebecq himself acknowledged that “it’s not clear what we are meant to be afraid of, nativists or Muslims. I leave that unresolved.” Among Houellebecq’s critics was Christine Angot, who did not mince her words in Le Monde: “It’s a book that dirties whoever reads it.” She deemed Houellebecq a writer driven by fear, unwilling to concede that people unlike himself could be brethren. Adam Shatz, in turn, framed him in the London Review of Books as “a man without convictions.”
Either way, it presaged a debate that has often been characterized by the notion of one culture submitting to another. (In Arabic, “Islam” literally means voluntary surrender or submission.) In France, Muslims have found themselves cast, not for the first time in the post-9/11 era, as an existential “other”—most clearly visible in the police enforcement of a burkini ban. France’s rigid separation between church and state, laïcité, insists that those within its borders must “assimilate” within a generic French type: That is, a predominantly white, predominantly Christian type. A submission of another kind.
In this year’s presidential elections, the real-life Marine Le Pen seems poised to garner a full quarter of the French vote based on her xenophobic platform to protect French identity. Her most visible competitor, the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, is more keen on opening borders and welcoming outsiders to boost trade and the exchange of ideas. Each is straining toward their own particular idealism, and a vote for one candidate seems to be a vote for a future vastly different from the other offered.
And so, at a moment even more auspicious than that of its original publication in French, Charlotte Mandell’s radiant translation of Compass into English provides its readers with the opportunity to step back and consider the question of how France and the rest of the West might look at Islam and, for that matter, the world east of Europe.
Compass is not strictly French in its outlook: Énard has spent long stretches of time in Damascus, Beirut, and Tehran, and has resided in Barcelona for the past decade and a half. He may be thoroughly steeped in French literature and literary style, but he stands apart from his countrymen in being well-versed in the Persian and Arabic languages and their histories. And, much like his 500-page-long, one-sentence novel Zone, the beauty of Compass is the sheer breadth and density of its vision, calling forth a multitude of different worlds, bound only by the capacious mind of its narrator, an aging Austrian musicologist named Franz Ritter.
The memories and stories that Ritter meditates on are decades, even centuries, old, but the story itself is limited to a single night. He is sleepless, worried that the illness that afflicts him may be a terminal one, and thinking back upon his unrequited love for Sarah, a younger academic from France who shares many of his interests and sensibilities. There is no question that Ritter is speaking to us in our present moment—there are mentions of Google and lamentations that the “holy war today is anything but spiritual”—but he festoons his flights of fancy and mental peregrinations with a dizzying assortment of historical personalities, from Klaus Mann and Xavier de Maistre to Marga d’Andurain and Suleyman the Magnificent.
He often cites historical texts and the academic treatises he and Sarah have each written, and Compass itself purports to comprise multiple volumes of a text Ritter dubs (in Gothic blackletter) “On the Divers Forms of Lunacie in the Orient.” But the real chronology of the story is marked at the beginning of each chapter: The book begins in Ritter’s bed in Vienna not long before 11:10 pm, and the final chapter starts at 6:00 am, a moment of darkness before the “warm sunlight of hope” heralding the book’s end.
The book’s structure is a clear reference to Scheherazade, the narrator of One Thousand and One Nights, who must keep the sultan up with stories until dawn to save her life. Enard shows how this text is weaved into the fabric of French literature: Proust, who allowed memory to be the driving force of his work, is another inspiration here, and Proust himself was deeply inspired by One Thousand and One Nights: “the book of night, the book of struggle against death…without that dream of the Orient (the dream in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, stateless, which we call the Orient), no Proust, no In Search of Lost Time. With my flying carpet and its built-in compass, where would I go? The Viennese dawn in December will be worlds away from the desert dawn.”
Énard’s refusal to let one part of the world or one culture assert absolute authority over the other shows his readers how they themselves might shoulder many contradicting realities. No monolithic religion or reality holds sway here; even “the Orient” proves to be a pure fiction that cannot square with actual existence. Both Sarah and Franz are struck by a quotation: “‘Easterners have no sense of the Orient. It’s we Westerners, we Roumis, as the Muslims call us, Christians, who have some sense of the Orient’...Orientalism as rewrite, Orientalism as lament, as a forever disappointing exploration.”
The compass of the book’s title literally points east. It is Sarah’s gift to Franz, a replica of Beethoven’s own compass, which was altered so it pointed not northward but eastward. In reorienting us in the same way, Compass breathes life into the ashes of history, forcing its readers to see anew the world around them. It is hard to read Ritter’s ruminations on Aleppo without a sense of dismay: “Today all these places are prey to war, burning or burned, the metal shutters of shops deformed by the heat of fire...will Aleppo ever regain its splendor, maybe, you never know.”
In an interview published shortly after winning the Prix Goncourt, Énard asserted that the media’s constant focus on radical Islam and violent conflict “hinders any prospect of discovering the region’s historical richness and variety. And it obscures the dialogue that could develop between the Orient and the Occident.” Still, like Franz Ritter, he was optimistic: “There are no insurmountable boundaries. Rules are there to be broken.” If his boundless curiosity is any indication, there may well be reason to hope that the West can look at the East, not with presuppositions or stereotypes, but with an openness that allows them to glean a reality they had never seen before.
Lots of Americans have bullshit jobs, ones that have little tangible effect on the world but are nevertheless all-consuming, demanding that workers attend meetings throughout the day and chat on Slack after hours. These jobs proliferate in areas like finance, brand management, and even, I daresay, in journalism. But we’ve all got to eat, and for the majority of adult Americans, that means you need a job. Whether your job does any good for anyone else is another matter.
Even as bullshit jobs pile up, millions of Americans have no job at all, or they can only find part-time work. They’ve got to eat, too. They also need dignity, a sense that their lives matter. And dignity is another thing Americans get preeminently from work. When you have not had steady, good-paying work for several years, you might be drawn to a certain demagogic politician who promises to “bring back your jobs.”
If Democrats want a winning platform in the years ahead, Jeff Spross argues in the current issue of the journal Democracy, they ought to counter President Donald Trump’s rhetoric with a concrete offer to every American who wants dignity and a decent living: a federally funded job. Spross, an economics and business writer for The Week, makes a thorough case for a universal job guarantee, writing that “a job is not merely a delivery mechanism for income that can be replaced by an alternative source. It’s a fundamental way that people assert their dignity, stake their claim in society, and understand their mutual obligations to one another.”
This case has considerable merit, both economically and ethically, but it also reveals the flaws in our thinking about work as a moral enterprise. Ultimately, a universal basic income would do more to promote justice than a universal basic job. In fact, America would be better off if we divorced dignity from work altogether.
Spross proposes that someone with a full-time job in the federal program would work on infrastructure and community development projects and be paid $25,000, plus full benefits. The proposal has precedent, not only in the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, but in Argentina within the past decade. With jobs of last resort paying well above the current federal minimum wage, unemployment would drop to nothing and workers higher up the income ladder would gain tremendous bargaining power. The “dignity deficit” would disappear immediately.
Spross’s proposal coheres well with the American work ethic. Americans see their commitment to work as an essential part of who they are. In a 2015 Pew Research Center study dealing with personality traits, 80 percent of respondents described themselves as “hard working.” Only 3 percent said they were “lazy.” If Americans want to work, then it makes sense to let them work. A job guarantee would accomplish this moral end on a large scale.
But the moral underpinning of Spross’s case is also its greatest vulnerability. The job guarantee rests on the assumption that people deserve wealth only if they work for it—a widely-held view in America, but one that has two shortcomings that perpetuate injustice.
First, a guaranteed job, “with benefits and a living wage, to every American willing and able to work,” as Spross describes it, does not do much good for Americans who are not able to work. Our current system gives support to the disabled only grudgingly, and Social Security Disability Insurance comes with a measure of suspicion and resentment. People who care for children or other family members full-time get nothing.
The second shortcoming is that in the digital age, wealth is not only created by workers and owners. Productivity derives not only from labor and hard capital, but also from social capital—the matrix of beliefs, values, and customs that members of a society share. In his 2016 book The Wealth of Humans, Ryan Avent argues that values like tolerance and the rule of law—which no one can claim as exclusively theirs—make it easy to do business in America. They make American labor and capital more productive.
Some places, like New York or San Francisco, have especially high concentrations of social capital. These cities have creative, competitive cultures where influential people interact, and thus contribute disproportionately to America’s gross domestic product. But social capital is also broadly diffused across the society. It lives in the mind of every American. Wall Street and Silicon Valley can be as successful as they are in part because Americans as a whole respect innovation and contracts, are comfortable sharing personal information with private firms, and are reluctant to come after the rich with pitchforks and torches. Our work ethic itself is a form of social capital. When American workers are fired, they often blame themselves. That makes it easier for companies to churn the workforce and keep productivity high without raising wages.
To be clear, social capital does not create wealth on its own, but it does amplify the productive power of labor and capital. But as Avent argues, we do not acknowledge the role of social capital, and so “its benefits flow disproportionately to the owners of financial capital.” Because everyone contributes to creating wealth, regardless of whether they work or not, everyone deserves a share in that wealth. A universal basic income—a monthly federal check for $1,000 or so, given unconditionally to every American to cover basic expenses—would better align the benefit of social capital with the source of its value.
Spross suggests that a job guarantee and universal basic income could be “complementary” programs. “The UBI does provide every worker the option of exit from the labor market, and could thus increase bargaining power as well,” he writes. “But this effect is passive. The job guarantee’s strength is providing Americans direct control over the social infrastructure of job creation.”
But because basic income is the more inclusive program—encompassing children, the disabled, and everyone else who cannot work—it promotes a kind of justice that a make-work program cannot. Moreover, in an economy that can substitute machines for human labor, a job guarantee could transform into a de facto basic income guarantee anyway. As Avent notes, the more expensive human labor is, the more appealing machine labor becomes. With a high wage floor and no slack in the labor market, it would make economic sense to automate jobs that humans currently do for low wages, like customer service, transportation, and sales. This would push even more people to take the guaranteed jobs. At some point, there might not be enough productive work to go around. Once people find themselves doing pointless make-work just to keep busy and qualify for a paycheck—in other words, once guaranteed jobs become bullshit jobs—we may as well call it art.
Writers on both the left and right agree that the current system of work and wages needs to change. The system doesn’t ensure broad-based prosperity, encourages people to waste time and effort on unproductive work, and will likely prove unsustainable as inexpensive machines replicate more human tasks. In the short term, a job guarantee addresses one of these problems—it makes a modest living more widely accessible—but will prove increasingly ineffective as robots push people into ever more meaningless work.
The more meaningless the work becomes, the less dignity it confers. “Most men would feel insulted, if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages,” Henry David Thoreau once wrote about work in the nineteenth century. “But many are no more worthily employed now.” His observation remains true; many Americans are unworthily employed. A job guarantee will not change that basic fact.
This is why we need a total revolution in the way we think about the connection between work and dignity—specifically, by cutting the link between employment and the right to belong, command respect, or reap benefits in America. A universal basic income isn’t a panacea, but it will do more than a job guarantee to create a society where citizens’ value and well-being are not contingent on bullshit jobs, but granted to all based on our shared humanity.
On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I. For three years before, activists and legislators had urged lawmakers not to join this unprecedented “war to end all wars,” and their efforts had enjoyed significant public support. But as German aggression mounted—and as Germany courted an alliance against the United States with Mexico—the US was dragged into the conflict. The anti-war movement’s aims shifted from preventing military preparedness to opposing the draft and the war itself, even while its leading figures were subjected to censorship and surveillance.
Michael Kazin’s book War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918 tells the story of these Americans, who tried to prevent the militarization of the United States. As Kazin argues, this was not an isolationist movement afraid of engagement with the broader world; peace activists worked with allies abroad from both sides of the conflict, and fostered visions of an international organization for peace. Nor was the anti-war movement a passion project for one type of idealist—it was a coalition of Americans against the perceived “jingoism” of capitalists and militarists, united against a corrupt economic elite who they felt would use war as a for-profit industry
With this book, Kazin offers a portrait of a rare kind of bipartisan
political resistance, as well as a glimpse into a key moment for the American
left, when interest in socialism surged but before it was burdened by
associations with the Soviet Union. We talked about this history and its
reverberations today, when the left has thrown its energies into resisting
Trump. The following conversation has been edited for clarity.
The New Republic: You’ve said that you’d never written a book about a war or an anti-war movement before. What made you write about this now?
Michael Kazin: The United States has been at war for most of its history. But the anti-war movements that have existed have been pretty short lived and have not gotten much attention from scholars or from journalists, really, except right during the wars themselves. Anti-war movements have not been successful for the most part (except, arguably the movement, against the Vietnam War). Yet, I think if you understand American history as a history of war, you also have to look at the people who opposed those wars.
TNR: Your book is specifically about the opposition to World War I.
Kazin: It was a very diverse coalition: Democrats, Republicans, conservatives and radicals, different races. The purpose of the book is not just to tell forgotten stories, which is important itself, but also to question the conventional wisdom that these people who opposed the war were isolationists who didn’t want the United States to be involved in trying to make a better world. Everybody I write about had a really strong understanding and vision of the kind of world they wanted to build. It just didn’t involve having a large military and going into what was then the bloodiest war in history.
TNR: Who were the main figures in this movement?
Kazin: I focus on four figures who I think were important because each of them led a key faction in the coalition. One was Crystal Eastman, a fairly young woman who was a very active suffragist, a member of the Socialist Party for a time, and a leader of a strong feminist movement of that period. She was a key organizer of antiwar groups, the Women’s Peace Party of New York and the American Union Against Militarism, and later on she became the co-editor of the Liberator magazine. The other figure on the activist side was Morris Hillquit who was a liberal lawyer, an immigrant born in Latvia. He was the Socialist Party’s key emissary to Socialist parties in Europe, which were much larger and stronger than the American Socialist Party was.
There were also two figures in Congress. Robert La Follette, a senator from Wisconsin, who was very pro-labor and very involved in international peace movements; he was the leader of the progressive Republicans. The fourth figure was Claude Kitchin, a Democratic congressman from North Carolina and the Majority Leader of the House during the war. He was also a white supremacist and one of the people involved in basically disenfranchising African Americans in North Carolina. He was very much a populist with a small “p,” opposing the power of Wall Street munitions makers in the economy, which he thought would only grow if the US went to war.
It’s important to understand, these figures came from different places demographically and ideologically, but they all agreed that having a much larger military and then going to war would make America a very different place and they all opposed that.
TNR: Your book depicts this moment when the radical left in general seemed to have a chance, which then got kind of crushed by censorship, by the war and buried in history.
Kazin: There’s a debate among historians. There was an older view that World War I was central to the decline of the Socialist Party. American socialists, unlike most socialists in Europe, actually, opposed their country going to war, and were repressed in different ways because of that. Eugene Debs, a leader of the Socialist Party, was put into jail for giving speeches against the war.
But James Weinstein, who founded In These Times, argued that the socialists benefitted from becoming the main agencies and voices opposing World War I. Morris Hillquit was able to get 22 percent of the vote in his run for mayor of New York City in 1917, which is a far, far higher percentage than any socialist ever got before. Plus, socialists did pretty well in the off-year local elections of 1917.
I think, really, what caused problems for the Socialist Party is when in 1919 they split, and a lot of socialists become communists. And the Communist Party by the 1930s became a more important part of the left, which is good in that the communists organize labor unions and civil rights groups and so forth. But at the same time, clearly, the association with the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin was a non-starter for most Americans.
TNR: Do you think the effects of this period reverberate on the contemporary left?
Kazin: Today, the Cold War is long over. Socialism has lost many of the negative connotations it had, being associated with the Soviet Union. I think one of the reasons why Democratic Socialists of America has grown and why Bernie Sanders could run as social democrat is because, in some ways, we’re returning to the kind of socialism that Eugene Debs believed in and talked about.
To a degree, I mean. He believed in revolution; Bernie Sanders does not believe in revolution. But I think it would be a good thing if we revived the memory of the pre-World War I and World War I Socialist Party. That was the heyday of socialism in America. It was a socialism that helped to promote support for things we now take for granted like Medicare and Social Security, and—if you’re a progressive—labor unions and progressive income tax. Women’s suffrage too, for that matter.
TNR: You mention in the book that building a peace movement isn’t like working on any other issue, where the movement can grow gradually. It needs to come together on a moment’s notice. Obviously there are a lot of differences, but it does kind of feel like that right now on the left with the need for an anti-Trump movement—very suddenly we have to spring together to block imminent policy decisions that could have very swift, very dramatic consequences.
Kazin: On the one hand, people oppose Trump for all kinds of reasons: his authoritarianism, his terrible positions on the environment, labor, on women’s rights, on black rights, etc. So that’s not like the war against war. Obviously, they had one big cause to unite them.
What’s the same both now and then is that social movements that are opposing people in power need to have an inside/outside strategy. They have to do the kind of things these people are doing: demonstrating in the streets, going to congressional meetings, if they’re lawyers supporting amicus briefs, building on institutions, subscribing to magazines on the left. On the other hand, they also have to find allies within the structures of power, and that means Democrats and perhaps some Republicans.
It’s not either/or, ever—that’s how you make change, by putting pressure on people of power but also winning some of them over. You can’t see all of them as the enemy, as terrible political elites because, if you do, then you’re not understanding how power works and how you’re going to be able to stop Trump. We’ve got to beat him electorally, we’ve got to beat him in Congress, we’ve got to beat him in the courts, and those are established institutions run by elites by definition.
And that was true in World War I, too. There was a concerted effort to try to stop bills to expand the military. There were efforts once the war started to make sure that the rich would pay for it. Claude Kitchin was a very important part of that because all spending bills have to start in the House and he was chair of the Ways and Means Committee as well as the Majority Leader. So this Dixiecrat was responsible, in part, for having a more progressive tax system, because he thought the war was wrong. He said, well, if we’re going to have a war then the rich will have to pay more for it.
TNR: If today’s left were to take one lesson from this period in history, what should it be?
Kazin: I hesitate to offer “lessons” from something that occurred a century ago. This is particularly true because anti-war movements are different from other kinds of social movements, and there is not much of a peace movement around now.
Still, the contemporary American left (by which I mean, liberals and radicals) should emulate the strategy the anti-war coalition followed from 1914 to 1918: Organize local groups, put on imaginative kinds of protests, exclude no one who supports your basic demand(s), and work with elected officials who are sympathetic to you but don’t depend on them to remain steadfast when times get rough. In the end, you have to convince a majority of Americans or, at least, persuade them not to support your opposition.
Twenty-nine-year-old Payne Lindsey is a filmmaker from the middle of nowhere, Georgia. Like millions of Americans, he became obsessed with the podcast Serial two years ago. Then he lost himself in the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. “I thought to myself,” he said recently on his own podcast, Up and Vanished, “What if I made one of those?” He fished around on the internet until he found a suitable cold case—the 2005 disappearance of a high-school history teacher named Tara Grinstead—and off he went, on his merry way to becoming a podcast king.
Though you probably haven’t heard of Up and Vanished, it has repeatedly graced the iTunes podcast Top 100, the closest thing the industry has to a hit parade. The show has solid, if weird, production values: There’s a lot of ominous music, doors creaking, and long phone conversations with people tenuously connected to the case. Like many shows in this genre, its appeal lies in inviting its listeners along on its slightly crazed amateur detective journey, and it knows that to keep them going it has to muster some dramatic tension. Yet the highlight so far has been episode four, in which our host goes to dig up a small mound of dirt, prompted by a random tip. He doesn’t find much. Two days later, the cops dig around the same small mound of dirt and find some bones and a pair of panties. “How in the world did we miss that?” the hapless Lindsey puzzles. Moments of futility like that comprise at least half of this strange little show.
We are living through a great flowering of the podcast industry, whose province of iTunes is something like a frontier boomtown right now, teeming with hastily erected new storefronts. The podcast form has been around since about 2004—it is kissing cousins with the iPod, in that way—but it was only in 2014 that the idea struck gold. That would be the Serial moment, when Sarah Koenig’s twelve-episode exploration of a long-forgotten murder in Baltimore morphed into an amateur crime-solving hobby for millions of bored listeners. Before that, podcasts were a thing audio nerds did and talked about. Now, in the comfortable, educated, middle-class households of America, podcasts slot pleasantly into the routine of daily life. They help pass the time commuting on a crowded train or cleaning the bathroom. The experience lies somewhere between binge-listening and background noise.
Even though podcasts share no particular style and very few conventions, a sense of high purpose lingers around them. Podcast listening carries with it a faint aura of cultural snobbery, a notion that to cue up an episode is to do something highbrow and personally enriching, whether it’s a history lecture broadcast from a university, or an amateur talk show recorded in someone’s garage. Both types of show are somewhat educational, in the sense that they expose listeners to unfamiliar subjects and subcultures. But the essence of a podcast is to be esoteric, specialized. And sometimes it’s hard to draw a line between the specific and the trivial.
Americans, of course, have been listening to the radio for more than a hundred years. But radio is different: Beamed out to a broad audience whose choices in programming are limited by their physical location and the time of day they tune in, radio aimed from the start to reach anyone and everyone who happened to be listening. It couldn’t be too weird or off-kilter; it couldn’t be about individual obsession. It had to be about the shared stuff of public life.
No longer. If you care about a subject, there’s a podcast for it. There’s a podcast called Silage Talk, which is produced by Dairy Herd Management magazine. (“We’re kicking off a great new conversation about silage,” the first episode promises its listeners.) There’s a podcast where writers and actors from the 1990s hit series The West Wing discuss each episode in detail, even though those episodes aired some 20 years ago and now seem rather devastatingly naïve about American political culture. There’s a podcast about mobile home park investing called, appropriately, The Mobile Home Park Investing Podcast. And inevitably, the industry reflects its own internal brand of professional celebrity: There’s a podcast called Tape about people who make podcasts. There are podcasts for Buddhists and podcasts for Satanists. There is also a podcast called Hobo for Christ, about a young woman who is traveling around the country being frugal and worshipful—the title really says it all.
Many of those podcasts are destined to sail out into the ocean and never be heard from again. They are often too detailed, too niche, too chatty. A lot of people produce podcasts in which they simply ramble on for hours about themselves and their lives. There is something very poignant about the volume of human desire to be heard out there in the Wild West of podcasts. One gets the impression that for many podcasters, audience size is almost irrelevant. The point is to put your voice on record (which is now easy and cheap to do), and leave it there for someone to find, ponder, and perhaps even enjoy.
A podcast, after all, only truly flourishes when it has one of two things. The first is a genuinely engaging obsessive who can’t let go of a subject, and the second is prestige. The former is the basis of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, whose dizzyingly detailed episodes about everything from the Black Death to the rise of Genghis Khan are clearly the work of the very best kind of madman. Carlin reads piles of books to prepare for his episodes, and presents his extensive research in the engaging persona of an erudite and rambling man who will, eventually, make a point, but likes to take a leisurely trip in order to get there. In the same vein is Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, a Hollywood history podcast that made its name with a sprawling, epic season on the Charles Manson murders and the various Hollywood lives they touched.
These podcasts live and die by the extent of detail their hosts can assemble. Narrative structure is often immaterial to the appreciation of the form. There doesn’t need to be a story, per se, that one can follow. What there needs to be is an accretion of minutiae that satisfies the listener in his or her own obsession. The host and listener are like children counting marbles, things that have little or no value to others but that seem priceless to those engaged in the counting.
The other type of podcast—the kind founded on prestige—thrives on being a mini-institution, building itself atop a sturdy, already-existing brand. One of the most popular podcasts in the current crop is Malcolm Gladwell’s somewhat ominously titled Revisionist History—“my podcast about things forgotten, or misunderstood,” he says at the top of an episode. It’s a slickly produced item, not unlike most of Gladwell’s books. (A rare disastrous moment erupts in episode seven, when Gladwell bursts into song.) For many podcasts in this mold, the mother brand is NPR. Some are little more than chat shows, like the NPR Politics Podcast. Others are meticulously produced audio spectaculars striving to imitate This American Life. Still others, like Serial, marry the obsessive model with public radio prestige.
Prestige podcasts, like prestige television shows, tend to have an audience that believes itself literate, well-informed, and reasonable. Listening to podcasts, in this model, is a form of virtue. While the subjects covered may sometimes be as esoteric as any that you might find on a more rough-and-ready, lower-end podcast—the murder long forgotten, the case long unsolved—their pedigree makes them appear more high-minded. Sometimes they are: American Public Media’s In the Dark excels at taking apart complicated cases and social issues, and laying them out in profound and carefully reported ways. The NPR Politics Podcast is a voice of relative calm in an era when the dominant mode of political engagement is screaming.
But the curious thing about such successes is how heavily they depend on the NPR reputation for public-mindedness. The obsessives are all well and good, but an appetite for authoritativeness still exists. At this point, few among us are surprised or disappointed when someone gets it wrong on the internet; but when NPR screws up, we feel like it matters. That’s why public radio has managed to keep its foothold in American life in an era of growing media fragmentation. But its continued presence in public life is far from assured: Trump’s team reportedly wants to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a move that would effectively silence many of the most talented makers of public radio. Without them, we would lose one of the country’s few remaining trusted sources of information.
Even the best prestige podcasts can’t exist on their own; they rely on the reputation and resources of established cultural institutions to find an audience. The people who make podcasts seem well aware that they need the veneer of journalism to be deemed respectable. Serial’s Sarah Koenig, interviewed by David Remnick on the New Yorker Radio Hour, resisted the label “true crime” being applied to what was clearly that rose by any other name. “I don’t think I did that,” she said—“that” being some distasteful, popular thing that didn’t align with her own view of herself as a serious journalist.
Podcasts have devised new and entertaining ways to keep us informed. But they can’t quite fill the role of public broadcasting, on their own. Podcasting is idiosyncratic by nature, and if we have learned anything in the last year, it is that the idiosyncrasies of America do not add up to a coherent American life. The Payne Lindseys of the world chase mysteries in their own haphazard fashion, while the Sarah Koenigs know how to apply a polished, professional gloss to the most chaotic investigations. But the big picture has, so far at least, eluded them.
Trumpcare is dead. President Donald Trump is humiliated and so is House Speaker Paul Ryan. The Democrats can hardly believe their luck: The Republicans have hobbled their own agenda, while Obamacare, aka the Affordable Care Act, lives to fight another day. But unlike the law’s previous brushes with death—most notably its bruising encounters with the Supreme Court in 2012 and 2015—this latest example of its resilience represents a turning point, if Democrats choose to seize the opportunity. For three reasons—political, structural, and moral—now is the time for the Democratic Party to begin building a proposal for a single-payer health care system.
Politically, the momentum clearly points left. Long derided by conservatives and centrists as socialist fantasy, single-payer health care (sometimes called Medicare for All) is having a moment. In January, 60 percent of Americans told Pew Research Center they believe the government has a “responsibility” to ensure health care access. That figure tracks with a 2015 Kaiser Health poll, which revealed that 58 percent of voters supported some version of Medicare for All. Democratic Socialists of America have experienced significant membership growth since Trump’s election, and its activists are canvassing for single-payer in New York and California. California gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom just added a version of the policy to his campaign platform. And Senator Bernie Sanders reigns as the country’s most popular politician—and he ran in the Democratic primary on a platform that included Medicare for All.
For long-time advocates of single-payer, this is all rare good news. Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program, expressed tentative optimism in an interview with the New Republic. “We’ve been getting a lot of requests from professional journals and physicians and professional organizations to speak on the issue of single payer,” she said. “As someone who’s been doing this a long time, I’m seeing a lot of interest about single payer.”
There’s evidence that this is more than an anecdotal observation. Nobody except the White House and the insurance industry wanted Trumpcare. The bill, otherwise known as the American Health Care Act, would have in many ways returned the health care system to the pre-Obamacare status quo. By upending Medicaid and repealing the individual mandate, it would have taken insurance away from tens of millions of people and made it more expensive for the poor, the elderly, and the sick. A Quinnipiac University poll found that 56 percent of Americans opposed the bill, while a mere 17 percent supported it. Not even a majority of Republican voters supported the bill. Critics of the AHCA were outspoken: They swamped congressional offices with phone calls, an outgrowth of earlier town hall disruptions. Trump’s approval ratings sank to a miserable 37 percent.
Trumpcare failed for numerous reasons, starting with the incompetence of President Trump himself and the dysfunction of the Republican Party. But the defeat of Trumpcare points to a deeper, simpler politics surrounding health care. Most voters have no opinion on the efficacy of high-risk pools. They think in expansive terms: They want health care, and they want more of it, not less. Trumpcare threatened that basic interest. If Democrats are to capitalize on this moment, they can’t satisfy themselves with merely preserving Obamacare. The failure of Trumpcare proved that Obamacare is a floor, not a ceiling; in fact, Trump himself helped establish that floor by duping his supporters into believing that “everybody” would be covered under a Republican health care plan. What voters want is better, more generous care, and the smart response is to give it to them.
Is single-payer the policy answer to more and better coverage? Calls for single-payer invariably provoke concern over its practicality and expense, and it is true that single-payer proposals have to account for a drastic transition process. According to the University of Chicago’s Dr. Harold Pollack, there’s no doubt that “a well-functioning single-payer system would work better than the current American health system.” But he said advocates must account for the dysfunctional system they’ve inherited.
“The challenge that I have is that people often talk about single-payer as an alternative to the pathological political economy that drives American health care and American health politics,” he told the New Republic. “And a single-payer system would have to be a product of that exact same troubled political economy, and would have to bake in many of the defects that we have in our current system in order to come about.”
This dynamic is partially why then-President Barack Obama had to fight conservatives in his own party to pass the incremental reforms offered by the ACA. Obama himself became more conservative on the issue: Though he once supported what he called “a single-payer universal health care program,” he came to believe that single-payer would be “too disruptive” for the health care industry.
But this triangulation leaves us a patchwork system for a universal problem. Most Americans still get health insurance from their employers, but this coverage can still be expensive. Qualify for Medicaid, and you have to hope the government will provide the medications your doctor says you need. Qualify for Medicare, and you may still need to purchase supplemental Medicare plans to cover your expenses. If you qualify for neither, and don’t have insurance from an employer, then the ACA’s exchanges are your only option. But if you can’t afford the premium, you’ll have to pay a fine.
The system’s deficiencies are well-known. For one, this thin safety net doesn’t actually save the country any money. The World Bank reports that, in 2014, America spent more on health care as a total share of its GDP than any other nation save for the Marshall Islands. Our health care system is also one of the most inefficient on the planet: Bloomberg reported last September that America ranks 50th out of 55 nations its health care efficiency index. The question is not if the ACA and Medicare and Medicaid are inadequate. This is self-evidently true.
What is new is that Trumpcare’s failure proved, in the most emphatic way possible, that you can’t go further right than the Affordable Care Act without starting to drop people en masse from health insurance coverage. As David Leonhardt pointed out in the New York Times, Democrats have moved right on the issue for decades, culminating in the ACA—if you want to improve health care in this country, there is nowhere else to go but left. That is why the call from centrist liberals for more “market-based” health care reform makes little sense. People object to the status quo; they will not be content with its maintenance.
Pollack, who supports an incrementalist approach to reform, urged single-payer supporters to focus on defending the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and to demand a public option in the Obamacare exchanges, which would theoretically bring down the costs of health care plans in the individual market.
Woolhandler, meanwhile, says the answer is an improved and expanded version of Medicare. “Make the coverage cover all medically necessary services without copayments and deductibles and proscribe the participation of private health insurance industry in the Medicare program,” she suggested. The result, she argued, would be less expensive than America’s current system. Vijay Das, a strategist for the think tank Demos, suggested a similar strategy, with a particular focus on state-based policies. “I think expanding Medicare to children is a safe way of expanding the risk pool, getting healthy people into the system and lowering costs,” he explained.
All these proposals, in their own ways, logically lead toward single-payer. But they face numerous political obstacles, and Das says the Democratic Party is one of them. “It’s partly because the party that used to be the proponent of single-payer has been largely captured by the interests who think single-payer will destroy their profits,” he explained. “For me, it’s a money in politics issue, not as much as a mobilization issue.” As Lee Fang reported for The Intercept last year, Democratic consultants helped raise $1 million to defeat a single-payer proposal in Colorado. The same consultants had links to the Obama administration and the Clinton campaign.
Health care reform is a problem with a dual nature. It’s a matter of policy, yes, but of morality too, and there is an unassailable moral logic for single-payer. Opponents of single-payer must reckon with it, just as they ask advocates to reckon with political practicalities. Advocates must repeatedly ask: Is the status quo tolerable? “Even with the ACA’s advances,” Das said, “it’s really, really difficult to tell somebody who is in and out of work, is working class, and doesn’t qualify for Medicaid, that their $465 a month-even-with-subsidies-premium is something they should be happy about.”
There is a body count attached to every delay and half-measure. On February 17, Amy Schnelle suffered a seizure and died. She was 31 years old, reported WATE 6 of Knoxville, Tennessee, and unable to work due to the severity of her epilepsy. Medicaid covered her treatment and she lived relatively seizure-free—until September 2016, when Medicaid cut off one of her prescriptions. “I couldn’t imagine what would happen if I’m off of my medicine for a week,” she told the news station at the time. “I could roll into seizures.” She appealed the decision, but no luck. Medicaid’s decision can’t be attributed to Donald Trump, either. It occurred under the Obama administration.
Schnelle slipped through the system’s spiderweb cracks. She was lucky to even qualify for Medicaid: States aren’t required to expand it, and the ACA’s subsidies often aren’t generous enough to make up the difference for people who can’t use it. These cracks are numerous enough, and create a void wide enough, that crowd-funding campaigns proliferate as an alternative. In 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported an “uptick” in the use of websites like GoFundMe, Indiegogo, and YouCaring for health care needs. These campaigns bare the desperation of those in need—and the catastrophic consequences of their inadequacies. After relocating to care for his dying mother, Shane Boyle, a type-1 diabetic, started a GoFundMe campaign to cover a month’s worth of insulin due to a gap in his insurance coverage. His mother died on March 11. Boyle died of diabetic complications one week later, without meeting his fundraising goal. His family has started a new GoFundMe to pay for his funeral.
The moral case for universal health care is too often obscured by red-baiting. But once you accept that everyone should be covered, and establish that the expansion of government programs is the only viable path to achieving that goal, that case is difficult to ignore. Trumpcare’s defeat offers Democrats a chance to move from a defensive crouch to a positive vision that affirms the moral significance of health care as a human right. The market can’t compensate for the system’s deficiencies. In fact, the market is precisely what restricts the ACA’s salvific properties, and that has deadly consequences for the sick. How many Shane Boyles must we accept in deference to it?
The seed is there if Democrats are willing to water it. The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reported Sunday that Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) recently told constituents they are either interested in or expressly support single-payer health care. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) is on record supporting Medicare for All, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) also indicated she supports some version of a single-payer system.
They’ll have a test soon: Sanders has announced that he will re-introduce his Medicare for All bill, and a similar measure in the House has 72 co-sponsors. Neither will pass in a Republican Congress, but that’s not really the point. As Ryan Cooper recently argued in The Week, popular support for Medicare means that Medicare for All proposals are “an excellent organizing signpost.” The concept obviously appeals to the party’s base—and could be marketed in a way that appeals to low-income Republicans at odds with the GOP’s austerity.
