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The Atlantic
The Weekly Planet: Why Biden is Buying 645,000 New Cars
Every Tuesday, our lead climate reporter brings you the big ideas, expert analysis, and vital guidance that will help you flourish on a changing planet. Sign up to get The Weekly Planet, our guide to living through climate change, in your inbox.The U.S. federal government owns 645,047 motor vehicles, according to its most recent report on the matter. This fleet is, for the most part, a menagerie of trucks: construction vehicles, Ford F-150s, armored vans that sit next to NASA launchpads so astronauts can quickly flee in case of an emergency. Many of those trucks—about a third of the federal fleet—are the white, cube-like U.S. Postal Service vans. Another third are passenger cars. The government owns a lot of vehicles.Since he took office six days ago, President Joe Biden has recommitted the United States to the Paris Agreement and canceled the Keystone XL pipeline. More policy is expected this week. But his most interesting climate actions so far haven’t taken the form of executive orders or really appeared in writing at all. Yet they offer a clearer view of Biden’s approach to climate change—and its aspiration to reshape the American economy—than anything we’ve seen so far.His plan for the federal fleet, in particular, encapsulates Biden-era climate policy in its ambition and limits. He debuted the initiative yesterday while signing an executive order pledging that the government would buy more American-made goods.“The federal government also owns an enormous fleet of vehicles, which we're going to replace with clean electric vehicles made right here in America, by American workers,” he said. This initiative will create 1 million electric-automaking jobs, he claimed. (That’s a big goal: At the end of last year, about 930,000 Americans worked in automaking, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)This is, in a certain light, a sensible consumer decision—you could even call it pedestrian. By going electric, Biden’s government is making the same choice that hundreds of thousands of Americans have already made. Electric vehicles have cheaper fuel costs, and lower lifetime-maintenance costs, than gas vehicles, according to AAA. The government will spend less over time to run an electric fleet.Yet this type of policy isn’t meant to reflect the present-day market so much as influence the country’s future political economy. It rewards two of Biden’s strategic constituencies: unions in the Upper Midwest and young climate advocates. It is practicable: Democrats can accomplish it using only their narrow congressional majorities and Biden’s authority as chief of the executive branch.And it’s our first glimpse of Democrats’ new, souped-up approach to procurement policy, the catchall name for any action that uses the government’s power as a purchaser to create new markets and mainstream new technologies. You might see it as a climate version of Operation Warp Speed—the federal program that bought hundreds of millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses in advance—but procurement policy predates the pandemic. Fifty years ago, the government used its procurement power to nurse the fledgling microprocessor industry into maturity.The policy, again, doesn’t exist in writing yet, so we don’t know how quickly or comprehensively it will be implemented. Will Biden replace federal gas-burning vehicles earlier than otherwise planned? Will the changeover take four years or 14? These details will shape how much electric automakers notice and benefit from the policy. Only about 1.6 million plug-in electric vehicles have been sold in the U.S. ever; in 2019, for instance, fewer than a quarter million EVs were sold. If Biden were to replace, say, the entire federal fleet over five years, the government would buy about 129,000 new cars every year—a huge total, equivalent to about a quarter of Tesla’s worldwide production last year. But if the fleet isn’t fully replaced until 2035, the policy will make a much smaller dent.It is limited in other ways. The federal fleet, although it is truly enormous, pales in comparison with the American private fleet. (It would fill up less than half of the parking spaces in Des Moines, Iowa.) In 2019, the most recent year for which data are available, the federal fleet consumed the equivalent of 386 million gallons of gasoline, emitting about 3.4 million tons of carbon dioxide. But the country as a whole used 142 billion gallons of gasoline that year. The federal fleet was responsible for about a 20th of 1 percent of U.S. carbon emissions in 2019. Every ounce of carbon reduction matters, but this policy will succeed or fail based on whether it accelerates electric-car adoption nationwide—not on whether it has a noticeable effect on American carbon emissions.At least … I’m pretty sure that’s the right way to think about it. I’m still figuring out how to judge the Biden administration. One of the tics of my profession is that when a presidential administration turns over, so do we. I mean this literally, in a personnel sense—the networks appoint new White House reporters—but also in a broader and more conceptual sense. Mainstream American journalism always has an adversarial relationship with the presidency, but the content and context of our rivalry changes. Finding the bounds of that new relationship takes time.I’ll admit that, in some ways, covering the Trump administration was pleasantly straightforward. I believe, and The Atlantic believes, that (1) climate change is real and (2) dealing with it will require federal action. Many senior Trump officials were foggy on the first axiom and hostile to the second. Their policy reflected it. As a reporter, I just had to find out what they were doing, consider whether it did anything about climate change, and then publish my conclusions. Easy!Biden is trickier: His administration seems intent on actually doing things. It has already outpaced Donald Trump’s standard. So what new standard should it meet? The goal of international climate policy might be atmospheric stabilization, but that exceeds the ambit of any one country or president.For now, my lodestar is net zero by 2050, which Biden has laid out as a national goal. According to a recent landmark study from the ZERO Lab at Princeton, meeting that goal in the U.S. would require, by 2030, closing virtually all coal plants, expanding the power grid by 60 percent, and making sure that at least half of all new cars sold are EVs. That 2030 goal is close enough in time for us to have a sense of how much work remains to be done. And it shows why, for Biden’s federal-fleet plan to get results, it must happen quickly. Turning over the federal fleet by 2035, for instance, is not enough.Someone Else’s WeatherKaren Buczynski-LeeOur reader Karen Buczynski-Lee captured this swollen river coursing through Bagni Di Lucca, a town of 6,100 in Tuscany, earlier this month.Every week, I feature a weather photo from a reader or professional in this part of the newsletter, because the climate is someone else’s weather. If you would like to submit one, please email Hazy Things1. How hard will it be to—as I wrote above—retire virtually every coal plant by 2030? Harder than you might think, if you know only about the coal industry’s public collapse. The country’s 50 most fossil-fuel-intensive utilities plan to retire only a quarter of their coal power by the end of this decade, according to a new Sierra Club report. Even though many of these utilities claim to have net-zero-by-2050 goals, their renewable plans are insufficient to meet future demand: On average, their planned solar and wind construction amounts to only a fifth of their existing coal and natural-gas capacity. In a recent edition, I wrote that power has faded as the leading cause of U.S. emissions, but don’t mistake that for complacency: There are a lot of coal plants in the country and we are not doing enough to replace them.Because all utility stories are local, the Sierra Club report lets you see whether your utility’s net-zero plan meets its standard. (For those of us who live in the Northeast or mid-Atlantic, none of our utilities merited inclusion in the report.)2. A lot has happened in the electric-car world recently! Tesla’s stock price went up so much that Elon Musk became the world’s richest person. Yoinks. Tesla was also added to the S&P 500, and immediately became the fifth-largest company in that index, worth more than Disney and Netflix combined. In the past month, too, General Motors unveiled a new ad campaign touting its “all-electric future”—completing the company’s big ol’ flip-flop on EVs since the election. Before November, GM supported Trump’s fuel-efficiency rollback and was suing the state of California to block its EV policy. (Ford, however, took California’s side from the beginning and opposed the rollback.) Now GM says it’s all in on Biden’s vision.Corporate vacillation aside, I will confess a professional interest in these new GM ads. They trumpet the arrival of “Generation E,” which stands for “Everybody In” and also, presumably, “Electric.” “We emit optimism, not exhaust,” a youthful voice blurts at one point, over a montage of tanned Millennials and retirees in suspiciously good shape. But the ad’s lead pitchman is no Millennial at all. He’s a magazine writer—just like me! It’s Malcolm Gladwell, the podcast host and staff writer for The New Yorker.General Motors“Change,” Gladwell utters on a black stage. “You can resist it and be left behind—or embrace it and move forward.”A GM ad is a bit of a surprising spot for Gladwell to appear, since he wrote, in 2010, about the company’s government bailout. “Who really rescued General Motors?” he asked then, ruling in favor of career GM executives who were later fired by the Obama administration. How fortunate, then, that Gladwell can now interview the new career GM executives at his leisure—and have the results, no less, distributed by GM itself. (Coincidentally, a month before he wrote the GM story, he wrote a story asking “why we pay our stars so much money.”)Anyway: an odd choice! Sometimes journalists do become professional spokespeople—there aren’t many ways to get a raise in this industry—but they usually have to leave journalism first to do so. In a statement, a spokesperson for The New Yorker told me: “We have no plans for him to write about the auto industry.” She passed on my interview request to Gladwell, but he didn’t get back to me.3. When you look at satellite imagery on Google Maps, the camera lens is usually at a 90-degree angle to the ground. This Wes Anderson–like view gives satellite photography its particular bluntness. It makes Earth look dimensionless, if not flat.In the past few years, technicians have gotten much better at capturing Earth from oblique angles—using satellites, for instance, to look through the Grand Canyon rather than at it. I wrote about one of the first such images—of Denver—a few years ago. Now the technique has become far more common. In a new Medium post, the data-visualization expert Rob Simmon collects some of the best oblique photos taken so far.Thanks for reading. Did someone forward you this newsletter? Sign up here.
