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The Atlantic Daily: The Battle to Contain the Pandemic Enters a New Phase
President Joe Biden signed a batch of executive orders aimed at curbing the outbreak.
2 h
Finally, an Encouraging Week in the Pandemic
Editor’s Note: The Atlantic is making vital coverage of the coronavirus available to all readers. Find the collection here. In last week’s update, we wrote that the United States had reported the worst weekly case, hospitalization, and death numbers of the pandemic. At the time, it wasn’t clear what proportion of the case and death increases were related to postholiday reporting backlogs. This week brings some clarity: The backlogs appear to be largely behind us, and the underlying trends are moving in the right direction for most of the country. Even for the states experiencing the worst outbreaks, we are seeing early indications that the rates of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are easing, though some areas are still reporting dangerously high case and hospitalization levels and wrenching death rates.Weekly new cases for the seven-day period beginning Thursday, January 14 were down 20 percent, the lowest number of new cases we’ve seen for a non-holiday week since mid-November. As important, after 16 straight weeks of increases, average weekly hospitalizations dropped 4 percent this week—a modest improvement, but a good sign. Reported tests reached a new weekly high, edging out last week by 1 percent—though the high test numbers this week probably reflect the fact that the testing backlog is still catching up.States reported 21,301 deaths this week, the second-highest number of deaths of the pandemic to date. Yesterday, states reported 4,409 COVID-19 deaths, the highest single-day number of deaths on record. For comparison, in the week of September 24, 2020, states reported fewer than 5,000 deaths for the entire week.Because of the way states report data for nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and other long-term-care facilities, our figures for COVID-19 in these facilities refer to the week beginning January 8. These numbers remain very alarming: For the second week in a row, LTC facilities reported the highest death toll since we started gathering long-term-care data last May—more than 7,000 residents and staff. The number of known deaths reported this week may include backlogged figures from the winter holidays, and they also got a boost from a change in Iowa’s death reporting that increased that state’s reported figure.There is also tentative good news from long-term-care facilities: The number of new cases was down by about 15,000 this week. It remains unclear whether case data have fully normalized from the reporting delays associated with the holidays, but next week’s data should confirm whether this case drop indicates a real improvement in the situation in long-term-care facilities.Regional hospitalization and case dataA closer look at current COVID-19 hospitalizations offers good news for most U.S. regions. Hospitalizations remain very high but are declining modestly across the South and the West and continuing their substantial declines in the Midwest. In the Northeast, hospitalizations have plateaued.At the state level, hospitalization data remain encouraging: Hospitalizations are declining or flat in every state but New York.Cases, too, are falling in every region. In the Midwest’s “West North Central” division—which includes many of the states that had the worst per capita outbreaks late last fall—cases have very nearly returned to the levels reported at the beginning of October 2020.A breakdown of weekly reported COVID-19 deaths by census regions and subregional divisions shows that although deaths are falling modestly across the country, they remain painfully high in most regions.States we’re watchingCase and hospitalization declines are unquestionable good news. At the same time, in the country’s worst hot spots, states are still reporting very high numbers.Arizona’s case count has fallen from last week, but per capita, the state’s case numbers remain the highest in the country at a seven-day average of 958 per million. The state is now nearly tied with South Carolina, where cases are rising rapidly. In Yuma County, Arizona, home to many of the state’s seasonal laborers, the Associated Press reports that the county has a positivity rate of 20 percent, compared with 14 percent for the state as a whole, and county public-health authorities said last week that they had run out of vaccines.Hospitalizations lag behind cases, and Arizona’s per capita hospitalizations remain by far the highest in the country. Arizona’s hospitals are under severe strain, with 92 percent of all ICU and inpatient beds occupied as of Wednesday, accompanied by a surge in pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations. Nursing homes are also experiencing an increasing number of cases and deaths, and Fox 10 Phoenix reports that 40 percent of Arizona COVID-19 deaths have come from nursing facilities. Despite this, delays in the distribution of vaccines mean that many facilities (and patients) are still waiting for the first doses.The disparity in COVID-19 outcomes for Indigenous people in Arizona has been pronounced throughout the pandemic. At least one in nine people identified as “American Indians or Alaska Natives” has tested positive for COVID-19 in the state, while one in 16 white residents has. Indigenous people in Arizona are more than twice as likely to have been hospitalized with COVID-19 as their white neighbors, and more than 2.5 times as likely to have died.California, which reported the third-highest number of new cases per capita this week, is finally seeing the number of new cases reported each day begin to decline. Even the state’s Southern California epicenter is seeing modest but important improvements: Following weeks of record-breaking cases and hospitalizations in Los Angeles County, the number of new cases per day is down 17.6 percent from two weeks ago, and hospitalizations are down 10 percent over that same time period, according to data from the Los Angeles Times. County officials warn that the virus is still surging in the area, and that hospitalizations remain at dangerously high levels, with ICU numbers remaining nearly unchanged over the past two weeks.On Wednesday, the state surpassed 3 million total cases to date, meaning that one in 13 Californians has tested positive since the start of the pandemic.As we’ve seen over the entire course of the pandemic, rising cases lead to rising deaths. The massive number of cases in Southern California over the past month has resulted in a wrenching death toll: The state reported 3,331 COVID-19 deaths in the past seven days alone. In Los Angeles County, air-quality rules limiting the number of cremations each day have been suspended to allow crematoriums to clear a backlog of bodies at hospitals and funeral homes.In California, people identified as “Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander” are being disproportionately harmed by COVID-19. Although they make up a small part of the population, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders are three times as likely to have tested positive for COVID-19, and 1.8 times as likely to have died, as their white neighbors. Black people in California are 1.4 times as likely to have tested positive for, or died of, COVID-19 as white people in the state. Latino Californians, the largest single racial or ethnic group in the state, are 2.6 times as likely to have tested positive and 1.4 times as likely to have died as white residents.Alabama, which had the second-highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations per capita last week, has now reported its highest ever number of weekly COVID-19 deaths. In a gruesome echo of Southern California’s outbreak, Alabama crematoriums are running “around the clock” to manage the increased demand. According to the CDC, Alabama also has the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate of any state, although the Alabama Department of Public Health disputes the CDC’s numbers.The Black population of Alabama is being hit hardest by the state’s outbreak. Over the past two months, the number of cases per capita for Black people has increased more quickly than for other groups. For the 57 percent of Alabama cases where race is reported, Black people are more likely than anyone else in Alabama to have tested positive for COVID-19, and they are the most likely to have died.Adjusted for population, Nevada had the second-highest number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 this week. It also reported its highest ever single-day number of deaths on Wednesday, most of which were reported in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located. Originally intended to be lifted this week, the state’s COVID-19 restrictions have been re-extended until February 15. On January 15, the Las Vegas Review Journal reported that a total of 40 prisoners in the state had died due to COVID-19, a number that is more than four times higher than the state’s eight cumulative deaths among prisoners as of January 7.Throughout the pandemic, Latino people in Nevada have been more likely to experience COVID-19 than their white neighbors. One in nine Latino people has tested positive for COVID-19, compared with one in 15 white people in Nevada.We are frequently asked for data on known variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. At present, very little data on the spread of variants exist in the United States, and we need much more genomic-sequencing data to understand the degree to which the virus is changing, and where variants are appearing. Unfortunately, the U.S. currently ranks 43rd in the world for percentage of cases sequenced. By contrast, the United Kingdom, where the widespread B.1.1.7 variant was first identified, is ranked eighth in the world. Earlier this month, the director of the U.S. Office of Advanced Molecular Detection at the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases announced a plan to more than double the number of samples sequenced, from approximately 3,000 samples a day to about 6,500. The U.S. is currently reporting more than 200,000 new cases of COVID-19 each day. A state-run lab in Colorado was the first in the U.S. to identify a B.1.1.7-variant case this year and it is now routinely screening all samples submitted to the lab for this mutation. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has also added variant case counts to their COVID-19 dashboards. To date, most states lack the resources to add genomic surveillance to their ongoing COVID-19 workload.
8 h
The Biden Generation’s Heavy Burden
Jim Clyburn sat by himself on the dais at Joe Biden’s inauguration, thinking about his late wife, Emily, who wasn’t there with him.Without Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, who endorsed the former vice president at a crucial moment last year, Biden might not have taken the oath of office yesterday. But without Emily’s influence, Clyburn told me, that endorsement might never have happened. Without Emily, he might have watched Donald Trump be sworn in for a second term yesterday—a catastrophe he likened to the fall of Rome. Former President George W. Bush agreed, telling Clyburn at the ceremony that he was a “savior.” Bill and Hillary Clinton credited Clyburn too. “I’m taking all the credit because my late wife is not here to take it,” Clyburn replied.Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden in February 2020, four days before the South Carolina primary, helped make Biden the Democratic front-runner. Emily Clyburn died in September 2019, but she had made her preference for Biden known one evening the previous June, after Clyburn got home from his “World Famous Fish Fry,” the big political fundraiser he’s hosted back home every year since 1992. Twenty-three Democrats seeking the presidency had appeared onstage at Clyburn’s event that night.“Well, I know it’s a big crowd, and I know we’ve got good friends running,” Emily told him, “but our best hope for defeating Trump is Joe Biden.”[Photos: The inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr.]As they mingled at Biden’s inauguration yesterday, Democrats and Republicans alike told me they were optimistic. But they also had a very real sense that this presidency might be the last chance for the leaders of Biden’s generation to save the republic—that the country’s future now rests in the hands of a generation that won’t be around to see the outcomes of its decisions.Biden is old. He’s the oldest president ever. He’s also two years younger than Clyburn. He’s two years younger than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Chuck Schumer, who took over as Senate majority leader yesterday, is a baby by contrast, at 70. But Clyburn says Biden and the others were meant for this moment: “Thomas Paine wrote back in 1776, when the country was trying to give birth to itself, ‘The times have found us.’ I think the times found Joe. People say it wasn’t his time before, but maybe the time wasn’t for him before.” The pairing of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who’s 20 years younger, Clyburn told me, is “a little bit biblical.” Scripture, he explained, “talks about the elders being called because of their knowledge; the youngsters, because they’ve got strength. And so, knowledge and strength are the things we need to move this democracy forward.”[Read: What it was like to watch Trump leave]The next generation isn’t sitting around waiting, though younger Democrats are ready to defer to Biden for now. Before the inauguration ceremony, I caught up with Eric Swalwell, a California congressman who’s half Clyburn’s age, and who briefly ran for president in 2019 with buttons that read Pass the Torch. The gag poked fun at Biden, who had called for the generation before him to hand over power in a 1986 speech, when Swalwell was in kindergarten. Most people remember the first Democratic primary debate for Harris’s run-in with Biden, but a few minutes before that, Swalwell took a swing of his own: “If we are going to solve the issue, pass the torch. If we are going to solve climate chaos, pass the torch. If we want to end gun violence and solve student debt, pass the torch.” Biden laughed. “I’m holding on to that torch,” he said then.Yesterday morning, looking up at the bunting and the presidential seal in front of where Biden was about to appear, Swalwell told me he was ready to acknowledge that his pitch hadn’t been what the country needed. “I ran making the generational case, but I get why the country right now feels like it [needs] experience and seasoning,” he said. Swalwell wants intense and speedy action out of the White House and Congress to restore Americans’ faith in government. “I don’t think we’ve got any more lives left,” he told me. “People need to see [that] government is working.”Andy Kim, a Millennial congressman who worked on the National Security Council during the Obama administration and was elected as part of the 2018 wave, hopes that Biden and other Democratic leaders are ready to share power with younger generations. “It’s hard to put myself in the heads of the older leaders up there, but as the 38-year-old son of immigrants, married to the daughter of immigrants, who won a House seat—I hope that shows America that we have a new generation stepping up,” Kim told me. “I don’t want us to constantly feel like we’re on a precipice.”[David Graham: A sermon in America’s civic religion]Clyburn was thinking of his congressional colleagues, too—but also of the storming of the Capitol two weeks ago, and of Martin Luther King Jr. “King told us in his ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ that he was coming to the conclusion that the people of ill will in our society were making a much better use of time than the people of goodwill.” That sort of attitude, he said, was what led to the Capitol siege. “People of goodwill were just sitting on the sidelines, pretending nothing was going on, indifferent to the whole thing,” he said. The mob that had climbed the scaffolding set up for the inauguration, in an attempt to subvert the Constitution, reminded him of the fragility of democracy, especially the democracy Biden has now inherited.“The weather was a good metaphor for today,” Clyburn said. “It was pretty murky weather for every other inauguration that I’ve attended. Today there was snow falling… and it was not long before all of a sudden the sun came out real bright, as if we were starting a new day and a new era to end the error”—he paused to spell out the letters of the pun—“the e-r-r-o-r that the people made four years ago.”
9 h
Biden’s Big Chance With Republicans
Donald Trump’s chaotic final days in the White House could present President Joe Biden with a historic opportunity to broaden his base of public support and splinter Republican opposition to his agenda.Recent polls have repeatedly found that about three-fourths or more of GOP voters accept Trump’s disproven charges that Biden stole the 2020 election, a number that has understandably alarmed domestic-terrorism experts. But in the same surveys, between one-fifth and one-fourth of Republican partisans have rejected that perspective. Instead, they’ve expressed unease about their party’s efforts to overturn the results—a campaign that culminated in the January 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of Trump’s supporters.Those anxieties about the GOP’s actions, and about Trump’s future role in the party, may create an opening for Biden to dislodge even more Republican-leaning voters, many of whom have drifted away from the party since Trump’s emergence as its leader. If Biden could lastingly attract even a significant fraction of the Republican voters dismayed over the riot, it would constitute a seismic change in the political balance of power.“There is a universe of Republicans looking to divorce Trump,” John Anzalone, Biden’s chief pollster during the campaign, told me. “They don’t necessarily know how to do it … [but] January 6 was kind of the reckoning.”In his inaugural address yesterday, Biden made clear that he will pursue those voters. He centered the speech on a promise to unify the country and made an explicit appeal to voters skeptical of him. But he also unambiguously condemned the threat to democracy that Trump unleashed. In doing so, he defined a new dividing line in American politics, between those who uphold the country’s democratic system and those who would subvert it. “We must end this uncivil war,” Biden insisted.Beyond providing electoral possibilities for Democrats, the GOP coalition’s widening fissures could provide Biden with leverage to win greater support for his legislative agenda from congressional Republicans, especially in the Senate. Mainstream Republicans’ desire to separate themselves from violent extremists could make some of them more eager to find areas of cooperation with Biden, analysts in both parties have told me. If GOP voters disillusioned with Trump express relatively more approval of Biden, that could also make Republican legislators more comfortable voting with him on some issues. And the bloody backdrop of the Capitol assault could make it more difficult for the GOP to engage in the virtually lockstep resistance that the party employed against Barack Obama during his first months in office.“If the Republicans play a hard obstructionist role, there is a good chance that they will turn off some of the more moderate Republicans, who will see it as an effort to delegitimize Biden by other means,” the Democratic pollster Geoff Garin told me. “A lot of this will depend not only on how Biden plays his hand, but how Republican leaders play their hand.”[Read: The coming Republican amnesia]Biden still faces significant headwinds in securing cooperation from Republicans. He can’t threaten many of them politically, because all but three senators and about 10 House members represent jurisdictions that voted for Trump in November. And, as white-collar suburban voters have drifted away from the GOP, most Republican lawmakers have shifted their focus toward promoting massive turnout among Trump’s hard-core base of non-college-educated, nonurban, and evangelical white voters—a group that’s likely to be dubious of any cooperation with the new president.One measure of Biden’s challenge came when he declared in his speech, “Disagreement must not lead to disunion.” With that warning, Biden became the first president in more than 150 years to use the word disunion in his inaugural address, according to a comprehensive database kept by UC Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project. No president since Abraham Lincoln in 1861—who spoke when the South had already seceded but the Civil War’s shooting had not yet begun—had thought that the threat of the nation coming apart was material enough to deploy the word in an inaugural address. The only other two presidents who ever did, according to the database, were William Henry Harrison (in 1841) and James Buchanan (whose pro-South maneuvering after his 1857 inaugural helped pave the road to the Civil War). To raise the possibility of disunion, even while cautioning against it, shows how far the nation’s partisan and social chasms have widened after four years of Trump’s relentless division.Still, the continuing shock waves from the Capitol assault and the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic may create crosscutting pressures on at least some Republicans to find ways to work with Biden.The $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package that Biden announced last week will offer a crucial early test of each party’s strategy in this fluid environment. The Biden White House’s initial preference is to advance the package through the conventional bill-making process, rather than using a special legislative procedure, known as reconciliation, that allows tax-and-spending proposals to pass with a simple-majority vote, one senior White House official told me this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.Debate over whether to employ reconciliation may sound like an obscure process argument, but it has sweeping implications. As the official noted, Biden would have practical reasons to skip the procedure now: It takes longer than conventional legislating (when Biden wants to rush out new money for economic assistance and vaccine distribution), and he may also want to save reconciliation for a larger economic-recovery package he plans to unveil next month. (Usually, reconciliation can be used only once in each budget year, but because it hasn’t yet been employed in the fiscal year that continues through September, Biden theoretically could utilize it twice in 2021 to cover both the rescue and the recovery plans.)But above all, by attempting to pass the bill the normal way, Biden is making a political statement about his intent to forge compromise between the parties. If the White House and congressional Democrats don’t use the reconciliation tool, they will need 60 votes to break a probable Senate filibuster. That means Biden would need support from at least 10 Senate Republicans, even if he were to pass the measure solely with Democratic votes in the House.Winning that many Senate Republican votes wouldn’t be easy; winning them without major concessions might be impossible. When Obama took office in 2009 amid the last economic crisis, his initial recovery plan attracted just three GOP votes to break a filibuster. Biden, as vice president, helped negotiate the package with Republicans, who required the administration to cut about $100 billion in proposed spending and enhance tax cuts. To this day, some Democrats believe that those choices slowed the economic recovery during Obama’s first two years and contributed to the GOP’s landslide gains in the 2010 election. (Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, may have reflected that lingering frustration when he told ABC yesterday, “If we hear very early on that Republicans do not want to act” on Biden’s plan, “we’re gonna do it alone” through reconciliation.)The degree to which Biden accepts concessions on his rescue blueprint will set an early template for his administration’s approach to Congress. But the reverse is true too: Republicans’ response to the package will show how many lawmakers feel comfortable fighting Biden from the outset—and how many feel pressure to chart a more nuanced course.William Hoagland, a former Republican staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, predicts that Biden can ultimately attract 10 Republican senators for his rescue package. Although Hoagland says Biden will likely need to narrow the plan to its core relief elements—for instance, by dropping a proposal to raise the minimum wage—he believes that GOP lawmakers will feel pressure to act. “In the crisis we’re facing, I think [enough] Republicans will come around, and there’s going to be a desire to have some form of showing that, with Trump out of here, we can work together,” Hoagland, now a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank, told me.Until the January 6 riot, many Republicans assumed that their party would remain captive to Trump and his base. But Trump’s unending efforts to subvert the election, capped by the attack, scrambled those calculations and weakened his position inside the party. The loss of his Twitter platform—his most fearsome political weapon—further defanged him.An array of national polls conducted since the attack show that Trump remains extremely popular within the GOP base. But he’s lost voters too. “What you’ve seen over the past two months is this interesting tension, where he’s simultaneously consolidated the core chunk of people who support him while pushing away the marginal people who would put up with [his] antics because they like the policies,” the Republican communications consultant Liam Donovan told me.[Read: Joe Biden’s looming war on white supremacy]In a new CNN survey, for instance, just over three-fourths of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they approve of Trump’s performance in office. Nearly as many said they do not consider Biden the legitimate winner of the election. But nearly one-fifth of Republicans and Republican-leaners said they disapprove of Trump’s performance—a much higher share than through most of his presidency—and about one-fourth said they do consider Biden the legitimate winner. Two other telling stats: More than one in four said Trump bears at least some responsibility for the Capitol attack. And roughly the same number also partially blame the congressional Republicans who objected to the Electoral College vote.Other surveys have similarly captured erosion in Trump’s internal position. About one-fourth of Republicans who approved of Trump in an August survey disapprove of him now, the Pew Research Center found when it recently reinterviewed the poll’s subjects. And a surprisingly large share of Republicans in surveys conducted after the riot by both Pew (40 percent) and ABC/The Washington Post (35 percent) said the GOP should set a different direction or reduce Trump’s influence in the party.The share of Republican voters who appear open to Biden is smaller, but not insignificant: In the CNN poll, roughly one in five Republican and GOP-leaning voters said they believe he would be, at least, a fairly successful president. About the same number said they view him favorably. Overall, about 60 percent of adults gave Biden positive marks on each question.Those findings underscore Biden’s potential to expand his audience. For almost all of this century, as the parties have grown more polarized, presidents have only rarely attracted support from as much as 55 percent of Americans. Trump became the only president in the history of the Gallup Poll never to reach even 50 percent approval at any point in his tenure.Anzalone told me that while he’s not “looking [to set] expectations,” he believes that Biden could begin with a much broader base of support than Trump ever amassed. Given Biden’s strong marks in polls during the transition, he said, the new president has a chance for his job-approval rating “to approach or exceed 60 percent … which is really difficult in this environment.”In both parties, many operatives are doubtful that Biden could sustain such expansive support for any prolonged period. But even an approval rating consistently over 50 percent might make more Republicans comfortable voting with him—and also improve the Democrats’ odds of avoiding major losses in the next midterm elections, which are typical for a president’s party in his first term.The key dynamic for the next two years: Biden, a politician with an instinct for outreach, is arriving precisely as Trump’s presidency has left many traditionally Republican-leaning voters unmoored and uncertain. Those disaffected Republicans, Donovan noted, “demographically and otherwise match the sorts of people who have been fleeing the party to begin with. That paints the opportunity [for Biden] there. I think it’s real, and it’s only going to continue absent some other shift [in the GOP] we’ve not seen yet.”It’s entirely possible that the scale and ambition of the Democratic agenda will unite Republican elected officials and voters alike in opposition, allowing them to bridge their differences over Trump’s legacy and future role in the party. That may even be the most likely outcome of Biden’s first two years. But as Trump leaves Washington stained by the Capitol riot, it’s no longer the guaranteed outcome. The GOP faces the alternative prospect of a bitter fissure between its Trumpist wing and its more traditional faction, which will play out through every legislative choice the party faces, starting immediately with the former president’s Senate impeachment trial. All of that tension and turmoil leaves an opening for Biden big enough to drive an Amtrak train through.
