How the Racism Baked Into Technology Hurts Teens
Lunga NtilaLast month, Twitter users uncovered a disturbing example of bias on the platform: An image-detection algorithm designed to optimize photo previews was cropping out Black faces in favor of white ones. Twitter apologized for this botched algorithm, but the bug remains.Acts of technological racism might not always be so blatant, but they are largely unavoidable. Black defendants are more likely to be unfairly sentenced or labeled as future re-offenders, not just by judges, but also by a sentencing algorithm advertised in part as a remedy to human biases. Predictive models methodically deny ailing Black and Hispanic patients’ access to treatments that are regularly distributed to less sick white patients. Examples like these abound.These sorts of systematic, inequality-perpetuating errors in predictive technologies are commonly known as “algorithmic bias.” They are, in short, the technological manifestations of America’s anti-Black zeitgeist. They are also the focus of my doctoral research exploring the influence of machine learning and AI on identity development. Sustained, frequent exposure to biases in automated technologies undoubtedly shape the way we see ourselves and our understanding of how the world values us. And they don’t affect people of all ages equally.Importantly, algorithmic biases likely impose long-term psychological impacts on teenagers, many of whom spend almost every waking minute online: A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that 95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45 percent describe themselves as being online “almost constantly.” Hispanic teens, in particular, spend more time online than their white peers, according to the same study. Given America’s reliance on remote learning during the pandemic, adolescents are likely spending even more time on the internet than they did before.[Bethany Mandel: Distance learning isn’t working]Research suggests that being on the receiving end of discrimination is correlated with poor mental-health outcomes across all ages. And when youth of color experience discrimination, their sleep, academic performance, and self-esteem might suffer. Experiencing discrimination can even alter gene expression across the life span.Algorithmic racism frequently functions as a sort of technological microaggression—those thinly veiled, prejudiced behaviors that often happen without the aggressor intending to hurt anyone. But the algorithmic variety differs from human microaggressions in several ways. For one, a person’s intent might be hard to pin down, but the computational models imbued with algorithmic bias can be exponentially more opaque. Several common machine-learning models, such as neural networks, are so complex that even the engineers who design them struggle to explain precisely how they work. Further, the frequency at which technological microaggressions occur is potentially much higher than in real life because of how much time teens spend on devices, as well as the automatic, repetitive nature of programmed systems. And everyone knows that human opinions are subjective, but algorithms operate under the guise of computational objectivity, which obscures their existence and lends legitimacy to their use.Teens of color aren’t the only ones at risk of computer-generated racism. Living in a world controlled by discriminatory algorithms can further segregate white youths from their peers of color. TikTok’s content-filtering algorithm, for example, can drive adolescents toward echo chambers where everyone looks the same. This risks diminishing teens’ capacity for empathy and depriving them of opportunities to develop the skills and experiences necessary to thrive in a country that’s growing only more diverse.[Read: Reddit is finally facing its legacy of racism]Algorithmic racism exists in a thriving ecosystem of online discrimination, and algorithms have been shown to amplify the voices of human racists. Black teens experience an average of five or more instances of racism daily, much of it happening online and therefore mediated by algorithms. Radicalization pipelines on social platforms such as YouTube can lead down rabbit holes of videos designed to recruit young people, radicalize them, and inspire them to commit real-world violence. Before the internet, parents could discourage their kids from spending time with bad influences by monitoring their whereabouts. Today, teens can fraternize with neo-Nazis and spread eugenics propaganda while just feet away from a well-intentioned but unaware parent. Part of the problem is that parents don’t see the underlying structures of popular platforms, such as YouTube, Facebook, and Reddit, as strangers that can take the hand of a teenager and guide them deeper and deeper into disturbing corners of the web. There is no “stranger danger” equivalent for a recommendation engine.Big tech companies know that all sorts of racism, algorithmic bias among them, are a problem on their platforms. But equity-focused projects at these companies have historically amounted to little more than lip service. For example, the day after a Google blog post highlighted the perspectives of three employees on bias in machine learning, news broke that Google was actually rolling back diversity and inclusion programs. And instead of fixing a bug in Google Photos that retrieved images of Black people for a query on gorillas, the service simply stopped labeling any images—even those of actual apes—as monkeys, gorillas, or chimpanzees. Still, some work from internal teams led by researchers such as Spotify’s Henriette Cramer seems promising. Across the industry and academia, women of color have paved the way in addressing technological racism and algorithmic bias. Organizations such as NYU’s AI Now Institute and the Algorithmic Justice League out of the MIT Media Lab are developing guidelines for ethical artificial intelligence. But importantly, research on algorithmic bias typically fails to account for age as a dimension of inequity, which is a point my own research on the subject aims to address.Ignoring age is a misguided approach because teens are psychologically different from adults. By adulthood, our identities are mostly well formed and durable, but adolescents are still deeply immersed in the process of figuring out who they are and where they fit in the world. At the same time, teens’ still-developing brains have less intense fear responses than adults’, which makes them more curious, but also impulsive and likely to engage in risky behavior. Further, instances of race-based trauma have far longer-lasting effects when experienced in adolescence, a period when neural architectures are being rewired and are most susceptible to environmental inputs.[Conor Friedersdorf: An internet for kids]Algorithms powerfully shape development; they are socializing an entire generation. And though United States governmental regulations currently fail to account for the age-based effects of algorithms, there is precedent for taking age into consideration when designing media policy: When the Federal Communications Commission began regulating commercials in kids’ TV in the 1990s, for example, the policies were based on well-documented cognitive and emotional differences between children and adults. Based on input from developmentalists, data scientists, and youth advocates, 21st-century policies around data privacy and algorithmic design could also be constructed with adolescents’ particular needs in mind. If we instead continue to downplay or ignore the ways that teens are vulnerable to algorithmic racism, the harms are likely to reverberate through generations to come.
Donald Trump’s Refugee Policy Is Bureaucratic Sadism
Donald Trump dishonors America in so many ways that it isn’t possible to keep them all in mind and still remember to brush your teeth. For example, how often do you reflect on the fact that the Trump administration has all but ended the tradition of accepting refugees into this country? In the decades between the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who signed the Refugee Act of 1980, and that of Barack Obama, the United States admitted an average of about 80,000 refugees annually. In some periods, such as after September 11, the numbers fell, but over the years, under Republican and Democratic administrations, the national commitment to provide a safe place for persecuted and desperate people persisted.Under Trump, the refugee program has almost collapsed. Last year, the administration set a ceiling of just 18,000 refugees. It actually admitted 10,000. Several weeks ago, the administration announced that the ceiling for fiscal year 2021 will go down to 15,000. Becca Heller, the executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, told me, “I think if Trump is reelected, it’s the end of the U.S. refugee program.”The crushingly low ceilings act to limit the overall numbers, but Trump also keeps refugees out—now, and for years to come—by setting up barriers that make it just about impossible for them to complete their applications. Because of the administration’s policy of “extreme vetting,” refugees—who have abandoned their homes in poor, chaotic countries; who languish in strange lands, in camps or makeshift housing; who have already been fingerprinted, biometrically examined, interviewed, and background-checked more thoroughly than any human beings on Earth—now have to provide phone numbers and addresses for every residence in which they lived for more than 30 days during the previous decade, as well as contact information for all close relatives. These are rules—kept secret until IRAP sued to force their disclosure and detailed them in a new report—that most Americans, who are lucky to live in a country with street addresses, would have trouble following.[Read: The world’s refugee system is broken]“Extreme vetting” also requires applicants’ social-media accounts to be scrutinized by U.S. officials in agencies so understaffed and ill-equipped that the process drags on for years. Refugee numbers from majority-Muslim countries, such as survivors of the wars in Yemen, Syria, and Somalia, who face almost insuperably high barriers, have dwindled toward zero. Even the Iraqis and Afghans who risked their lives to aid the American war effort in their countries, and who have bipartisan supporters here, can’t get past this wall built to make people fail. Last year, of the several thousand available slots allotted by Congress for America’s Iraqi allies, just 4 percent were filled. Behind the numbers are human beings, in some cases separated for years from children, parents, or spouses already resettled in the U.S., waiting in limbo, in danger, in growing despair. The IRAP report calls Trump’s policy “death by a thousand cuts.” I would call it bureaucratic sadism.Refugees, whose status is designated by the United Nations, comprise a fraction of the million or more immigrants who come here every year. For all his bluster, Trump has had trouble limiting immigration; perhaps that’s why his administration resorted to kidnapping children at the southern border. But the refugee program has the misfortune of being under the president’s clear authority. If Trump wanted to admit two refugees next year, he could find a way to do it. Immigration policy is inward-looking, driven by matters such as labor markets. But how we treat refugees is the face we choose to show the world. Heller of IRAP explained: “Do we want to have influence at the U.N. around prodemocracy issues? Do we want to have influence over specific human-rights atrocities like ethnic cleansing against Uighurs in China? It all boils down to whether or not the U.S. wants to have meaningful soft power as a force for good on the international stage.”Given that Trump’s answer to these questions is no, why doesn’t he just shut the refugee program down? Perhaps because his evangelical supporters advocate for the resettlement of persecuted religious minorities, most of them Christians. Last year, 97 percent of those slots were filled. Like everything else in the Trump administration, the refugee program has been thoroughly politicized.Refugees are among Trump’s favorite scapegoats. They’re his reelection campaign’s migrant caravan. After Joe Biden promised to raise the ceiling to 125,000 in his first year as president, higher than it was under Obama, Trump went after refugees last month at the start of a rally in Bemidji, Minnesota, a state that has resettled thousands of Somalis, including one of Trump’s prime targets, Representative Ilhan Omar. The president got a barely masked, COVID-spreading crowd of thousands stoked as they squeezed together at an airfield: One of the most vital issues in this election is the subject of refugees. You know it. You know it perhaps better than almost anybody. Lots of luck. You having a good time with your refugees? … Every family in Minnesota needs to know about Sleepy Joe Biden’s extreme plan to flood your state with an influx of refugees from Somalia, from other places all over the planet. Well, that’s what’s happened, and you like Omar a lot, don’t you? Biden has promised a 700 percent increase in the manifesto with Bernie, right? A 700 percent increase in the importation of refugees from the most dangerous places in the world, including Yemen, Syria, and Somalia. Congratulations, Minnesota. A 700 percent increase. Good luck, Minnesota … Sleepy Joe will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp. Think of it. 700 percent increase. So you’re not happy now? … Biden will overwhelm your children’s schools, overcrowd their classrooms, and inundate your hospitals. That’s what’ll happen. Biden has even pledged to terminate our travel ban to jihadist regions, jihadist regions. They’ve already been doing that to you, haven’t they? Opening the floodgates to radical Islamic terrorists. When I was covering the war in Iraq, I got to know a number of refugees. Some were displaced inside Iraq, others scattered to neighboring countries, waiting to be resettled in Europe or the U.S. I met them in crowded apartments where kids went without school and parents had no work. Months turned into years while they waited for an email or a letter from an international or American official. When one arrived, it usually contained byzantine language offering no clear resolution, only piling new demands on old ones that the family had met several times over—more employment history, another interview, another medical exam because the earlier one had expired during the wait.[Lama Mourad and Kelsey P. Norman: The world is turning its back on refugees]I found that refugees, otherwise as diverse as human beings anywhere, shared several qualities. They had suffered greatly—loved ones killed before their eyes, families torn apart. They were in mourning for the lives they’d lost, often focused on simple keepsakes they’d had to leave behind. And they were resolved not to go back. They were determined to find another, safer life, even if the wait took years. The decision to become refugees was too hard and painful for lingering ambivalence. It had taken the ultimate effort of will to give up their old lives. Now they were going to outlast the most indifferent bureaucracies. This was the source of their patience and their courage. No wonder that generations of them—Jews, Cubans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Sudanese, Somalis, Iraqis—have added so much to American life.Trump’s rollicking abuse of refugees and the answering jeers of his fans are a frank confession of moral rottenness. His contempt for people who have given up everything to become Americans fully displays his fundamental unworthiness as a president and a human being. His words amplify his deeds: A policy of keeping out refugees in order to feed the fear and hatred of the president’s supporters disgraces the country. Part of the damage, of course, lies in the blighted futures of hundreds of thousands of desperate people. The rest of the damage is to ourselves. There’s no clearer sign than this of America’s abandoned standing in the world. There’s no better way to begin to restore it than by opening our doors wide.