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How to Fix Congress One State at a Time
Lisa Murkowski did not waste time, and she did not mince words. Just two days after former President Donald Trump provoked an insurrectionist mob to storm the Capitol on January 6, Alaska’s senior senator told her local newspaper: “I want him to resign. I want him out.”Murkowski was the first GOP senator to demand Trump’s exit after the deadly riot. The speed and bluntness with which she spoke out against the former president surprised her allies, who saw in her words the first reverberations of how Alaska voted in November. Murkowski wasn’t on the 2020 ballot, but in passing a ballot measure to change the way the state elects its leaders, Alaskans effectively gave their long-serving senator a fresh infusion of political freedom: She no longer needs to worry nearly so much about a conservative primary foe defeating her next year. “I think we’ve seen the result of it already,” former Alaska Governor Bill Walker told me.The ballot measure that Alaska adopted by a narrow margin last fall represents the farthest-reaching changes to any state’s election laws in recent memory, giving a boost to political reformers who are trying to increase voter participation while reducing the incentives for partisanship across the country. Its advocates hope the reforms will be a model for other states, leading to a shift in how both Congress and state legislatures function in the years ahead. And for the next two years, they will have their eye on Murkowski.The referendum scraps party primaries in favor of a single nonpartisan primary, a move that might help Murkowski more directly than any other politician in Alaska. In 2010, Murkowski was defeated in a Republican primary and secured her second full term only after mounting an unlikely write-in campaign in the general election. She’s up for reelection next year, and before Alaska passed its ballot measure, Murkowski was seen as once again vulnerable to a primary challenge because of her votes against her party, whether in rejecting the GOP’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act or opposing Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.As recently as September, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was teasing a possible primary challenge to Murkowski. But as remarkable as Murkowski’s immediate denunciation of Trump was, equally notable was the silence among her peers that followed. Palin said nothing, and Trump loyalists made no serious move to rebuke, censure, or oust Murkowski even though they have threatened other Republicans, such as Representative Liz Cheney, who faces a primary challenge in Wyoming and an effort to remove her as chair of the House GOP conference in Washington after voting to impeach the president.The absence of a backlash to Murkowski’s move against Trump is more evidence that the new laws have altered Alaska politics, supporters argue. The idea isn’t to push Murkowski, a lifelong Republican, to the left—she’s already ruled out switching parties—but to allow her to keep voting independently when she sees fit, whether that’s to break with Trump or to work across the aisle on areas of common ground with President Joe Biden.Opponents of the Alaska ballot measure have sued to stop its implementation. But if it survives a legal challenge, the state will hold a nonpartisan primary for all statewide and federal offices beginning this year. The top four candidates will advance to the general election, where Alaskans will use ranked-choice voting to determine a winner. The referendum also significantly boosts disclosure requirements for campaign financing in an effort to crack down on so-called dark money pouring into state elections.[Read: The Democrats trying to overturn an election]California dropped partisan primaries a decade ago, and Maine voters approved the use of ranked-choice voting in 2016, but Alaska is the first state to combine the two reforms. Alaska and Maine are separated by more than 4,000 miles, but many of their voters share a similar distaste for the two major parties. More than six in 10 voters in Alaska aren’t registered as either Republicans or Democrats, and both states regularly elect independent candidates to statewide posts. The impetus for change in Alaska somewhat mirrored the dynamics that led Maine to adopt ranked-choice voting, after the conservative firebrand Paul LePage twice won gubernatorial races without once securing a majority of the vote. In Alaska, the conservative Republican Mike Dunleavy captured the governorship in 2018 after the incumbent, Walker, a political independent, dropped his reelection bid and endorsed the Democrat Mark Begich in the final weeks of the race.Walker’s former chief of staff, Scott Kendall, wrote the ballot measure and raised money for its campaign. He also has ties to Murkowski, having served as her lawyer when she won reelection in 2010. “Her greatest leadership moments have been her greatest weaknesses,” Kendall told me, referring to the senator’s high-profile breaks with Trump and GOP orthodoxy that made Murkowski vulnerable on the right. “I have watched as the two-party election system, the plurality system, has been trying to shake these people off. I was really kind of feeling around personally for a system that couldn’t be manipulated.”Kendall pitched the idea around, seeking money from political organizations who could help fund a statewide campaign to pass the ballot measure. Groups aligned with both parties turned him down. “‘Tell me how it’s going to elect Democrats. Tell me how it’s going to elect Republicans,’” he recalled hearing. “To me, that was not the point.”Ultimately, the ballot measure faced opposition from prominent members of both the GOP and the Democratic Party in Alaska. Murkowski, who declined an interview request, never took a position on the proposal. Dunleavy urged voters to reject the reforms, and one of his top aides quit his government post to launch a group to campaign against it. Begich also came out against the proposal. The opponents, Kendall told me, even included two groups who almost never see eye to eye: the Alaska affiliates of Planned Parenthood and the National Right to Life Committee. Yet the ballot measure narrowly prevailed, topping 50 percent by just a few thousand votes.“In retrospect, I’m still kind of shocked we pulled it off,” Kendall told me. “They should have beaten us.”The drive for election reform began organically in Alaska, but the money that pushed it over the line came from out of state. One of the effort’s biggest backers was a group called Unite America, which has ambitions that extend far beyond the Last Frontier. The organization—one of a constellation of groups trying to fix the nation’s democratic dysfunction—began in 2014 as an effort to back centrist candidates before pivoting in recent years to push systemic changes to the way Americans elect their leaders. Its benefactors include Kathryn Murdoch, a daughter-in-law of Rupert Murdoch whose philanthropic efforts to fight climate change and enact political reform diverge ideologically from the conservative ethos of the Murdoch family’s media brands. Unite America’s public face is Nick Troiano, a 31-year-old whose job is to sell men and women much older and wealthier than he is on the necessity of investing tens of millions of dollars to rewrite election laws across the country.Troiano grew up as a Republican in rural Pennsylvania, a young politics junkie who listened to conservative talk radio and had a photo of Ronald Reagan on his bedroom wall. But he became disillusioned with the party in college, interning with a group trying to recruit a unity presidential ticket in 2008 and then working with the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission in 2010, tackling the national debt. “It just became so clear to me that the country is going broke because our political system is broken,” Troiano told me over Zoom recently. He finally left the GOP entirely in 2013, after Senator Ted Cruz and other hard-liners orchestrated a government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act.Troiano is now trying to elevate “political philanthropy” from a bit player to a major force in the industry of politics, with a long-term plan to change election laws in enough states to change Congress itself. The big idea: If more lawmakers in the House and Senate are, like Murkowski, rewarded rather than punished for working together, the institution as a whole will be far more responsive to voters. Yet groups like Unite America face criticism from leaders in both parties who see their push for electoral reforms as merely a cloaked campaign for ideological centrism—for a politics that champions the mushy middle instead of clear principles of governance. They’re trying to boost people, Begich told me, “who may not have any philosophical belief on a lot of issues—people who just kind of move with the polls.”The challenge, as he sees it, is one of scale and money. Of about $14 billion in political spending during the 2020 election, just a tiny sliver—about $37 million—went to advocacy for nonpartisan ballot measures in a handful of states. After spending $3 million in 2018, Unite America mobilized more than $30 million in the past two years, and it hopes to ramp up to $100 million through 2022 and more in the years after. In addition to nonpartisan primaries and ranked-choice voting, the group is pushing states to expand voting by mail (which many already did in 2020 because of the pandemic) and to end gerrymandering. Unite America scored wins in Alaska and in Virginia, where voters approved a nonpartisan redistricting commission, but in Massachusetts, voters rejected a ballot measure to adopt ranked-choice voting. Florida came close to approving a top-two primary system; a ballot measure earned majority support but fell short of the 60 percent threshold needed to pass.In the months since the election, Troiano and other advocates have been trying to figure out why reform succeeded in Alaska but failed in Massachusetts. One reason, he told me, was simply that Alaska voters were more dissatisfied with the political system—and their leaders—than voters in Massachusetts. In Massachusetts, Democrats largely backed ranked-choice voting, but the proposal drew opposition from Governor Charlie Baker, a popular Republican moderate. The ballot measure was perceived, Troiano said, “as a solution in search of a problem.”But the other lesson from 2020 might be more instructive about the future prospects of political reform. Combining a series of complicated reforms into a single package proved easier to sell to voters, Troiano told me, “than when we’re only talking about one reform and having to explain the nuances of how it works.”Critics of the Alaska ballot measure agree with Troiano, but their conclusion is a harsher one: They blamed Unite America and other advocates for using the bulk of their ads to highlight the proposal’s crackdown on dark money, a perennial source of complaint in Alaska, rather than the far more complicated, and significant, changes to how elections are run. “It was a little bit disingenuous the way they approached it,” Begich told me. He said he supported the campaign-finance piece of the ballot measure but opposed ranked-choice voting. “I’m not willing to settle for a second best or third choice. I want my first choice,” Begich said. “If I lose, I lose, then we go to the next election.”In California, both Republicans and Democrats have complained about the top-two primary system because it results in general elections that shut out the opposing party in many areas that are deeply conservative or liberal. Expanding to four candidates in Alaska was aimed at limiting that dynamic, but critics of the proposal say that in certain parts of the state, Democrats or Republicans could still be shut out. “That limits people’s choices. That does not expand them,” Nora Morse, a Democrat who served as Begich’s campaign manager, told me. “If I’m looking at four Republicans on the ballot,” she said, “I’m going to be voting for someone who’s the least-worst candidate.”Supporters of ranked-choice voting argue that it eliminates the spoiler effect, allowing voters to support a long-shot candidate without worrying that it will end up helping the candidate they dislike the most. But Kendall said some Democrats told him that in a conservative state like Alaska, the spoiler effect was their best chance of winning.Others like Morse said that Alaska’s history of electing independents and the occasional Democrat like Begich negated the need for overhauling its laws. “I don’t think the system is broken,” Morse said. “In fact, we’ve had a lot of opportunity for people who don’t necessarily fall in a Democratic or Republican mindset to get on the ballot and to win.”Begich, who served a single term in the Senate before the Republican Dan Sullivan defeated him in 2014, also faulted the national group for trying to use Alaska as its guinea pig. “We were their experiment because we’re a cheap market to get into, and a small population base,” Begich said.That’s not a point Unite America would argue with. Troiano sees the Alaska victory as “a proof of concept” that the group can pitch to donors to stand up campaigns in other states, whether through voter-led ballot initiatives or lobbying state legislatures. Walker, the former governor, told me he hopes the Alaska model will “sweep the country.”I asked whether the reforms that voters approved last year would have made a difference in his tenure. “Absolutely,” he replied. Walker said that he would not have governed differently—“I didn’t hold back,” he insisted—but that his proposals for closing the state’s budget gap might have drawn more support. Time and again, he recalled, members of both parties—although more Republicans than Democrats—would tell him they couldn’t back bills, because they wouldn’t “survive a primary.” “I was just irate when I heard,” Walker told me. “I said, ‘Don’t use those words in my presence or with anyone.’”The dynamic is a familiar one in Washington, where Republican senators worried about their right flank will likely be reluctant to lend Biden any support for his agenda. The fear of a primary defeat has tamed even renowned “mavericks” like the late Senator John McCain, who tacked sharply to the right for a time after he lost the presidency to Barack Obama in 2008. Thanks to Alaska’s new election laws, however, Murkowski might not be one of them this year. If her quick and sharp call for Trump’s resignation is a guide, she feels free to break with the Republican base when she wants to. And even though Alaska hasn’t run a single election under its new system, supporters see the political liberation of its senior senator as the earliest sign of its success. “I think we can expect to see more of the same,” Kendall told me. “Now her greatest leadership moments are to be rewarded, rather than punished.”