Early Retirement
Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Brontez Purnell about his writing process. He had adopted this insane new beauty practice of rubbing Preparation H on the bags under his eyes. He was trying to scrub that puffy, confused, alcoholic look right off his face—it burned to all hell but goddamn if it didn’t work. There had to be some kind of fancy, faggy, anti-aging, anti-inflammatory something or other at a boutique in San Francisco that, like, smelled nice and blended into the skin in a less severe way. But these days he could barely make it to the corner store, much less downtown San Francisco.The trolley cars bothered him, the European tourists giving him that What are you doing here? look on the street bothered him, effort in general bothered him—put all these factors together and what was left was a tube of hemorrhoid cream purchased at the Grocery Outlet for $1.50. He still smelled like alcohol in the morning, but at least his face didn’t look all fucked-up. The small victory would have to do.The past couple of months he had started sleeping with his feet hanging out of his second-story window. It helped to correct his restless moving around in bed, and now he could hear the cars out on the highway in the night. He started to have dreams that he was peacefully underwater, but he knew his brain was reinterpreting the cars roaring past. From a distance, the hum of the highway sounded like waves crashing into land. In his bed, he would pull the covers over his head and imagine being in the ocean. Alone and at peace.The fall had been a hard stretch.He was an actor and had gotten a job that summer as the lead of this god-awful play, some drama about a murderer in a mining town during the Gold Rush. It bored him to tears and he hit the bottle real hard one night before the show, ended up blacking out onstage and being removed from the play the next day. It was not the first time this had happened.He relayed the story to his friend Mark over the phone.“I got drunk and embarrassed myself in front of a bunch of prominent white neoliberals,” he offered.“Again?!” said Mark.“Again. The stage manager was this hippie who told me I would never work in this town again! I broke down and cried.” Real tears—he could feel them leaking through the film of the Preparation H.Mark kept his cool. “I mean, that’s nice of her to threaten you and all, but keep in mind you never really worked there before—who gives a flying fuck?! Meet me and the boys for lunch.”He and Mark were brothers of sorts. A decade and a half ago, the two of them had been cast in a TV show on a fledgling gay channel, about the lives of four single Black gay men in L.A. It was a big to-do—audiences loved it, and he basically played the Black version of all the white queens he hated. He had been working on some horrible avant-garde play in San Francisco when his agent called him with an offer for the part of Jonathan—muscular, 33, a nonurban Black hippie wallflower type. Easy enough. He had been having problems landing acting gigs that didn’t read as “urban”—every role called for a strong masculine Black man with confidence and all the answers, and he couldn’t fake that even for a paycheck. The role of Jonathan felt tailor-made—after all, he’d grown up in Encino.The show was so uniquely Black (or as “Black” as white West Hollywood tastes would allow) that no one noticed the characters for what they were: really shitty muscle queens from L.A.He hoped at first that they would mirror the Spice Girls and each have some form of distinct personhood (he wanted to be the dark-skinned “woke” one), but no such luck. Instead they were four leads who all mirrored one another like quadruplets; the running catchphrase of the show (said in unison) was “Ew! He’s fat!” (Cue laugh track.)He’d made semi-decent money from the sitcom for the price of his soul and done what all reasonable G-list “celebrities” did: stumbled into cocaine and alcohol addiction. The show was over before the third season and he kept on drinking. He moved back to San Francisco, broken as all hell, and chased jobs in regional theater. During harvest season, he worked on the pot farms up north.Mark had also moved to San Francisco recently—he was working as an agent now, developing talent.I hate the idea of meeting these faggots for lunch, he thought, getting ready to do just that. He despised Mark’s habit of always dragging boys he was fucking to brunch for an awkward meet and greet. Especially today.Still—it was time to go meet these faggots.Upon arriving, he quickly ordered an Irish Health—Jameson whiskey and green tea on ice with simple sugar (and a splash of Baileys, if you must).He slammed it and then ordered a double of the same, feeling better.Mark showed up with two queens he’d had sex with the night before. One boy was a blonde and the other had a birthmark on his face. Mark was dominating, as always. He had a way of taking a conversation and boiling it down to its essentials—his stories always led back to sex and/or violence. At this particular brunch he was explaining how he had recently been robbed south of Market Street.“I had on a thousand-dollar watch, had all my credit cards on me, $700 in cash I owed my roommate, and an extra-large cheese pizza I’d ordered from the place on the corner. So I see this big Black muscle queen walking toward me from 12th Street. Big ole uncut dick swinging to the gods in his track pants and I’m staring him down like, Wanna fuck? He rolls up on me and the last thing I remember is him punching me in the head. Anyway, I wake up about 30 minutes later, and I know it’s 30 minutes later ’cause I still had my watch on, plus my credit cards and the cash—the only thing missing was the pizza!”The boy with the birthmark spit up his Jack-and-soda.The blond boy asked me what I did.“I was an actor but I failed. Now I work in agriculture, seasonally,” I said, not looking him in the eye. “I’m in between trips.”“You mean you grow weed?” he pressed.“Yes.”They all got drunker and went to Mark’s. The other men got naked on the bed, but he felt apart, too drunk and sad to achieve an erection. There came a point when the merry trio was having sex on top of him and he rolled over and pulled the covers over his head. He wanted to be underwater again.This year, he took a new way to the farm. Just to be a troll, he’d signed up for one of those Christian free-ride groups, and it totally backfired. The Christian man he hitched a ride with was on his way to Oregon from Texas; he made it a point to pray every time they stopped to get gas or take a piss. At one prayer stop, the Holy Ghost lasted for 20 minutes and ended with the man going into full-on testimony. He sat in the passenger seat listening to the man and wished to God (ironically enough) that he could find a ride group where all he had to do was flash his dick and get to his destination in a timely manner.The car finally made its way to Lake County. The farm was near there.Supposedly Clear Lake was the largest lake in California, and supposedly it was the oldest lake in North America. He was told these things but never bothered to confirm them himself.The car navigated the two-lane highway that circled the lake for miles and miles.Post–World War II, the lake had been a popular Northern California tourist destination; he spied from the car window all the dilapidated fishing piers and run-down motor lodges with their decaying mid-century signs more or less intact.The lake itself was fishable, yet the catch was rarely edible. The mine nearby had closed in the ’50s, but not before polluting the entire body of water with mercury. It was poison.The car dropped him off at the gas station nearest to the farm and he waited for the farm owner to pick him up. It had once been owned by this dyke who then sold it to a Puerto Rican man from New Jersey.He watched the new owner pull up in a huge black pickup truck, introduced himself, and got in. The owner gave him the rundown—there were 92 outdoor plants tucked out past the valley that he would attend to and dry before the seasonal trimmers came in and manicured the buds. The new owner would fly out every two weeks and give him a ride to the general store to replenish his supplies: drinking water, gas for the generators, toilet paper, all that stuff. The owner gave him two guns to keep in case feds or thieves came lurking, and left him on the property to do his work.That was in late July, and he had now been on the mountain for a while. The exact number of days, he could not tell—time blurred so much up here. His task was repetitive, but he loved being alone. Just him, the plants, the drying room (the only built structure on the property), the hum of the gas generators, and his two guns.His job was to kill all the boys. Even the smallest amount of a male plant’s pollen can seed a whole crop, and pot with seeds is unsellable. Some girl plants could change sex, “dropping balls” (seed sacks) and getting all the other girls pregnant. So he had to kill and dispose of all the new boys too.Years earlier, he had worked at several random farms and trimmed for strangers, but it hadn’t lasted long. Being stuck three hours from nowhere in the California backwoods with white hippies was a particular form of hell; they all smelled bad and had Ganesh tattoos. They insisted that he “think positively.” He hated that shit. He had scored the right gig eventually, with this small private farm that he worked alone until the fall trimmers came to finish up.A fussy creek cut through the hills, and he bathed in it in the mornings, the icy coldness of it stinging his balls. No soap could be used, for fear of polluting the river. His drinking water and all his other supplies were kept in a slender kitchen with a separate entrance on the back side of the drying room. He had to shit in a hole in the ground.The goal was to get all the weed cut and dried before the rainy season arrived in winter. Two years before, the rain had started early and mold had grown on all the plants, which didn’t begin to cover how damn miserable he had been in the tent he had pitched. He made a pallet to sleep on in the drying room this time around.At night, when he was alone in the drying shed, the landscape outside had the dark glow of moonlight. The moon put a soul filter on everything. The hum of the gas-powered generator reminded him of the underwater sound of the highway cars he could hear from his bedroom in the city. He felt like a nature god, alone in the great expanse.If he really thought about it, he had never wanted to be an actor. Not really. In his memory, it had happened upon him. On a whim, he had stormed the stage when he was 5: a one-man coup.His older cousin was 8 or 9 at the time, participating in her elementary-school beauty pageant, and he was sitting in his Sunday church suit in the audience in the school gymnasium, next to his auntie. He saw all the girls in delicate dresses, lit up onstage, and noticed the applause every time they twirled about.When one contestant departed the stage, he saw it empty and knew he should be there. He sneaked from under his auntie and ran up the side steps and placed his little body midstage. He couldn’t see the faces of the audience (perhaps an early indicator of his nearsightedness). Then came the roar of applause. He knew he had done something right because everyone was clapping for him. As soon as the shock wore off, his little face grinned—just in time for his auntie to come rip him off the stage by his hand.“Boy, you know you know betta!” she whisper-yelled in his ear as she led him down the steps. He couldn’t even hear her. The smile on his face lasted for days.All he’d ever wanted, he realized, was the stage lights and the applause; the acting itself was just the driver holding the carrot in front of the donkey. He figured that if society had allowed a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker to merit stage lights and applause, he would have easily been any one of those, too.His mother had always hated his profession; she thought it was too common. She barely even congratulated him when he got on a network show. She wanted him to be a teacher, and she eventually got her wish.He’d spent a few years teaching acting workshops at regional theaters after the TV show was canceled—there were a great many people who couldn’t act. He marveled at how all reluctant thespians shared the same complaint: “I don’t like being watched.” The statement was a cop-out. He usually cured the novice actor with one sentence. “You’re not afraid of being watched—you’re afraid of watching yourself be watched.” The student would invariably look confused, and more often than not, a series of breakthroughs ensued.In his mind, spewing words was the easy part; the work of blocking out motions was the challenge that killed or illuminated an expression, the business of what to do with the hands or feet while trying to convince an audience that you are someone else. Movement is always the purest indication of how truthful one is being.He had never been a good actor, just a committed one—committed like Robert Downey Jr. or Mel Gibson, to being a caricature of himself. In fact, acting had given him license to be himself. The context, mannerisms, or historical backdrop could change from play to play, but he stayed wrapped up in his typecast: a fragile yet strong (or faux brave) and always spiraling man.In acting he attempted to put distance between himself and the audience. It was like that first night he stepped onstage when he was 5. As far as he was concerned, there was only the holy trinity of him, the stage lights, and the void. A perfect freedom. It would not be forever.He began to notice it—small at first, but then it grew, the thing he’d warned others against but slowly failed to reconcile in himself: He noticed himself being watched. It was the beginning of the end; the death was sudden. One day, out of fucking nowhere and without warning, the audience all had faces, eyes, and expectations.After the television show had been canceled, and after he’d gotten bored teaching workshops, he had retreated to the tepid world of Northern California live theater, all bit parts with no infrastructure for advancement. His artistic fatigue began with two celebratory shots before each stage performance, then four, then half the bottle. Before long he had been fired, for the first of many times, because he reeked of alcohol onstage. His fatigue culminated in the night he blacked out onstage for the last of his many times.After that, he’d quit booze for a bit and even went to AA—it seemed like a start, until he descended again. The next time was harder. The second and third time you fail is always worse; there’s the voice that asks, Am I really choosing to be this person? The realization felt like death, or like being underwater, but not in a peaceful way.Now, up north and safe after his last onstage meltdown, he stood in the general store in town looking at a bottle of whiskey for a good four minutes. He had gone out to refill the surplus gas containers for the farm’s generators. He felt an intense craving but knew he’d be on the mountain by himself. Fearing the hell he might conjure, he decided to be cautious. Whiskey was his shaman drug of choice, and he knew to avoid the spirit.He left the medicine aisle and got some dried jerky and water instead. He paid the cashier and left. He bought an extra blanket too, just in case. It was almost October and he had another month and a half on the mountain. It would start to turn cold soon.By 7 a.m. it was warm, and in a few hours it would be too hot to work. He quickly began counting the marijuana plants, preparing some for a wet trim, taking others to the drying room.He worked until his midday break, when he sat under a tree and scraped the dirt and THC crystals from his fingertips—“finger hash,” as they called it. He would smoke it later.In his youth, he believed a lot of dumb shit, like that one time an older fag in a bar had relayed to him the origin of “Spanish hash.”“So in Spain they send young boys running naked through the marijuana fields and then they scrape the THC from their bodies. That’s why Spanish hash is so expensive!”This myth was soon debunked by a fellow weed trimmer.“Naw, brother,” said Austin, this California hippie boy he sat next to in the trim room. “No naked boys. They make that shit from explosives. Butane.”As the midday heat faded, he was back in the garden, making sure the plants hadn’t swapped sexes. He started to separate the good pot that would be trimmed and sold as flower from the lesser grade that would be consolidated and turned into hash.Soon the chores were done and he sat drinking water under the shade of another tree. His mind always doubled down on itself at this point in the day. Whenever catching a moment’s breath, he had the same thought: Where had he gone?The last thing he remembered before the blackout was forgetting all of his lines. He was told later that he hadn’t resorted to curse words or jittery, unexpected behavior. Rather, it had been a cool and complete dissociation onstage. He’d gone to a table upstage right and buried his face in his hands for a full 15 minutes. The 49 people in the audience got frustrated and eventually walked out. His onstage retirement party.Mid-November, when the harvest was over, meant it was time to return to the city to pay the rent and nestle in for the wet, rainy winter ahead.He sat at the bus stop waiting for his Greyhound to arrive. He decided the bus trip would be nice and didn’t want to risk getting another religious fanatic as a driver.It began raining so he wrapped himself in a poncho and covered his gear in plastic. The line for the bus was long, and the unfortunate farmhands who had not shown up early enough to stand inside the shoddy bus-stop shelter were all getting soaked.On the ground near the little bench inside the shelter, he noticed a full ziplock bag of weed. Someone had dropped it or left it behind, but he didn’t even blink. He hated marijuana at this point.The bus rolled up and all the wet, weary farmers boarded.Looking out the window, he was taken aback as always by the beautiful landscape of the area, and by the cultural disconnect of the California backwoods. It somehow remained redneck as all hell—he even occasionally saw Confederate flags on bumper stickers. He remembered that a few hours outside any city in America, it was business as usual.Later rather than sooner, he arrived in Oakland. He wanted no more of the bus and got off and called a car to take him to S.F.His apartment was as he’d left it: sparsely furnished and clean. His life as a farmer had made him want to be a nomad, and every time he came back from the mountain he got rid of more and more stuff. If only it were possible to be a part-time resident in everything.For the first time in forever, he felt that strange and foreign emotion—a stillness and a sense of peace. He began to cry.He showered, put on warm sweats, turned on the heater, and boiled water for tea. He finally listened to the voicemails on his phone that he’d ignored while on the mountain. Mostly the usual: one from Mark saying he was no longer hanging out with the blonde or the kid with the birthmark; others from bill collectors, student-loan officers, his mother (over and over and over again)—and one of note.“Hello, this is Shelia Waters from the Stein Agency in Los Angeles. This message is for Antonio Johnson. We have an offer for you—the role of Jonathan is being revamped for an upcoming movie project based on Missed Connections. We hope this is still your number! We have a very handsome offer! You can reach me at 310-555-7762, extension 312. Hope to talk soon!”He had all but stopped breathing. The news hit him in the gut, hard. Why was the show making a comeback? It seemed like an idea he should entertain, certainly. He felt the butterflies in his stomach as he did. He paced for a bit, and thought about starting a new gym routine, a new diet; going back to his acting coach; finding a place in L.A. to stay while filming. Then the kettle began to whistle, pulling him back into his mind and his apartment.He poured the boiling water on the peppermint-tea bag in the cup and brought it to his bed. He sat down and, even though it was raining, rolled his sweats up to his knees and placed his feet out the window. As quickly as it had rushed through him, his excitement fled. He was at peace as the cars sped by on the highway again. He heard waves.This story has been excerpted from Brontez Purnell’s forthcoming novel-in-stories, 100 Boyfriends.
Brontez Purnell on Humor as a ‘Flotation Device’
Editor’s Note: Read Brontez Purnell’s new short story, “Early Retirement.” “Early Retirement” is taken from Brontez Purnell’s forthcoming novel-in-stories, 100 Boyfriends (available on February 2). To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Purnell and Amy Weiss-Meyer, a deputy managing editor of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.Amy Weiss-Meyer: In the first few lines of the story, the narrator, Antonio, describes his new habit of applying Preparation H to the bags beneath his eyes. It’s a darkly funny introduction to a character who is both vain and shiftless, self-conscious but unapologetically himself. What, to you, are the primary uses of humor in storytelling?Brontez Purnell: Sometimes I feel like I write fiction from a strong theater background—fiction is drama, and the story has to move. In my head humor and drama are such close siblings. Fraternal twins, maybe? One is always coming out of the other. Also, the character in the story, Antonio, is experiencing a deep depression, and there are ways (sometimes) when in those bouts we become these funny characters. Like, people who show up to CVS in complete pajamas and slippers—midday, no less. Are these people deeply depressed? Oh, hell yeah. Are they kind of funny to watch? Yes. I just like Antonio as a character because you can tell he likes, or at the very least is certainly not afraid of, who he’s become.I feel like I use humor as a tool the same way my characters are using it: as a flotation device, a defense mechanism, a point at which to rest or energize. What can’t humor do, really? I like taking risks in my writing, and using humor is kind of based in risk—it can sometimes be dismissed as lacking intellectual rigor, and worse still be seen as lowbrow. I think all good theater and literature should run the zodiac of feelings: Some of it should be sad, some of it profound; some of it should be boring and some of it should jump completely off the cliff. Whatever vehicle I’m using, I’m always trying to arrive at a certain sense of balance.Weiss-Meyer: Some of the funniest asides in your writing are also the most cutting: on the gentrification of San Francisco, for instance, or white neoliberals. Do you see your fiction as a form of social commentary?Purnell: I’m really, really Black and really, really gay so by design anything I write becomes “social commentary.” It’s sooooooooo exhausting. I have always wanted to have Walter Cronkite’s very specific white-man privilege; they literally called him “the most trusted man in America.” Like, whatever came out of his mouth was the honest-so-help-me-God truth. I would really hope that’s where my social commentary would vibrate someday, at the same pitch as that. That said, I would also like to quote a writer friend of mine and say, “I’ve done too much petty hustling to be wildly credible”—again, truth. As for my relentless attack on whiteness, I can assure any offended white neoliberals that I have only about as much contempt for white neoliberal fundamentalism as it has for me.Weiss-Meyer: Antonio is a struggling actor who’s nearly ready to quit the field. He wants applause, but has grown uncomfortable with direct attention. Is that dilemma primarily a professional one, or is it playing out in his personal life too?Purnell: Strictly professional. All plot and drama aside, he’s really just like any person who has come to hate his job. This story is about an actor, but could have easily been about a teacher, a pilot, a professional skateboarder, a tech engineer. He’s a marijuana grower by trade, which is seasonal work. He’s reexamining the seasons in his life, and deciding he has to make a change if he wants to grow and be happy.Weiss-Meyer: The phrase early retirement implies a choice to voluntarily walk away from one’s profession. In Antonio’s case, the final blow to his career comes when he gets drunk and blacks out during a performance—his “onstage retirement party.” Is there a sense of joy, or liberation, to be found in the ruins of a career?Purnell: I think sometimes that we as people can behave like shook-ass octopuses in times of distress—like, totally gnaw our own arm off to get out of a situation. That said, though his exit was violent and bloody, I think Antonio mostly feels a liberation or a weight let off his shoulders.Weiss-Meyer: Throughout the story, Antonio references the feeling of being underwater, which, depending on his mood, can be either comforting or disconcerting. He also spends time working near a lake poisoned with mercury, in a place where he needs to make special trips to the store to procure drinking water. What is the function of water as a metaphor in the story?Purnell: It works in a lot of ways. When he’s listening to the highway at night and intuiting it as hearing the ocean, he’s conjuring a kind of peace for himself. But then there’s this other battle with water as bell jar, making everything dense and murky, and there’s a hard distortion on how to move ahead, or where to file memories. He’s intensely tethered to both metaphors.Weiss-Meyer: The task of “killing all the boys” (eliminating male plants from the marijuana crop he tends) suits Antonio, as does working alone. Is the alienation temporary, or does it signal a larger shift toward solitude? Is he done seeking applause?Purnell: I think certainly for the time being he’s done, but again, this story had a strong sense of “seasons” to it. He’s done for this season of his life, but I can’t say what that character would do in the long run. He has a certain combustible quality, right?
