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The Sex Scandal That Killed Privacy in France
Until this month, Benjamin Griveaux was a rather lackluster candidate for mayor of Paris, treading water in third place. He’d been the French government spokesman under President Emmanuel Macron and his weak mayoral run seemed faintly emblematic of Macron’s dimming political fortunes. And then, suddenly, came the leaked texts and videos, in which Griveaux tells—and shows!—a woman who’s not his wife just how excited he is to see her.The repercussions were swift. Griveaux, ashen-faced, withdrew from the race. Jaws dropped across France. Not from the shock that he had apparently cheated on his wife, with whom he has three young children. Or even from the surprise that Griveaux, who is 42, took the risk of filming himself masturbating. But rather because the exchange had been leaked, and had led to something that never happens in France: a politician stepping down because of something in his private life.[Read: France, where #MeToo becomes #PasMoi]It seems weirdly fitting that the story begins with the Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky, who leaked Griveaux’s messages on a self-made website called Pavlensky, 35, is best known for nailing his scrotum to the cobblestones of Red Square, a 2013 action he said should be seen as “a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of contemporary Russian society.” In posting the messages, the artist, who has political-refugee status in France, decried the “hypocrisy” of Griveaux, who had depicted himself as a family man during his campaign. French media have identified the woman with whom Griveaux exchanged the messages in 2018 as Alexandra De Taddeo, a 29-year-old student who subsequently became involved with Pavlensky. (She has confirmed that she was the recipient of the messages, but denies active involvement in publishing them, according to Le Monde. Pavlensky has said that he stole the material from her computer.)Far more than a titillating local curiosity, or even just France’s version of the Anthony Weiner scandal, #GriveauxGate has brought together not only sex, politics, and morality in the #MeToo era, but also digital surveillance, possible Russia connections, conspiracy theories, a whiff of kompromat, and a cast of characters that’s Quai d’Orsay meets Call My Agent meets Black Mirror. With each passing day, it becomes less clear whether #GriveauxGate reflects the influence of America on French political life, or whether something more sinister is afoot, at a time when privacy is eroding everywhere.Griveaux is widely seen as a victim of a nasty sting, even by people who condemn his behavior. Politicians and citizens across the political spectrum have denounced what they see as the Americanization of French political life—an apparent intrusion of an irritating puritan morality. How dare this happen here, where private life is sacred! Except this time around, the outrage is combined with the cold shower brought about by the era of social media and Big Data surveillance, in which politicians have discovered that they’re as vulnerable as anyone else to online leaks.In the weekly newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, Richard Ferrand, the president of the National Assembly and a socialist, warned: “Let’s not confuse transparency and voyeurism, the prelude to a kind of inquisition. At this rate, who will take the risk of public life if it could become the ante-chamber of a permanent lynching?” The columnist Philippe Val declared that “the opacity of private life is the foundation, the primordial motivation of all democratic construction. Without it, liberty is an empty word.” The only two politicians who probably didn’t “have coitus,” Val continued, were Robespierre, “who started the Terror and sent his friends and almost all the intellectuals of his era to the guillotine; and Hitler.” (Yes, believe it or not, this has been the tenor of the debate.)Other commentators think Griveaux could have been more careful. Anne Roumanoff, also in Le Journal du Dimanche, offered a list of suggestions: “1. You have the right to have extramarital relations. This is France, everyone understands that sometimes you need to reduce the pressure a bit. You don’t have to be irreproachable, but you should be discreet. 