How Early Trump Supporters Feel Now
Now that Donald Trump’s presidency is over, how do the Americans who supported him at the beginning of his political run feel about his performance in the Oval Office? I put that question to 30 men and women who wrote to me in August 2015 to explain their reasons for backing his insurgent candidacy.Among the eight who replied, all in the second week of January, after the storming of the Capitol, some persist in supporting Trump; others have turned against him; still others have lost faith in the whole political system. They do not constitute a representative sample of Trump voters. But their views, rendered in their own words, offer more texture than polls that tell us an approval rating.[Anne Applebaum: Coexistence is the only option]As I did in 2015, I’ll let the Trump voters have their say. But this time I’ll conclude with some thoughts of my own, in my capacity as a Trump critic who knows that Americans have no choice but to coexist, as best we can, because our political and ideological differences are never going away.Our first correspondent, a communications executive for a hospital, argued in 2015 that Trump was a good choice because he was an authentic leader and negotiator who had run large organizations. He voted for Trump again in 2020. Here is what he’s thinking today: I’ve been a Republican all my life. I subscribe to conservative values both economically and morally, and the Republican Party has always been my political home. The best way I can sum up the past four years is that Trump made it very hard for someone like me to be a Republican. My life is as close to the American dream as possible. I have been married for almost 20 years to the same woman, I have two boys—one is disabled (autism), but I have the resources to take care of him, and a comfortable middle class job. I attend a church and generally don’t suffer any real external strife. I’m very fortunate. There were things about the Trump administration I liked. I was a huge fan of his Supreme Court appointments. I supported his economic policies. COVID-19 has been horrible for the nation, but in assessing Trump’s response, I think he did the best he could and it could have been a lot worse. More than 300,000 Americans dead is a tragedy but the original projections were in the millions, so he must have done something right. [Note: Almost 400,000 had died by the time this was written, and the initial projections had varied; some were as low as 81,000.] I think when the history of Operation Warp Speed is written by disinterested professional historians, it will be remembered in the same manner we remember the Manhattan Project. Maybe Trump will get credit for that, maybe he won’t, but I do think he deserves some. The problem with Trump is that every time he opens his mouth he says something racist, misogynistic, or, in the past week, downright treasonous that makes me want to crawl under a rock. For the first few years, I would defend his behavior, but eventually I just couldn’t. The events of this past week by a few thousand protesters egged on by President Trump are a travesty that no reasonable person can excuse. I don’t talk much politics anymore, unless it’s with close friends or relatives. For the first time in my professional life I feel [that] stating my political affiliation would cost me, if not my job, then at least my professional standing with peers. For that reason I ask again that you keep these comments anonymous. So while I think Trump’s policies were supportable, his rhetoric and personal style was not. Savannah Guthrie actually summed up the problem pretty well when she said, “You are the president of the United States, not someone’s crazy uncle.” I don’t think Trump ever got that. I think in the long term the country will be fine. We’ve been through a lot as a nation and the arc of history bends toward justice, but in the short term I think Trump’s rhetoric and actions will leave a huge part of the country adrift. The actions of the rioters last week are inexcusable, but what about the millions of people who voted for Trump because they just always check the box marked “R” or agree with him on his policies? Where are they going to go? Will they have a political home? And if they don’t, what happens to our elected body politic? I am going to be watching the Joe Biden administration closely. I do not think the election was stolen; I think he won fair and square. I had an opportunity to meet Biden when he was doing the Cancer Moonshot at the end of the Obama administration. He has built a political career on two pillars: relationship-building consensus and personal empathy. That’s not exciting to the left who would rather be led by someone like Bernie Sanders or [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], but it may be what the country needs right now. And in case you were wondering, I’m not talking about bipartisanship for its own sake. I thought in 2008 and continue to think Barack Obama is a pompous asshole. I don’t feel the same way about Biden. The second correspondent argued in 2015 that Trump knows politics is a joke. “It really doesn’t matter who becomes president; it still doesn’t give the American people any power,” she wrote. “At least with Trump, I’ll be greatly entertained & maybe, just maybe, he can shake up the system. Many are right; it’s not about trusting Trump; it’s a collective middle finger to the establishment.”And now?“I didn’t vote for Trump the second time,” she emailed. “I didn’t vote for anyone. I still don’t believe in our current political system. I feel the chips are stacked against us and there’s not much we can do to change that. I thought Trump could’ve been different but learned quickly that he was just like all the other politicians and maybe even worse.” She has now “completely stepped away from politics” because she cannot handle the drama and hate. “Trump is a very manipulative and polarizing figure. He’s definitely contributed to the immense divisiveness of the country,” she wrote. “At first, I felt guilty for ever supporting Trump, but I think the Republican and Democratic Parties are mostly to blame. They’re the ones that created the hot mess for him to thrive in.”The third correspondent told me in 2015 that he’d vote for Trump, despite knowing that he would do a terrible job: I really am at the point of letting the whole thing burn down and explode. Trump would help us get there faster and more efficiently. Like the Joker from The Dark Knight, I just want to see the world burn … Once it’s all burnt down maybe we can have that constitutional convention we really need to fix things and get this country back on track if it still exists. In fact, he now says, he reconsidered his position in 2016, once it became clear that Trump could actually win. Never voted for him and voted for Joe in 2020. But Trump did live true to what I thought about him being like the Joker from Batman. He tore it all down and in a very bad way. Worst president in U.S. history. I guess one thing is that it may tear apart the Republican party, so we get more than two parties in this country. A center right party that isn’t run by a wannabe dictator would be good for progress maybe. The Trump side of the Republican Party is hopeless … Government was rigged in a way before to benefit special interests, corporations, rich people paying less taxes, etc. But the sheer graft and crony politics from him is madness. In contrast, the fourth correspondent claimed in 2015 that “Trump is refreshingly blunt, honest, and pro-American.” Today? “Trump will go down as the most charismatic and successful president despite a mere four-year term,” he wrote. “Trump might not run again, but his voters now know what the standard is.” In his telling, “My observations were slightly off back in 2015.I underestimated the number of attacks that the intelligence bureaus would launch against Trump. I underestimated the fervor of the media in its incessant effort to destroy him … Trump was and is an existential threat to the Washington establishment. They had to remove Trump even if it meant fixing two elections and manufacturing two impeachments.” (I always find it odd that Trump and some of his staunchest supporters claim that even the 2016 election, which he won, was rigged.)The fifth correspondent, who wrote in 2015, “It's going to take a successful capitalist to stop and repair the damage that’s already been done by Barack Obama in his attempt to destroy the greatest capitalistic nation ever,” had this to say after observing Trump in the White House: As far as the country’s economy goes and the advancement in job creation, the building of a border wall, tax cuts, eliminating job-killing regulations and making our lives financially better and more stable, President Trump was phenomenally successful. He was even successful on foreign affairs, doing what no President has done before, by scaling back the number of troops and conflicts, [and] brokering peace deals in the Middle East. The only problem this President has, and has had, for over four years, is the Democrats, along with the media and their constant dismissal of his win. It’s been exhausting that they didn’t do anything but lie and obstruct him at every point, instead of helping him in his attempt to make America great again. He has exposed everything bad about our country and it’s elected officials. He was our last great hope, and almost did everything that he promised us, and then the coordinated worldwide attack to take him down along with our country happened. We are tired and exhausted, but we know that this man should be remembered in history as one of the greatest Presidents, ever. I’m proud to have supported him. The sixth correspondent explained in 2015 that on two issues he cared about greatly, trade protectionism and immigration restrictionism, Trump had been consistent in his position for years.How does he feel about Trump today? Not good: I became disillusioned with the Trump Presidency almost right out of the gate. I watched with growing frustration as Trump refused to act on DACA, immolated his honeymoon period in stupid fights over inauguration crowd size, and incompetent executive action via a rushed travel ban. The disillusionment moved to disgust with Trump’s actions against [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions. One of the most effective, ideologically sympathetic, and loyal officials in the Trump administration who was unceremoniously dumped simply for trying to avoid the appearance of impropriety by recusing himself from the Russia investigation. There haven’t been a lot of wins in the Trump years for people that were hoping Trump represented an opportunity to change the GOP and enact good policy. The GOP largely has adopted all the character flaws of Trump and morphed [them] into a kind of confrontational Reaganism. The sole bright spot has been on trade issues largely because U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has proven himself to be qualified and ideologically sympathetic, and the assistance of Jerome Powell in monetary policy during the trade war can’t be understated either. But even trade hasn’t been without its moments. The decision to levy tariffs against our allies rather than trying to build a bloc to confront China is a failure. In 2020 I did reluctantly vote for Trump again after debating voting for Howie Hawkins and the Green Party. I largely decided to vote for Trump again due to the rhetoric coming out after the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett and punitive measures proposed as revenge for the audacity of Trump to nominate a Supreme Court justice during his term of office: statehood proposals for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, court packing schemes, etc. Every day since November 3 I have regretted my vote. I have watched friends and loved ones descend rabbit holes of conspiracy theory. Most of my interactions online have been trying to convince people I care about that the election was not stolen. It has been like playing whack-a-mole starting with Sharpiegate in Arizona, to Dominion voting-machine conspiracies, to the idea [that] state legislatures can unilaterally choose new electors, to the lie that the Vice President can override the certified electoral votes from the states. I have watched with horror as otherwise smart and successful people gobble this garbage up. These lies have done enormous damage to the country, culminating in the shameful and disgusting events of January 6. The lies were started by Donald Trump, they were fueled by elements of conservative media, and cynically exploited by elected Republicans to fundraise and build a name for themselves. Even if you wanted to ignore that the President ginned up a coordinated attack on the Article I branch of government (which you shouldn’t!), he betrayed his supporters by lying to them and his lies have gotten them killed. Trump needs to be impeached and removed from office