We Can’t Stop Fighting for Our Democracy
As I sat in my Capitol Hill office two weeks ago, watching a violent mob storm the symbol and seat of our democracy, I was reminded of my distant past. As a child, I saw my birth country of Somalia descend from relative stability into civil war, overnight. The spaces where people felt most secure—their homes and workplaces—suddenly became battlegrounds, torn by gunfights and bombings. Violent targeting of political leaders—once unheard-of—became commonplace.I never expected to experience a direct assault on democracy in the United States, one of the oldest, most prosperous democracies in the world.But if there is any lesson we can draw from the past four years, it is that it can happen here. If we are to address the root causes of this insurrection, we have to understand, deep within ourselves, that we are human beings like other human beings on this planet, with the same flaws and the same ambitions and the same fragilities. There is nothing magical about our democracy that will rise up and save us. Building the democratic processes we cherish today took hard and dedicated work, and protecting them will take the hard and dedicated work of people who love this country.Our shared story of America often begins and ends with the founding—the truths we hold self-evident in our Declaration of Independence, the carefully crafted system of checks and balances enshrined in our Constitution. But in truth, our republic did not arrive overnight.[David A. Graham: We’re just finding out how bad the riot really was]America in its early days was not a full democracy by any stretch of the imagination. The institution of chattel slavery remained a bedrock of our society, and much of our economy. The violent, forced seizure of Native American land was a cornerstone of the American ideal of “manifest destiny,” codified into policy through laws like the Indian Removal Act.It took a literal civil war to quash a violent white-supremacist insurrection, and then to extend basic rights to the formerly enslaved.Even then, it would take decades of organizing to guarantee women the right to vote—and later basic reproductive freedom. It would take a labor movement to outlaw child labor, institute the 40-hour work week, establish a minimum wage, and create the weekend. And it would take a civil-rights movement, a century after the Civil War, to end legal segregation and establish basic protections for Black people in this country.The genius of our Constitution is not that it was ever sufficient (the Bill of Rights was not even included at first), but that it was modifiable—subject to constant improvement and evolution as our society progressed.[From the October 2020 issue: The flawed genius of our Constitution]Our republic is like a living, breathing organism. It requires attention and growth to meet the needs of its population. And just as it can be strengthened, it can be corrupted, weakened, and destroyed.At every point in our history, revolutionary change has been met with counterrevolution. The Reconstruction amendments were followed by decades of domestic political terrorism. The civil-rights acts of the 1960s were followed by the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the “southern strategy,” mass incarceration, and deep cuts to the social safety net. The rich got richer, the military-industrial complex became more powerful, and unchecked corporate cash placed an ever-increasing stranglehold on our politics.Donald Trump was not elected in a vacuum. Inequality, endless wars, and the corruption of unaccountable elites are all common precursors to either violent revolutions or dramatic expansions of democracy.President Joe Biden has been tasked with bringing us back from the brink. He will govern a country whose citizens no longer share the same basic reality. He will govern a country that has deep, unhealed wounds and layers of unresolved traumas. We must all work with him and with one another to heal those wounds and to resolve those traumas. The insurrection on January 6 tells us that we are almost out of time.The question now is which path we will take. Will we follow Trump and his co-conspirators down the path of democratic breakdown, or choose instead the arduous route of democratic reform?[Anne Applebaum: Co-existence is the only option]Reform requires full accountability and justice for everyone who led a violent insurrection against our democracy, however powerful they may be. The very survival of our democratic government relies on the peaceful transition of power. Those who plot, plan, or incite violence against the government of the United States must be held fully accountable. That includes not just conviction of the former president by the United States Senate, but removal of any lawmaker or law-enforcement officer who collaborated with the attackers.But we can’t stop there. We are doomed to repeat this cycle of instability and backsliding if we do not make a bold effort to reimagine our democracy—from our elections on down. We need to end the dominance of unchecked corporate money in our politics, remove the substantial barriers to voting for low-income communities and people of color, ban gerrymanders, and give full voting rights and self-government to the voters of Washington, D.C. January 6, though, demonstrates that we must go further. We must remove the antidemocratic elements from our system, including by eliminating the filibuster in the Senate, reforming the courts, abolishing the Electoral College, and moving toward a ranked-choice voting system.We also cannot fall into the trap of making policies guided by fear, and therefore treating the symptoms of our illness without addressing the root causes. We must act on our disgust at the double standards employed against white protesters and Black ones, and against Muslims and non-Muslims. But at the same time, we must resist the very human desire for revenge—to simply see the tools that have oppressed Black and brown people employed more broadly. The answer is not a larger security structure or an omnipresent police state, but a system of justice that respects everyone’s rights and essential dignity.If I learned anything as a survivor of civil conflict, it is that political violence does not go away on its own. Violent clashes and threats to our democracy are bound to repeat if we do not address the structural inequities underlying them. The next Trump will be more competent, and more clever. The work to prevent the next catastrophes, which we should all be able to see coming, starts now.
The U.S. Likely Can’t Reach Herd Immunity Without Vaccinating Kids
A few days after Christmas, Molly Hering, 14, and her brother, Sam, 12, got their first shots as part of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine trials for kids. Their mom had heard about a clinical trial being conducted at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and Molly told me that she’d agreed to join because she wanted to contribute to the vaccine-development effort.Molly and Sam’s dad was recently hospitalized with COVID-19. (He recovered.) Both kids have spent most of the past year dealing with Zoom school and its attendant technical glitches. Molly finally went back to in-person ninth grade this month, but masks and social distancing are required at school. Like everyone else, she’s looking forward to the end of the pandemic. “I’ll finally be able to go to school normally,” she said.With COVID-19 vaccines proven to be safe and effective in most adults, Pfizer and Moderna have both begun U.S. trials for kids as young as 12. And if those trials go smoothly, the vaccines will be tested in younger and younger kids. This is typical for new vaccines: “It’s called the age deescalation strategy,” Carol Kao, a pediatrician at Washington University in St. Louis, told me.There are some 70 million kids in the U.S., nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Children in general are not especially vulnerable to COVID-19; most infections are mild or even asymptomatic. In some very rare cases—less than 0.01 percent—young patients can develop a complication called multisystem inflammation syndrome, or MIS-C, but it is generally quite treatable in a hospital.Vaccinating kids, however, is often not just about the direct and immediate benefits to them. It’s also meant to protect children against diseases that would otherwise become more dangerous for them as adults—measles, mumps, and chicken pox are three common examples—and dampen the overall spread of these diseases. In the short term, the primary reason to vaccinate children against COVID-19 may be that the U.S. will have a hard time reaching herd immunity otherwise.Vaccines that work in adults generally work in children. But their effects can differ, especially in very young children. In newborns, for example, antibodies passed to them in utero can interfere with the protection conferred by the measles vaccine, which is why that vaccine is not given until babies are 12 to 15 months old. An early version of the pneumococcal vaccine did not work well in children under 2, because it stimulated a part of the immune system that was not yet mature.Multiple factors determine the recommended age for a vaccination. “For example, when’s the peak incidence of disease? When is a child most likely to respond to the vaccine?” says Cody Meissner, an expert on pediatric infectious diseases at Tufts. The answers to those questions might not align. For instance, the vaccine for HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer, is given to boys and girls as young as 9 years old because it stimulates a better immune response in preteens than in older adolescents, even though preteens are unlikely to need the protection until later in life.Even though kids rarely get seriously sick from COVID-19, the vaccine can protect them from an illness that may still be bad enough for them to miss school and their parents to miss work, Jeff Gerber, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told me. “Even those two-to-three-day illnesses can pile up.” He pointed out that the flu vaccine is recommended for kids, and about the same number of children died of the flu last season as have died of COVID-19 to date.But the main argument for broadly vaccinating children is that doing so is likely to reduce COVID-19 transmission. Although schools have not been sources of large outbreaks, many switched to distance learning, and most of those that held in-person classes required masks and distancing. If school buildings reopen without these precautions sometime this year, after adults get vaccinated but while kids are still vulnerable, they will essentially be hosting mass gatherings of unvaccinated people, says Jason Newland, a pediatrician at Washington University. “Guess who’s going to end up having it? All the kids,” he told me. “And those kids with certain underlying conditions are disproportionately impacted.” What’s more, kids could bring COVID-19 home from school, even if they don’t have symptoms. “Children could pass it on to Grandma and Grandpa. They can pass it on to another loved one who has diabetes or has obesity or has chronic kidney disease” and is not yet vaccinated, Newland said.Public-health experts think that if precautions are in place, community transmission is low, and teachers and high-risk people are vaccinated, reopening schools in 2021 will be worth any remaining risk, given the many and wide-ranging consequences of keeping them closed. But the more children are vaccinated, the safer and more normal school reopenings will be. The ultimate goal of most vaccination campaigns is not just to protect the individuals who get the vaccines, but to prevent the spread of the disease to those who can’t get it, such as infants and people at risk of allergic reactions. The more transmissible the virus—and unfortunately COVID-19 appears to be evolving to be more transmissible—the more people need to be vaccinated in order to reach herd immunity and stop its spread through a population. The herd-immunity threshold against COVID-19 is estimated to be somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of the population. Because some people can’t get the vaccine and some may be steadfastly opposed to it, the U.S. needs to vaccinate as many of the rest of us as it can. “What we want to do is reduce the number of people who might be contagious to others,” Meissner told me. Children will almost certainly need to be a part of that effort.A still unanswered question about the COVID-19 vaccines, however, is how well they protect against asymptomatic transmission of the virus. When vaccinated people are exposed to the virus, their bodies’ immune response tamps down its replication—enough to reduce symptoms by 95 percent, according to the results of the Pfizer and Moderna trials for adults. But a person who is vaccinated and then exposed might still carry enough virus to spread it to others. Experts think the vaccines very likely reduce the risk of asymptomatic transmission, but follow-up studies are needed to find out by how much.How soon the vaccines are available to children will depend on how long the clinical trials and the FDA review process take. In the most optimistic scenario, a vaccine could be available for large numbers of kids, especially older ones, in time for the start of the school year in the fall. But last week, Operation Warp Speed said that Moderna was having trouble recruiting enough participants in its trial for adolescents, having enrolled only 800 out of a planned 3,000. The company’s CEO also said that while Moderna would soon begin trials for kids ages 1 to 11, it did not expect to have results until 2022. Pfizer’s adolescent trial has reportedly finished enrollment, though the company declined to specify when it plans to move on to younger children.The FDA fast-tracked the COVID-19 vaccines for adults using a process called emergency use authorization. But the normal vaccine-approval process may be more appropriate for children, says Vanderbilt’s Tina Hartert, who is leading a study on the incidence of COVID-19 in kids. Approval will take more time for several reasons. For example, the FDA has said that it wants to see more safety data—six months or more depending on the novelty of the vaccine technology—compared with the two months required for emergency use.The newness of the COVID-19 vaccines combined with the mildness of the disease in children might lead to hesitancy in some parents. When the chicken pox vaccine first became available, in the 1990s, uptake was slow—until public schools started requiring it. Meissner, who sits on the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee, said he thinks schools are unlikely to require a vaccine that is authorized only for emergency use. But there is genuine debate among advisory groups about whether to mandate COVID-19 vaccination at all. “Once you require a vaccine,” Meissner says, “a lot of people who ordinarily might get the vaccine become indignant and say, ‘I’m not going to be told what I have to do for myself or my family.’”In the long term, the COVID-19 virus is unlikely to go away entirely—and neither is the need for vaccination. If the virus continues to mutate or if immunity wanes, annual vaccinations or boosters every few years might be necessary. The vaccines could also become part of the recommended childhood immunization schedule. Experts say this is the best way to ensure that the entire population remains protected. “The most successful implementation programs are universal pediatric programs,” Kathleen Neuzil, a vaccine researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told me. Parents are already used to their children getting shots from pediatricians, and pediatricians are already used to vaccinating large numbers of children. Although children may not be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, they will be when they reach adulthood. And vaccinating large numbers of adults, as the world is currently finding, is very difficult indeed.Molly Hering, who is participating in the Pfizer trial, doesn’t yet know whether she got the placebo or the actual vaccine. She and her brother are using an app to track their side effects; she had some nausea and headaches after she first got the shot, while he had a low fever. They are going back for their second shots this week. For childhood vaccinations to help slow the spread of the virus, more volunteers will have to join them in the trials.
Undoing Trump’s Damage Is Going to Be Hard Work
When President Joe Biden takes office later this month, his administration will get to work reversing some of the Trump administration’s most controversial and destructive policies, including the elimination of key environmental protections, the creation of new immigration restrictions, and the sabotage of the Affordable Care Act.After the Georgia runoffs, it’s tempting to think that a Democratic Congress could just legislate these policies away. But the Senate filibuster is likely to remain intact for now, effectively giving Republicans a veto over legislative efforts to undo President Donald Trump’s regulatory legacy.Nor can President Biden reverse the damage just by signing a fat stack of executive orders. Instead, the law requires federal agencies to follow certain procedures—many quite persnickety—when they make changes to government policy. And reversing Trump-era policy is all the more difficult because the administration is using its remaining days in office to create additional procedural obstacles to insulate its decisions from reversal.The Biden administration will therefore have to balance a desire for speed against the need to protect its actions from court challenges. The threat of judicial review looms especially large because President Trump has stacked the courts with zealous conservatives who view the administrative state with suspicion and who are unlikely to take a charitable view of the new administration’s actions.[Read: The Democrats’ Supreme Court Hail Mary]That will put a premium on good and creative lawyering. How can federal agencies move quickly while minding their p’s and q’s?There’s no single answer to that question; instead, much will depend on the specific legal rules that apply to different types of policies. Some will be easy to reverse—President Biden can rejoin the Paris climate accords without much fuss. Others will be harder—undoing the rollback of habitat protections for threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, for example, may require a cumbersome notice-and-comment process.Nowhere will the trade-off between speed and procedural regularity be posed more starkly than in the context of Medicaid work requirements. Addressing them will be an early test of the Biden administration’s nimbleness and competence.On the long list of the Trump administration’s bad policies, allowing the states to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients ranks high. Such requirements serve no good purpose: Data show that they don’t serve their ostensible goal of increasing employment. All they do is create onerous paperwork and strip poor people, potentially 4 million of them, of their health insurance.Still, 19 Republican-controlled states asked the Trump administration to waive parts of the Medicaid statute to allow them to impose work requirements. The Trump administration has so far granted eight such waivers, but, for now, federal courts in Washington, D.C., have ruled that they’re illegal. The courts’ reasoning is simple: By law, a Medicaid waiver has to advance the program’s core objective, which is providing health coverage. Taking insurance away from people doesn’t advance that objective; it’s inimical to it.[The human cost of work requirements]The courts’ opinions are strong and well reasoned. Last month, however, the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases about the validity of work requirements in Arkansas and New Hampshire. It’s possible—even likely, as I’ve written elsewhere—that work requirements may get a sympathetic hearing from the conservative justices. If so, the waivers could spring back into effect—in the midst of a global pandemic, no less.A decision upholding work requirements would also set a dangerous precedent. Absent Supreme Court intervention, as Ian Millhiser noted at Vox, “a future Republican administration would likely have to spend months or even years litigating the question of whether work requirements are permitted.” But if the Supreme Court blesses the requirements, Republicans could quickly move to impose them the next time they win the White House.So the race is on for the Biden administration to withdraw the waivers before the Supreme Court issues its decision, probably sometime in May or June.Easier said than done. By regulation, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services—Xavier Becerra, if he’s confirmed—can withdraw waivers when he concludes that they no longer advance Medicaid’s purposes. In doing so, however, HHS has to abide by certain procedures it agreed to follow when it granted the waivers.[Read: Why states want certain Americans to work for Medicaid]Until two weeks ago, those procedures were modest. The agency would have had only to give objecting states “a hearing to challenge” the withdrawal before it took effect. In practice, that afforded HHS lots of flexibility. Some hearings are elaborate, formal, and in person—think here of a criminal proceeding. Others are brief, casual, and on paper—the process you might use, for example, to challenge a parking ticket.To eliminate work requirements, the agency could have held expedited, stripped-down hearings—ones that gave the states a chance to make their case, but that didn’t bog the agency down in a procedural morass. If HHS sprinted, it could have finished its hearings before the Supreme Court acted. At that point, the work-requirement cases would have been dismissed as moot, much as the Court, in a case last term, dismissed as moot a challenge to a New York gun law that had since been repealed.On January 4, however, the Trump administration announced that it was changing the rules. In a seemingly innocuous letter to state Medicaid directors, the director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Seema Verma, offered “additional details of the process” for withdrawing waivers. One of those new details is that no withdrawal can take effect for at least nine months.The change is a brazen, cynical attempt to protect work requirements long enough for the Supreme Court to rule on them. And while it’s dastardly, it’s also clever. When the states agree to the terms of Verma’s letter—and Republican-controlled states certainly will, if they haven’t already—its terms arguably become enforceable as a kind of intergovernmental contract. I say “arguably” because the letter itself may be legally defective, as two Democratic congressional leaders have already argued in an angry missive to Verma. But the possibility that the courts might treat it as binding means that it’d be risky for the Biden team to withdraw the waivers before nine months are up.The Biden administration still has options, however—and here’s where the creative lawyering comes in. Among the states that have sought to impose work requirements, Michigan is really unusual. The state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is a Democrat who has been vocal about her distaste for work requirements. She has stuck with them only because, under the prior Republican governor, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a law requiring her to keep them in place. (From March to August 2020, I served as special counsel to Whitmer on her COVID-19 response.)Whitmer doesn’t want to make it harder for Biden to undo work requirements, which is why Michigan won’t be keen to sign Verma’s letter. Without Michigan’s signature, the old rules allowing for an expedited paper hearing would still apply in the state. And a quick hearing for Michigan would give the Biden administration leverage to put the Supreme Court case on hold while the other states’ waivers were withdrawn. Here’s how it might work. Shortly after Biden takes office, his HHS could announce that it will be withdrawing all the work-requirement waivers. Most of the withdrawals would take effect nine months later, per Verma’s letter, but Michigan’s would take effect much sooner—say, on May 1.Moving on an expedited timeline, the agency would develop an exhaustive and carefully considered explanation for the withdrawals. To anticipate red-state objections, the explanation would make two things abundantly clear: first, that the agency has reconsidered its legal position about the compatibility of work requirements with the Medicaid statute, and second, that the agency no longer interprets the available evidence to suggest that such requirements can reasonably be expected to make people healthier.Once Michigan’s waiver was withdrawn, the remaining waivers would be doomed. The Justice Department would then have a compelling reason to ask the Supreme Court to dismiss the pending cases involving Arkansas and New Hampshire—or at least delay ruling on them. There’s no need for the Court to resolve difficult, controversial cases that will become moot within months.The department could also argue, with real force, that the outgoing administration shouldn’t be allowed to manipulate procedural rules in order to manufacture a basis for a Court decision. Doing so would be especially anomalous given that work requirements are operationally complex and depend on extensive outreach to Medicaid beneficiaries. Even if the Court approved of work requirements in the early summer, neither Arkansas nor New Hampshire would have enough time to impose them before the withdrawal of their waivers became effective in the fall.Will this approach work? Maybe. The Supreme Court could still plow ahead with the cases on the technical ground that the Arkansas and New Hampshire waivers would be valid for a few months more. And counting on the forbearance of the conservative supermajority might be dicey. Still, the strategy is both straightforward and plausible.Now that Democrats have taken the Senate, however, a second potential avenue for getting rid of work requirements may have opened in Congress, even if the filibuster remains intact.The Congressional Review Act is an obscure law that allows a bare majority of the legislature to repeal Trump-era rules enacted within the administration’s last two months—so-called midnight rules. Matthew Lawrence, a law professor at Emory University, has argued that Congress might be able to characterize the work-requirement waivers as “rules” and invoke the law to rescind them.Though Lawrence doesn’t go this far, waivers that were adopted several years ago might even be subject to the Congressional Review Act on the theory that they were never submitted to Congress for its consideration. (In 2018, the Republican-controlled Congress exploited that loophole when it eliminated a 2013 automobile-pricing guidance document from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.)Using the act would have two key advantages: First, Congress’s decision wouldn’t be subject to court review. Second, HHS would be prohibited from reissuing waivers that are “substantially the same” as the Trump-era waivers. Work requirements might be off the table forever.This legal strategy, though clever, is far from airtight. Using the Congressional Review Act might require Congress to get a positive legal opinion from the Government Accountability Office, which may not agree that waivers count as “rules” and, in any event, is unlikely to move quickly. In addition, the act is a somewhat blunt tool. Simply canceling waivers that are bound up in broader state Medicaid programs may create more problems than it solves. A more surgical, agency-led response would likely be preferable.Whatever the Biden administration chooses to do, the broader point is that even the simple act of rescinding waivers is hard. Remaking policy in other domains will be harder still. That’s why undoing what the Trump administration has done can’t happen overnight. It will take years of patient work, overseen by lawyers who marry close attention to detail with the urgency that the times demand.It won’t be easy. But it’ll be worth it.