2. Avoid showcasing your marriage on the covers of magazines and talking about your family with a loving voice if you’re not irreproachable.”She advised Griveaux to use a dedicated cellphone that doesn’t display his name. Then: “4. Don’t send sexts, you’re not a teenager.” Rather than writing, “Can’t wait to see you and your magnificent breasts again this evening. Look what a state you’ve got me in this morning”—which is what the leaked texts read—she suggested something like, “See you at 7 p.m. to review the documents. We need to dig deep, the problem is getting harder.”Griveaux hasn’t verified that it’s him in the video on Pavlensky’s site, which the French government has shut down. But his lawyer, Richard Malka, is suing for illegally publishing private material. (This scandal has expanded my French vocabulary considerably, but the French term for revenge porn turns out to be … revenge porn.)In the United States, a politician’s private life is generally seen as fair game for public scrutiny. But America has several times elected leaders whose personal lives are not, shall we say, beyond reproach. And France has also previously violated the private lives of its public figures, not least in 2014, when a tabloid published images of then-President François Hollande showing up on a moped to deliver croissants to Julie Gayet, the actress with whom he was having an affair.[Read: France’s growing pushback against Roman Polanski]Publishing the photos marked a big change. President François Mitterrand famously kept a second family out of the public eye. (In 2016, Anne Pingeot, the president’s former lover with whom he had a daughter, published a collection of 1,200 of their love letters, some of which are truly beautiful.) It was an open secret in France that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Socialist politician and former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, had a penchant for swingers’ clubs. In 2012, he was arrested on charges of assaulting a hotel maid in New York, charges that were subsequently dropped. In 2015, he was acquitted on charges of soliciting prostitution. (As a young socialist, Griveaux in fact worked with Strauss-Kahn.)If #GriveauxGate marks a watershed moment in France, it’s not entirely because of the Americanization of French morals. But I doubt that Griveaux would have stepped down before the #MeToo era. Today, things men got away with in the past no longer fly, even in France. A prime example (and far more egregious than the Griveaux case) is Gabriel Matzneff, a French writer of middling reputation who bragged and wrote about engaging in pedophilia and was protected for decades by friends in the French establishment. After a woman published a stunning memoir last month, Consent, about a relationship she had with Matzneff when she was a teenager, French police opened a rape investigation, and invited other potential victims to come forward—also a turning point in France.But beyond the broader context in which #GriveauxGate has erupted are the facts of the case. Griveaux’s lawyer has said that he doesn’t think Pavlensky acted alone. Without naming names, the French government spokeswoman echoed the suspicion, saying Pavlensky “surely did not act alone.” Did he publish the messages at someone’s behest? The French media are thrumming with speculation. The lack of clarity has fomented an atmosphere of confusion and uncertainties, in which conspiracy theories thrive.French police detained Pavlensky and charged him with illegally publishing the messages. Cornered by television reporters as he left a courthouse last week, he said that he stood by his actions. Whether he’ll keep his political-refugee status in France is unclear. Police detained and questioned De Taddeo, too, over the leaked exchange. She made the cover of this week’s Paris Match, France’s preeminent weekly tabloid, with the headline “The Trap.”Pavlensky and De Taddeo were apparently introduced by Juan Branco, a French lawyer who was part of Julian Assange’s defense team and who has been a vocal supporter of the anti-Macron “yellow vest” movement. The story gets weirder. The leaked exchange on an obscure website drew attention when it was tweeted, including by Joachim Son-Forget, a French lawmaker who quit Macron’s party. (Son-Forget’s tweets were subsequently taken down.)[Read: France, where age of consent is up for debate]I wonder what Pavlensky’s aim is here, besides anarchic provocation. His performances usually involve self-mutilation—sewing his lips shut, cutting off part of his ear—to make a political point. In 2015, he set fire to the door of Moscow’s Lubyanka prison. In Paris in 2017, after receiving refugee status, he set fire to a branch of the Bank of France to protest the power of finance, and wound up spending nearly a year in jail.Is the leaked Griveaux exchange off-brand for Pavlensky, or a new direction for his art? In both Russia and France, Pavlensky has incorporated his police interrogations into his work. “What I’m doing is turning the tables, drawing the government into the process of making art,” he told The New York Times Magazine in an illuminating profile last year. “The power relations shift, the state enters into the work of art and becomes an object, an actor.” Making Griveaux’s private life public may be Pavlensky’s most daring performance yet. It certainly has found the largest audience. And quite possibly has ended an era in which French public figures were able to keep their private life private.