on a unanimous basis, and it should be done as quickly as possible. Not just for the sake of preventing Trump from a future of holding office, but also because the precedent needs to be set that similar moves taken by other Presidents in the future will not be tolerated. On January 6, the unthinkable (a violent mob descending on the Capitol to achieve a political outcome) became the thinkable. Impeachment and removal will be a step toward making it unthinkable again. On a less important but relevant note for those on the Right, it would also allow us the freedom to advocate for populist policies without the distraction and deadweight Trump has been. The seventh correspondent is a self-described liberal who cast votes for John Kerry and Barack Obama before backing Trump because he was worried that the United States of America was not winning anymore. “I do not believe that I am a racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other negative label that has been affixed to Trump supports,” he wrote in 2015. “Yes, I really do feel that Donald Trump has the interests of America at heart. He has already made his money and lived a life of glamour and fame, and another few billion dollars won’t have any real impact on his quality of life. Rather, I genuinely believe that Trump feels the need to fight for the country he loves.”His assessment today: A lot has changed in my life over the past five years. Then, I was an atheist. Now I am a devout Christian. Then, I was a newly married 29-year-old man. Now I am a 34-year-old father of two. Then, I had just started to turn away from the Democrat Party and embrace Donald J. Trump as a long-shot Presidential candidate, now I live and breathe MAGA. The truth is that my support for President Trump has never wavered, and has only grown over the years. President Trump did something that very few politicians in my lifetime have done: He followed through on his campaign promises. He put America first; he renegotiated trade deals; he built the wall; he has worked to end wars that should have been ended long ago; he forged new Middle East peace deals; he strengthened our military greatly and drastically improved the VA; and he made the economy absolutely boom. [Note: The wall along the border is far from complete and Trump’s record on the VA is mixed, to say the least.] He is worried by Trump’s loss but retains hope in America and counsels love across political divides: Do I wish that President Trump would continue to serve as our President for the next four years? Of course! In fact, I believe with every ounce of my being that President Trump won the 2020 Election. But the Swamp (also known as the Deep State, or Uniparty) is much deeper, more threatening, and downright corrupt and malicious than many of us imagined. And now with Big Tech banishing President Trump and countless other Conservatives from their platforms in the most brazen act of censorship this side of North Korea, I fear that the fabric of our country is fraying. BUT … all hope is not lost. I love Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I love this country, and I love my fellow Americans. So many forces within our country and abroad (looking at you, CCP) are trying to turn Americans against each other. They are practically urging a second Civil War, with Conservatives pitted against Liberals in a bitter fight to the death. But as tempting as that may be for extremists on both sides, most of us just want to raise a loving family, hold a decent job, and be kind to others. Many of my best friends and closest family members are Liberals or Joe Biden voters, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. As Jesus said in Mark 12:31, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In this volatile age, those are words that I think we should all take to heart. The final correspondent argued in 2015 that Trump was an alpha male who loved America. Her 2020 email was easily the longest––so long that I can’t include it all. Here is the main thrust of it: Please keep my name secret as we are living in dangerous times for Trump supporters, and people are getting canceled and losing their jobs, punished for wrongthink, etc. I don’t think we have free speech anymore in this country. I don’t attend rallies, wear Trump gear, or actually go anyplace these days except to buy groceries. I try and keep a low profile but I devour the news on the internet so I think I am pretty well-informed on Trump, election fraud, and COVID, which are all important topics to me. Here are my thoughts: President Trump did more for the world in the cause of liberty, prosperity, and peace than any other president in my lifetime, and I am 71. He brought peace to the Middle East FFS. Unlike Obama, he didn't just talk about it; he did it, and he deserves at least 3 Nobel Peace Prizes, maybe 4, hard to keep up. I will continue to support him for the rest of my life. I am 100 percent certain that this election was stolen and that Donald J. Trump is our rightful president for the next four years. I saw the evidence, the videos, the news clips which showed him leading and then he lost votes which went to a 3rd party placeholder before being given to Biden. I saw the boarded up windows which prevented the Republican poll watchers from participating, and how in some places where the judge allowed them in, they had to use binoculars because the Democrats still kept them 20 feet away if not more … All we wanted was a free and fair election and a chance to be heard. That was denied us … Democrats bitched for four years about the election being stolen from Hillary [Clinton] but we didn’t shut them up and curtail their free speech like Democrats are doing to us, as well as Twitter, Facebook, etc. Now they all are trying to shut us up. Why, if the election was fair and honest? Twitter is a cesspool of hate I do not understand why anybody goes on there. That being said, Social Media has no right to decide what information I am permitted to read. They are supposed to be a platform for free speech and the exchange of ideas, but instead they block President Trump and ban conservative views. Then they went after Parler. Then they went after GAB. Facebook. Twitter, all of them are in this suppression together. What are they afraid of? Free speech? They should be regulated like Ma Bell because they are basically a utility company now, and without social media a politician's message cannot be heard. Hence no free speech in the public square. If you don’t agree with Democrats, then the Dems use social media to punish you for wrongthink. You are canceled. You can lose your job. You go on a blacklist. People who support Trump or worked in his administration are now blacklisted as punishment for their beliefs. This is what they do in communist countries, not free America. What the hell has happened to our country in the past year anyway? Riots and looting are permitted if performed by antifa but not peaceful protests by Trump supporters. Antifa infiltrates our rallies to make us look bad. Nobody cares. It is not investigated. [The Freedom of Information Act] is denied, citing privacy concerns. Thus anger among conservatives continues to build up like a volcano about to explode because we are stymied at every turn and there is no outlet, no justice, just corruption. We had the greatest economy going for everybody … Unemployment was down for Blacks and hispanics. Business was booming. And then along came the Wuhan Flu from China (note: Hong Kong Flu was never called racist, Spanish Flu was never called racist, just all of a sudden we can’t name the flu after the country of origin anymore because “racism” WTF). This Flu was supposed to be so deadly that people were going to drop dead in the streets and foam at the mouth, so the President asked that we shut down the country for two weeks to flatten the curve to make sure the hospitals were not overrun. I complied. I had enough toilet paper and paper towels for a month. But then the lockdown continued … week after week … month after month … I have to stand in line at the store to be allowed in and hope the shelves are not bare … just like in commie countries. People are selling single rolls of TP in the parking lot. I am running out of supplies. I can’t get a haircut, let alone a dye job. We are now nine months into the two-week shutdown. Small businesses have been destroyed including my little arts and craft business, which provided supplemental income to my retirement. Even if the lockdown were lifted tomorrow and people were told that the crisis was over, small business is never coming back. Why bother when we now know the government can shut us down again at any time and we can lose our investment? Besides, the brainwashing is too complete. People are still going to wear masks forever (not me) because they won’t trust that the crisis is over. They will still be afraid to eat out at a restaurant and attend events because the brainwashing is that ingrained into them now and we do not trust our institutions to tell us the truth anymore anyway … They told us to self-isolate and not see our family for months on end … to cancel Thanksgiving and Christmas. They told us we couldn’t go to church and sing but we could go to Democrat-approved BLM riots which were based on a lie anyway. The government, especially the Dem governors, got to determine which businesses were essential and could remain open, and what they could sell. Back in the spring [Governor Gretchen] Whitmer decided that we couldn’t buy seeds to plant gardens, or buy baby clothes. Who gave the government the right to do this stuff? How come I can go to Walmart and Costco but can’t go to a mom and pop store, which would probably be less crowded? The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees every American the right to life, liberty, and property but the government took away my property and my ability to make a living with the lockdown. It was unconstitutional (to say nothing of it not working, as the states with the most severe lockdowns have the most cases of COVID, if you can trust the numbers, i.e., Florida vs. California). Where are the lawsuits? How come nobody is standing up for my rights, including my elected GOP reps? Everything is a health crisis now so it’s okay to suspend the Constitution without due process. Only Trump stands up against the Dems for my rights. In closing, I’d like to address this last correspondent directly. First, I’m so sorry about the loss of your business. And I share your dismay at the pandemic. I’ve been locked down for months. I miss my friends so much. I didn’t get to see my grandparents this Christmas, not because anyone told me I couldn’t, but because I studied the spread of COVID-19, and gathering didn’t seem safe. I miss restaurants and bars, too. I will return to them. And believe me: The majority of Biden voters want so badly for this pandemic to end, and to return to normal as soon as possible.[Read: The coming Republican amnesia]Because I am a journalist who frequently criticized Trump, you may regard me as an “enemy of the people.” But as much as I wanted Biden to win, I still actively sought out allegations of election irregularities. If my inquiries had turned up any evidence of fraud that could’ve changed the outcome, I would’ve shouted it from the rooftops. Instead, I found a lot of misinformation being spread in an effort to raise money from the Republican base. Some very unethical but savvy people turn disaffection into political contributions. I urge you to look into how much was raised and how it was spent––and, more generally, to at least consider the perspectives of the conservative writers that the Christian author and essayist Alan Jacobs assembles here. I imagine that when Barack Obama was president, you sometimes criticized him, and when you did so, that didn’t mean you were disrespecting everyone who voted for him. The same goes for many of the attacks on Trump: They are aimed at the man himself, not all of his supporters. As for the future, every one of my anti-Trump friends in the deep-blue state where I live is committed to fair federal elections every two years in perpetuity. And while a small faction would like to limit your free-speech rights and mine, or take away your guns, lots of us who voted against Trump twice and for Biden are staunchly opposed. I expect my side to win.When I’m feeling discouraged about America’s future, I turn to history, not because all of its lessons are encouraging, but because it reminds me that the United States has overcome challenges more formidable than any we face today––thank goodness we are not in a Civil War where brothers are fighting on battlefields, in a decade-long Depression, or facing Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany as they try to take over the world. Let us celebrate the pleasant surprises and mobilize to meet the catastrophes as neighbors trying to improve the future, not paralyzed by the present or stewing about the past.