How to Feel Successful Without Keeping Score
“How to Build a Life” is a column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Starting today, the column will be published weekly on Thursday mornings.I am an inveterate scorekeeper. I can go back decades and find lists of goals I set for myself to gauge “success” by certain milestone birthdays. For example, in my 20s, I had a to-do list for the decade, the items on which more or less told the story of a penniless musician who had made some dubious choices. It included quitting smoking, going to the dentist, mastering my pentatonic scales, and finishing college. (I hit them all, although the last one mere days before my 30th birthday.)There is nothing unusual about this tendency to keep score. Google “30 things to do before you turn 30” and you will get more than 15,000 results. Researchers writing in the journal Psychological Science a few years ago observed that people are naturally motivated toward performance goals related to round numbers, and birthdays in particular can often act as landmarks to motivate self-improvement. We naturally seek outside sources of quantitative evidence of our progress and effectiveness—and, thus, our happiness.Building a “30 by 30” list, however, is a misbegotten approach to happiness. Not that anyone in our material- and achievement-oriented society could be faulted for thinking this way, of course. Every cultural message we get is that happiness can be read off a scorecard of money, education, experiences, relationships, and prestige. Want the happiest life? Check the boxes of success and adventure, and do it as early as possible! Then move on to the next set of boxes. She who dies with the most checked boxes wins, right?Wrong. I don’t mean that accomplishment and ambition are bad, but that they are simply not the drivers of our happiness. By the time many people figure this out on their own, they have spent a lifetime checking things off lists, yet are unhappy and don’t know why.The economist Joseph Schumpeter once wrote that entrepreneurs love to earn fortunes “as an index of success and as a symptom of victory.” That is, every million or billion is another box checked to provide an entrepreneur with a feeling of self-worth and success. Given our finances, most of us don’t have this exact problem. However, we do the same thing all the time in our own way, whether it’s taking a certain job for what it says about us to others, or selecting friends for the social prestige they’ll bring us.We have every evolutionary reason to want to keep score in life—passing on genes is a competitive business, after all. But there is no evidence that Mother Nature gives two hoots whether we are happy or not. And, in fact, this kind of scorekeeping is a happiness error for two reasons: It makes us dependent on external rewards, and it sets us up for dissatisfaction.[Read: ‘Success addicts’ choose being special over being happy]You can be motivated to do something intrinsically (it gives you satisfaction and enjoyment) or extrinsically (you are given a reward, such as money or recognition). Most people know that intrinsic rewards are the sweeter of the two. That’s basically what graduation speakers mean when they employ hoary nostrums such as “Find a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life.”But there’s a twist: Psychologists have found that extrinsic rewards can actually extinguish intrinsic rewards, leading us to enjoy our activities less. In a classic 1973 study, researchers at Stanford and the University of Michigan showed this in an experiment with preschoolers. The researchers allowed a group of kids to choose their preferred play activities—for example, drawing with markers—which they happily did. The kids were later rewarded for that activity with a certificate featuring a gold seal and a ribbon. The researchers found that after they had been given the certificate, the children became only about half as likely to want to draw when they weren’t offered one. Over the following decades, many studies have shown the same pattern for a wide variety of activities, across many demographic groups.Relying on external rewards lowers satisfaction. You will like your job less if your primary motivation is prestige or money. You will appreciate your relationships less if you choose your friends and partners based on their social standing. You will relish your vacation less if you choose the destination for how it will look on social media.The scorecard approach to life also feeds right into a known human tendency that drives us away from happiness: People often have trouble finding lasting satisfaction from worldly rewards, because as soon as we acquire something, our desire resets and we are looking to the next reward. Check one box, and another one immediately appears. And, of course, it’s always a bigger box. No one envisions life’s boxes in terms of downward mobility: “By 40, I aim to make less money and no longer own my home!” It’s always aspirational: We will have more, perform better, get richer.[Read: How money became the measure of everything]Again, there’s nothing wrong with aspiration. But if your happiness depends on an escalating list of worldly accomplishments, you might soon find that your fear of failure supplants your ambition.To increase our happiness, we need better questions than “What accomplishments should be on my scorecard?” Let me suggest a few that will lead to answers that can deliver authentic well-being.1. Who has intrinsic characteristics that I admire and want to emulate?Money, possessions, and power are all characteristics extrinsic to a person. Therefore, emulating them in others will lead you to extrinsic motivations for your own activities, which, as we have seen, will likely lower happiness. Instead, look for admirable intrinsic characteristics in others—virtues such as compassion, faith, fortitude, and honesty. Imitating these characteristics cultivates intrinsic motivations. Thus, they are the best criteria for finding the right role models and mentors to imitate and learn from.2. What do people most need from me, and how can I provide it?The box-checking exercise tends to be about my wants. Shifting it to others’ needs brings greater well-being. This is straightforward: Decades of research—and millennia of common sense—have shown that self-centeredness leads to fluctuating emotions at best, while a focus on the needs of others can bring stable happiness. And lest you think this makes a person passive or unambitious, note that there is a significant body of evidence showing that a focus on the good of one’s institution (as opposed to oneself) enhances career success as well.[Read: Four rules for identifying your life’s work]3. What is my life’s purpose?Heavy question, I know. But we all know that sooner or later, it has to be addressed, and the box-checking approach to success manifestly does not do that. It is little more than an exercise in answering the “what” questions of life: what you do for work, what you own, what people think of you. As my friend the management expert Simon Sinek likes to point out, understanding our purpose comes from answers to life’s “why” questions. These answers deliver both success and happiness, but they require serious thought and reflection.Scorecards of self-focused, worldly rewards are easy to create by looking at any “30 by 30” bucket list. But they won’t lead any of us to happiness. For that, we need better metaphors for growth and progress than a list. I would suggest a light.Instead of checking items off a list, the Buddha suggests shining a light on yourself and others. “Dwell as a lamp unto yourself,” he advised his disciple Ananda. He meant that happiness comes from the illumination of your greatest virtues, thus showing the way for other people, and making visible to yourself your true purpose. This ancient wisdom is a near-perfect summary of what the research says will bring us true well-being as we make our way through life.
Kamala Harris Is the Decider
Kamala Harris’s vice presidency was already shaping up to be a uniquely consequential one. Now Democratic control of the Senate has propelled her to the front of the political scene, where she’ll be breaking ties and giving President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda a chance at life.Being part of the president’s deliberative process is already a major step for a vice president—before Walter Mondale, the office lacked any precedent or model for West Wing power-sharing. Now Biden and Harris may offer a vision of an even more empowered vice president, able to champion legislation herself, use her bully pulpit, and potentially break ties to protect her own policy priorities. No vice president has done all of that before, but Harris could.An evenly split Senate is rare, but party leaders have worked out power-sharing agreements before to ensure smooth operations, most recently after the 2000 election. Tie-breaking votes are more common (vice presidents have cast them 268 times), and have happened more frequently in the past 20 years than they used to.That uptick coincided with the emergence of the modern vice presidency, Joel Goldstein, a vice-presidential scholar, told me. Though originally considered a legislative officer, since Richard Nixon’s term the vice president has served primarily as a member of the executive branch. Modern veeps rarely spend time in the Senate except on ceremonial occasions.[Read: Joe Biden’s vice president could be the most powerful in history]The partisan makeup of the chamber also lends itself to more ties, Goldstein said: Former Vice President Dick Cheney cast most of his eight votes during his first term, when the Senate was either evenly split or closely divided. The closest the Senate ever got to a tie while Biden was vice president was from 2011 to 2013, with 53 Democrats and 47 Republicans—and he never cast a tie-breaking vote.Ties are also more common because of the sorting of parties into homogenous ideological groups, Goldstein told me. “The Senate is more evenly split, and the fact that politics has become increasingly polarized” means fewer senators are willing to cross party lines, and more contentious votes are taken. In addition, the slow rollback of the filibuster means that fewer actions require more than a simple majority—which a vice president can help achieve. Of the 13 ties Mike Pence had to break, half were to confirm Cabinet-level, judicial, or ambassadorial nominations—votes that vice presidents hadn’t had to cast before, because nominations were less disputed. That collection includes the votes to confirm Betsy DeVos as secretary of education in 2017 and Jonathan Allen Kobes as a federal circuit judge in 2018. In each case, increased partisanship set up the vice president to play a major role in advancing the administration’s goals.Harris may have to break even more ties than Pence did—especially on Cabinet picks, coronavirus-relief bills, and electoral reforms, all of which are priorities for the Democrats, as my colleague Elaine Godfrey has reported. Harris may end up being the public face of these deliberations—unless relatively moderate senators like Joe Manchin, Susan Collins, or Lisa Murkowski cross party lines.Harris will be constrained by loyalty to Biden on these votes; television shows like Veep and The West Wing have conjured images of rogue vice presidents turning on their governing partners for key votes, but that has rarely happened—only one vice president, John C. Calhoun, has broken a tie by voting against the president, dooming Andrew Jackson’s nomination of Martin Van Buren to be the ambassador to Great Britain. Calhoun, who chose not to break a tie on a different judicial nomination in order to stymie Jackson, also holds the record for most ties broken.[Read: Why Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris]A vice president voting against a president’s wishes would have been more likely in the 18th and 19th century, Goldstein told me, because deputies weren’t always loyal to the president, either because they weren’t from the same party (like Adams and Jefferson) or because they weren’t in the president’s inner circle (like Kennedy and Johnson). Neither is true for Harris. She hopes to follow Biden’s example as vice president, a Harris aide told me, acting as a full governing partner rather than sticking to a limited set of portfolio issues. (The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss administration matters on the record.)And though vice presidents cast tie-breaking votes as representatives of the administration, they can still claim those votes as part of their political résumés: Should a new version of the CARES Act or the Voting Rights Act face a tie in the Senate, Harris could claim responsibility for its passage.There is a downside to more tie-breaking votes: Harris will have to keep her calendar clear to actually cast those votes—and finicky congressional schedules might make that a nuisance. That logistical hurdle might complicate meetings abroad after the pandemic subsides. And there’s also a potential new problem: If Chief Justice John Roberts opts out of presiding over the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, Harris, as the Senate’s presiding officer, could occupy another visible, though vexing, spot in the chamber she just left. But the choice would be hers.
The Case Against the Iran Deal
Proponents of the Iran nuclear agreement are sounding the alarm. In 2018, the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and since then, Iran has increased the quality and quantity of its uranium enrichment well beyond what the deal allows. Recently, it has even begun enriching uranium to 20 percent, a short distance away from weapons-grade. Iran, JCPOA advocates say, is closer today to producing a bomb than it was in 2015, when the deal was concluded. Only the deal’s renewal, they insist, can prevent the nightmare of a nuclear Iran.“Five years ago, American-led diplomacy produced a deal that ensured it would take Iran at least a year to produce enough fissile material for one bomb,” Joe Biden wrote in September. “Now—because Trump let Iran off the hook from its obligations under the nuclear deal—Tehran’s ‘breakout time’ is down to just a few months.” More recently, he warned that if Iran gets the bomb, then Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt will follow.Why, then, aren’t Israelis and Arabs—those with the most to lose from Iranian nuclearization—also demanding a return to the JCPOA? Why aren’t they panicking over its dissolution? The answer is simple: The JCPOA didn’t diminish the Iranian nuclear threat; it magnified it.[Dennis Ross: There’s a deal to be had between the U.S. and Iran]Iran needs to acquire three components in order to become a military nuclear power: highly enriched uranium, a functional warhead, and a missile capable of delivering it. The JCPOA addresses only the first of these efforts in any detail, and even then, offers merely partial and temporary solutions. The deal largely ignores the second effort, and actually advances the third.The JCPOA did limit Iran’s immediate ability to enrich enough uranium for a bomb. It reduced the regime’s uranium stockpile by 97 percent, mothballed two-thirds of its centrifuges, and re-designated two of its major nuclear facilities as civilian research centers. Uranium enrichment was capped at 3.7 percent, far short of weapons-grade. These concessions were intended to extend the time Iran needed to enrich enough uranium for a single bomb from approximately three months to a year. Should Iran attempt to break out and go nuclear, advocates explained, the international community would have enough time to intervene. The JCPOA, they asserted, blocked all of Iran’s paths to a bomb.But the JCPOA allowed Iran to retain its massive nuclear infrastructure, unnecessary for a civilian energy program but essential for a military nuclear program. The agreement did not shut down a single nuclear facility or destroy a single centrifuge. The ease and speed with which Iran has resumed producing large amounts of more highly enriched uranium—doing so at a time of its own choosing—illustrates the danger of leaving the regime with these capabilities. In fact, the JCPOA blocks nothing.If the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment were inadequate, they were also designed to be short-lived, some sunsetting as early as 2024. Meanwhile, the deal allowed the regime to develop advanced centrifuges capable of spinning out more highly enriched uranium in far less time. Less than a decade from now, Iran will be legally able to produce and stockpile enough fissile material for dozens of bombs. The 97 percent reduction of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile achieved by the JCPOA would be swiftly undone. Breakout time would no longer be a year, or even three months, but a matter of weeks.This isn’t just the assessment of the deal’s opponents, but also that of its principal architect. “If in year 13, 14, 15 [after making the deal], they have advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium fairly rapidly, the breakout time would have shrunk almost down to zero,” President Barack Obama acknowledged in an April 2015 interview with NPR.Realizing that the JCPOA guaranteed Iran’s future ability to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey accelerated their search for nuclear options as soon as the deal was signed. The JCPOA’s opponents never feared that Iran would violate the deal, but rather, they feared that the regime would keep it—waiting out the sunset clauses and emerging with the ability to produce enough uranium for a nuclear arsenal.The deal, then, allows Iran to eventually possess the first component for a bomb: a stockpile of highly enriched uranium. Next it needs a warhead. Despite Iran’s insistence that it has never tried to build a bomb, Western intelligence officials have long determined that it did, but believed that the regime suspended its efforts in 2003. The weapons program was directed by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear scientist and general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, who was assassinated in November. In a recording obtained by Israel and shared with the United States in 2008, Fakhrizadeh explained that the secret efforts in fact continued and that Iran intended to initially produce five nuclear warheads.[Michael Oren: The three myths of the Iran deal]The possibility that Iran might still be trying to build a bomb did not, however, preoccupy the framers of the JCPOA. Of the deal’s 159 pages, only half of one page addresses Iranian weaponization, and it contains no mandate for international action. Although there are provisions for inspecting enrichment-related facilities, none exist for inspecting potential bomb-making sites or punishing Iran should any be discovered. Instead, there is merely an Iranian declaration that it will not try to make a bomb—a promise that Iran, which has systematically lied about its nuclear program for decades, has repeatedly broken in the past.The recklessness of this omission became even more glaring three years ago, after Israel exposed Iran’s secret nuclear archive. Among its many thousands of pages were documents detailing undeclared nuclear sites and radioactive materials, as well as blueprints for a missile-borne bomb. More damning, the archive confirmed that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program did not stop in 2003 but was merely split into overt and covert channels, some of them embedded in prestigious universities, and both aspects of the program were headed by Fakhrizadeh. The goal, he states in the documents, was to maintain “special activities … under the title of Scientific Development” that “leave no identifiable traces.”These revelations underlined the fatal flaws of the JCPOA. The very existence of a secret archive was a flagrant violation of Iran’s obligation to come clean about its previous weaponization work. And it was exposed not by international inspectors, but by Israel’s Mossad. Advocates of the deal are hard-pressed to explain why Iran would keep, conceal, and repeatedly relocate designs for a nuclear weapon unless it wanted to preserve the option of someday making one.With its nuclear infrastructure intact, its work on advanced centrifuges proceeding, and restrictions on enrichment ending with the sunset clauses, Iran’s future nuclear stockpile of enriched uranium is ensured. And with its weaponization-related efforts unimpeded, the regime needs only a system for delivering a bomb. The regime already possesses Shahab-3 missiles, based on the North Korean No-dong, capable of hitting any country in the Middle East and even nations as far away as Romania. The archive contains detailed plans for fitting a nuclear warhead on the Shahab-3. Iran aims to expand its threat to Western Europe and the United States by developing intercontinental ballistic missiles. Intelligence sources agree that the rockets Iran has already developed for its space program can easily be converted to ICBMs. Iran’s missile development violates a UN ban on its missile program—a prohibition the international community has failed to enforce. In 2023, however, the JCPOA will lift that ban entirely.[Read: The Iran deal is strategically and morally absurd]The JCPOA, then, has not substantially blocked any of Iran’s efforts. The violations that Iran has committed since America’s withdrawal from the deal, and more intensively in recent months, will pale compared with the industrial-scale enrichment program the JCPOA ultimately permits. Combined with its weaponization-related work and its missile development, this will position Iran to become a global nuclear power.In return for merely postponing that outcome, the deal rewards Iran extravagantly. The JCPOA infused the Iranian economy with tens of billions of dollars in immediate sanctions relief and trade deals and promised to provide hundreds of billions more. Yet rather than invest in its decaying infrastructure, the regime used portions of this windfall to expand its international terror network, enhance the offensive capabilities of Hamas and Hezbollah, and further assist the Syrian regime in massacring and uprooting its own people. In addition to extending its dominance of Lebanon, Iran has consolidated its influence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Gaza. Rather than buying Iran’s moderation, the JCPOA helped fund its quest for regional hegemony.Exporting terror and instability, massacring and expelling Syrian Sunnis, and trying to kill Israelis—all of these Iranian activities were blandly subsumed by the JCPOA’s framers under the term malign activity. The deal was intended to serve as a precedent for international cooperation in addressing these crimes, but in practice, little has happened. Instead, desperate to preserve the agreement, signatories have ignored the regime’s aggression. The failure to address this “malign activity” reflects a near-total unwillingness to confront Iran and signals that the regime generally has little to fear from international interference.The sermons and military processions accompanied by chants of “Death to Israel”; Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, calling for the elimination of the Israeli “cancer”; even a recent bill proposed in the Iranian parliament that would commit the government to “eliminate” Israel by 2041—all of these outrages and more are taken for granted by the international community. Yet no other country today so publicly and repeatedly declares its intentions to annihilate a fellow UN member state, linking its national purpose to that goal. At the same time, Iran has committed enormous resources and paid a staggering economic and diplomatic price to develop the means to fulfill its genocidal vision. The weaknesses of the JCPOA only deepen Israel’s fear that the international community is taking the inevitability of Iran’s nuclear-weapons capability for granted, too.Israel has vowed to prevent the regime from going nuclear, so the Iranians are investing in massive deterrence. In the Middle Eastern countries under its domination, Iran has deployed tens of thousands of missiles, a growing number of them highly accurate and capable of hitting anywhere in Israel. Though some observers now claim that Iran’s missiles, rather than its nuclear program, most endanger the region, they have it backwards. The missiles are a tactical means to a strategic nuclear end. They are intended to deter Israeli efforts to stop Iran from moving toward breakout. Even so, Israel can handle the conventional missile threat, however costly, but the nuclear threat could be existential.The flaws with the JCPOA are painfully obvious to both Arab and Israeli leaders. Why, then, did the international community ever agree to such a deal? For Europe, in particular, financial interests were involved. For America, though, the impetus was more complex. The Obama administration seemed to genuinely believe that Iran was capable of change. If it were treated respectfully and reintegrated into the international community, Obama maintained, Iran would lose interest in a nuclear bomb long before the deal expired, choosing instead to become “a successful regional power.” The regime would finally begin addressing the needs of its restive citizens and cease supporting terror. From the very beginning of his presidency, Obama pursued reconciliation with Iran, along with Palestinian-Israeli peace, as the centerpiece of his Middle East policy.The JCPOA was supposed to provide Iran with the time and the incentive to moderate; instead, it gave Iran the means and the legitimacy to intensify its aggression now, while enabling it to go nuclear later. Much of the American public, meanwhile, exhausted by two Middle Eastern wars, feared becoming embroiled in another overseas conflict. Many Americans believed Obama when he insisted that “all options are on the table,” and that the only alternative to the deal was war.In fact, the alternative to the president’s approach was tougher diplomacy, aimed at producing a better deal. But that would have required pressing Iran with even harsher sanctions and posing a credible threat of military action, neither of which the administration was willing to do. The “punishing sanctions” for which the administration took credit, and which brought Iran to the negotiating table, originated in Congress and were approved over the administration’s objections.Rather than forcing Iran’s hand, the administration made far-reaching concessions at the very outset of the secret talks in 2012. American negotiators effectively recognized the regime’s “right to enrich,” overriding UN resolutions denying it that right, and even dropped their previous demand for a temporary freeze of enrichment. This essentially reduced the rest of the negotiations to wrangling over the details.From the outset, the Obama administration was so wary of antagonizing Iran that it consistently overlooked the regime’s outrages—including a 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi and Israeli ambassadors in Washington (the Israeli ambassador at the time was Michael Oren, a co-author of this essay) and the routine harassment of U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf. No reckoning was sought for Iran’s complicity in the Syrian civil war, which has left some 500,000 civilians dead and 11 million homeless. Obama’s refusal to uphold his own red line regarding the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in 2013 was viewed by Israel and by Arab governments—and no doubt by Iran—as a further sign of his determination to placate Tehran.And yet, even if America had the will, denying nuclear weapons to Iran was always fraught with risk. For religious and nationalist reasons, the regime sees itself as the Middle East’s rightful ruler, as well as a global force. More than anything else, though, Iran’s nuclear program is about the regime’s survival. Its leaders saw how the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi terminated their nuclear-weapons programs, and were later toppled and executed. They see how North Korea’s deliverable bombs have won Kim Jong Un power and immunity. They know which example to emulate.Still, Iran can be stopped.Although every new administration seeks to distinguish itself from its predecessor—and this incoming administration all the more so—President Joe Biden should not squander the leverage he has inherited. The reimposition and intensification of American sanctions has placed enormous pressure on the Iranian regime. After waiting out the old administration in the hope that 2021 would bring a new one, the regime is now trying to intimidate Biden into renewing the JCPOA. It is hardly coincidence that the regime waited two years before approaching 20 percent enrichment—which it could have done at any time—but is doing so only now, with the onset of the new administration. The regime responds to pressure and acts defiantly when it senses hesitation. Biden must not give in to this nuclear blackmail.The JCPOA allowed Iran to both maintain its nuclear program and revitalize its economy. Biden must make clear to Tehran that it can have one or the other, but not both. Tragically, spokespeople for the new administration are proposing to return to the JCPOA and lift sanctions, and only afterward negotiate a longer, stronger deal. Such a course has no chance of success. Even a partial lifting of sanctions would forfeit any leverage that could compel the regime to negotiate a deal that genuinely removes the danger of a nuclear Iran. At best, the regime will agree to cosmetic changes—for example, extending the sunset clauses—but not to dismantling its nuclear infrastructure. A fatally flawed deal would remain essentially intact.The Biden administration must resist pressure from members of Congress and others who are urging an unconditional return to the JCPOA. Even the deal’s fervent supporters need to recognize that its fundamental assumptions—that Iran had abandoned its quest for a military nuclear option and would moderate its behavior—have been thoroughly disproved.At the same time, America must consult its Middle East allies about what they think a better deal would look like. Such a deal would verifiably and permanently remove Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. This means not merely mothballing the nuclear infrastructure, but eliminating it. It means empowering international inspectors with unlimited and immediate access to any suspect enrichment or weaponization site. It means maintaining economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime until it truly comes clean about its undeclared nuclear activities and ceases to develop missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. A better deal will deny Iran the ability to commit the violations it is now committing with impunity.Achieving these objectives will require close and candid cooperation among the United States, Israel, and concerned Arab states. Such cooperation was not possible in the negotiations leading up to the JCPOA, which America initially conducted behind the backs of its Middle Eastern partners. In the final stages, U.S. officials misled their Israeli and Arab counterparts about America’s negotiating positions. This displayed not only bad faith, but a patronizing presumption of knowing the vital security interests of the countries most threatened by Iran better than they knew those interests themselves.The incoming administration has declared its determination to restore the trust of America’s allies, along with promoting peace and human rights. But those objectives are incompatible with renewing a deal that betrayed America’s allies, strengthened one of the world’s most repressive regimes, and empowered the Middle Eastern state most opposed to peace.The JCPOA is also incompatible with President Biden’s long-standing commitment to Israel’s security. At a 2015 gathering celebrating Israel’s independence, then–Vice President Biden said: “Israel is absolutely essential—absolutely essential—[for the] security of Jews around the world … Imagine what it would say about humanity and the future of the 21st century if Israel were not sustained, vibrant and free.”Reviving the JCPOA will endanger that vision, ensuring the emergence of a nuclear Iran or a desperate war to stop it. Biden is a proven friend who has shared Israel’s hopes and fears. He must prevent that nightmare.