The ACA Case Reveals the Politics of ‘Constitutionality’
“I’d like to terminate Obamacare,” President Donald Trump said at Thursday night’s debate. He said he hoped that the Supreme Court, flush with six conservative justices after Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s likely confirmation, would take care of the job for him. “Now it’s in court, because Obamacare is no good.”Trump’s argument is an awkward one, and not only because it’s a toxic message in the closing days of a campaign that’s occurring against the backdrop of a global pandemic. At last week’s confirmation hearings for Barrett, Trump’s Republican allies on the Senate Judiciary Committee repeatedly threw cold water on the lawsuit, which the Supreme Court will hear on November 10. As Democrats drew attention to the risk that the Supreme Court might put the law to the torch, Republicans insisted that the lawsuit was unlikely to succeed and that it was unfair to assume that Barrett would be as reckless as the man who nominated her. Democrats accused Republicans of disingenuousness; Republicans accused Democrats of fearmongering. The ensuing debate was as loud as it was unedifying.[Read: What the rush to confirm Amy Coney Barrett is really about]All that noise obscured two deeper truths. The first is about the nature of constitutional change, and it helps explain why Senate Republicans have a point when they question the viability of a lawsuit whose goals they share and that the White House supports. The second is about the threat that the conservative Supreme Court poses to democracy. A Justice Barrett may be unlikely to topple the Affordable Care Act, but she’s a foot soldier in a conservative legal movement that has armed itself with the tools to subvert Congress’s ability to govern.Roll the tape back to 2010. Minutes after President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, lawsuits were filed challenging the constitutionality of the individual mandate, the part of the law requiring people to secure insurance or pay a tax penalty. At the time, the cases were widely dismissed as constitutional stunts that stood no chance of success in the federal courts.By the time the Supreme Court heard them in 2012, however, the cases had become nail-biters. That year, Jack Balkin, a Yale law professor, took a hard look at how that happened. His account of constitutional change didn’t turn on the nitty-gritty of legal doctrine. Instead, it hinged on the simple insight that “what people think is reasonable depends in part on what they think that other people think.”Supreme Court justices are people too. That’s why moving a constitutional argument from “off the wall” to “on the wall”—to borrow Balkin’s terminology—demands more than showing that the argument is legally defensible. The justices must be reassured that the argument has enough public support that they won’t be written off as kooky or eccentric for endorsing it. The Supreme Court came to find that the Constitution protected gay rights and gun rights, for example, only after those rights had become mainstream. A similar shift in public sentiment explains how the challenge to the individual mandate became plausible.How exactly did the challengers manage it? It wasn’t enough for conservative lawyers to make clever arguments, though that was essential. Nor was it enough for Tea Party activists to crash town halls. For Balkin, the key to the campaign’s success was the full-throated support of the Republican Party. The arguments of liberal lawyers insisting that conservatives were just making stuff up about the Constitution rang hollow when Republicans across the country, including local politicians, business leaders, and the guy on the bar stool, said otherwise. An argument can’t be crazy if half the country buys it.The Republican Party’s political support was forthcoming because the legal challenge directly advanced the party’s agenda. Republicans might cripple a law that they deplored; failing that, they could use the challenge to focus public outrage and mobilize voters. As it happened, the Supreme Court, by a 5–4 vote, upheld the Affordable Care Act by construing the individual mandate as an exercise of Congress’s power to tax. But the political gambit worked: In 2012, Republicans made historic gains in both the House and the Senate. President Obama called it a “shellacking.”Strictly on the legal merits, this latest challenge to the individual mandate is more absurd than the first one. In 2017, when Congress eliminated the tax penalty for going without insurance, it left in place language saying that people “shall” buy insurance. With nothing to back it up, that instruction lost its teeth. But the challengers—a group of red states—have argued that Congress, by retaining that language, must have meant to coerce people into buying insurance.[Read: Republicans are trapped on preexisting conditions]The upshot is that, by eliminating the tax penalty for not having insurance, Congress made the individual mandate more coercive—and thus unconstitutional. Even more radically, the challengers say that the constitutional flaw in the individual mandate requires unraveling the entire Affordable Care Act. Neither of these arguments is defensible.But the case’s doctrinal weakness is not what most sharply distinguishes it from the first Obamacare suit. Indeed, the arguments are coherent enough to have persuaded each of the three Republican-appointed judges who have heard the case so far. The biggest difference is that the conservative political establishment that did so much to make the last Obamacare case seem plausible, even inevitable, has not laid the same groundwork here. The case is still off the wall.The first sign that something was different about this lawsuit came in 2018, just months after it was filed. Instead of avoiding a debate over health reform, as they had before, Democratic Senate candidates used their opponents’ support for the lawsuit as a cudgel. Joe Manchin of West Virginia fired a shotgun at a copy of the complaint; Claire McCaskill of Missouri ran ads excoriating her opponent, Josh Hawley, for joining a case that would rip protections from people with preexisting conditions.Hawley set the script for how Republicans would respond to these attacks. They would ignore the lawsuit, not defend it, and press the misleading talking point that they support protections for people with preexisting conditions. Protective of his Senate majority, Mitch McConnell damned the lawsuit with faint praise, saying only that there was “nothing wrong with going to court. Americans do it all the time.”The pattern has held this election cycle. Embattled Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, for example, has refused to say where he stands on the case. Instead, he released a campaign video promising to maintain preexisting-condition protections “no matter what happens to Obamacare.” When Democrats forced a vote on whether to bar Trump’s Justice Department from supporting the lawsuit, Gardner and five other incumbents in close elections broke from their party to side with Democrats. Republicans aren’t running on their party’s support for the lawsuit. They’re running away from it.The only major exception is President Trump himself. Indeed, the White House’s surprise endorsement of the lawsuit in 2018 is probably best understood as a bid to get the rest of the Republican Party to back the case and put it on the wall. But that bid failed: The case was just too radioactive for most Republican officeholders. Even Attorney General Bill Barr has urged the president to moderate his position. A more prudent president probably would have taken that advice.If the lawsuit is such a liability for Republicans, why was it brought in the first place? The answer is that what’s bad for the party may still be good for some politicians. Every one of the red-state attorneys general who brought the lawsuit has ambitions for higher office. But winning a gubernatorial race in Utah or Texas means winning a Republican primary, and the primary electorate in these states is much more conservative than the general. It might be advantageous for those politicians to press a position that’s bad news for Republican incumbents.This puts Republican leaders in a bind. Without getting crosswise with the White House, they are trying to signal as loudly as they can that they would prefer the lawsuit to go away. That effort reached almost comic proportions during the Barrett hearings. McConnell said that “no one believes the Supreme Court is going to strike down the Affordable Care Act.” Senator Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, emphasized that severability doctrine requires judges “to save the statute, if possible.” Senator Chuck Grassley said that it was “outrageous” to think that Barrett would invalidate the law, because, “as a mother of seven, [she] clearly understands the importance of health care.”The Supreme Court is sure to get the message. During the first Obamacare case, groups affiliated with the Republican challengers filed 59 amicus briefs, including one from the Chamber of Commerce and another on severability from McConnell and dozens of Republican senators. This time around, only five amicus briefs were submitted to support the lawsuit, all from marginal players in the Republican political ecosystem. McConnell is sitting this one out.The Supreme Court would thus be going out on a limb were it to invalidate all or part of the Affordable Care Act. It may still do so; we’re all just guessing. But without a full-court press from the Republican Party, a result like that couldn’t be spun to the public as a principled constitutional holding. Even to Republicans, it would look like rank partisanship. And the justices know that Republicans would bear responsibility for the fallout.[Read: The healthcare gap between red and blue America]Although the prospects of this particular lawsuit are dim, however, the Democrats were right to focus on it during Barrett’s hearing. To begin with, the case serves as a reminder of all the other cases about health care that are coming down the pike—and not just those about abortion. The Supreme Court, for example, will decide in the coming weeks if it will hear a case about whether 19 states can impose work requirements on Medicaid beneficiaries. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said no, effectively preventing hundreds of thousands of people from losing insurance. A Supreme Court packed with a conservative supermajority could—and probably would—flip that decision.This latest Obamacare case also stands in for all the cases to come involving progressive legislation. Judge Barrett has been pretty candid that she would have sided with the challengers in the first lawsuit challenging the individual mandate. If she, not Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, had been sitting on the Court back in 2012, the Affordable Care Act would now be in ashes.That should teach us something about the reception that major legislation passed by a Democratic-controlled Congress is likely to receive on a 6–3 Supreme Court. Republican officeholders may have mixed feelings about this case, but they will leap to convince their conservative constituents of the unconstitutionality of Medicare for All or a new Voting Rights Act or the Green New Deal. The resulting mobilization will make the Supreme Court receptive to inventive arguments that target those laws or frustrate their implementation.Making the Affordable Care Act the centerpiece of the Barrett hearings was thus apt—not because the law itself is in serious jeopardy, but because it symbolizes the risk of giving a veto over progressive legislation to a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court. The justices’ views about what counts as reasonable, like anyone’s, are powerfully shaped by the political debates of our time. If Barrett is confirmed, the views of two-thirds of those justices will be shaped by a Republican Party that represents less than half the country.That’s not just a problem for Democrats. It’s a problem for democracy.
Higher Education Should Lead the Efforts to Reverse Structural Racism
The knee on the neck of George Floyd aggravated an American psyche already frayed by the pandemic and stay-at-home orders. Protesters from diverse backgrounds marched in the streets across the nation demanding change. Channeling the growing public and private support for meaningful change into action requires Americans, in every sector, to engage in difficult conversations, and to be honest about our problems and deliberate in developing solutions, and we in higher education are no exception.We in this field have an obligation to engage in this work, because we have become more central than ever to our students’ American dreams. We hold out to our students the promises of an enriched life and social mobility, and yet we often fall short in providing these to all who arrive on our campuses.[Read: The cost of balancing academia and racism]In his 2019 book, the UC Berkeley professor David Kirp called out higher education, naming our poor six-year graduation rate of 60 percent for full-time freshmen at bachelor’s degree–granting institutions “the college dropout scandal.” And if 60 percent is a “scandal,” what do we call the rate for Black students, which is 40 percent? It would be simplistic—and wrong—to conclude that our students of color are failing. Instead, we must admit that higher education is failing them.Our institution, the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, has made enormous progress on the crisis in student success. In the 1980s, UMBC had a six-year graduation rate for all freshmen of just more than 30 percent, and for Black freshmen, the rate was 10 percentage points lower. Through a range of interventions, we have increased our six-year graduation rate to 70 percent overall, not including the 10 percent who transfer and graduate elsewhere. Moreover, we have no Black-white graduation gap.Thirty years ago, the university administration (including one of the authors of this piece, Freeman Hrabowski) and faculty began thinking strategically about student success. The institution developed a program to support talented Black undergraduates in the natural sciences and engineering. Based on that program’s outcomes, the university also developed similar strategies for improving learning outcomes for students of all races, across fields. In 2005, UMBC established an office of undergraduate education led by a new dean of undergraduate education. Over the next decade, OUE implemented new programming for first-year students to increase retention, including a summer bridge program, a new-student book experience, short courses on how to navigate college, writing instruction, first-year seminars, and other support programs for transfer students. These provide students with a sense of belonging, agency, and efficacy, along with tools they need to be successful.On a parallel track, beginning in 2003, the university created a “data warehouse” that pulled together information from across the institution—including students’ grades, courses, extracurriculars, and demographics—to provide a comprehensive view of the student experience. This database allows leadership, staff, and faculty to examine the efficacy of and to reshape programs to meet student needs. It also lends insights on how and when to help individual students. Our academic advocates work proactively with at-risk students to ensure their success—as defined by grades, persistence, and completion—by connecting them with resources such as tutoring and counseling.In the past decade, faculty have also focused on course redesign to improve teaching and learning. Redesigned introductory courses that emphasize active, problem-focused, and group-based work support student learning and success in classes that have traditionally been taught across the country as “weed-out courses.” The co-curricular programming offered to students—residential learning communities, experiential learning, and a career center that helps students with internships and jobs—also enhances the student experience and reinforces persistence.