The Space Force Is Still Here
The headquarters of the United States Space Command was supposed to be based in Colorado. Since then-President Donald Trump revived the command in 2018, the state had been its temporary home, and last February, when the search for a permanent location was still on, he had teased that the current arrangement could win out. “I will be making a big decision on the future of the Space Force as to where it is going to be located, and I know you want it,” Trump said at a rally in Colorado Springs last February. “You are being very strongly considered for the space command, very strongly.”The Space Command is not the same thing as the Space Force, which was created in 2019 (and which, by the way, is not the same thing as NASA, either). The Space Force trains service members, some of whom serve under Space Command. But in Trump’s mind, they are wrapped up together, as one of his signature accomplishments. Space is cool and flashy, and who doesn’t love Mars? When Trump mentioned the Space Force at a rally, the crowd erupted in cheers. A new Space Command headquarters would, in theory, help cement part of his legacy—Trump, the president who made space great again.Instead, Trump leaves behind a small controversy. On the day he was impeached for the second time, his administration announced that the headquarters would not stay in Colorado, but would relocate—to Alabama.The Air Force, the department overseeing the search, had twice recommended Colorado over other sites under consideration, in late 2019 and again this year, according to a former senior defense official who served in the Trump presidency. (The Atlantic agreed to grant the official anonymity in order to speak about internal deliberations.) But when then-Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett came to the White House with that recommendation earlier this month, Trump ordered officials to go with Hunstville.“This was a political decision by the White House,” the former defense official told me. “The service recommended Colorado, and everyone expects the new administration will reopen this.”The decision roiled Colorado lawmakers in both parties; Democrats said out loud that Trump had prioritized politics over the command’s 1,400 military and civilian workers and their families. Florida Senator Rick Scott said in a statement to The Atlantic that he’s disappointed his state wasn’t chosen, and that he is “reviewing the decision.” Alabama Senator Richard Shelby said in a statement to The Atlantic that “it’s our understanding that Huntsville was, in fact, the recommendation of the Air Force, and for good reason.” Barrett, who no longer serves as Air Force secretary, said in a statement that the process included “insights from the national security leadership” and senior military commanders, and that “careful deliberation” went into her selection of Huntsville. An Air Force spokesperson would not comment on “pre-decisional recommendations,” but said that Trump “was informed and consulted during the decision-making process."Read: How exactly do you establish a Space Force?The Biden administration could have an easy time unwinding the headquarters decision, one of the many Trump-era policies it will likely roll back. But though the Space Force has often been treated as the butt of a bad joke, it is one Trump initiative that will last. It may not be the grand, legacy-making organization Trump imagined, but the Space Force isn’t going anywhere.In the last year, the Space Force has slowly transformed into a real military service. The branch, which primarily oversees satellite operations, has debuted its own seal, organizational structure, and terminology. It has already deployed its first troops—not into space, but to the Middle East, where they’ll support combat operations that rely on space systems. Abolishing the force would require an act of Congress, and the legislature doesn’t seem to have an appetite for that. At Biden’s inauguration ceremony, the Space Force flag appeared on the Capitol along with the flag of the other armed forces. “Nobody’s debating whether the Space Force should exist,” Jared Zambrano-Stout, an aerospace consultant and a former chief of staff for the Trump administration’s National Space Council, told me. “They’re debating about what it should be doing.”Which puts President Joe Biden in an interesting predicament. The Space Force has always been more boring than its name implies, amounting to some organizational reshuffling of Air Force personnel and operations. But Trump has used it to fuel his own vision of American bravado, which his supporters have adopted. On the day of the Capitol attack, some supporters in Washington, D.C., and around the country complemented their Trump regalia with Space Force flags. With Trump gone, the new administration now finds itself having to embrace a piece of government saturated with MAGA spin and disdained by the left, and make it seem as ordinary as it actually is.The Space Force seemed like a Trump whim at the outset. “I was saying it the other day—’cause we’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space—I said, ‘Maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it the Space Force,’” he said in March 2018, speaking to an audience of Marines in California. “And I was not really serious. And then I said, ‘What a great idea. Maybe we’ll have to do that.’”But an armed service dedicated to space operations is not a Trump invention. The concept emerged in the 1990s as the United States began relying on satellites during ground combat, and in 2001, a commission chaired by the former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld considered the suggestion. A pair of lawmakers in the House resurrected the idea of a space corps a few years ago, but it didn’t take off until Trump glommed on, and it was all hands on deck. “The vice president put us to work and said, ‘Okay, the president wants this, so we need to figure out what’s the best way for us to put it together,’” Zambrano-Stout said.[Read: Trump’s space ambitions are too big for one president]The country had last established a new military branch 70 years ago, and the Space Force’s circumstances were very different. Most of America’s forces were founded with the country itself, except the Air Force, which emerged after a world war. The national-security community had been debating the value of standing up a space force of some kind eventually, but Trump jumped the gun, providing a new rationale: It sounded good to him. “He only asks me about the Space Force every week,” then-Vice President Mike Pence joked as staff worked to formulate the plans.By late 2019, a defense bill arrived on Trump’s desk that included, among other things, the go-ahead from Congress to establish the sixth branch of the American armed forces. Despite Trump’s sweeping rhetoric, which conjured images of space cadets battling enemies in orbit, the organization was mostly a shiny rebrand. In public, Trump avoided the full truth of the final product—that the Space Force would operate within the Department of the Air Force rather than stand alone, that Congress stipulated that its workforce must be built from existing Air Force personnel. But for a salesman like Trump, the appearance of the thing was more important than its substance.[Read: Why the Space Force is just like Trump University]In true Trump fashion, the Space Force’s public image became an exercise in exaggeration. Recruitment ads beckoned prospective guardians—as Space Force members are called—to consider that “maybe your purpose on this planet isn’t on this planet,” painting an entirely unrealistic picture of the work. “Let’s face it: If you’re a Space Force person, you’re going to be in a room monitoring satellites,” says Victoria Samson, a military-space expert at the Secure World Foundation, which has briefed the Biden team on national space issues. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s definitely not as sexy as Starship Troopers going into space.” Even staffers working in the Trump administration wished that he wouldn’t mention the Space Force at his rallies, worried that politicizing the effort would invite only more ridicule.In 2021, officials will hammer down the service’s objectives and priorities. Right now, the nation’s space operations are spread across military branches. Which systems will be consolidated into the Space Force, and which will remain in the domain of the Air Force, the Navy, and others? Within the space-focused parts of the military, the Space Force is already seen as a desirable assignment: A survey of Army officers who work on space operations found that nearly all of them want to transfer to the Space Force.Outside the military, the Space Force is still sometimes treated as a farce. Netflix is already at work on the second season of an eponymous show premised on that idea. One episode drew from a White House meeting in which Trump suggested to military leaders that the first lady should help design the Space Force uniforms “because of her impeccable fashion sense,” according to Time magazine. On the show, Space Force staffers end up modeling the designs, some adorned with glitter, and reporting back to the White House. “There is a concern that there’ll be a knee-jerk reflex of people who aren’t familiar with space issues to be like, ‘That was a Trump program; let’s get rid of it,’” Samson told me. But those calls will likely come from people who believe the Space Force is a Trumpian vanity project, not people within the Biden administration itself, who likely know differently.[Read: The false hope of an American rocket launch]Biden has not publicly commented on the future of the Space Force under his watch. (A spokesperson for the new administration did not respond to a request for comment.) The topic is unlikely to come up during his speeches soon, as he prioritizes the economic and health crisis caused by the coronavirus. But when that moment comes, several space-policy experts have told me, it might not hurt for the president to offer some kind of reset, to remind Americans that the Space Force is not a political prop, but a group of hardworking military professionals. “We are a spacefaring nation, and we live in an era that will be defined by rapid, worldwide growth in space,” John Raymond, the four-star general who leads the Space Force, said in a statement to The Atlantic. “The mission of the United States Space Force is to protect the national security interests of the United States."Raymond previously served as the head of the Space Command, the unit at the center of the recent debacle. In 2019, the Air Force considered several locations in Colorado, California, and Alabama for the command’s permanent home, judging the candidates on multiple factors, and by the end of the year was prepared to recommend Colorado Springs. But the service restarted the search the following spring, in part because some lawmakers had complained about the process, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at a Senate hearing at the time. A final decision would not come until after the November election, but electoral politics had nothing to do with it, Esper said. When a new list of contenders was later announced, Florida, whose lawmakers had expressed frustration to the White House about the Air Force’s selection criteria, had made the list. Texas, New Mexico, and Nebraska had also made the cut, but California was dropped.In an alternate timeline, in which Trump hadn’t encouraged his supporters to go to the Capitol and still had a Twitter account, he probably would have tweeted enthusiastically about the Space Command news. Now that his administration has ended, the Space Force has its first opportunity to develop an image independent of its original benefactor. “We don’t think about the Truman Air Force. When we think about NASA, we don’t think about Eisenhower,” James Vedda, a senior policy analyst at the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy, told me, by way of comparison. Someday, it might not be the Trump Space Force, either.
The Atlantic Daily: The Riot Sympathizers Aren’t Going Away
Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.In his inaugural address, President Biden called for unity. He’ll find plenty of work to do in pursuit of that goal: America’s new president oversees a country brutally divided.Last week, my colleague Anne Applebaum reported that “32 percent [of Americans] were still telling pollsters that Biden was not the legitimate winner.” And the group of insurrectionists who mobbed the Capitol on January 6—and the millions of Americans who sympathize with them—aren’t going away.GETTY / THE ATLANTICCoexistence with riot sympathizers might be the only way forward. “Although Trump will eventually exit political life, the seditionists will not,” Anne writes. She explores how the country could employ peacekeeping strategies used abroad.Congress must convict Trump to deter future attacks. In the forthcoming impeachment trial, “the Senate must make clear that attempted coups, no matter how clumsy or ineffective, are the type of crime that is answered with swift and permanent exile from American political life,” Adam Serwer writes.The Capitol riot could drive GOP defectors into the president’s camp. “If Biden could lastingly attract even a significant fraction of the Republican voters dismayed over the riot, it would constitute a seismic change in the political balance of power,” our polling expert Ronald Brownstein notes.Maybe “unity” is not what American needs right now. “Questing for unity without executable ways to hold bad actors accountable will render the pursuit useless,” the writer and professor Syreeta McFadden argues.One question, answered: Will the vaccines work against the mutated coronavirus strains?Our staff writer Sarah Zhang reports: In a word, yes.But in a few more words: There are three separate variants of major interest right now, first detected in the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil, respectively. The more transmissible U.K. variant doesn’t seem to affect the efficacy of the vaccines from Pfizer or Moderna at all. But the South Africa and Brazil variants share a trio of particularly worrisome mutations. Data today from Moderna suggest that vaccine-induced antibodies are not able to bind the South Africa variant as well as they do the usual virus—but they still work well enough to be protective. That’s because the vaccine normally stimulates many times more antibodies than the minimum necessary to protect against the virus. Out of prudence, though, Moderna is looking into how an additional shot of its vaccine or an updated booster based on the South Africa strain could protect against waning immunity, especially in the long term as the virus continues to evolve. But for now, the most important thing is to keep vaccinating as fast as we can. Tonight’s Atlantic-approved isolation activity: Revisit the TV of the Trump era. The best shows of the past four years, Sophie Gilbert argues, looked away from the 45th president.Today’s break from the news: Hank Aaron died at 86. The home-run record-setter and baseball star was “was a quiet leader who unflinchingly risked his life in the name of racial justice.”Sign up for The Atlantic Daily here.