The Democrats spent years preparing themselves for Obamacare. Now is the time to do the same for single-payer. Now is the time to organize and to develop evidence-based policies they can actually implement when they’re back in power. The transition will cause disruption, but it can and should be managed. The alternative is intolerable. “We need health care,” a West Virginia coal miner told Sanders during an MSNBC town hall earlier this month. “Everybody in this room needs free health care.” He gets it. Sanders gets it. It’s time everyone else did, too.
This past weekend, liberals across the country celebrated the demise of the American Health Care Act as a triumph of Obamacare over the reactionary forces determined to tear it down, and rightly so. The Republican Party’s failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act outright is not just a huge relief to those who believe in the principle of a health care guarantee for all Americans; it’s a godsend to those who have benefitted from the health insurance expansion facilitated by President Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment.
But ACA supporters shouldn’t become complacent simply because a Republican health care bill is not going to become law anytime soon. The Republican opposition to Obamacare is about to become more dishonorable than at any point since Obama signed it seven years ago.
Republican leaders, including President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan, have done almost nothing to disguise their intent to mismanage the Affordable Care Act into failure.
“I think we are doing the architects of Obama a favor by passing this law [sic] before it gets even worse,” Ryan said at a Friday Capitol briefing after pulling the GOP bill. “Well, I guess that favor’s not going to be given to them and it’s gonna get worse. And so, I don’t think the architects of Obamacare—I’m sure they may be pleased right now. But when they see how bad this thing gets, they said all the projections were being told by—by the plans that are participating in Obamacare, I don’t think they’re gonna like that either.”
Trump told The New York Times that “Obamacare unfortunately will explode [and] Democrats will come to us and say, ‘Look, let’s get together and get a great health care bill or plan that’s really great for the rest of the country.”
The generous interpretation of these pronouncements is that Republicans believe a significant segment of the U.S. health care system is failing, and are boasting about their intent to do nothing about it in the hope that the ensuing suffering will revive the Obamacare repeal process. As the Huffington Post writer Jeffrey Young noted, “Believing the health care system will collapse and spitefully refusing to do anything about it is reprehensible.”
But as Young notes, the “premise that the Affordable Care Act is irreparable” is “highly debatable,” and the odds that Ryan, Trump, and others haven’t been briefed on the many analyses indicating that the law is basically stable hover near zero. The more credible interpretation is that Republicans are taking, and will continue to take, affirmative steps to harm the law in order to manufacture its collapse. They believe Obamacare is so closely identified with Democrats in the public imagination that Democrats will bear the political consequences of reckless GOP subterfuge—and that this sequence of events will bring Trumpcare back from the dead.
It is within the GOP’s power to sabotage Obamacare if its leaders are so determined. But they can not count on sheer will to deliver parts two and three of the plan. They can only succeed if congressional Democrats, liberal activists, and the media all fail.
It is incumbent upon not just supporters of the law, but anyone in the business of representing facts to the public, to be clear about the following: the Obamacare status quo that Trump inherited; the actions Trump and his GOP allies are taking now; and the extent to which ensuing problems with the ACA are consequences of those actions.
Democrats in Congress have an added obligation not just to decry the GOP’s mischief or malign neglect, but to loudly propose legislation that would address some of Obamacare’s real problems. This can include proposed improvements to the ACA itself (like a public insurance option, higher subsidies, or more technical market stabilization tools), or more comprehensive plans, like the one Senator Bernie Sanders supports, to replace the ACA with Medicare for all. To the extent that GOP mismanagement has a material effect on premiums and competition, it will be essential for Democrats to point to solutions Republicans are intentionally shunning, not just attack them for abdicating their obligation to faithfully execute the law.
It would be a failure to quietly allow the GOP’s tendentious predictions of an Obamacare collapse to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Consider the long-forgotten fact that one of Trump’s first official actions was to sign an executive order directing federal agencies to “ease the burdens of Obamacare.” The intent of that order was always underhanded, but until the AHCA failed, its nominal purpose was to begin the transition away from Obamacare toward a different system Republicans would enact on their own.
As Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer noted on the Senate floor Monday, the only plausible purpose that order now serves is to destabilize insurance markets. “Now that Trumpcare is off the table, the president should rescind the executive order,” Schumer said. “Today, I am urging the president and his entire administration to immediately cease all efforts to undermine the ACA. People’s lives are at stake.”
It is up to others to see that all of the administrative steps Republicans take, including the order, get aired out in public unspun, free from the pretense that an imaginary Republican Obamacare alternative will ride to the rescue.
This poses greater respective challenges to reporters and activists than the AHCA process, which came equipped bill text, policy analysis, committee votes, and other clear channels of accountability. Scrutinizing the contents of jargon-filled HHS memos, determining the likely impacts, organizing protests around them, making members of Congress answer for what’s happening in the executive branch—all of these tasks are much more complicated than covering (or protesting) legislation.
Defeating Trumpcare was ACA supporters’ most important political victory in years, but it didn’t vanquish the Obamacare opposition once and for all. The final fight will be much harder, and it has only just begun.
After weeks of anticipation, President Donald Trump on Tuesday is expected to drop the bomb environmentalists have been dreading: An executive order gutting U.S. efforts to fight human-caused global warming. According to Bloomberg, the order will lay out “a broad blueprint for the Trump administration to dismantle the architecture that former President Barack Obama built to combat the phenomenon.”
Among other things, that blueprint will reportedly include a repeal of the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s signature attempt to shut down high-polluting coal plants and replace them with renewable energy facilities. The blueprint will also lift the ban on coal mining leases on public lands. And it will revoke six Obama directives related to climate, including ones on national security and adaptation to climate change’s worst impacts.
Not mentioned in the executive order is the Paris climate agreement, the 194-nation accord that world leaders have described as “the best chance we have” at saving a livable planet. Withdrawing from that agreement has been a huge priority for leading climate deniers, but Trump reportedly has not decided what to do about it.
He may not have to decide, because if what’s been reported about his executive order is true, it will basically render the Paris agreement null. Leading climate scientists and climate policy experts told me the order—paired with Trump’s recent indication that he wants to undo car fuel efficiency standards—will leave the U.S. unable to meet its commitments under the international accord. And if the country that has historically emitted the most carbon over the course of its lifetime doesn’t meet its commitments, it’s unlikely other nations will, either.
“If we pull back from the Clean Power Plan, and especially if we roll back vehicle fuel efficiency standards, we have almost no hope of reaching our Paris climate commitments,” said Robert Jackson, chair of the Earth System Science department at Stanford University, who has published research on the Paris agreement’s effectiveness.
Under the Paris accord, America has promised the world an aggressive drop in greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade. Specifically, we promised to reduce our carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent below the levels we emitted in 2005. Other countries have made similar promises; China, currently the world’s largest emitter, promised to slash its emissions by 60 to 65 percent per unit of its GDP by 2030, compared with its 2005 levels. India, the fourth-largest emitter, has promised to produce 40 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030.
Meeting our goals requires that we stop putting so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In America, that means primarily cutting down on emissions from the electricity and transportation sectors, which combined, make up 58 percent of our carbon pollution.
Trump’s executive order will do the opposite of this, reversing reductions America was already on track to make in both of those sectors. Take the Clean Power Plan, the signature policy Trump is aiming to repeal. If that plan were allowed to continue, it would have gotten the U.S. seven percent of the way to its 26 percent reduction goal under the Paris agreement, according to Marilyn Brown, a Georgia Institute of Technology professor and energy policy expert. The same goes for Obama’s fuel economy standards, which require cars and trucks to go further on less gasoline. Those would have gotten the U.S. another eight percent of the way toward meeting its goal under the Paris accord, Brown said. But Trump has promised to reduce those standards, too.
“Even if we were simply to have relied on those two policies, we still would have needed another 10 to 12 percent of reductions on top of that to meet our goals,” Brown said. “Now, I think there’s no way we’ll get anywhere near the Paris commitments with the new approach to deregulation of activities in the Trump administration.”
In other words, even with Obama’s climate policies in place, America still needed to figure out one more big push to do its promised part in saving the planet. “We were already struggling to meet this agreement,” said Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, “and this is basically just a step back in time.”
Trump’s executive orders threaten not to only reverse progress America has already made toward meeting its Paris goals; it threatens to add emissions to mix. The order reportedly attempts to revitalize the high-emitting coal industry long-term, by allowing coal leasing on public lands. “That’s a commitment to coal that will have longstanding consequences,” Brown said.
The expected executive order also includes a promise to dismantle the “social cost of carbon”—the notion that climate change costs a lot of money because of its long-term impacts on agricultural productivity, human health, and property value. When you eliminate this cost, you eliminate the idea that pollution regulations are beneficial because they prevent those long-term consequences. Therefore, it becomes easier for the Trump administration to legally justify repealing environmental rules. “If you dial back the social cost of carbon, basically any environmental regulation can be considered cost ineffective,” Brown said.
The U.S. will also fail to meet its obligation to adapt to, and be resilient in the face of, climate change’s worst impacts, according to David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute. Along with lowering emissions, the Paris climate agreement requires all countries involved to reduce their vulnerability to things like sea level rise and extreme weather. Trump’s executive order reportedly gets rid of several Obama-era directives that include requirements for resilience and adaptation.
“What’s concerning about that part of the [executive order] is that, whatever you think causes climate change, those actions and those directives are about protecting people from the impacts of climate change,” Waskow said.
Not everyone believes the Paris agreement will be completely ruined if the U.S. doesn’t meet its commitments. Amit Ronen, the director of George Washington University’s Solar Institute, noted that other countries are already proceeding full-force, despite indications from Trump that he won’t follow through. China, for instance, appears to be taking the agreement as an economic opportunity to become a global leader in creating renewable energy jobs and scaling back on coal.
In the best-case scenario, Ronen said, Trump’s order wouldn’t doom the Paris agreement—just isolate the U.S. “It’s just missing out at an incredible opportunity in terms of economic opportunity, leadership in the world,” he said. “It’s just a shame.”
Last week, after Wednesday’s deadly rampage near Parliament in London, British conservative journalist Louise Mensch tweeted that the terrorist attack has “got everything to do with Russia.” She doubled down Friday on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, propounding the theory, without factual evidence, that allies of the Russian state were stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment in the wake of the attack. “Partisans of Russia were out in the streets saying it was an illegal immigrant who did it, trying to turn the London people against our Muslim friends and neighbor,” Mensch said. One of her fellow guests, MSNBC host Chris Hayes, looked startled by the claim, as well he might since it made little sense. After all, xenophobia in London (as elsewhere) doesn’t require “partisans of Russia.”
Mensch, a former member of Parliament, has made a name for herself as one of the more prominent analysts of the possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian state. She’s found an audience far beyond the conservatives who were her earlier fans, even being granted space in The New York Times for a controversial op-ed on the subject (leading some Times reporters to object to “her baseless claims”). Her increasing prominence is the latest sign that conspiracy theories are no longer exclusive to the far right. “Fraudulent news stories, which used to be largely a right-wing phenomenon, are becoming increasingly popular among those who oppose [Trump],” the Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen, herself a prominent critic of Vladimir Putin’s regime, argued in the Times over the weekend. Gessen cited as an example, “the string of widely shared items that purported to link every death of a more-or-less prominent Russian man to Russian interference in the election.”
This sort of conspiracy-mongering is indeed dangerous, for the same reason that Trump’s outlandish lies are: It corrodes the commitment to truth and honest debate that make democracy possible. And it’s true that, apart from the rise of Mensch and the examples Gessen cited, there are many other reasons to believe the unfolding Russian story is generating an unwholesome willingness to spread unsubstantiated stories. Over the weekend, there was a flurry of Twitter speculation, again without any factual basis, that Trump’s former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, made a deal with the FBI in the ongoing investigation.
Still, Gessen’s critique runs the risk of becoming a facile pox-on-both-your-houses approach that is at odds with the facts. There really is no parallel between Trump’s birtherism (which was based on little more than racism) and concerns about Russian interference in the last election. Leaving aside the wilder theories out there, the core of the Russian story rests on reports from the intelligence community and on well-documented facts about ties between Trump associates and the Russian state. As FBI Director James Comey acknowledged last week, the agency has been investigating possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian state since last July.
Conspiracy theories about Russia are proliferating because of the strange limbo that America finds itself in: The sitting president is under FBI investigation. Further, the president’s party, which is tasked with holding him in check, seems on occasion to be running interference for him. As The Washington Post reports, Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has withheld key intelligence reports on this matter “from other committee members even while rushing to present it to the White House.” Conspiracy theories about Russia are also proliferating because of the murkiness of the Russian story, the full dimensions of which are hidden because it’s an ongoing investigation and because Republicans are loath to divulge anything that might be politically damaging to their party.
The best way for the media to dispel conspiracy-theorizing about this story would be to take great care with facts and characterizations. Gessen, for instance, mars her otherwise solid critique by going after Congressman Adam Schiff. “This past Monday, Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, opened a hearing on Russian interference in the election with a speech that seamlessly mixed verified information with rumor and exaggeration,” Gessen wrote. But she cites no evidence of rumor and exaggeration. In truth, Schiff has been extremely careful and responsible in his comments, and has played an exemplary role in trying to ensure that his committee acts in a responsible, bipartisan way.
This spate of conspiracy theories has a political origin: Trump’s extraordinary secrecy about his finances and business connections. Since this problem was created by politics, it ultimately will have a political solution: The FBI will make a judgment, and, if anyone in the Trump administration is implicated, Congress will have to decide if punishment is merited. The best way for political leaders to counter these conspiracy theories is to do their job, which means preventing any attempts at a coverup (which, after all, is what brought down President Richard Nixon). That responsibility may fall to Democrats, who could take a proactive role by pushing Nunes to be removed as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. And if there is an attempted cover-up, Democrats and law enforcement officials could easily leak the truth to the media.
Rather than decrying conspiracy theories as a blight caused by both sides, it’s crucial to solve the political crisis that is causing them to proliferate.
It was supposed to be “the climate skeptic victory tour,” in the words of one prominent attendee. Last week, hundreds of enthusiastic climate change deniers convened in the Grand Hyatt Washington hotel in Washington, D.C., for the Heartland Institute’s twelfth annual conference. Now that one of their own—President Donald Trump—had taken the White House, the conference promised to be a festival of gloating. Marc Morano, the Matt Drudge of climate denialism, told me the political situation has “everyone grinning ear to ear.”
But something was amiss. Though sentiments like Morano’s were common, I also met apprehensive attendees who worry that “swamp creatures” at the Environmental Protection Agency are undermining attempts to hobble the agency. These alleged swamp creatures aren’t just the career staffers who have openly protested Scott Pruitt, the agency’s new administrator. They’re the people whom Pruitt has hired—and even Pruitt himself.
“The relationship has not been a smooth one. And it should be,” said Becky Norton Dunlop, an EPA transition team member and fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “We may need some marriage counseling.”
Dunlop and another transition team member, David Stevenson of the libertarian Caesar Rodney Institute, told me they believe neither Pruitt nor his team has read the extensive policy document the transition team submitted to the agency earlier this year. (Dunlop and Stevenson know members of the EPA beachhead team, a group of temporary political appointees laying the groundwork for Trump’s agenda. A spokesperson for Pruitt did not return my request for comment.)
No one would say exactly what’s in that policy document; every EPA transition team member signed agreements barring them from speaking about their specific recommendations. But in his presentation, transition leader Myron Ebell hinted in his presentation at the conference that the document includes many of the environmental policy promises Trump made on the campaign trail: pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, defund international climate programs, withdraw regulations on carbon dioxide and methane emissions, and undo the EPA’s categorization of carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
Steve Milloy, a transition team member and a prominent denier of the scientific consensus that air pollution can cause death, said he had also heard the “rumor” that Pruitt has not read the transition team’s document. “He should have seen it. It’s president-approved,” he said. “These are the marching orders.” Stevenson agreed: “There’s some trepidation, to be honest with you, about whether some of this stuff is going to follow through.”
That trepidation dampened the mood somewhat at the Heartland conference. “I wanted this to be the climate skeptic victory tour,” Milloy said. “But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. This place is a swamp. Trump is great, and Steve Bannon is great, but then it gets messy.”
The notion that Scott Pruitt is a “swamp creature” is absurd. The former Oklahoma attorney general has sued the EPA more than a dozen times. He’s indicated that wants to repeal many of the environmental regulations President Barack Obama put in place. He recently called the Paris Climate Agreement, which U.N. scientists consider the last hope to keep global warming in check, “a bad deal.”
It’s true, though, that Pruitt is relatively coy about his climate denial. He has long claimed, falsely, that the debate is “far from settled,” and recently said he doesn’t believe carbon dioxide is the “primary contributor” to global warming. But he hasn’t, for instance, called climate change a “hoax” invented by China.
Meanwhile, the “Woodstock of climate skeptics,” as Morano describes Heartland’s conference, is a place for people who not only deny the scientific fact that humans cause climate change, but consider the science itself to be a conspiracy. To them, the EPA is an inherently corrupt entity—a “jackass factory,” in the words of one audience member—and environmentalism is the “greatest threat to freedom.”
These differing approaches have created drama between Pruitt’s EPA and members of Trump’s transition team. David Schnare, a transition member who stayed at EPA as a temporary political appointee, abruptly stepped down earlier this month over what InsideEPA described as “endless infighting.” Schnare said his resignation was a matter of “integrity” and promised to write a tell-all account in which he would “name names and go into specifics.” According to the Washington Post, Trump also hired a political appointee to keep watch over EPA, who annoyed Pruitt so much that the administrator started shutting him out of meetings.
Dunlop chalked up these tensions to differences in style only. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a policy difference,” he said. “Personalities can oftentimes get in the way when people who agree on policy are working together.” But there are clearly substantive differences between what Pruitt wants to do with the EPA and what people like Ebell, the EPA transition leader, are advocating. Ebell wants to immediately dismantle the agency; at the conference, he called Trump’s proposed 31 percent cut to the EPA merely a “good start.” Pruitt seems to favor a more gradual approach. He reportedly opposed Trump’s 31 percent cut, perhaps recognizing that the EPA needs money to repeal regulations.
Pruitt’s stated priorities also seem to be different than those of some transition team members. Pruitt has never once mentioned that he doubts the scientific consensus that air pollution can kill you, while Stevenson considers this consensus “the single biggest piece of science that we need to go back and look at.” Pruitt also has not expressed a desire to undo the EPA’s 2009 determination under the Clean Air Act that greenhouse gases are a threat to human health—a top policy priority for leading climate deniers.
Pruitt isn’t the only cabinet member seen as an impediment to Trump’s anti-environmental policy. Ebell called Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil, a “swamp creature” for suggesting that the U.S. should remain a party to its international agreements to fight climate change. Milloy agreed. “The guys at Exxon, they’re kind of believers,” he said. “They’re really alarmists.”
Despite such drama, these are glory days for climate deniers. Mick Mulvaney, Office of Management and Budget director, opposes funding to combat climate change. “We’re not spending money on that anymore,” he said. And Trump is expected to issue a far-reaching executive order on Tuesday to gut Obama’s efforts to fight climate change. While the order reportedly doesn’t include many of the items on Heartland attendees’ wish list, it’s more than they dreamed was possible.
“I know that you guys kind of laugh at us, but we’re winning,” Milloy said. “We’re in the driver’s seat right now. And whoever thought that would happen? I’ve been doing this for 25 years. If you were to tell me that Steve Milloy would have a chance to fix EPA, I would have said you’re crazy.”
Grierson is back! Grierson is back! After taking a two-week break to rest his voice post-surgery, our beloved co-host returns this week, and man, did we miss him. We dig right into the Alien homage/ripoff Life, starring Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, and Jake Gyllenhaal. Grierson also answers Leitch’s questions about CHIPs and Power Rangers, which he didn’t see because, hey, life’s too short.
Also, we have two Reboots, both taped pre-surgery, in case you’re wondering why Grierson sounds rougher. First, we tackled Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry, which featured the first on-screen appearance of Shirley MacLaine. Then we delve into the 1988 twins comedy Big Business, with Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin. But yes: The real story here is that Grierson is back.
We hope you enjoy. Let us know what you think @griersonleitch on Twitter, or email@example.com. As always, give us a review on iTunes with the name of a movie you’d like us to review, and we’ll discuss it on a later podcast.
The flâneur emerged from the imagination of Charles Baudelaire. In his 1863 essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire eagerly proposes an ambulatory figure he calls a “passionate spectator.” He is modeled after a real person, Monsieur C.G., but Baudelaire does not disclose any real information about his mind or manners. And anyway, Baudelaire admits, he made him up: “To give complete reassurance to my conscience it must be supposed that all that I have to say of his strangely and mysteriously brilliant nature is more or less justly suggested by the works in question—pure poetic hypothesis, conjecture, a labor of the imagination.” In other words, this wanderer of the city, chronicler of the present, and contradiction-laden figure of the crowd, has always been a myth.
The flâneur crops up every now and again, and he serves different purposes at different times. Walter Benjamin, in the first half of the 20th century, transformed him from a street wanderer to an observer of the damaging effects of modernity and capitalism. In his intended magnum opus, The Arcades Project, the streets he once wandered have transformed into an interior as a result of the construction of arcades: Iron and glass structures that organized Parisian shops, built by Baron Haussmann after he famously demolished swaths of old Paris. The flâneur becomes an observer of the marketplace, his aimless walking a “demonstration against the division of labor.” The flâneur is not apolitical, but he is not himself an actor. He watches, and he walks.
What purpose could the flâneur serve now? We have a variety of answers to that question, thanks to a flood of renewed interest in this figure. The flâneur is the subject of a new book—Lauren Elkin’s Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London—and is invoked in Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. The flâneur is also central to a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, called The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin. Elkin and the curators of the Jewish Museum use the flâneur as a lens for interpreting the world (Laing does something a little different). But while the flâneur is an interesting idea, he doesn’t hold water as a paradigm for understanding our historical moment.
Lauren Elkin’s central question is: Can a woman be a flâneur? She is not the first to ask this question. Her book draws from a history of scholarship around the female flâneur, popularly driven by the work of Janet Wolff. But where Wolff and others succeed in making a case for this figure, Elkin does not.
Elkin’s introduction to flânerie begins with a study abroad trip to Paris in the 1990s. The young American takes to the city and eventually it becomes her home. In her reading, the flâneur is a masculine figure, privileged, and an icon of leisure. The city, which he mapped with his walks, was a playground, the spectacle for his spectatorship. Elkin soon begins to think critically about whether or not a woman could be a spectator. Her answer is, simply, yes. “To suggest that there couldn’t be a female version of the flâneur is to limit the ways women have interacted with the city to the ways men have interacted with the city,” she writes.
Each chapter of Elkin’s book centers around a city, pairing her personal experiences with an analysis of a female cultural or historical figure—Jean Rhys in Paris, Virginia Woolf in London—who also performed flânerie. There are times when the conceit is stretched to the tearing point. In “Neighborhoods,” she tries to connect herself to Cléo of Agnes Varda’s French New Wave classic Cléo de 5 à 7. The film follows Cléo for two hours as she waits to find out the results of her biopsy. Elkin makes bold claims (“This is Varda’s version of cinematic flânerie”), as well as ones that betray a shaky understanding of her book’s central concept (“The driver is a flâneuse on wheels”).
After nearly a decade in Paris, her dreams of truly making France her country are interrupted by the bureaucracies of government and the reality of borders. While she waits to hear about the status of her French citizenship, Elkin returns to New York, dejected and uncertain, and finds herself wandering. The “Return” chapter explicitly remarks on citizenship, the politics of space, and the idea of home. A French security guard says to her, “Well, you know...it’s hard for us to come to your country too.” She responds angrily:
This was another reason I hated this security guard. OK, you can’t go to America, I wanted to say to him, but you can go to Spain, Greece, Italy, the U.K., take your pick. The project of the European Union was to pronounce the free circulation of people and goods, a lesson learned from a century of world wars: that borders may serve some administrative purpose but in the pursuit of capitalism and the common good they must be easier to cross.
Later, Elkin touches on the refugee crisis, and the hard nationalism now cursing Europe. But these political thoughts never cohere, never match the intensity with which she thinks about her love for walking around. When they come close, Elkin seems to, in fact, be writing about contemporary cosmopolitanism, not the nineteenth-century flâneur. “I have learned that it is an act of empathy to be able to un-root yourself, to recognize that none of us are protected by place,” she writes. “My city isn’t mine anymore. And yet it always will be, more than any other.” These are not the words of Baudelaire’s wanderer, who cared only for meditations on beauty and the present moment.
The flâneur is not the right architectural frame on which to build a politics of what it means to walk around cities these days. In fact, he seems to get in the way of what Elkin is really trying to write about, as if by constantly walking backward and forward he is obstructing her view.
The Jewish Museum’s new exhibition is based on Walter Benjamin’s enormous and uncompleted Arcades Project, also known as Passagenwerk, which he worked on from 1927 until his death in 1940. The show’s curator Jens Hoffmann has chosen artworks to match up with the lettered fragments of the Arcade Project’s “Convolutes” section—e.g., “T: Modes of Lighting,” “M: The Flâneur,” “K: The Commune.” As you enter, metal bars crowd over your head in a half-semblance of an actual structure.
The sequenced stations feature fine works by artists like Cindy Sherman, Timm Ulrichs, and Rodney Graham. The Sherman piece is matched up with “H: The Collector”: It shows the artist dressed up as a rich older lady in a high-necked sequin dress. There are some bits of Benjamin text up on the walls. Alongside the artwork and quotations are chopped-up texts by none other than the controversial poet Kenneth Goldsmith, adding yet more content to an already very full space. (In 2015, Goldsmith was widely condemned for a crass performance in which he read Michael Brown’s autopsy report aloud.)
The result is a maddeningly overcrowded exhibition in which at least three trains of thought (Benjamin’s, the artworks’, Goldsmith’s) jostle for attention. The show is so programmatic (literally, in alphabetical order) that the viewer feels as if her head is in a vise while she is pushed around through some kind of laborious immersive performance on wheels. It is perhaps the opposite experience of exploring Paris, looking at beautiful things that don’t announce themselves.
Hoffmann’s exhibition essay “The Return of the Flâneur” seizes on the old ambulatory chestnut as a mode for absorbing art. The flâneur looks, and viewers of art look, and so this makes sense, Hoffmann implies. The show “enables visitors to inhabit the role of the flâneur, Benjamin’s archetypal leisured city dweller,” he writes. “Perhaps visitors will be inspired to carry this attitude with them as they leave the museum, reassessing their position in society and hopefully realizing that the world is not a fait accompli but a transformable situation.”
But what viewer is an archetype? And how does this archetypal leisured city dweller go about “reassessing their position in society”?
The flâneur walks around the city. He is in constant pursuit of knowledge, appreciates aesthetics, and feels most at home in crowds. He is a default subject with no markers of identity. He is male and unattached, or simply a converted feminine mirror, in Elkin’s conception. He is pure receptacle, a pair of eyes with no human relationships and a politics only of witnessing.
In our moment, writers and curators may be drawn to the flâneur because he represents the opposite of identity politics, and a fantasy of a time when a universal subject was a realistic proposition. Our contemporary discourse holds that who you are influences the way that you know, and the way that you can or cannot speak. A woman walking through the world knows in a different way than a man, and by default has greater authority when describing her viewpoint.
Critics of identity politics would rather that knowledge were an uncolored thing. The flâneur offers a traditional and old-fashioned way to move through the world, and thinkers exploit his model when they lust for the lost universals of political thought. Anybody can be a flâneur, writers like Lauren Elkin say. Look at me do it. But the reason anybody can do it is that the flâneur is nobody.
Though beset by its own theoretical problems (its upper middle class aesthetic, its exclusion of forced migrants), cosmopolitanism is the better model for the mobile subject. Like the flâneur, the cosmopolitan is defined by mobility. But in the cosmopolitan’s case, to be mobile means to absorb other cultural forms. The scholars Zlatko Skrbiš and Ian Woodward write that the “cosmopolitan identity is one that has been marked by encounters with difference.” The cosmopolitan thus exceeds Baudelaire’s narrow idea of flânerie. Cosmopolitans are not just receptive to other cultures, but seek to develop and exercise a sense of intercultural mastery.
In her book, Laing conceives of a kind of emotional cosmopolitanism. She is alone in New York City, where she has travelled for love, only to be dismissed by her lover. Overwhelmed by loneliness, Laing takes many walks. “So much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment,” she writes, “with feeling compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up scars as if they were literally repulsive.” For Laing, there is nothing universal about being by oneself. It is as tailored to the individual as shame or desire.
Laing cannot avoid citing Baudelaire on the flâneur. But she immediately jumps off from his essay into something more pertinent, namely our attraction to virtual modes of exploration and community, which she links to a post-AIDS desire to reject the physical body. Laing has no need of the flâneur model, no wish to repurpose it into a tool to do her work for her.
Instead, a radical and politicized empathy animates her conclusion. “Loneliness is personal, and it is also political,” she writes. We feel it as individuals, but it is driven by the politics of acceptability and the stigma of being outside relationships. “Loneliness is collective; it is a city,” she writes. The flâneur is not part of Laing’s vision of what it means to be an individual moving through urban space. Even when we are lonely “we are in this together,” in “this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell.”
Kindness, solidarity, alertness, openness: This is the politics we must practice. As Laing writes, “if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.” We waste our time when we walk right past.
Congressional Democrats kicked off the first term of the Obama administration having controlled the House and Senate for just two years. Consecutive landslide elections, in 2006 and 2008, left their caucuses overrun with unseasoned legislators, steeped in opposition politics and beset by conflicting priorities. Yet somehow they devised and passed the most far-reaching legislative agenda in half a century, without the luxury of a cooling off period.
As Paul Ryan sees it, this was some kind of miracle. At a Capitol briefing on Friday, he explained the failure of the GOP’s American Health Care Act as a consequence of “growing pains” that come with “moving from an opposition party to a governing party.”
This is a comforting thought for a House speaker who, despite Republican control of all levers of government, is staring into the policy void. But as the Democratic majorities of 2009 and 2010 show, “growing pains” are not an immutable fact of legislative politics. Republicans controlled the House for six years, and the Senate for two, before Donald Trump became president. If anything, the transition from opposing to governing should’ve been easier for them than it was for Democrats eight years ago. And yet it is proving much harder.
There is a coherent story that explains why Republicans, at their historical apex of power, are also historically dysfunctional, and health care is a huge part of it. But it isn’t a story Ryan will be able to piece together until he accepts the central role he played in it.
If a party can move from opposition to governing fairly seamlessly, why couldn’t the GOP? The differences between 2009-era Democrats and 2017-era Republicans lie to a large extent in each party’s conduct while toiling in opposition.
In Ryan’s mind, all opposition is total and unscrupulous.
“We were a 10-year opposition party, where being against things was easy to do,” he acknowledged at the same press conference. “You just had to be against it. And now in three months’ time we tried to go to a governing party where we actually had to get 216 people to agree with each other on how we do things and we weren’t just quite there today. We will get there.”
This is a false construct, a way to rationalize dysfunction as akin to rust—an inevitable consequence of powerlessness, rather than the completely avoidable consequence of years of disgraceful behavior. There is a more nuanced version of the 10-years-out-of-power story that doesn’t write Republican agency out of the equation, and thus homes in on the single root of their electoral success and factional incoherence.
“[I]t has been nearly a decade since Washington Republicans were in the business of actual governance,” wrote The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins, echoing Ryan. “Whether you view their actions as a dystopian descent into cynical obstructionism or a heroic crusade against a left-wing menace, the GOP spent the Obama years defining itself—deliberately, and thoroughly—in opposition to the last president. Rather than engage the Obama White House in a more traditional legislative process—trading favors, making deals, seeking out areas where their interests align—conservatives in Congress opted to boycott the bargaining table altogether.”
This cuts closer to the truth, but it presents the question of whether Republicans behaved cynically or in principled fashion as a subjective matter, when it is anything but. There has been no shortage of evidence confirming that Republican leaders in 2008 settled on an opposition strategy of massive resistance before Obama took the oath of office. Obama could conceivably have advanced an agenda that was so ideologically unpalatable that it retroactively vindicated Republican cynicism. Instead, Obama seized the center, and many Republican members had to be strong-armed into uniform opposition—including to the Affordable Care Act.
The depiction of Obamacare as a many-tendriled monster strangling human liberty was not the GOP’s instinctive, ideological reaction to the bill, but an outgrowth of a strategic choice the party made to deny Obama any claim to having forged consensus. This decision led to a number of awkward reversals, such as when GOP leaders and right-wing propagandists drove Senator Chuck Grassley from acknowledging a “bipartisan consensus to have individual mandates” to validating death-panel conspiracy theories in a matter of weeks.
The upshots of adopting such an absolutist facade can be strung together into a fateful parable of sunk costs. Seven years later, it is still impossible for Republicans to admit that, contrary to their initial portrayal, Obamacare is simply what a market-oriented national health insurance system looks like. By closing off the one avenue by which transactional Republicans might forge a health care detente, people like Paul Ryan guaranteed the entire party an eventual reckoning with the basic idea that every American deserves affordable medical care.
Rather than make the unpopular counterargument, and oppose the Affordable Care Act on the basis of ideological differences, Republicans adopted an unprincipled strategy of attacking and promising to remedy the law’s every weakness—even when their promises cut against conservative orthodoxy.
“Obamacare was a useful tool for them,” the conservative writer Philip Klein wrote Friday in a withering critique. “For years, they could use it to score short-term messaging victories. People are steamed about high premiums? We’ll message on that today. People are angry about losing insurance coverage? We’ll put out a devastating YouTube video about that. Seniors are angry about the Medicare cuts? Let’s tweet about it. High deductibles are unpopular? We’ll issue an email fact sheet. Or maybe a gif. At no point were they willing to do the hard work of hashing out their intraparty policy differences and developing a coherent health agenda or of challenging the central liberal case for universal coverage.”
Klein called Republicans “a party without a purpose,” but it is just as likely that they are a party that put achievable goals out of reach by indulging in expedient pandering. Their plan’s only weakness was that it might some day end in success. Trump in particular embodies the real but temporary political advantages of shamelessness. Politicians who win by saying anything will be expected to deliver everything.
This isn’t just a story about the contradictions between Trump’s fraudulent campaign and his denuded administration. It’s the story of how the ruthless pursuit of power left an entire party unable to exercise it now that it’s theirs.
The Asmara Corner Café sits on a dusty main road in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. With its weathered red façade and bright interior, the coffeehouse is a popular hangout for refugees from neighboring Ethiopia and Eritrea. On May 24 last year, a young Eritrean man with a mop of curly, untamed hair was sitting in the Asmara when Sudanese police and intelligence forces suddenly stormed into the café and arrested him.
Working together to track his cell phone, authorities in England and Italy had identified the man as Medhanie Yehdego Mered, believed to be one of the most powerful and ruthless human smugglers operating in the Mediterranean. The leader of a massive criminal syndicate, Mered routinely smuggled asylum seekers from Africa into countries throughout Europe. For every boat he sent out loaded with migrants, Mered’s network took in an estimated $1 million. It has reportedly raked in more than $1 billion from its criminal activities.