[Read: What is faculty diversity worth to a university?]Of course, a major issue for students is money. Financial aid plays a role in where students go to college, whether they persist, and the quality of the education they get. This is in part a state- and federal-policy problem. Pell Grants have not kept pace with inflation, much less increases in tuition and fees, as per-student state appropriations for higher education in constant dollars have declined. It is also an institutional problem. We must do a better job of communicating net cost to students so they make informed choices; we must support students so they can immerse themselves in their studies instead of splitting time between work and school. Lately, at UMBC, we are finding creative ways to support students who dropped out very close to finishing their degree. With financial assistance and online coursework, many of these students are able to return and complete their degrees.As we worked to improve student success generally, we also changed our institutional culture to be more supportive of students of all racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds. Our campus had a challenging racial climate in the 1980s, including student protests and annual takeovers of the president’s office by the Black Student Union and its allies. Over the intervening 30 years, we have built an inclusive, multicultural campus and have achieved well-documented success in educating students of all races across disciplines, including for Black students in science and engineering who go on to earn doctoral degrees. We have achieved this through a program that instills high expectations, builds community, and brings students directly into research.Despite this, we still have challenges regarding race and gender, but we continue to learn from difficult conversations. We experienced this recently when news of several sexual-assault cases involving UMBC students prompted us to rethink how we handle Title IX complaints. Even with our progress in building an inclusive campus, students and alumni also asked us to listen to their concerns and do better after the tragic death of George Floyd. We often like to say “Success is never final,” by which we mean that we know we can still improve. This has given us an opportunity to have the difficult conversations that we need to get there.Out of this important work, we have taken several significant steps. We have overhauled our Title IX operations and procedures. We have expanded our Equity and Inclusion Council to include more students, faculty, and staff. We have hired or promoted Black and female leaders throughout the institution. This past academic year, three Black faculty were promoted to associate and full professor, more than ever before. But we have more work to do.Many colleges and universities hire a chief diversity officer—though UMBC has not—to lead the campus effort in this area. These positions are important and, if campus leaders signal that addressing diversity and inclusion is a priority and the CDOs are granted the resources and power they need, these leaders can make a difference. But although CDOs can be helpful, their hiring alone is not sufficient. To be successful, presidents, provosts, and CDOs need allies among the most powerful faculty. Progress requires commitment from the academic community, including the faculty who have the power over the curriculum, how classes are designed and taught, and experiential learning—essentially the academic experience and success of students.Our faculty and staff serve as mentors, role models, and teachers. Many institutions have been successful in hiring highly committed minority staff who care deeply about students, but we need to do more to diversify our staff. Meanwhile, the irony is not lost on us that although some critics of academia attack our culture as being too progressive, we must admit that we in higher education have had only limited success in hiring and promoting Black and Latino faculty. Nationally, at present, non-Hispanic white faculty comprise more than 75 percent of the professoriate, while they are just 60 percent of the population—by 2044, non-Hispanic white people will make up less than 50 percent of the population.Many campus leaders argue that they cannot find diverse faculty candidates, but applicants of color are available in the academic job market, and we can increase faculty diversity by adopting strategies that broaden the hiring pool, reduce implicit bias in recruitment and hiring, and support new faculty. The challenge is not just one of recruiting and hiring Black faculty. We must also encourage them to stay by working with departments to ensure their cultures are welcoming and supportive, and providing new faculty with research and grant-writing support.[Read: How campus racism could affect black students’ college enrollment]At UMBC, as at many institutions, we have made substantial progress toward increasing diversity in some departments, principally in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. We have much work yet to do in the natural sciences and engineering. We have hired a small number of Black faculty in biology and computer science, but there are departments that have no underrepresented minority faculty.One ongoing issue in hiring and retention is implicit bias. To address this at UMBC, we have recently implemented a program called Strategies and Tactics for Recruiting to Improve Diversity and Excellence, or STRIDE—adapted from a program developed at the University of Michigan. STRIDE Fellows comprise a small group of majority faculty who are committed to increasing diversity and work as a team to educate and counsel search committees on how to overcome implicit bias in the hiring process, broaden the applicant pool, support new hires, and change departmental cultures. They are making a difference, even if it is one hire at a time.Meanwhile, professors can make a difference in other ways. Individual faculty can mentor students of color and become their champions and sponsors as they transition from undergraduate to graduate school, postdoctoral fellowships, and faculty positions. They can promote the success and career development of scientists of color by citing their work, inviting them to give talks, and collaborating with them on research projects, grants, and papers.A final imperative for universities is to do more to encourage our students of all backgrounds in the work of civic engagement and voting. Historically, young adults have voted at lower rates than older adults, so efforts by higher-education institutions to increase registration and turnout among their students could have a significant impact. Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to directly shape the electoral participation of younger voters. UMBC participates in the “All In Campus Democracy Challenge,” in which we encourage students to vote, because elections have consequences, each of us should make our vote count, and voting is one dimension of broader civic action that we should all engage in. To further support voting, we participate in the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement at Tufts University to benchmark our efforts to increase student electoral participation.To foster civic action, we have established a Center for Democracy and Civic Life, which provides programs and initiatives for students to establish civic purpose and find agency through actions that they take on campus or in the community. Colleges and universities can also do more to deepen Americans’ understanding of the country’s history. With support from the U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching American History grant program, UMBC’s Center for History Education has been working with K–12 partners to create and provide professional development and curricular resources for elementary-, middle-, and high-school history teachers.Now is the time for higher education leaders to demonstrate that our institutions can do much more to address structural racism. Whether virtually or in person during the pandemic, campus leaders must listen to all voices from across campus, especially those of Black and other underrepresented groups; signal the importance of these issues, establishing them as campus priorities; and identify areas where we can implement changes—including in improving the curriculum, supporting students, diversifying the faculty, and engaging our communities. We can do this by building trust, cultivating allies, and empowering community members to take initiative and do the work. And it will take work, but that work will bring us closer to the society we should all want.
The Atlantic Daily: The Case Against Donald Trump
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.THE ATLANTIC“Spectacularly obvious.”That’s what our editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, writing on behalf of The Atlantic’s editors, called the choice voters face this November.“Two men are running for president,” he writes. “One is a terrible man; the other is a decent man. Vote for the decent man.”For just the fourth time in our 163-year run, The Atlantic is endorsing a candidate, and that candidate is Joe Biden.We are doing so because President Donald Trump represents a threat to our collective existence: Biden is a man of experience, maturity, and obvious humanity, but had the Republican Party put forward a credible candidate for president, we would have felt no compulsion to state a preference. Donald Trump, however, is a clear and continuing danger to the United States, and it does not seem likely that our country would be able to emerge whole from four more years of his misrule. Read the full endorsement on our site.JULIO CORTEZ / APWhat to read if … you’re still processing last night’s debate: Although the mute button worked in Trump’s favor, David Frum argues, he still failed to establish an emotional connection with voters. Biden, meanwhile, seized the president’s populist mantle, David A. Graham writes.11 days remain until the 2020 presidential election. Here’s today’s essential read:Our White House correspondent, Peter Nicholas, went on a hunt for the elusive Clinton-Trump voter.Want to better understand the ongoing coronavirus outbreak? Here are four key stories from our team: The U.S. is sleepwalking into an Election Day virus surge The vaccine news that really matters How to tell if socializing indoors is safe This overlooked variable is the key to the pandemic Stuck on what to stream? Let us help:Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks is “a surprisingly fizzy bit of escapism,” our critic David Sims writes. The film, which stars Rashida Jones and Bill Murray, is available to stream on Apple TV+ this week.Today’s break from the news:Earlier this week, a NASA spacecraft touched an asteroid millions of miles from Earth and tried to scoop up some rocks. Read Marina Koren on what scientists hope to learn from those samples.Did someone forward you this newsletter? Sign up here. Need help? Contact Customer Care.
1 d
Borat Is the Perfect Avatar for 2020
By now, you’ve probably heard about the already infamous climax of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, the Amazon sequel that heralds the return of the titular Kazakh journalist and agent of chaos played by Sacha Baron Cohen. Borat’s daughter, Tutar, is interviewing Rudy Giuliani in a hotel room when the situation takes an alarming turn: The former Mayor of New York, and current lawyer to the president, is shown reclining on a bed and reaching his hand into his pants. The whole scene is so cringe-inducing that it’s a relief when Borat himself bursts into the room, interrupting the encounter and jolting the tone from creepy dread back to zany confusion.“She’s 15. She’s too old for you,” Borat tells Giuliani, a typically tasteless rejoinder from America’s favorite faux-foreign mischief-maker. (While Tutar the character is 15, the actor playing her is 24). As absurd and embarrassing as the hotel meeting is for Giuliani, who called the scene “a complete fabrication,” it underlines the accidental premise of the movie, which was shot surreptitiously over the course of this year. When Borat first rampaged through the United States for his 2006 cinematic debut, he held up a funhouse mirror to Americans’ views of outsiders, capturing real people nodding and smiling politely at this supposed journalist and his provocations. But in 2020, Borat has become the peacekeeper rather than the agitator.Borat, a bumbling caricature of a foreigner who possessed many wildly racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic viewpoints, was initially introduced as a side character for Cohen’s popular Da Ali G Show in Britain. Ali G (a dim but confident white man pretending to be Black) was Cohen’s breakout character in the UK, but Borat made the comedian a superstar in the U.S. While Ali G existed to mock a specific type of Brit, Cohen’s performance in 2006’s Borat offered a weirdly universal blend of shock-jock jokes, Chaplinesque physical humor, and blithe innocence. At a time when America was embroiled in two wars in the Middle East, he became a perfect foil for its sins as he wandered around the country, eliciting both suspicion and reflexive politeness with his outrageous tactics.Amazon studiosThe character resonates differently in the age of Trump. The current president’s emphasis on macho bravado, and his affinity for strongman dictators, is a real life incarnation of Borat’s deeply misogynistic perspective (Borat refers to him as “a magnificent new Premier named McDonald Trump”). The early part of the film emphasizes that admiration, as Borat delivers a gift to Mike Pence on behalf of Kazakhstan. But the movie eventually abandons that focus, probably for the same reason that so much satire about the president doesn’t land: Trump is a more comically outsized figure than even a living cartoon character like Borat.Does this mean Borat, after a 14-year break from movies, is no longer funny? Certainly not, especially if you already enjoy the character and think back on the last movie fondly. Most of the film is about the unwitting strangers Borat crosses paths with, people who react to his antics with confusion, or (sometimes) tacit approval. He asks an animal-cage salesman for a portable jail to trap his daughter in; he makes a local bakery inscribe a cake with an anti-Semitic slogan. As usual, he’s given the familiar baffled looks and courteous chuckles; as usual, he’s never shown being rejected.[Read: Who is Sacha Baron Cohen satirizing in his Showtime series?]When Borat Subsequent Moviefilm addresses the COVID-19 pandemic and the meeting with the president’s lawyer, it becomes less of a satire and more of a straight-up exposé. Borat, arguably, starts actually doing his job as a journalist—shining a light on the darkest corners of society and revealing them for what they are. By this point in the film, if you’re laughing, it’s likely in slack-jawed horror. I watched the Giuliani segment with hands over my eyes, stupefied by the imbecility on display (before accompanying Tutar to a hotel room and placing his hand on her back, he also claims China created the coronavirus in a lab). In another sequence, Borat takes shelter with a group of friendly conspiracy theorists who educate him on some of their latest ideas, such as Hillary Clinton’s love of drinking children’s blood. One memorable scene in the first Borat saw him leading a rodeo crowd to cheer the idea that George W. Bush drinks children’s blood. In this sequel, he doesn’t even have to plant the idea.Our political discourse is so poisoned that Cohen doesn’t really seem to be exposing anything surprising. This problem has plagued many of his recent comedy efforts, including his 2018 Showtime show Who Is America? There, he played new characters doing the same shtick (capturing real-life idiocy under the guise of a docu-drama), but it lacked the punch of his earlier work, merely confirming that America’s radical fringe had gotten a lot less fringe-y in the last decade. When the president is defending white nationalists and failing to denounce QAnon, Cohen doesn’t have to look hard to find people willing to say alarming things on film. He isn’t holding up a twisted mirror to society anymore, he’s just holding up a camera.Borat Subsequent Moviefilm also has the more practical problem that more people now know who Borat is. In one particularly funny montage, passersby excitedly approach him on the street demanding autographs and selfies; the sequence is worth watching in tandem with the beginning of the first movie, when Borat’s attempts to shake hands with random New Yorkers were greeted mostly with screams or threats of physical violence. Cohen and his coterie of writers (eight people are credited with the screenplay) weave Borat’s popularity into the sequel’s “plot,” showing how his fame as a Kazakh laughing stock has fueled his hometown’s enmity for studiosThe movie’s best moments are the fully scripted ones between Borat and Tutar, who have a genuinely sweet bond mostly forged through crude humor. Cohen seems to understand that the film’s shock value is automatically lower because of how deadened audiences have grown to political satire, so he relies more heavily on sitcom jokes to compensate and mostly succeeds. The candid-camera material, in contrast, often drags, and the film’s most interesting moment (aside from Giuliani’s humiliation) actually comes when Cohen breaks character mid-stunt.Late in the movie, Borat visits a synagogue dressed as an awful anti-Semitic stereotype (a devil-like figure with a giant nose); members of the congregation start interacting with him, including a Holocaust survivor who quickly sways his usual denialism with her own passionate, personal recollections. Their conversation swerves into civility, and the movie cuts to them eating a meal together. Cohen apparently stopped filming to explain what was going on to the woman, who receives a dedication at the end of the movie; it is a telling sign of how the boundaries of his humor have shifted—this notorious provocateur seems to understand that satirizing Holocaust denialism would do more harm than good in 2020.That’s the curious conflict at the heart of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. The world is more unhinged and surreal than when Cohen first emerged as a comedian, but even he recognizes the limits of make-believe right now. If in 2020, Borat can run screaming into the same room as Rudy Giuliani and come off as more sane and level-headed, then his anarchic personality may have finally reached its apex.