The Fight Over Britain’s Pandemic Myth
Britain will soon pass the grimmest of milestones: 100,000 people dead from COVID-19. This appalling tally is higher than anywhere else in Europe, and almost twice that of Germany, the biggest country on the continent. Depending on how it is measured, Britain is now the second-worst-hit nation on Earth relative to its size.There is simply no escaping the reality that the country has suffered a catastrophic failure of governance. On March 17, six days before Boris Johnson ordered Britain’s first full national lockdown, his chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, told members of Parliament that, based on modeling provided to the government, a “good” outcome over the course of the pandemic would be if deaths were kept below 20,000.And yet, Britain has also shown wisdom. Although its vaccination program remains in its early stages, it has raced ahead of every other country in Europe, having bought more doses, sanctioned their use more quickly, and begun their rollout with more urgency. Even as Britain’s death tally approaches 100,000, more than 6.5 million vaccinations have been administered, far more than Germany or France. This has been helped by the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, the most cost-effective and easiest to use of the inoculations approved so far, which was developed in Britain in part because of early and heavy government backing. If the country’s record in saving lives has been one of abject failure, its vaccination record is anything but.This stark contrast makes the job of judging Britain’s overall performance complicated. How much weight should we give to speed of recovery over the extent of the ongoing calamity? How can we disentangle one from the other? Should we? Where must we allocate blame and credit, and in what proportion?These questions cannot be answered objectively. They will become the subject of daily talk-radio phone-ins, academic studies, and sweeping first attempts at historical narratives. They will also become part of the daily muscle fiber of British politics, exercised in Parliament and in the media, subject to claim and counterclaim, lie and obfuscation, half-truth, supposition, and unprovable counterfactual.Crucially, this battle will not be one between teams of political archeologists digging for the truth, but between storytellers fighting to define the national myth of what happened. For this reason, Johnson’s opponents have cause for concern, no matter how solid their case against him appears. Johnson—whatever you think of him—is a master politician who has spent a career defying the usual rules of political gravity, avoiding blame for his failures, claiming credit for others’ victories, being forgiven for errors of judgment that might have been career-ending for another leader, all while growing in power and stature. And this time, he has some striking counterintuitive advantages.[Read: Britain failed. Again.]Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli Nobel Prize winner, has talked about the “cognitive trap” of confusing experience and memory. What we experience in life isn’t what we remember. Instead, we form a story of what happened, to make sense of events. “There is an experiencing self, who lives in the present and knows the present,” Kahneman explains. “Then there is a remembering self, and the remembering self is the one that keeps score.” Kahneman describes this remembering self as the storyteller, choosing the experiences we have been through, editing them down, and fitting them into a narrative that makes sense. What define these stories, Kahneman says, are big changes that happen, significant moments in our lives, and endings. “Endings,” he notes, “are very, very important.”Every country offers supporting evidence for Kahneman’s thesis, picking bits of its national experiences to form its historical narrative. In the United States, for example, the battle rages between two accounts: one of the land of the free born in 1776, of men created equal and endowed with unalienable rights; the other of a country that emerged a century and a half earlier, in 1619—a land of apartheid and slavery. A similar tension can be seen in France, which holds itself up as a nation of liberté and égalité, but spends less time thinking of revolutionary terror, Algeria’s colonization, or the many citizens who feel neither free nor equal today. In Britain, too, we are master storytellers: an island nation that ruled the waves, and the plucky underdog who defied the odds to prevail against mightier foes. We are the battle-hardened warriors of Agincourt, not the losers of the 100 Years War; the civilized rulers of empire, in comparison with the ghastly Belgian or German butchers. At our core, we see ourselves as an ancient oak of liberty and law and constitutionalism and moderation, not as the country of peasants’ revolts, regicide, and aristocratic privilege.But they are all stories, not accounts of actual experience. The events we choose to remember are the ones that tell the story we want to hear, those that reflect the values we hold today and the country we hope to be: the Magna Carta and Henry VIII, two world wars and one World Cup. The terrible losses that dominated most of Britain’s Second World War story are overwhelmed by the moments of glory that followed. We largely remember 1944–45, not 1939–44.Kahneman tells the story of an audience member at a question-and-answer session who complained that he had listened to a symphony for 20 glorious minutes only to have the whole experience ruined by a horrible screeching sound at the end. Johnson is betting that the opposite is true today, that he can define the story of Britain’s pandemic based on the memory of its ending, not the bulk of its experience.And he might be right.In November 2007, Johnson released a children’s book called The Perils of Pushy Parents, which he had written and illustrated. The “cautionary tale,” as its front cover describes it, tells the story of the Albacore family, whose parents come close to a tragicomic death, plunging off a cliff after relentlessly haranguing their children to turn off the television and succeed in life. Just as they plummet over the edge, the pair suddenly snap out of it: Like some bounding antelope The wheelchair-jockeys clear the slope, And in that instant something stirs Inside their heads. A sprocket whirs. Their brains switch on, their eyes demist, They realise that they still exist. At this moment, a hand shoots out from on the heath to catch them before they hit the rocks. So goes Johnson’s first and, thus far, only children’s book, a tale of close calls, happy endings, and libertarian wisdom. This is a picture of the parent Johnson wants to be—the opponent of pushiness and authority, the individualist. Let the kids watch TV, Johnson advises. Let them be.This is also the leader Johnson supposes himself to be, and the leader many of his Conservative MPs raging against his successive lockdowns want him to be. One narrative of Britain’s pandemic response that has taken hold is that this kind of mild libertarianism is a key reason the country has performed so badly. At each turn, Johnson has resisted taking control until the escalating death toll left him no other choice.[Read: How the pandemic revealed Britain’s national illness]In this and other ways, the pandemic revealed Johnson’s governing instincts, and some of his principal weaknesses. In 2020, Britain faced two waves of infection. During the first, in March, he clung close to his scientific advisers, who advised against locking down too hard or too soon, fearing that the crisis could last years before a vaccine was available and that a shutdown would lead only to bigger subsequent outbreaks. Johnson accepted this advice until the political climate changed as other countries imposed shutdowns and academic models showed that without action, deaths could run into the many hundreds of thousands. Although Britain obviously failed relative to other places in the first wave of the crisis, this earlier period was a collective failure of the British state, including Johnson.The second wave, which began to crest in December, is a different story. Johnson once again resisted stricter measures taken elsewhere to suppress the virus, but this time he did so against the advice of his experts, who, from October on, were pushing for more draconian rules. Johnson’s alibi here is that his judgment was sound, but he got unlucky because a much more transmissible variant of the virus suddenly appeared. This is both true and misleading; it omits the reality that he was resisting stricter measures to control the virus even after the new variant’s discovery.One Johnson ally who knows him well told me that the prime minister likes to leave decisions as late as possible, which is often an advantage in politics. Brexit is a prime example of this: In securing both a revised withdrawal agreement to leave the European Union and a trade deal to set the future economic relationship between the two sides, Johnson repeatedly sailed close to the wind, risking “no deal” calamities while threatening to break international law to secure concessions and public support. However, in a pandemic, this is the worst way of governing possible. As a decision is delayed, better choices are removed, leaving only bad options. “It’s deeply frustrating,” said the Johnson ally, who declined to be identified discussing the prime minister’s private deliberations.Rory Stewart, the former international-development secretary who challenged Johnson for the Conservative leadership in 2019—and was later expelled from the party by Johnson—shares this assessment. He told me that the prime minister had flip-flopped throughout the crisis, never sure what he was principally trying to achieve and ending up with the worst of all worlds as a result. “From the beginning, he has lacked the two most important traits you need in a crisis: urgency and the ability to communicate clearly and consistently,” he said.“Boris has a habit of procrastinating until something good turns up,” Stewart said. “Even in December, Boris was not quite sure whether the priority was to reduce the number of excess deaths or whether he had loyalties to the libertarian right of his party.” Johnson’s struggle reflects Britain’s wider problem during the pandemic. Was its strategy to save as many lives as possible, or to protect ordinary life without overwhelming the health service? Or was it just to muddle through?Still, everyone I spoke with noted Johnson’s extraordinary resilience and capacity to reinvent himself. Despite Britain’s disastrous coronavirus record, Johnson remains level in the polls with the Labour opposition, and an election is not due until 2024. Now, in the new phase of the crisis, in which the government is seeking to restore people’s liberties, Johnson is on his home turf. “Boris articulates his role in life as being the captain of the rugby team,” Stewart told me. “He likes to find issues where he can give the positive pre-match pep talk.”In a sense, all politicians try to form a narrative of events that suits them. The debate, as Stewart noted to me, is usually about where the story ends. “You want it to be at the point things were good,” he said. “Your opponents want it to be at the point it was bad. Boris has been very good at winning these debates.”By the summer, Britain may have a good story to tell: of a country that came together in its hour of crisis to vaccinate the elderly and the vulnerable before almost any other country, using British-made medicines, delivered by its greatest institution, the National Health Service. The disaster of 2020 was an aberration, a once-in-a-lifetime event that overwhelmed the world, not just Britain, to be followed quickly by the country’s salvation—an exhibition of national vitality embodied by the prime minister who literally almost died before fighting back himself.The story does not have to be entirely true to be powerful. It just has to have enough truth to not be absurd and, regardless, is a nicer story to believe than the one in which the country failed miserably, not once but twice. At the end of Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s novel about a boy who is trapped on a boat with a tiger, disbelieving investigators force the protagonist to tell them what really happened. He then recounts a horrible story of cannibalism and amorality that he somehow survived, but challenges the skeptics as to why they don’t believe his original account. “Which is the better story?” he asks.Johnson’s success or otherwise in winning the narrative battle of Britain’s pandemic experience has implications that go beyond his own future as prime minister—the fight to define the story of the pandemic is global as well as British.For much of the past few years, following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, the political crisis in London has worked to undermine other euroskeptic movements across the continent. The once-feared contagion effect of Brexit has sunk from view as the EU has out-negotiated and outperformed the U.K. Britain’s failures during the pandemic only added grist to the mill of those warning against “populism”; commentators from across the continent and the United States have compared Johnson to nationalists such as Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.The danger of these attacks is that, first, Johnson is not Trump, in being neither authoritarian nor even particularly anti-establishment, and, second, they risk being exposed should Britain’s relative performance change for the better. In France, there is real concern among those at the very top of government, according to analysts I spoke with, about the febrile political situation facing President Emmanuel Macron before his reelection campaign next year. The country’s pandemic response has been middling-to-poor—though nowhere near as bad as Britain’s in raw death count—but France is one of the worst-performing countries in terms of its vaccine rollout. Just as Johnson must battle to define the pandemic story at home, Macron faces his own fight. Should Britain, or any other European country, be free of COVID-19 restrictions months before France, the French story may quickly change.[Read: The U.K.’s coronavirus ‘herd immunity’ debacle]Already, Johnson and his government have sought to present Britain’s vaccine-rollout success as a benefit of Brexit (even though they would have been legally free to do exactly as they have done within the EU). If he is able to make good on the country’s early successes—and that remains a big if—it will not only give him cover for the failures of 2020, but provide a victory to drive the other story of his premiership, that Brexit has been a success and Britain can make it on its own.Johnson is showing the fleetness of foot that has led some of his more strident critics abroad to label him a “shapeshifting creep.” He has moved Britain from its position as the most pro-China major state in Europe to the most hawkish, offered a route to citizenship for millions of Hong Kong citizens, imposed sanctions on Belarus before the EU, and quickly congratulated Joe Biden on his victory while Trump continued to challenge the result. He is attempting to shift Britain’s international story as well as its domestic one.Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, agrees that this rule, that crises are remembered for their end rather than how they were experienced, has often held. However, Powell warns that voters tend to vote for parties or leaders based not on what they have done, but on what they will do next. “If he runs as the man who solved the coronavirus, he might have trouble,” Powell told me. Stewart agreed. “He can create a narrative to pull things back for him, but he will be subconsciously weakened.” Yet Johnson doesn’t need to win the debate; he needs only to have a narrative of success to build into the story he will eventually sell at the next election.For Britain, like all countries emerging from this crisis, the challenge is whether the story that is eventually believed serves to improve the country or to cover up its failings. Regardless of Johnson’s success or otherwise in his role as national team captain, cheering it on and convincing it of its triumph and potential, overseeing a genuinely impressive early vaccine rollout, there is little doubt that 2020 exposed catastrophic weaknesses in the state and its political leadership that left nearly 100,000 people dead. That cannot be wished away.