Authorities in Europe had been tracking Mered since October 2013, when a smuggling boat belonging to one of his associates broke down near the Italian island of Lampedusa. A fire, believed to have been set as a rescue signal, quickly raged out of control. Overloaded with desperate people, the wooden boat was soon engulfed in flames and sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean, killing at least 360 migrants. International outrage over the tragedy was swift, and Mered became a prime target in the investigation that followed.
On phone intercepts that authorities used to track Mered, he was heard laughing about the fatal overloading of migrant ships. He boasted about underfeeding the migrants staying in his warehouses, and brushed off the idea of providing them with life jackets. Over the past six years, some two million people, mostly from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in overpacked, often unseaworthy boats, struggling to escape war, brutal repression, and economic hardship. More than 16,000 have died along the way, putting political pressure on European governments to stem the unprecedented influx of migrants. Combating illegal migration has become a central focus of police and prosecutors across Europe, who have been ordered to crack down on the smugglers who ferry refugees seeking a better life for themselves and their families. So far, authorities have taken down some low-level operatives in the smuggling syndicates in Europe, but top bosses like Mered have eluded their grasp.
Operating from his base in Libya—a failed state with no extradition treaties with European nations—Mered seemed untouchable. Nicknamed “the General,” after former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, he was rumored to enjoy riding around the streets of Tripoli in a tank. The reach of his smuggling operation reportedly extends far beyond Europe, into Canada and the United States. According to documents compiled by prosecutors in Italy, Mered was an “untiring organizer of boats from the Libyan coast.” He “worked frenetically in Tripoli” to round up refugees from all across Africa and “organize their departure for Italy.”
Investigators in Italy, supported by authorities in England and Sweden, began to collect detailed information about Mered’s personal life and criminal activities, listening in on his phone calls and building up a trove of evidence they could use against him in the event of his capture. Hunted by the police and wary of jealous rivals, Mered grew paranoid: He spoke of needing to go into hiding, and talked about transferring his wealth to bank accounts in the United States. Once he could secure his money, he said on the phone intercepts, he wanted to move to Sweden, where his wife and son lived.
Then, in the summer of 2015, Mered suddenly dropped off the radar. The phones that investigators were listening to went silent, and his Facebook profile became inactive. No concrete information surfaced about his whereabouts until November 2015, when Swedish prosecutors received information that Mered was now in Sudan. The Swedes passed what they believed was Mered’s new cell phone number to a unit of prosecutors in Italy, who had been tasked with targeting the smuggling trade. A few months later, the National Crime Agency in London—known as Britain’s FBI—said they had intelligence confirming that Mered was in Khartoum, and that the Sudanese were willing to collaborate in his arrest.
The big break came last year, on May 23, when the Italians intercepted three calls on the cell phone number provided by the Swedes. According to a summary of the calls compiled by prosecutors and obtained by the New Republic, Mered could be heard talking about his smuggling operations and arranging payment for people in Libya who were waiting to be transported to Europe. The prosecution’s forensics expert later found text messages on the phone that discussed preparations for Mediterranean trips, along with internet searches for weather conditions in the area, and for terms like “Sahara” and “Libya.”
“I will leave to Libya soon,” the man on the phone texted, according to transcripts later compiled by prosecutors. “I lost the year 2015; I did nothing. But 2016 will be different.” The following day, with the support of British authorities, Sudanese police tracked the user of the cell phone to the coffeehouse in Khartoum and swooped in to make the arrest.
Two weeks later, on June 7, Italian prosecutors took possession of the suspect and flew him to Rome, where news photographers captured his first steps on Italian soil. The images show a slender man with disheveled hair being led down the airplane stairs in handcuffs by two stone-faced Italian police officers. Mered, authorities triumphantly proclaimed, was the first smuggling kingpin to be arrested and brought to Europe to stand trial for his crimes. “He no doubt thought he was beyond the reach of European justice,” declared one British official. “But we were able to support the Italians by tracking him down to Sudan.”
But the success of the operation was soon cast into doubt. It now appears that the biggest arrest to date in Europe’s crackdown on illegal migration—the centerpiece of government efforts to treat the massive influx of migrants as a criminal matter, rather than a humanitarian crisis—was botched from the very start. The reason was simple: The police had arrested the wrong man.
In 2014, a year after the Lampedusa tragedy turned Mered into one of Europe’s most wanted smugglers, a 27-year-old Eritrean named Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe snuck across the southern border of Eritrea into Ethiopia. Berhe was part of an exodus from Eritrea, a brutal dictatorship that engages in torture and forcibly conscripts young men like Berhe into the military. Up to 5,000 people flee Eritrea every month, typically via Sudan and then Libya, making the country one of the largest sources of asylum seekers flooding into Europe.
Berhe grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Asmara, the Eritrean capital. After he finished high school in 2010, he took an apprenticeship with a carpenter and then worked briefly as a dairyman’s assistant, delivering milk and keeping track of accounts. But his primary worry was dodging conscription. “The government was picking up the people who were not serving at the time,” recalls his sister, Seghen Tesfamariam Berhe. “So he had to run away.”
After a few months in Ethiopia, Berhe made his way to Sudan. His plan was to find a smuggler who could get him into Libya and then across the Mediterranean to Italy. In 2015, Seghen joined her brother in Sudan, but she did not want him to go to Europe. The trip was too dangerous; she was afraid he would drown at sea or be kidnapped by ISIS, which was gaining a foothold in Libya. The group had recently released one of its sleek propaganda videos showing the decapitation of dozens of Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians on a beach. “When I came from Asmara, I stopped him from going to Libya,” Seghen says. “I begged him, please don’t go.”
Berhe initially gave in. But he soon grew despondent. As a Christian and a foreigner in an Islamic country, he was often harassed by the police. “He wasn’t doing anything,” his sister recalls. “He just was sitting at home. In the evening he would go out and watch football and come back home. He couldn’t accept the life in Sudan.” After living for more than a year on money sent by friends and family, Berhe was determined to get out.
Then last year, on May 24, he suddenly disappeared. His friends told Seghen that they had seen him being arrested at the Asmara Corner Café. But no one knew what happened to him after that.
“I searched everywhere in Khartoum,” Seghen says. “I told the police that my brother was missing and that he was arrested. They told me that they don’t know anybody with that name. For two weeks, I didn’t know if he was alive or dead.”
Then, on June 9, Seghen was stunned to see a photo of her brother on the BBC News. He was on the tarmac in Rome, being led off an airplane in handcuffs. In dozens of news stories and television reports, Berhe was identified as Medhanie Yehdego Mered, the notorious smuggler.
“When I saw his picture, I was shocked,” Seghen says. “My brother is not a human trafficker.”
Berhe’s friends rallied to correct what was clearly a case of mistaken identity. Meron Estefanos, a well-known Eritrean broadcaster based in Sweden, began speaking to the media. “I have almost 400 people writing to me saying: ‘I know this guy, he grew up with me,’” she told The Guardian. “This is the wrong person.” The newspaper also interviewed Eritreans in Europe who knew Berhe from back home. “They’ve definitely got the wrong guy,” said one man. “He’s not a human trafficker—he’s just a simple refugee.”
Both Berhe and Mered are from Eritrea. Both are slender, and they share the same first name. But the similarities end there. Berhe is six years younger than Mered. He looks nothing like the man in a Facebook photo that prosecutors identified as the smuggler. Even more striking is the testimony of Mered himself, who appears to be still at large. According to a private Facebook log obtained by Berhe’s attorney, Mered referred to Berhe’s arrest in an online chat. “They made a mistake with his name,” Mered says in Tigrinya, one of the main languages spoken in Eritrea. “Everyone knows he’s not a smuggler. I hope he will be released, because he hasn’t done anything.”
But despite the clear-cut evidence that they made a mistake, Italian and British authorities continue to insist that they have the right man. “This is a complex multipartner operation,” said a spokesperson for the National Crime Agency. “The NCA is confident in its intelligence-gathering process.” Berhe—still identified by Italian prosecutors as Mered—is currently on trial in a courtroom in Palermo, Sicily. He stands accused of international human smuggling and running a transnational criminal organization. If convicted, he faces up to 25 years in prison.
Berhe’s arrest—and the refusal of authorities to admit that they got the wrong man—underscores the fundamental problem with Europe’s crackdown on undocumented migration. Immigration is being treated as a crime to be prevented, rather than a humanitarian crisis to be resolved. But the emphasis on law enforcement only serves to deepen the inequities and repression that are spurring millions to flee their homelands and seek asylum in Europe. Instead of providing a safe haven to people fleeing brutal dictatorships, European governments have partnered with some of those very same dictatorships—exacerbating the root causes of the mass migration from Africa to Europe and forcing desperate people into the hands of smugglers
In 2015, the EU Commission for International Cooperation and Development awarded $270 million in aid to nine African nations, including the brutal regime in Eritrea. Bolstering the Eritrean economy was intended to slow the outflow of asylum seekers. Instead, human rights advocates say, the money effectively rewards Eritrea’s military dictatorship for its abuses—virtually guaranteeing that more refugees will be driven to flee the country. “Many young Eritreans are fleeing the government’s policy of indefinite and abusive military service,” says Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “Unless there are human rights reforms, they will continue to flee—irrespective of what development aid is provided to the government.”
Last April, a month before Berhe was arrested in Sudan, the European Commission announced it was providing $107 million to the Sudanese government to help stem the flow of illegal migration. Omar Al Bashir, the president of Sudan, currently stands accused by the International Criminal Court of genocide and crimes against humanity. In May, Der Spiegel reported that the EU planned to help Sudanese border police build two detention centers for migrants attempting to flee Sudan. And in August, Italian and Sudanese police signed an agreement to collaborate more closely in the crackdown on smuggling, paving the way for Italy to repatriate tens of thousands of failed asylum seekers to Sudan.
In effect, Italy is attempting to wall off the Mediterranean, stopping as many refugees as possible from getting out of Africa and the Middle East, and shipping back the few who do make it. The rest of the European Union is following suit. The EU recently secured the right to return an unlimited number of refugees to Afghanistan, and it is pursuing similar “repatriation agreements” with countries across Africa and South Asia. What’s more, at least seven European countries have begun building or have completed border walls and fences to close down migration routes.
“Europe can, at the moment, say nothing to Mr. Trump about the wall with Mexico,” says Michele Calantropo, a Sicilian attorney representing Berhe in court. “Europe did the same thing.”
The EU’s emphasis on securing borders has not only failed to slow the outflow of people from Africa, it has put refugees at even greater risk. Migration “has become much more dangerous,” says Linn Biörklund, a humanitarian adviser with Doctors Without Borders. “People need to travel on much harder routes. So the ones who actually need protection and safety the most are the ones who get stuck and die along the way.”
In addition, treating migration as a crime has effectively enabled European governments to shift attention away from their own responsibility for the crisis. “No one is looking at EU policies, which are restricting the ability of people to apply for asylum, or to have safe passage,” says Reece Jones, an expert on border security and the author of Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move. “Instead they put all of the blame on smugglers.”
The political pressure on police and prosecutors to stop migrants from reaching Europe has trapped Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe in a kind of legal limbo. Because the authorities are not willing to admit they made a mistake—a confession that would call into question both their competency and their strategy—Berhe remains in prison while his trial proceeds. “If his name is Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe or Medhanie Yehdego Mered, it doesn’t change anything,” insists Calogero Ferrara, one of the Italian prosecutors. “What’s important is to link the person with the crime, not the name.”
The Italians are confident that they can prove that the man they have in custody is the smuggler they were listening to on the wiretaps in 2014. “He says he is not Mered,” says Maurizio Scalia, another prosecutor working on the case. “We say he is Mered.” As evidence, prosecutors point to their forensic analysis of the cell phone Berhe was carrying at the time of his arrest. Three numbers saved on the phone were also intercepted during the wiretapping of Mered’s communications in 2014. There were also photos on Berhe’s phone that show him shopping for a blazer and sitting at a table with a Nikon camera—images the prosecution hails as evidence of the riches he enjoyed as a smuggler.
It is unclear why Swedish authorities believe that the phone number they gave to the Italians belonged to Mered; the Swedish Prosecution Authority declined to comment on the case. But the translation provided by Italian prosecutors of Berhe’s phone intercepts and chats appear to be taken out of context, and are at times wildly inaccurate. The New Republic conducted its own translation of the phone records and found the official Italian version so riddled with errors of language and grammar that they border on incomprehensible. What’s more, prosecutors apparently cherry-picked terms like “money” and “sea” and translated the sections of conversations that contained those words. What emerges from the full transcript is not a smuggler arranging nefarious deals, but a man stuck in Sudan and desperate to get out.
In one untranslated intercept from January 2016, Seghen tells Berhe that she found him a job and asks him to attend a training session for the position. “Never!” he replies. He says that he plans to “leave to Libya soon”—a quote that makes Berhe the refugee sound like Mered the smuggler. Later in the transcript, Berhe goes on to reveal the desperation he feels, and the danger he faces. “It is either cross the sea,” he says, “or be prey for the sharks.”
So if Berhe is not Mered, why did his phone include conversations and texts about organizing payments for people waiting to be smuggled? The explanation, Seghen says, is simple: One of Berhe’s cousins had left Sudan for Libya and needed someone to make a payment to a smuggler on his behalf. Berhe was helping him out. “When you are an Eritrean, we help each other in these things,” says Seghen. “Everybody calls a smuggler.”
Berhe’s family gave the Italian court a notarized copy of his Eritrean national identity card, which shows that he was born in 1987—six years after the birth date for Mered that appears on an official Swedish registry for the birth of his son. The dairyman Berhe worked for in Asmara also wrote a letter confirming that Berhe was employed by him in 2014, at the same time Italian prosecutors were eavesdropping on Mered in Libya. And Berhe’s lawyer has lined up more than a dozen witnesses—including friends of Berhe and clients of Mered—who are ready to testify that this is indeed a case of mistaken identity.
Prosecutors, however, seem intent on ignoring any evidence that proves they got the wrong man—including evidence that they themselves have presented. Early in the investigation, the Italians circulated a photo from a Facebook account they identified as belonging to Mered. It shows a man with an angular jaw wearing a blue shirt with thin, red stripes and a large, silver cross around his neck. This, they announced, was “the General,” one of the kingpins of international human smuggling. The problem is, the man in the photo looks nothing like Berhe. But when I point this out to Ferrara, he breezily dismisses the relevance of the photo, even though it was produced as evidence by his own team.
“The picture was never an official picture,” the prosecutor says, leaning back in his chair behind a large wooden desk and puffing on the stub of a thin cigar. “That picture is someone we thought could be the guy. But then again, it’s a picture on Facebook, like millions of other pictures.”
But prosecutors in Rome, who are pursuing a separate case against Mered, aren’t so quick to dismiss the Facebook photo. When they showed the image to a former client of Mered, he immediately identified the man in the blue shirt. “This is Mered,” he said. “He is the king in Libya, very respected by everyone.” Based on the eyewitness account, the Roman prosecutors concluded that the photo does, in fact, show “the real physical aspect of Medhanie Yehdego Mered.” The man in the photo, in other words, is not Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe.
Italian authorities “haven’t been able to provide any kind of evidence,” says Estefanos, the Eritrean broadcaster. “They would rather prosecute an innocent man than admit they were wrong.” Cracking down on smugglers, she observes, doesn’t address the root cause of the migrant crisis—oppressive governments and crushing poverty. “Even if they had found the real Mered,” Estefanos says, “it wouldn’t stop the smuggling business.”
In December, I attended the trial of the man accused of being Medhanie Yehdego Mered. He sat in a glass enclosure in a courtroom in Palermo, with three guards at his back and an interpreter at his side. As he leaned in to listen to the proceedings, he bit his lips and shook his head. He looked like the man in a photo that Seghen had sent me of her brother, only anxious and fatigued.
The trial could drag on for another year. Even if the court concludes that police arrested the wrong man, Berhe’s future is uncertain. Italian authorities could try to send him back to Sudan, a country from which he was desperate to escape. Or they could allow him to apply for asylum in Italy, a process that typically takes a year and a half or longer. Either way, as a refugee caught up in Europe’s legal system, his prospects do not look good.
Nor has the controversy surrounding the case spurred authorities in Europe to reconsider their crackdown on migration. Quite the contrary: The wrongful arrest of Berhe is being held up as a blueprint for European police and prosecutors to work hand in hand with African dictators. “The arrest of Mered was surely an example of investigative and cooperative success,” boasts Carmine Mosca, the head of the anti-smuggling unit in Palermo. “If we continue to get cooperation from African states, such as we got from Sudan, the likelihood of arresting more smuggling bosses is very high.”
Whatever the fate of Berhe, his story points to the central contradiction of Europe’s attempt to wall itself off from immigrants. The European Union, like the United States, is a political project built on the values of liberalism and universal human rights. Yet faced with a perceived risk to its borders—and the rise of nationalist forces eager to lock the gates—Europe has been quick to abandon its core values in the name of security and counterterrorism.
Unlike other refugees, Berhe wound up reaching European soil without having to risk his life crossing the sea. But the security and opportunity he dreamed of remain further away than ever. A victim of misplaced fears, he is more isolated and terrified now than he was in Sudan, awaiting a fate over which he has no control. The experience is taking a toll. “The longer the trial takes,” Calantropo says, “the more he is depressed.”
Since his arrest last May, his sister has only been able to speak with him once. In Italy, only family members are allowed to communicate with inmates. And according to Italian authorities, the man in prison is not her brother. “I don’t know how they made this mistake,” Seghen says. “It’s not him. The truth will come out sooner or later. But I don’t know why they are still saying it’s him.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified one of Berhe’s sisters in a photo caption.
During last year’s Republican primaries, Marco Rubio famously described Donald Trump as a “con artist.” But this week, with the disastrous rollout of the American Health Care Act, we’ve seen the con artist get played by an even slicker, more professional grifter. And Trump is not alone in being conned: House Speaker Paul Ryan has been fooling a lot of people for a long time, making the world believe that he’s the foremost Republican policy wonk, an expert in the fine print of budgets who could bring a much-needed seriousness to Washington. In an ideal world, the damage caused by Ryan’s role in pushing the deeply flawed AHCA won’t be limited to his relationship with Trump. This episode should strike at the real root cause of the mess: The powerful, persistent Washington myth that Ryan is a policy genius.
Trump is reportedly blaming Ryan in private for the whole catastrophe. “Mr. Trump has told four people close to him that he regrets going along with Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s plan to push a health care overhaul before unveiling a tax cut proposal more politically palatable to Republicans,” The New York Times reports.
Trump’s big mistake was not just political—thinking that Ryan could muster the votes to pass the law. It was also a matter of policy—believing that Ryan actually had some idea of what a good plan would be. But it’s not just Trump that got bamboozled. Almost everyone in American politics has bought into the idea that Ryan is a pillar of GOP competence and seriousness.
As Ezra Klein noted at Vox, Ryan’s health-care gambit was certainly a policy failure (“a shoddy piece of work”). It embodied what his “genius” has always boiled down to: Deceptively smart-sounding ways to advance the great goals of the Republican establishment (tax cuts for the rich, fewer services for everyone else). Those goals are in direct opposition to the populist promises Trump made in the campaign. But that’s where Ryan’s real talent came in.
“Ryan’s stroke of genius,” Klein wrote, “has been flattering Trump’s vision of himself as a dealmaker through the process, and amping up Trump’s sense of the personal stake he has in the AHCA’s success.” In the process, Ryan persuaded Trump to abandon the promises he made on the campaign trail to defend entitlements and protect coverage for everyone. He’d brought Trump over the same plutocratic agenda that Ryan champions.
Trump shouldn’t feel too bad: He’s not the first to be fooled by Ryan. The Speaker, not the president, is the greatest political fraud of our time. It’s been Ryan’s triumph to fool people all over the political spectrum (liberals and centrists as well as conservatives) into thinking that he’s a different sort of Republican, a policy maven with a genuine mastery over numbers who can grapple with the policy thickets of the tax code and health care. Unlike demagogues like Sarah Palin or Trump, Ryan was someone who eschewed dishonest and polarizing rhetoric in favor of honest debates about the issues. You could disagree with Ryan, so popular folklore went, but he was someone you could have a real policy discussion with.
The myth of Ryan the Wonk was crucially nurtured not just by the right but by centrists and liberals, eager to have a Republican who didn’t just froth about “freedom” but actually could talk in numbers. These celebrations started to take off in 2010, as Ryan was offering an alternative budget which, his fans thought, was more serious than the anti-government rhetoric of the Tea Party, then emerging as a force in the Republican Party. James Stewart in the New York Times praised Ryan for having an “eminently sensible” approach to tax reform which offered an “outline of a grand compromise.” Klein, writing in The Washington Post, concurred, touting Ryan as having a “more honest” approach to budgets than typical Republicans. Alice Rivlin, former Clinton administration budget chief, described Ryan as “smart and knowledgeable” and “willing to negotiate.”
Ryan’s sparkly reputation rested partly, of course, on the soft bigotry of low expectations (better than you would expect a Republican to be!), but also on appearance. Ryan looks like a thoughtful man. He can furrow his brow in simulation of abstract reasoning.
Not everyone was fooled. Paul Krugman called him a “flimflam man,” pointing out that the numbers Ryan touted in his imaginary budget didn’t add up, with the proposed tax cuts creating much bigger deficits than Ryan acknowledges.
The AHCA fiasco vindicates Krugman’s harsh judgment. The “reform” was hated not just by Democrats but by actual Republican policy wonks—people who were critical of Obamacare, but saw the AHCA as doing nothing to make it better. In a devastating critique in Forbes, Avik Roy, one of the foremost conservative experts in the field, got to the heart of Ryan’s plan. “Expanding subsidies for high earners, and cutting health coverage off from the working poor: It sounds like a left-wing caricature of mustache-twirling, top-hatted Republican fat cats.”
Roy, the president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, is a genuine conservative wonk with a real concern for the impact of policy. Paul Ryan is a pretend wonk who throws around numbers to impress the likes of Mitt Romney and Donald Trump. Unfortunately, the Republican Party only uses real wonks like Roy when they want to criticize Democrats. When policy gets made, it falls to Ryan. Perhaps the only positive outcome of the current turmoil is that it might, at long last, destroy Ryan’s reputation for policy expertise.
Ryan has been a scammer all along. He’s not a more serious Republican who offers a welcome relief from the frothing of the Tea Party. He’s an Ayn Rand acolyte who fully shares the agenda of the hard right on economic matters. And his long con is now obvious for all the world to see. “Never give a sucker an even break,” W.C. Fields used to say. Anyone who continues to think of Paul Ryan as a legislative wizard or a serious policy thinker richly deserves to be called “sucker.”
Paul Ryan has wanted to clobber liberalism for years.
When he joined the GOP presidential ticket with Mitt Romney in 2012, his goal was to consolidate control of government and shepherd his budget into law. The budget itself was conceived as kind of an inverse New Deal—a radical amendment to the social contract that would have required a dizzying burst of legislative activity and a dazzling level of executive competence to implement.
When Republicans came up short in that election, he set his gaze to 2016, when, as Politico put it, he planned, as House Speaker, to “steamroll Democrats” with parliamentary techniques that would allow him to accomplish what eluded him four years earlier. The American Health Care Act—which Ryan shelved today after his own House majority refused to back it—was just a tiny slice of an agenda that included Obamacare repeal, Medicare privatization, the devolution of Medicaid to the states, huge, regressive tax cuts, and more.
As one of the leading figures in American conservatism, Ryan spent so much time fantasizing about aligning procedural stars that he lost sight of all the other elements that went into creating the welfare state he hoped to roll back. The failure of Trumpcare—which would have kicked millions of people off health insurance, while delivering a tax cut to the wealthiest Americans—underscores the shortsightedness of the idea that major social change can be created with the will to power alone.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has never been so naive. In 2012, he acknowledged the centrality of public sentiment to the rise of liberalism, and that Republicans bore the obligation to win public trust before they set about dismantling what it took Democrats decades to build.
“[T]he American people have never given us the kind of hammerlock on Congress that Democrats had during the New Deal, that they had during the Great Society, and that they had in 2009 and 2010,” he told Kentucky radio ahead of former President Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012. “Why haven’t you been able to get better results?…The answer to that is, we haven’t had enough votes. We have elections in this country and the winners get to make policy and the losers go home. And the Democrats have had Congress, sometimes with whopping majorities, most of the time since the New Deal. And that’s a great disappointment…because we’ve not been able to secure the support of enough of the American people to have the kind of big majorities you need to kind of roll things back. Maybe some day we’ll have that. I hope so.”
After Donald Trump’s surprising Electoral College victory, McConnell was alone among Republican leaders in flashing yellow lights. It wasn’t lost on him that his 52-vote majority in the Senate wouldn’t have the capacity to pass significant, ideologically one-sided legislation, and that Trump had lost the popular vote by millions of ballots. Republicans won the presidency in 2016, but they lost seats in both the House and Senate, which is not the signal voters send when they are asking one party to impose its will.
Under those circumstances, enacting a vast, regressive, polarizing agenda wouldn’t be a masterstroke—the product of the hard work of persuasion and consensus-building. It would be a mugging.
Paul Ryan wanted the mugging. His goal—in freezing out the Congressional Budget Office, racing the legislation through committees, intimidating his defiant members—was to overcome the public sentiment problem by staying one step ahead of it. (Only 17 percent of voters supported the bill, according to a Quinnipiac poll, against 56 percent who opposed.) In choosing this route, he not only failed, but also exposed his own incompetence.
We can’t expect Republicans to govern as Democrats. They lost the popular vote, yes, but they still hold the levers of power. They won’t do liberal things out of a sense of fair play, nor should we expect them to. But they are going to have to accept the fact that there’s more to exercising power than having the mathematical capacity to pass bills in Congress.
A Supreme Court litigator discusses the future of health care and the Supreme Court, both of which will likely be decided in the days and weeks ahead.
“Nothing suffices to the disaster,” wrote the dour French philosopher Maurice Blanchot in his seminal late work The Writing of Disaster. “This means that just as it is foreign to the ruinous purity of destruction, so the idea of totality cannot delimit it. If all things were reached by it and destroyed—all gods and men returned to absence—and if nothing were substituted for everything, it would still be too much and too little.” Blanchot, of course, was talking about *bong rip* life, man, but if he were alive today he could just as easily be talking about the American Health Care Act—and President Donald Trump’s ninth week in office.
It was by far the most important week of his young presidency. It involved his first meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a hearing for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, another hearing on Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, and, most importantly, a vote on the American Health Care Act. On Monday, Axios Presented By United Fruit Company wrote that the Trump administration hoped to “put points on the board”: “Trump has a new runway for showing capacity to lead, govern and cut deals—a chance for the Art of the Donald to prevail over the self-inflicted din. Allies pray that past performance is not an indicator of future outcomes.”
But by every conceivable metric, Trump failed and failed miserably this week. The only possible exception was the Gorsuch hearing, the one thing beyond Trump’s control, but even there he ran into surprisingly determined Democratic resistance. Not only did Trump fail—most spectacularly with the failure of the American Health Care Act—but he also showed no capacity to lead. When the going got tough, Trump packed up his toys (in this case, a tractor trailer) and went home.
His very bad week started off on a fitting note—which is to say that it started out badly. He screwed up two of America’s most important alliances. The British were understandably pissed after Press Secretary Sean Spicer read a report by (practically) fake judge Andrew Napolitano that claimed that the Obama administration used British intelligence (GCHQ, which stands for “Her Majesty’s Lorry Innit”) to spy on Trump during the 2016 campaign. To smooth things over, Spicer and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly apologized to the British, but when news of the apology got out the Trump administration—perhaps fearing it would be accused of doing its own Obama-esque “Apology Tour”—acted like nothing of the sort had occurred, making things even worse.
And then, to definitely make things worse, Trump screwed up America’s relationship with Germany. To put it lightly, his relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been strained from the beginning. And while Trump did not pull a Vladimir Putin and try to scare Merkel with dogs, he behaved like a total dick during her visit. Here, for instance, is what happened when Merkel asked Trump if he would like to shake hands for a photo.
Trump then made a total ass of himself by making a joke about the fact that the Obama administration spied on Merkel. “As far as wiretapping...by this past administration, at least we have something in common,” Trump said. Merkel responded by executing a perfect double take, as if she had been trained by Mark Rylance at the Globe Theater.
Donald Trump, of course, is a coward. So he waited until Merkel was on her way back to Berlin to puff out his chest.
This is generally not how you end a GREAT meeting.
Trump spent the rest of the weekend trying to whip votes for his terrible health care bill, the American Health Care Act. After meeting with a group of conservative House members on Friday—nearly all of whom were either planning to vote “no” or were on the fence—Trump said “every single person in this room is now a ‘yes.’” When Trump returned to the White House from Mar-a-Lago, everything was bad and it was his fault it was bad. According to Gallup, Trump’s approval on his 60th day in office was 37 percent—lower than Barack Obama’s was at any point in his administration. He then decided to rant on Twitter, because that’s what he does.
Trump is so fucked, he can’t even come up with new material. These tweets are the equivalent of watching Blue Oyster Cult do “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in 2017. But Trump is boxed in and he doesn’t have anything to cling to, except bad arguments that were hardly original when he first made them—at this point, though, they’re greeted with eye rolls rather than gasps.
Monday was hearings day on the Hill. Neil Gorsuch’s testimony was straight out of the John Roberts playbook—he adorably blinked and smiled and refused to say anything at all about his judicial philosophy whatsoever. The House Intelligence Committee’s hearing on Russian involvement in the 2016 election was more eventful. FBI Director James Comey—running a close second to Trump in Washington’s “Most Hated Man in Washington” race—revealed very little about his investigation, but what he did say was damning. Comey affirmed that Trump and some of his associates were under investigation by the FBI for their contact with Russia during the campaign, and that Trump’s claim that he was wiretapped by Barack Obama was absolutely and unequivocally false.
It is hard to overstate how important this is. While House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes indicated that he is willing to use the committee’s investigation to stonewall and obfuscate, the FBI’s investigation will dog the Trump administration for months. Not only will it result in the release of even more damaging leaks, it will eat up what little political capital this administration has. Trump tried to lie his way out of it:
Comey, asked about this tweet at the hearing, said it was false. Then, future first person to be fired from the Trump administration, Sean Spicer, tried to claim that Trump barely knew Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. Spicer claimed that Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager for four months, had “only a very limited role on the campaign,” while Michael Flynn, who ultimately became the administration’s national security adviser, was a “volunteer.” Sixty days in and this is the best these guys can do.
On Tuesday, Trump went to the Hill to speak to Republican congressmen. By the time he was done, ten people had switched their votes! The problem for Trump, however, was that they had switched their votes to “no.” It is almost incomprehensible how bad Trump is at whipping votes, except it makes perfect sense when you realize that he is maximally vindictive while being minimally interested in the particulars of legislation—he’s like Lyndon Johnson, if the only part of Johnson’s political persona was “waves dick around at urinal to try to intimidate people.”
But his trip to the Hill underscored one of the most important themes of Trump’s first two months in office: The man who marketed himself as a master negotiator and marketer is neither. All bluster and artifice, Trump simply doesn’t have the stamina or intellect to get things done.
At the end of the day, a number of horrific “sweeteners” were added to the bill, basically gutting anything that resembles care from the bill. It looked as if maybe, just maybe, members of the House’s far-right Freedom Caucus could come around and give the bill its badly needed support.
But Wednesday was a shit sandwich for Trump—the bread was two stories about Russia that bookended the day and the shit was the health care bill. In the morning, the Associated Press reported that former Trump camapaign manager/’80s movie villain Paul Manafort was paid $10 million a year by a Russian billionaire to “advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin.” So, uh, not good! If true, this also means that Manafort repeatedly lied about his relationship with Russia over the last year.
By midday, it became clear that the health care bill was flatlining. The Freedom Caucus, smelling blood and intent on passing a bill that provides zero health care to anyone while providing maximum profit and organ-harvesting powers to insurance companies, wanted more concessions from Trump. After signaling that maybe, just maybe, they would be interested in voting for the bill, they told Trump to “start over,” which is not what you want to hear a day before the vote on the most important piece of legislation of your first term in office.
Russia reared its head in the afternoon, when Nunes, whose purpose in life seems to be to make Jason Chaffetz look smart, went to the White House to tell Donald Trump that he maybe, just maybe, had information that proved that Barack Obama did, in fact, spy on him. The problem, however, is that he didn’t. He had some not at all newsworthy information that Trump communications may have been swept up in NSA surveillance. Worse, by going to the White House with this, he destroyed what little credibility he had left, making an independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia all the more likely.
The day ended with a Russian bombshell: CNN reported that the FBI had information suggesting that the Trump campaign coordinated with Russian intelligence in the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The report was extremely vague—it was unclear, for instance, if the members of the Trump campaign in contact with these shadowy Russian agents were aware they were speaking with shadowy Russian agents—but it was damning nonetheless. Establishing collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia always seemed like a long shot, but this report suggested that at least a degree of collusion may very well be proven.
The day of the climactic vote, Thursday, began with what is undoubtedly the craziest interview ever given by a sitting president. In an interview about his use of lies and falsehoods, Trump lied a whopping 14 times (and it’s not a very long interview). The biggest lie? “I tend to be right,” Trump said. (That’s false.) “I’m an instinctual person.” (True.) “I happen to be a person that knows how life works.” (False again.) He also bragged that he was going to beat Richard Nixon for the most Time magazine covers, seemingly not realizing why Nixon was on all those covers.
On Thursday morning, it looked like the AHCA had a 50/50 chance of passing. But by midday, the White House was done negotiating. When the Freedom Caucus came calling for more concessions, they were rebuffed—the bill was finished, the White House said. This alone is notable. Major legislation often takes months to pass, much of it spent doing torturous line-by-line negotiations with interested parties. But Donald Trump—who, again, claims to be the greatest negotiator ever and who regularly attacked Hillary Clinton for her lack of “stamina”—basically decided he was going to give up after doing next to no work. The Trump administration was done. And that meant the bill was cooked too. On Thursday afternoon, Ryan announced that the bill would be delayed.
To add an absurd wrinkle to this, at the very moment it became clear that the bill would not get a vote, Trump was literally playing with a tractor trailer like a child.
Later, he appeared before cameras wearing an “I <3 Trucks” pin. Big Boy in Chief! As absurd as this is—and my god, is it absurd—this tells you everything you need to know about Trump’s leadership. In a just world, this would be his My Pet Goat moment—an instance where his numerous flaws as a person and a leader come together to reveal the tiny, 8-year-old child pulling the strings of a big bottomed 70-year-old man.
Every day of Trump’s administration is a little bit worse than the one before it—but Friday was a lot worse, indeed the worst yet. On Thursday, the Trump White House made it clear that they were done negotiating the bill: Republicans would have to take it or leave it, this was their one chance at ending Obamacare. Why? Well, it wasn’t entirely clear. There are two possible explanations. The first is simply that Trump has no patience for governing and that any bill that takes longer than three weeks to go from soup to nuts is not worth the effort from his perspective. He decided he wanted to repeal and replace Obamacare not because he had ideas about how to improve America’s health care system, but because it was something that had to be gotten out of the way to do the things he really cares about, like “making millionaires pay less taxes” and “infrastructure (which is also a way for millionaires to pay less taxes).”