1 d
Cory Booker on Why the Democrats Haven't Stopped Barrett
The night after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, Democrats gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court, repeating the rallying call “No confirmation until inauguration!” That had zero effect on Senate Republicans, who pledged their support for Donald Trump’s choice even before the president announced it would be Amy Coney Barrett.New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is among those struggling with what to do. As a senator very much connected to the younger, more activist wing of the Democratic Party, he wanted to push back. As a member of the Judiciary Committee and an institutionalist, his instinct was to take part in the confirmation hearings rather than staging a stunt protest.I spoke with Booker on Thursday afternoon, hours after he participated in a boycott of the committee hearing advancing Barrett’s nomination to the Senate floor. He talked about the Democrats’ failure to stop Barrett’s likely confirmation, what should happen with ending the filibuster and potentially expanding the Supreme Court after she is seated, and how, as the election approaches, he’s interpreting the closing argument from Trump, who for some reason keeps claiming that Booker is part of a plot to move Black people into the suburbs.What follows is a transcript of our conversation. It has been lightly edited for clarity.Edward-Isaac Dovere: The Democratic senators refused to show up for the Judiciary Committee vote on Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination. The vote happened anyway. So why should anyone care that you and your colleagues did that?Cory Booker: I believe in the ideals of not being complicit in injustice. I think that noncooperation and boycott are very powerful tools within democracy. And I think this was a very important moment to have a unified group of Democratic senators on the committee, which does have a variety in perspective and even thought. I think it’s very important that we took this stand today—if anything, not to be participatory in a process that really has no legitimacy to it.Dovere: There’s a striking contrast to Democrats complaining about the process—but doing a lot of that complaining while participating in the process, sitting at the hearing. Why not do something which blew things up even more?Booker: In every day of the hearings, I tried to drive the point home with examples of why this was not normal. That was a refrain in my opening statement, in fact. But I, for one, really believe that it was important for us to elicit things from the nominee that further expose the challenges of having her be on the court. So I thought it was important that people heard her perspective on race, for example; how much she has thought about and read about an issue is so central to jurisprudence. Race has dominated many of the Supreme Court’s most known decisions for the entire history of our country. And so to have no one even bring up a question about race, I think would have been a disservice to America, and a failure in many ways to get her on the record on those important issues and others.Dovere: Do you believe Barrett is qualified to serve on the Supreme Court, if not for the timing of the nomination and confirmation vote, much like when Ruth Bader Ginsburg got 96 votes in her confirmation in the Senate?Booker: I cannot divorce her qualifications from a process that is so deeply illegitimate. And I think that what is important in this moment is that no one should qualify for the Supreme Court in the way that she has qualified for it. We have a president who has outsourced the selection process to right-wing organizations. We have Senate Republicans who were committing to vote for her before she was even named. They were surrendering their obligation to advise and consent. They gave over their consent before it was even named, further delegitimizing the process. And then there’ll be other things that I’ve made clear: We’re in the midst of an ongoing election. No president has ever done this before; that illegitimates the process. And then we are at a time of great strain in America. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and economic decline that is similar to that of a recession. Amidst all of this, what I think of her as an individual is not relevant. What is relevant is the process, and how illegitimate it is, and how she is qualified for the court in a way that is an offense to the very idea of how someone should ultimately qualify to sit for a lifetime appointment on the highest court in the land.Dovere: You’ve been warning that the Senate will be permanently damaged by this kind of break. We’ve been hearing that kind of warning about a bunch of things for years now. Isn’t the Senate already damaged so much already, and will probably get more damaged?Booker: I think that the Senate is severely wounded, and the injuries continue to mount. But I don’t think that the body is dead. I don’t think that hope is dead. I think that we can find a way to heal and repair. And I think that that is going to be the call of the Senate after this horrible injury that’s going to happen as a result of the vote we will be taking in a matter of days. And so I can’t give up on this body. I can’t give up on its capacity to rise to the call of the country right now—which is to address the challenges our nation is facing, to come together and do big things, do great things again. And so I’ve not given up. I do not think that the injury and the wounds, as deep as they are, are fatal, or that we still can’t call it a pathway to redemption or a pathway to resurrection.[Read: Cory Booker Runs Out of Time]Dovere: You’ve struggled with the question of getting rid of the filibuster yourself. Can you make the argument to a Democratic voter that if the Democrats win the majority, they shouldn’t get rid of the filibuster?Booker: I don’t think I can effectively make that argument of why we should preserve the filibuster at this moment in history, days before we see a decision being made that could so hurt voting rights and health care and LGBTQ rights and women’s access to reproductive care and abortion care. What I would rather do is just make a commitment that after this election’s over, should we be in the majority, I will hopefully be a part of leading an effort to find a way to right these wrongs and to balance the scales of justice, so to speak.Dovere: If Barrett is confirmed and Biden wins, and Democrats take the majority in the Senate, wouldn’t expanding the Supreme Court be a necessary step to preserve whatever policy you pass in the years ahead? Obamacare, for example, was passed in 2010 and already almost struck down by the Supreme Court in 2012.Booker: There is an obligation that we have to take up a way to right these wrongs. You can’t have one rule for Merrick Garland that you commit to—and then change the rules, break your word for Amy Coney Barrett. And there are deeper issues at stake. This will be the first time in history that we have five Supreme Court justices, all of the conservative belt, who were appointed by presidents that did not win the majority of the vote and who are appointed by Senates where Republicans didn’t represent the majority of voters, either. We have to think of ways in which to right this wrong. I think it’s going to be a very important debate and discussion about what are the ways to restore legitimacy to the judiciary branch.Dovere: President Trump keeps saying and tweeting that you’re going to be in charge of some program to move Black people into the suburbs. Are you?Booker: I think it’s best to answer that as just “no.”Dovere: Do you know what he is talking about?Booker: I have, for years now, given up on the on the odyssey of trying to understand what motivates this president of the United States to say what he says. I think it’s a fool’s errand to try to understand the motivations for the chaos that comes out of his mouth. I do know that there are dark forces at sway, in the sense that he seems to consistently try to appeal to people’s fear, try to call to the lesser angels of our nature. That he is often demeaning and degrading and dehumanizing other Americans. And so I know that for me, I’d rather much rather focus on the people he hurts, the people that he is trying to manipulate, and be a force of protection—rather than get involved with what I think there’ll be arguments for in the annals of history about what motivates him to lead in such a dark way.Dovere: Why do you think you’re on his mind so much?Booker: This last month has been particularly strange, that in tweets and rallies somehow he’s been much more focused on me. Obviously, I’m taking up space in his head. And I hope that’s a sign that I’m being an effective advocate for things that are just right, as he is trying to so often push things that are wrong.Dovere: Is it racist?Booker: It could be more that he’s using me in a way to try to scare people, or thinking that somehow the only male African-American Democrat in the Senate is a great foil to try to scare suburbanites, which is rank racism. So I’m not sure what it is. I know he responded to the way I talked about him in the Supreme Court hearings, but I don’t know what it is—whether it is rank racism, or that he feels somehow injured by my advocacy.[Ibram X. Kendi]: Is This the Beginning of the End of American Racism?Dovere: You ran for president hoping for a number of different things than what Biden has proposed. How much should people who want more progressive policy, or a different approach to issues of race, think that any of that would now be part of a Biden administration, if there is one?Booker: Joe Biden’s pathway to the presidency should give people a lot of confidence that he will grapple with these issues and be a president that makes significant strides in them. Clearly his campaign was deeply shaped by the largest mass protests in our country’s history. Unequivocally. It came soon after he clinched the nomination in a decisive manner with a significant outpouring of African American support. I think you could add to that the decisions he has made so far: He has promoted the first-ever African American female as a vice-presidential nominee of a major party; he has consistently spoken with increasing eloquence about the need for diversity, for inclusion, and the need to address systematic racism.Dovere: Biden said a few months ago, in a comment that got him in trouble, “you ain’t Black” if you’re supporting Trump. But Trump does have some Black support, even if it’s just a few percentage points. What would you say to the Black people who are voting for Trump?Booker: The lesson I learned from campaigning for city council was I could knock on 10 doors, and my staff would yell at me because the one person that wasn’t voting for me, I would spend 30 minutes trying to convince them. As opposed to continuing to knock on doors and get people that were maybe not going to go out and vote, to get them out to vote for me. My focus really is not the people who are supporting Donald Trump, regardless of race. My focus is on those Americans who don’t understand the urgency in this election and might not vote in the first place. We need to have a record turnout—for people who care about issues of racial justice, for people who care about issues of civil rights and voting rights, for people who care about economic justice and environmental justice. You can’t complain about it if you haven’t voted. It is the fundamental foundation of our ability to deal with those issues. And so I’m saving my energy, not for Trump supporters who have already made up their mind, but for those people who are inclined to vote for Biden but we’re still not confident are going to vote.
1 d
The Smears Against Biden Don’t Need to Make Any Sense
On Tuesday, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham broke some news: An “investigative journalist” named Matthew Tyrmand had uncovered a cache of 26,000 emails belonging to Hunter Biden’s disgraced business partner Bevan Cooney, who is now in jail. Tyrmand claimed that he had gotten hold of the emails via a person in the same facility as Cooney (a “federal work camp for white-collar infractions,” is how Tyrmand put it). Tyrmand explained that Cooney felt stiffed by Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, and implied that Cooney had handed over his own Gmail password in an act of revenge.Perhaps that’s what happened. Or perhaps not: I have good reason to doubt the reliability of the source. The last time I saw Tyrmand was in October 2017. I was speaking at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and he was in the audience. Security guards were keeping an eye on him after I warned them that he might show up: He’d come to another public lecture of mine the previous day in New York City, then had turned up in Boston and announced on Twitter that he was following me to Cambridge. His goal, I think, was to shout at me and draw attention to himself while waving a cellphone camera in the air, which is what he’d done in the past. But the lecture went off smoothly; afterward, a very gentle and very tall Harvard professor stood firmly between us, engaging Tyrmand in vigorous conversation so that I could slip away unharassed. I didn’t hear directly from Tyrmand after that—I block the social-media accounts of tiresome trolls. But I gather that, year in and year out, he continues to post obsessively about me and my husband, a Polish politician, including photographs taken surreptitiously in public places. I have no idea why.A clue might come from a 2016 New Yorker story in which Tyrmand (who is described as an “investor,” not a journalist) plays a minor role in a ludicrously clumsy attempt to run a sting operation on the Open Society Foundations, which are funded by the prodemocracy philanthropist George Soros. The deception failed, according to The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, because James O’Keefe, the notoriously unprincipled leader of a group called Project Veritas, forgot to hang up the phone after calling the Open Society office. In a long voicemail, he inadvertently recorded himself plotting to embarrass Soros. These are people who think that smear campaigns are politics, harassment is journalism, and online stalking is something you do for fun.[Read: The bad faith of James O’Keefe]For those trying to follow along at home, the emails produced by Tyrmand are not the same emails that originally appeared on a laptop that Hunter Biden supposedly left at a Delaware computer-repair shop, the laptop that then became a story in the New York Post (and whose contents, according to a report in Time, were circulating previously in Ukraine). This is a different cache, one that is even more tangential to the U.S. presidential campaign and even harder to understand. In order to even make sense of the messages’ content, the reader must learn the back stories of a whole new cast of characters, not just Cooney but two other convicted fraudsters named Devon Archer and Jason Galanis; the wife of the former mayor of Moscow, Yelena Baturina; and Chris Heinz, John Kerry’s stepson, who broke away from the group; as well as their relationships, their jokes (they refer to Baturina as the “USSR woman’s shot put champion”), and the rules of the ugly world they inhabit. In order to link them to Joe Biden, you have to turn somersaults, do triple flips, and squint very hard.Those who live outside the Fox News bubble and intend to remain there do not, of course, need to learn any of this stuff. Judging by what has been published, the very worst thing that Tyrmand’s email cache could reveal (if it is authentic) is that some unattractive people sought to use Hunter Biden’s surname and connections to get business deals or score a visit to the White House for their clients. But we already know about Hunter Biden’s’s involvement with unattractive people, and his struggles with addiction; we also know that, under normal circumstances, dozens of people visit the White House every day. On the grand scale of misdeeds committed by politicians and their relatives, this kind of thing barely registers. Compare that with, say, the Trump family’s well-documented hotel deal with an Azerbaijani business family linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Or the Trump family’s blatant use of its status to funnel money to its own companies. Or the Trumps’ illegal abuse of their charitable foundation. Or the president’s secret Chinese business bank account. The Trump family is a living, breathing, walking conflict of interest—so much so that much of Donald Trump’s foreign policy is most easily explained through the lens of his personal greed and his hotel investments, not as the emanation of any kind of American national interest.But this, of course, is not the point. In releasing the 26,000 emails, Tyrmand and his collaborator, the Breitbart News contributor Peter Schweizer, are not bringing forth any evidence of actual lawbreaking, or an actual security threat, by either Hunter or Joe Biden. They are instead creating a miasma, an atmosphere, a foggy world in which misdeeds might have taken place, and in which corruption might have happened. They are also providing the raw material from which more elaborate stories can be constructed. The otherwise incomprehensible reference in last night’s debate to “the mayor of Moscow’s wife,” from whom Joe Biden somehow got rich, was an excellent example of how this works. A name surfaces in a large collection of data; it is detached from its context; it is then used to make an insinuation or accusation that cannot be proved; it is then forgotten, unless it gains some traction, in which case it is repeated again.As Americans learned during the 2016 presidential campaign, an email dump is an ideal source for this kind of raw material, not least because email communications are so often informal. When people speak or write to one another privately, they make jokes, they test out ideas, they use language they would not use in public. This does not necessarily make them duplicitous: All of us speak differently depending on whether we are talking to our friends, our families, or a large auditorium filled with strangers. In many languages, these different kinds of conversations require distinct forms of grammar.