2 h
The Democratic Establishment Is Broken
LAS VEGAS—The phrase Democratic establishment conjures images of something like the Illuminati with the power to determine the outcome of American elections. But so far, the supposedly all-powerful leaders of the party have been about as well organized as The Muppet Show.Now, with Senator Bernie Sanders’s massive win in Nevada, he’s taken the lead in delegates and may never lose it. Efforts to stop him so far have been ineffective and made the party seem out of touch. This summer, party leaders may be forced to accept the nomination of a man who’s not officially a member of the party, who won’t have won a majority of primary voters, and whose agenda is popular with his progressive base but doesn’t have as much support with Democrats as a whole.“The Democratic establishment exists, but like the Republican establishment four years ago, it’s a mess, paralyzed by fear and indecision, and it doesn’t know what to do,” says Matt Bennett, a vice president at Third Way, a moderate think tank that proudly thinks of itself as the home of the establishment. He spoke with me about the candidates faced with decisions about dropping out after today. “The fear is that people will move instantly from ‘I’m not ready’ [to drop out] to ‘It’s too late’ [to win.]”“There’s this misconception that somehow there’s this ‘Democratic leadership’ that decides the candidates,” Eleni Kounalakis, California’s lieutenant governor and a former ambassador to Hungary during the Obama administration, as well as a major party donor, told me this afternoon after watching a big caucus site go largely for Sanders. Kounalakis, who’s a Pete Buttigieg supporter, had just seen another caucus site go for Sanders. “We don’t have a process to stop a candidate. What he’s running into is a ceiling that’s based on public opinion, not about leadership being against him.”That hasn’t stopped Sanders from using a supposed party effort against him as a main talking point. Yesterday he tweeted: “I’ve got news for the Republican establishment. I’ve got news for the Democratic establishment. They can't stop us.” And it hasn’t stopped voters from feeling like he’s speaking to something deeper wrong in society, and eating it up.[Read: The hidden history of Sanders’s plot to primary Obama]When Sanders started planning for this race two years ago, he told advisers that he believed the 43 percent of the vote he received against Hillary Clinton in 2016 was a starting point, and he would only gain support this time around. He dismissed suggestions that a significant level of his 2016 success had been driven by antipathy toward Clinton.Emily’s List, the organization devoted to women’s political empowerment. It uses two basic criteria for endorsements—being a woman and being pro-abortion-rights—which leaves it stuck. If Senators Amy Klobuchar or Elizabeth Warren were to drop out, Emily’s List would probably endorse the remaining woman almost immediately, the group’s top leaders have been saying privately. But neither is showing any signs of leaving the race, so the group has so far given $250,000 each to the super PACs supporting them. (Neither candidate even had a super PAC until a week ago, and both had spoken out against the very concept, but both have eagerly taken the financial backing they need to stay in the race.)“Because they’re both running good campaigns, because they both have a credible path, and because they both would be good presidents,” Christina Reynolds, the vice president of communications at Emily’s List, told me, “we got in this week to support them both.”Yes, only three states—two of them extremely white—have voted, but versions of this conversation are happening among all sorts of Democratic leaders.So the remaining candidates leave Nevada all believing that they have a legitimate argument for staying in the race. With no one winning enough support to be considered a strong alternative to Sanders, and with expectations of a contested convention setting in, they’re all sticking around and amassing delegates in hopes of getting another shot at the nomination in Milwaukee in July.Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, who came to Nevada to campaign for Warren, says he’d be fine with a scenario in which Democrats enter the summer without a nominee. “Remember, the full primary process includes the convention,” he told me.Many experienced Democrats worry not just that the party won’t unite and that Sanders will lose to Trump, but that having a democratic socialist at the top of the ticket would squash their hopes of winning new Senate seats and perhaps even cost them a few existing ones in states like Michigan and Wisconsin. Some worry they’ll even lose the House majority. They dread the idea of Trump, already clearly feeling unshackled since his impeachment acquittal, feeling even more empowered by winning reelection.Sanders and his aides argue that he’s the only one who can bring in new voters and even win over disaffected Trump supporters. Sanders is actually the way out of the apocalypse, his supporters say. And to those fretting that this is 2016 all over again—with an iconoclastic outsider seizing control of a party— they point out that Trump carried lots of contested Senate seats with him and helped his party hold the House. They add that Democrats who are holding out on Sanders are disconnected from the direction in which many of the younger and nonwhite voters are moving the party.A cynical, but perhaps realistic, argument has been embedded in Sanders’s campaign from the start: He’s the most electable because he’ll get all the people who’d vote against Trump no matter who the Democratic nominee is. But he’s also the only one who will be able to activate an entirely different faction of voters. This assumes that all those anti-Trump voters will turn out for him. But although right now everyone is talking party unity, the Never Sanders whispers can be heard among people who would have called themselves “good Democrats” in any other cycle. The Sanders campaign is already suspicious of what the party has in store. Nina Turner, one of the campaign co-chairs, expressed skepticism after all the candidates onstage at Wednesday’s debate said they’ll support whoever the nominee is. “Yeah, that's what they say,” Turner told me, and went on to repeatedly point out that Sanders campaigned for Clinton after losing to her in the 2016 primary race. “Actions speak louder than words,” she said.Turner said that if Sanders is the nominee, the party will have to support his agenda on health care, economic policy, and more. “If Senator Sanders wins the primary, he did get the majority,” Turner said. What if he doesn’t get a majority? I asked her. She barely paused. “If he gets 40 and somebody else gets 15, he will get the plurality of it. So we’re going to roll.”That very well may happen, given that most of the other candidates are still spending more time going after one another than Sanders. Former New York Mayor Bloomberg released a memo on Tuesday calling for everyone else to drop out, then, two days later, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg put out a memo calling for Bloomberg to drop out.“Look, I think everybody is going to have to make a decision for themselves about what’s good for the future of the party,” Howard Wolfson, one of Bloomberg’s top advisers, told me. “And I would strongly argue that a divided party in which you have the moderate lane increasingly congested is not good for the future of this party,” he said. Wolfson didn’t mention that it’s Bloomberg who has so far spent half a billion dollars congesting the moderate lane.[Read: Democrats are freaking out about Mike Bloomberg]Tom Steyer, another Democratic presidential candidate and billionaire, told me that Bloomberg’s flop in Wednesday’s debate was proof of how fluid the race is.“Stuff happens, and stuff's going to continue to happen,” Steyer told me. “Are people in it for themselves? Let me be a little more charitable: The people running think that they’re standing for what's right. And they're worried that other people, even if they respect them, don't agree with them and that therefore it could be bad for the country if they're not the candidate. Is there a selfishness layered on top of that? Probably.”That is an accusation other campaigns and Democrats would level against Steyer, who is generally treated as an interloper blowing money that he could be spending helping other Democratic efforts. But Steyer has been doing well enough in polls that many think he could place in the top three in South Carolina. Then again, many thought he’d do that well in Nevada, where he’s projected to finish fifth. When I told him that, he said he’d gladly back down if he thought someone else could take on Trump on the economy and unify the party like he believes he could. He’s doing well among African American voters, he has funded a more significant Super Tuesday operation than most, and he’s got the standing in the polls to show for it. He refuses to be dismissed as the rich guy who should drop out—not while Bloomberg keeps going.“I don’t even understand that argument. We’ve got people voting for me,” Steyer told me. “I thought that was what we were supposed to be doing.”If what Steyer and the other candidates are supposed to be doing is beating Bernie Sanders, well, they’re not doing much of that.