The other possibility is that Trump is simply a poor negotiator and his only move is the bluff. He raised the stakes for this health care vote enormously at the last minute to dare Republicans to vote against the bill, even though he knew all along that he’d pull the bill if it wasn’t going to pass. Even Donald Trump didn’t seem to really believe that this could work. His tweets on Friday morning were remarkable shallow and halfhearted, even by his abysmal standards:
Furthermore, the White House’s argument that it was working in good faith was clearly bunk.
This bill emerged 18 days ago. The idea that Trump “gave his all” or “tried really hard” is transparent nonsense.
And so, about five minutes after the House was supposed to vote, Paul Ryan and Donald Trump pulled the bill. Ryan says he told Trump they should pull it, Trump says he told Ryan they should pull it—surely a sign of a strong working relationship. But it’s hard to think of a worse result for Republicans. They will try to spin this over the coming weeks, but this was the biggest legislative blunder since George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security. And it failed not only because it was a lousy bill, but because the president and the speaker of the House couldn’t sell it to their own members.
The AHCA’s failure is Trump’s failure. It’s a crystallization of the chaos and incompetence that has defined his first term, and a fitting end to his ninth week as president.
To knock Life for being an Alien rip-off is to erroneously assume that this solid, junk-food thriller actually cares at all about originality. Let other people come up with blazingly unique storylines and nuanced characters—the fact that Life is totally familiar is what makes it work on its own modest, efficient terms. This is a movie about a bunch of people orbiting high above Earth on a space station that’s suddenly imperiled by a nasty alien life force that’s hell-bent on killing them. Life is just that simple—and smart enough to stay out of its own way.
The movie stars several big names, as well as some much smaller names, which ought to make it relatively easy to guess who’s going to get knocked off first. Roy (Ryan Reynolds) is a wisecracking American astronaut working alongside David (Jake Gyllenhaal), a sensitive American doctor who prefers the international space station to Earth, and Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson), a British doctor who’s a relatively new arrival onboard. As Life begins, a sample from Mars has arrived via probe, and Hugh (Ariyon Bakare), a scientist, is giddy to discover a living organism within the soil—the first sign of life beyond our planet. Named Calvin, the organism starts growing exponentially, and soon enough all hell is breaking loose on the station, a battle between man and a starfish-looking squid thing underway.
With echoes of not just Alien but also 2001 and Gravity, Life knows its place as gritty, B-movie escapism gussied up with a little star power and decent effects. Director Daniel Espinosa (who previously worked with Reynolds on the similarly worth-a-rental Safe House) understands that with well-worn material like this, it’s best to deliver the goods without a mocking wink to the audience. There’s no cheeky referencing or meta commentary in Life: Espinosa keeps everything taut and claustrophobic, barely even bothering to supply us with empathetic back stories for his characters. (One of them has a wife back home who just gave birth; another can’t use his legs; somebody else is Russian.) Life strips away any profundity or awe so that we never forget that everybody on the ship just wants to kill this damn space mollusk. Whenever anybody on screen takes a moment to express an emotion or ponder the phenomenon of being alive, you want to tell him to shut up and get back to work.
Within the confines of this constricting, pragmatic narrative, though, Life does find enough room to spring a few surprises. Going into any more detail would risk spoilers, however, and with a movie like this you need to preserve every twist possible so that you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. But let it be said that the actor body count doesn’t go entirely in least-famous-to-most-famous order—and that people who don’t seem like they’re that important to the story end up surviving longer than anticipated.
Plus, the big names dial back their personalities significantly, contributing to the film’s gritty, ensemble feel and its air of unpredictability about who will live and die. Reynolds’s preternatural likeability shines through even when he’s more muted, while Gyllenhaal retains his soft-spoken sweetness, despite his character being barely more animated than the flashing control panels around him. Ferguson became an international sensation thanks to her fabulous work in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, but the frustration has been that, since then, she hasn’t found a worthy role to capitalize on that success. Life doesn’t provide that for her, but she brings the same mixture of toughness and vulnerability that was on display in that Tom Cruise vehicle she just about stole from him.
The stars’ commitment to Life’s uninspired but consistently gripping script helps sell these secondhand goods. But they don’t have to strain too hard because Espinosa understands his film’s true strength, which isn’t really his human cast. Calvin’s slithering, unstoppable menace is different enough from Alien’s alien to give you the willies in its own ways. (That said, it’s a pity Life blatantly steals an iconic moment from Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi horror—the less you make the audience think of that 1979 film, the better.)
Anyone looking for some grand metaphor within Calvin’s furious feasting on the space station’s crew is wasting his time—and that’s ultimately what proves so terrifying about the creature. Not imbued with thematic import or anything resembling character motivation, Calvin just wants to eliminate these people so it can have all the station’s precious oxygen for itself. This alien really doesn’t have any fiendish strategy, and no personality ever emerges—the astronauts can’t rationalize with it, and nothing they try seems to kill the little bugger. It’s like a nightmare cockroach, except in outer space.
As studios increasingly turn their attention toward big tentpoles and event movies, there’s been much lamenting that Hollywood has lost its ability to make risky, ambitious films. But an unpretentious movie like Life argues that studios have also moved away from respectable genre pictures—movies that were never considered art, but at least rattled your cage with precision. No one need celebrate Life too loudly, but it goes about its grubby business with a bracing clarity and ruthlessness. In that way, this film is well-matched with its rampaging extra-terrestrial.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film,. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site .
In another news cycle, the story that broke on Wednesday about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would have been a bombshell. Instead, buried deep beneath the furors over Russia, health care and presidential “wiretapping,” it hardly broke at all. But it should not get lost in the shuffle: The latest in Tillerson’s evolving email scandal goes right to the heart of that other terrifying thing about this new administration—its addiction to secrecy, and its unprecedented hostility to the usual forms of public transparency that democracy requires. And it only adds to the already-mounting questions about whether the former CEO and career-long employee of Exxon/Mobil has any business being secretary of state—a job he says he didn’t even want in the first place.
Here’s the Tillerson news you should have heard: In front of a judge in New York, attorneys for ExxonMobil admitted they had lost as much as a year’s worth of Tillerson’s e-mails, sent as CEO under the alias “Wayne Tracker.” (His middle name is “Wayne.”) Those emails had been demanded by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, because they’re key to his investigation of how Exxon, under Tillerson’s watch, may have deliberately—and illegally—misled its shareholders about the risks it knew were posed by climate change. (And, thus, the risks it posed to Exxon’s profits.)
Schneiderman says Tillerson used this alias for seven years to exchange messages about about “risk-management issues related to climate change.” Exxon claimed this week that almost all of those Tillerson emails were “lost”—wiped clean from the system, for perfectly innocent reasons.
You might think that a burgeoning email scandal involving the new secretary of state was guaranteed to be a cable-news sensation. After all, the trotted-up “scandal” around Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving in that office became the defining controversy of the 2016 election. It helped elect Trump—and ultimately gave us Tillerson and his email troubles.
This one might even involve another problematic server, for goodness sakes. This week, Schneiderman accused Exxon of using “carefully chosen language” in its court filings to obscure the fact that the Wayne Tracker emails were housed on (sorry, this is a mouthful) “secondary hardware systems that are or were physically separated from the primary hardware systems from which the bulk of Exxon’s production appears to have originated.” Exxon said the accusation was “misplaced,” and that Schneiderman’s speculation was “unfounded.” Still, the court demanded that Exxon work to figure out how to recover those “lost” emails and report back to the court by March 31.
Tillerson’s situation is different from Clinton’s in important respects. There were probably no potential state secrets involved in his communication, and there’s nothing inherently amiss about a CEO using an alias email account to separate and organize emails. But as with Clinton, the bigger problem isn’t Tillerson’s potential legal exposure. It’s the pattern of secrecy in our new secretary of state.
Tillerson’s resistance to public transparency was already making news this week. As secretary of state, he hadn’t granted a single interview until his first major trip to Asia, last week, in the midst of a crisis in North Korea. He allowed only one reporter—a friendly one—to come along. (And she did not file daily press pool reports, also breaking with tradition.) The scorned press went ballistic.
They haven’t been quite so fired up about the Exxon emails. But there’s a clear connection between the Exxon case and Tillerson’s avoidance of transparency as secretary of state. Exxon is not a private company—it is publicly held by 2.5 million shareholders. That means its CEO has a legal obligation to be honest with shareholders about risks.
A secretary of state has similar obligations, on an infinitely larger stage. That’s why Tillerson’s email troubles have such high stakes. Once the public starts to catch on to the Exxon story, the questions it raises will be clear: If Tillerson did take pains to hide financial risks from shareholders in a public company, isn’t it reasonable to worry that he’ll employ similar tactics in his new job? How far might Trump’s secretary of state go to hide damaging information—or any information—from the people he owes it to?
Schneiderman first subpoenaed Exxon in 2015, demanding “extensive financial records, emails, and other documents” relating to its climate change research. The case grew out of stories published by both Inside Climate News and The Los Angeles Times, which reported that Exxon knew as far back as 1977 that its product was contributing to climate change—but continued to give millions of dollars to politicians and groups that deny climate science, while publicly downplaying the scientific certainty and misleading shareholders about the risks global warming presents to the company’s profitability. The claims are similar to those made by the U.S. Department of Justice in its massive racketeering case against Big Tobacco, which found the industry had engaged in a decades-long cover-up to hide the health impacts of smoking.
Schneiderman is trying to get to to the bottom of whether Exxon engaged in a cover-up of its own, both before and during Tillerson’s tenure as CEO. Under both securities and consumer-protection laws, publicly held companies are required to be honest about even the most miniscule risks, so that investors can make informed decisions about where to put their money. Climate change constitutes an enormous businesses risk, obviously—and the Securities and Exchange Commission agrees.
Though he first demanded communications from Exxon’s management 16 months ago, Shneiderman said this week that Exxon didn’t disclose the existence of Tillerson’s “Wayne Tracker” account until earlier this month—and then, it was only after Schneiderman’s office independently discovered it. A year’s worth of those emails, which were potentially stored separately from the rest of Exxon’s company emails, are now allegedly lost.
The company’s attorneys have vehemently denied that they ever misled investors—or misled anyone about climate science. As for Tillerson’s “Wayne Tracker” account, they say it’s normal for company CEOs to use alias email accounts: It helps them keep track of, and separate, important emails from the deluge of less important ones. And Exxon has an explanation for why the emails were lost, its attorneys said in this week’s court filing. The Wayne Tracker account was miscategorized as “non-personal,” and because of “standard configurations” on Exxon’s Microsoft Exchange email system, many non-personal account emails were automatically deleted after a period of time. They contend this happened before Schneiderman’s request to hand over the emails.
Schneiderman and his attorneys balk at this excuse. They say Exxon has “continuously delayed and obstructed the production of documents from its top executives,” particularly Tillerson. Yes, they say, Exxon has produced more than 400,000 documents since it was hit with Schneiderman’s subpoena 16 months ago. But of those 400,000, only 160 were actual emails from Exxon management. The Tillerson emails they did receive contained little relevant information, the attorney general’s office says.
Exxon maintains that the case amounts to a “highly politicized and bad faith investigation” by Schneiderman, the left-leaning New York attorney general who has been no stranger to the political spotlight. Schneiderman, according to Exxon’s attorneys, has a “well-established preference to litigate his case in the press rather than court.”
The attorney general says Tillerson’s “lost” emails now raise larger questions about not only Exxon’s potential fraud, but about how the company handles internal investigations. Schneiderman’s press secretary, Amy Spitalnick, says the company’s handling “should be deeply concerning to anyone who believes in accountability and the rule of law.”
She’s right: It should concern us all. Since Tillerson was sworn in as secretary of state less than two months ago, his responsibilities to be transparent and accountable, to allow into a window into his conduct as the nation’s chief foreign policy officer, have ballooned. He no longer has 2.5 million shareholders to answer to; he has 314 million citizens. But he’s so far resisted calls for public accountability—refusing to field even a single question from reporters in his few public appearances since his confirmation.
Tillerson has attempted to brush off his aversion to transparency as a matter of personal preference—he just “doesn’t need” the spotlight, he says. But in that lone friendly interview he granted last week, he made it clear that staying mum is a long habit with him. During his decades at ExxonMobil, he said, he had “been very successful diplomatically” by staying out of the public eye. That might be a winning strategy for certain CEOs, but it’s a disastrous approach for Trump’s new secretary of state. As the public starts to catch on to the other email scandal, the question will be more and more pressing: Is a deeply ingrained habit of secrecy what we want, and need, in America’s top diplomat?
Political pundits, staggered by Donald Trump’s exaggerated boasts, false promises, and outright lies, have offered various theories for what’s wrong with him. Does he suffer from mental illness? Is he experiencing early-onset dementia? Andrew Sullivan recently argued in New York magazine that Trump’s chronic, stubborn dishonesty—unlike normal political fibbing—is “delusional” and “deranged,” a frightening sign that the president is living in an alternative universe. “There is no anchor any more,” Sullivan writes. “At the core of the administration of the most powerful country on earth, there is, instead, madness.”
But such dramatic theories miss the simplest explanation for Trump’s lying: He’s a real estate developer from New York City. Lying isn’t a personal failure. It’s a business model.
New York real estate, where Trump first learned the art of the con, is a line of work that’s built on chicanery. Under state law, real estate developers have a de facto legal license to lie, and they use it with abandon. The marketing materials for a luxury condo might advertise top-flight amenities—on-site SoulCycle, say, or valet stroller parking—but buyers have no legal recourse after they move in and discover they have to haul their strollers up six flights like a tenement-dweller; as a matter of New York law, only the final sales contract is binding. And with land values so high and profit margins so slim, developers have every incentive to hype the sales pitch. “Real estate investors sell their product—and in the process, they promise it will have benefits that may not ever be realized,” says Thomas Angotti, a professor of urban planning at Hunter College and author of New York For Sale. Or as one real estate broker and property manager in New York puts it: “Everybody in this business is a fucking liar.”
Bait-and-switch tactics are an everyday practice in Trump’s industry. The real estate mogul Bruce Ratner dangled star architect Frank Gehry before city officials when seeking approval for the arena that would anchor his enormous Atlantic Yards development in downtown Brooklyn. Once the deal was in place, however, Gehry was booted off the project and a cheaper design was swapped in. And more than four years after the arena opened, local residents are still waiting for the eight acres of parks that Ratner pledged to create. To win approval for taller luxury high-rises, developers frequently agree to provide courtyards or other amenities for the public to enjoy. Then they save money by cutting corners on construction, making the spaces so inaccessible or unwelcoming that no one wants to use them.
“If you’re maximizing profit, you’re going to invest the minimum amount of money into what gets you the most benefit,” says Eric Goldwyn, a professor of urban studies at Barnard College and Hunter College. “If it happens to be a trapezoid courtyard between two buildings that no one can really use, who cares? The public agenda isn’t what they’re really looking to do, which is just to satisfy the zoning requirement.”
Trump is well versed in the dark arts of the New York mega-developer. In 1979, he got the city to approve 20 extra stories for Trump Tower by creating a fourth-floor “public garden” that is almost never open. He also replaced the lone bench in the public lobby with kiosks selling paraphernalia from his presidential campaign and The Apprentice. (Last summer, after losing a series of administrative decisions by the city, Trump returned the bench.) His now-infamous habit of stiffing contractors is common among developers. Trump has also lied to preservationists, promising to preserve the Art Deco friezes from the façade of the Bonwit Teller department store building that he demolished to make way for Trump Tower. When he realized it would take two weeks to remove them undamaged, he instead jackhammered them to pieces.
Kate Wood, president of the preservation advocacy group Landmark West, says New York developers sometimes destroy architectural features on an old building to prevent it from being subjected to landmark status. And she has seen developers understate the likely revenue of new buildings when trying to get permission to build them. Some falsely claim that certain floors will be used for community instead of commercial purposes. “It kind of comes down to ‘alternative facts,’” says Wood. “There are facts that we in the public and nonprofit advocacy sector see, and there’s how developers see the world.”
Given that real estate developers are mainly salesmen—to investors, customers, local officials, and neighborhood advocates—lying is basically their job. But even among his fellow developers, Trump excelled at misdirection. In a deposition in 2007, when Trump sued a journalist for reporting on unflattering truths about his business practices, lawyers caught Trump in 30 separate lies. He inflated the price of membership at one of his golf clubs, the fee he received for giving a speech, the magnitude of his past debts, the size of his stake in a partnership, the number of sales at a condo building, and the number of his employees. In real estate, as Trump knows, there’s no detail unworthy of exaggeration.
Those who enter politics from other walks of life often confront the stereotypes associated with their chosen profession. John Edwards was caricatured as a sleazy ambulance chaser; Mitt Romney as a heartless private equity predator. But Trump somehow managed to present his background in one of the world’s shadiest and most dishonest occupations as a credential rather than a liability. This, at heart, is the secret to his political success: He found a way to apply the shameless ethos of his old profession to the demands of his new one.
“I try and be truthful,” Trump explained in his deposition in 2007, sounding like a kid who wants to be graded on effort rather than accuracy. Then, in an eerily prescient moment, he drew a straight line from his professional lying to his bigger ambitions. “I’m no different,” he confessed, “from a politician running for office.”
It was only a matter of time before the presidential chatter began. Al Franken, the comedian-turned-politician from Minnesota, kept a conspicuously low profile during his first term in the Senate, sticking quietly to policy matters to convince the world that he was a serious guy, not just a celebrity with a political jones. But since Donald Trump’s election (and Franken’s re-election), the senator has been busting out all over, mainly due to his expert grilling of the Trump nominees that liberals most love to hate. Franken laid a perjury trap for attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions during his confirmation, and then, for his next act, uncovered education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos’s deep ignorance of education policy. This week, Franken’s deft questioning made vividly clear the callousness of Neil Gorsuch’s judicial philosophy—and turned a Supreme Court nomination fight into a public conversation about the conservative bias for corporations over people.
These dramatic moments, instantly distilled into YouTube moments, quickly spread online, transforming Franken in the blink of an eye from a relative political newcomer to someone who must be buzzed about, played up, shot down, and speculated about as potential presidential candidate in 2020. Queue the bandwagon!
“This is Al Franken’s moment in the spotlight,” writes Josh Kraushaar at National Journal. “If he chooses, he could parlay his good fortune into a bid for the presidency in 2020.” Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post and Michael Kinsley in Vanity Fair have echoed this argument that Franken is (or should be) a serious presidential contender for 2020. And a 23-year-old graduate student named Nick Butler has even set up a PAC to draft Franken. His rationale for a Franken candidacy: “He could be a kind of younger, cooler Bernie Sanders,” Butler told The Wrap, appealing to both young and blue-collar voters with his populism. Plus, Franken has “plenty of friends in the deep-pocketed entertainment industry.”
The “Franken for President” buzz is as understandable as it was inevitable. The Democratic Party needs all the star power it can find right now, of course. And with Trump in the White House, a colorful past in the entertainment world no longer looks like such a political liability; maybe it’s even an advantage.
Franken, of course, has every right to run for the presidency if he wants to. And he may very well be thinking about it—along with several dozen other Democrats. After all, he is the author of the 1999 satirical novel, Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency. The plot is farcical and far-fetched—or at least, it seemed that way he wrote it. Franken unexpectedly wins the White House by promising to eliminate ATM fees, but is quickly forced to resign because of his bizarre behavior during the inauguration, which leads to the revelation of diaries revealing his unfitness for office. Why Not Me? is self-deprecating, as much of Franken’s humor is, but seems considerably less fantastic now that Trump is president. Trump’s success has enormously expanded the range of what is possible in American politics, to the point where an idea that Franken played for laughs in 1999 could be a real possibility in 2020. (Although he probably wouldn’t run on the ATM issue.)
But Franken should not run for president. The Democratic Party needs him too much in the Senate. What the last few weeks have demonstrated, most of all, is that Franken has exactly the skill set the party needs in Washington—especially when hearings come around. Senate hearings are a unique public forum that remains central to American political life and debate: They’re half-courtroom, half-theater. Like a good trial lawyer, a senator has to know how to ask questions forensically, so that they support an argument. And like a good actor, a senator also has to know how to grab and hold the spotlight at the right moments.
With the possible exception of Elizabeth Warren, no Democrats excels at congressional theater like Franken. He has a true gift for interrogating nominees in a way that gets them to reveal things about themselves that they would rather not. It was Franken’s direct questioning of Sessions during his confirmation hearings that led to the former Alabama Senator lying under oath about meeting the Russian ambassador (and ultimately forced Sessions to recuse himself from the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the election).
Similarly, under the glare of Franken’s questioning, Betsy DeVos revealed her stark ignorance of education policy, creating a national outcry over her nomination. This, as we now know, was vintage Franken: He shrewdly zeroed in on the debate over whether students should be evaluated based on “growth” or “proficiency”—one that anybody who knows anything about education would instantly recognize. As DeVos sputtered out her non-answer, it became clear that she didn’t know the difference between the concepts: “I think, if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancement they’re making in each subject area.” Franken corrected her: “Well, that’s growth. That’s not proficiency.” When DeVos said she was “just asking to clarify,” Franken finished her off with a dry quip: “It surprises me that you don’t know this issue.”
In his grilling of Gorsuch, Franken once again managed to redefine a Trump nominee—this time, as the embodiment of conservative judges’ corporate bias, and the human toll it extracts. In a deft line of questioning, Franken drew out the dangerous smugness of the nominee’s judicial philosophy with needling questions about a decision Gorsuch had made in what’s known as the “frozen trucker” case. A truck driver was fired after he temporarily abandoned his rig for a good reason: He risked freezing to death in it, or harming others if he tried to move it. In a dissenting decision, Judge Gorsuch said the company had every right to fire the trucker. Franken picked apart Gorsuch’s dissent, getting him to essentially admit he couldn’t put himself into the shoes of the truck driver.
Franken used the case to make a larger point about how Gorsuch’s “literalism”—like that of so many other Republican judges—leads him to make decisions that are manifestly cruel. In his closing peroration, Franken noted that Gorsuch claimed to be devoted to the “plain meaning” of the law, and then dissected that devotion mercilessly. “The plain meaning rule has an exception,” Franken explained. “When using the plain meaning rule would create an absurd result, courts should depart from the plain meaning. It is absurd to say this company is in its rights to fire him because he made the choice of possibly dying from freezing to death or causing other people to die possibly by driving an unsafe vehicle. That’s absurd.”
Franken then ended on a self-deprecating joke pointing to his own comedic past: “Now, I had a career in identifying absurdity. And I know it when I see it. And it makes me — you know, it makes me question your judgment.”
This is what Democrats desperately need more of. But Franken, like every promising Democratic office-holder, is going to be flattered and urged and petititoned to run for president—partly because his party has fetishized the presidency, to its own peril. While Republicans have invested heavily in “down-ballot” races, and built up a massive advantage in both state capitols and Washington, Democrats have continued to throw everything at winning (or losing) the White House. That mentality has to change—and maybe the process can start with Franken.
Franken has emerged as a uniquely effective senator because he has the skills needed to do the work that senators are actually tasked with. Beyond grilling nominees—and redefining national debates in the process—they’re legislators who have to have a command of policy details. Franken displayed that sort of command even before entering politics. As a comedian, he specialized in surprisingly wonkish political humor that was based on challenging blowhards like Bill O’Reilly on the facts. Franken’s special gift is that he can explain the often arcane matters taken up by the Senate in crisp terms that average citizens can easily understand. His use of the truck- driver story drove home a point about the real-world consequences of Gorsuch’s jurisprudence. Democrats need more voices like that in the Senate, not less—and not a guy who’s distracted by a presidential bid.
For the sake of their future, Democrats must come around to understanding that the party needs strong office-holders at every level. They can start by refraining from whipping up, or hopping on, the “Franken for President” train. Instead, liberals should encourage Franken to ignore the temptation, stay put in the Senate, and continue to hone his essential skills as the master of hearing-room drama.
Dave Chappelle is no stranger to controversy. Twelve years ago, at the height of his career, Chappelle walked away from his hit television show and a $50 million deal with Comedy Central. So many Chappelle’s Show segments—and not just the ones he did about Rick James, Charlie Murphy, and Prince—have already become the stuff of legend, and the show is rightfully credited for dramatically changing the way American audiences think, talk, and laugh about race.
For several years he stayed out of the public eye, but Chappelle has gradually raised his profile back to its previously lofty heights, most notably as host of Saturday Night Live the weekend after President Donald Trump’s election. Still, it was Tuesday’s release of two new comedy specials—filmed at Austin City Limits Live in April 2015 and at the Hollywood Palladium in March 2016, part of a three-special deal he signed with Netflix for a reported $60 million—that was supposed to mark the legendary comic’s triumphant return. To say anticipation has been running high is no small understatement.
I watched both specials back to back. I laughed, a lot. But I cringed more times than I should have. You can forgive a ballsy comedian like Chappelle a couple of lame LGBT jokes—pushing buttons is what he does, and goodness knows PC culture deserves some skewering every now and then. But Chappelle spends an awful lot of time in these specials discussing LGBT issues. They are easily the least funny parts, mostly because they showcase a man who seems stuck in a time warp, hung up about things he really shouldn’t be hung up about.
This is hardly the first time Chappelle’s material has been called homophobic. Just this past November, a gig he did at The Cutting Room in New York City left many progressives cold (while winning over many on the right). Why does Chapelle feel so compelled to return again and again to these topics, especially if he’s not going to offer a fresh perspective on them?
Chappelle’s go-to voice for every gay man in his two specials—high-pitched, over-enunciated, effete—is one that most people will recognize from comedians and television shows from the 1980s and 90s. His riff on how gays “always have some kind of political argument” comes with a curious example about how he had argued with a gay man who was petitioning to remove the words “husband” and “wife” from marriage licenses. “Nigga please, save me the semantics,” Chappelle says. “Take your chips out of the casino, you’re about to crap out. Go outside, talk it over amongst yourselves, and whichever one of you is gayer, that’s the wife.”
Here’s the problem: Even if some of his audience finds these dead-fish-in-the-barrel jokes funny, why does Chappelle? Chappelle’s Show was brilliant because it upended our notions of race, not because it trotted out tired stereotypes.
Chappelle is even more tone-deaf on transgender issues. He seems to have little interest or patience with any notion of transgender identity, going on an extended rant about how he “misses” Bruce Jenner. He reduces gender assignment surgery to a crude joke about how strange it would be if he and his friend were to go to the hospital one afternoon to “cut their dicks off.” Worse, he acts offended when someone corrects his use of a pronoun, as if it’s somehow a burden on him to have to refer to a transgender woman as a “she.”
A particularly callous part comes when he cites “black dudes in Brooklyn, hard, street motherfuckers, who wear high heels just to feel safe.” You’d almost think that Chappelle is convinced that the progress trans people have made in the last few years has come at the expense of black progress. But discrimination isn’t a zero-sum game. And newsflash—many trans people are people of color. Statistically, they are also the most likely to be sexually assaulted. That Chapelle thinks it’s funny to joke about how they have it better than black men demonstrates the kind of myopic worldview that only a rich male comedian might have.
Does Chapelle think it’s his duty to nurture homophobia and transphobia in a country where racism is still alive and well? Perhaps, since some racist white people are still calling him “nigger,” he feels like it’s his right to use the word “fag”? It’s a lot harder to take his social commentary about racism seriously when he feels the need to diminish other marginalized groups.
There’s nothing more depressing than having to explain why certain jokes just aren’t funny. Critics of comedy are labeled dour, defensive killjoys, and articles like these tend to only confirm for many people that liberals are snowflakes who take themselves too seriously. But to dismiss the blatant homophobia and transphobia on display in Chappelle’s latest specials as just innocuous “comedy” is to belittle Chappelle’s genius. Precisely because his material is usually so much smarter and funnier is why people like me are going to call him out when his routines feel backwards or stale. Someone needs to tell Chappelle that Eddie Murphy did “Delirious” back in 1983.
The relationship between President Donald Trump and his allies in Congress is rooted less in a simpatico bond than in a particularly ugly kind of transactional politics.
As is often the case when Trump strikes a deal, his side of it comes first: Republicans tolerate his racism, ignore his corruption, laugh off his erratic behavior, and in exchange he leaves the core of the party’s domestic agenda unmolested. He nominates originalists to the Supreme Court; he breaks all his promises to voters by letting Speaker Paul Ryan set social and economic policy.
Notwithstanding the mythical powers Republicans ascribe to cutting high-income taxes, the terms of the arrangement still leave the country vulnerable to humiliation and grave dangers. Back in November, I argued that this transaction set us in a race against time: Could Republicans squeeze what they wanted out of Trump’s presidency quickly enough to spare the organs of U.S. democracy from fatal damage?
That analysis stands, but may have overestimated Republican competence and underestimated Trump’s toxicity.
Four months later, the devil’s bargain between Trump and the GOP is showing signs of strain. It may come apart before the party has any reward to show for it.
On Wednesday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes confused all of Washington by announcing—with a bizarre sense of urgency—that Trump officials (perhaps Trump himself) had been incidentally captured on legal foreign intelligence surveillance intercepts. His revelation was at once unsurprising (Trump and his associates were known to hold unsecured telephone calls with foreign leaders and agents during the transition period) and also quite likely classified. After alerting the press, Nunes rushed to the White House to brief Trump, allowing Trump to claim vindication for the completely unrelated and discredited claim that former President Barack Obama had wiretapped him during the election—which, it seems, was the whole point of the stunt.
At the very least, Nunes reminded the world why he can’t be trusted to oversee an investigation of Russian interference on Trump’s behalf in last year’s election. His actions led to renewed calls for a non-partisan inquiry, or for him to relinquish his chairmanship. Nunes’s Democratic counterpart on the committee, Representative Adam Schiff of California, issued a statement implying in so many words that Nunes had pantsed himself and handed his britches over to the naked emperor.
Also on Wednesday, the Republican health care bill—which would provide America’s wealthiest with hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts, while stripping health insurance from millions of elderly and poor citizens—was losing support, raising speculation that it won’t have enough votes to pass in the House Thursday evening, as scheduled.
At a glance, these two storylines are unrelated, but they are actually snapshots of both halves of the devil’s bargain, neither of which is holding up very well.
Trumpcare may yet pass the House and become law, but not because most Republicans like the bill. It is, according to at least one Republican, the most reviled piece of legislation on Capitol Hill in recent memory. Trump and GOP leaders are thus using both concessions and open threats to sway implacable members, prompting outright defiance from the Koch brothers—the influential right-wings billionaires—who are reportedly pledging substantial financial support to those who vote “no.” Pressure from Trump might scare the requisite number of reluctant members into voting “yes.” Just as feasibly, though, it might motivate them to band together in opposition. Unlike many collective action problems, this one has an easy solution.
If Trumpcare dies (in the House Thursday night, or in the Senate next week), congressional Republicans will have to reckon with the possibility that their bargain with Trump is unraveling, and that they’re getting stiffed. Some of the difficulties Republicans are encountering in the health care process will surely spill over into their grander project of cutting taxes. “Without this bill, I don’t know how you do tax reform,” one Republican congressman told the New York Times.
Meanwhile, Trump’s cover is in danger of wearing thin. The Republican appetite for his antics will weaken if their agenda falters. Which key Republicans would be willing to debase themselves as faithfully as Nunes did if Obamacare repeal is a dead letter? If the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s campaign continues to dominate headlines, who will volunteer to be Trump’s human shield until the tax cut process really gets moving?
Without loyalists in Congress, Trump’s presidency would crumble, but he would have pocketed at least some spoils, at great cost to his party and the nation. The classic devil’s bargain is an exchange of soul for real but fleeting fortunes. At this point, Republicans will be lucky if it turns out their deal was with a devil who can make good on his end, rather than an impostor who cannot.
Donald Trump had occupied the White House for less than a month before he decided to launch an all-out attack on the easiest target possible: the media. The day after he held the most unhinged press conference since Richard Nixon went on national TV to declare he wasn’t a crook, Trump took to Twitter to blast the press as “the enemy of the American people.” A few weeks earlier, the president’s chief strategist had expressed the administration’s attitude in equally bellicose terms: “I want you to quote this,” Steve Bannon told The New York Times. “The media here is the opposition party.”
The thing is, “opposition party” is not a description that fits the self-conception of the establishment media. In the face of these unprecedented and incendiary declarations of war against the press, journalists and media pundits continued to preach the talismanic gospel of self-restraint and evenhandedness. In The Baltimore Sun, columnist David Zurawik bemoaned the media’s loss of centrist “balance” under Trump. “ ‘Down the middle’ has been a favored journalistic expression for decades,” he wrote. “But that’s getting to be an increasingly lonely place for journalists like me who still believe wholeheartedly in that value.” On CNN, media gadfly Michael Wolff chastised the press for being in alarmist mode since Trump’s inauguration. “Every situation,” he groused, “seems to be provoking an overreaction.” Fred Hiatt, the longtime editor of the Washington Post editorial page, likewise counseled cool-headed impartiality, with the prim, purse-lipped certitude of a practiced arbiter of elite political discussion. “The answer to dishonest or partisan journalism,” he assured readers, “cannot be more partisan journalism, which would only harm our credibility and make civil discourse even less possible.”
Some in the media establishment, including The New York Times, have ventured so far as to use the word “falsehood” in headlines to describe the administration’s knee-jerk tendency to make shit up. When these fearless publications catch some Trump flunky in a brazen whopper, they want us to know, they will boldly break the decades-long precedent of treating factual distortions from on high with euphemisms like “controversial” or “disputed,” and bravely call an official falsehood a falsehood, a Trump lie a lie.
But given that lying is pretty much the business model of Trumpism, and that a whole battery of senior White House aides, from Kellyanne Conway to Sean Spicer to Dark Lord Bannon himself, are enthusiastic masters of straight-faced deceit, it’s unlikely that this sort of semantic breakthrough will make much of an impression on the body politic. For one thing, the sheer volume of Trumpist prevaricating has created a perverse deadening effect; the news that the president and his minions are systematically lying to the American public is no longer exactly news. Besides, a good deal of Trump’s political appeal stems from telling conservatives the kind of lies they most want to hear. When Trump declared at his February press conference that “the leaks are real,” but “the news is fake,” he knew his audience. Trump’s backers not only can’t handle the truth; they don’t even want to know what it is.
In this sense, Bannon was right when he declared that journalists “do not understand why Donald Trump is president of the United States.” If Trump’s lies are what got him elected, and what will keep him popular, then the media’s allegiance to a noncommittal parsing of the blizzard of falsehoods now issuing from the Oval Office is woefully inadequate to our post-truth political environment—particularly since it’s now an article of faith among the Trump faithful that it’s the media, not the president, that’s doing the lying.
So here’s a crazy thought: What if, rather than reflexively assuming its defensive posture of “objectivity,” the press embraced this opportunity to go full-offense? In declaring the media the “opposition party,” Bannon may have actually done it a great favor, tacitly casting it as a worthy adversary to Trump’s newfound power. If the press can find a way to conceptualize itself as a true opposition party, then perhaps American journalism might stand for something that would be of value to readers and viewers. But to get a clearer fix on what that might look like, we need to revisit a time when the mainstream media engaged in effective, adversarial journalism that served the civic good.
Ask any journalism professor to name the era when the press functioned most vigorously to challenge the White House, and the almost universal reply will be the 1970s. Those were the days when The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, and The Washington Post broke the story of Watergate.