[James Fallows: The media learned nothing from 2016]But just as the misuse of grammar can make someone sound illiterate, a note meant for one person’s eyes can look jarringly out of place when it appears in, say, a newspaper. The change of context alters not just the weight of what was written, but the meaning. This is what happened in 2016 to the emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee by Russian intelligence and released by WikiLeaks. Those messages contained no actual scandals either—only the miasma of scandal. And that was all that mattered. But her emails was an effective phrase precisely because it was so amorphous. It was an allusion to a whole world of unnamed, unknown, and, as it turned out, fictional horrors.Time and experience have taught many who work in the media to understand all of this better. In 2016, American journalists weren’t yet attuned to the many ways in which masses of irrelevant, hacked material could be used to waste their time. Now they are. That’s why relatively few people, other than Tyrmand (who must have a lot of time on his hands, considering how much of it he has wasted on me), have devoted much effort to the study of Bevan Cooney’s Gmail account or the material supposedly found on the waterlogged laptop. Yet these stories, which have miraculously appeared within a few days of each other, nevertheless have a purpose.To begin with, these revelations are clearly timed to give the president something to talk about, other than the coronavirus, over the last two weeks of an ugly election campaign. By making wild references to the characters who have emerged in emails and texts, Trump hopes to undermine Joe Biden’s most important electoral asset: the impression, shared by even those who don’t like the former vice president, that he is a fundamentally decent person.They will continue to serve a function after the election as well. If Biden wins, Foxworld will need some way to keep its audience focused on something other than the Cabinet he appoints, the new legislation he passes, and all the other events, decisions, and changes that used to constitute “news.” Instead of all that real-life stuff—laws and regulations, statistics and investigations, debates about the economy and health care—the leading figures of the right-wing conspiracy bubble will, over the next months and years, dip into the email caches to keep their followers focused on an alternate reality in which Joe Biden is a secret oligarch, his son is an important figure in the Chinese mafia, and LOL nothing matters. Just as you need to know the backstories of the stars in the DC Comics universe in order to understand the nuances of a Batman movie, six months from now you might also need to know all about Cooney and Archer and the wife of the mayor of Moscow if you want to understand Ingraham’s monologues. The extraordinary and completely unsupported insinuation, made by Wisconsin’s Republican senator, Ron Johnson, that child pornography was found on Hunter Biden’s alleged laptop also looks like an unsubtle attempt to persuade the followers of the QAnon cult to fold this story into their dreamworld as well.[Renée DiResta: The right’s disinformation machine is getting ready for Trump to los]eAs my colleague Franklin Foer has written, the email drops may also be a kind of psy-op, a cruel provocation designed to bully Joe Biden by hitting him in his weakest spot. Having lost a young daughter to a car accident and an adult son, Beau, to brain cancer, the senior Biden is known to be particularly sensitive about Hunter, his only living son. Voters got a glimpse of the pain he feels during the first debate, when Biden responded to Trump’s false declaration that Hunter had been dishonorably discharged from the military: “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,” he said. “He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”In that instance, Biden recovered. Next time, he might not. By bringing up Hunter’s name over and over again, the Trump campaign may hope to make Biden emotional, or make him stumble, just as it hopes to provoke his stutter, or at least a gaffe.By talking about Hunter Biden, the Trump family, especially the Trump children, also hopes to deflect attention from their own greatest weakness, namely the amoral, kleptocratic nepotism that they embody like no family ever before in American history. Their use of this tactic is not remotely subtle. Last summer, Donald Trump Jr. was in Indonesia to promote two Trump-branded properties; Eric Trump has traveled to Uruguay; Donald Trump himself has stayed at his own properties more than 500 times as president, using his presence as a form of advertising. And yet, days after authorities approved plans for a new Trump golf course in Scotland, Eric Trump took to Twitter to declare that “when my father became president we stepped out of all international business.” Only in the fantastical world of Fox can anyone hear that statement and not laugh out loud.Last but not least, this kind of story also serves to provide employment, or at least activity, for rudderless, aimless, angry people such as Tyrmand. In a way, his own family’s evolution matches the evolution of conservatism itself, away from the seriousness of purpose that defined at least part of the movement during the Cold War, and toward the con games and conspiracy theories that entertain its members in the present. Tyrmand’s father, Leopold, was a famous Polish anti-communist writer, the author of a dark and brilliant diary written at the height of the Stalinist years. In the 1960s, he finally went into exile, and spent a couple of grumpy decades in New York, dying when his son was a small child and leaving him and his mother without much money. Matthew Tyrmand’s original ambition was, as he told a Polish journalist, to become “a wealthy Manhattan asshole.”When those ambitions went unfulfilled, Tyrmand drifted to Poland instead, where he sought to become a kind of political Hunter Biden—somehow capitalizing on his father’s name, making some sort of public career despite speaking little Polish. He tried to ingratiate himself with the Polish far-right; he made himself known for vulgar insults; he volunteered to advise the nationalist government, but when this connection became public, the foreign minister quickly broke with him. Eventually, he became the subject of mocking articles with headlines such as “The Charlatan With the Famous Surname.” He drifted back to America, back into the world of political sabotage, dirty tricks, and what was known in the Nixon era as “ratfucking.”This trajectory is not unusual. Laura Ingraham herself has followed the well-trod path by which acolytes of Reaganism become accessories to ratfucking. So has Tyrmand’s colleague Schweizer. He co-edited a book, published in 1988, called Grinning With the Gipper: The Wit, Wisdom, and Wisecracks of Ronald Reagan; later, he wrote a book with former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Now he is focused on Cooney, Archer, and the other characters in the Foxworld universe.[Read: Do you speak Fox?]None of them can win using ideas anymore, because they don’t have any. All they can do is seek attention: gesticulate, wave their arms in the air, shout at the crowd, invent things, and try to attract the fame and attention they feel they deserve, even though they can no longer explain why they deserve it. As the gap widens further between the reality lived by most of the public and the “reality” presented by people such as Ingraham and Tyrmand on Fox News, they will need to generate even more noise and even more activity if they are to keep their audience’s attention. This fantasyland is now the business model of Fox and Breitbart, and it will be with us for a long time, whatever happens on November 3.
1 d
Trump Is Betting His Reelection on Ginning Up an Investigation
Donald Trump is trying to run his favorite play one more time: spreading unverified but salacious accusations, demanding that they be investigated, and then using the fact of the investigation to convince the public that something must be wrong. The biggest unanswered question of this election, with just 11 days to go, is whether he can pull it off one more time.For days, the Trump campaign has hyped a coming scoop from The Wall Street Journal about Hunter Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden. Last night, the story finally arrived. Actually, it was two articles. First, there was a column by the Trump-friendly opinion writer Kimberley Strassel, which was heavy on innuendo, but otherwise caveated into opacity. Later in the evening, the Journal’s news side published a story that was clearer and less juicy.The upshot of the reports, insofar as there is one, is that a disgruntled former business partner of Hunter Biden’s alleges that Biden tried to cut his father, the former vice president, into lucrative deals. The claim seems to rest almost entirely on an email that reads,“10 held by H for the big guy?,” which the business partner says refers to Joe Biden. The Biden campaign says he was never involved, as does another business partner, and thenews article reported, “Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden.” And Fox News reporter Jacqui Heinrich searched the emails, and poured cold-water on the claims.In other words, insofar as it is possible to decode these stories and discard the innuendo, they contain no wrongdoing by Joe Biden, and they suggest that Hunter Biden was unscrupulously trying to profit from his famous last name.[David A. Graham: All Trump cared about was Ukraine announcing an investigation]This presents some problems for the Trump campaign. First, it has been clear all along that Hunter Biden’s personal and business lives are messy and unsavory. What Trump has yet to turn up, though, is any evidence of illegal behavior by Hunter in his business dealings. That’s certainly not for lack of trying. Trump henchmen such as Rudy Giuliani have been searching for years, and so far the only tangible thing they have to show for it is that the president was impeached.Sarah Chayes described Hunter Biden’s behavior in The Atlantic as “perfectly legal, socially acceptable corruption,” and I argued that the House should have called him during impeachment proceedings. Trying to profit off your father’s name and fame is gross, but if it’s a criminal offense, then that’s bad news for Donald Jr., Eric, and Ivanka Trump—to say nothing of the president himself.Trump is stuck flogging a story with no clear legal violations that’s difficult to understand for anyone not already immersed in the conservative-media ecosystem—which means nearly anyone who’s not already a committed Trump voter. This helps explain why on Tuesday, even before the Journal stories had published, Trump was calling on Attorney General William Barr to announce a probe.“We’ve got to get the attorney general to act,” Trump groused to Fox & Friends. “He’s got to act and he’s got to act fast. He’s got to appoint somebody. This is major corruption and this has to be known about before the election.”The call for an investigation reflects a lesson Trump has learned well. Arcane scandals and non-scandals can affect voters, but they have to be laundered out of right-wing media, and then they need some imprimatur that imparts seriousness or coherence. A legal investigation is the easiest way to do this.[Sarah Chayes: Hunter Biden’s perfectly legal, socially acceptable corruption]In the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton was revealed to have been using a personal email server while secretary of state. This was, in fact, the scandal: Clinton was breaking rules about public records. It was both inappropriate and pretty dull. So Trump’s allies tried to intimate some broader scandal about things Clinton was trying to hide. Nothing ever turned up, and the FBI recommended in July 2016 that Clinton not face any charges.But in October, then–FBI Director James Comey turned up a tranche of supposedly new emails. The announcement of a reopened FBI investigation arguably cost Clinton the election—even though, in the end, the FBI found nothing new and closed the investigation again. (The Trump Justice Department investigated Clinton’s emails once more, but also couldn’t find anything to charge her with.) The FBI investigation turned an otherwise dull and bureaucratic scandal into something more potent: If there were nothing here, why would the FBI be investigating?Midway through Trump’s term, as it became apparent that Joe Biden was a likely Democratic nominee, the president began trying to dig up dirt on him. What his attorney Rudy Giuliani came up with was a complicated set of circumstances in Ukraine. Understanding the claims required some knowledge of Ukraine, and it required Giuliani to lie, claiming that Biden had pressured the government of Ukraine to drop an investigation, when in fact he had pressured it to pursue one.[David A. Graham: The House should call Hunter Biden to testify]Faced with this unpromising fact pattern, Trump tried to cut a corner: He would just coerce the Ukrainian president into announcing an investigation into the Bidens. As Ambassador Gordon Sondland testified during the impeachment inquiry, Trump didn’t care about the outcomeof the investigation, and he didn’t even care whether there wasa real investigation. What Trump wanted was for Ukraine to announce an investigation.This was clever, up to a point: It would solve the problem of explaining what was supposedly illegal, and Trump could simply say: Look, Biden is under investigation in Ukraine. The problem was that Ukraine’s president wouldn’t do it, and Trump tried to extort him with federal funds, which is wildly illegal and inappropriate. He ended up getting impeached, and the Biden-Ukraine story was neutered.Nonetheless, Trump is now trying the same trick on Hunter Biden. On the one hand, it is unlikely to work quite so effectively when Trump’s opponent is Joe Biden, who is generally well liked and viewed as decent, versus Hillary Clinton, who was widely disliked and seen as corrupt. On the other hand, Trump has in Barr a far more willing partner than the Ukrainian government. Barr has tended to eagerly enlist in Trump’s schemes to abuse power. The questions over the next 11 days are whether Barr is ready to jump at the president’s behest this time, and whether voters will buy it.
1 d
Real Problems Do Not Exist for Trump
Last night’s presidential debate was originally supposed to be about foreign policy, but after Donald Trump pulled out of the second debate, the moderator changed the agenda, and national security formed only a small piece of it. The consensus among foreign-policy analysts on Twitter is that we learned nothing. But the debate was more revealing than it appeared.Trump has trafficked in fear for decades, trying to frighten Americans about things that hardly exist—modern-day Communists, immigrant caravans from Central America, allies who con America into defending them for free. Now he is being undone because he is telling people that what they are genuinely terrified of is actually fine.The coronavirus has claimed more American lives than World War I, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, and the Afghan War combined. It is the No. 1 national-security threat facing the country right now. Trump said he survived the virus and the country must learn to live with it. If he wins, he basically told us, nothing will change. We will just wait for the vaccine as hundreds of thousands more Americans die. He did not even pretend to be interested in the reforms the country will need so we are better prepared to deal with the next pandemic or the myriad national and international problems—including how to cooperate on public health with a Chinese regime that refuses to be transparent—that will arise after the pandemic.[David Frum: Trump doesn’t care]The pattern repeated itself on the other national-security questions—if a problem does not fall into a very narrow set of issues that Trump has been obsessed with, then it does not merit discussion, let alone action.Just consider the question NBC’s Kirsten Welker asked about how the candidates would respond to election interference from Russia and Iran, a significant enough threat that Trump’s top intelligence and FBI officials held an urgent press conference on Wednesday evening, alerting the American people to covert operations by those countries.Former Vice President Joe Biden answered that any country that interferes in the election, whether to help or hurt his chances, “will pay a price.” “They’re interfering with American sovereignty,” he said. His response was in line with an important but somewhat overlooked statement he made in July, when he sought to deter America’s enemies from meddling in the election. He then accused Trump of not pressing Russian President Vladimir Putin on the matter.Trump started his answer by accusing Biden of getting money from Russia and proceeded to say that the countries interfering wanted him to lose. He said absolutely nothing to warn Russia, Iran, or any other country against intervening. Again, it was as if the problem did not exist.Election interference cannot be stopped by targeted sanctions of the kind imposed after 2016. Stopping interference requires a massive effort to strengthen the resilience of our electoral system and a willingness to put the country’s overall relationship with Russia or any other aggressor at risk if they interfere in an election. Trump refuses to accept either element. He won’t even discuss the Russian threat with his intelligence officials, because he sees the mere mention of it as a political attack on him personally. And besides, he has accepted Putin’s word that he didn’t interfere in 2016.[David A. Graham: Donald Trump’s pattern of deference to the Kremlin is clear]When confronted with the fact that his family-separation policy means that 545 children may be permanently kept from their parents, Trump offered not one word of empathy or regret. He just offered false statements about the circumstances of their arrival in the country and dubious assurances that the conditions of their detention were excellent. Yet again, this problem—a cruel and horrific act—just did not exist for the president.Trump has been talking about foreign-policy issues for 35 years. He has been president for nearly four. We know what makes him tick and what he cares about: He believes the United States is getting ripped off by the rest of the world. He sees allies, trade deficits, and immigrants as the primary national-security threats facing the country. Beyond that, everything is hyper-personal. He likes leaders who are not accountable to parliaments and can deal with him man-to-man (and, yes, he always likes the “strong” men, never the smart women). This process of hyper-personalization will accelerate in a second term. He won’t suddenly develop an interest in tackling pandemics, preventing the erosion of American democracy, or addressing climate change.His problem this election is that fearmongering about imaginary threats works only when the world is a fairly safe and stable place. His strategy falls flat when the world is being torn apart by a pandemic and a recession and all he is doing is pointing at shadows on a wall.