Joe Biden Has a Europe Problem
Joe Biden begins his first full day as the 46th president of the United States today with as daunting a list of foreign-policy challenges as almost any of his predecessors. After four years of Donald Trump, the new administration must overcome skepticism about America’s ability to deal with the great tests facing the world, including the rise of China as a 21st-century superpower, the spread of nuclear weapons, and the onslaught of man-made climate change. To this list can be added a new issue: patching up the transatlantic alliance.Last month, with Biden’s inauguration just weeks away, the European Union and China pushed a new economic agreement over the line. The actual terms of the China Investment Agreement remain unclear—the text is still to be finalized—but the broad outline is simple enough: a deeper trading relationship based on common and apparently enforceable standards. According to the EU, the deal ties Beijing to a new “values-based investment relationship” that will protect labor and environmental standards, and help root China in the rules-based global order. This is Europe fulfilling the global role it has cast for itself as a “regulatory superpower,” exporting and defending its values through its economic size.Yet this is not how the agreement is seen in Washington. Brussels went forward with the deal despite a very public plea from the incoming administration to hold fire. Four years of Europe-bashing by Donald Trump, it seems, had hardened European hearts in favor of a pointed display of “strategic autonomy.” Autonomy from whom you might ask? The United States is the only answer.Europe’s refusal to wait until yesterday’s transfer of power in Washington is an indication of the extent to which the world has changed since Biden was last in government. Today’s Europe is not prepared to “consult” the U.S. before signing an agreement of such importance, as Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, requested—and it rejects the very notion that it should have to. Just because the U.S. defends Europe does not mean a kind of Brezhnev doctrine of obedience is in place, the EU argues.[Read: The world order that Donald Trump revealed]In one sense, then, Biden’s Europe problem is obvious: The continent that the U.S. fought two wars to free, paid to rebuild, and has spent 75 years protecting at great, uneven, and continuing cost is now striking deals behind its back with its main strategic rival. Some ally. In this telling, Trump’s shortsighted and unpredictable malevolence has created the world that he claimed already existed but that, in fact, did not: one in which the U.S. is being taken for a ride by allies that are no such thing.This deal with China, however, masks an altogether more profound problem for Biden: not European strength, but weakness. For much of the past few years—and particularly the past few weeks—the specter that has haunted the West is one of American decline. In contrast, Europe, embodied by that most unlikely of liberal heroes, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, had come of age and was the real leader of the free world. Europe had its problems, the argument went, but was showing none of the morbid symptoms on display at the Capitol this month.While the U.S. clearly does have significant problems to overcome, though, these should not overshadow some of the systemic challenges facing Europe, which may prove in time to be far more serious than those in America.In 2007, following years of solid growth, the EU’s economy was slightly larger than that of the U.S., according to the World Bank, and both were drastically larger than China’s. By 2019, the American economy had grown by around 50 percent, whereas the EU’s had essentially flatlined. China, meanwhile, had all but caught up with the EU. George Magnus, an economist at Oxford University’s China Centre, told me that the trend over the past decade was clear: American resurgence and European stagnation. Since 2010, the U.S. share of the global economy has not only held, but increased, from 23 percent to 25 percent, according to International Monetary Fund data used by Magnus. Europe’s has shrunk from 21.5 percent to 17.5 percent, even including Britain in the total.If you take Europe’s perspective that economic heft is its own form of might, then it is Europe that is in relative decline, not America.One notable aspect of the past few weeks is the steady discrediting of Trumpism as a political ideology, but without the cost of an economic revolution that might erode America’s extraordinary strength, at least so far. Europe, meanwhile, even as its second-biggest economy, Britain, opted to leave, has yet to face a moment of crisis, because its decline is not so obvious—a steady, creeping crisis rather than a bombastic one as seen across the Atlantic.European diplomats are concerned, for example, that the continent—including Britain—simply does not have the industrial or technological base to compete with the U.S. or China. Of the top 50 companies in the world by market capitalization, only three are headquartered in the EU, and only one of those is involved in technology. The U.S., by contrast, has 34, 10 of which are tech-focused. With Britain’s departure, the EU also has only one university in the top 50 in the world, and has lost the continent’s global financial hub, London. Even the region’s economic engine, Germany, has question marks hanging over it: Tesla, for example, is worth more than all of Germany’s main car manufacturers combined.[Read: Britain is holding its breath]On top of this, although the EU has shown admirable political unity over Brexit, it remains a politically weak confederation of states that have hugely different economies and interests, featuring higher levels of economic inequality than even the U.S., with poorer southern Europe lagging far behind wealthy northern countries. It must also now deal with a pesky regional competitor in Britain, whose future remains unclear.Henry Kissinger once described the newly unified Germany as “too big for Europe, but too small for the world.” In some senses, the same might now be true of the EU: It is strong and united enough to be a pain for its erstwhile imperial overlord, but not yet strong enough to strike out completely on its own.There are two strategic calculations for Biden to consider, and both are problematic. The first is that the driving force behind this deal was Merkel. Fundamentally, the German chancellor—and Germany generally—does not want to have to pick sides in a conflict between the U.S. and China, according to analysts I spoke with in Berlin and Washington. The country rejects the very idea of a grouping of democracies to contain China’s rise. It does not want a transatlantic alliance on this issue. By reaching an agreement with Beijing, Merkel hopes to avoid this trap. (Nor will her retirement this year necessarily change much. Her replacement as leader of the center-right Christian Democrats, Armin Laschet, is a moderate Merkelite with a history of soft-pedaling criticism of Russia and China.)The second challenge for Biden is that the EU’s deal with China reveals Germany’s absorption of the French obsession with strategic autonomy from the United States. The inherent danger in this is that it will become self-fulfilling, and Europe could try to achieve economic independence to deal with China while aligning with the U.S. to address the strategic challenge of China’s economic rise. Perhaps Washington will conclude that it’s not particularly happy with this bargain, and seek new international formats to contain China, loosening its commitment to the heavy expense of Europe’s military defense umbrella.Europe sees itself as one of the three great economic powers on Earth, but is it overplaying its hand? Notably, it persists in promoting engagement with Beijing even when some former proponents of America’s engagement policy with China now argue that it was a mistake, an effort exploited by Beijing to build its own power that did little to westernize or democratize its behavior.[Read: Europe can’t blame Donald Trump anymore]What is remarkable about the EU-China deal, which is supposed to show European strategic autonomy, is how unstrategic it appears to be. At first glance, it seems little more than a tactical opening for certain sectors in Europe. The agreement’s defenders have—correctly—said that the deal does not stop the EU from taking measures against China should Beijing not uphold its side of the bargain. Yet an extraordinary naïveté (or, more cynically, a PR spin) appears to be running through the document. The press release welcoming the agreement contains much about the values and commitments that China has signed up to for the first time. It even carries the claim that China has agreed to make “continued and sustained efforts” to uphold international rules against “forced labour,” a reference to Beijing’s ongoing crackdown on Uighurs in Xinjiang. It’s hard to know what’s worse: including such feeble language on slavery or ignoring it.And the early returns are not great. In the days after the deal was announced, China launched a fresh crackdown on prodemocracy protesters in Hong Kong and sent out invitations for a controversial “17+1” meeting between itself and an alliance of Central and Eastern European states, among them EU member states. Is China already dividing and ruling?That other great German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, once remarked that it was always better to be “one of two in a world of three.” Has Europe forgotten this advice? The bloc has many strengths, and has proved over time to be far more resilient than many of its critics dare admit—principally those in Britain who seemed to write it off as they pursued Brexit. But it also remains fundamentally weaker than either the U.S. or China, and risks being left behind by both.Beijing’s goal, Henry Kissenger writes in On China, is not a decisive clash of forces, but “the patient accumulation of relative advantage.” Who out of China, the U.S., and Europe is most obviously accumulating relative advantage and enhancing its strategic position?Europe may wish that it did not have to choose between the U.S. and China, but it might not be able to avoid it. Being in a two with a volatile America might well prove a better choice than being cast alone in the duopoly to come.For Biden, meanwhile, the choice is easier because there isn’t one: His administration will engage and try to rebuild the transatlantic relationship. In the longer term, the greater challenge, however, might prove to be not European independence, but European weakness.
The Atlantic Daily: Biden Gives a Strikingly Normal Speech
Today’s presidential inauguration was mostly remarkable for how unremarkable it was.
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The Technicolor Normalcy of Biden’s Inauguration
Everyone knows that Joe Biden’s presidential aesthetic is purposefully boring: He’s promising a national nap time after Donald Trump’s violent four-year kegger. “Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire,” the new president said during his inauguration address today, speaking where insurrectionists had recently carried Molotov cocktails. It was natural to expect that Biden’s induction ceremony would make for a few hours as healthfully bland as a Zoom yoga session. (That is, unless you were one of the QAnon followers giddily awaiting the Space Force to intervene in the proceedings.)Yet the first twist of the Biden era is that the 46th president’s inauguration was rather lit. It felt more like a trippy, tony masquerade than a crisis-era bureaucratic procedure. By the time of the scorching closing prayer by Reverend Silvester Beaman, late-in-a-Marvel-movie sensory overload had set in. Maybe that was because the pandemic added a dose of surreality via mandatory face wear and a flag-peppered National Mall. Maybe the ceremony hinted at a roaring-2020s cultural shift percolating after the grueling, catastrophic 2010s. In any case, the inauguration offered a reminder that the political dream of “normalcy” is a dream not of dullness, but of joy. Skepticism from the right and the left toward Biden’s gauzy rhetoric won’t and shouldn’t go away. But Wednesday was the moment to revel in the mass psychic unburdening that happens when the guy with the nuclear codes doesn’t openly stoke civil war.[Read: A sermon in America’s civic religion]After all, despite Trump’s gilded decorative tastes, the last inauguration was a bleak nightmare defined by the word carnage and the groans of 3 Doors Down. By contrast, the 2021 inauguration might persist in the public memory as a whirl of fun fashions: the regal purple of the coat swishing around Kamala Harris; the dusk-hour burgundy of Michelle Obama’s pantsuit; the kitschy zigzags of Bernie Sanders’s mittens; the craftwork sparkles on Ella Emhoff’s shoulders; the glimpse of Dior sneakers behind Amy Klobuchar as she speechified. The event was a musical extravaganza too. Americans know the songs of their patriotic canon plenty well, but they haven’t often heard those songs performed quite like they were performed today. The arts-and-culture establishment—which largely sat out Trump-era ceremonies in protest—was back to flaunt its repressed ridiculousness.Saul Loeb/Pool via REUTERSCertainly, any expectations that Lady Gaga would forgo gonzo excess for this sacred gig vanished as soon as she toddled out to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Gaga wanted to give America a feast: She’d braided her hair in the manner of a black-and-white challah; she wore a pouf dress that recalled a red-velvet cupcake; she sported a dove-shaped brooch as enormous as a Chipotle tortilla. (The dove itself snacked on an olive branch.) She then rendered the national anthem in the style of Richard Wagner’s Valkyries, which is really to say in Gaga’s own “Bad Romance” style: guttural, glamorous, serious, silly. When she got to the lyric “our flag was still there,” she turned around and belted to the American flag itself. One might call that maneuver preposterous in any other year, but was it not true that this particular flag persisted through a recent battle to tear it down? For Gaga to bellow any less ferociously, without such tearful commitment, would have been an abdication of duty.Jennifer Lopez’s performance was, by contrast, a feat of musical restraint—at least for a bit. Singing with a delicate tone, she reworked the cadence of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”—a collectivist anthem written by an ancestral foil to the Trump family—to give it an adult-contemporary, democracy-is-fragile smoothness. But the military band’s arrangement and Lopez’s voice gathered fervor as the song went on. Then Lopez pulled off a series of sharp escalations: into the bombast of “America the Beautiful,” into a Spanish-language rendition of the Pledge of Allegiance, and into a mantra from Lopez’s own catalog—“Let’s get loud!” Stately reverence had given way to inclusive chutzpah. “That was great,” Klobuchar said, flatly and correctly, when she took the mic after Lopez.[Photos: The inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr.]The third headlining slot of the show went to Garth Brooks, the slyly kooky country legend. He’d previously joked about being the only Republican at the inauguration, and his participation was advertised as a small sign that Biden’s calls for unity would not go entirely unheeded. Singing “Amazing Grace” a cappella, with his hat in his hand, Brooks’s almost-angelic affect emphasized the meaning of the lyrics “how sweet the sound.” When he asked listeners—in person and at home—to sing along with him for the final verse, the silence that continued to swaddle him felt psychedelically intense. Maybe the senators in attendance were shy about their voices; maybe they were muffled by their masks. But in any case, this was the moment when the absence of in-person inaugural crowds came into focus. If Biden succeeds in his task to free America from pandemics and seditionists, we’ll be able to sing en masse again.Gaga, J.Lo, Garth—these are long-established superstars, and their performances made a strong case for why we have normcore, big-tent entertainers (and, maybe, political leaders) in the first place. But the signature art-statement of the day came from a newcomer. Arrestingly decked in canary yellow and cherry red, the 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman debuted her new work, “The Hill We Climb,” in a flawless five-minute recitation. The poem itself is a hyper-alliterative string of reassuring aphorisms; the most moving passage, about “a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,” was written after the attack on the Capitol. Really it was Gorman’s delivery—flowing with tidal grace, accentuated by symphony-conductor hand motions—that cast a spell in the manner of great music. “We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,” went one line of her poem. The garish hues and the go-for-broke singing of this inauguration suggested a correlated truth: If we achieve true peace, it might get loud.
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The Radical Silence of Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day
Donald Trump’s presidency concluded not with mutiny in state capitals or an attempted attack on his successor, but with a calm, conventional ceremony in an otherwise quiet city.Walking through Washington, D.C., today, the silence in the streets was the sound of a country not quite ready to exhale. It was a fitting end to the noisiest era of American politics that many Americans can remember.[Read: Among the guardsmen]If this had been a normal Inauguration Day, in a normal year, the National Mall would have been covered with hundreds of thousands of shivering people hoping to catch a glimpse of the new president. The streets of the capital would have been packed with out-of-towners ready to pay $25 a head to visit the Spy Museum, and lining up at sidewalk vendors’ tables to buy Kamala Harris–themed merch. But the only civilians I saw downtown during the ceremony were a few committed joggers and a clutch of Joe Biden supporters lingering outside the White House. The showing was so small that journalists seemed to outnumber the revelers; I watched as reporters interviewed the same handful of attendees, over and over again.Democrats in D.C. and beyond have a lot to be grateful for. They replaced Donald Trump with Barack Obama’s former vice president. They elected the first Black woman vice president in U.S. history. But on this day, of all days, they chose to celebrate from the warmth of their homes.That could be a reflection of how complicated this moment really is. More than 400,000 Americans are dead from a pandemic that is still raging. The national vaccine rollout is slow, and new strains of the coronavirus are alarming scientists worldwide. COVID-19 didn’t stop Washingtonians from protesting in the streets this summer, but the country has changed since then. It’s changed a lot in just the past two weeks. Washington, D.C., is in lockdown mode, the result of a far-right delusion that led to a violent insurrection in the seat of American democracy.[Read: A tragic beginning to a presidency.]Chang ​W. Lee / The New York Times / ReduxSeven months ago, I saw demonstrators do the Macarena in Black Lives Matter Plaza, a moment of joy after so many days of marches and die-ins to protest police brutality. I was walking through my neighborhood on November 7 when, at the precise moment that the networks projected Biden the winner, locals exploded out of their homes holding BYE, LOSER! signs and popping bottles of Veuve Clicquot.To get to the plaza today, supporters had to pass through a TSA checkpoint and walk several blocks out of the way. Once they got there, most stood quietly in a circle, listening to the new president’s inaugural address over someone’s portable loudspeaker. A handful of protesters waved BIDEN-HARRIS or FUCK TRUMP flags. A few of them cheered when Biden promised that “the dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.”Diamond Douglas and her mother, Felicia, arrived in D.C. last night from Greenville, South Carolina. They’d come to town for Obama’s first inauguration, when Diamond was in fourth grade, and they wanted to witness history again, with the swearing-in of the first Black woman vice president. Diamond wished she could be closer to the proceedings—to actually see the ceremony, not listen to it from behind a tall fence more than a mile away. “It’s not what I was expecting,” she told me when I asked how she felt about the attendance and the security. “But I have to respect it, because it’s in the best interest for everyone.”
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What It Was Like to Watch Trump Leave
At dawn this morning, workers loaded couches and tables into a moving truck parked outside the West Wing. Men wearing white coveralls and carrying roller brushes and paint cans walked across the north driveway. Inside the White House, pictures of the 45th president had been removed from the walls. Only the hooks remained, ready for a new set of portraits of the 46th.A lone Donald Trump press deputy, Judd Deere, sat in his small office, writing a note on a piece of stationery to whomever would be taking over his desk in a few hours. Deere was attempting to describe what it’s like to work in the building. When I looked in at noon, after the Trump presidency had officially ended, he was gone, his desk cleared. Even the magazine racks hanging on the wall had been emptied.Trump also left a letter for his successor, perhaps the only traditional gesture he’d made in what has been an utterly graceless departure. Breaking one final norm, Trump refused to grant the simple courtesy of attending the inauguration ceremony and greeting the Bidens at the White House to show them their new home, as the Obamas had greeted him four years earlier. It’s not that Trump is merely a sore loser; Trump was even a sore winner, weaving conspiracy theories about how he was robbed of the popular vote in 2016.[Read: Among the Guardsmen]Trump left the White House with his wife, Melania, at about 8:20 a.m., refusing to take questions from the press. He walked to Marine One with an ominous send-off: “I just want to say goodbye, but hopefully it’s not a long-term goodbye. We’ll see each other again.” Later, in a brief departure ceremony at Joint Base Andrews before flying to Florida, he gave a familiar and repetitive summation of what he views as his accomplishments in office. He of course neglected to mention the incident that will come to overshadow everything else that happened over the past four years: a lethal insurrection carried out by his supporters after a rally in which he’d again falsely claimed that the election was stolen. Trump may have no interest in revisiting the riot at the Capitol on January 6 that delayed the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s victory and took five lives, but history won’t forget it.“This is the only president in American history who incited an insurrection against Congress that could have resulted in assassinations and hostage-taking and, conceivably, the cancellation of a free presidential election and the fracturing of a democracy,” Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, told me. “That’s a fact, and it won’t change in 50 years. It’s very hard to think of a scenario under which someone might imagine some wonderful thing that Donald Trump did that will outshine that. He did, literally, the worst thing that an American president could ever do.”By early afternoon, the new Biden aides had arrived in the White House, fresh from the inaugural ceremony. There were predictable hiccups: The incoming deputy press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, came through the press room with a thick binder under her arm and discovered that the door to the West Wing staff section was locked. Jean-Pierre, it turns out, inherited the office that Deere had just vacated. I later asked her if she had gotten his note. She said she hadn’t read it yet, but appreciated that he wrote it.[Read: An Incompetent Authoritarian Is Still a Catastrophe]Shortly after noon today, the main @POTUS, @WhiteHouse, and @VP Twitter accounts had changed hands. Twitter even created an account for Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband, Douglas Emhoff, called @SecondGentleman. Unlike Trump, Biden is not a Twitter obsessive. A Biden transition adviser told me that the new president would not use social media as an “abusive, psychotic mechanism to display insecurity and grievances.”There was no mistaking the new administration for the old. Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, sat behind the desk in her office wearing a mask. Others walked through the offices wearing masks as well. During my visits to the White House last year, I observed staff members walking through hallways and talking to one another without masks. The explanation they’d give was that they were routinely tested for COVID-19. Still, the coronavirus sickened a slew of White House officials from Trump on down.The Biden White House will limit the number of journalists allowed on the grounds at any one time to reduce the risk of infection during the pandemic. Reporters are required to get tested for the virus before coming into the building. By comparison, visitors to the Trump White House might have looked around and concluded that the pandemic didn’t exist.After Trump boarded Marine One for his departure from the White House, tree branches bent and swayed as the blades whipped the air. The helicopter rose slowly from the South Lawn and arced behind the Washington Monument. Had Trump looked out his passenger window, he might have seen the thousands of National Guard troops and razor-topped fences aimed at repelling his supporters should they attempt another insurrection. He might have glimpsed the lights placed near the Lincoln Memorial honoring those who have died from COVID-19, even as he made his empty assurances that the nation had “rounded the turn.”A small group of reporters and TV camera people gathered outside the White House on the north driveway watched quietly. A voice behind me eventually piped up: “Good riddance.”
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Photos: The Inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden
Andrew Harnik / AFP / Getty In Washington, D.C. today, Joe Biden took the oath of office shortly before noon, becoming the 46th President of the United States of America. In front of a small, socially distanced, and well-guarded audience on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn in. Performances were given by singers Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Garth Brooks, and poet Amanda Gorman, and Biden delivered his Inaugural Address to the nation. Gathered below, scenes from a unique moment in American history.