But as those episodes from the golden-age-of-media lore suggest, the “opposition” part of the equation is tricky when it comes to the actual practice of journalism. Journalists best do the work of the opposition when they don’t explicitly know that they’re doing it. Put another way: When you understand that it’s actually your job to expose the government’s misdeeds, crimes, and lies, being the opposition means nothing more than doing your job. This is what’s so frustrating about the reflexive centrist lullabies peddled by old-media savants like Wolff and Hiatt: They mistake the work of reporting for partisan cheerleading. And this is why they are playing directly into the hands of the Trumpists.
In the history of Watergate, you can see the routine character of how journalists operate in the mode of a true, public-spirited opposition. The movie version of All the President’s Men paints a heroic, swashbuckling narrative of the Post’s coverage of the break-in. But employees who were there at the time tell a considerably more mundane story. Barry Sussman, the Post’s city editor who assigned the Watergate story to a young Bob Woodward, recalled years later that he thought the break-in was nothing extraordinary at first, and that there was internal hesitance among his colleagues in covering it. “Be careful,” they warned him, “don’t go overboard. These things happen in all campaigns.” Even Woodward later downplayed his role in Nixon’s downfall. “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit,” he said. “The press always plays a role, whether by being passive or by being aggressive, but it’s a mistake to overemphasize” the impact of media coverage. What mattered to the journalists who took on Richard Nixon wasn’t bringing him down—it was getting it right.
Conversely, when reporters set out to put a dent in someone and miss their mark, they risk public shame, accusations of ethical wrongdoing, and costly libel suits—as The New York Times did in 2008, when it ran a story that was thin on sources and heavy on innuendo alleging that then-presidential candidate John McCain had an affair with a lobbyist. It’s hard work, being the opposition party. And when you fail to do the work, it shows.
Effective media opposition needs to arise from entrenched, institutional habit. Watergate and the Pentagon Papers weren’t random scoops, but blockbuster stories born of a long-simmering hostility between the press and the government. The adversarial relationship began during Johnson’s presidency, when LBJ pledged “maximum candor” but turned Vietnam into a bright, shining lie. By the time Nixon rose to power and began a tradition of openly insulting the press, the media was already on high alert for deep-seated government malfeasance. Even though he was mean to the leaders of the news industry, Nixon was very good for its business model. Scandal sold more newspapers, and more newspapers meant more advertisements.
That’s no small thing. The collapse of any viable business model to support the work of journalism has made many of its self-appointed defenders distinctly pusillanimous. In a universe of perennially shrinking revenues, strongly oppositional (or indeed merely strong) reporting of any kind seems like a luxury our media can no longer afford. Rather than generating additional ad revenues, it’s seen as eating up resources.
It would be nice to think that the media could somehow relinquish its pompous air of self-regard and lay into the Trump administration with Seventies-era gusto. One could argue that Obama, a notorious and talented media manipulator in his own right, has set the stage for Trump, just as Johnson did for Nixon. But that would require the press to acknowledge the inherent flaws—passivity, narcissism, sycophancy, the urge to cling to “objectivity”—that stand in the way of it telling the government to go fuck itself. Until the news industry can find a business model to support a more vigorous and adversarial approach to government scrutiny, our greatest civic hope for disabling Trumpism resides in the supply side of the equation. Fortunately, there’s no apparent shortage of alarmed officials within the Trump administration frantically leaking all the damning information they can about their boss.
In his memoir, Ben Bradlee, the Post’s editor during Watergate, thanked Richard Nixon for his unintentional contribution to the media’s societal standing. “It is wonderfully ironical that a man who so disliked—and never understood—the press did so much to further the reputation of the press,” Bradlee wrote. “In his darkest hour, he gave the press its finest hour.” Today’s press may likewise one day owe Donald Trump a debt of gratitude—if only it can rouse itself to remember what its historic role should be.
Charles de Gaulle, a titan not prone to false modesty, wrote four volumes of memoirs. Norman Podhoretz—De Gaulle’s equal in self-regard, if not in achievement—has also given us four autobiographical tomes. The comparison between the liberator of Paris and the former editor of Commentary might seem a wild stretch, but the underlying argument of all of Podhoretz’s work is that his literary career (and the careers of his rivals) have a world-historical importance. And since Podhoretz remains feisty and self-obsessed as ever at the age of 87, he might yet overmaster de Gaulle in the field of self-celebration.
In Making It (1967)—the first, best, and most notorious of Podhoretz’s chronicles, which charts the hero’s rise to literary fame—you can see the scale of his ambition, as he observes the world around him. George Plimpton’s “return to New York” after several years in bohemian Paris, we’re told, “deserves a place in the social annals of the American literary intellectual as proportionately important in its own context as de Gaulle’s return to France in another.” The word “proportionately” suggests some modesty, but hardly enough. Plimpton established the Paris Review, a literary journal; De Gaulle established the Fifth Republic. As becomes clear in the course of the book, for Podhoretz the ratio of importance between statecraft and literary politicking is not far from one to one.
In 1953, at the tender age of 23, Podhoretz was asked to write for The New Yorker. This is a happy event in any young writer’s career but for Podhoretz it meant much more. He tells us that his mentor, the sagacious literary critic Lionel Trilling, “regarded this invitation as an extraordinary event—a kind of confirmation, I think, of his ideas as to the nature of the changes which were obviously beginning to take place in the American cultural situation.” Podhoretz’s rather Hegelian theory is that there had been a divide in the literary world between commercial cultural journalism (The New Yorker) and high-brow intellectual writing (Partisan Review, which also solicited the services of the wunderkind). In the person of Podhoretz the thesis of The New Yorker and the antithesis of Partisan Review would find their ideal synthesis with a critic who was both journalistically fluid and a brainiac to boot. In Hegel’s term, Podhoretz was destined to be the Absolute Spirit who would bring literary history to an end.
On its 50th anniversary, Making It has been brought back into print by New York Review Classics—a piquant publishing alliance given the fact that Podhoretz has viewed the New York Review of Books as a bitter political and intellectual rival for nearly half a century. Podhoretz had been close friends with Jason Epstein, one of the founders of the Review, but they split over politics in the early 1970s as Podhoretz became increasingly right-wing. The book’s reissue isn’t quite a sign that the old wounds have healed, but it does offer occasion for re-examining one of the most disputed books in the American canon. “Do not publish this book,” Lionel Trilling urged his former student, after reading the manuscript. “It is a gigantic mistake. Put it away and do not let others see it.” Wilfrid Sheed called it “a book of no literary distinction” in the Atlantic. The sociologist Edgar Z. Friedenberg deemed it “lifeless” in his review.
These ungenerous evaluations were only half-right. Bluntly written, intellectually obtuse, and morally crass, Making It is a flawed book but also a brilliant one. The book it most closely resembles is William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris, a cringe-inducing and blinkered account of the essayist’s failed courtship of his housekeeper. Like Liber Amoris, Making It is a calamity that holds us fixed, indeed invites revisiting. Infatuated by his own greatness, Podhoretz unwittingly blurts out truths about himself that a more aware writer would have hidden, infusing Making It with the uniquely revelatory properties of true vulgarity.
Making It belongs to a time-honored American genre: the autobiography of the self-made man as he journeys from rags to riches. What distinguishes the book is its explicitness in spelling out the hidden costs of success. Born in 1930 in the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn, the son of a milkman and a doting mother (whose Yiddish accent made her son “ashamed”), Podhoretz is alert to the fact that America offers people like him (the talented offspring of white immigrants) a “brutal bargain”: endless upper-ward mobility is open to them so long as they transform themselves into “facsimile WASPs.” The price of success is betrayal. To join the ruling class you have to start thinking like them, which means despising your roots.
Through the abrasive mentoring of an overbearing high school teacher, intent on rubbing out any trace of the “slum child” in him, Podhoretz learned that wearing the proper suit and knowing how to order a proper martini were as important as good grades. His elite education (Columbia and Cambridge, England) went hand in hand with cultural assimilation, the flipside of which was acquiring “a distaste for the surrounding in which I was bred, and ultimately (God forgive me) even for many of the people I loved, and so a new taste for other kinds of people.”
Ambitious to succeed and quickly shedding any trace of Brownsville from his accent, Podhoretz rocketed from triumph to triumph, the benchmarks of which we’re given in excoriating detail: getting fantastic grades at Columbia (A+ in all classes except for poetry composition) and Cambridge where the teachers adored him; publishing in The New Yorker and Partisan Review while still young; becoming the editor of Commentary at age 30; publishing a well-received essay collection (Podhoretz makes sure we know that it “went into a third hardcover edition within a year”); attending fancy parties with famous friends like Norman Mailer, Hannah Arendt, and various movie stars.
Some of these signposts of victory can be disputed. From other books by and about New York intellectuals it’s fairly clear that many of those he claimed as friends—like Arendt—were more like acquaintances. To go by Making It, the towering Cambridge literary critic F.R. Leavis was one of many teachers dazzled by Podhoretz’s youthful brilliance. But after Making It was published, Leavis’s wife Queenie Leavis, herself a formidably literary critic, composed a cold missive to the Spectator saying that Podhoretz was merely an aggressive Yankee her husband allowed to audit his classes, and insisting they had no real bond. And even Podhoretz’s genuine friends like Mailer and Jason Epstein would soon break with him. The fact that we now know these friendships were destined to splinter gives Making It a patina of melancholy it originally lacked.
Podhoretz was as attentive to the distinctive qualities of failure, as he was obsessed with success. The simple dialectical reality, as he saw it, was that for Podhoretz to win, others had to lose. He soon came to recognize “that special combination of bitterness and smugness I had so often seen on the faces of people whom Robert Rossen’s film The Hustler later taught me to think of as ‘losers.’”
Who are these losers? They include Jews who, unlike Podhoretz, lack the wherewithal to become “facsimile WASPs.” Podhoretz derides his fellow teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary (which he attended concurrently with Columbia) for their “endless harping on the suffering of the Jews.” (Podhoretz is here describing his teachers in 1946, only a year after the Nazi death camps had been liberated).
His classmates at Columbia who didn’t get grades as good as his were also losers. After graduation, he couldn’t help but notice that “I was making it and they were not; perhaps they never would.” He bonded with Jason Epstein in part because Epstein (who quickly became a success as an editor by spearheading the quality paperback revolution) was also “making it.” The only downside was the envy of their loser former friends. “Now, however, we were each being victimized by the aggressive and whining treatment which is always reserved for the newly successful by their less fortunate old friends, and which more than anything accounts for the tendency of most people to associate only with their peers in status or wealth,” Podhoretz regretfully notes. “One gets tired of feeling guilty and apologetic toward others to whom one is constantly forced to accord sympathy without the reciprocal entitlement to it.”
Gay men, with their failure to achieve proper heteronormative masculinity, also counted as losers. Among those that gave Podhoretz a hard time at Columbia were “the homosexuals with their supercilious disdain of my lower-class style of dress and my brash and impudent manner.” The homophobia in Making It is mild compared to views he would later express, but his intense contempt for “losers” foreshadowed some of the vitriol that was yet to come. In 1987, Podhoretz claimed “AIDS is almost entirely a disease caught by men who bugger or are buggered by dozens or even hundreds of other men every year” and opposed spending money on AIDS research since it would only “allow [gay men] to resume buggering each other with complete medical impunity.”
Finally, the biggest losers of all in the Podhoretzian universe are African-Americans. Explaining the origins of his infamous 1963 essay “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” Podhoretz recounts an argument with James Baldwin during which he told the novelist, “Neither I nor may ancestors had ever wronged the Negroes; on the contrary, I had grown up in an ‘integrated’ slum neighborhood where it was Negroes who persecuted the whites and not the other way around. I told him several stories about my childhood relations with Negroes and about the resentment and hatred with which my experience had left me.” Acknowledging that “there was something almost psychotic in the relation of whites to Negroes in America,” Podhoretz thought the only solution was the erasure of blackness through “miscegenation.” As he argues, “Some day, perhaps, the Negroes would disappear through wholesale miscegenation into the white population; it would be the best conclusion to the whole sorry mess.”
This solution of “miscegenation” is of course an attempt to apply the logic of assimilation to racism. Just as Podhoretz became a “facsimile WASP” so, over the generations, black Americans would disappear as a distinct group into whiteness. The novelist Ralph Ellison raised an inarguable, practical objection to Podhoretz’s miscegenation scheme: Blacks and whites had in fact been “mixing” in America for centuries and it simply created shades of brown—newer gradations of blackness—which did nothing to overturn the existing racist hierarchy. Podhoretz’s plan would only be desirable if you thought African-Americans as a people had nothing distinctive to contribute to the world. While Podhoretz might think that his miscegenation plan had an anti-racist intent, the end goal was no different than age-old transportation schemes to send blacks to Africa: an America without an African-American presence.
pose Podhoretz adopts in Making It is
of a brave truth-teller, willing to face the realities other intellectuals shy
away from. But his supposed discoveries—that wealth, fame, and power are
desirable, and that America is the greatest country on earth because it allows
go-getters like him to succeed—are merely reiterations of the most banal form
of conservatism. There’s no moral lesson in Making
It that George F. Babbitt
(of Sinclair Lewis’s novel) would disagree with, although, on a practical
point, Babbitt would rightly note that if the goal is the big money then real
estate is a better field than editing.
While Podhoretz would’ve called himself a liberal in 1967, all the traits that led to his shift to the right in the early 1970s were already present in Making It. In the sharpest review of Making It, Wilfrid Sheed accurately describes it as having a “Ayn-Rand-and-water” program. Podhoretz’s hatred of the New Left was rooted in the simple fact that they were trying to overthrow the very establishment he had made such an effort to join.
The figure Podhoretz ultimately resembles is not Charles de Gaulle but a more contemporary statesman. Making It is the story of a boy from the outer boroughs who dreams of succeeding with the Manhattan elite. A relentless self-promoter he finds fame, yet he can’t quite shake the feeling that the more genteel members of the establishment don’t like him. Full of racial resentment, he is also quick to deride the losers and haters who criticize him. Podhoretz even has some advice on how to make deals. (“Advice to Young Men: The best way to get a job you really want is to believe that you really don’t want it.”)
Norman Podhoretz is the Donald Trump of American literature and Making It is his Art of the Deal. That’s a sad strange fate for what was once a promising Brownsville boy who loved Keats and wanted to be a poet.
As Senator Patty Murray tells it, Luke was a middle-school boy who used a private school voucher program to attend Manatee Learning Academy in Bradenton, Florida. He did well at Manatee, but when he tried to switch schools for tenth grade, he realized his credits wouldn’t transfer since Manatee—unbeknownst to him and his family—lacked accreditation.
“For all those glossy voucher program brochures,” Luke’s grandmother Nadell Northrop wrote in a Medium post for the American Federation of Teachers, “nobody running the program bothered to mention that schools taking voucher students didn’t have to be accredited, and their teachers didn’t have to be certified.” And so, instead of repeating a grade, Northrop’s grandson simply dropped out of school altogether.
“Luke was a good student,” Murray said Wednesday in a speech at the Center for American Progress. “We failed him.”
Murray’s point, as she also explained in a Wednesday memo to her Senate colleagues, was that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s school privatization agenda will hurt lots of students like Luke. And the senator, a Democrat from Washington state and the ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, wants her colleagues to start making this case more aggressively, as DeVos ramps up her advocacy for school vouchers nationwide.
The central appeal of DeVos’s school privatization agenda is the notion of “school choice”—that students trapped in failing public schools, many of whom are minority kids, should have the opportunity to choose a public charter or private school that will, ostensibly, provide them a better education. It’s a powerful narrative for President Donald Trump and Republicans, allowing conservatives to cast their policies as a form of social justice—the free market in service of civil rights.
But Murray pointed out that the path to privatization ultimately hurts the very students it’s intended to help. “On its face, providing students with more choices sounds great,” Murray said, “but that is not what their plans would do. By diverting taxpayer funds from public to private schools, we are taking away parents’ and students’ choice to go to a quality public school.”
“Undermining public education is not a choice,” she added. “It means forcing students to either attend an unaccountable private school or an underfunded public school.”
On accountability, Murray pointed out that opting for a private school over a public school can often mean a choice no student should have to make—foregoing federal civil rights protections, including those provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. As excellent as many private schools are, others aren’t held to the same standards of accountability and transparency as public schools, such as standardized reports to parents about their child’s performance.
Murray also noted that vouchers and other privatization efforts are especially detrimental to students in rural America, home to many of President Donald Trump’s own voters. In these areas, there are less likely to be private options anywhere near public schools, rendering the notion of “choice” irrelevant to families. Murray also stressed the fundamental problem with all privatization schemes: They divert funding from public schools, which educated 90 percent of American students.
Advocates of the DeVos agenda point to polling showing “school choice” is popular with Americans in the abstract. Democrats must explain that vouchers typically fail to provide better educational opportunity and undermine a vital public institution. By following Murray’s lead, they can make clear that the choice provided by privatization ultimately isn’t a very good choice at all.
Is Dana Schutz allowed to paint Emmett Till in his coffin? Dana Schutz is a successful artist: Her painting Open Casket is part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, a show whose mission is to indicate the country’s cultural temperature. The painting depicts the dead body of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered. The piece has become the focus of controversy in recent days; the artist and writer Hannah Black has called for its removal and destruction. She and many others have pointed out that black suffering is not a material that white artists can just make use of, like oil paint or videotape—an argument made in many debates over cultural appropriation. But the case of Emmett Till contains an extra layer of difficulty. His mother, Mamie Till Mobley, dealt with her loss by controlling the postmortem narrative and the image of her son in death. “I know that his life can’t be returned but I hope that his death will certainly start a movement in these United States,” she once said. It is a matter of both appropriation and of the history of American visual politics.
Emmett Till’s story begins in August 1955. While he was visiting family in Mississippi, Till and his cousins took a trip to a local grocery store, where 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant was working. Till bought a pack of gum and, apparently, interacted with Bryant in a way that offended her. A few days later, Carolyn’s husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped and murdered Till. When authorities found his body three days later, his face was so disfigured that his uncle, Mose Wright, could only identify him by an initialed ring. His body was sent back to Chicago where, after seeing the brutalized body of her son, Mamie Till Mobley decided to have an open-casket funeral.
Emmett Till’s mother displayed her son in public, even though his murderers had beaten his body beyond recognition. As Claudia Rankine wrote in her essay “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” “Mobley’s refusal to keep private grief private allowed a body that meant nothing to the criminal-justice system to stand as evidence.” She refused the etiquette that says grief should be a purely private hell. And she reversed the “tradition of the lynched figure left out in public view as a warning to the black community.” Her son’s body would not be made into a spectacle nor be a symbol for black fear and white supremacy. By controlling the way that his body looked, Mobley was able to define its legacy. Although he was taken from her, the way lynched Americans were taken from their families, she was able to invert the final stage of public murder, which is spectacle. Her action was both brave and a strikingly effective piece of visual rhetoric, accomplished in the depths of appalling grief. Rankine quotes Mobley: “Let the people see what I see.”
Both of the murderers confessed, citing Till’s alleged actions toward Carolyn as their motivation. On the stand, Carolyn Bryant testified that Till had grabbed her and made lewd remarks regarding previous sexual relations with white women. “I was just scared to death,” she said. She was a young white woman and Till was a young black man, so their narratives did not hold equal weight, even though her version of events was backed up only by vague recollections and his by a disintegrated body. Six decades later, her story turned out to be false. In Timothy B. Tyson’s book The Blood of Emmett Till, Bryant admits in an interview that she made up the most damning part of her testimony. Till had never grabbed her, nor did he use obscene language. “You tell these stories for so long that they seem true,” she said. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” An all-white and all-male jury found her husband and Milam not guilty.
Emmett Till died because a white woman lied about their brief interaction. He died because his side of the story did not mean anything to the two white men who killed him, just as it meant nothing to the jury that acquitted them. For a white woman to paint Emmett Till’s mutilated face communicates not only a tone-deafness toward the history of his murder, but an ignorance of the history of white women’s speech in that murder—the way it cancelled out Till’s own expression, with lethal effect.
In her painting, Schutz has smeared Till’s face and made it unrecognizable, again. The streaks of paint crossing the canvas read like an aggressive rejoinder to Mamie Till Mobley’s insistence that he be photographed. Mobley wanted those photographs to bear witness to the racist brutality inflicted on her son; instead Schutz has disrespected that act of dignity, by defacing them with her own creative way of seeing. Where the photographs stood for a plain and universal photographic truth, Schutz has blurred the reality of Till’s death, infusing it with subjectivity. The angle of the painting’s view is directly over the body as if Schutz is looming in her imagination. The colors are pretty. Looking at it is like stepping inside a dream that Schutz had about Emmett Till in his coffin. Since this case is one so importantly defined by visual legacy and competing narratives, an artist seeking to paint him ought literally to know better.
Schutz’s defense is that her project is more about gender than race. And that she isn’t appropriating someone else’s suffering for her own gain, but trying to foster fellow feeling. “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother,” she wrote. “Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.”
She added: “Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.” While Schutz is right that we are not all unknowable, that logic does not match the situation. This breezy acceptance that empathy is a partial form of knowledge denies the weight of Mobley’s decision to force America to look onto itself: She assumed control of a narrative that too easily could have been manipulated. It also flattens the layers of black motherhood—a position complicated by the contradictions of being both black and a woman in America, an existence historically not privileged with the benefit of the doubt or three-dimensionality. Moreover, if Schutz identified so strongly with Mobley, why did she paint Emmett Till’s corpse and not a portrait of Mobley herself? When Schutz made that choice, she decided that her own feelings of empathy for Mobley as a mother mattered more than Mobley’s relationship with her dead son or the way that she chose to represent him in death.
The justifications that the Biennial offered for Open Casket have their own problems. In a statement to ArtNet, the curators Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew wrote that, “by exhibiting the painting we wanted to acknowledge the importance of this extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African American history and the history of race relations in this country.” The painting has “tremendous emotional resonance,” particularly for black viewers, they proposed.
Is “tremendous resonance” enough? Schutz’s other work tends toward the absurd and the grotesque. It is lighthearted in many places, or at least irreverent toward her subjects. Years before his death, Schutz painted Michael Jackson’s dead body on the autopsy table. “Images can be unstable especially when they are so loaded” she told the artist Nigel Cooke. “I’m not interested in art purely mirroring life or culture,” she went on. Schutz is not a solemn artist, which is partly why Open Casket feels so intrusive. The paint of Till’s face dances like it is alive; he is made decorative when he was brutalized. The colors of his coffin are bright and pretty when in reality only a black-and-white photograph of him survives.
An artist who wishes to work with such a charged subject needs to approach with unmitigated rigor in order to succeed. In her body of work, Schutz does not demonstrate a rigorous sensibility. In her statements about the piece, she does not show any understanding that her own expression echoes Carolyn Bryant’s expression, and erases the story of the victim and his family. When Hannah Black and her co-signers call for the destruction of this painting, try not to interpret them as book-burners doing the work of censorship. Instead, hear their open letter as a call for silence inside a church. How will you hear the dead boy’s voice, if you keep speaking over him?
The show—loosely defined as the circus-like environment Trump thrives in and tries to manufacture with unrepentant, outrageous conduct—was critical to his success in the Republican primary and general election, both winner-take-all contests where the ability to command attention is invaluable. Intentionally or not, his Twitter antics, campaign rallies, and TV interviews were so transgressive, so defiant of categorization, that they tilted the traditional playing field. A standard opposition—rooted in debate over ideas, fitness, likability—could not gain foothold on those terms. The political media, drawn to what’s new and compelling, was ill equipped to convey the stakes of the election, or at least erect guardrails for Trump to operate within.
After defeating Hillary Clinton, the Donald Trump Show moved from the whistle-stops of the campaign to what is supposed to be immersive preparation for the presidency, but spectacle continued to crowd the public interest out to the margin. While President-elect Trump was commingling his business interests and official duties, the Donald Trump Show was broadcasting an alternative, largely fictional storyline about how Trump (through will power and Twitter power) was saving manufacturing jobs across the country. We knew more about his meetings with celebrity admirers than with foreign dignitaries, or about why Ivanka Trump was in those meetings.
Those of us on the outside of the Donald Trump Show’s bizarro world were left to wonder how the business of the country would be conducted if Trump could use Barnumesque tricks to escape scrutiny for his conduct and policies. We worried that Trump and his GOP partners in Congress would, despite their minoritarian electoral victory, be able to advance a wildly regressive agenda, and rob the country blind, while reporters chased Trump’s tweets into dead ends.
Sixty-one days into his presidency, Trump has already done a great deal of self-enriching, epitomized by his routine weekend trips to Trump-operated businesses. “The stars have all aligned,” Trump’s son Eric told the New York Times earlier this month. “I think our brand is the hottest it has ever been.”
Trump may yet sign inhumane legislation like the GOP’s Obamacare alternative, as well. His presidency is paying many of the dividends he and conservatives in Congress sought. The catch—where we were wrong—is that Trump is getting away with murder not because of the Donald Trump Show, but in spite of it.
In the jousting-like confines of a political campaign, Trump’s erratic behavior and other eccentricities were powerful weapons. In the presidency, where he’s surrounded by many opponents, most of whom can’t be vanquished once and for all at the polls, Trump is finding that thrashing about has its limits.
The short-circuited debate over the American Health Care Act–or Trumpcare–exposes those limits most clearly. If Republicans on Capitol Hill are able to send Trump legislation that repeals Obamacare, the precise route it took won’t matter, but it won’t be because the Donald Trump Show was able to draw eyes away from the horrifying details of that bill.
To the contrary, Trump’s cynical health care lies, his near-daily Twitter controversies, his weekly trips to his private club in Florida, his continued political rallies—none of them were able to overwhelm the Congressional Budget Office’s finding that Trumpcare would cause 24 million people to lose insurance, or that the plan would extract its largest toll on the elderly, rural Obamacare beneficiaries who comprise Trump’s base. Health industry stakeholders haven’t been intimidated out of opposition to the bill, nor have consumer groups, like AARP, been fooled by Trump’s propaganda or distracted by his other shenanigans.
Trump may ultimately sign the AHCA, but it will be thanks to the unscrupulous and gangster-like tactics Republican leaders (including Trump) are using to hustle it through Congress amid overwhelming popular opposition.
Trump likewise tried to use his official, presidential Twitter account this week to counter-program a House Intelligence Committee hearing about his campaign’s possible links to Russian meddling in last year’s election. Trump (or his aides in the White House communications shop) tweeted diversionary and deceptively edited video clips of the hearing testimony in the apparent hope that he could steal headlines from FBI Director James Comey, who announced that Trump’s campaign is under criminal investigation and that there was no evidence to support Trump’s explosive allegation (also made on Twitter) that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower.
This effort not only failed, but spectacularly so. His real-time misrepresentations of the committee’s proceedings were fact-checked in the hearing itself, as Comey disputed Trump’s claims for a second time.
Similarly, lashing out at judges has not allowed Trump to bully lawless policy into effect. His disdain for the law has instead become a liability for him in court, where judges now cite his public vows to wield the sword of the state at Muslims as evidence of intent to violate the establishment clause. When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals preserved a nationwide injunction against Trump’s first Muslim ban, the conservative judge, Jay Bybee, used his dissent to say, in essence, that the Donald Trump Show has no place in the judiciary. “The personal attacks on the distinguished district judge and our colleagues were out of all bounds of civic and persuasive discourse—particularly when they came from the parties,” Bybee wrote.
It does no credit to the arguments of the parties to impugn the motives or the competence of the members of this court; ad hominem attacks are not a substitute for effective advocacy. Such personal attacks treat the court as though it were merely a political forum in which bargaining, compromise, and even intimidation are acceptable principles. The courts of law must be more than that, or we are not governed by law at all.
Even judges who agree with Trump are exasperated with him. Trump isn’t getting away with more because of his unconventional ways; he’s getting away with less. His daily assault on the notion of shared truths is endlessly frustrating for journalists, but it is in a more literal sense frustrating Trump himself. Obama warned him about this. “Regardless of what experience or assumptions he brought to the office, this office has a way of waking you up,” Obama said after Trump’s victory in November. “And those aspects of his positions or predispositions that don’t match up with reality—he will find shaken up pretty quick, because reality has a way of asserting itself.”
Reality has asserted itself, and quickly indeed. The Donald Trump Show will go on, but it can no longer obscure the showrunner’s manifest unfitness for office, and, more and more, people are tuning in to other programming.
It was surely the first time in history that a president’s
credibility had hung from a pair of punctuation marks. Last week, in his
efforts to extenuate President Trump’s tweeted claims that President Obama
“had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower,” press secretary Sean Spicer came up
with a novel and ingenious explanation. “The president was very clear in his
tweet that it was, you know, ‘wiretapping,’” Spicer said,
flipping up air quotes around the word. “That spans a whole host of
surveillance types of options.”
On one level, this was just another of the unending efforts by Trump’s apologists to explain away, one after another, his falsehoods and fabulations as linguistic or rhetorical maneuvers. He didn’t mean it literally, they say; he was being ironic, or joking. At other times, he just was being refreshingly folksy, punctuating the way regular people do. Or in this case, as Spicer tells it, he was deftly using quotation marks to expand the meaning of a word.
Linguistically, of course, that’s nonsense, though it didn’t stop Trump from seizing on Spicer’s interpretation in subsequent days. (“Nobody ever talks about the fact that it was in quotes,” the president told Tucker Carlson, “but that’s a very important thing.”) But over and above what the quotation marks didn’t mean, it’s worth asking why Trump used them in the first place. Because the answer to that question offers an insight into Trump’s abiding insecurity about his profound illiteracy.
Why did Trump put quotation marks around “wire tapped”? Most people took him as using scare quotes, which is what Spicer signaled when he accompanied the expression with air quotes, their gestural equivalent. Scare quotes are the ones we deploy when we want to use a word without signing on for all the associations attached to it, as in “Voters are resentful of ‘elites.’” The device goes back to the nineteenth century Henry James was besotted with it. But both the term “scare quotes” and the parallel gesture are recent inventions that reflect the modern vogue for the device, which has spilled over from literature to everyday use.
Scare quotes have become something of a modern plague, saturating whole quarters of modern discourse with cynicism, insinuation, and sarcasm. So it isn’t surprising that people would take Trump’s quotation marks as just another instance of the phenomenon. The Guardian said that Trump had used scare quotes to distance himself from the words. In The New York Times, Moises Velasquez-Manoff wrote that Trump’s use of scare quotes had “turned an invention of the urbane and educated against them. He has weaponized irony.”
Now, even if you assumed that Trump really intended to use scare quotes (and even if you overlooked the tweets in which he referred to Obama tapping his phones without using the marks), they couldn’t have worked the way Spicer suggested, signifying a “whole host of options.” Scare quotes can seal off the implications of a word—its pretentiousness or modishness, say—but they can’t add any new ones: They can signal “so-called,” but not, “and such like.” Saying that when you put “wiretapping” in quotes, it covers a range of surveillance types—that’s like saying that when you write, “We had a lot of ‘rain’ today,” you might be talking about snow or sleet.
But Spicer and the rest give Trump more credit than he deserves. The quotes in those tweets weren’t scare quotes at all, not even misused ones. Trump has occasionally used scare quotes—on February 15, he tweeted, “The real scandal is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy.” But the vast majority of the quotation marks in Trump’s tweets are of a type we rarely see in public discourse, though they’re common enough in private life: The North Koreans “have been ‘playing’ the United States”; “there are a lot of bad ‘dudes’ out there!” “The race for DNC Chairman was totally ‘rigged.’” He even does it with the word “tweet”:
Those are anything but scare
quotes. When Trump tweets, “the FBI is totally unable to stop the national
security ‘leakers,’” he isn’t distancing himself from the word “leakers”—after
all, he’s the one who has been hammering on that charge. Trump’s quotes aren’t
just what the lexicographer Grant Barrett calls “shout quotes” that supermarket
managers use for emphasis (“Try our ‘fresh’ eggs.”). When Trump wants to be
emphatic, he puts a word in all caps or adds an exclamation point instead—“SO
As Ben Yagoda noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Trump’s use of quotation marks actually suggests the insecurity of the unpracticed writer who worries that a word may be too clichéd or colloquial for written English—the woman who writes, “I’m going to stick with my ‘hubby,’” to show she knows the word is slangy, or the student who writes, “Things got ‘hot and heavy,’” hoping to escape the charge of triteness.
In 1926, the grammarian H. W. Fowler classed quotes like these among the devices used by writers “who wish to safeguard their dignity & yet be vivacious.” Like scare quotes, they’re meant to immunize the writer from the taint of the word’s associations, but out of fear of sounding uneducated or common. The effect is invariably the opposite.
Clear away the flattering and fanciful interpretations, and you’re left with this: Trump’s amateurish quotation marks underscore his fraught relation to the written language of public life. He is the least literate president to take office since the rudely schooled Zachary Taylor in 1849 (“an illiterate frontier colonel,” in Daniel Webster’s words), though Trump is deficient, not in education, but in attention span. In a way, that’s a tribute to his success—in modern America, semi-literacy is viable only for those at the very bottom of society, who are rarely called on to read and write, and for those at the very top, who can hire others to do it for them.
Trump lived almost all of his public and private life in conversation—on talk shows, on the telephone, in boardrooms real and simulated, and ultimately, in call-and-response standup on the campaign trail. But paradoxically, no modern president has used writing to communicate with the public as extensively as Trump has, thanks to the appearance of a mass medium which is tolerant of careless writing and rewards pithiness and oversimplification. Twitter seems to be tailor-made for Trump’s unedited effusions, which make no more demands on its syntax than the medium can handle: “This thing. That thing. SAD!”
Still, writing is writing, and even on Twitter, Trump’s anxiety about the written language sometimes bubbles to the surface. The most revealing of the expressions he puts in quotes aren’t the ones that strike us as slang, like “dude.” They’re ones like “leaker,” “rigged” and even “stupid”—words that sound as if they could be colloquial or slang, but that most of us would consider completely standard.
But you have to be steeped in the written language to know which is which. Is “wiretap” a colloquial term? Not by my lights, but it might seem that way to Trump; the fact that he writes it as two words, spelling the second one “tapp,” suggests that he hasn’t encountered it in writing all that often. As Lucy Ferris has written of Trump’s chronic misspellings, “If you see a word correctly spelled millions of times, then regardless of the peculiarities of English orthography, you’re apt to know when it looks ‘wrong.’”
For the country he runs, this is much more troubling than
the oral solecisms and malaprops that earned George W. Bush an undeserved
reputation as a semi-literate philistine. (I can’t imagine Bush writing “wire
tapp,” much less putting the word in quotes.)
Trump’s success as a politician owes a lot to his conspicuous disregard for the language of public life, of course. But when he tweets, he exposes himself as someone who has only a tenuous acquaintance with that language in its written form—not just as a man who doesn’t read books, but as a man who doesn’t read. Sealed in the bubble of his orality, he’s cut off from history, from biography, from sciences hard and soft.
That’s no impediment to running a large company, but it seriously impairs
his ability to run a country, particularly if he’s at pains to deny or conceal
it. Of Spicer’s two fictions, the more telling wasn’t that Trump was cleverly
using scare quotes to give “wiretap” a more general meaning. It’s that Trump
had any clear idea what he was doing at all.