6 h
Bernie Sanders’s Biggest Win Yet
Senator Bernie Sanders endured nail-biters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Today, Nevada voters handed him a landslide victory.Sanders’s dominant victory in the Silver State solidifies his standing as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, giving him and the progressive movement a clear boost as the race heads to more challenging territory in South Carolina and then across the country on March 3—Super Tuesday.Although Nevada, like the first two Democratic nominating contests, sends relatively few delegates to the party’s national convention this summer, Sanders’s win demonstrated two key things. First, the democratic socialist from Vermont has significantly improved his performance from 2016 among a more diverse primary electorate; just 66 percent of caucus-goers in Nevada were white and more than one-quarter were Latino or black, according to entrance polls. That change could prove crucial as Sanders tries to rack up delegates in huge states like Texas and California on Super Tuesday. Waiting for him in March is former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is hoping that an unprecedented barrage of television ads will drown out his roundly criticized debate debut last week.[Read: Bloomberg’s beating]Second, while former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg again split the moderate vote, Sanders has—at least for now—consolidated the left wing of the Democratic Party behind him. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s forceful performance in Wednesday’s Las Vegas debate came too late to matter in Nevada, where well over half the caucus electorate—some 75,000 people—had already voted early. Entrance polls did show Warren doing well (though still behind Sanders) among the 15 percent of voters who made their decision in the past few days. She’ll need another strong showing at next week’s debate in South Carolina if she hopes to compete seriously with Sanders there and in many larger states on Super Tuesday.Biden finished far behind Sanders, clustered with Buttigieg, the billionaire activist Tom Steyer, and Warren. The former vice president is banking on a victory next Saturday in South Carolina to keep his campaign afloat, but that may depend on how much momentum Sanders carries out of Nevada.If Sanders slightly underperformed expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire—where he still came out with a win and at worst a tie—Nevada illuminated the durability of his support. A fight between his campaign and the leadership of the powerful union of culinary workers over Sanders’s Medicare for All proposal did little to diminish his standing among laborers. He fared well among union members in entrance polls, and he won caucus precincts at major Las Vegas casinos dominated by culinary workers.[Read: Bernie Sanders’s biggest test yet with Latino voters]Nevada is also significant in that it represents the first state where Sanders improved his position from 2016, when he lost the caucus handily to Hillary Clinton. His biggest challenges are yet to come, as Biden tries to regroup in South Carolina, Bloomberg’s billions swamp the airwaves, and the party establishment frets about the prospect of a democrat socialist leading its ticket in the fall. The candidates who largely laid off Sanders in favor of demolishing Bloomberg at last week’s debate might now target him instead. Sanders’s critics will point out that collectively, moderate candidates outpoll the Vermont senator and that he remains unlikely to win a majority of pledged delegates heading into the Democratic convention in Milwaukee.That may be true. But while the question of whether a candidate as far left as Sanders can defeat Donald Trump and win the presidency remains, it is becoming more and more clear which wing of the Democratic Party is prevailing: In the most diverse contest of the year, the most progressive candidate in the field won his biggest victory yet.
7 h
Democrats Have a Credibility Problem on Trump’s Foreign Policy
It’s 2020, and America is embroiled in not one but two catastrophic wars: one with Iran that has sucked in the entire Middle East, and another halfway across the world in North Korea sparked by Kim Jong Un test-firing nuclear-capable missiles that could hit the United States. It’s all the worse since the U.S. is waging both wars without allies, all of which have abandoned Donald Trump because of his incessant bullying.Fortunately, this isn’t where we find ourselves today, but it’s what the president’s critics have been warning could occur if he carries on with policies that have shattered decades of conventional U.S. policy making. It’s not as if their concerns have no factual basis. The Trump administration really did come to the brink of war with Iran and North Korea. In neither case are the underlying tensions that got them there anywhere near resolved. America’s alliances are indeed in flux. But the fact that this is not our reality in 2020 is just as instructive as the fact that it could have been.This pattern has recurred on several occasions during the Trump era: The president’s detractors foretell doom caused by one of his decisions only to be proved wrong, and then nobody acknowledges that they got it wrong or admits that Trump’s policies have had some advantages.Of course, just because some of