What Hank Aaron Told Me
One morning in Milwaukee in 1972, I read in the sports pages that my hero, Henry Aaron, was getting hate mail and death threats simply for following his dream. Hank, the superstar outfielder for the Atlanta Braves, was approaching what was then considered the greatest record in sports: the career home-run record of 714, held by the legendary Babe Ruth. During his chase of the Babe, Hank received 929,000 letters—at an ounce a piece, 29 tons of mail. Some of it cheered Hank on, but much of it was filled with racist hate and violent threats.One of the letters was from me. Hank’s Milwaukee Braves had abandoned us for Atlanta six years earlier. But I’d stayed a fan, managing to tune into Braves’ games through the static on WSM, the Nashville station of the Grand Ole Opry. “Don’t listen to those racists,” I urged Hank. “We’re rooting for you up here in Milwaukee.”To my astonishment, a few weeks later, Hank wrote back. “Dear Sandy,” the letter began. I want you to know how very much I appreciate the concern and best wishes of people like yourself. If you will excuse my sentimentality, your letter of support and encouragement means much more to me than I can adequately express in words. It is very heart warming to know that you are in my corner. I will always be grateful for the interest you have shown in me. As the so called “count down” begins, please be assured I will try to live up to the expectations of my friends. Wishing for you only the best, I am Most Sincerely, Hank Aaron The letter was signed in blue ink.I started a scrapbook, chronicling “Henry’s Homers” as he chased the Babe’s ghost. I knew what his letter had meant to a white teenager growing up in Milwaukee, but I didn’t fully understand what Hank himself faced at the time. Years later, as a journalist working on a book about Hank, I had the chance to talk to his daughter, his teammates, and Hank himself. And I learned that in that long-ago summer, he wasn’t just battling pitchers and worrying about curveballs—he was putting his own life on the line in the fight against racism.Hank, who grew up under Jim Crow in Alabama, received letters threatening to murder him unless he gave up his chase for the home-run record. One writer promised to shoot Hank at home plate, either with a long-range rifle, from the bleachers, or with a handgun, from the box seats. The threats were so specific, Braves officials alerted the FBI. When a credible threat surfaced of a kidnapping plot against his daughter, Gaile, then in college, five FBI agents showed up at her dormitory at Fisk University in Nashville. They flashed their badges. Gaile recounted the conversation: “‘The men you see cutting the grass, those are FBI men. The men painting in the student union, those are FBI men.’ And the only thing I could say is, ‘Does my father know you’re here?’”Gaile’s father stayed at hotels separate from the rest of the team, eating alone in his room. When a specific death threat surfaced, team officials would ask him whether he’d like to skip the game. He never did. Occasionally, though, he’d alert his teammates Ralph Garr and Dusty Baker, young Black men Hank had taken under his wing, who sat next to him in the dugout.One night in Atlanta, Hank “told Ralph and I that we better not sit next to him, because there was a death threat,” Baker, now the manager of the Houston Astros, told me in 1999. “Some guy in a red coat with a high-powered rifle was gonna shoot Hank. So Hank told us, if we didn‘t want to sit next to him, he understood. And Ralph and I were like, ‘No, Hank, we’re down with you, man; if you go, we go.’ But the whole game, Ralph and I were looking around for some guy in a red coat. And Hank wasn’t even paying attention!” Baker laughed hard. “And if a firecracker would have gone off, me and Ralph would have sworn we were shot.”Tom House, a Braves relief pitcher, who caught Hank’s 715th homer in the Atlanta bullpen, told me that his teammate had an uncanny ability to compartmentalize, blocking out the hate while he focused on fastballs. Tellingly, though, much of white America, including many of Hank’s teammates, had little or no idea what he was going through, despite the occasional media report. Phil Niekro, the knuckleballing Hall of Fame pitcher, told me that Hank never shared his trauma, and that team officials must have kept it quiet as well.But Black America was fully aware of the heroism of Hank’s struggle. An Atlanta barber told me he worried that Hank would lose his life before he broke the record—a fear shared by Hank’s mother. When Hank hit his record 715th blast, on April 8, 1974, off a fastball from Al Downing of the Dodgers, fireworks erupted from the Braves scoreboard.Vin Scully, the Dodgers’ legendary broadcaster, captured the moment: “A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great record for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.”As Hank crossed the plate and held the ball aloft, his mother rushed out to greet him. “She had something else on her mind,” Gaile remembered as we paged through my yellowing scrapbook in the lobby of her Atlanta condo in 1999. As the fireworks continued, Gaile recalled, “she thinks someone is shooting at Daddy. And she said that ‘if they’re going to take him, we’re going to go together.’ She was going to go down with him.”Gaile’s reaction when her father achieved one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of sport was the same as his: “Thank God it is over.”The trauma took its toll on Hank, even if he didn’t let on at the time. “My kids had to be sheltered,” Hank told me. The ordeal, he said, “carved a part of me out that I will never regain, never restore.” The mounting death threats, the hate, and the resulting isolation of his family ate away at him.What kept him going, Hank told me, was the sense that he was taking part in a larger struggle for equality—even if he hadn’t ever planned to. “That was a time when Martin Luther King was saying to everybody, ‘If you haven’t found something you’re willing to die for, you probably aren’t fit to live,’” Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and top aide to King, told me. “And I think Hank had decided that his life was vulnerable, and that if it meant dying in the course of doing his best, I don’t think he actually worried about it.”John Lewis, the late civil-rights hero, added that Hank had “that extra ounce of grace” that allowed him to excel under extreme hardship. “I felt I was in the middle of something,” Hank told me.To a lifelong fan like me, and to so many others, Henry Louis Aaron was much more than a record-setting baseball star. He was a quiet leader who unflinchingly risked his life in the name of racial justice.