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A Sermon in America’s Civic Religion
Midway through Joe Biden’s first speech as president today, he said something that, in any other inaugural address would have seemed so unobjectionable as to be pointless.“What are the common objects we as Americans love, that define us as Americans?” Biden said. “I think we know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and, yes, the truth.”In 2021, however, that wasn’t just a throwaway line: It drew an ovation from the limited crowd at the event.Biden’s speech was well-wrought, but it offered nothing unusual, nothing surprising, nothing especially memorable. Paradoxically, that was the source of its power. As Biden took the bully pulpit of the presidency, he delivered a sermon in the tradition of America’s civic religion. The basic foundation of American political rhetoric has long been the seamless, platitudinous blend of Christianity, rose-tinted history, and pop culture. Donald Trump discarded this, explicitly courting division and rancor. After four years of Trump, Biden’s bromides sounded newly fresh and relevant.“This is democracy’s day, a day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve,” Biden said. “Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew. And America has risen to the challenge. Today we celebrate the triumph, not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy. The people, the will of the people, has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded.”These shopworn cliches are wheeled out at every inauguration, as much as part of the furniture as the blue carpet and grandstand on the West Front of the Capitol. Many of us learned these ideas so long ago, in elementary-school social-studies classrooms, that they are just background noise.But these statements feel less rote today, less than two weeks after a Trump-incited violent insurrection stormed the same Capitol, seeking to overturn Biden’s election. As the new president said, “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, democracy has prevailed.” He also said the nation was carrying out “the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.” This is not quite true, though. On January 6, five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died.It is not just the immediate context of the attempted coup that brought new meaning to the familiar lines. The whole of the Trump presidency reinforced the importance of these bedrock commitments and demonstrated what happens when they go missing. In 2017, standing in the same place, Trump delivered a stunningly dark warning about “American carnage.” Unlike many of his campaign promises, he delivered on it, with four years of white-supremacist marches, social unrest over policing, and the deaths of 400,000 Americans in a pandemic.The day after Trump’s inauguration, Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted, against all evidence, that Trump had drawn a larger crowd than ever before. The day after that, Trump aide Kellyanne Conway told NBC’s Chuck Todd with a straight face that she was simply offering “alternative facts.” No wonder, then, that a simple invocation of the importance of truth could become an applause line in today’s address.As I have written before about Biden, the ability to sell banalities is something that separates failed politicians from successful ones. Giving a decent speech is one task, though; actually turning lofty rhetoric into results is quote another, and even harder in these polarized times. Many observers, including some elected officials in Biden’s own party, have questioned whether the president’s outreach to Republicans will work. He acknowledged the doubters today.“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days,” he said. “I know that the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we all are created equal, and the harsh ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart.”But Biden insisted that there was a way out. “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” he said. “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”Whether this hope is well-founded, and whether those who supported Trump are willing to listen, will only become clear over time. But some of Biden’s promises should be easier to keep.“I will always level with you. I will defend the Constitution. I'll defend our democracy,” he said. After the last month and the last four years, that alone would represent a great shift.
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Swamp Thing
Trump’s pardons sent an unmistakable message, capping the corruption of his tenure in office.
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Ask Dr. Hamblin: So When Can We Stop Wearing Masks?
Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, James Hamblin takes questions from readers about health-related curiosities, concerns, and obsessions. Have one? Email him at Dr. Hamblin,I'm still confused about what our lives will be like after we are vaccinated. As I understand it, it will still be possible to get the virus, but hopefully the course won’t be as severe or life-threatening. And we are going to have people who won’t even get the vaccine. Do you foresee us still wearing masks for the next year or two? I hate to even type this question.Nancy BernardyNew London, New HampshireNancy,I can’t wait to stop wearing masks. I want to go out without a mask so badly that I’ve been dreaming about it. That’s how far the pandemic has lowered the ambitions of my dreams.Last month, President-elect Joe Biden said he will urge Americans to wear masks for the first 100 days of his presidency. “Just 100 days to mask,” he said, “not forever.” That sounds manageable even for those of us who can’t wait to go out maskless: I’m absolutely sick of this, but I can do 100 more days.Setting this sort of short-term goal can be helpful in making a seemingly endless challenge like this pandemic more manageable. But to be blunt, 100 days is not a realistic end point. On our current trajectory of illness and infection, masks will be part of most Americans’ lives for at least the rest of the year, and possibly longer. My hope is that it will soon be possible to say, as a general rule, that once you’ve been vaccinated, you don’t have to wear a mask. But that depends on two key variables.The first is that a vaccinated person could theoretically still transmit the virus. This isn’t typically an issue after vaccination against respiratory viruses, once your body develops antibodies and other means of immune memory. If you inhale the virus again, these defenses should identify and eradicate it before it multiplies in large numbers. But that doesn’t mean viral particles can’t briefly cling to your nasal cavity and replicate before your body’s alarms go off, creating a brief window in which you could transmit the virus to someone else. This coronavirus warrants special caution because we know that it can be transmitted by people who have no symptoms and low levels of virus in their bodies. That means it is especially adept at lingering in the noses of people without quickly triggering an immune response (which is the source of most symptoms, such as cough, muscle aches, fever).The vaccines that have been rolled out in the U.S. do seem to be extremely, surprisingly effective at preventing people from falling sick with COVID-19, but the clinical trials did not monitor the mechanisms through which this protection is conferred. People were not tested to see when and how reliably they developed antibodies, nor screened to see whether they ever carried the virus. Additional research is under way to address these questions in coming months. Although I would be surprised to learn that vaccinated people are spreading the virus to any significant degree, it’s reasonable to have everyone continue wearing masks until we know more.The second variable in the countdown to mask-free life is how quickly entire communities get vaccinated. When the virus is spreading widely and very few people are vaccinated, the chance that a vaccinated person will carry the virus (and possibly even get sick, since no vaccine is 100 percent effective) is simply too high to suggest that anyone forgo masking. But as more and more people get vaccinated, the potency of each vaccine grows. Even if vaccinated people do prove to have the potential to carry and spread the virus in small amounts, for brief periods, that risk can be rendered moot if almost everyone gets vaccinated.All of this is contingent on the assumption that immunity generated by vaccines is reliable and long-lasting (which it seems to be, so far) and that the virus does not evolve to become resistant to this immune protection in the near term. Eventually, it likely will. But by that point, hopefully, the rates of transmission will be low enough that we can quickly identify new variants and modify vaccines accordingly, to stay ahead of any new surges.The bottom line is that the less the virus is circulating in the U.S., the more confident we can be transitioning away from masks. Unfortunately, we haven’t collectively actually started wearing them. More than 3,000 people are dying every day in the U.S. alone, and hundreds of thousands more are being infected. This wouldn’t be happening if we were all wearing masks effectively. Before we truly begin to think about the end of masks, we need to think much more seriously about how to use them better.I’d love to stop wearing masks. They erase the subtleties of communication that tether us to humanity, the cues that give context and nuance to everyday interactions. They make people feel two-dimensional. But we are far from done with them. I hope that if we can accept this reality soon, we can focus more on building public support and distribution channels for quality masks. There’s room for someone to win a Nobel Prize for figuring out how to get Americans to wear their masks over their nose.It’s easy to become numb to the numbers of people who are getting sick and dying every day, and let the annoyance of masks feel somehow more comparably urgent than it is. But even if the mortality rate were cut in half, and then cut in half again, we’d still be losing hundreds of people every day. For the foreseeable future, even among the vaccinated, masks will at the very least be symbols of solidarity and empathy. That symbolism may have real consequences. The clearest, most urgent challenge of the pandemic remains simply getting people to wear masks (and wear them correctly). The message would be made more complicated by creating two classes of people, some who have to wear masks and others who don’t. However long we have until the end of masks, we’ll get there far faster if we act together.“Ask Dr. Hamblin” is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.
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A Taxonomy of Donald Trump’s Facial Expressions
Of the many head-benders of the Trump era, the dialectic between absurdity and extreme gravity has been one of the hardest to manage. We have been obliged to take an unserious person very seriously indeed. It has hurt our brains. It has reminded us, again and again, that the 45th president of the United States is simultaneously a reality-television star and an aspiring despot.Is it possible to separate his hammy entertainer’s chops from his raw political efficacy? Or his charisma from his incoherence? No, it is not. But we can begin an analysis. And we can start by classifying some of his major modes as an orator and a performer: the masks of Trump.ATLAS SHRUGSHe’s got the whole world in his hands. Why not just drop it and let it bounce a couple of times?GettyTOASTMASTER GENERALIn Trump’s speeches, the horrible little prose-y bits that Stephen Miller wrote were always just padding. The rambling, the ad-libs, the lurching sensation of his mind in motion: That’s what the people were there for. GettyIMPERIAL POUTClownish dismay at the nastiness of all the nasty, nasty people. With perhaps an obscenity building behind it.GettyGOLDEN BOYBasking in the regard of the world: I am adored, I am despised, I am the nucleus. gettySTAGE WHISPERERI shouldn’t say this but ... that’s exactly why I’m saying it.gettySERIOUS PERSONPretending to consult notes. This is what “presidential” looks like: bored. gettyHISTORY MANThe glower of the autocrat, the strongman scowl. Off camera, you can hear the tap-tap of the sculptor’s chisel.gettyWHITE POWERA curiously zestless, heavy-bodied gesture, this slouchingly raised fist nonetheless gets the point across.gettyMERRY PRANKSTERHe never laughs, Trump. Too risky. The joke he is perpetrating is so enormous that if he allowed himself to laugh he might burst.getty
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Epitaph on a Tyrant (Sort Of)
You came in to the sound of oligarch chucklesand bullies at gas stations cracking their knuckles.And now, now that every trigger finger is itchy,you’re going out like an exorcised Liberace.Hectic, comedic, toxic, alone,a flaming meringue on a tide of brimstone.How we adored your escapades.We swallowed your words like ghosts swallowing grenades.The dusty construction guy made common causewith the lawyer licking his pawsand the bearded militiaman with a maggot in his brainstem.A riot of their own, that’s what you gave them.Your outrageousness beggared our lexicon.Unprecedented, norm-shattering, on and on.You abused and transgressed with the greatest of easeto a chorus of flustered pieties.And no comeuppance. Never a bolt from above.You made kindness counterculturalalthough you were remarkably free with the word love.O,lazy, lazy demagogue. Incitement? It sounded so tired.How ever did your drooping-scrotum cadences,your mushy syntax, get that multitude so wired?But the spell worked, dark Dumbledore,and in your most necromantic houryou watched your legions puncture the halls of powerwith horns and guns and hats so red,dizzy with release, escaped from the hole in your head.Wanting more, feeling less,roaming the aisles of CVS,now each in his bubble braces for trouble.Trickster king with your bag of bullion,beloved of the baron, beloved of the scullion,Orifice in Chief, father of grief,we’ve drifted into a starless dream with you,you godlike liar. You made this America come true.
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Build Back Boring
Joe Biden has a real shot at being a boring president. It will require constant work. Many forces of commerce and human nature are arrayed against him, and countless obstacles stand in his path. But if the country is lucky, entire days will pass without the president's activities agitating the public mind.Success in the presidency can be measured in many ways. After Donald Trump, a new one might be the ability to thin the ranks of the agog. We need a president who can reset the norms of the office and address our current crisis over the nature of truth, giving the public the information it deserves. Biden can show those who didn't vote for him that he respects them enough to seek to persuade, rather than drowning them out with untested assertions. Calvin Coolidge famously set out to be boring. According to his secretary, he did not wish to “go ahead of the majestic army of human thought and aspiration, blazing new and strange paths.” As he prepared to leave office, the 30th president boasted, “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been the minding of my own business.”But the boredom that this moment calls for is not the monotony of a limited agenda, nor the purposeful dullness of placidity. Biden will have to manage historic challenges. The ride will be bumpy. Plus, he's loaded reams of executive orders and legislation into the chute for immediate dispersal when he moves to the other side of the Resolute Desk.It is precisely because his to-do list is so long that boredom is required. I'm using the term in the same sense as Leon Panetta, who I interviewed about the presidency a few years ago. "A rational, experienced president is going to be very, very boring,” said the former defense secretary, CIA director, and White House chief of staff.Panetta's remark came as a preamble to a discussion of the skills and attributes required to master the modern presidency: prioritizing what is important, not what is consuming the Twitter hive mind; avoiding dead-end fights with opponents trying to bait you; and focusing on the distant consequences of immediate action, or distant problems that can only be addressed by planning today. Like, say, a pandemic. A president who tries to fit this mold might not keep the country riveted, but he will be effective. A presidency based on ratings or the trill of the news alert, by contrast, is as distinct from the vital requirements of the job as The Apprentice was from the habits of effective corporate governance, or The Bachelor is from nurturing relationships.Such a presidency would return the executive branch to its role of informing the public. Briefings, charts, and a parade of forgettable public officials can explain to the citizens of the country—or, more likely, their representatives in the press—what is being done in their name. America showed a distinct preference for this approach during the pandemic. Governors who simply laid out what they knew became heroes. Anthony Fauci inspired such blooming affection throughout the land by explaining what he knew—and where he’d been wrong—that people planted signs thanking him in front of their azalea bushes. The public craves information. This is the basic lesson of CDC guidelines and emergency-management books: Information, even when it ultimately proves flawed, gives people a sense of control over their lives.As we saw during the Trump administration, holding a press conference is not the same as informing the public. It is possible, it turns out, to achieve a net reduction in public knowledge with a press conference. Instead, a boring administration must put governing ahead of campaigning, using information to instruct, educate, and build on accumulated knowledge, and not to spin and create a politically favorable refuge. Governing prioritizes science and durable facts, while campaigning prefers flimflam. The only objective of campaigning is surviving the next news cycle, while governing is good for actual survival.No presidency will be free of political interest or confirmation bias, but a presidency that puts persuasion over assertion, facts over piffle, has a chance to achieve real successes. In the Trump years, where the lie was the president's basic unit of measurement, fantasy pushed out reality. But while assertion thrilled the crowds at rallies, it did no good against the coronavirus, or in restoring economic confidence. Insisting that it’s safe to return to bars and restaurants might convince the home team, but boosting consumer confidence requires persuading the entire country. Lots of people need more than CAPS LOCK when the hospital-admittance rate is going up like a hockey stick.The habits of the Enlightenment, like proportioning the evidence to the size of the claim, delivered us things like electricity and penicillin. Returning to them now won't work immediate wonders, but it will make a difference.The great battle of our time is the fight between reality and fantasy. Election officials, judges, experts in the field, and Trump officials with actual knowledge about such matters all agreed that the 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Nevertheless, the president and the majority of his party asserted a different reality. Thousands showed up to do battle for that position. Fantasy propelled an insurrection.As the historian Jill Lepore points out, the January 6 insurrection highlights the stakes of our current epistemological crisis. The American experiment was founded on the idea that knowledge could be accumulated, analyzed, and acted upon; that problems and threats could be dispersed with brainpower. Thomas Jefferson, in his inaugural address, waved away those who would promote disunion or challenge republican government “as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” At the moment, reason could use a hand.A just-the-facts-ma’am presidency would return to an important American tradition: Presidents are supposed to cool public passions, not inflame them. As James Madison wrote in “Federalist No. 49,” if a president whips up the crowd, “the passions … not the reason, of the public would sit in judgment. But it is the reason, alone, of the public, that ought to control and regulate the government. The passions ought to be controlled and regulated by the government.”President Truman reaffirmed this principle during his tenure: “You can’t divide the country up into sections and have one rule for one section and one rule for another, and you can’t encourage people’s prejudices. You have to appeal to people’s best instincts, not their worst ones. You may win an election or so by doing the other, but it does a lot of harm to the country.”We have seen the harm in the partisanship that prevented Republican leaders from disputing that the election was stolen, even though they knew it wasn't and knew what damage that lie could do. An argument for inching the presidency away from fantasy, is obligated not to engage in the fantasy that facts can provide a solvent to tribalism. Even the most exquisitely boring president will not be able to use facts, briefings, and patient explanations to fully overcome the incentives of politics and partisan media. At the moment, as McKay Coppins writes, those incentives are encouraging Republicans to pretend they "didn't see the tweet" of the entire Trump presidency, so that they can continue playing to the same base.However, we have seen what the other route brings. If a president is ever to build bridges to the other party, it will not be through insults and baseless assertions that must be taken on faith. That president must help those lawmakers make a case to their constituency. The apocalyptic image of the Biden administration held by many conservatives is at least one barrier to their ability to do so. One way Biden can soften that image is to show voters who did not support him that he cares enough about what they think to seek to persuade and explain to them.In the end, the biggest reason to be boring is that surprises are coming. Sticking to the basic, unexciting requirements of the job prepares a president for the excitement ahead. In 2001, President George W. Bush's staff talked about how he was going to be an A4 president, not always in the center of the day's news on page A1 of the newspaper. Then the attacks of 9/11 put him on A1 for the remainder of his two terms. A White House needs to plan for that day, establish orderly operating routines, and allow staff to work unclenched by the fear that the boss is going to ping-pong off in some zany direction. Boring!If you have read this far, I have not bored you—or, perhaps, you have found boredom interesting. This is good news. We, too, have to play our part in lowering the temperature of our current political moment. We could do with fewer hot takes, more suppleness in our public debates, and a recognition that the president's job is not necessarily defined by whatever we just read, or even whatever is pelting us in the news cycle.Sometimes, by staying out of the way, a president can create space for our attention to turn elsewhere.
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Biden Can Go Big. Here’s How.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1932, the nation was facing concentric crises: the immediate, house-on-fire disaster of rolling bank closures; the broader economic depression; and, beyond that, deeply entrenched problems that the depression had highlighted, including elderly poverty. Roosevelt’s first 100 days addressed the first two crises with historic directness. He reopened the banks and directly employed thousands of Americans through measures such as the Civilian Conservation Corps. Then, near the end of his first term, he signed the Social Security Act, which has reduced senior poverty and become one of the most popular federal programs in the United States.President Joe Biden also faces concentric crises, which move outward toward the future as you unpeel them: the biological threat of the pandemic, the economic recession, and, beyond that, the entrenched problem of child poverty. He also has to contend with the problem casting a shadow over the whole century, the existential crisis of climate change.[Franklin Foer: Winning was the easy part]Biden’s first 100 days should address the first two crises with Rooseveltian focus. Quench the conflagration of the moment—then fight the fire of the future. With unified control of government, Biden and the Democrats can accelerate the end of a pandemic, lay the groundwork for the strongest economic growth in decades, eliminate child poverty, and put America on a path toward becoming a world leader in climate-change mitigation technology.But to accomplish any of this, Biden will have to cast off some shibboleths of the previous Democratic regime in which he served as vice president.Instead of seeking to change Americans’ behavior with subtle technocratic nudges, as Barack Obama’s team did, Biden should aim to make his signature policies as stupidly straightforward as possible. Instead of threading the needle of deficit neutrality, as his predecessor did, he should make a strong case to blow out the budget immediately to fill the hole left by the pandemic recession. Where the Obama administration’s approach was too often clever and strewn with budgetary wonkiness, the Biden formula should embrace the opposite: big, fast, and simple.In 2009, President Barack Obama and the Democrats seized unified control of government during another deep recession. They fought the downturn with a then-record stimulus in the first few months, before producing the Affordable Care Act, which was signed in 2010. The stimulus and Obamacare were good laws with important flaws. Biden should learn from both.The Obama stimulus was too small and too subtle. It was too small because the Republican opposition was intransigent, and the Democratic coalition was uncomfortable with the multitrillion-dollar deficits necessary to close the GDP gap. And it was too subtle because Obama’s team, including the regulatory czar Cass Sunstein, was transfixed by the emerging science of “nudges,” or sneaky policies to encourage Americans to make efficient decisions. For example, the tax centerpiece of the 2009 stimulus bill got money to families by modestly reducing payroll tax withholding. The nudgey idea was that if Americans got lump-sum checks from the government, they might save the money. But if they looked at their bank account and went, Huh, that’s more than I expected!, they might spend it immediately. Unfortunately, the tax cut was so sneaky that many people didn’t even know about the policy, let alone give Obama credit for it.The Affordable Care Act had the same issues of size and subtlety, as Slate’s Jordan Weissmann has argued. It was too small because, once again, members of the Democratic coalition, such as Senator Joe Lieberman, refused to support its most ambitious parts, such as a public option. The historic act failed to make itself immediately felt, because its most important components were delayed to reduce the 10-year budgetary impact. Medicaid expansion, for instance, didn’t begin until several years after Obama signed the law.Biden can rectify these errors by putting heft, speed, and simplicity at the heart of his agenda. And perhaps he will. According to reports from The New York Times and The Washington Post, Biden’s first rescue bill, with nearly $2 trillion in spending, will include hundreds of billions of dollars for vaccines and testing, unemployment benefits, and state and local aid. For inspiration on COVID-19 policy, Biden can look to Israel, which went big on early vaccine purchases, went fast and furious with distribution—converting parks, schools, and parking lots into vaccination megacenters—and used simple criteria for its first tranche of shots: health-care workers and seniors.The centerpiece of the U.S. rescue will be direct payments worth $2,000 to individuals. (That figure technically includes the $600 already sent to millions of households.) Direct payments are the opposite of the sly paternalism preferred by Obama officials in the 2009 stimulus. Americans are not going to see two grand appear in a bank account and go, Huh, I can’t put my finger on it, but I’m feeling subconsciously nudged to buy more socks. They’re going to feel very consciously, very fist-pumpingly elated. Checks are the confetti cannon of the economic-stimulus arsenal—not maximally efficient, just maximally awesome.Awesomeness matters. One lesson from the Obama years is that smart policy making isn’t just about doing brainy stuff; it’s about doing good and popular stuff in a way that keeps you in power so you can do more good stuff. The Democrats’ failure to properly stimulate the economy in 2010—or get credit for their very real contributions—led to catastrophic midterm losses in the House that made it impossible for them to accomplish much of anything in Obama’s last six years in office. For non-mysterious reasons, polls show extraordinary support for giving $2,000 to every American household as a kind of stimulus-qua-consolation gift for making it through the year from hell (one study indicated that seven in 10 Republicans support the direct payments). With stimulus checks, Biden could endear himself to the persuadable middle of the U.S. electorate, which might enjoy liking an American president, for once.Speeding up vaccine distribution and getting families ready to spend when the economy opens up should be Biden’s first priorities. The combination of an unlocked retail and leisure sector plus high national savings should lead to a record-breaking economic boom in the second half of 2021.Biden’s next focus should be kids. His current relief bill already calls for expanding the child tax credit. But reducing child poverty should be more than a line item.[Read: The next phase of vaccination will be even harder]The U.S. has a shameful record when it comes to the poverty and inequality of its youngest. America’s child-poverty rate isn’t just higher than that of similarly rich countries, such as Canada and Australia; it’s also higher than that of Mexico and Russia. America’s problem is twofold. First, the U.S. spends less than half as much as the United Kingdom or Denmark on infants and children. Second, too much U.S. welfare spending on children doesn’t reach families in poverty, in part because the government funnels most of that spending through the federal income tax code (which does little for families who have no taxable income).Biden’s rescue bill includes an expansion of the child tax credit. That’s a good start. But tax credits are an inefficient tool for fighting child poverty. More than one in five households with kids don't claim the CTC, according to the Treasury Department. That could be because they don’t know it exists, or because they make a mistake filing their return.If Biden wants to make a real difference, he should support replacing the child tax credit with a universal child allowance. That means the Social Security Administration would just cut a monthly check for every kid under 18, no questions asked. Matt Bruenig, a welfare researcher and the founder of the left-wing think tank the People’s Policy Project, has calculated that a universal child allowance of $370 a month would slash child poverty by about two-thirds.A universal child allowance would get money into families’ hands immediately. And the political payoff is obvious. Beyond drawing a sharp contrast with the previous president—“Trump trapped kids in cages; we freed kids from poverty”—this legislation would have a useful FDR echo. The Social Security Act took on high elderly poverty; almost 90 years later, we could retrofit the same institution to take on the American shame of high childhood poverty.Only then should Biden turn to this century’s most important issue: climate change. Just as it would have been politically bizarre for Roosevelt to focus on long-term elderly poverty while the banks were closed, Biden shouldn’t spend a lot of time talking about carbon emissions while a pandemic is killing thousands of people a day. But in the second inning of his presidency, it would make sense for Biden to back a green new deal that’s about handouts over hand slaps. Rather than try to kneecap America’s oil and gas industries, Biden should pledge a subsidy-palooza that helps bring down the price of every technology in the clean-energy portfolio: hundreds of billions in guaranteed federal purchases of clean-energy tech, such as batteries and electric cars; more subsidies for solar and wind energy; and more R&D spending on clean energy and carbon removal. Forget the joke that was “Infrastructure Week.” Biden’s green-energy bill could kick off an Infrastructure Decade.[Franklin Foer: Joe Biden has changed]To pass an ambitious agenda, and keep voters on his side, Biden will have to keep things straightforward and easy to communicate. Fortunately, this seems to be his instinct. During the Democratic primary, Obama-administration expats recalled that, as vice president, Biden had a reputation for interrupting nitty-gritty policy discussions with touchy-feely stem-winders. As president-elect, he’s still shushing aides when they start on the technocratic gobbledygook. “Pick up your phone, call your mother, read her what you just told me,” he tells them. “If she understands, we can keep talking.”This avoidance of technicalities may one day reveal itself to be a weakness in drafting legislation. But for the moment, it’s a great strength. Biden should aim to inject into his public policy the same qualities that distinguish his preternatural gift for emotional storytelling. Perhaps that might serve as the one-line summary of Biden’s edit on the Obama style of governance: Once more, with feeling.