these doomsday scenarios haven’t yet materialized doesn’t mean that they won’t eventually. A number of Trump’s actions have already inflicted serious damage and could have corrosive consequences that will only become evident over time. In some cases, Trump seems to have simply been lucky. A number of warnings, moreover, have proved right.Nevertheless, as American foreign policy comes under greater scrutiny as part of this year’s presidential campaign, the Democratic candidates risk losing credibility with voters and undermining their policy prescriptions if they don’t reckon with the moments when they said the sky was falling and it wasn’t. Why should a voter be convinced that returning to aspects of the pre-Trump status quo is necessarily a good thing when the people advocating for that inaccurately diagnosed the results of Trump’s defiance of convention? The episodes in which critics’ predictions weren't borne out offer valuable lessons for Trump’s challengers, even if they still vigorously disagree with the moves the president has made.[Read: The Sanders doctrine]As Charles Dunlap Jr., the head of Duke University’s Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security, wrote for Just Security early in the Trump administration, Americans “need balance in our national security and foreign policy discussions before we don sackcloth and ashes and hoist our ‘The End is Near’ signs. True, we are in an era of change, which is what happens in democracies when a candidate runs on a platform of change and wins, and change can be disquieting to those who prefer the status quo. But how good was the status quo?”Consider three emblematic episodes:The War With Iran That Wasn’tIn the wee hours of January 2, shortly after news broke that Trump had killed the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike, Twitter pulsed with anxiety about #WWIII.Enter the Democratic candidates: Bernie Sanders warned that Trump had just placed the United States “on the path to another” endless war, one that could again “cost countless lives and trillions more dollars.” Joe Biden declared that Trump had “just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” potentially bringing America to “the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East.” The U.S. was perched precariously on that brink, Elizabeth Warren argued, “because a reckless president, his allies, and his administration have spent years pushing us here.”[Read: ]Qassem Soleimani haunted the Arab worldThe calamitous war they envisioned, however, has not come to pass. They were right, though, that there would be devastating consequences. Iran retaliated by firing missiles at a U.S. base in Iraq, leaving at least 109 American troops with traumatic brain injuries. The Iranians mistakenly downed a civilian airliner, killing its 176 passengers, and hostilities between Iran and the U.S. remain dangerously high. Tehran has cast off restrictions under the 2015 deal brokered by the Obama administration to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, though it hasn’t yet raced to build a bomb, as many of Trump’s critics predicted would happen when the president withdrew from the agreement in 2018. Had Trump stuck with the accord in the first place, Iran and the U.S. might never have found themselves on the precipice of war over Soleimani’s demise.Nevertheless, Iran’s missile barrage was a relatively restrained response when measured against the blow of losing its most powerful military leader and the predictions made by Sanders, Biden, and Warren. Iranian officials thought “that after a series of escalatory [Iranian] military operations—the tanker attacks, the shooting down of an American drone, the Saudi oil strikes, rocket attacks on bases in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias—Mr. Trump would refrain from responding consequentially,” only to be shocked by Trump taking out Soleimani, The New York Times reported last week in a postmortem of the crisis. Trump’s decision, the paper noted, “might ultimately deter future Iranian aggression.” A former British diplomat similarly told my London colleague Tom McTague that the Soleimani strike opened up “the space for de-escalation” by scrambling the Iranian government’s “understanding of how the Americans might react in [the] future.”Setting aside the vital question of whether Trump’s killing of Soleimani was legally justified or strategically wise (for candidates such as Sanders and Warren, the answer is unequivocally no), it’s worthwhile to investigate why Iran didn’t react the way so many assumed it would and what insights that yields for how the United States deals with adversaries. Trump, “accidentally or otherwise, has identified real problems, including Iran’s ability to act with relative impunity,” McTague concluded. The Soleimani incident also suggests that viewing every U.S. military action in the Middle East through the trauma of the Iraq War can distort our understanding of those events.The War With North Korea That Wasn’tTrump’s critics argued that war would break out as a result of the president’s assorted threats (unleashing “fire and fury,” totally destroying “Rocket Man”) to attack North Korea during his first year in office. After Trump engaged in a nuclear-button measuring contest with North Korea’s leader on Twitter, Biden argued that the United States was closer to a nuclear war with North Korea than it had ever been. Sanders and Warren helped introduce legislation to restrain Trump from going to war with North Korea. These critiques weren’t confined to the left. Republican Senator Bob Corker cautioned that Trump doesn’t realize that “we could be heading towards World War III with the kinds of comments that he’s making.”North Korean officials probably didn’t interpret Trump’s remarks as a signal that war was imminent. But the bellicosity of the president and his advisers put the U.S. military on high alert, alarmed America’s ally South Korea, and increased the risk that the parties could stumble into conflict, just as the president’s critics had warned.That bellicosity, though, was also productive in ways that Trump’s detractors rarely acknowledge. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, told me that she leveraged her boss’s rhetoric and volatility to persuade China and Russia to support UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, which helped pressure Kim into (thus far mostly fruitless) nuclear negotiations with the United States. Vincent Brooks, who commanded U.S. forces in South Korea from 2016 to 2018, told me that the president’s unpredictability, paired with new military maneuvers on the Korean peninsula, helped Brooks reestablish deterrence against North Korean provocations and create space for diplomacy. "Trying to bait a dictator who has nuclear weapons is not a way to advance diplomacy," Warren argued in 2017. According to two former Trump administration officials who were at the forefront of its North Korea policy during this period, however, it was one way to do so.[William J. Burns: How small European allies see Trump]The lesson here isn’t exactly that future American presidents should bait nuclear-armed dictators, but rather that, in certain situations, unconventional behavior can unlock opportunities to achieve breakthroughs with enemies. Thae Yong Ho, one of the highest-ranking officials ever to defect from North Korea, told me that he thought Trump’s sharp break with the “very gentle” posture of past American presidents helped dissuade North Korea from escalating the nuclear crisis with the United States in late 2017.The Very Anxious Allies That Remain AlliesTrump’s critics have likewise divined doom each time the president has raised questions about his commitment to defending U.S. allies and demanded huge hikes in their financial contributions to collective security. Biden, for example, has warned that if Trump is reelected, “NATO will fall apart.” Similar predictions have been made as Trump pushes for new arrangements in which Japan and South Korea would cover most of the costs of stationing U.S. troops in each country.These alliances are indeed being tested more than they have been in decades, and all these partners are now engaged in more contingency planning for a world in which they can no longer depend on U.S. protection. But the fact that the alliances haven’t yet shattered—and by some measures, certain alliances have actually grown stronger during the Trump era—reveals two realities of America’s network of alliances that the next commander in chief will confront.First, Trump’s tenure has underscored that the United States never really figured out its role in the world and national-security interests once the Cold War ended and its clout began to decline relative to that of rising powers. That debate is now under way in earnest, and U.S. allies are gradually grasping this and processing what it means for them.Second, for all the upheaval of the Trump years, these partners have come to recognize that they ultimately don’t have attractive alternatives—teaming up with authoritarian powers such as China and Russia? Staking their security on a weak European Union?—to their alliance with the United States. Some allied leaders may not be especially enthused about collaborating with the U.S. these days, and their publics may be with them, but their national interests still dictate that they do. That means there’s more room to tackle sensitive issues such as burden-sharing and more resilience in the relationships than previous American presidents suspected. Kersti Kaljulaid, the president of Estonia, a NATO member bordering Russia and thus on the front line of fears about America’s wavering fidelity to the bloc, told me and my colleague Yara Bayoumy that it took Trump’s crass transactionalism (rather than Barack Obama and his predecessors asking “nicely”) to impress upon NATO members that they had to get serious about ramping up their own defense spending.As Robert Blackwill of the Council on Foreign Relations noted in a 2019 assessment of Trump’s foreign policy—in which he memorably likened the president’s policies to “a large bowl of spaghetti bolognese dumped and spread on a white canvas”—many criticisms of the president’s conduct in the world are related to the manner in which he makes, announces, and explains decisions and to the policy incoherence within his administration. Rarely, however, is it acknowledged that “the president has disrupted a whole series of conventions in the international system, some of them undoubtedly needed.”“Not a single U.S. politician,” Blackwill observed, “has a coherent and convincing set of policies to cope with this eroding world order, but Trump receives nearly all the slings and arrows.”