President Donald Trump is finding his agenda stalled almost everywhere. Trumpcare is facing an intense political backlash and uphill battle to clear Congress. As of Tuesday afternoon, 26 Republican House members were opposed to the American Health Care Act, meaning the bill won’t pass unless at least six of them change their minds; the Senate will be equally challenging. Trump’s executive orders on immigration have been repeatedly blocked by the courts. Other promises, like infrastructure spending and renegotiated trade agreements, have been put on the back burner. Trump’s push for an “America first” foreign policy has been undermined by the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in last year’s election, which has cost the president his national security advisor and raised suspicion about his friendly overtures toward Russia.
In general, Trump’s manifest managerial incompetence is impairing his ability to actually do anything. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal, which has kept an open mind about Trump, notes that the president is little trusted. “If President Trump announces that North Korea launched a missile that landed within 100 miles of Hawaii, would most Americans believe him? Would the rest of the world?” the Journal editorialized on Monday. “We’re not sure, which speaks to the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his Presidency with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods.”
While most of the Trump agenda is sandbagged by a combination of internal (incompetence) and external (opposition) factors, his Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, who faces his third day of Senate hearings on Wednesday, is almost certain to ascend to the seat held by the late Justice Antonin Scalia. The worst-case scenario for Trump is that Democrats delay and filibuster, forcing the Republican majority to use the “nuclear option”—so that Gorsuch’s confirmation would only require a 51-vote majority in the Senate, as opposed to 60. Barring some unforeseen revelations about Gorsuch’s past that turns Republicans against him, he’s a shoe-in. And Trump, if he follows the path he’s taken with the Gorsuch nomination (picking a justice acceptable to conservative Republicans) might have other Supreme Court nominees in the coming years. As for the lower courts, “Trump could soon find himself responsible for appointing a greater share of federal court judges than any first-term president in 40 years,” according to The New York Times.
The courts are the one area where Trump will undoubtedly leave his mark on American politics. This is not an accident. His chaotic management style might be wrecking havoc on the day-to-day operations of the White House, and he might lack the skills necessary to be a stable (let alone successful) executive, but there is one thing he is good at: bilateral deal-making. That’s a skill set that turns out to be much more useful for the politics of filling the courts than it is to issues like health care (where the need for multilateral negotiations seem to flummox the president), let alone the complexity of international diplomacy.
The Supreme Court has been central to Trump’s political success. After the sudden and unexpected death of Scalia last year, Trump successfully used the court vacancy as leverage to consolidate support from Republicans who might otherwise be suspicious of him. (Trump was, of course, helped tremendously by Mitch McConnell, who led Republicans in blocking Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee.) Trump circulated lists of the potential judges he’d nominate, with an emphasis on the fact that they’d be strict originalists in the mode of Scalia. This was a major factor in winning over doubters like Ted Cruz and the evangelical community, which supported Trump more than any Republican presidential nominee since George W. Bush. “He made it very clear who his Supreme Court picks would be if he was elected,” Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University, said last December. “I think that was a big factor [behind evangelical support].” Trump’s pick of Gorsuch is rightly seen as a fulfillment of his promise to evangelicals and movement conservatives.
Court nominations are a rare aspect of government where Trump’s preferred method of bilateral deal-making can actually work. That’s because the politics of the courts involves a simple binary choice (a liberal justice or a conservative one) that will satisfy or displease Republican voters. The binary nature of the decision makes it easy for Trump to make a promise and then keep it. What Trump is finding with issues like health care is they involve much more complex negotiations rooted in a grasp on policy that he doesn’t possess. In areas like foreign policy, Trump has to grapple with an often recalcitrant bureaucracy that is willing to push back against his unorthodox policies.
The success Trump has achieved with his nomination of Gorsuch even suggests a way for him to take control of the political agenda again. If Trump really wanted to gamble, he might try to use his nomination power in the courts as leverage over the Republican Party on issues where he’s meeting resistance, like health care or a Russia reset. He could tell Republicans in Congress that they have to follow his line or he’ll slow down his nominations to the federal courts and possibly nominate a moderate justice for the next Supreme Court opening. Such a move would risk alienating his Republican supporters, but it would also give a potent weapon to force the Republicans on Capitol Hill to stay in line. Whether he decides to take the risk or not, the prerogative to nominate judges is likely to remain Trump’s main source of political power.
Saeed and Nadia are from an unnamed city in an unnamed country. They are dating but unmarried. Nadia wears a long black robe but she doesn’t pray. Their city is being divided up block by block: Some areas are held by the militants, some by the government. The two lovers cannot move around freely. Under these conditions windows become dangerous when you’re sheltering indoors; if the bullet doesn’t, a shard of glass might catch you in just the wrong part of the body.
While she is in the car but not driving, “checking inside for an earring she thought she had lost,” Saeed’s mother is clipped by “a stray heavy-caliber round passing through the windshield.” The bullet takes with it “a quarter of Saeed’s mother’s head.” It is around this time in Mohsin Hamid’s new novel Exit West that doors begin to act miraculously, like magical portals.
Faced by an impossible situation, Saeed and Nadia leave their city. But they do not get visas or travel on a bus or airplane. Just as fear changed the way that residents of the unnamed city regard their windows, something about doors has changed too. Throughout the city, “Rumors had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country.” People who knew somebody who knew somebody claimed that “a normal door...could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all.” Like the reader, the city’s denizens at first think this is a silly rumor. “But most people began to gaze at their own doors a little differently nonetheless.”
The rumor proves true. Nothing else in the novel is particularly magical: Hamid instead imagines a world in which one tiny little thing has changed. Saeed and Nadia pay a smuggler to bring them to a door. They do not know where they will arrive upon passing through.
This is not how it works in our world. The process of applying for asylum in a richer country can span months and years—even decades. Although the wealthy have many more routes to finding alternative citizenships, there remain many obstacles between them and a new nationality, and for the poor, the hurdles are higher still. And so, our mainstream literature of migration (Eugenides’s Middlesex, the Homeric epics) has tended to focus on the journey. We even have a maxim about journeys and destinations to tell us which is more important.
Hamid sees things differently: Exit West strips the migration story of the actual process by which people might get to their destination, conjuring instead a world with no barriers to movement. As he wrote in the Guardian in 2014, migration is, he believes, a fundamental human right: “I imagine that centuries hence, when people are finally free to move as they please around the planet Earth, they will look back at this moment and wonder, just as we wonder about those who kept slaves, how people who seemed so modern could do such things to their fellow human beings, caging them like animals—merely for wanting to wander, as our species always has and always will.”
The analogy with slavery is a very heavy one—a point made in thick permanent marker—but it is useful because it reminds us that border control is about freedom. Or rather, it is about denying freedom of movement to people whose environment guarantees harm to them. In this way, restrictions on migration mirror but invert the structures of slavery. Each system tells the subaltern where she may or may not go, and by extension whether she may or may not have the freedom to dictate whether she lives or dies.
Hamid’s own life has been shaped by movement: Both the necessity for it and the experience. Born in Pakistan, he spent a childhood in the USA while his father got his PhD, then returned to Lahore before college in the US, adulthood in London, then another return to Pakistan, where he is now based. All Hamid’s novels—Exit West is his fourth—are to some extent about globalization: The people it leaves behind, and the new stories it brings into being. By dint of his focus on the global south, his characters’ grow against the backdrop of the inequality fostered by global capitalism. In each book, he pursues the problem of the self and choice: Who shall I choose to be in the world, now that I can?
In his three earlier novels—Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia—Hamid worked in a satirical voice that he has now left behind. These were books from before the migrant crisis of our time. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia focuses on a single unnamed man, born poor in South Asia (again, his city and country are unnamed) who rises to great wealth. The novel sends up the narrative optimism of the great novels of multiculturalism of the 1990s and 2000s: Books like Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Small Island by Andrea Levy, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi. These novels gave us richly detailed and empathetic accounts of new lives in rich Western countries, with sprawling interrelated multiplots, a proliferation of sensory detail, and riotous humor. They caught a wave of reader enthusiasm for maximalist and international(ist) books about human experience. Each is an authentically postmodern novel of migrant life that matched their readership’s liberal faith in multiculturalism.
On the other side of the door, Saeed and Nadia find themselves lying on a bathroom floor. That bathroom is on the Greek island of Mykonos. The couple become residents of a refugee camp. Then they find another door, and Nadia and Seed join the great tide of humanity pouring into London. Nadia and Saeed do not like to unpack their bags, so that they can be ready to go at any moment.
In contrast to Hamid’s earlier work, Exit West is a novel of restraint and only subtle humor and romance. Hamid refrains from naming the city where the lovers begin. But the book rapidly becomes an ambitious and far-roaming tale of migration and adventure. This gesture arguably places Exit West in the tradition of postmodern magical realism inhabited by the likes of Italo Calvino and Angela Carter, where little doses of fantasy (raining flowers, or telekinesis) break the ordinary world’s laws. But the magic is limited to this single phenomenon, which feels like something quite new.
Before they leave their home city, Nadia speaks with Saeed’s father. He wants her to promise to look after his son. But she knows that “by making the promise he demanded she make she was in a sense killing him.” When we migrate, Nadia knows, “we murder from our lives those who we leave behind.” And he turns out to be right: “as it transpired Saeed would not, after this night that was just beginning, spend another night with his father again.”
In How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Hamid wrote that “time is the stuff of which a self is made.” Exile, too, has a temporality. The final night of a father and son is, in the moment of narration, a “night that was just beginning.” Hamid lengthens the night of farewell into a concept—the night you last saw your father, a moment whose significance is forever. Looking back over years, as if they were a territory, the narrator is choosing moments to dwell inside, to understand. With this poetic and slow, considered style, Hamid’s language wraps the act of migration in an elegiac feeling. Elegy suggests a death, and this novel indeed frames immigration as the act of leaving one’s home and the ending of a life rather than as an act of arriving and beginning a proliferation of new lives, as White Teeth did.
Hamid’s approach to time has a powerful defamiliarizing effect on the stories we are used to consuming as news. Imagine a CNN segment on refugees from one of the countries in our headlines, but one pixel of the television screen—if only it were visible—containing the memories and imaginations of a single family. We do not expect such intimacy from this genre of story, or at least we expect something as intimate and horrific as a photograph of a dead child in the shallows.
What is home? Before Nadia and Saeed leave, Hamid gives us his theory: Home is a knot in time. After the mother’s literal death and before the father’s figurative death—the moment of departure—Nadia moves into Saeed’s childhood home. Every day, Saeed’s father comes across “objects that had belonged to his wife and so would sweep his consciousness out of the current others referred to as the present, a photograph or an earring or a particular shawl worn on a particular occasion.” Within each object, a timeline extends back into the old self: In leaving that old home, the migrant is cut off from that timeline with a sense of sharp finality.
Our narrator describes the British response to the new migrants in the anthropological language of a visitor from the future; he calls the white nationalists who hate the newcomers “natives.” This term casts the white Europeans as native inhabitants, experiencing something like a wave of colonization. They certainly had no choice in the matter of the doors opening. But of course, the British are the great paradigmatic colonizers. So, the natives’ distressed reaction at the newcomers’ arrival is ironic, and thus a little funny, but also worrying. Nobody likes tasting their own medicine. Before long, the arrivals are curtailed to a city district of their own, to which the authorities cut off electricity. “Dark London,” the citizens call it.
In contrast to the knotted flows of time that characterize a home, migrant life feels like displacement from the self. Nadia is living (at least) two lives: Her own, and the one her own life symbolizes in political terms. That symbolic life is represented by the media and becomes something else entirely.
One day, Nadia sits on the steps of a building looking at her phone. On the other side of the street is a detachment of troops and a tank. At the very same time, Nadia “thought she saw online a photograph of herself sitting on the steps of a building reading the news on her phone across the street from a detachment of troops and a tank, and she was startled.” How could this be? Nadia wondered, “how she could both read the news and be the news, and how the newspaper could have published this image of her simultaneously, and she looked about for a photographer.”
The couple travel on to another country; their relationship changes. Nadia and Saeed see other worlds and other windows. Each of them discards parts of the self they brought with them from the other side of the door, but keeps and strengthens other parts.
As the doors continue to open across the world, human beings move from the global south towards the richest countries. But other things happen. Some go the opposite way: A white man on the brink of suicide takes a chance and finds a new life in Namibia. An elderly gay couple find each other through a door which is near both of their homes, in Amsterdam and Havana. In these stories, Hamid shows that tales of migration always contain traditional romance and cinematic flourish, even when most of the news shows pain and deprivation and exile.
In his Guardian piece, Hamid cited Emma Lazarus’s 1883 “New Colossus,” the poem embossed in metal letters on the Statue of Liberty. “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,” the poem commands. Hamid’s novel imagines a world where the philosophy behind these lines—that people should be able to take refuge in countries who have shelter—is untrammeled by law. Donald Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the United States would be impossible if a door, any door, could open at any moment open and let a stream of humanity in. “I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Lazarus’s poem ends. The creative gesture is subtle and extreme at the same time, and the result is a novel of exceptional focus. Hamid stays with his protagonists like a spirit looking over their shoulders: The voice is sensitive, tender, as if these characters really are beloved.
Exit West is a little more like a thought experiment than true magical realism. What if natural laws gave way, in one tiny aspect, to moral law? This is the final effect of Hamid’s new formal exploration of migration in fiction. His experiment reveals a moral nexus of migration rights that no other work has yet uncovered. Exit West meets the challenge of thinking through a new world, governed by isolationist fear.
Hamid’s care for his protagonists, the sheer insistence in the novel of human beings’ importance to one another, is an artistic and a political statement. People should be able to escape the places where death is avoidably closing in on them, Hamid says. But political exigency does not numb people. Nobody’s relationship with their father is turned off like a tap once they become one person in a stream of people fleeing; time just does not work that way. A home is a historical knot. Sometimes they must be untied, and sometimes we must tie them again.
America drove the Bahar family from their country. Then it gave them a new one.
The Bahars fled Iraq in 2006, at the height of the U.S. invasion. They left because of the things their eldest son saw—the bombings and shoot-outs, the kidnappings, the everyday horrors of life in a war zone—and because of the things he could not see. Karar was born in 2002 with an eye condition that caused his retinas to develop too slowly. But with hospitals in Baghdad overrun with wartime casualties, doctors had no time for a tottering little boy who could barely make out cartoons on television.
The family moved to Cairo, but specialists there were unable to help. So the Bahars decided to apply for asylum in the United States. After a year of interviews, background checks, and reams of paperwork, the family landed in Ohio on December 10, 2009. They caught their first glimpse of snow dusting the wings of airplanes grounded on the runway, and waded into the Midwestern frost wearing all the layers they had. A local charity set them up with an apartment, but it came sparsely furnished, so they had their first American dinner of spaghetti and chicken fingers sitting on the floor.
“I didn’t know anything about America,” recalls Haider, Karar’s father. “I didn’t speak English, I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t know if I’d find a job or not.”
With the help of his landlord, Haider got a job in the meat department at a Kroger supermarket in Columbus. His colleagues were kind and corrected his English; the local mosque was next to a church, and Haider didn’t meet anyone who had a problem with the family’s Muslim faith. His wife, Shaimaa, learned to navigate the school system and get medical help for Karar, now a typical American teenager who loves the Ohio State Buckeyes and fried chicken and hanging out with his friends.
Photographer Holly Pickett has spent nine years following the Bahars from Cairo to Columbus. In 2015, they became U.S. citizens. “When I got citizenship, I felt different,” Haider recalls. “I finally saw a future, and felt sure that my kids would have a good life.” Last year, he and Shaimaa voted in their first American election. She backed Hillary Clinton, because of her support for women, Medicaid, and refugees. Haider picked Donald Trump, because of his promises to bring back jobs to the area.
If Trump had been president when the Bahars sought asylum, they might never have become U.S. citizens. And if Trump succeeds at imposing his travel ban on Iraq, they could be permanently separated from their family in Baghdad. Haider’s father still hasn’t met his youngest grandchildren—Renad, five, and Mustafa, six months.
Haider, now a patriotic American, admits he is worried. But he’s willing to give the new president a chance. “I wish my family could come here,” he says. “But it’s only for three months. Donald Trump knows what’s going on.”
In Cairo, doctors were unable to treat Karar’s eyesight, and the family sank into debt. One day, while the children were napping, Shaimaa broke down in tears. “She was tired, tired,” recalls her husband, Haider. “The money was gone, and we didn’t have insurance.” Worse, the Bahars didn’t know where they’d be in a week, a month, a year.
The Bahars depart Cairo International Airport with all their belongings on December 9, 2009, bound for Ohio. That year nearly 50,000 Iraqis were referred to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. With the help of a legal aid group in Cairo, the Bahars were among the 25,238 granted approval to start a new life in America.
Karar, with a new pair of glasses, sits close to the teacher in his second-grade class in Ohio. “I was lost,” he recalls. “I came in barely knowing numbers. But people weren’t rude—they were helpful.”
Thanks to a tip from his landlord, Haider soon found work in the meat department at a Kroger supermarket. He now delivers medicines to local pharmacies, earning $6 a stop. Money is tight, but little by little, the family has managed to buy used furniture and even take vacations.
Shaimaa and Haider crammed for the U.S. citizenship exam together. Shaimaa took the oath on January 14, 2015, and Haider followed three months later. “I finally saw a future,” he says. During the ceremony, the judge let Karar sit in one of the jury seats. “That made me feel wonderful,” he recalls.
The Bahars have made an annual tradition of celebrating their arrival in America. “We all remember,” Haider says. “It’s like a birthday.” For their fifth anniversary, they went to a fried-chicken restaurant in Columbus. “The best thing is the sauce,” says Karar. “It’s not spicy, but it has a punch.”
Shaimaa braids Renad’s hair at the family’s home earlier this year. The five-year-old loves to dress up as Minnie Mouse and to wear a blue toy crown.
The family uses Viber to stay in touch with their relatives in Iraq. Every week, Haider calls his brother and elderly father, neither of whom have met the family’s newest addition, six-month-old Mustafa. The Bahars do not know when—or if—their relatives will ever be allowed to visit them in Ohio: Since his first week in office, Trump has been trying to ban all travel from Iraq.
Karar, now 15, attends middle school in Dublin, Ohio. “Last semester I got out with 4.0, honor roll, all the good stuff,” he says. He still struggles with his eyesight—“I’m basically blind,” he jokes—but he dreams of playing basketball and attending college. He has no desire to return to Iraq. “When you see something scarring,” he says, “it’ll last for a whole lifetime.”
Haider, who voted for Trump, watches the president defend his ban on immigration, while Mustafa sleeps. “I feel bad for guys like me,” Haider says. “I feel what these guys who want to come here are feeling.” He and Shaimaa didn’t argue over her support for Clinton. “I can’t tell her who to vote for,” he says. “That’s American freedom.”
In his poem “Jean Rhys,” from the 1982 collection The Fortunate Traveller, Derek Walcott imagines Rhys’s childhood in Dominica, a Caribbean island just a hop and a step away from Walcott’s own Saint Lucia. Though Rhys was a white woman, and would leave the West Indies for good when she came of age, spending the rest of her unhappy life in self-imposed exile in Europe, Walcott sees her as a kindred spirit. The Atlantic Ocean, for the young Rhys, is but a “rumorous haze behind the lime trees”; England, another rumor, is the “arches of the Thames” and “Parliament’s needles” sewn in petit point on hammock cushions that grow faded in the tropical sun.
The girl herself is both there and not. She lives profoundly in each moment, as only the young can: “Sundays! Their furnace/of boredom after church.” But her sigh is like “the white hush between sentences” in a book—blank as an event unrecorded, lost to oblivion. It is as if her true self lies elsewhere, not in Dominica or England per se, nor in the sallow photographs of the time, but in the work she would go on to create:
a child stares at the windless candle flame
from the corner of a lion-footed couch
at the erect white light,
her right hand married to Jane Eyre,
foreseeing that her own white wedding dress
will be white paper.
This is a reference to Rhys’s most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, a postmodern tale told from the perspective of Bertha, Charlotte Brontë’s madwoman in the attic. Sargasso’s publication in 1966 rescued the 76-year-old Rhys from an obscure existence in the English countryside, and revived interest in a body of work that had been forgotten, but of her newfound fame Rhys would say, “It has come too late.” Alcohol had ravaged her life. So had her three actual marriages, to men who served as the inspirations for the men in her fiction, a louche and unfaithful lot. We might include in their company the novelist Ford Madox Ford, who was an early champion and mentor (it was Ford who told her to adopt the pen name by which we know her) but also her seducer; their affair, which devastated her, was the inspiration for the novel Quartet. “I think if I had to choose I’d rather be happy than write,” she told an interviewer. “If I had my life all over again and could choose.”
It is telling that, when confronted with the work and the life, Walcott emphasizes the work, Rhys, the life. For Walcott, it sometimes seems as if all of life is what passes “through your pen’s eye,” as he wrote in the poem “Exile”—what is transformed into word and image. The artist is a vessel for life, which would otherwise drain away into the white abyss between words, and for that we revere him. But when I asked a colleague about Walcott last Friday, the day he died, she replied that Walcott was a “literary great” but “a bad person,” as if the two things were of equal weight. More damningly, she meant that they cancelled each other out. When I told my wife about this exchange, she said, “Good. I am tired of revering these men.”
They were both responding to multiple allegations of sexual harassment that erupted into the open in 2009, forcing Walcott to withdraw his candidacy to be the professor of poetry at Oxford. One former student at Harvard had accused Walcott of punishing her with a C grade for her poetry, which he called “formless, rhythmless, and incomplete,” after she refused to sleep with him. Another former student, Nicole Kelby, said he threatened to block the production of her play unless she acquiesced to sex. Kelby filed charges against him, charges that were rejected by both Walcott and Boston University. (One school official defended him by saying, “The way one teaches poets and playwrights and fiction writers is different than the way one teaches mathematics students.”) The scandal destroyed Kelby’s marriage. She was ostracized by old friends. Male employers treated her suspiciously. “Practically every man I met was worried I was going to sue him for sexual harassment,” she told The Daily Mail. She settled her case against Walcott in 1996, without him or the university admitting wrongdoing.
These kinds of debates can admittedly be tiresome, and are nearly as old as literature itself. Dickens left his wife for a younger woman, Faulkner was a mean old misogynist—we read them anyway. So far, Walcott’s admirers need not worry about his legacy. His obituary in The New York Times made only a perfunctory reference to the 2009 scandal, pushing it to the very bottom of the story as if it were an embarrassing smell. The Washington Post did the same. But the balance of coverage is bound to shift over time. Since these allegations resurfaced less than a decade ago, a sea change has occurred in our cultural politics. It is no longer as easy for great men to hide their offenses behind the magisterial cloak of their art. Nor are they spared harsh judgment merely because they lived in earlier, less enlightened times. Nicole Kelby and Jean Rhys were the victims of a literary patriarchy that stretches back centuries, that extends unbroken from Ford Madox Ford to Derek Walcott.
We can see this revisionary treatment occurring in all fields, from politics to cinema. Thomas Jefferson has fallen in our esteem, in large part because of new revelations about his relationship with his slave mistress Sally Hemings; “the third president was a creepy, brutal hypocrite,” as one historian wrote in 2012. John F. Kennedy’s star has also fallen, after many decades in which his womanizing was seen as a pillar of his mystique. Roman Polanski’s conviction for statutory rape, far from being consigned to the druggy fog of the 1970s, has only grown more troubling with time. The ethics of watching Woody Allen movies is a source of fraught debate, while even a universally beloved artist like David Bowie has been questioned for his relationships with underaged women. The scales we use to judge the reputations of these men, with the life weighed on one end and the work on the other, have started to tip.
This raises all sorts of complications. It is hard to imagine many writers in history surviving the unforgiving scrutiny of contemporary cultural politics—which, it should be said, is a relatively new phenomenon whose influence could very well wane. It has yet to withstand the test of time, as the works of Dickens and Faulkner have. But it is particularly problematic when you consider a figure like Walcott, who shot to global prominence not only because of the pure flame of his genius, but because he was giving voice to people who had been ignored and exploited and enslaved by a dominant culture. He did it with the language he inherited from the colonizer, within the Western tradition that was foisted upon him, claiming all its literature as his patrimony even as he infused it with his own motley identity, thereby changing it forever.
The affinity he showed for Rhys is one that others in the West may have not felt, may not have even properly understood, which seems to me to be the animating force of that poem. It echoes a passage from Another Life (1973), his great autobiographical work, in which he writes of the inner toll that comes from being outside the West, and how this estrangement seeps into the very texture of the trees, into moonlight:
The moon came to the window and stayed there.
He was her subject, changing when she changed,
from childhood he’d considered palms,
ignobler than imagined elms,
the breadfruit’s splayed
leaf coarser than oak’s,
he had prayed
nightly for his flesh to change,
his dun flesh peeled white by her lightning strokes!
When Derek Walcott writes about Jean Rhys, he is writing about her response to the hegemon whose long shadow darkened their island specks in the Caribbean. If she is sympathetic to Bertha’s madness, to her all-consuming rage toward the English men who have caged her, then so is Walcott. In this respect, his politics is intersectional. And their approach was the same: To alter the reigning culture from within, to create a mirror that exposed its hypocrisies and prejudices, to make it their own. But by degrading women in his own life, Walcott falls into an intersectional trap, forcing one claim of liberty to be pitted against another.
Again, we return to the question of life and its worth. It would be inhumane to say that art matters more than the life of Jean Rhys or Nicole Kelby. It would be self-defeating, too, for I am not free unless these women are free as well. But to affirm this comes at a cost. It means that art—that space where our mortal condition approaches the immortal, where our myriad flaws form a fertile ground for empathy—cannot redeem Walcott for his behavior. It means that we should not look to it to redeem ours, either.
A normal administration would take heed from the type of rebuke delivered Monday by FBI Director James Comey, who testified to Congress that there was no evidence for President Donald Trump’s claim that Barack Obama had him wiretapped last year. “With respect to the president’s tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Comey testified Tuesday. “The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets.” Equally troubling was Comey’s affirmation that there is an ongoing investigation, dating back to last July, into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Yet neither Trump nor his team took Comey’s words as a setback or even a reason to retreat from the accusation against Obama. When Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked in his daily briefing if Trump was prepared to apologize to Obama, he responded, “No, we started a hearing. It’s still ongoing.” Spicer also maintained that “following [Comey’s] testimony, it’s clear that nothing has changed. Senior Obama intelligence officials have gone on record to confirm that there is no evidence of a Trump-Russia collusion. The Obama CIA director said so, Obama’s director of national intelligence said so, and we take them at their word.”
Spicer’s words were backed up by Trump’s own tweets, from two separate accounts, which similarly tried to dishonestly spin the day’s news in a way that supported the president’s narrative:
Taken together, these tweets suggest that nothing will convince Trump to walk back his allegations against Obama. One reason might be that Trump sincerely believes these allegations. “People close to the president say Mr. Trump’s Twitter torrent had less to do with fact, strategy or tactic than a sense of persecution bordering on faith,” The New York Times reported. “He simply believes that he was bugged in some way, by someone, and that evidence will soon appear to back him up.”
But Trump’s allegations might also be a deliberate strategy to counter a long siege on the Russia story. The best way to shore up support for his presidency in the face of scandal is to cast the issues in as partisan a light as possible, so as to make it an issue about party loyalty rather than the truth.
While the Comey hearing was ongoing, Trump tweeted:
This closely echoes the Nixon administration’s rhetoric in the early days of the Watergate scandal. On September 26, 1973, Pat Buchanan, then a presidential speechwriter, testified to Congress that “the election of 1972 was not stolen!” Rather, Buchanan argued, “the quality and character of our candidate” was the decisive factor.
Buchanan’s words resonated with many conservatives, including those who had disliked Nixon for such liberal policies as the opening to China, detente with Russia, wage and price controls, and a general acceptance of the welfare state. “That all changed with Watergate, which conservatives saw as a scandal trumped up by the liberal media to bring down a Republican president,” wrote Nicole Hemmer, a historian at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. “Those who once derided Nixon now rushed to his defense,” she added. North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms argued that Watergate, “by a process of selective indignation, became the lever by which embittered liberal pundits have sought to reverse the 1972 conservative judgment of the people.” These sentiments percolated through the culture. In 1973, a blue collar worker at a bar in Queens told journalist Gail Sheehy that the Democrats “couldn’t get themselves elected if they tried, so they’re picking on the number-one man.”
Nixon’s strategy of using partisanship as a shield worked to stave off impeachment— until the evidence of wrongdoing became so stark that even the most committed Republicans turned against him. On August 6, 1974, at a lunch with Senate Republican, former Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater reportedly said, “There are only so many lies you can take, and now there has been one too many. Nixon should get his ass out of the White House—today!” A day later, joined by GOP congressional leaders, Goldwater told Nixon how little support he had left on Capitol Hill. Nixon announced his resignation the following evening.
The Watergate precedent is a troubling one, as it shows that partisanship can slow down an unfolding scandal. Moreover, American politics in 2017 is much more polarized than it was in 1974. It’s by no means clear that the modern counterparts to Goldwater (if such figures even exist) would turn against Trump except under the most extraordinary circumstances. Given this, Trump’s decision not to back down from his allegations against Obama is a smart move to keep the Republican faithful on his side. A Fox News poll last week says it all: Whereas about six out of ten Republicans oppose an investigation into Russian interference in the election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign, 58 percent of them want Congress to investigate Trump’s wiretapping claim. When it comes to Trump versus Obama, the GOP base will always stick with Trump.
Minus the tarmac, the first shot could be a Pissarro painting. Trees flank a straight European road and the camera sits slightly off to one side so that the all the shot’s lines meet at an off-kilter vanishing point. Branches arc and the sky is still. Too bad all that perfect landscape is shortly to be doused in the human blood that sprays, firehose-style, across Julia Decournau’s new movie Raw.
Justine (Garance Marillier) is a prodigiously smart young veterinary student. She is also a vegetarian, from a family of vegetarian veterinarians. The movie follows the “rush week” of her first semester at vet school. On her first night, older students throw all the freshmen’s mattresses out the dorm room windows and force them outside in their pajamas. The scene toes a line between fun and awful, which probably characterizes the first week of university for everybody. The school is built in that gorgeous and hideous 1970s campus style, with big piazzas and horrible tiling. You can almost taste the fear and the wet concrete.
Justine’s older sister, Alexia, is also a student at the school. Instead of taking her side during the hazing, Alexia forces a bit of vet-school offal down Justine’s throat (remember, she’s a vegetarian). Justine retches; Alexia tells her to just do it, everybody is watching. We’re already deep into dreamlike shots of stained labcoats and horses running on treadmills when Justine starts to itch.
Several viewers fainted and others vomited during a Toronto screening of Raw. I feel for them: Not long after the itching begins, an amateur bikini wax close-up leads to the severing of some flesh. That’s when Justine’s hunger for human flesh really kicks in, and the desire to throw up seizes the viewer.
It’s not that the violence is so grueling, exactly. Your stomach flips when Justine bites down because the acting is so naturalistic and the cinematography so un-schlocky. Being a freshman is horrible. Everything feels gross; the cigarettes, the formaldehyde, the neat vodka Justine drinks at a dance party, her hangover the next day. Justine’s roommate is a handsome gay man who likes to play football and hang out with her. The sweetness of their friendship throws beams of sunshine into the fear and isolation of Justine’s condition—both as a freshman and as a compulsive cannibal.
Alexia catches Justine in the act of eating flesh, but it turns out that the sisters share the taste for blood. From then on the movie is wrapped in an atmosphere of tragedy and doom. The sisters’ relationship is tense and competitive; Alexia veers between supporting Justine and lashing out at her more censorious attitude to their disability (for it seems medical, from the start).
Raw is a Belgian-French movie, and it is subtitled. (You’ll recognize a few actors if you caught The Returned, and you’ll recognize a lot of actors if you have seen Netflix’s The Break.) But the relationship structure at its core—a younger and nerdier sibling doing battle with a more licentious older sister—makes Raw a close relation to the American movie Ginger Snaps (2000).
There is much that is silly in that movie, too. But I found tears running down my face when the credits rolled during both, even while other people in the cinema laughed and clapped. Ginger Snaps broke my heart because I couldn’t help picturing my sister turning into a werewolf and having to kill her. Older siblings’ lives feel like prophecies of one’s own. Watching an older sibling suffer and be destroyed is a bit like the moment after a zombie has bitten you. You know the sickness is coming for you next.
There is a canon of cannibalism horror movies, with the original and most famous probably being Cannibal Holocaust (1980). That movie featured effects so realistic (for the time) that it was widely rumored to be a snuff movie. It’s still banned in several countries.
The Silence of the Lambs is a cannibal movie, you will recall, as is Delicatessen (1991). Those are both good movies! But sadly the majority of movies about consuming human flesh are fairly dumb. The gleeful silliness of the genre makes Raw the more affecting, just as werewolf-y stupidity made Ginger Snaps the sadder by contrast.
Justine and Alexia’s ferocious need to bite down on other people is, as you may have intuited, partly a cipher for sex. Justine is a virgin at the movie’s start, before her lust for the bodies of others begins. There is a strong theme around consent and violated boundaries in Raw. Justine discusses the ethics of raping monkeys in an early scene. Later, she bites a boy during sex (without harming him) even after he asks her several times to stop. In the movie’s climactic scene, where we find that something terrible has happened in Justine’s dorm room, the refrain ringing around the room is, “Why didn’t you fight back?”
So, the power imbalance we usually discuss when we talk about freshmen and their bodies is inverted. But Justine never seems in control. She is in thrall to her own desires, which she cannot yet understand, and that is a sad thing to remember in oneself. If you can see past the rain of blood, Raw is a gorgeously moving film about fear and adolescence—albeit one best viewed on an empty stomach.
I was working in telesales in the middle of England when I first started reading the New York Review of Books. I didn’t know how it started or who made it, but I knew it was unlike anything I’d ever read. A novel might transport you a long way out of your life; but when it ended, your life would land unceremoniously on top of you again, like the house that lands on the witch in the Wizard of Oz. The Review was different. The pieces let you stay in the transported place a little longer, so you could figure out what you thought, and maybe even argue about it. It allowed you to make a habit of caring about ancient Crete or Fernando Pessoa or Isaiah Berlin. Whoever and wherever you were, you got to live a different sort of life.
By the time I went to work for Robert Silvers in 2012, it felt like the magazine had always existed. Yet its origins were fragile: Bob and his co-editor Barbara Epstein founded the Review in 1963 during a printers’ strike that briefly put the New York Times Book Review out of commission. They saw an opportunity to introduce a publication that would both be intellectually vigorous and scoop up all the advertising that would have otherwise run in their competitor. Bob took leave from his job at Harper’s, where, as he would often recall, his boss Jack Fischer told him to go and experiment with the new venture. He’d be back in a month and it would be “great experience.”