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America Desperately Needs a New Age of Moral Leadership
The incumbent president, Donald Trump, rages, reads words that he doesn’t believe from a teleprompter, and rages again. The president-elect, Joe Biden, calls on Americans to rise above “the flames of hate and chaos” and bring back democracy, decency, and the rule of law to their wounded land. This is the presidential voice Biden has been preparing since he began his campaign to “restore the soul of America” in the spring of 2019. He speaks of commitment and covenant, of dreams and suffering, of sacrifice and love. He is working to build a presidency that not only embodies his own capacity for empathy but assumes a voice of moral leadership in a wrenching and disjointed time. The cadences are familiar. This is the way most American presidents have sounded since the beginning of the 20th century.The question is, in this time of anger and division, will anyone listen? Despite the foreboding in the air, the answer is yes. Presidential moral leadership is most, not least, effective in moments of crisis. Acute crises give presidents the space and urgency they need to be heard. Sustained leadership can follow when presidents lean into long-term crises already coursing beneath the surface of day-to-day events. Even in this fractured country, Biden has a real chance of becoming what he hopes to be: a president whose voice lifts and redirects the nation. But he must seize the moment now, and use the moral power it gives him.[Franklin Foer: Winning was the easy part]Trump hated the sermonic style of presidential speaking—the “hopey-changey stuff” that Sarah Palin once pilloried so savagely. He chafed at confinement to a speechwriter’s scripted phrases just as he disdained complete sentences that stick to one topic from beginning to end. He was a listless speaker outside the setting of a crowd, where, swelled up with the energy it gave him, he pinballed from one call-and-response to another. He cheered and insulted. He bragged and complained, and, as we know all too well, he even veered into full-blown insurrectionary speech. He didn’t care that his enemies called him a liar or that they recoiled from his violation of the norms of presidential speech. And Trump’s partisans responded with relief and adulation. In him, they heard a president who was not trying to remake their souls but attempting to give a megaphone to their grievances: a president speaking an angry, prideful language that they knew from everyday experience.The blend of sermon and political speech that Trump has been eager to demolish was not set at the nation’s beginning. Presidents did not often speak in public before the 20th century, and when they did, their language was formal and lawyerly, not soaring and inspirational. Fearful of the potential for demagoguery in the presidency, the Constitution’s writers had wanted just this sort of rhetorical modesty. Andrew Jackson, who helped steamroller a new, much more emotional popular politics into being among white male American voters, ended his first inaugural address by confessing his inadequacy for the position to which he had been chosen. Addressing a nation still suffering from the aftershocks of a major economic depression, William McKinley began his inaugural address in 1897 by dryly advising that the financial system needed “some revision.” The exception to this restrained form was Abraham Lincoln. But his language of elevated moral appeal often clashed with his listeners’ expectations. Lincoln’s second inaugural address is a striking example. Revered for its eloquence now, it seemed to many at the time too cryptic and too remote from the immediate questions of the moment to be adequate to the occasion.The birth of the modern presidency as a platform for moral preaching began with Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt filled his presidential speeches with talk of purpose and “perils,” “duties” to ourselves and others, “justice and generosity,” “courage” and “endurance,” “lofty ideals,” and the strength of “character” that a free people needed. He spoke not as a lawyer might, but as if he were talking straight to the heart of the American nation. From that font his successors drew the phrases and tone that became the voice of the modern presidency. Presidents surveyed a world of challenges; they marshaled the moral energies of the people; they prodded and encouraged; they asked Americans to look beyond themselves and their petty divisions. Woodrow Wilson used the power of the new rhetorical presidency to fuel a crusade to save democracy in Europe. Franklin D. Roosevelt turned to the same tropes first to address the economic crisis of the 1930s and then to mobilize support for the Second World War. John F. Kennedy seized the presidential megaphone to rally the nation to a more intense commitment to the Cold War. George W. Bush forged his 9/11 response in the same terms.It is easy to imagine that that era of the sermonizing presidency is now exhausted. Biden will take office confronted by a larger core of irreconcilable voters than has contested any presidential election since secession. Partisanship rides extremely high. Anger-filled conspiracy thinking flourishes on the internet. More broadly, a deep libertarian streak has intensified enormously on both the left and the right since Biden’s political career began in the early 1970s. That heightened stress on self and choice cannot but complicate Biden’s hope to strengthen the instruments of government through which Americans look out for the good of one another.[Peter Wehner: Biden may be just the person America neds]Finally, the media contexts within which presidents must now work have changed dramatically as well. Theodore Roosevelt took office in the midst of extraordinary expansion and consolidation of the nation’s newspaper industry, and he took brilliant advantage of the press to amplify his words and actions. The still-novel powers of radio put Franklin D. Roosevelt’s voice into households across the country, just as television did for Kennedy’s. Biden’s voice will have a much more difficult time penetrating through today’s decentered and intensely politicized media environment. Under these circumstances, imagining that the right words might reach the “soul” of the nation may be wholly illusory.But even in eras of intense political division and media partisanship, use of the presidential pulpit has at times succeeded. Franklin D. Roosevelt was as polarizing a figure as any in the 20th century when he came into office in 1933. The 40 percent of the population that had voted against him was unforgiving, many to the very end. But Roosevelt’s words managed to touch the hearts of the Depression masses, helping preclude the slide into despair that many feared was imminent. Kennedy came through a squeaker of an election—filled with smears and charges that no Catholic could be trusted to be a loyal American—to become the voice for a new, postwar generation. Wilson led a starkly divided nation into the moral crusade of engagement in the Great War.In all these cases, what gave the presidents’ words their power was crisis and context. In normal times, citizens’ souls don’t ask for preaching. Moral leadership succeeds when existing institutions, shaken by crisis, no longer seem adequate to their task. The shock arrival of new forms of monopoly capitalism gave Theodore Roosevelt his pulpit. The global economic collapse of the 1930s passed that opportunity on to FDR. The Cold War opened the occasion for the young, barely known Kennedy. The eruptive force of Black Americans’ freedom demands helped Lyndon B. Johnson move from a consummate political dealmaker to a public champion of a still wider “war” on poverty and economic injustice. The financial meltdown of 2008 gave wings to the words of the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.Crises change the conditions of receptivity. They open a hole that Biden hopes his appeal to the soul of America will fill. At least for a time. Because the counterintuitive dynamic in the relationship between crisis and public receptivity is that the most acute crises do not always produce the most enduring periods of presidential persuasiveness. Short-term crises can temporarily rearrange the political landscape. The nation rallies to the emergency that a president’s words enunciate. Its citizens forego their immediate interests and preexisting divisions, and throw themselves into volunteer service and patriotic sentiments. But then the occasion passes, and the words the president still enunciates, urging sacrifice, compassion, and public-spiritedness, are left to blow idly in the wind.The inability of the Obama administration to sustain the power of its moral force after the fiscal crisis of 2008–09 is a vivid example. Its response to the economic meltdown was far from perfect, as critics from every camp quickly insisted, but for the short-term purposes of averting a new Great Depression, it worked. Obama’s own eloquence didn’t falter after 2009. But he could not successfully transfer his persuasive powers to an expert-driven health-insurance proposal that was not widely enough perceived to answer a national crisis. By the time Obama found the words to articulate health security as part of a broader ethical crusade, his exceptionally high favorability ratings in public-opinion polls had evaporated.[Read: Here comes Obama]The collapse of George W. Bush’s assertion of moral leadership was even starker. No previous modern president had polled higher than Bush did in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. His ratings were still exceptionally high at the beginning of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And then they cratered. There were no weapons of mass destruction to be found. But more important, no national consensus supporting the country’s long-term role in the Middle East existed to give a foundation to Bush’s presidential preaching. A massive response to a short-term crisis had been engineered and applauded. But the opportunity that crisis created was over, leaving Americans to wonder why they were trying to police the Middle East in the first place.Presidential moral leadership has been more lasting when it has intervened in profound crises that already left the country deeply unsettled. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency was not a response to the stock-market crash of 1929, though textbook history still paints it that way. It was a response to three inconclusive, anxiety-filled years of debate and turmoil over how to restore jobs and stability to a nation whose economic house had fallen in on it. A similar intervention into a long-term crisis propelled Kennedy’s inaugural words into the public consciousness in 1961. There was nothing new in Kennedy’s announcement that the nation was ready to bear any burden in the cause of global freedom—nothing except the way his words took energy from long-standing anxieties about the ability of Americans to rise above absorption in their new consumer culture and meet the Cold War’s challenges. Lyndon B. Johnson’s embrace of Black Americans’ freedom struggle in the spring of 1965 did not simply put the moral force of the presidency behind a short-term crisis. What gave Johnson’s words their power was the moral clarity of their intervention into a massive, long-standing, and broadly recognized wound in the nation’s democracy and its reputation in the world.The lesson for Biden in these examples is that he must think big if he wants to speak to the souls of Americans. Following Trump’s intensely polarizing presidency and final insurrectionary calamity, Biden’s message of decency, truth, constitutional integrity, and care for one another is more imperative than ever. And it will go far. Biden has the public character to make that message stick even against the fusillade of attacks that have already been launched against the very legitimacy of his election. But in the long term, Biden’s message of calm and decency will not suffice. He needs to hitch his bid for moral leadership to a crisis still bigger than the Trump disaster, bigger than the COVID-19 emergency, bigger than expertise or bipartisanship.Many hope that Biden will focus his presidency’s long-term rhetorical power on the scandal of persistent structural racism, laid bare more vividly than ever before by last week’s eruption of the angry white-power politics that runs beneath so much of Trumpism. Others hope that he will bring it to bear on the catastrophe of accelerating climate change. The structural crises of contemporary American democracy—undisguised voter suppression, blatant gerrymandering, an unrepresentative Electoral College system, and an unchecked avalanche of lies in political advertising and on social media—cry out for reform.Biden needs to commit his presidency strongly to all of these issues. But the long-term crisis that is most broadly and most acutely felt in households on both sides of the political divide is the ever-growing gap between those at the top of the American scale of income and privilege, and all the rest. Here, the sense of a festering wound is already widely shared, waiting for a president to articulate its moral costs as well as its economic ones. The median household income has barely risen in real terms since the 1980s. Most Americans are no longer confident that the next generation will do better than they have themselves. They worry about their own foothold in the 21st-century economy, where corporate restructuring has made downward mobility an everyday fact of life, even as the aggregate GDP level soars and stock-market wealth booms. These were among the acutely felt grievances to which Trump opened his megaphone; they fueled the energies of Bernie Sanders’ supporters. Where masses of Americans feel left behind by the economy and alienated from politics, every aspect of a racially just and democratic society is at risk.[Adam Serwer: The crisis of American democracy isn’t over yet]Biden’s measures to address the long-term crisis of constrained and unequal opportunity will be far more incremental than progressives might wish, given Biden’s political temperament and the limited possibilities that his narrow majority in Congress will afford him. His words must be bigger than his actions. He must convince Americans that he sees the stagnation of the life chances for too many Americans with a moral intensity that is deeper and truer than that of the failed president he defeated. If he wants to speak to the souls of Americans, he must bring the full resources of the rhetorical presidency to bear on the crisis of unequal opportunity. For a nation to respond to the words of a presidential preacher, the subject must be as broadly and deeply felt as the rhetoric’s moral intensity demands.
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Trump Destroyed the Most Important Virtue in America
What should have been a week-long celebration of the resilience of American democracy has turned into a dark circus. Instead of citizens lining Pennsylvania Avenue to cheer and greet a new president, all of downtown Washington, D.C., is an armed camp. Soldiers patrol the streets while workers clean excrement off the walls of the Capitol, a perfect tableau for the end of the short and ghastly age of Trump.We are expecting far too much of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris if we think they can fix all of the damage Donald Trump did to the republic. Presidents and vice presidents are not wizards. They cannot rewind history. They cannot single-handedly make us better people.However, I do believe that Biden can inspire the American people to regain one of the most important virtues Trump destroyed: seriousness, our understanding that ideas, actions, and words matter.The collapse of seriousness is the greatest loss we have sustained under Trump, one of the least serious human beings ever to occupy a position of great power in America. What do I mean by seriousness? It is the burden of knowing that we own our decisions, that our actions have consequences. It is the sense of responsibility that helps us to act without being ordered to act, the instinct that tells us, even when we are alone, that we owe a duty to others and that our behavior affects them as much as it does ourselves.To be serious is not to be humorless. I am 60 years old, and I occasionally revel in my own silliness. We all should. As Thomas Aquinas reminded us, play refreshes the soul. But seriousness is the ability to know the difference between work and play. It is the wisdom to know when to stop laughing and to pay attention, weigh our words, and consider our actions beyond the intemperate advice of our own impulses. It is to know the difference between what is real and what is imagined.[Tim Naftali: The worst president in history]The Founding Fathers were the most serious of men, and not merely because they were brave enough to risk the gallows. They had a sense that what they were doing was transcendentally important, that they needed to make their case, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” They were not merely transacting business; they were instituting a new form of government while pledging to one another “our lives, our fortunes,” and perhaps most telling, “our sacred honor.”They knew that seriousness is the greatest requisite for a stable democracy, because it allows us to think beyond the moment and to accept the weight of duty and communal responsibility. The many other civic virtues—prudence, engagement, respect, tolerance—proceed from seriousness. And only seriousness produces the mindset that forces us to accept the central tenet of democracy: We are adults who are masters of our own fates instead of irresponsible and powerless children.Authoritarian regimes are less serious than democracies. It may seem strange to say that, because the day-to-day existence in such places is so grim. But authoritarianism relies on fatalism, which is one of the most pernicious forms of unseriousness. When nothing is in our control, nothing really matters. The experience of life dwindles down to taking care of one’s family and trying not to get sideways with those in charge.I spent time in the old Soviet Union, a place that combined existential ludicrousness with paralyzing fear. Drinking and laughing with Soviet citizens back in the day was liberating because they had accepted their helpless condition in life. They knew, with great certainty, that nothing mattered. And after a couple of bottles of Russian vodka or Georgian wine or Armenian cognac, I knew it too. Democracy, however, cannot go on Soviet benders and abjure responsibility. In a free society, we, not the state, are the arbiters of our behavior.Seriousness, then, is a combination of self-discipline and the Golden Rule, the civic reflex that allows us to step outside of ourselves, and to consider whether we would think well of someone who said or did what we are considering saying or doing. Children must learn this lesson or they remain stunted narcissists into adulthood.Which brings me back to Trump.Fairness requires me to admit that the American spiral into inanity did not begin with Trump. The end of the Cold War, the advent of multiple decades of prosperity, and the blindingly fast leaps in living standards were all part of the march to unseriousness.Liberals will locate the start of the unserious presidency with the election of Ronald Reagan, who was famously able to laugh off anything with a quip. (Just ask Jimmy “There you go again” Carter and Walter “I am not going to exploit … [his] youth and inexperience” Mondale.) Conservatives think it began with Bill Clinton and his sax-playing, skirt-chasing, little-boy lip-biting.[Read: Donald Trump is out. Are we ready to talk about how he got in?]But Trump took unseriousness and elevated it from an infrequent presidential vice to a positive virtue. Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make America great again,” but it might as well have been the internet mantra of “LOL nothing matters.” Nuclear weapons? Yes, he was very worried about “the nuclear” but he preferred to make fun of “Little Marco” Rubio and “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz. Climate change? China? Sure, big problems, but wouldn’t it be more fun to talk about locking up “Crooked Hillary?”And when the most serious moment of his presidency arrived and Americans began dying by the thousands from COVID-19, Trump sought refuge in the ultimate expression of unseriousness: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”His presidency was all kayfabe, the ethos of faked professional wrestling, where nothing is real and no one gets hurt. Trump never cared that he had to make real decisions that had real consequences. At every turn, all that mattered was the brief winning moment and the boffo ratings. It was all about the emotional charge of the here and now, and it was glorious. Tomorrow was someone else’s problem.In other words: Pass the vodka, comrade. I’ll sleep where I fall.It should not, of course, have been a shock that America under Trump became a collection of overgrown adolescents who were incapable of facing adversity. When the time came for genuine seriousness—literally, a matter of life and death—America was a nation of spoiled children, sullen when corrected, explosive with rage when forced to do anything they found unpleasant, ready to lecture others on why the Constitution gave them the right to wear a surgical mask on their chin.This level of entitlement and the toddlerlike understanding of “freedom” to mean “I can do anything I want without consequences” came to a head in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. One of the most serious challenges to constitutional order in the history of the United States was led by a group of the least serious citizens among us.The mob was not made up of the poor and dispossessed seeking redress of grievances. This was a bored lumpen bourgeoisie, a narcissistic middle class of deep pockets and shallow minds who felt that life had not paid them the respect they were due. Some of them, to be sure, were intent on serious crimes, including kidnapping and murder. But even these would-be terrorists had a weird tourist vibe. (One of the insurrectionists, a 30-year-old ex-bartender sporting a ski mask, brought zip-tie flex handcuffs—and so did his mom, who accompanied him to the riot.)[Graeme Wood: What to do with Trumpists]Indeed, the insurrectionists were so unserious, they somehow got it into their heads that they could overwhelm the Capitol, take Congress hostage, and rerun the presidential election—after which, apparently, everyone would exchange congratulations on a job well done, retire to the hotel for a few drinks, and then fly home with wonderful memories and stories to tell. We know this because, like the narcissistic children they are, they could not stop talking to their phones and taking selfies and videos even in the midst of a violent insurrection.Hundreds of people now face arrest, and most of them are shocked to find that an attack on the Capitol and the murder of a police officer will not be written off by the federal authorities as merely a self-actualizing day trip to Camp Sedition.Consider, for example, the soul of helium displayed by Jenna Ryan, a realtor from Texas who flew to Washington, D.C., on a private jet—as one does to get to an insurrection—and who stopped in the midst of the attack to assure us all that she was, in fact, inside the Capitol and committed to victory or death, but that upon her return to Texas everyone should know that Jenna Ryan is the person who can handle even the toughest real-estate deals. The day she was arrested, the realtor-patriot went on television and said that Trump owed her a pardon.All of this would be laughable if America were some irrelevant banana republic. But when a superpower becomes an unserious nation, it becomes a dangerous nation. A giant, nuclear-armed clown show is a menace to the life and liberty of its own people and to the stability and safety of the planet itself.Unseriousness is not limited to Trump cultists, although they seem to have embraced it most fully. It is, like COVID-19, a national affliction. Last summer, America experienced genuine and justified rage against racism and police brutality. These protests were, at first, the embodiment of seriousness, an acknowledgement that one person’s pain affects us all. However, they were later hijacked by those who wanted to play camp-out in the middle of major cities and who looted and engaged in mindless vandalism.Even after so many years of unseriousness, Biden prevailed in the election. Whatever his other failings, he is a serious man. Yes, he sometimes has an unserious mien, a come-on-man, no-malarkey doofusness, but he’s also a man who has experienced pain, love, tragedy, and loss—the moments that affirm to us that life is a serious business. He is a reminder that serious people do important things everyday, like taking care of their children and showing up to their job ready to work. When he talks about problems, his empathy is real; when he talks about policy, his commitment is genuine.Perhaps most important, Biden shares with his pre-Trump predecessors a visible sense of gravity about the presidency. He speaks of the office with both excitement and reverence—and maybe, too, a bit of sadness, because he knows what is to come. No man is the same after his first day as president. The office is too big, too terrifying, to rest lightly on anyone’s shoulders. Even Trump, on his first visit to the White House as president-elect, was visibly shaken, at least for a moment. (That moment passed quickly.)Biden cannot rescue us from ourselves, but he can give us an example to follow. He can remind us that we live in a serious, and dangerous, time. He can talk to us like adults, and demand in return that we listen like adults. He can forgo the false promises and grand plans, and level with us that he has come to Washington to put out the fires and repair the foundations of our system.Most of all, he can force us to confront the challenges ahead—the pandemic, the foreign dangers, the threats from within, the damage to our institutions, and the weakening of the rule of law—with stoicism and quiet confidence.And without whining. We’ve had more than enough of that.Biden is a serious man. We can be a serious people again. The choice is ours.