1 d
The Politicization of the State Department Is Almost Complete
I worked at the State Department for nearly four decades, in the later years as a four-time ambassador overseas and as a senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. I have watched as Pompeo and his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, have weaponized the institution for the Trump administration’s domestic political objectives. On October 9, just weeks away from the presidential election, Pompeo announced that he would authorize, apparently at President Donald Trump’s urging, the release of more of Hillary Clinton’s emails. In doing so, Pompeo will have all but completed the politicization of the State Department, arguably bringing it to its lowest point since the 1950s. The damage may be generational.This transformation started with Tillerson, who came in with the goal of “redesigning” the State Department and with what appears to have been a political agenda to weed out anyone who had served in leadership positions during prior presidential administrations.Tillerson used the State Department’s policy-planning staff, which offers the secretary strategic advice, to institute a top-down approach to policy, in effect muzzling the bureaus usually tasked with developing ideas independently. He marginalized senior career professionals, often excluding the officers from meetings of department leaders. And as an inspector general report has since shown, Tillerson’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs harassed “career employees premised on claims that they were ‘disloyal.’”[Read: The hollowing-out of the State Department continues ]As a result, more than 100 out of some 900 senior Foreign Service officers—including the most visible high-ranking Hispanic, African American, South Asian, and female career officers—were fired, pushed out, or chose to leave the State Department during the first year of the Trump administration.During his short tenure, Tillerson also reduced or froze the hiring of new civil and Foreign Service personnel. He eliminated or put on hold crucial jobs typically filled by the family members of embassy employees. The State Department also suffered through a record number of vacancies in senior leadership appointments, and dozens of embassies were left without ambassadors—career or political.I was an ambassador in Brazil under Tillerson. Many of my colleagues, including entry-level officers and those aspiring to become ambassadors, began to openly question whether they would continue to advance.While Tillerson was slashing the State Department into irrelevance, other actors in Washington in the National Security Council and the White House moved onto the foreign-policy stage.The State Department was alternately prostrate and fearful when Trump fired Tillerson in March 2018. When I visited the department that summer to meet with Pompeo, Tillerson’s replacement, about a new position, my colleagues spoke to me in whispers, looking around for who might be listening in corridors, the cafeteria, and even their own offices.Pompeo appeared committed to moving away from Tillerson’s most harmful decisions, and I accepted the position of senior adviser, in which I was expected to give my viewpoints on policy and act as a conduit for the Foreign Service. For the first several months, Pompeo made positive changes. He ended the freezes on family employment and on hiring the next generation of Foreign Service officers. Dozens of career professionals were confirmed for ambassadorships. The functioning of bureaus and the flow of ideas returned closer to the norms of previous administrations. The State Department was back at the policy table. Pompeo said that he would not hold someone’s political leanings against them; he even added Trump critics to special-envoy positions.The situation began to change in the spring of 2019. In hindsight, the first indication of renewed politicization was the mission to develop a “professional ethos” statement—a common understanding of expectations—for the department. On the surface, the purpose was to inspire employees, but appeared to me to reflect a lack of trust in the workforce. I made clear that I did not see the need for the statement and was not included in further stages of its development. Other colleagues provided input—attempting to leaven the message. Political appointees justified the initiative by describing the Foreign Service as lacking a professional work ethic.[Read: What’s driving apolitical diplomats to get political]When the ethos statement was finally completed in April 2019, the department hung a large banner showing the statement at the main entrance of the department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. And Foreign Service officers were careful to display it prominently for all to see that they were with the program. One particularly telling line read: “I show unstinting respect in word and deed for my colleagues.” That might sound unobjectionable, but the emphasis on integrity and solidarity began to seem Orwellian as the president’s impeachment proceedings unfolded, and the department turned its back on its own staff.A second indication of the department’s politicization was the way it handled the investigations into political-harassment allegations under Tillerson. The reports took a long time to emerge, and when they did, they seemed to go easier than expected on the senior political officials in International Organization Affairs accused of hostile work behavior and retaliating against career employees. The IO report did single out the assistant secretary for failing to act on the complaints.I, among others, thought that the assistant secretary should stand down, but that did not happen. In a town-hall meeting, the deputy secretary and the undersecretary for political affairs reportedly sought to explain away the decision to keep him on, only to worsen morale at home and overseas. The effect of this episode was clear to me: Pompeo was more concerned with protecting political appointees who had harmed their State Department colleagues than he was with supporting the career civil and Foreign Service.The defining moment in the renewed politicization of the department was the Ukraine scandal, in which the president withheld aid to Ukraine effectively to coerce the country’s president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.The deputy secretary and the undersecretary for political affairs discouraged and shut down any discussion inside the building of the unfolding scandal. As I detailed in my deposition to Congress, the secretary and other senior State officials sidestepped my efforts to elicit statements of support for colleagues, including Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who were drawn into the congressional investigation and vilified by the White House.As the impeachment hearings and trial extended, I could draw only one conclusion. State Department leadership, for a sustained period, supported the administration’s efforts to misuse career professionals in Washington and abroad to pursue a U.S. electoral advantage.I could no longer continue to serve in the department that had failed my colleagues. Before leaving the building on October 11, 2019, a senior official told me that my decision to resign demonstrated that career State Department professionals could not be trusted to support the president’s agenda.[William J. Burns: The damage at the State Department is worse than you can imagine]The track record since my departure shows that suspicious mindset. No career official has been nominated to fill an assistant-secretary position. Political ambassadorial nominations are at an all-time high; more than 40 percent have gone to political appointees, as compared with a historical average of 30 percent. The political attendees at Pompeo’s “Madison Dinners,” and the audiences he meets with in his domestic travel, demonstrate the blurring of professional and political lines. In May, Trump fired Steve Linick, the State Department’s inspector general, who was looking into Pompeo’s activities, underscoring how the legal adviser and IG offices are being drawn into political partisanship.The State Department is also regressing in other ways. At a time of national focus on race and gender inequalities, the departing senior female officials, including the former under secretary for arms control and international security affairs and the former legal adviser, have been replaced by men. No Black Americans fill any undersecretary or assistant-secretary positions, and no one is fully tackling the issue of racism in the department. Reporters covering the State Department have met threatening behavior, including shouting matches and exclusion from foreign travel with the secretary. In the United States Agency for International Development, which operates under the guidance of the secretary, career voices are sidelined. Voice of America’s new political leadership, which reports to Pompeo, is engaged in what appears to be a purge of journalists and managers.In an interview last week, Pompeo stated very plainly his philosophy on managing a loyal State Department: “There’s always people inside of every organization that aren’t fully on board, on the team’s mission. When we identify them, we move them out of the way. We get them to a different place, and we try to find people only who are committed to doing America’s mission, President Trump’s mission, on behalf of the United States.”Against this dysfunctional backdrop, Pompeo now threatens to release the Clinton emails, clearly intending to help the president’s reelection campaign. The department’s workforce continues to provide services to our citizens overseas and to support foreign policy in these difficult times. But the State Department is now almost a politicized institution.The transformation is not irreversible. Career civil servants have raised the alarm about the deep damage that the Trump administration has inflicted on U.S. institutions, including the State Department. The American people will soon make a decision about whether they want to continue down this path. Come Election Day, voters will not be able to say that they did not know.
1 d
The Books Briefing: How Horror Stories Empower Kids
When he was just 4 years old, the author and illustrator Maurice Sendak caught a glance of a horrifying photo depicting the remains of Charles Lindbergh’s murdered son. A mutated version of the image reappeared decades later in Sendak’s chilling children’s bookOutside Over There, in which goblins replace a baby with a changeling made of ice.From gruesome fairy tales to macabre Victorian fantasy, adults have been terrifying children for generations. R. L. Stine’s blockbuster series Fear Street raises hairs with harrowing plotlines: a haunted garbage disposal mangles a teen’s fingers; a needle hidden in a lipstick tube slices another character’s lips. Outlaws of Time, a tale by the author N. D. Wilson about a boy who has live rattlesnakes grafted onto his arms, petrifies the kids who read it.Those writing horror for particularlyyoungaudiences, such as the actress Evangeline Lilly, mix lighthearted elements into their books to make them palatable to children. But many of the most successful writers in the genre, like Sendak, don’t hold back: Outside Over There was criticized for exposing children to more disturbing themes than they were prepared for, and one of Sendak’s most beloved works, Where the Wild Things Are, depicts the brutal realities of growing up. With grisly honesty, Sendak homed in on an important truth about horror—scary stories empower children to face the terror that lurks in the real world.Although Stephen King didn’t write specifically for young readers, the same ethos propels his work and explains his devoted teenage audience. King novels turn unsettling truths about the darkness of human nature into literal monsters, then let adolescent protagonists defeat them, granting teens a power that they may not find in other aspects of their lives. ​Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email. What We’re Reading(Associated Press)Maurice Sendak scared children because he loved them“His lush visual idiom managed to evoke the strange—and sometimes malign—intensity of real childhood, as fey, unruly protagonists sparred with adversaries (fanged monsters and imperfect parents). All his work demonstrates a strong desire, and uncanny ability, to capture the eerie vividness of youth and its crucibles.”
1 d
De-stress With an Election-Anxiety Playlist
For political junkies, elections are always nerve-racking. But this year, suspense over the November verdict has been worsened by a pandemic, a demagogue, and a decent possibility that Election Night will extend into a slog of ballot counting, lawsuits, and insurrection threats. At least music can reflect—and momentarily soothe—the stress. Here’s a playlist that rummages through pop history to approximate what the next couple of weeks might feel like. Over the course of 12 songs, you can practice moving from panic to impatience to excitement to more impatience to (please, please, please) serenity. (Listen to the playlist here.)1. Shamir, “Paranoia”Shamir by ShamirTo start, let’s slurp down some medication and scream in agony. Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” or Green Day’s “Brain Stew” could have gone here instead, but there’s something very now about the young singer Shamir’s version of the punk-rock freak-out. There’s also something oddly comforting about the playful oh-well quaver of his voice.2. Madonna, “Hung Up”Time goes by … so slowly. But Madonna knows there can be a dark thrill in watching the clock while amped on anger and dread. Pause your podcasts and dance to the spooky mash-up of ABBA and wristwatches.3. Nu Shooz, “I Can’t Wait”Like most songs about waiting and impatience, this 1980s R&B oddity is about romantic tension, not the possibility of court packing. All the same, the arrangement suits this season of fidgeting. Just think of the song’s “baby” as the electorate, whom we’re all begging, “Tell me what is on your mind!”4. Clint Black, “Killin’ Time”Dull dread sets in. No matter how much Emily in Paris you binge, it won’t subside. Nothing like a country baritone to remind you that whiskey can delete hours from the day.5. A Tribe Called Quest, “Melatonin” Released days after the 2016 election, Tribe’s excellent final album, We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service, bottled our era’s world-weariness as well as any artwork has. “Population getting tired now,” Q-Tip says in a sad, dexterous flow on “Melatonin.” He’s not talking about the kind of exhaustion that easily gives way to rest.6. Stevie Wonder, “Superstition”They say that the number of presidential masks sold for the Halloween before an election indicates the ultimate winner. They also say that you can’t trust the polls. It’s only logical to groove with Stevie—while keeping your fingers crossed—in the campaign’s final days.7. LCD Soundsystem, “Us V Them”“The time has come, the time has come, the time has come today!” So bellows James Murphy as his disco band twitches toward a climactic conflict. Do us and them refer to red versus blue states, or voters versus the irritating pundits on TV?8. Radiohead, “How to Disappear Completely”If conditions in Florida start evoking Bush v. Gore or Pennsylvania gets stuck looking purple, the ensuing suspense will become dangerous to personal health and national peace. Thank goodness for Thom Yorke’s gorgeous guide to psychological dissociation.9. Nina Simone, “New World Coming”An epiphany: Whatever happens, the reality of the past four years will be replaced by some new paradigm. Nina Simone’s take on a Mama Cass classic greets a potential apocalypse with visions of renewal.10. Lenny Kravitz, “It Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over”Lenny Kravitz’s dance-floor lullaby will be of use whether the election results are decisive or not, and whether your guy wins or not. The greater struggle over the American soul will continue. Best to soldier on with love and leather pants.11. The 1975, “Love It If We Made It”Party or protest with the grab-bag political anthem of our era, whose hopefulness is appropriately hedged. “Modernity has failed us,” Matthew Healy yelps while new-wave confetti cannons spray, “and I’d love it if we made it.”12. Mariah Carey, “GTFO”One way or another, resolution will eventually arrive. Ideally, Americans will make like Mariah and stay calm, even if they utter an obscenity as they wave the losing candidate buh-bai.