Instead, he stayed for over 50 years, building a remarkably robust magazine—a whole institution. The first issue sold out, and it isn’t hard to see why: It included essays by Susan Sontag, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, W. H. Auden, Mary McCarthy, Gore Vidal, and John Berryman. As David Remnick wrote in his remembrance of Epstein, this was “surely the best first issue of any magazine ever.” Whereas many of the intellectual magazines of that time either dwindled or shifted toward more commercial, entertainment-focused coverage, the Review thrived. The editors didn’t strive for relevance or dutifully follow readers to subjects they themselves found boring or obvious; they published only pieces that they would want to read. “There is no such thing as the General Reader,” Bob would say triumphantly. “It doesn’t exist!”
Many of Bob’s editorial pronouncements came with an exclamation mark. Most frequent was his reaction to a particularly good draft. “It’s a hot piece!” he’d cry out, looking up from his desk in delight. His profound conviction was that if a review made him feel that way, then others would care about it too. “I believe in the writer—the writer, above all,” he told Mark Danner in an interview marking the Review’s 50th anniversary. “That’s how we started off: admiring the writer.” While the cadre of contributors skewed older and highly credentialed, the impulse was egalitarian. The point of subscribing to the Review was to watch someone who had an interesting mind as they thought through a subject. And if the article was clear and gave enough background information, then anyone could read it.
Perhaps for this reason, Bob was proud of the fact that the Review had been profitable since 1967. Serious writing and thought, he knew, wasn’t a hopeless but honorable pursuit; for the Review’s subscribers it was an essential part of life. An intellectual magazine with a larger, more devoted readership than many lifestyle publications—he proved that was possible.
During the years I worked at the Review, our rituals were Bob’s rituals and our vocabulary was his—carefully edited—vocabulary. We flinched at empty descriptors like “compelling” and “massive,” words that Edmund Wilson had once frowned upon. Bob kept up the tradition. We would dive for copies of Fowler’s Modern English Usage and affix stern, photocopied entries to our editorial memos. The hardest words for me to let go of were “context” and “in terms of.” Once you stripped those away, you had to think about how one thing related to another (sometimes, you discovered, it didn’t), and struggle to articulate it in more concrete language.
At the office, we rarely used the word “magazine.” When it wasn’t just “the Review,” Bob called the New York Review of Books a “paper.” Although it is a biweekly that frequently treats timeless subjects, this made a sort of sense to me. Of course, the Review does not—with some notable exceptions—break news on current events. But it does serve as a regular report on ideas, which form and unfold at a much slower pace, and which describe the larger pattern of events.
For his achievement, some obituaries have described Bob as magician-like, which strikes me as wonderful description that is only partly accurate. His work was more complex and laborious than most people saw. David Cole wrote on Twitter yesterday that Bob built the magazine “with his bare hands” and that sounds about right. He routinely worked late into the night, seven days a week, from behind a huge horseshoe-shaped control pad, piled disastrously high with manila folders. It was not unusual to arrive at the office in the morning to find a haystack of memos in his outbox, and a desk strewn with blunted pencils and exhausted Wite-Out bottles. If the Review was a rare place you could find rigorous thought, Bob made it that way not by magic but through an unwavering commitment to independence. He had complete editorial freedom and he troubled to exercise it.
Even after five decades, he enjoyed feeling the urgency of his task. “We’re in a storm of books!” he warned me at my interview. The hundreds of review copies on the office shelves looked perfectly ordered. I suppose he was thinking about what the books themselves said—and who could write about it?
There was going to be a show about us. A show about people just like us, going through things just like the things we were going through! This was, at least, how I interpreted it, and how all of my millennial friends interpreted it, when Lena Dunham’s Girls premiered on HBO in early 2012. Dunham all but predicted this reaction in the show’s very first episode, when her character, Hannah Horvath, is suddenly cut off from her parents’ financial support at age 24, and is forced to find a job. She begs them to subsidize her a little longer. How else will she write her memoir? “I think I might be the voice of my generation,” Hannah pleads. “Or at least, a voice of a generation.”
This was a promise that Girls—whose final season concludes in mid-April—could easily have made good on. And at first, it seemed to. The show’s first season took a familiar sitcom formula (four single friends, New York City), and gave it some shrewd updates. The pilot episode nodded to this, when Shoshanna attempts to describe Jessa using Sex and the City archetypes (“You’re definitely a Carrie, with like, some Samantha aspects, and Charlotte hair”). In Girls, Jessa was the free spirit; Marnie was the control freak; Shoshanna was the comic relief; and Hannah was—well, Hannah was Hannah. She never fell neatly into any category, and the show’s other characters soon followed her, moving out of their comfortable enclosures and into a space rarely depicted on television.
If Girls faced criticism as its seasons wore on, it was often because the characters were seen as too entitled, too selfish, too unlikeable to fit neatly into the tradition of shows about single girls in the city—a tradition, ultimately, of uplift. Even worse, Girls’ plot suggested something other than the characters’ inexorable development toward purpose, stability, and effortlessly fulfilling relationships. “You watch … examples of the zeitgeist-y, early-20s heroines of Girls engaging in, recoiling from, mulling, and mourning sex,” Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times, “and you think: Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?”
Characters on Girls were—and still are—prone to becoming suddenly inscrutable in ways that hinted the writers didn’t quite confidently understand their inner workings. When, in season five, Jessa calls Hannah her “dearest friend,” you try to remember the last time they even shared a scene together, let alone whether they ever seemed truly close. Trying to make sense of the way Jessa suddenly falls for Hannah’s off-and-on-again guy, Adam, The A.V. Club’s Joshua Alston pondered the show’s apparently hidden dynamics: “Has [Jessa] felt this way about Adam all along? Is that why the friendship between Jessa and Hannah has always seemed to be more about shared history than shared lives?” From the end of the first season onward, it has been almost impossible to understand how the characters on Girls actually relate to each other, what their relationships are, or whether they even see themselves as sharing relationships anymore.
Girls wasn’t good at providing a whole generation with a simple, relatable set of stories, as Friends or Seinfeld had a generation before. For one thing, the concept for Girls sprang not from a focus group or a committee of producers, but from Lena Dunham, who wrote, acted, directed, and more. From the beginning, it was the TV show as auteur vision, in the tradition of Deadwood’s David Milch and The Wire’s David Simon and The Sopranos’ David Chase—all the Davids who made it OK to love TV. By now, it’s clear that Girls wasn’t about injecting female-driven sitcom with millennial relevance, but about redefining prestige television and the kinds of lives it can make us care about.
Early prestige dramas all greeted viewers with the same premise: Watch a man torn between good and bad. Watch a man who has lost his soul try to regain it. Watch a man sell his soul, and look for the moment when he passes the point of no return. The anti-heroes of shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad obeyed no higher god than the accrual of power, and believed, either resolutely or unwillingly but always irreversibly, that life held no greater meaning. The first great prestige dramas were about frontiers and organized crime and corporate America, but they were also, above all else, about being a man, about men’s tortured relationships with masculinity. In contrast, the male characters on Girls—who have become more and more central to the series since its first season—often find themselves questioning the roles they have been handed, and learning that the only thing more frightening than failing to act like a man is seeing what you become when you do manage to act like one.
Even when showrunners started constructing prestige series around female leads, the masculinity paradigm still lingered. Showtime’s Nurse Jackie centered on a nurse hiding various parts of her life from everyone in it, wrestling with a pill addiction, and holding her ER together almost single-handedly. From the same network, Weeds featured a suburban mother who turns to pot dealing to keep her family afloat after her husband’s sudden death. Prestige TV was stuck with a clear template: Focus on one person with a lot of secrets, and explore the ways their transgressions also make them feel more powerful and alive than ever before. Girls helped to break open that paradigm for good.
Girls was addicted not to secrecy but to openness—or “overshare.” And rather than focus on one clear, troubled protagonist, Girls centered on something more lifelike: four young women who live in relatively tight formation, then gradually drift apart, their lives spiraling outward as the seasons progress. At various points, Hannah moves to Iowa to start an MFA, Shoshanna heads to Japan for work, Jessa checks into rehab, and Marnie tries to lose herself in marriage. Although they each come back, the series no longer depicts an unshakable quartet, but the random, tenuous sorts of ties that connect us in reality. It shows not the community we sometimes wish ourselves a part of (the TV version of community, where everyone is always the same forever), but community as we actually experience it.
This central breakthrough of Girls has rippled through the best new television, from Insecure to Broad City to Divorce to High Maintenance. The act of simply depicting an unresolvable fight between friends, or a realistically awkward sex scene, has grown infinitely easier since the show premiered five years ago. Girls validated a strikingly new idea in television: that people want to watch people whose lives are just as confusing and nonlinear as their own.
We’re trained to approach the prestige drama as if we’re reading a novel: Character growth is supposed to be visible and ongoing; characters’ stories remain reliably interdependent; we can trust that we will always witness the crucial moments in a love affair, a tragedy, a dream won or lost. But from its first season, Girls presented some of its most arresting storytelling by emulating not the novel, but the short story. Each season has contained at least one episode that focused on just one or two characters, separating them from the rest of the group, often revealing more about a character’s emotional state than the rest of the season’s episodes combined.
The series first took this approach with season one’s “The Return,” in which Hannah visits her parents in Michigan. For a moment, the rest of the characters, and their world, disappear. Hannah’s posing and wit have kept her afloat in New York, but now she is suddenly, newly vulnerable. As we watch her struggling through conversation with an old high school classmate, and phoning her sort-of boyfriend, we see a new side of her character: the confused and startlingly resilient lost girl we will soon follow into far more complex territory, even—especially—when she has no idea where she’s going.
Taken as stand-alones, these single-character episodes have the precise, sure-handed power not of a great novel, but of a gemlike short story. They are by definition slight. They don’t strive for the epic; they don’t even necessarily depict their characters gaining wisdom they will take back to the main story line. A character doesn’t have to be enacting a clearly delineated portion of their arc—here is where I become callous, here is where I become empowered, here is where I become myself—to be worthy of attention. Girls insists that even the most halting kind of progress is worth trying to understand—and, in fact, it may be the only kind of progress that exists.
“I’m not here to change you,” Marnie tells her ex-boyfriend in “The Panic in Central Park,” a fifth-season short-story episode that belongs entirely to her. “I don’t need to change anybody anymore.” We don’t know how Marnie got here, or why this is the moment when her need for control finally breaks. But by now, we’ve spent five years watching her trying again and again to arrange her life into the shape she wants, only to realize—again and again—that what she thought she wanted is suffocating her. Marnie’s growth seems to come not through any newly philosophical approach to life, but from the desperate knowledge that she has to reject the way she’s lived so far, even if she isn’t sure what to reach for. Growth, in this episode, and in so many others, is ugly and sudden. It doesn’t leave us with much dignity. But don’t worry, Girls says: Nor does anything else.
By refusing to speak for a generation, Girls has done exactly that. Being a millennial is nothing more or less than coming of age in a world that can no longer offer easily-won jobs or clear-cut career paths or well-defined family roles—the plots that previous generations could be forgiven for confusing with reality. By depicting characters deep in the work of jettisoning the narratives they have done their best to live by, Girls is telling the only story that can be told about a generation in search of one.
The Trump White House’s contempt for the press—and for the more general notion that there are inconvenient truths in the world that can’t be denied out of existence—is so well established by now that many of us who cover politics have become desensitized to its constant manifestations.
But sometimes, the administration’s dissembling is so egregious that it can’t be laughed off, such as on Monday when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer revised the history of the Trump campaign, transition, and the early days of the administration to write central characters into trivial roles.
At his daily briefing, Spicer referred to now-deposed national security adviser Michael Flynn as a “volunteer of the campaign” and Paul Manafort—who was Trump’s campaign manager—as someone “who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”
As Spicer spoke, FBI Director James Comey was testifying on Capitol Hill, where he both disputed Trump’s claim that he was unlawfully wiretapped last year by President Barack Obama and confirmed that the FBI is “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts … includ[ing] an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”
It is hard to say, exactly, how a presidential administration should behave when it has been the beneficiary, wittingly or unwittingly, of foreign interference on its behalf. The U.S. intelligence community has already concluded that the Russian government sabotaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign to bolster Trump’s candidacy. Even under the most innocent of circumstances, Trump and his senior aides would find themselves in the awkward position of having to contend with the role that dirty tricks played in their rise to political power.
But the defensive, contentious posture they have adopted—marked by obfuscation, deflection, and wild counterpunching—doesn’t call to mind the temporary embarrassment of a political team benefiting from the interference of some noxious but unaffiliated entity, like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that smeared Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004. They’re acting like cornered animals. And though Trump’s response to these developments is dressed up with the trappings of the presidency, including a White House press secretary who speaks on his behalf every day, it bears all the hallmarks of his standard reaction when his unsavory associations come back to bite him. This is vintage, guilty Trump.
In the following video, filmed a few years ago, a BBC reporter asks Trump to account for his deep entanglements with Felix Sater, a Russian gangster and FBI informant whose name recently resurfaced when The New York Times reported that he has a backchannel to the White House through Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
Here, again, Trump’s instinctive response is to avoid any association with his partners’ wrongdoings by pretending they’re more like acquaintances.
“I know who he is,” Trump allows reluctantly, when he realizes outright denial won’t work.
The pattern was well established before Trump had the machinery of the White House behind him. He devoted his official Twitter feed on Monday afternoon to posting deceptively edited and summarized video clips from the Intelligence Committee hearing, to make it appear as if Obama were the real villain, that Comey’s testimony had exonerated him, and that Russians didn’t meddle in the election when, in fact, the exact opposite was true.
It is easy enough to imagine a version of events in which the Russian government determined its preference for Trump over Clinton and consequently sought to influence the outcome of the election in complete isolation from the Trump campaign, like a kind of rogue, sovereign, lawbreaking super PAC. If at bottom, Trump had confidence that his associates never colluded improperly or illegally with the Russian effort to sabotage the election, he might see it as in his interest to let an investigation proceed unencumbered.
You send your spokesman out to make an ass of himself, and pretend your closest advisers were mere hangers on, when you’re afraid of what that investigation might turn up.
On March 25, 1983, business was booming at Harry’s Liquor, Wine & Cheese, near the Environmental Protection Agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. EPA employees were in the mood to party. The agency’s top lawyer had just resigned, the latest casualty in a purge of political appointees. Weeks earlier, EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford had also resigned amid a ballooning controversy over her management of the Superfund program. Agency staff celebrated by springing for eight cases of champagne and six ounces of Russian caviar from Harry’s. One employee even took vacation time to sell commemorative T-shirts to his colleagues. They read: “I Survived the Ice Queen’s Acid Reign.”
The EPA was only a decade old when Gorsuch, as she was then known—she married Bureau of Land Management Director Robert Burford in 1983—became its first female administrator. Gorsuch, a conservative state legislator from Colorado, promptly embroiled the agency in a political fight for its life. Even though Congress had recently expanded the EPA’s workload, Gorsuch and the Reagan White House cut its budget and staff. Gorsuch derided the agency’s approach to environmental protection as “bean counting,” saying it measured success by the number of enforcement actions it took or regulations it issued rather than by what they achieved. She claimed that the agency could do more for the environment with fewer resources by giving states broader autonomy to decide how to curb pollution. But many career employees, environmentalists and congressional representatives didn’t buy it, seeing Gorsuch’s philosophy as window dressing for an industry-friendly agenda to neuter environmental laws.
The debate surrounding the EPA’s future is strikingly similar today as Scott Pruitt assumes command. The former Oklahoma attorney general made a name for himself by fighting what he termed the “activist agenda” of former President Barack Obama’s EPA. Pruitt filed 14 lawsuits against the agency, including suits to block its efforts to clear smog from national parks and wilderness areas and to cut carbon emissions from power plants. Like Gorsuch, Pruitt thinks the EPA needs to relinquish more power to the states.
Some pro-environment Republicans agree, and hope Pruitt can empower the states to come up with innovative solutions to environmental problems. But many in the environmental community regard Pruitt’s arrival at the EPA as a hostile takeover, and fear that the Trump administration’s real goal is to dismantle the agency. Donald Trump said as much during the campaign, and in early March, the White House reportedly drafted a proposal to cut the EPA’s staff by 20 percent and its budget by 25 percent.
“For someone like myself, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, do we really have to do this again?’ ” says Pat Parenteau, a Vermont Law School professor who was an environmental advocate in D.C. in the early 1980s. Trump’s budget proposal mirrors the approach Gorsuch and the White House took during President Ronald Reagan’s first years in office. Ultimately, they failed to dramatically transform the EPA, and federal environmental laws have mostly survived subsequent attacks. But the political winds have shifted since Reagan’s time, in Congress as well as within the Republican Party. As Pruitt told the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
This is how The New York Times described the EPA shortly before Gorsuch resigned: “Once noted for its efficiency and esprit, the agency is now demoralized and virtually inert.”
Gorsuch and Reagan cut the agency’s budget by about a quarter and its workforce by nearly 20 percent. Gorsuch also adopted a relaxed attitude toward enforcement: When a New Mexico oil refinery complained in a private meeting that it couldn’t afford to comply with regulations requiring it to produce gasoline with lower lead levels, Gorsuch told the company it wouldn’t be penalized for flouting the rules. The White House declined to discipline Gorsuch, but the incident contributed to the perception that Gorsuch was too cozy with polluters.
The issue came to a head over the Superfund program. Gorsuch took charge shortly after Superfund was created to clean up dangerously polluted places such as Love Canal, New York, a community built on top of a toxic waste dump whose residents suffered unusual illnesses and high rates of birth defects and miscarriages. The agency was supposed to develop a priority list of polluted sites and either force companies to clean them up or use money from the fund to do so itself.
Environmentalists and congressional Democrats believed that the cleanup progress was inexcusably slow, with penalties on polluters too light. At a defunct chemical waste processing facility in Indiana, for instance, Gorsuch’s EPA allowed a company to pay only a third of the cost of cleaning up aboveground pollution, and then granted it immunity from liability for belowground waste. A couple years in, the agency still hadn’t set up a registry to track health problems associated with hazardous waste pollution, as required by law.
Accusations of mismanagement led to multiple congressional investigations, and the FBI also investigated the agency for shredding documents related to the Superfund probes. Rita Lavelle, the Gorsuch deputy who headed Superfund, came under fire for accepting expensive dinners from industry and striking sweetheart deals with those companies. She later served time in jail for lying to Congress about a conflict of interest involving a former employer. Gorsuch herself was cited by Congress for contempt after refusing to turn over documents during the investigations. By Gorsuch’s own admission, the resulting political meltdown paralyzed the agency, preventing it from getting any actual work done. Gorsuch resigned in 1983 after learning the Justice Department wouldn’t defend her on the contempt charge. It was just two years into Reagan’s presidency.
“The Reagan people came into office with the same kind of fervor for rolling back environmental regulations that we’re seeing now,” says Richard Ayres, an environmental lawyer who headed the Natural Resources Defense Council’s air quality programs at the time. But their success was limited, partly due to the Superfund controversy, which emerged quickly and inhibited the administration’s ability to aggressively pursue its deregulation agenda. Their efforts also ran up against a moderate Republican Senate and a House controlled by Democrats, which worked doggedly to expose industry favoritism at EPA and keep accusations about mismanagement in the public eye. After Gorsuch left, the White House decided the rewards of waging war on environmental laws weren’t worth the political price.
“Reagan was anti-regulation,” Parenteau says, “but he didn’t have a deep hostility or resentment about environmental laws.” Reagan replaced Gorsuch with William Ruckelshaus, a moderate known for his integrity. Ruckelshaus, who was respected on both sides of the aisle, helped restore the agency’s credibility.
The Republican presidents since Reagan — George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — mostly chose EPA administrators who were experienced environmental professionals, consistent with the Ruckelshaus model. Pruitt, on the other hand, appears to have been selected for his deep distrust of the agency.
In today’s Republican Party, he’s not an outlier. “It’s probably best to see the Pruitt EPA not as a special Donald Trump twist on the EPA, but as the latest evolution in a larger conservative attack on the agency,” says Paul Sabin, a Yale University environmental historian. Gorsuch and her ideological brother James Watt, who was Reagan’s Interior secretary until 1983, were part of the vanguard of the conservative resistance to the landmark environmental laws passed in the 1970s, which vastly expanded the federal government’s role in protecting air, water and biodiversity. Since then, the tactics for undermining these protections have grown more sophisticated and been widely embraced by the Republican Party, Sabin says. Today, a formidable network of think tanks and right-wing media pushes deregulation at the state and federal level, and critics attack the science that underlies environmental regulation. “A major shift in the party was with the ’94 election and the Gingrich revolution,” Sabin says. “That’s when the party gets more purified in its hostility toward environmental regulation.”
That hostility has reached an apex in the current Congress, which is unlikely to be the check on EPA inaction that it was with Gorsuch, leaving the job primarily to environmental attorneys and the courts. Some House Republicans are intent on pursuing their own deregulatory agenda, with a recently introduced bill to abolish the EPA altogether, as well as talk of repealing and replacing the Endangered Species Act and a recent vote to block EPA rules to protect streams from pollution from coal mines.
Pruitt, for his part, declined to name a single EPA regulation he supports during his confirmation hearing. He also refused to promise to continue to allow California to enact its own strict clean-car standards, despite his stated commitment to states’ rights. The priorities he’s highlighted since include rolling back Obama-era clean water rules and carbon regulations, though he has also promised to promote Superfund cleanups, water infrastructure improvements and compliance with existing air-quality standards.
“The idea that he will just slash and burn the agency, I think, is mistaken,” says Brent Fewell, a D.C. water lawyer and philosophical conservative who served in the number-two spot in the EPA’s Office of Water under George W. Bush. “It’s not that he hates the EPA. He hates overreach.” There are gray areas in the Clean Air and Water acts that the EPA has tried to fill in over time, and Fewell thinks Pruitt has a legitimate point that it’s sometimes gone too far.
Environmentalists tend to hear calls for state rights as code for fewer constraints on industry and more pollution. But Fewell says those outcomes aren’t inevitable. He’s optimistic about states assuming an expanded role in environmental protection. States already shoulder a lot of responsibility for implementing federal environmental regulations, but Fewell says the EPA tends to micromanage them, not giving them much freedom to devise their own methods of meeting clean air or water standards. That breeds resentment: “There’s a lot of fighting. I believe if the states are incentivized to be more creative, we could see more environmental protection.”
Of course, it’s possible that while, in theory, a more restrained EPA could inspire states to become more proactive, in practice some states will step up and others will step back. Gorsuch’s tenure didn’t last long enough to let that experiment play out. If Pruitt’s does, we may soon learn how closely theory and practice align.
Grierson is out for a second consecutive week after having a polyp removed, so we are delighted to welcome the incomparable Christy Lemire, of RogerEbert.com and “What the Flick?!” and so many other places, as our guest host this week. She is one of the best film critics on the planet, and without question, the nicest. She is also so much smarter than either Grierson or Leitch.
Christy and Will dig into the remake/reboot/rewhatever of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and then Will asks Christy about T2: Trainspotting and whether it will mess with one’s affections for the original. But don’t fret: We still have some Grierson, with our previously taped Reboot segments. In those, we discuss cultural touchstone Easy Rider, man, and the ‘80s cult hit Repo Man.
We hope you enjoy. Let us know what you think @griersonleitch on Twitter, or firstname.lastname@example.org. (We’re doing a mailbag show soon, so send us questions.) As always, give us a review on iTunes with the name of a movie you’d like us to review, and we’ll discuss it on a later podcast.
Conservatives have championed Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch
as an originalist in the mold of his mentor, the late Justice Antonin Scalia. “Judge
Gorsuch is a longstanding proponent of the view that the Constitution must be
interpreted according to its text as it was understood by those with authority
to enact it,” explained
Michael McConnell, who served with Gorsuch on the Tenth Circuit Court of
Appeals. By nominating him, “President Trump may have done more for originalism
than any President since Ronald Reagan,” wrote
John O. McGinnis, a constitutional law professor at Northwestern University,
adding that originalism “holds the most promise for maintaining a beneficent
Constitution and a constrained judiciary.”
Not since the failed nomination of Judge Robert Bork in 1987 has a nominee been advanced because of his commitment to originalism. Clarence Thomas was celebrated not for his judicial philosophy, but for pulling himself up from his bootstraps, making it all the way from Pin Point, Georgia, to the Supreme Court. John Roberts and Samuel Alito were hailed by supporters as stellar conservative jurists who had served with distinction on the federal bench. But Gorsuch, whose Senate confirmation hearings begin Monday, has been acclaimed because of his self-professed originalism. The problem is that Gorsuch’s record, reflected in his many opinions and non-judicial writings, suggests that he is a selective originalist, committed to following only some of the Constitution’s text and history—and, most damningly, ignoring the vital Reconstruction Amendments enacted after the Civil War.
There is nothing about originalism that necessitates conservatism. The problem is that many conservative originalists don’t view the Constitution in its entirety, giving short shrift to the Amendments added to the Constitution in the last two centuries that have made our nation’s charter more democratic, more equal, more just, and more inclusive. But an originalist judge cannot pick and choose among parts of the Constitution. Originalism requires fidelity to the entire Constitution, including the Amendments that make equality for all a central constitutional value, protect the right to vote as the linchpin of our democracy, and ensure that states respect substantive fundamental rights, such as the right to marry, which are not mentioned in the Constitution but are core aspects of liberty.
This is where Gorsuch falters.
Judge Gorsuch is a prolific writer, who quite often writes alone on judicial panels to express his views about a case, and he has often invoked arguments made by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton during the debates over the ratification of the Constitution. Notably, he has written a handful of opinions interpreting the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, which properly recognize that the job of a judge is to enforce the amendment’s limit on abuse of power “whatever our current intuitions or preferences might be.” But Gorsuch’s embrace of originalism stops at the Founding.
His opinions concerning America’s Second Founding—the amendments adopted in the wake of the Civil War to erase the stain of slavery from the Constitution, ensure Lincoln’s promised “new birth of freedom,” and reconstruct the nation on the basis of liberty and equality for all—stand in stark contrast. Gorsuch has written opinions in four key areas of Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence: the protection of substantive fundamental rights; equal protection; fundamental fairness due to those accused of a crime; and the power of Congress to help realize the amendment’s guarantees of liberty and equality. In each of these, Gorsuch has never championed the Framers of that amendment who ensured that no government—whether federal, state, or local—infringed on basic rights, wrote equality into the Constitution, and armed Congress with the power to help realize these crucial constitutional guarantees. In fact, Gorsuch has never written any opinions based on the Fourteenth Amendment’s text and history. This is a gaping hole for a self-described originalist judge.
His opinions, more often than not, take a narrow view of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees and an outsize view of the respect due to the states—even though the whole point of the Fourteenth Amendment was to impose limits on the states and ensure that they respected the liberty, dignity, and equality of all. Gorsuch has written opinions that would make it harder for victims of police misconduct to go to federal court to redress abuse of power; he has voted to permit state governments to defund Planned Parenthood based on the flimsiest of rationales; and he has repeatedly dissented when his colleagues on the court of appeals held that criminal defendants had been denied the effective assistance of counsel, one of the most important constitutional guarantees of fundamental fairness. In these cases, he’s been more concerned with the treatment of states, insisting on the need for “respect for comity and federalism” and criticizing his fellow judges for failing to heed “the sort of comity” due the “States and their elected representatives” and permitting “significant new federal intrusion into state judicial functions.” In Gorsuch’s opinions, protection of basic rights often takes a back seat to federalism.
His non-judicial writings share the same basic approach. Writing in National Review in 2005, Gorsuch castigated civil rights lawyers seeking to strike down discriminatory marriage laws that denied same-sex couples the right to marry for using the courts “as the primary means of effecting their social agenda,” turning a blind eye to the Constitution’s promise of access to the courts as well as its guarantee of rights so fundamental that they cannot properly be subject to the whims of the political process.
Gorsuch’s 2006 book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, examined law, history, moral philosophy, and social science, but never once discussed the text and history of the Fourteenth Amendment and its Framers’ design of protecting a broad range of substantive fundamental rights—both those in the Bill of Rights as well as others not enumerated in the Constitution—from state infringement. He took a dim view of leading Supreme Court precedents on the subject—including the 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed protection for a woman’s right to choose abortion—suggesting that its discussion of personal liberty and autonomy could be disregarded as dicta.
But Casey’s discussion of personal autonomy in a context key to equal citizenship—basic reproductive freedom—is an important part of the liberty the law affords to all. The basic reasoning that Gorsuch would shelve is also the core of the celebrated 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which declared that, under the Fourteenth Amendment, gay men and lesbians possess a fundamental right to marry the person of their choice, based both on principles of substantive liberty and equality under the law. Gorsuch’s writings suggest he would be hostile to enforcing those principles.
When Judge Gorsuch appears to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, he will have a heavy burden to meet: he cannot simply call himself an originalist. Instead, he must demonstrate that he truly is one—and that his brand of originalism respects the whole Constitution, and that he will follow it wherever it leads. He must demonstrate his fidelity to the Second Founding Amendments that protect fundamental rights and ensure equal dignity under the law for all persons. And if he doesn’t, senators on the Judiciary Committee ought to ask him why.
Back in August 2015, when Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions were widely considered a joke, Russell Moore was worried. A prominent leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, Moore knew that some of the faithful were falling for Trump, a philandering, biblically illiterate candidate from New York City whose lifestyle and views embodied everything the religious right professed to abhor. The month before, a Washington Post poll had found that Trump was already being backed by more white evangelicals than any other Republican candidate.
Moore, a boyish-looking pastor from Mississippi, had positioned himself as the face of the “new” religious right: a bigger-hearted, diversity-oriented version that was squarely opposed to Trump’s “us versus them” rhetoric. Speaking to a gathering of religion reporters in a hotel ballroom in Philadelphia, Moore said that his “first priority” was to combat the “demonizing” and “depersonalizing” of immigrants—people, he pointed out, who were “created in the image of God.” Only by refocusing on such true “gospel” values, Moore believed, could evangelicals appeal to young people who had been fleeing the church in droves, and expand its outreach to African Americans and Latinos. Evangelicals needed to do more than win elections—their larger duty was to win souls. Moore, in short, wanted the Christian right to reclaim the moral high ground—and Trump, in his estimation, was about as low as you could get.
“The church of Jesus Christ ought to be the last people to fall for hucksters and demagogues,” Moore wrote in Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, a book he had just published at the time. “But too often we do.”
As Trump continued gaining ground in the polls, Moore began to realize that the campaign represented nothing short of a battle for the soul of the Christian right. By backing Trump, white evangelicals were playing into the hands of a new, alt-right version of Christianity—a sprawling coalition of white nationalists, old-school Confederates, neo-Nazis, Islamophobes, and social-media propagandists who viewed the religious right, first and foremost, as a vehicle for white supremacy. The election, Moore warned in a New York Times op-ed last May, “has cast light on the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country.” Those who were criticizing Trump, he added, “have faced threats and intimidation from the ‘alt-right’ of white supremacists and nativists who hide behind avatars on social media.”
Trump, true to form, wasted no time in striking back against Moore. “Truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for,” he tweeted a few days later. “A nasty guy with no heart!”
In the end, conservative Christians backed Trump in record numbers. He won 81 per- cent of the white evangelical vote—a higher share than George W. Bush, John McCain, or Mitt Romney. As a result, the religious right—which for decades has grounded its political appeal in moral “values” such as “life” and “family” and “religious freedom”—has effectively become a subsidiary of the alt-right, yoked to Trump’s white nationalist agenda. Evangelicals have traded Ronald Reagan’s gospel-inspired depiction of America as a “shining city on a hill” for Trump’s dark vision of “American carnage.” And in doing so, they have returned the religious right to its own origins—as a movement founded to maintain the South’s segregationist “way of life.”
“The overwhelming support for Trump heralds the religious right coming full circle to embrace its roots in racism,” says Randall Balmer, a historian of American religion at Dartmouth College. “The breakthrough of the 2016 election lies in the fact that the religious right, in its support for a thrice-married, self-confessed sexual predator, finally dispensed with the fiction that it was concerned about abortion or ‘family values.’ ”
For more than a generation, the Christian right has sought to portray itself as a movement motivated principally by opposition to abortion and the defense of sexual purity against the forces of secularism. According to its own creation myth, evangelicals rose up and began to organize in opposition to Roe v. Wade, motivated by their duty to protect “the unborn.” Albert Mohler, a prominent Southern Baptist theologian, described Roe as “the catalyst for the moral revolution within evangelicalism”—the moment that spurred the coalition with conservative Catholics that still undergirds the religious right.
In fact, it wasn’t abortion that sparked the creation of the religious right. The movement was actually galvanized in the 1970s and early ’80s, when the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University and other conservative Christian schools that refused to admit nonwhites. It was the government’s actions against segregated schools, not the legalization of abortion, that “enraged the Christian community,” Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich has acknowledged.
By openly embracing the racism of the alt-right, Trump effectively played to the religious right’s own roots in white supremacy. Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute and the alt-right’s most visible spokesman, argued during the campaign that GOP voters aren’t really motivated by Christian values, as they profess, but rather by deep racial anxieties. “Trump has shown the hand of the GOP,” Spencer told me in September. “The GOP is a white person’s populist party.”
Until now, the alt-right has presented itself largely as an irreligious movement; Spencer, its outsize figurehead, is an avowed atheist. But with Trump as president, the alt-right sees an opening for its own religious revival. “A new type of Alt Right Christian will become a force in the Religious Right,” Spencer tweeted on the morning after the election, “and we’re going to work with them.”
To alt-right Christians, Trump’s appeal isn’t based on the kind of social-issue litmus tests long favored by the religious right. According to Brad Griffin, a white supremacist activist in Alabama, “the average evangelical, not-too-religious Southerner who’s sort of a populist” was drawn to Trump primarily “because they like the attitude.” Besides, he adds, many on the Christian right don’t necessarily describe themselves as “evangelical” for theological reasons; it’s more “a tribal marker for a lot of these people.”
Before the election, Griffin worried that white evangelicals would find his “Southern nationalist” views problematic. But Trump’s decisive victory over Russell Moore reassured him. “It seems like evangelicals really didn’t follow Moore’s lead at all,” Griffin says. “All these pastors and whatnot went in there and said Trump’s a racist, a bigot, and a fascist and all this, and their followers didn’t listen to them.”
There is no way of knowing how many Americans consider themselves to be alt-right Christians—the term is so new, even those who agree with Spencer and Griffin probably wouldn’t use it to describe themselves. But there is plenty of evidence that white evangelical voters are more receptive than nonevangelicals to the ideas that drive the alt-right. According to an exit poll of Republican voters in the South Carolina primary, evangelicals were much more likely to support banning Muslims from the United States, creating a database of Muslim citizens, and flying the Confederate flag at the state capitol. Thirty-eight percent of evangelicals told pollsters that they wished the South had won the Civil War—more than twice the number of nonevangelicals who held that view.
That’s why white evangelicals were the key to Trump’s victory—they provided the numbers that the alt-right lacks. Steve Bannon, Trump’s most influential strategist, knows that the nationalist coalition alone isn’t big enough “to ever compete against the progressive left”—which is why he made a point of winning over the religious right. If conservative Catholics and evangelicals “just want to focus on reading the Bible and being good Christians,” Bannon told me last July, “there’s no chance we could ever get this country back on track again.” The alt-right supplied Trump with his agenda; the Christian right supplied him with his votes.