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The Rebels Are Still Among Us
They could be realtors or police officers, bakers or firefighters, veterans of American wars or CEOs of American companies. They might live in Boise or Dallas, College Park or College Station, Sacramento or Delray Beach. Some are wealthy. Some are not. Relatively few of them were at the United States Capitol on January 6, determined to stop Congress from certifying a legitimate election. Millions more cheered the rioters on—and still do.As a group, it’s hard to know what to call them. They are too many to merit the term extremists. There are not enough of them to be secessionists. Some prominent historians and philosophers have been arguing for a revival of the word fascist; others think white supremacist is more appropriate, though there could also be a case for rebel. For want of a better term, I’m calling all of them seditionists—not just the people who took part in the riot, but the far larger number of Americans who are united by their belief that Donald Trump won the election, that Joe Biden lost, and that a long list of people and institutions are lying about it: Congress, the media, the vice president, the election officials in all 50 states, and the judges in dozens of courts.Not all Republicans are seditionists, nor is everyone who voted for Trump, nor is every conservative: Nothing about rejecting your country’s political system is conservative. Still, those who do hold these views are quite numerous. In December, 34 percent of Americans said they did not trust the outcome of the 2020 election. More recently, 21 percent said that they either strongly or somewhat support the storming of the Capitol building. As of this week, 32 percent were still telling pollsters that Biden was not the legitimate winner.[Ben Sasse: QAnon is destroying the GOP from within]Even if we assume that only half of those polled are impassioned by politics, and even if we put the number of truly seditious Americans at 10 or 15 percent, that’s a very large number of people. For although Trump will eventually exit political life, the seditionists will not. They will remain, nursing their grievances, feverishly posting on social media, angrily listening to Tucker Carlson—the Fox News host has just told them that the federal troops in Washington, D.C., are “not there for your safety” but because Democrats want to send a “message about power”—and energetically running for office. A member of the West Virginia state legislature filmed himself in the mob breaking into the Capitol on January 6: “We’re taking this country back whether you like it or not,” he told his Facebook followers. A New Mexico county commissioner came home from the riots; bragged about his participation; and, according to authorities, told a public meeting that he planned to go back to D.C., but this time carrying firearms.Perhaps in 2022, more seditionists will enter Congress, joining Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, the QAnon-aligned conspiracist who has already said she will launch impeachment proceedings against Biden. Perhaps in 2024, seditionists, rather than reality-based Republicans, will be running the elections in Georgia and Arizona. Americans could see worse postelection scenarios than the one we’ve just lived through.We could also see more violence. Since the election, the Bridging Divides Initiative, a group that tracks and counters political violence in the U.S., has observed a singularly ominous metric: a sharp uptick in the number of protests outside the homes of politicians and public figures, including city- and county-level officials, many featuring “armed and unlawful paramilitary actors.” In Idaho, aggressive protesters shut down a public-health meeting; in Northern California, numerous public-health officials have resigned in the face of threats from anti-maskers. Death threats are already shaping U.S. politics at a higher level too. We may never know how many more Republicans in Congress might have voted for Trump’s impeachment last week had it not been for the ominous messages they were receiving online.Outside politics, outside the law, outside the norms—the seditionists have in fact declared their independence from the rest of us. January 6 was indeed their 1776: They declared that they want to live in a different America from the one the rest of us inhabit, ruled over by a different president chosen according to a different rulebook. And yet they cannot be wished away, or sent away, or somehow locked up. They will not leave of their own accord, and Americans who accept Biden’s lawful victory won’t either. We have no choice except to coexist.But how? Clearly we need regulation of social media, but that’s years away. Of course we need better education, but that doesn’t help us deal with the armed men who were standing outside the Ohio Statehouse this week.[Joan Donovan: MAGA is an extreme aberration]Here’s another idea: Drop the argument and change the subject. That’s the counterintuitive advice you will hear from people who have studied Northern Ireland before the 1998 peace deal, or Liberia, or South Africa, or Timor-Leste—countries where political opponents have seen each other as not just wrong, but evil; countries where people are genuinely frightened when the other side takes power; countries where not all arguments can be solved and not all differences can be bridged. In the years before and after the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, for example, many “peacebuilding” projects did not try to make Catholics and Protestants hold civilized debates about politics, or talk about politics at all. Instead, they built community centers, put up Christmas lights, and organized job training for young people.This was not accidental. The literature in the fields of peacebuilding and conflict prevention overflows with words such as local and community-based and economic regeneration. It’s built on the idea that people should do something constructive—something that benefits everybody, lessens inequality, and makes people work alongside people they hate. That doesn’t mean they will then get to like one another, just that they are less likely to kill one another on the following day.Translating this basic principle to the vast landscape of the U.S. is not easy: We don’t have UN peacebuilding funds to pay for red-blue community centers, and anyway American political opponents are often physically separate from each other. We are not fighting over control of street corners in West Belfast. But the Biden administration, or indeed a state government, could act on this principle and, for example, reinvigorate AmeriCorps, the national-service program, offering proper salaries to young people willing to serve as cleaners or aides at overburdened hospitals, food banks, and addiction clinics; sending them deliberately to states with different politics from their own. This might not build eternal friendships, but seditionists and progressives who worked together at a vaccination center could conceivably be less likely to use pepper spray on each other at a demonstration afterward.Although the bipartisan appeal of roads, bridges, and railways has become a joke—Trump’s promised “Infrastructure Week” never happened—infrastructure investment can produce projects benefiting all of society too. So can a cross-community discussion about infrastructure, or even infrastructure security. Get potential protesters of different political views into a room, and ask them, “How are we going to protect our state capitol during demonstrations?” Ask for ideas. Take notes. Make the problem narrow, specific, even boring, not existential or exciting. “Who won the 2020 election?” is, for these purposes, a bad topic. “How do we fix the potholes in our roads?” is, in contrast, superb.And how do we invite seditionists to a public meeting if they won’t read emails from anyone outside their bubble? Here’s another tactic from the world of conflict prevention: work with trusted messengers, people who have authority within the seditious community, who sympathize with its shared values but are nevertheless willing to talk their comrades down from the brink. A brief version of how this works was actually visible in some of the videos taken by The New Yorker inside the Capitol on January 6. There’s a moment when the insurrectionists are in the Senate chamber, and one of them who seems to have more authority tells the others not to sit in Mike Pence’s chair: “It belongs to the vice president of the United States, but he isn’t here. It’s not our chair. Look, I love you guys—you’re brothers—but we can’t be disrespectful.” Not long after that, a cop comes in and refers to the room as “like the sacredest place.” Eventually, the motley crew of QAnon/MAGA militants files out without trashing the place.[Caitlin Flanagan: Worst revolution ever]Not that this phenomenon is anything new: In 1930, a white Texan named Jessie Daniel Ames founded an organization called the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, a group that campaigned against anti-Black violence. Ames both intervened directly, even confronting lynch mobs in person, and engaged in education and advocacy. Her group sometimes sat uneasily alongside its northern counterparts—its members opposed federal intervention and denounced lynching not for universal reasons, but on the grounds that it was contrary to the creed of southern, White, Christian women—but it worked: In areas where the group operated, the violence went down.Rachel Brown, the founder of an anti-violence group called Over Zero, told me that she sometimes uses that case study when talking to religious leaders, business leaders, and veterans across the country—people who might be heard in the seditious community—when trying to persuade them to start parallel projects of their own. Clearly the Republican Party is well placed to reach out to members who have rejected democracy, which is why it’s important to support the Adam Kinzingers and the Ben Sasses, even the Mitch McConnells who belatedly and self-interestedly switch sides: Better late than never, especially if it helps undermine the seditionists’ conviction and makes them feel doubt. Of course, Fox News could make an enormous difference too, though at the moment its owners still seem to believe they will make more money out of sedition than democracy.Finally, we could learn some useful lessons from Colombia, a country that has for several years tried, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to bring members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) back into society. The guerrilla movement had sustained itself for more than 50 years by selling drugs and ransoming hostages, and the decision to reintegrate its members created great ambivalence, and even hostility: Understandably, people don’t especially relish the idea of working alongside former FARC operatives who might have murdered their relatives, let alone paying taxes so that the government can help them retrain and find jobs. At the same time, leaving them to wage drug wars in the jungle isn’t a solution either, and so the program continues.America’s situation is nowhere near as extreme (though it will be if the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys retreat into the Rocky Mountains for half a century), but some of the Colombian program’s principles have useful resonance. It focuses on the long term, offering former outcasts the hope of a positive future, and providing training and counseling designed to help them assimilate. Not everyone will like the idea, but America’s seditionists arguably pose a similarly long-term social problem. True believers—especially those who are unemployed, underemployed, or so far down the conspiracy-theory rabbit hole that they can no longer cope with ordinary life—are part of an intense, deeply connected, and, to them, profoundly satisfying community. In order to pry them away from it, they will have to be offered some appealing alternative, just as the ex-FARC members are offered the alternative of a legal life in society.Not coincidentally, this is exactly the kind of advice that can be heard from psychologists who specialize in exit counseling for people who have left religious cults. Roderick Dubrow-Marshall, a psychologist who has written about the similarities between cults and extremist political movements, told me that in both cases, identification with the group comes to dominate people psychologically. “Other interests and ideas become closed off,” he said. “They dismiss anything that pushes back against them.” Remember, the people in the Capitol really believed that they were on a mission to save America, that it was patriotic to smash windows and kill and injure police. Before they can be convinced otherwise, they will have to see some kind of future for themselves in an America run by Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and a Democratic Congress.I recognize that this is not what everyone wants to hear. Even as I write this, I can hear many readers of this article uttering a collective snort of annoyance. Quite a few, I imagine, feel that, having won the election, they don’t want to pay for a bunch of happy-clappy vaccine volunteers, or new roads in rural America, or mental-health services and life counseling for the MAGA-infected—let them learn to live with us. I can well imagine that, like the Colombians who hate the reintegration of FARC, many will resent every penny of public money, every ounce of political time, that is spent on the seditious minority. Some might even prefer an American version of de-Baathification: track down every last Capitol-riot sympathizer and shame them on social media, preferably with enough rigor so that they lose their jobs.I know how they feel, because I often feel that way too. But then I remember: It won’t work. We’ll wake up the next morning, and they’ll still be there.
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An Incompetent Authoritarian Is Still a Catastrophe
So what if he was bad at it?The five years of the Trump era—which began with his descent down the gilded escalator in Trump Tower in 2015 and are ending with a massive military presence in the nation’s capital to protect the transfer of power to his successor—brought a sustained assault on self-government. This assault was most often futile, almost always buffoonish, and, as the conversion of the seat of the federal government into an armed fortress demonstrates, unquestionably real.Throughout the Trump era, some have argued that Trump’s incompetence rendered his authoritarian aspirations inconsequential.“Our weak, ranting, infected-by-Covid chief executive is not plotting a coup, because a term like ‘plotting’ implies capabilities that he conspicuously lacks,” wrote the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in October, describing the president as a “noisy weakling.” Douthat has since re-evaluated his position, but for a long time he was the most articulate proponent of the argument that Trump was not as dangerous as his opponents believed.Believing that Trump’s departure proves his harmlessness is akin to arguing that getting shot in the leg is inconsequential because the wound will not kill you. Even nonfatal gunshot wounds do terrible things to the human body. They can twist flesh and muscle as if they were dough; shatter bones to dust; leave victims unable to walk without assistance; keep survivors from closing their fingers into a fist. They can poison the blood, drown the lungs, and—even when the body escapes being disfigured—leave the brain scarred by trauma. American democracy persevered because of those who rejected the arrogant counsel that the system would hold: The protesters who mobbed airports and filled the streets, the organizers who planned meetings and knocked on doors, and the voters who flooded the polls by the tens of millions.The wounds of Trumpism haven’t proved lethal to the democratic project, but they are very real.Trump’s initial attack on American democracy occupied much of the first two years of his administration, but was arguably the least damaging in the long term. As a candidate, Trump both encouraged and benefited from the intervention of the Russian government in an American election. As a candidate and as president, Trump sought to deflect blame from the Kremlin, illegally obstructed the investigation (arguably successfully) into its interference, and then pardoned supporters who had refused to cooperate with investigators.Yet to the extent that Russia’s gambit succeeded in tilting the 2016 election, it was because of the last-minute intervention by James Comey, then the director of the FBI. Comey’s decision to violate Department of Justice guidelines regarding disclosure of information that could affect elections—while keeping the bureau’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign had illegally coordinated with the Russian government secret—was an indispensable factor in Trump’s 2016 victory. Trump and his allies spent the next four years railing against rogue actors in law enforcement and intelligence agencies, willfully ignoring the fact that Trump owed his presidency to such people.As president, Trump attempted to use the census to effect a nationwide racial gerrymander that would enhance the political influence of white voters at the expense of Black and Latino voters. That scheme was foiled by bureaucratic incompetence on the administration’s part, as liberal activists used the trail of breadcrumbs it had left behind to uncover the nature of the scheme just before the Supreme Court was set to rule on it. If Trump had won a second term, he might have succeeded in manipulating the census for political ends. A year before the 2020 election, Trump tried to strong-arm the president of Ukraine into falsely accusing his most likely Democratic rival of a crime. The actions of a lone whistleblower led to Trump’s plan being revealed, and subsequently to his first impeachment. The Democratic congressional leadership might have preferred to avoid impeachment, but his actions made it necessary; to allow a president to use his authority to frame a political rival without consequence would be to invite him to do it again. Impeaching Trump failed to remove him, but it exposed and neutralized a campaign smear that his enablers in the press were, until that moment, eager to amplify.The case for impeaching Trump was straightforward: If presidents can use the awesome power of their office to frame their political rivals for crimes, they can prevent the rise of anyone attempting to challenge their hold on power. “Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine,” Mitt Romney, the only Republican senator to support conviction, argued on the Senate floor. Romney was correct; the Founders had devised impeachment precisely for the possibility of a chief executive who abuses his power to stay in office.Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine, who voted to acquit, argued that Trump had “learned a pretty big lesson” from impeachment. Indeed he had. Trump learned that Republican senators would acquiesce to his abuses of power, even if he were to attempt to corrupt an election to keep himself in office.So he did it again, and again, and again.Trump attacked the validity of mail-in ballots, having recognized that his dismissals of the pandemic had created a partisan split in evaluations of the coronavirus threat and therefore a split in who would vote in person on Election Day. He hatched a scheme to declare victory before such ballots were counted. Trump’s appointee to run the Postal Service so egregiously mismanaged the agency that late ballots were in danger of being invalidated, which could have tipped outcomes in close states.The president’s attorneys—not just the unhinged fanatics who wove grand conspiracy theories—hoped that, by invalidating enough ballots, they could secure majorities in swing states. Both the president and his advisers insisted that fraud had occurred in majority-Black jurisdictions such as Atlanta, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Detroit, and that large numbers of votes should be discarded. The Trumpist cry to count “every legal vote” left unsaid which votes were illegal, because Trump supporters already knew the answer.Refusing to cooperate with those who had habitually minimized the risks Trump posed, the president spent the postelection months attempting to overturn the result in one bizarre scheme after another. He demanded that courts throw out votes in mostly Black jurisdictions. He tried to coerce state legislatures into invalidating the result in their states. He urged the Supreme Court to declare him president by fiat. He savaged Republican election officials who refused to cooperate, and then tried to pressure them into fabricating new vote counts. Republicans who refused to go along with Trump’s effort to reverse the election now face the prospect of being removed and replaced by apparatchiks who would have.Having persuaded millions of his adoring supporters to risk their own lives by ignoring the dangers posed by a global pandemic, Trump had little trouble convincing them that the election he had decisively lost was rigged. His falsehoods culminated in the deadly assault on the Capitol building, in which a mob of his supporters sought to capture and kill federal lawmakers—including the vice president.Trump, often described as a populist, spoke frequently about the will of the people—but he only ever saw himself as an avatar of a particular group of Americans. A president who lost the popular vote twice was never inclined to think of “the people” in anything but the narrowest terms. He was an avatar of the right people, those who, in their minds, had been granted the mantle of heaven since the Founding. The multiracial coalition that defeated them in 2020 by a margin of some 7 million votes was fraudulent by definition and possessed no legitimate claim to power.The most consistent principle of Trumpist populism was that keeping Trump in power was too important to leave to the people. The sacking of the Capitol was a logical consequence of that belief.The defense that Trump’s authoritarianism was tempered by his incompetence rests on the faulty assumption that incompetence mitigates the damage he has done. Even an inept authoritarian can—partly by his very ineptitude—corrupt the responsibilities of the state, erode democracy, and leave a significant portion of the electorate in thrall to a cult of personality.The coronavirus pandemic is still raging through the United States like a wildfire, with over 400,000 dead. By spring, the number of casualties will begin to rival the 600,000 Americans who died in the Civil War, the largest death toll for a single event in American history.This was not an inevitable outcome. It was the consequence of an administration whose main objective was shielding Donald Trump’s ego and preserving his political prospects. Trump’s allies in the conservative media and in state governments foiled an effective public response and dissuaded their own supporters from taking basic safety measures. The president’s cult of personality took precedence over whether Americans lived or died. Incompetent authoritarianism did not limit the damage of the pandemic; it exacerbated that damage.The same is true of much of the rest of the president’s agenda. The child-separation policy was so incompetently administered that today many of the families remain shattered because the administration did not bother to keep adequate records. The Trump administration’s indifference to the treatment of migrants in detention led to scores of deaths. The president’s initial anti-Muslim travel ban did not cause less damage for being incompetently administered. The president’s response to the devastation of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, whose residents he regards with such contempt that he wanted to expel them from the United States, was not less ruinous for being incompetent. Trump’s handling of the George Floyd protests, while politically inept, nevertheless encouraged a wave of police brutality against Americans protesting police brutality. The federal government might have been better prepared for the Capitol riot had national-security agencies not been pressured by the president to downplay the threat of white-nationalist extremism because of his association with it. Trump, who declared that he would be the “greatest jobs president God ever created,” began his term with a booming economy and ends it with the worst jobs record of any president since Herbert Hoover, in part because he put his preoccupation with his own image ahead of rescuing the economy or containing the pandemic that crashed it.The combination of Trump’s incompetence and authoritarianism, in short, made effective governance nearly impossible, and proved utterly calamitous in the face of a genuine national crisis. Not only that, but it short-circuited the checks and balances that might have forced the administration to alter course. Trump’s incompetence did not loosen his grip on the Republican Party faithful; instead it made their minds more pliable to ludicrous and fantastic explanations for why his administration was failing. Republicans in both the House and the Senate, beholden to voters fully ensconced in the president’s alternate universe, made the political choice to enable Trump’s incompetence and authoritarianism by providing no reasonable limits on his power and no correction of his mismanagement of the federal government.The point is not that a “competent” authoritarian is preferable. The point is that having an aspiring authoritarian in the office of the presidency, competent or incompetent, is a catastrophe, one absurdly minimized by the baseline metric of whether or not democracy ends under his tenure. This is perhaps the first time the standard for a presidency has been set at whether or not the republic itself ceased to exist. Seeing that a transfer of power will take place, under military guard and despite Trump’s best efforts to prevent it, critics of liberal hysteria somehow imagine themselves vindicated.A large portion of the conservative electorate—and at least two members of Congress—is now in thrall to the lunatic QAnon conspiracy theory, a fantasy that imagines and justifies the mass murder of political opponents. The combination of Trump’s incompetence and authoritarianism ultimately necessitated the creation of an alternate reality in which his supporters could dwell comfortably; elected Republicans now find themselves afraid to challenge these believers. The logic of conspiracy dictates that all developments only enhance the original theory; the rejection of Trump at the ballot box hasn’t dispelled the delusions of his followers, but instead proved to them that elections they lose are by definition corrupt, and so their outcomes can be disregarded.Antidemocratic elements were long present in the Republican Party prior to Trump’s rise—after their defeat in 2012, Republicans considered a number of the malicious political schemes they are now reviving. But that does not minimize the fact that Trump forcefully accelerated such trends. A car headed for a cliff can still turn away at the last second; Trump pressed his foot on the gas.Having enabled some of the worst elements of the American right, Trump leaves behind a Republican Party secure in its conviction that its future depends more on excising large sections of the American public from the polity than on appealing to them, and with a base even more rabidly committed to the project of minority rule. Republican losses in formerly reliably red states like Georgia and Arizona have only increased the perceived urgency of further restricting the electorate, so that the American voters spellbound by Trump can wield even more influence in a system that already enhances the minority’s power to a degree not seen in any other modern democracy.Republicans entered the Trump era with the House, the Senate, and the presidency. Over the past four years, they lost all three, despite the substantial political advantages enjoyed by conservative voters through the Senate, the Electoral College, and the House districts designed by Republican state legislatures. These advantages have somehow only exacerbated right-wing entitlement. The Capitol rioters were so convinced of their right to rule that they attempted to violently overturn the election, leading to the kind of armed presence Washington, D.C., hasn’t seen for an inauguration since Abraham Lincoln took office. On the night of January 6, as the counting of the electoral votes resumed, the mob was rewarded with the tacit support of a majority of the House Republican caucus, which concurred that the American people can vote for whomever they like, as long they vote Republican. The true damage of the Trump era can’t yet be fully assessed; the patient is still recovering in the trauma bay. What we do know is that an aspiring authoritarian, even an incompetent one, can do tremendous damage to the body politic. If there is to be a recovery, it will be long and arduous, and require sustained intensive care. Even old wounds can ultimately prove fatal.
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