2 d
Bruce Springsteen and the Art of Aging Well
I recently saw a photo of Lyndon B. Johnson in the first year of his presidency. He looked like a classic old guy—wrinkled, mature, in the late season of life. It was a shock to learn that he was only 55 at the time, roughly the same age as Chris Rock is now. He left the presidency, broken, and beaten, at 60, the same age as, say, Colin Firth is now.Something has happened to aging. Whether because of better diet or health care or something else, a 73-year-old in 2020 looks like a 53-year-old in 1935. The speaker of the House is 80 and going strong. The presidential candidates are 77 and 74. Even our rock stars are getting up there. Bob Dylan produced a remarkable album this year at 79. Bruce Springsteen released an album today at 71. “Active aging” is now a decades-long phase of life. As the nation becomes a gerontocracy, it’s worth pondering: What do people gain when they age, and what do they lose? What does successful aging look like?President Donald Trump is a prime example of an unsuccessful older person—one who still lusts for external validation, who doesn’t know who he is, who knows no peace. Nearly two millennia ago, the Roman statesman Cicero offered a more robust vision of what elders should do and be: “It’s not by strength or speed or swiftness of body that great deeds are done,” he wrote, “but by wisdom, character and sober judgment. These qualities are not lacking in old age but in fact grow as time passes.”[David Brooks: Bruce Springsteen’s playlist for the Trump era]Springsteen is the world champion of aging well—physically, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. His new album and film, Letter to You, are performances about growing older and death, topics that would have seemed unlikely for rock when it was born as a rebellion for anyone over 30. Letter to You is rich in lessons for those who want to know what successful aging looks like. Far from being sad or lachrymose, it’s both youthful—loud and hard-charging—and serene and wise. It’s a step forward from his Broadway show that debuted three years ago and his memoir, released four years ago. Now he’s not only telling the story of his life, but asking, in the face of death, about life’s meaning, and savoring life in the current moment.It’s the happiest Springsteen album maybe in decades. “When I listen to it, there’s more joy than dread,” Springsteen told me. “Dread is an emotion that all of us have become very familiar with. The record is a little bit of an antidote to that.” The album generates the feeling you get when you meet a certain sort of older person—one who knows the story of her life, who sees herself whole, and who now approaches the world with an earned emotional security and gratitude.The album, and the film that recorded the making of the album (I recommend watching the film first), was occasioned by a death. From 1965 to 1968, when rock was in its moment of explosive growth and creativity, Springsteen was in a band called the Castiles. Two years ago, Springsteen found himself at the bedside of a member of that band, George Theiss, as he died of cancer. After his passing, Springsteen realized that he is the sole remaining survivor from that band—the “Last Man Standing,” as he puts it in one of the songs on the new album.The experience created an emotional vortex and the music poured out of him. “The actual mechanics of songwriting is only understandable up to a certain point,” Springsteen told me, “and it’s frustrating because it’s at that point that it begins to matter. Creativity is an act of magic rising up from your subconscious. It feels wonderful every time it happens, and I’ve learned to live with the anxiety of it not happening over long periods of time.”On the album, Springsteen goes back in time to those mid-’60s years when he, Theiss, and the Castiles would play in the union halls, hullabaloo clubs, and bowling alleys around Freehold, New Jersey. He goes further back, to his childhood, and reminisces about the trains that used to rumble through town; the pennies he’d put on the tracks; and when he first became familiar with death as a boy, going to the funerals of his extended clan, walking up semi-terrified and kneeling before the casket and then walking back home with a sense of trembling accomplishment.“Memory is many things,” the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister has written. “It is a call to resolve in us what simply will not go away.” Springsteen has made a career, and built a global fan base, out of going back and back, to Freehold and Asbury Park, and digging, digging, digging to understand the people he grew up around and who made him, for good and ill, the man he became. “The artists who hold our attention,” he told me, “have something eating away at them, and they never quite define it, but it’s always there.”Even in his 70s, Springsteen still has drive. What drives him no longer feels like ambition, he said, that craving for success, recognition, and making your place in the world. It feels more elemental, like the drive for water, food, or sex. He talks about this in the movie: “After all this time, I still feel the burning need to communicate. It’s there when I wake every morning. It walks alongside of me throughout the day … Over the past 50 years, it has never ceased. Is it loneliness, hunger, ego, ambition, desire, a need to be felt and heard, recognized, all of the above? All I know, it is one of the most consistent impulses of my life.”[David Brooks: How music made Bruce Springsteen]With the Castiles, he not only learned how to do his job but also found his mode of emotional communication and a spiritual awareness. He found his vocation, and his vehicle for becoming himself. A lot of the music on this album is about music, the making of it and the listening to it, the power that it has. The songs “House of A Thousand Guitars” and “Power of Prayer” are about those moments when music launches you out of normal life and toward transcendence. For a nonreligious guy, Springsteen is the most religious guy on the planet; his religion is musical deliverance.Like every successful mature person, Springsteen oozes gratitude—especially for relationships. The film is largely about the camaraderie of the E Street Band, men and women who have been playing together off and on for 45 years and who have honed their skills and developed a shorthand for communicating. We watch them discussing and arguing over how to put each song together, then savor the end result. The band sounds fantastic, especially the powerful drumming of Max Weinberg.The film intersperses clips of Springsteen recording and performing with the same guys four decades ago, when they were young and lithe, and today, when they’re a bit grizzled. “We weren’t immune from the vicissitudes. We had the same ups and downs as most rock bands,” Springsteen told me. “It’s like a marriage. The ups and downs have deepened us. The band is as close now as it’s ever been. We had to suffer.”Letter to You is a sincere and vulnerable album. It conveys Springsteen’s appreciation for the conversation he’s had with his audience, and his appreciation for the dead and the debts we owe them. The core of the album comprises three songs about how the dead live on in us and in the ensuing generations. “It’s just your ghost / Moving through the night / Your spirit filled with light / I need, need you by my side / Your love and I’m alive,” Springsteen sings in “Ghosts,” the best track on the album.“When you’re young, you believe the world changes faster than it does. It does change, but it’s slow,” Springsteen told me. “You learn to accept the world on its terms without giving up the belief that you can change the world. That’s a successful adulthood—the maturation of your thought process and very soul to the point where you understand the limits of life, without giving up on its possibilities.”Attaining that perspective is the core of successful maturity. Carrying the losses gently. Learning to live with the inner conflicts, such as alternating confidence and insecurity. Getting out of your own way, savoring life and not trying to conquer it, shedding the self-righteousness that sometimes accompanies youth, and giving other people a break. The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk, as they used to say.That perspective is evident in the movie’s “bright sadness,” to use a term from the Franciscan monk Richard Rohr. Directed by Thom Zimny, the film cuts again and again to overhead shots of snow-covered forests—Old Man Winter coming. But inside the studio, everything is warm and full of music. The dreams of Springsteen and his band came true times a thousand; they have good reason to be content in old age. But studies show that most people do get happier as they age. They focus more on life’s pleasures than its threats.[Arthur Brooks: What to do when the future feels hopeless]As you watch the film, you may think of not only personal maturity but also national maturity. America has always fancied itself as wild and innocent; youth, Oscar Wilde observed, is the country’s oldest tradition. After the past 20 years, and especially after the presidency of Donald Trump, we’ve become jaded, and look askance at our former presumption of innocence. But, taking a cue from Springsteen, maybe we can achieve a more mature national perspective in the years post-Trump.“Joe Biden is like one of the fathers in the neighborhood I grew up with as a kid,” Springsteen told me. “They were firemen and policemen, and there was an innate decency to most of them that he carries naturally with him. It’s very American.”Approaching 80, Biden is pretty old. Seventy-seven is probably not the ideal age to start such a grueling job as president of the United States. But making the most of the not-ideal is what maturity teaches. The urge to give something to future generations rises up in people over 65, and a style of leadership informed by that urge may be exactly what American needs right now. Today, being 77 doesn’t have to be a time of wrapping things up; it’s just the moment you’re in, still moving to something better. Maybe this can be America—not in decline, but moving with maturity to a new strength.
2 d
Trump’s Really Bad Bet on Older Voters
The coming generational backlash against Donald Trump may represent only the first tremor in a much larger earthquake threatening the GOP through the 2020s.Trump is eroding the Republican Party’s position with younger voters at precisely the same time as the massively diverse Millennials and Generation Z are poised to become the largest voting bloc in the electorate, as new research released this week shows.That prospect presents both a near- and long-term danger for the GOP. The immediate problem is that polls nationally and in key swing states show Joe Biden positioned to significantly expand on Hillary Clinton’s margin among younger voters, even as many more of them are signaling they intend to vote than did in 2016.“There’s a consistent picture coming together that says we’re going to have the highest youth turnout since 2008, and maybe since 1992,” Ben Wessel, the executive director of NextGen America, a group working to mobilize younger voters for Democrats, told me. “And they are rebuking Trump and the Republicans in a way we haven’t seen since the 2008 presidential” race.If anything, the longer-term trends may be more ominous. The electorate is beginning its most profound generational transition since the early 1980s, when Baby Boomers became the largest voting bloc, dislodging the Greatest Generation of Americans, who came of age during the Depression and World War II.In 2020, for the first time, Millennials and Gen Z (which comprise young adults born in 1981 or later) will equal Baby Boomers and prior generations (older adults born in 1964 or earlier) as a share of all Americans eligible to vote, according to a new study from the nonpartisan States of Change project. Because older voters typically turn out at higher rates than younger ones, the study forecasts that those earlier generations will still cast more ballots next month, by a margin of 43 percent to 32 percent. But in 2024, the two younger generations are expected to equal the older ones as a share of actual voters on Election Day. And by 2028, Millennials and Gen Z will dwarf the older generations as a share of both eligible and actual voters. That will be true not only nationally, but in all the crucial battleground states, according to previously unreleased projections provided to me by States of Change.Given that the younger generations align much more closely with Democratic ideological views on almost all policy questions, this shift underscores the stakes in the generational roulette Trump has played by defining the GOP so narrowly around the priorities and preferences of his core groups: older, nonurban, non-college-educated, and evangelical white people. If Democrats can not only express the values of younger Americans, but also advance their material interests, they will have a substantial advantage in building electoral majorities through the decade ahead, says Ruy Teixeira, a veteran Democratic election analyst and co-founder of the States of Change project, which is a joint research collaboration between three liberal-leaning groups and the centrist Bipartisan Policy Center.[Read: What the rush to confirm Amy Coney Barrett is really about]“The key issue is: What do they do in terms of political economy? What do they do in terms of enabling Millennials and Gen Z to make their way in life [on] the overall bread-and-butter stuff of housing, health care, economic mobility?” he told me. “You can lock these people in. This is literally the future of American politics.”The hinge group in this approaching confrontation between what I’ve called “the brown and the gray”—the diverse Americans born after 1981 and the mostly white ones born before 1964—is Generation X, born in the middle. States of Change forecasts that Gen X will comprise about one-fourth of voters in the coming years, with its numbers slightly shrinking over time. It represents a kind of midpoint between the larger generations that bracket it: More racially diverse than the older, but less than the younger, it broke narrowly for Clinton in 2016; in current public polling, it appears ready to give Biden at least a somewhat larger advantage this year.Most of the generational discussion in the 2020 election has focused on Biden’s potential to run better among seniors than any other Democratic presidential nominee since Al Gore in 2000. And that indeed has enormous implications for his ability to claw back votes in Trump states with large older populations, particularly Florida, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.But many analysts believe that the Democratic resurgence among preponderantly white seniors is a temporary phenomenon rooted in voters’ comfort with the 77-year-old Biden and their discontent over Trump’s chaotic handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The shift among younger generations could have a much more enduring impact on the country.Before Millennials entered the electorate in large numbers in the 2004 election, adults younger than 30 had generally tracked voting preferences of the country overall, without providing any particular advantage to Democrats; Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George H. W. Bush in 1988, for instance, won them comfortably, according to exit polls.But in the years since, the Democratic advantage among younger adults has swelled. In 2004, John Kerry won 54 percent of them. Barack Obama won 66 percent of them, compared with John McCain’s 32 percent in 2008, before topping Mitt Romney in 2012 by a narrower margin: 60 percent to 37 percent. In 2016, Trump didn’t improve on Romney’s performance—he won only 36 percent of adults younger than 30—but Clinton substantially retreated from Obama’s. She carried only 55 percent of younger adults, with about one in 11 opting for third-party candidates. Clinton posted big advantages among nonwhite younger adults, but Trump narrowly carried white Millennials, boosted by a surge among those without a college degree, the same group whose older members flocked to him most enthusiastically in the election.