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The Stakes of the Senate’s Impeachment Trial Couldn’t Be Higher
The first impeachment of Donald Trump was an act of self-preservation by Democrats. The second is an act of self-preservation by Congress.In 2019, the Democratic congressional leadership initially resisted the cries for impeachment that had been building since the party gained control of the House of Representatives; Speaker Nancy Pelosi memorably and ineffectually quipped that Trump was “almost self-impeaching” in May of that year.But when a whistleblower revealed that Trump had attempted to strong-arm the leader of Ukraine into falsely implicating then-aspiring Democratic nominee Joe Biden in a crime, the House had to act. Allowing Trump to use his authority as president to coerce foreign leaders into doing his bidding would leave the country vulnerable to similar acts in the future. The sustained public attention to Trump’s corrupt motives also substantially neutralized his planned attack on Biden, who ultimately prevailed in November.[Adam Serwer: The Capitol riot was an attack on multiracial democracy]Every Senate Republican—except for Mitt Romney of Utah, who described Trump’s attempt to rig the election as “the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine”—voted to acquit the president. The rest of the Republican caucus either approved of Trump’s conduct or concluded that the political benefits of allowing him to continue to abuse his authority were greater than the cost of removing him. Tragically, Romney’s remarks turned out to represent a failure of imagination.On January 6, Trump incited a mob to assault the Capitol, hoping that it could coerce federal lawmakers engaged in the ceremonial counting of Electoral College votes to overturn the results and install Trump as president. A police officer was killed, and the incident came very close to being a bloodbath—several of the rioters entered the Capitol intent on killing Pelosi and Trump’s own vice president, Mike Pence. (Trump had castigated Pence for disloyalty, after Pence acknowledged that he could not use his authority as vice president to overturn Trump’s defeat.) The House swiftly impeached Trump again, making the Manhattan real-estate mogul the only president ever to be impeached twice.Republicans now face a choice between their long-term interests and short-term self-preservation. It takes two-thirds of the Senate to convict a president, a threshold so high that it has never been reached. Convicting Trump and barring him from federal office would earn senators the wrath of the Trump faithful, upon whom the current composition of the Republican Party is dependent to win elections. Failing to convict him would leave open the possibility of a Trump restoration, which might offer some political advantages but would also exacerbate the ideological extremism that turned Arizona and Georgia into states with two Democratic senators.The reason to convict Trump and bar him from office forever is rather simple: No sitting president has ever incited a violent attack on Congress. Allowing Trump to do so without sanction would invite a future president with autocratic ambitions and greater competence to execute a successful overthrow of the federal government, rather than the soft echo of post-Reconstruction violence the nation endured in early January. The political incentives for the Republican Party in convicting Trump may be unclear, but the stakes for democracy are not. The Senate must make clear that attempted coups, no matter how clumsy or ineffective, are the type of crime that is answered with swift and permanent exile from American political life.That Trump is responsible for the assault on the Capitol is clear far beyond a reasonable doubt. Trump informed the assembled crowd on July 6 that “if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election,” and that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” He then directed the mob at the Capitol, falsely telling the rioters he would accompany them, retreating to the White House instead. Those arrested after the attack have themselves told the authorities they were acting on the president’s admonitions. Behind the scenes, Trump was attempting to orchestrate an autogolpe using the Justice Department to force states to overturn their vote tallies; he was foiled only by the threat of mass resignations. The mob was his last resort.I recognize that the costs for the GOP in convicting Trump would be high, and in the aftermath of their 2020 electoral losses, Republicans are in no mood to offer more ammunition to their rivals. Democrats would obviously be delighted to see Republicans divided, and conservative lawmakers may believe that, even if Trump deserves conviction, the damage to their political and ideological priorities would be too great.To avoid a difficult choice, some Senate Republicans have coalesced around the cowardly and nonsensical argument that ex-presidents cannot be tried by the Senate. But neither the text of the Constitution nor the intent of the Framers can justify, say, a president ordering a drone strike on the Supreme Court and then resigning and retiring to private life without consequence. Or imagine a president ordering a politically aligned militia to assemble outside Congress in order to compel the opposition party to pass a law he favors, without explicitly ordering an attack. An acquittal would represent an invitation to a future president to use force to bend Congress to his will.[Michael Signer: How to break the demagogue cycle]The Capitol riot was a tragic farce, but the type of political violence it represents poses an existential threat to democracy. Congress now faces a question not just of self-preservation, but of deterrence. Parties change over time. Although today it is the Republican Party that is struggling with a faction that does not accept the legitimacy of its political opponents, a century and a half ago that description applied to the Democratic Party. Any president from any party who incites a violent attack on another branch of government in order to seize power should be forever barred from holding office.If Congress cannot uphold that principle, it will not survive the next attack if it comes.
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Even Now, the Republicans Will Stick Together
Less than six hours after rioters forced legislators to stop their debate over certifying the electors from Arizona on January 6, senators were back on the floor again. The insurrection failed to stop Congress from playing its constitutional role in certifying Joe Biden as the next president.That may be a metaphor for the resilience of American institutions under assault, but the Senate’s quick return to business also shows that the antidemocratic attitudes of the protesters were nothing new to the chamber. Indeed, the debate over whether to accept the outcome of a presidential election was only happening at the Capitol because a faction of the Republican Party had already embraced the same grievances as the rioters.In The Atlantic, Tom Nichols dubbed this faction of lawmakers the “sedition caucus.” It lost on January 6, but its members are not going away. The question is what form their persistence will take. Are they the Republican Party’s future, or will they have to find a new home—perhaps in the Patriot Party or MAGA Party that Donald Trump reportedly wants to found?[Anne Applebaum: Coexistence is the only option]Because the sedition caucus is embedded within the GOP, other Republicans are the only ones in a position to rein the group in. So far, many who opposed the election challenge and want to hold their party together are making an effort to restore constitutional norms. Others are still trying to play both sides. The reason so many are worried about the divisiveness of impeachment is not that it will divide the country, but that it will divide the Republican Party. It will force Republicans to go on record opposing some of their own. As the former GOP strategist Stephen Schmidt writes, that could lead today’s Republican Party down the path the Whig Party took two centuries ago, when it fractured over slavery.As a political scientist who studies political parties and ideological divisions, I’ve heard two scenarios that end with a fracturing of the Republican coalition. In one, the Trump faction abandons the GOP, perhaps for a Patriot Party. After all, it has been Republican state election officials and Trump-appointed judges and Supreme Court justices who have been finding no evidence of voter fraud. To believe the conspiracy means believing that even many Republicans are complicit.The other scenario has Constitution-respecting conservatives abandoning the GOP to the pro-Trump faction. How could they tolerate remaining in a party that continues to enable sedition and insurrection?Political handicappers have been predicting breakups like this for a long time. But under the rules of our system, the incentives for parties to hold together are strong. To win elections in America means coming in first. Therefore, voters and politicians both have strong motivation to join one of the two largest parties. If one of those parties splits into two smaller ones, the schism pretty much guarantees that the remaining large party will win a lot more elections.In multiparty parliamentary democracies, extremist factions are typically isolated in their own minor parties. In those countries, a governing coalition can be built from multiple parties after an election, so a mainstream party doesn’t need to win an outright majority. In the United States, however, the path to victory is in forming the largest party during the election itself. Neither the mainstream Republicans nor the pro-Trump Republicans can outnumber the Democrats on their own.[Jack Goldsmith and Samuel Moyn: The presidency won’t go back to how it was]The Democrats and Republicans both get to a majority by being broad coalitions. The Democratic coalition includes those who want economic redistribution and those who want racial equality. The Republican coalition includes libertarians and religious traditionalists. Both parties include ideological extremists and moderates. Both parties manage their internal disagreements in order to present a united front and win elections.Managing disagreement with the sedition caucus would work the same way. Disagreement over commitment to democracy is a big disagreement, but it is now the price for Republican unity. And most Republicans may prove willing to pay it.All factions, even small ones, are complex. Not everyone who believes that widespread voter fraud occurred in 2020 is a white supremacist. But observe the Confederate flags and Nazi symbolism at the riot—hear the rhetoric of “real America,” of “us” and “them”—and notice the way cities with large Black populations are central to the allegations of fraud in the states that Trump lost.Most of American political history can be seen through the lens of battles over enfranchisement, waged by a waxing and waning faction that wants to keep what it views as un-American outsiders from having too much influence. This faction was part of the appeal of the “birther” movement that claimed Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States—the movement that brought Trump to prominence. This faction was also behind the revision of North Carolina’s electoral rules that were plainly aimed at reducing Black voter turnout, almost immediately after the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court ruling set aside the requirement that the state get the Justice Department’s permission before making such changes.Before that, the progenitors of today’s sedition caucus were behind poll taxes and literacy tests. They were behind the “white primary” in several southern states in the early 1900s, a tool used by the Democratic Party to limit electoral participation to white people. Because Democrats dominated in those states, winning primaries amounted to winning general elections. All of these rules were deliberately put in place as a scheme to get around the Fifteenth Amendment, which had given Black Americans the vote.[Michael Signer: How to break the demagogue cycle]This faction was behind the chaos surrounding the 1876 presidential election, the last significant dispute in Congress over presidential electors. On January 6, Senator Ted Cruz proposed the creation of an electoral commission modeled on the one Congress had created in 1877—as if that commission had been a typical mechanism for resolving a typical political disagreement. In fact, that election was disputed after it was marred by violence from Democratic Party–aligned paramilitary groups that sought to intimidate Black voters. The commission decided the election in favor of the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes. The South accepted this result in exchange for the end of Reconstruction, which enabled the disenfranchisement that followed.Until the mid-to-late 20th century, most of the work done by the antidemocratic faction in American politics was done on behalf of the Democratic Party. Because American parties are coalitions, the groups in one coalition can and do shift to the other, especially as the groups themselves evolve and change.Today, the seditionist faction is in the Republican Party, and it will be hard to evict. Coalitions tend to include people who disagree with one another, but they set aside those disagreements in an effort to achieve their common goals.The sedition faction is Republican because it is closer to the Republicans’ core conservative ideology. Party coalitions can be fluid, but they are not random. The sedition faction left the Democratic Party in the 1960s and ’70s, as civil-rights liberals became more influential in that party. Meanwhile, the modern conservative movement bound together a pro-business, anti-regulation economic position with a cultural, religious, and populist position that tends to oppose policies aimed at addressing racial inequality. This coalition benefits when Black voters, overwhelmingly Democratic, vote less. Principled Republicans may prefer not to give in to the antidemocracy faction’s worst impulses, but the two groups agree on more than they disagree on.In the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection, Republicans outside the sedition faction may be willing to see Democrats win a few elections in the short term if it means saving democracy. But Republicans won’t make that sacrifice for long.Longer-term change would require an overhaul of American political institutions, but the reforms now under discussion—including popular versions of ranked-choice-voting—are modest. They are unlikely to radically change the incentive to form a large party coalition. Certainly not before the next elections.Instead, what is likely is continued conflict within the Republican Party among its factions, with the sedition caucus emboldened by the attack on the Capitol but also chastened by the reaction to it.The prizes of the Republican Party—a presidential nomination, its cherished name—are too valuable for anyone to back down. The lesson of the Tea Party is instructive. The Tea Party was also a faction within the Republican Party—indeed, it was the precursor to the Trump faction. As the political scientist Rachel Blum argues, the Tea Party also didn’t trust the establishment and felt betrayed by it. But this faction didn’t form its own party; it stayed and fought for influence within the party. In the near term, mainstream Republicans will fight back against the sedition caucus—but not at the expense of dismantling the party forever.[Zeynep Tufekci: Most House Republicans did what the rioters wanted]Neither party’s institutions are well equipped to prevent factions from invading. Party leaders do have ways of managing conflict and avoiding nominees out of step with their values, but now that the antidemocratic faction of the GOP is has representatives among the party brass—the House minority leader and minority whip both voted to contest the electoral tallies in two states—it cannot simply be shut out. It has to be bargained with.Perhaps the prodemocracy Republicans’ best bet is to tell their seditionist fellow party members the truth about the 2020 election. Republican voters will not listen if Democrats tell them that the vote was not fraudulent. But they may listen to an intraparty debate in which Republicans vigorously defend the right to vote, even if it means losing elections.Or perhaps they won’t listen. But the party has to have that debate.
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