For alt-right Christians, Russell Moore is the embodiment of where the religious right went wrong—by refusing to openly embrace racism. Throughout his youth, Griffin says, he felt alienated by Christians like Moore who were intent on “condemning racism.” He was only drawn back into Christianity when he married the daughter of Gordon Baum, a far-right Lutheran leader who co-founded the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a virulently racist group.” Griffin says he joined the CCC, as well as the white nationalist League of the South, because both groups embody the elements he views as integral to his faith: They are “pro-white, pro-Christian, pro-South.”
Moore has become a popular target among alt-right Christians. The white supremacist and popular alt-right radio show host James Edwards, himself a Southern Baptist, regularly disparages Moore on his program, calling him a “cuck-Christian.” In June, after the Southern Baptist Convention banned displays of the Confederate flag, Edwards hosted Nathanael Strickland, proprietor of the Faith and Heritage blog. In a recent post, Strickland had argued that white Southerners “have faced a widespread and determined assault on our heritage, symbols, monuments, graves, and identity by secular and governmental forces,” and likened such supposed attacks to what Hitler claimed in Mein Kampf: that Germans faced “cultural extermination and ethnic cleansing.” Edwards seconded that analysis, declaring the Confederate flag “a Christian flag,” and arguing that to attack it “is to deny the sovereignty, the majesty, and the might of Lord Jesus Christ in his divine role in Southern history, culture, and life.”
Strickland recently told me that alt-right Christians see “racial differences” as “real, biological, and positive,” a view he insists is “merely a reaffirmation of traditional historical Christianity.” He argues that many on the alt-right who consider themselves atheists or pagans only lost their faith in Christianity “due to the antiwhite hatred and Marxist dogma held by the modern church.”
Strickland considers himself a “kinist,” part of the new white supremacist movement that, according to the Anti-Defamation League, “uses the Bible as one of the main texts for its beliefs,” offering a powerful validation to white supremacists for their racism and anti-Semitism. Strickland sees kinism as a successor to Christian Reconstructionism, a theocratic movement dating back to the 1960s that played a key role in the rise of Christian homeschooling. The movement’s primary goal was to implement biblical law—including public stonings—in every facet of American life.
After Trump’s victory, Edwards ferociously attacked the president-elect’s critics, Bible in hand. “The Bible says, ‘There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth,’ and I want there to be that,” he said on his show. “Now is the time for retribution, and I want them to suffer. I want them to feel the righteous anger of a good and decent people. I want Trump to drive them into the sea.” He called on the “degenerates, perverts, and freaks,” and other “criminals who shilled for Hillary” to “make good on your promise to leave the country.” He added: “They can take Russell Moore with them on the way. That’s for sure. Good riddance. Please leave.”
Alt-right Christians like Edwards see their movement as part of a global battle for ethnic nationalism. Days before the election, neo-Nazis assembled at a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to show their support for Trump. Matthew Heimbach, an alt-right Christian leader who founded the Traditionalist Worker Party, told the crowd they were in a worldwide struggle for the preservation of “ethnic, cultural, and religious integrity,” a battle that has been joined by “nationalists around the world that are fighting the same enemy.” That enemy, Heimbach said, is made up of “Jewish oligarchs and the capitalists and the bankers” who “want to enslave the entire world.” He ticked off some of the movement’s international allies: President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has overseen a Hitler-inspired campaign of extrajudicial killings, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has displaced and slaughtered millions of his own citizens. To Heimbach, Assad “is fighting to defend his people against the globalist hydra of Saudi Arabia, of the terrorist state of Israel, and United States interests.”
Heimbach, who made headlines last March for shoving a Black Lives Matter protester at a Trump rally, also draws inspiration from the far-right Russian writer Alexandr Dugin, whose book, The Fourth Political Theory, he considers “suggested reading” for all Traditionalist Worker Party members. Dugin’s writings reinforced Heimbach’s belief, he says, that “we must reject the failed and flawed concepts of democracy, capitalism, equality of ability, and multiculturalism.” To alt-right Christians like Heimbach, democracy itself is a failed and flawed concept.
Some, in fact, believe that Trump does not go far enough in defending the faith. Strickland, for example, views Trump as merely a “civic nationalist,” not a full-blown racial and ethnic nationalist like those on the alt-right. “There are four legs supporting the table of civilization,” he says. “Blood, religion, culture, and language. Civic nationalists only acknowledge the last three of those.” In Strickland’s view, the alt-right must now become Trump’s “loyal opposition,” prodding the president even further to the right. “The alt-right’s job in the coming months and years will be to solidify nationalism’s place in the Republican Party and push the importance of the fourth leg—blood.”
With the religious right now at the service of the alt-right, conservative evangelicals who opposed Trump find themselves at odds with the movement they helped to build. Reverend Rob Schenck was one of the leaders of the religious right’s war on abortion, famously getting arrested in 1992 at a women’s health clinic while carrying “Baby Tia,” a preserved fetus he claimed had been aborted. Through his organization, Faith and Action, Schenck has long provided spiritual counsel to top Washington officials, including Supreme Court justices and members of Congress like Mike Pence. Trump, he says, has no spiritual side whatsoever. “He has no facility in the language of faith,” Schenck told me in November, a week after the election. “At all. It’s not natural to him. It’s not even known to him. It’s alien.”
Two days before we spoke, Trump had announced his selection of Steve Bannon as his chief White House strategist. To Schenck, the religious right’s support for the appointment was another “screaming alarm to American evangelicals that we must do some very deep soul-searching.”
But such soul-searching does not appear to be forthcoming. So far, President Trump has drawn little but praise from religious right leaders. From his first days in office, he moved swiftly to shore up their support. He quickly brought back George W. Bush’s “global gag rule,” signing an executive order that bars federally funded groups not only from providing abortions to pregnant women, but from even discussing abortion as an option. And his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court thrilled even Russell Moore, who hailed the selection of “a brilliant and articulate defender of Constitutional originalism.” Trump’s strategy makes sense: He’ll keep evangelicals happy and unified by moving some of their key priorities forward—and use their support to push for what is ultimately an alt-right agenda.
Schenck fears that “Trump and his gang” have exposed an evangelical culture “that doesn’t know itself.” Sitting in his Capitol Hill townhouse, Schenck picks up his copy of Ethics, by the anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, he says, argued that because Jesus was a “man for others,” Christians are called “not to hold the other in contempt, or to be afraid of the other, or contemptuous of the other.” Yet when Schenck visited evangelical churches during the Obama years, he lost count of how many times he was asked, quite earnestly: “Is the president the Antichrist?”
Schenck still holds out hope, as does Moore, that a new generation of evangelicals will ultimately reject what Trump and the alt-right represent. “I do think something is going to emerge out of this catastrophe,” he says. “It’s going to help us to define what is true evangelical religion and what is not.”
But for now, he concedes, the religious right has forfeited its moral standing by aligning itself with the alt-right’s gospel of white supremacy. “Evangelicals are a tool of Donald Trump,” Schenck says. “This could be the undoing of American evangelicalism. We could just become a political operation in the guise of a church.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Last Thursday afternoon, in a ballroom at the luxurious Mandarin Oriental hotel near the National Mall, President Donald Trump’s 31-year-old senior advisor Stephen Miller concluded a panel discussion on “Economics in an Age of Populism” with a matter-of-fact prediction about a new world order. “The protests and the unrest and the rebellion you’ve seen in the American voter is not a small event or a passing event,” he told the crowd of conservatives. “It is a profound, total, and complete repudiation of elite governance at every level.... It is colossal in its scope and reach. We are only seeing the very beginnings of it, and the world is going to change in irreparable ways.”
“If it goes according to the values we discussed today,” he added, “it will be an extraordinary win and victory for everyday working people all across the country.”
These aren’t the values of the conservative establishment in Washington—or at least they weren’t. Before Trump, elite conservatives generally weren’t populist. They didn’t support trade protectionism or erecting border walls or dispatching deportation forces. For all their talk of security and law enforcement, Republicans retained a commitment to relatively liberal immigration policies. They even talked periodically about comprehensive immigration reform, including citizenship or “earned legal status” for undocumented people. The organizing principle of conservatism was, ostensibly, limited government.
Now that Donald Trump is president, though, he and his team are attempting to win over traditional conservatives—like those in the Mandarin Oriental audience last week. Miller was speaking at the annual Ideas Summit hosted by National Review, the pioneering conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” In that tradition, National Review published an entire issue early last year, titled “Against Trump,” about why he was “a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot,” in the words of the magazine’s editors.
But after Trump won the Republican nomination, National Review dedicated itself more to criticizing Hillary Clinton than stopping her opponent. And after Trump won the election and took office, it became a leader of the “anti-anti-Trump” movement, attacking Trump’s critics even while disagreeing with the substance or execution of his actions. The magazine also began to focus on the many areas where it agreed with him.
“We’re transactional on Trump,” National Review’s top editor, Rich Lowry, told me. “We want to encourage him and praise him when he’s right and try to correct him and push him in a different direction when he’s wrong. The hope is that you would get a consensus in the party that economics needs to be more populist but at the same time we’re not throwing out the baby with the bathwater and totally overthrowing Reaganism. At times that’s the sound you get from people in the Trump administration.”
Lowry’s commitment to Reaganism notwithstanding, National Review’s new tack on Trump has many wondering if the magazine has lost its way: whether a publication that has long been a stalwart defender of principled conservatism has become just another partisan organ. Is National Review sacrificing its values in a desperate bid for relevancy under a president it vehemently opposed? Or is such ideological flexibility the only reasonable path for a traditionally conservative publication in the age of Trump? Perhaps it’s neither—that Trump, rather, is changing the very nature of conservatism in America, and thereby changing the very nature of National Review.
National Review certainly has a tradition of standing for principle over partisanship. Buckley famously took on the conspiratorial anti-communists of the far-right John Birch Society during the 1960s. “By 1961,” John B. Judis wrote in William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, “Buckley was beginning to worry that with the John Birch Society growing so rapidly, the right-wing upsurge in the country would take an ugly, even Fascist turn rather than leading toward the kind of conservatism National Review had promoted.”
But as the New Republic’s Jeet Heer noted earlier this year, the magazine’s conservatism was ultimately compromised by—or, more favorably, adapted to—its ascendance in the Republican Party:
The magazine was born in 1955 as a revolt against the moderate Republicanism of Dwight Eisenhower. When the conservative movement inspired by National Review took over the GOP, the magazine became intimately linked with the party, and started having trouble criticizing Republican administrations. As John Judis showed in his biography of William F. Buckley, the National Review founder began to forgive conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan who strayed from right-wing orthodoxy in order to win elections. The balancing act Buckley learned to perform, of being both a supporter of the party and a keeper of ideological purity, tilted increasingly in the direction of partisanship.
The “Against Trump” issue in January 2016 seemed like another John Birch Society moment for National Review. It assailed his character and temperament. It warned against his “free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.” Trump took notice:
Many National Review staffers joined the Never Trump movement, pledging not to vote for him against Clinton. Senior editor Jonah Goldberg even praised Clinton for condemning the pro-Trump “alt-right” while his fellow conservatives didn’t. His piece was titled “Time to John Birch the Alt-Right.”
But now, critics charge, the magazine is drifting toward partisanship again. In January, Heer wrote that National Review “is starting to embrace, slowly and awkwardly, the Republican president out of fealty to the party.” The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart devoted the bulk of his piece on “The Anti-Anti-Trump Right” to what he sees as National Review’s technique: “Step number one: Accuse Trump’s opponents of hyperbole.... Step number two: Briefly acknowledge Trump’s flaws while insisting they’re being massively exaggerated.” Beinart wrote that this approach “minimizes Trump’s misdeeds without appearing to defend them.” As one journalist at a rival conservative publication told me, the magazine’s qualified praise of Trump now “seems rather disingenuous after they were so hysterical about him during the primaries.”
But National Review defends its approach. “I think there are points of contact between a sober nationalism and an enlightened conservatism,” Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at the magazine, told me while sipping a glass of white wine at a reception after Miller’s panel. “Rich Lowry and I wrote an article about why nationalism rightly understood is an important component of conservatism. I think it’s important to sift and try to identify what’s reasonable and constructive and what needs to be corrected.”
Lowry said that Trump has moved in a more conventionally conservative direction since the primaries, when the candidate “was making more of a big deal about price controls for the pharmaceutical companies.” Lowry called Trump’s cabinet picks “superb” and Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court “a home run.” At National Review, he said, “We generally support what he’s doing on immigration in terms of more enforcement.”
Meanwhile, Trump seems to have put on hold the issues where the magazine has its strongest disagreements with him, including trade and infrastructure. “I think sometimes liberals seem to think we should be in the same place they are on Trump,” Lowry said. “We share concerns about his character and his temperament. Those are enduring concerns that aren’t going to go away. But where we’re different is we want 70 percent of this stuff to happen.”
Staff writer David French, who was a prominent Never Trumper and even mulled a third-party challenge to Trump in last year’s election, told me the early days of the administration have been like watching a ping pong match. “You’re going, ‘Right. Wrong. Yes. No,’” he said. Like Lowry, French praised the president’s cabinet. He also said he supports Trump’s approach to terrorism and shrinking government bureaucracy. “I agree with the priority articulated to dismantle the administrative state,” he said, echoing a stated goal of Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Ponnuru was less sanguine. “The people on the right who say he’s doing a great job are grading him on a curve and placing a lot of weight on media controversies in which they take his side and not much weight on the actual policy change that has occurred so far in this administration,” he said. “It is true that these are early days. It is also true that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama were further along than he is now and I think he’s had a slow start that is deeply connected to the flaws a lot of us saw in him during the campaign—the fact that he has no interest in public policy, that he didn’t campaign on a real agenda and he’s therefore been unable to generate consensus in the party.”
Ponnuru, who, like French, voted for the independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin last fall, criticized Trump for failing to stay on message and being slow to fill key administration post. “There’s a running theme of concern about him as potential strongman,” Ponnuru said, “but in a lot of ways he’s a weak president.”
With regard to the “anti-anti-Trump” knock against National Review, Ponnuru allowed that Beinart “was on to something in his Atlantic criticism of conservatism generally.” “It is certainly the case that, given that we have a Trump presidency, we would like to make the best of it,” he said of National Review. But Ponnuru said some of their criticism of Trump’s opposition is warranted. “The ‘anti-anti-Trump’ tendency is an important tendency in conservative opinion right now, and it’s reflected in what we write,” he said. “A lot of the anti-Trump stuff does seem wrongheaded and foolish to me, and I make no apologies for criticizing it.”
The challenge is to ensure it doesn’t go too far.
“I do think the temptation, the danger, is that you’re not putting enough attention on mistakes or foolish things, wrongheaded things, that the administration is doing, if you only do that,” Ponnuru said. “That’s something that individual conservatives have to navigate as well as collectivities of conservatives. I’m not going to name names, but there are people we publish and people other people publish who I think have tipped over too far in one direction or another.”
French said he’s also conscious that the “anti-anti-Trump” approach can be a dereliction of duty. “I think that if somebody has become exclusively ‘anti-anti-Trump’ it’s kind of a way of making—I don’t want to impugn motives—but if you’re against Trump, one way to sort of live at peace in this world now within the conservative movement is to be exclusively or dominantly ‘anti-anti-Trump,’” he said. “You can look at things that are legitimately overreach in my view—legitimately hysterical and wrong in my view—and talk about that all day long.”
Assessing how much to police Trump versus his critics isn’t the only challenge for National Review. Lowry said Trump’s rise has forced the magazine to consider ideas and policies it would have previously dismissed, particularly on trade. “We take Trumpism as an opportunity to widen our ideological aperture,” he said. “We’ve run pieces on trade that we probably wouldn’t have run prior to the advent of Trump. I don’t think we’re wrong on trade. I think maybe conservatives were a little too facile on trade. It’s kind of pointless to have this guy elected president and not at least ask those kind of questions.”
National Review started wrestling with how to make conservatism work better for workers after Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment in 2012, according to Lowry. “There are some people who tried to defend it or even said they agreed with it and it was a wonderful thing,” he said. “We were never with them. We were saying clearly after 2012 that the party needed to talk more about workers and less about entrepreneurs. We wanted the party to move in a more populist direction, but not as far as perhaps Trump is taking it and not with the vehicle of someone like Trump. He managed to pull this off in part because the consensus within the party was so brittle and out of date.”
Even now, as Trump supports a House Republican healthcare bill that would hurt the working class, Lowry said he’s not comfortable with the current Republican position. “My basic take is I wish [House Speaker] Paul Ryan were more populist, and I wish Trump were more conservative,” he said.
As a business proposition, National Review is increasingly competing with outlets offering overt support for the White House. Publications like American Greatness and American Affairs, which are trying to intellectualize Trumpism, could conceivably present a commercial challenge down the line. French questioned the premise of these publications, saying, “I’ve always taken exception to the idea that Trump has a core political philosophy.” But Lowry said he welcomed their contributions: “I think having some publications trying to put some more intellectual meat on the bones is a good thing. I do think it’s a distinct worldview and it’s one that hasn’t had much intellectual expression or defense.”
National Review insists it won’t defend Trump unless it’s warranted. On questions of character, in particular, French said conservatives have a duty to speak up against him. “I don’t think you can divorce character and policy,” he said. “I was very dismissive of the Democratic argument in the Clinton era in the late 1990s that all this could be compartmentalized—‘Look, let’s just focus on what Bill Clinton’s doing well, wall off the things he does badly, and defend him against all Republican comers.’ There were an awful lot of us—and I’m a conservative Christian—who were saying no, no, no, no. There’s a lot that matters here beyond mere policy. There’s national character. There’s culture. There’s morality. All of those things matter a great deal.... I found it very distressing when I heard in this election cycle, coming back at me, a lot of arguments from Republicans that I heard from Democrats in the 1990s.”
Lowry said Trump’s character flaws could hurt his presidency. “It’s an office where usually, if you have any character flaws, the pressures of the office expose them,” he said. “Certainly he’s publicly advertised his character flaws more than any other president in the history of the country, I don’t know, since Andrew Johnson showed up drunk to Lincoln’s inauguration or something. The question is whether he can control it enough to succeed.”
Call it partisanship. Or call it pragmatism. But National Review clearly does want Trump to succeed, and will attempt to steer him—if he’s even listening. “We hope he’s the best Donald Trump he can be,” Lowry said. And so Buckley’s successors stand athwart history again, murmuring Proceed with Caution.
If the House Republicans pass the American Health Care Act this week, as House Speaker Paul Ryan predicts they will, it’ll represent a major triumph of dishonesty over plain, if slightly more complex, truths.
At an obvious level, it will require Republicans to ignore, dispute or lie about the Congressional Budget Office’s conclusion that Trumpcare is likely to cause 14 million people to lose their insurance next year alone and reduce insurance rolls on the whole by 24 million over 10 years, relative to where they’d be if Republicans just administered the Affordable Care Act in good faith.
But at a more cynical level, it will be a victory for the false claims Republicans have made to paper over the fact that their Obamacare alternative would create a humanitarian crisis by cutting off health care assistance to the poor and elderly so that they can massively and permanently cut rich people’s taxes.
If these lies propel the AHCA to passage, though, it is only because they were never seriously, or in sustained fashion, treated as such by leading news outlets covering the Obamacare repeal process. Where the CBO’s coverage findings spoke for themselves, the agency’s other conclusions, and other legislative esoterica, have allowed Ryan and his members to tell a different—and completely false—story about what Trumpcare will mean for people.
That story rests on the following four lies.
This is the most insidious of falsehoods, because explaining why it’s false isn’t easy. After all, even CBO says, “The legislation would tend to increase average premiums in the nongroup market prior to 2020 and lower average premiums thereafter.” But the CBO’s method of tabulating average premiums only accounts for those who actually buy insurance (not for the average price of premiums on offer) and thus obscures the fact that the “lower premiums” Ryan boasts of stem from the fact that his plan makes insurance unaffordable for the elderly and drives them out of the market altogether.
To see how deceptive this is, consider the following analogy to cars. Imagine America elected an erratic, impulsive person to the presidency, and he was so racist toward Muslims and Latinos that Arab and Latin-American oil exporters decided to impose an embargo against the United States, creating an oil shock. As gasoline prices climbed, the cost of owning and using a car would climb too, inducing some people to trade in their cars for smaller, more fuel efficient ones, or to buy smaller cars than they intended when they entered the market. SUV aficionados might wait until the oil crisis passed altogether to buy their gas-guzzlers. Consumer data would subsequently show the average price of automobiles sold in America falling. But surely nobody in the press corps would take the president seriously if he boasted about such an embarrassing fiasco by claiming he had “lowered car prices.” We would call that person a liar.
This is almost exactly what Paul Ryan is doing, though. Just as “lowering car prices” conveys reducing the average car price within the entire fleet, lowering premiums suggests reducing the amount of money insurers charge on average per available plan. As much as Ryan and nearly every other Republican is pretending otherwise, that’s not what CBO if saying will happen. CBO says average premiums will fall in large part because, “the mix of people enrolled in coverage obtained in the nongroup market is anticipated to be younger, on average, than the mix under current law.” They’re looking at the average price of plans sold.
What Trumpcare does is increase premiums for elderly people so much that many of them will not buy plans at all, lowering the average price of policies purchased on the market. A price shock, but for premiums, instead of oil. This is an extremely cynical and dishonest way of bragging about subjecting millions of seniors to the risks of going uninsured, and Ryan does it constantly.
Ryan says this constantly, too, and is at best asked to defend it against contrary analysis—as if the fact of the matter is open for interpretation. But it isn’t: Obamacare isn’t in a death spiral and repeating the claim, and citing markets with one or few carriers in the marketplace as evidence won’t make it so.
As a starting point, the very notion of a singular thing called Obamacare “collapsing” is conceptually flawed. “Obamacare” could collapse as a whole in theory, if it were designed much more haphazardly than it is. But the truth on the ground is nearly the opposite.
Obamacare isn’t one thing at all: It’s dozens and dozens of markets across the country, the compositions of which vary by region. Some of these markets are thriving, others are not; they are not collapsing en masse, and, thus, neither is Obamacare. To the contrary, the design of Obamacare makes it nearly death spiral-proof, because it insulates most consumers from premium increases, by linking subsidy levels to income and premium prices. Thus, even where single companies dominate, costs to consumers can be fairly stable.
The CBO does say that markets under AHCA would eventually stabilize, so it isn’t intellectually honest for people who don’t like Trumpcare to say Trumpcare will destroy insurance markets, just because we don’t want AHCA to pass. But the CBO also says that, under current law, “subsidies to purchase coverage combined with the penalties paid by uninsured people stemming from the individual mandate are anticipated to cause sufficient demand for insurance by people with low health care expenditures for the market to be stable.”
In other words, Obamacare isn’t “collapsing” or in a “death spiral,” and when Ryan, President Donald Trump and other Republicans say otherwise, as they often do unchallenged, they are lying.
Here, because the claim touches on process instead of substance, news media have done a better job pointing out how untruthful Ryan is being. “Regular order” doesn’t normally entail holding zero educational hearings, drafting legislation in secret, unveiling it to widespread criticism from industry and consumer stakeholders, then advancing it through committees, and the entire House of Representatives, before CBO has issued updated analysis. It especially doesn’t entail perpetrating a rush job like this for legislation that will have such far-reaching impact. But Republicans keep suggesting their process shines in contrast to the ones Democrats used to pass Obamacare, when the opposite is true and every honest journalist knows it.
This is focus-grouped pabulum conservatives use to describe all of their health care reform ideas, but it is particularly inapt vis-à-vis the American Health Care Act. The theoretical roots of the patient-centered care talking points lie in conservative opposition to government rationing in single-payer systems, where bureaucrats might decide not to reimburse physicians for certain treatment options. Like the equally dishonest “access to health care” spin Republicans use to describe a plan that leaves 24 million people uninsured, the “patient-centered care” conservatives dream of while drinking out of kegs is where doctors prescribe treatment regimens and people who can afford to pay for those regimens get them.
But that debate has nothing to do with the AHCA, which does basically nothing to change the regulatory foundation of the U.S. health insurance system. To the extent that the AHCA alters the doctor-patient relationship at all, it is by making it harder for women to obtain abortions. So, the opposite of what Ryan claims. But by and large, these are just nice-sounding words Ryan is tossing around to make a plan that will be a catastrophe for the poor and old and sick sound nice.
I have my own views about health care policy; and they color the way I think and write about the American Health Care Act. But shrill commentary isn’t necessarily misleading, just as politeness isn’t synonymous with honesty. Paul Ryan’s career, and his AHCA sales job, is testament to the latter point. Continuing to give him the benefit of the doubt will ruin countless lives.
This article is adapted from this year’s acceptance speech for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, awarded by the National Book Critics Circle.
Not too long ago I saw, on the internet, a photograph of a very small baby raccoon sitting on a road. And the caption read: “when u realize u dont want 2 be responsible for anything anymore & u just want 2 nap and be small.”
I have deliberately arranged my life so that I see pictures of cute animals on the internet every day. But I’m not usually seized by them the way I was by this one. The desire to abdicate, to give up: for me, that’s primal. Like anyone else alive right now, I spend a lot of days fighting off a flight response. Every day brings fresh fear and fresh outrage. And though we have all these tiny little outlets of action in our lives, the internet posts and the petitions and the marches, no single one of them can fix this. The world is on the verge of something, and one way to look at it is that we are climbing up the arc of the moral universe. But from our present vantage, it’s very hard to see if it’s bending towards justice the way Martin Luther King said.
It’s natural to want to look away. I want to look away. For the last few years, we all have. This brave new world of ours, after all, it started long before November 8th. The struggle we presently find ourselves in is not a mistake and not a fluke. As Hannah Arendt would have told us if she were around, it came from something that has been simmering for years. It was not a Big Bang. It crept into our lives, while we were napping.
As I thought about this, a few weeks ago, I picked up The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time since I was assigned it as a Canadian high school student. You know all the jokes about that book approaching nonfiction now. You don’t need me to make another one. But reading it what I thought about was mostly this: There are so few books being published like this, now. The application of literary intelligence to this question of power, it’s out of style.
Many writers now are more interested in exploring the self. Power might be present in their books but it’s usually not the abiding preoccupation. And look: to borrow a phrase from one of Sontag’s speeches, I would never ask a writer to be a jukebox. But there is a kind of looking away going on by a lot of writers who should know better, I’m saying. And I’m troubled by it.
Yes, by design, writers live their lives in what David Foster Wallace called “our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms.” We are, so very often, alone. It doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of getting up, and looking around. I’m just as skeptical of big-L claims about literature as I am big-C claims about criticism, but I do think there is a bottom line to writing: What a writer is supposed to do is pay attention. A good novelist pays attention to his characters. A good biographer pays attention to the documents before her. A good critic pays close attention to the thing she’s brought to evaluate.
Paying attention is the only thing that guarantees insight. It is the only real weapon we have against power, too. You can’t fight things you can’t actually see. The power a writer has is the power to make things visible, and they are the things that we don’t typically look at or think about. Telling a story about someone has enormous power. People forget a headline. They remember a story.
Here is a story I think about a lot: In my other writing life as a journalist, I met this young woman last year who had been hiding in plain sight for most of her life. Her name is Gypsy. For her whole life, her mother had insisted that she was incredibly sick. And then one day she realized: her mother was lying. With the lies, too, the mother had trapped them both in a fraud. Gypsy tried to get away, but her mother physically wouldn’t let go. So Gypsy found a young man on the internet, fell in love with him and after Gypsy asked him to, he killed her mother. And now Gypsy is in prison, trying to figure out who she is in the aftermath of all this.
At the same time as I was reporting Gypsy’s story, I happened to be given a book to review. It was a big brick of a novel about a man, clearly the author’s alter ego, who felt trapped in his bourgeois existence. And I’ll say here just as I said in print: I did not like this novel. But I know that one of the reasons I disliked it so was the novelist’s palpable incuriosity about actual suffering in the world. He just had no idea. And my dislike bloomed into pretty damning rhetoric, as it happened, so damning I suspect it won me an award as a critic because I was funny and maybe a bit savage in the way I yelled at him in print. But really, I only wanted to remind him, as I so often have to remind myself, to pay attention.
The early history of rock music is littered with conscious-altering moments. Elvis swiveling his hips on The Ed Sullivan Show; Jayne Mansfield strutting to Little Richard in The Girl Can’t Help It; the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens; the Beatles playing to an unending wave of screams on, again, The Ed Sullivan Show; even the snare shot that kicks off “Like a Rolling Stone”—these are cited again and again as the culturally transformative moments of the 1960s and ’70s.
Chuck Berry’s career spanned seven decades—from his emergence in the mid-’50s with swaggering hits like “Nadine” and “Johnny B. Goode,” to the monthly shows he played practically up until his death on Saturday at age 90—but he had no such defining moment. Instead, he burst on to the national stage in 1955 fully formed, at the age of 28, with the song “Maybellene,” and produced consistently strong material for the next decade-plus, with the exception of a stint in jail that derailed his career and helped briefly kill off rock music. And since the mid-sixties, between the tribute concerts and novelty hits (e.g., the deeply gross “My Ding-a-Ling” in 1972, which was somehow his only #1 single) and troubles with the law, Berry’s profoundly influential career was slowly distilled into the riff.
Make that the riff and the duckwalk. The riff, of course, is the punchy opening to “Johnny B. Goode,” which was copied again and again by both Berry and his disciples. The duckwalk is what it sounds like: A guy walking like a duck. Like most teenage guitarists, I learned the riff, note for note, and like most teenage guitarists I could never get its taut musculature right—erring with too-perfect mimicry (a la the Beach Boys, who deserved the lawsuit Berry hit them with) or with too-loose laziness (a la Jerry Garcia who, to be fair, sometimes got it right).
The riff, as 1987’s insanely entertaining and occasionally disturbing Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll attests, is a puzzle that only Berry ever really figured out, a turbulent thing that always feels just on the verge of veering off into chaos before re-asserting itself. Berry may have used the double-stop to mimic the horns he probably couldn’t afford in the early days, but he mastered it, turning it into a trademark. Sixty years later, I’m still struck by just how hard he punches the strings on “Oh Yeah.”
No one was more important to the development of rock n’ roll than Chuck Berry. Yes, rock music predated Berry, and other people, particularly Elvis, were more responsible for popularizing the genre. But the irony of Berry being defined by the riff and the duck walk and little else is that no one grasped the sheer range of rock like Berry did, at least until the Beatles. From the very beginning, Berry’s sound encompassed a host of different elements: Blues, R&B, Caribbean, folk, teeny bopper, and, perhaps most of all, country and western.
And while there was certainly a Berry sound, there was no specific recipe. Much of the music of the 1950s is surprisingly thin. I cannot imagine, for instance, what led teddy boys who heard “Rock Around the Clock” to decide to tear shit up. Even early Elvis, with the exception of the occasional screaming Scotty Moore solo, is surprisingly acoustic. Berry, from the beginning, was heavy—“Maybellene” is muddy and raw, as if Berry’s guitar was blowing out the soundboard.
Berry was on Chess Records, which also hosted heavyweights like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. But Berry’s lithe sound could also be surprisingly tender, especially on his more overtly poppy music, like “Sweet Little Sixteen.” He certainly knew his way around a ballad and I’m partial to some of his hokey novelty music, like “Havana Moon,” a goofy but lovely stab at Calypso. But he was at his best when he was pulling from multiple sources at once—Chuck Berry integrated black music and white music into a sound that no one has repeated since.
And then there were Berry’s lyrics. Despite being in his late 20s when he first broke out—significantly older than the teenagers who were in fashion, like Buddy Holly and Elvis—no one grasped adolescent wants and desires quite like Berry, who had an eerie ability to both be of the moment and predict where it was going. Jon Pareles in his obituary for the New York Times wrote that Berry was “rock’s master theorist and conceptual genius, the songwriter who understood what the kids wanted before they knew themselves.” Pete Townshend would later lay claim to this title, but he never deserved it the way that Berry did in the mid-1950s. The Beach Boys would later parrot his paeans to consumption, but with none of the irony or wit.
Berry’s advanced age—he looked old even in the early 50s, and no one would ever confuse him for a teenager—had the added effect of him distancing from his fans, even as he echoed their desires back to them.
Berry’s wit and eye for detail remains unmatched, in part because Berry rarely strayed from the format he had mastered: The two-and-a-half minute rhyming pop song. In every Berry song, there are vivid little details:
Workin’ in the fillin’ station, too many tasks
Wipe the windows, check the tires, check the oil, dollar gas!
There are also turns of phrase that are still shocking and delightful even now, such as this self-description from “Nadine”:
Pushing through the crowd trying to get to where she’s at
I was campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat
When I first started listening to Berry, I would listen to “You Never Can Tell,” a four-stanza fairy tale of a love story, over and over again, trying to figure out how it worked. Story songs are almost uniformly terrible, traps for otherwise fine songwriters like Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart, and crutches for terrible songwriters with nothing to say, like Billy Joel. But Berry is unique in that much of his best work is narrative: Berry’s songs are full of funny and profound descriptions of consumerism, romance, making out in cars, segregation, days at school, racial achievement, and being a fan of Chuck Berry.
Maybe it was his relatively advanced age, but that song is shockingly mature, especially when compared to everything else in the first wave of rock music. The radio host Tom Scharpling once compared Berry to Woody Guthrie and that applies to his lyrics as much as anything else—like Guthrie, Berry was constantly pushing new ideas into old forms.
“If you had to give rock n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry,” John Lennon famously said. Bruce Springsteen eulogized Berry by writing, “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock n’ roll writer who ever lived.” That still strikes me as not quite right—Berry might be rock’s greatest practitioner, but no one sounds quite like Berry. That’s partly because Berry, as the great Peter Guralnick wrote in a Rolling Stone profile that appeared last fall, has always been a man apart:
For all of the canny “political” (read “artistic” here) inclusiveness that established both his career and his legacy, he has from the beginning chosen to set himself apart. Or been set apart. By a juvenile conviction for armed robbery before he ever thought of entering show business (remember: this was an upwardly mobile, middle-class kid, by his own description). Later by two mid-career prison terms, one coming at the height of his success in 1960 (a contested Mann Act violation, which could certainly be seen as a form of “political” [read “racial” here] reprisal). Not to mention some of his well-documented sexual proclivities and peccadillos (and I don’t mean to minimize them here), what his biographer, Bruce Pegg, writes, represent the actions of “a man whose detachment from society made him feel immune to its mores and taboos.” (For details see Pegg’s Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry.) Sometimes that sense of detachment has served him well (by allowing him to speak in another person’s voice for example, in his songwriting), sometimes it has not – but it has always been a non-negotiable part of his personality. And it has at times alienated his own audience at the very times that, were he but able to admit it, he might have needed them most.
This remove would metastasize after Berry was released from prison in the early ’60s. Despite the strength of much of his material, Berry had already become a nostalgia act by the early ’70s, a wax figure in a rock history museum. This gave Berry opportunities to prove his critics wrong, as he did in Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, where he routinely takes Keith Richards and everyone else to school. But it also meant that he would tour on the cheap, with teenage backing bands who barely knew the material. He shrank down to the riff from “Johnny B. Goode,” and duck-walked across the stage in a pristine white suit and a bolo tie.
Berry is much more than that, perhaps the 20th century’s greatest songwriter not named Bob Dylan, who called him “the Shakespeare of rock n’ roll.” But it’s still quite a legacy.