[Read: The rage unifying Boomers and Gen Z]Biden’s appeal to young people has been lackluster from the start. Among that cohort, Bernie Sanders routed him during the Democratic primary, and polls consistently show that his favorability ratings remain subpar: The annual American Values Survey, released earlier this week by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, found that Biden’s rating was net negative among young adults ages 18 to 29 and only even among those ages 30 to 49. (The oldest Millennials are now 39.) Democratic strategists express particular concern that both turnout and the party’s margins may slip next month among younger Black and Latino men, some of whom are drawn to Trump and others disillusioned that either party can produce positive change in their lives.But despite all that, Democrats are optimistic that Biden can rebuild his vote share with younger adults—at least up to Obama’s 60 percent showing in 2012, and maybe even his towering 66 percent in 2008. Public polls—such as recent Marist Institute, Harvard University Institute of Politics, and Pew Research Center national surveys—generally show Biden at about 60 percent. But Wessel said that, given antipathy toward Trump, the higher number is within Biden’s reach. He notes that two-thirds of younger adults supported Democrats in House races during the 2018 midterms. “We see even people who self-identify as young Republicans disagree with Trump on almost every issue,” Wessel told me. “The number of votes that Joe Biden will net from young people more than Hillary Clinton did—it could be five million votes across the country.”Terrance Woodbury, a Millennial Democratic consultant, recently told me that the attitudes expressed by younger generations on most policy issues mean Democrats should aspire to win three-fourths of their vote. One reason for that ambitious goal: Gen Z, like a youthful cavalry, will start entering the electorate in large numbers this year, and will reinforce the change that Millennials began. These young Americans, born from 1997 to 2012, are even more racially diverse than Millennials. Forty-nine percent of Gen Z are people of color, versus 45 percent of Millennials, according to a recent analysis of census data by the Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, another principal in the States of Change project. By contrast, more than 70 percent of Baby Boomers are white. (The younger, still-unnamed generation of Americans born beginning in 2013 is even more racially diverse—51 percent of them are nonwhite—but they won’t begin entering the electorate until 2031.)States of Change anticipates that Millennials will actually plateau at about one-fourth of both eligible and actual voters between now and 2036. The biggest change to the electorate will be the explosive growth of Gen Z, which will increase from a projected 8 percent of actual voters this year to 29 percent in 2036. That year, the two generations combined will comprise a clear 55 percent majority of all voters. As soon as 2028, States of Change expects them to outvote the Boomers and even older generations by a double-digit margin.Strikingly, this transition will be as powerful in the older, mostly white states of the Rust Belt as it will be in the younger, more diverse, and rapidly growing Sun Belt states. According to the previously unpublished States of Change projections, by 2028, the giant younger generations will comprise at least 40 percent of actual voters not only in Colorado, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona, but also in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Ohio, and Iowa.That’s a worrisome trend for Republicans. In another study by Pew, analysts concluded that “similar to Millennials, Gen Zers are progressive and pro-government, most see the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity as a good thing, and they’re less likely than older generations to see the United States as superior to other nations.” All of that clangs against the agenda Trump has stamped on the GOP, of open resistance to racial and cultural change.But while this generational transition presents obvious opportunities for Democrats, it also creates complications. Because Democrats are winning most young people, the disruption will rumble through their party first: States of Change projects that Millennials and Gen Z will provide nearly half of all Democratic votes by as soon as 2028.[Read: I found a Clinton-Trump voter]That could be a formula for tension between younger generations sympathetic to vanguard progressive proposals and politicians and a party leadership that remain much more centrist, and for that matter, much older. “I think it’s inexorable that’s where the voters are moving; it’s up to the party leaders to decide if that’s where the Democratic Party is going to follow,” Wessel told me. “It doesn’t have to be a fight. It can be collective power-building, or it can be intransigence. It’s very clear to me where the Democratic base is going.”That choice might not be as straightforward as Wessel and other young progressive activists hope. Even as Democrats benefit from the entry into the electorate of more left-leaning young people, the party is simultaneously increasing its vote among college-educated suburbanites, many of them middle-aged or older. Although those voters are also socially liberal—and repelled by Trump—they could provide a counterweight to younger progressives, because they are generally more cautious about expanding government’s role in the economy.Still, the generational challenge facing Republicans seems much more acute. The American Values Survey showed that big majorities of adults ages 18 to 49 expressed views antithetical to the dominant GOP positions on racial equity, immigration, economic inequality, abortion, building a border wall, and the value of a society that is both racially and religiously diverse.In all these ways, Trump’s belligerent politics has created an opportunity for Democrats to cement a lasting generational advantage not seen perhaps since Franklin Roosevelt built his sturdy New Deal coalition during the Depression. But the American Values Survey also contains a clear warning: Fully three-fifths of adults younger than 30 and half of those ages 30 to 49 describe their financial situation as precarious. As Teixeira noted to me, identifying with the cultural values of younger Americans will only take Democrats so far if they can’t also advance their economic interests.If Democrats win the White House in November and can put Millennials and Gen Z on a better financial trajectory, “they will have an incredible opportunity” to solidify a durable majority electoral coalition, Teixeira said. “But if you [mess] it up, you open so many doors for the Republicans to come back and loosen your hold on these generations.”
2 d
Photos of the Week: Watery Labyrinth, Giza Necropolis, Wuhan Opera
Movie-making in Italy, a drive-in viewing of the World Series in Los Angeles, a church set ablaze in Chile, wildfires in Colorado, grandmotherly Tai Chi in China, rugby matches in Australia, balloon crop-spraying in China, rescued huskies in Russia, and much more.
2 d
Biden Seizes Trump’s Populist Mantle
“What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people,” President Donald Trump said during his inaugural address. “January 20, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”But in the final debate of his first term, Trump forgot them.The second and last debate of this cycle was less of a catastrophe than the first, and while Trump was more in command of his emotions, it was probably Democrat Joe Biden’s strongest of the election cycle. Trump repeatedly tried to bait Biden with attacks on his family, but Biden kept his cool, and instead channeled his anger into stinging critiques of Trump for forgetting ordinary Americans.Often turning to speak directly to the camera, Biden portrayed himself as the real populist on stage. Trump, accused of forgetting the people who put him in office, offered little in response except returning to attacking Biden’s family.The first moment came early on, during a section of the debate ostensibly about the coronavirus pandemic, when Trump brought up (and largely failed to clarify) a byzantine set of allegations against Biden’s son Hunter. Biden denied the claims, but didn’t linger, and instead told the audience on TV that the president was trying to change the subject.“It's not about his family and my family. It's about your family, and your family's hurting badly,” he said. “If you're a middle-class family, you're getting hurt badly right now. You're sitting at the kitchen table this morning deciding, well, we can't get new tires, they're bald, because we have to wait another month or so. Or are we going to be able to pay the mortgage? Who's going to tell her she can't go back to community college? They're the decisions you're making.”This was boilerplate Biden—he even mentioned Scranton—but it was just the start. Later in the debate, Biden criticized Trump for not passing economic-stimulus measures. Moderator Kristen Welker (who far more ably corralled the candidates than Chris Wallace had managed to do in the previous debate) asked why Biden hadn’t pressured Democrats to push a deal. The former vice president pointed out that the House passed a large bill in May, but the GOP-led Senate has not taken it up.“I have, and they have pushed it. They passed that back, all the way back at the beginning of the summer. This is not new. It's been out there,” Biden said. Republicans “have not done a thing for them. And Mitch McConnell said let them go bankrupt. Let them go bankrupt. Come on. What's the matter with this guy?”A moment later, Trump dismissed the idea of raising the minimum wage to $15, an increase that Biden, and two-thirds of Americans, support. Again, Biden pounced.“No, no one should work two jobs, one job, and be below poverty,” he said. “People are making, $6, $7, $8 an hour—these first responders we all clap for as they come down the street, because they’ve allowed us to make it. What's happening? They deserve a minimum wage of $15. Anything below that puts you below the poverty level.”Trump wasn’t out of the woods. The next question was on the administration’s policy of separating families of migrants intercepted at the border. While a judge ordered the families reunited, the government said in a court filing this week that it cannot find the parents of 545 children. Trump cycled through a few answers, (justifiably) assailing the Obama administration’s immigration policy while (falsely) claiming the children were brought by smugglers. Biden, in his response, seemed genuinely furious.“Coyotes didn't bring them over,” Biden said. “Their parents were with them. They got separated from their parents. And it makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”Trump again tried to turn the conversation back to Obama’s handling of migrant children, but unlike in the first debate, Biden wasn’t rattled.“Let's talk about what we're talking about,” Biden replied. “What happened? Parents were—their kids were ripped from their arms and separated, and now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It's criminal. It's criminal.”Trump mocked Biden’s remarks as so much shtick, arguing that Biden was a career politician with little to show for his record.“That's a typical political statement. Let's get off this China thing and then he looks, the family, around the table, everything,” Trump scoffed. “That's why I got elected. Let's get off the subject of China, let's talk around sitting around the table. Come on, Joe, you can do better.”Of course, Trump is right: This is what any normal politician would say. But that argument is no longer the obvious asset for Trump that it was four years ago. First, Trump is no longer running against Hillary Clinton. For reasons ranging from her speeches to big banks to misogyny, many voters viewed Clinton’s expressions of concern for the common man as phony. Biden’s record of delivering on his rhetoric may be mixed, but there’s little point in denying his affection for, and connection with, blue-collar Americans.Second, Trump now has a record to run on, and it’s not good. Four years ago, he could credibly claim to a political outsider, and no one knew quite what a Trump administration would look like. Now it is all too clear. Before the pandemic, the president could at least point to a strong economy, and on Thursday he pleaded for credit for the way things were (“I take full responsibility. It's not my fault that it came here,” Trump said, confusingly) and bragged about the stock market. But he had little to say to ordinary Americans, who are hurting economically.Third, even if it sometimes come across as banal, people thirst for this kind of empathy—that’s why most politicians do it, and it’s consistently one of the things that voters name as a Biden asset. Trump has never been much for personal warmth, but he once used his anger to show he cared for people and would protect them, claiming he was the tribune of Americans who had been left behind. Now he mostly seems angry about the way he is treated.Biden’s attacks rang true Thursday because the hollowness of his past populist claims is now manifest. The president once claimed he has “one of the great memories of all time,” but on the debate stage, it failed him—and Biden remembered.
2 d
Trump Doesn’t Care
You’re losing. You’re losing bad. You’re out of money. Your ads are coming off the air in must-win states. Here it is, the last chance to speak to a big national audience—and for free, really the last opportunity to win back voters who have drifted away from you.Another politician might have tried to speak to those voters’ deepest fears and concerns, to reestablish an emotional connection, to arrive with consolation for present troubles and credible plans for future improvement. But that is not Donald Trump’s way. Even when invited by the moderator, Kristen Welker, to speak directly to racial-minority families, President Trump could talk only about himself—boast that he had done more for African Americans than all previous presidents except maybe Abraham Lincoln, maybe. He could never, ever manage even the appearance of care and concern for anybody else. Trump erupted in sneering sarcasm when Joe Biden summoned the image of middle-class families at the kitchen table. The very idea of it irked Trump.Trump behaved better at this second debate than at the first. The mute button was his good friend, and so was the pad of paper on which for the first 10 to 12 minutes he pretended to take notes whenever it was Biden’s turn to speak. The rules of debate two curbed him, restrained the spectacular bad behavior of debate one.But Trump still arrived with only one plan: Attack and attack. Some of the attacks were wholly phony: Biden as the beneficiary of Chinese cash. Some of the attacks had a basis in reality: Incarceration of under-age border-crossers did begin under Barack Obama and Biden, not Trump. But none of them did what Trump so desperately needed to do: reach voters who suspect he doesn’t care about them at all. These have been difficult months. I feel it. I understand. He could not say it; he could not do it. He could only offer a false promise of vaccines before the end of the year, a promise he hastily retracted under pressure from the moderator for more specifics.Trump does not do empathy. Even Trump supporters know that by now. Some of them may appreciate it. They prefer anger. But those supporters might consider: Trump showed on that stage why he has so often failed at the job of being president. He rejected reality (that he’s losing because of COVID-19) in favor of a fantasy (that he’d win if only he could tell more people about these latest allegations from Rudy Giuliani). He refused to care about what voters care about—and instead insisted that voters care about what he cares about.“You talk too damn much and too damn much of it is about you.” That’s how the detective Philip Marlowe bids farewell to a narcissistic criminal in Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye. If America dismisses Trump in November, he may hear the same send-off.
2 d