How the Coronavirus Revealed Authoritarianism’s Fatal Flaw
China is in the grip of a momentous crisis. The novel coronavirus that emerged late last year has already claimed three times more lives than the SARS outbreak in 2003, and it is still spreading. More than 50 million people (more than the combined metro populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco) remain under historically unprecedented lockdown, unable to leave their city—and in many cases, even their apartment. Many countries no longer accept visiting Chinese nationals, or if they do, quarantine them for weeks. Big companies are pulling out of trade shows. Production is suffering. Profound economic consequences are bound to ensue, not just in China but around the world.How did Xi Jinping—the general secretary of the Communist Party of China, who has been consolidating his power since taking over the post in 2012—let things get to this point?It might be that he didn’t fully know what was happening in his own country until it was too late.Xi would be far from the first authoritarian to have been blindsided. Ironically, for all the talk of the technological side of Chinese authoritarianism, China’s use of technology to ratchet up surveillance and censorship may have made things worse, by making it less likely that Xi would even know what was going on in his own country.[Read: Coronavirus is devastating Chinese tourism]Authoritarian blindness is a perennial problem, especially in large countries like China with centralized, top-down administration. Indeed, Xi would not even be the first Chinese ruler to fall victim to the totality of his own power. On August 4, 1958, buoyed by reports pouring in from around the country of record grain, rice, and peanut production, an exuberant Chairman Mao Zedong wondered how to get rid of the excess, and advised people to eat “five meals a day.” Many did, gorging themselves in the new regime canteens and even dumping massive amounts of “leftovers” down gutters and toilets. Export agreements were made to send tons of food abroad in return for machinery or currency. Just months later, perhaps the greatest famine in recorded history began, in which tens of millions would die because, in fact, there was no such surplus. Quite the opposite: The misguided agricultural policies of the Great Leap Forward had caused a collapse in food production. Yet instead of reporting the massive failures, the apparatchiks in various provinces had engaged in competitive exaggeration, reporting ever-increasing surpluses both because they were afraid of reporting bad news and because they wanted to please their superiors.Mao didn’t know famine was at hand, because he had set up a system that ensured he would hear lies.Smart rulers have tried to create workarounds to avoid this authoritarian dilemma. Dynastic China, for example, had institutionalized mechanisms to petition the emperor: a right that was theoretically granted to everyone, including the lowest farmers and the poorest city dwellers. This system was intended to check corruption in provinces and uncover problems, but in practice, it was limited in many ways, filtered through courtiers to a single emperor, who could listen to only so many in a day. Many rulers also cultivated their own independent sources of information in far-flung provinces.Thanks to technology, there is a much more robust option for authoritarians in the 21st century: big-data analytics in a digital public sphere. For a few years, it appeared that China had found a way to be responsive to its citizens without giving them political power. Researchers have shown, for example, that posts on Weibo (China’s Twitter) complaining about problems in governance or corruption weren’t all censored. Many were allowed to stay up, allowing crucial information to trickle up to authorities. For example, viral posts about forced demolitions (a common occurrence in China) or medical mistreatment led to authorities sacking the officials involved, or to victim compensation that would otherwise not have occurred. A corrupt official was even removed from office after outraged netizens on social media pointed out the expensive watches he wore, which were impossible to buy on his government salary.The public sphere in China during those years wasn’t a free-for-all, to be sure. One couldn’t call for collective action or for deposing the central government. But social media gave citizens a voice and a way to make an impact, and it served as an early-warning system for party leaders. (The only other topic that seemed to be off-limits was the censors themselves—researchers found that they eagerly zapped complaints directed at them.)This responsive form of authoritarianism didn’t happen just on social media. Beginning in the early 2000s, China held “deliberative polls” in which citizens debated local budgets, important issues, and even reforms that would give them the right to information on government actions. In Zeguo township in Wenling, a municipality of more than 1 million residents, authorities created deliberative bodies wherein they engaged citizens (usually a few hundred, with randomness ensuring they were representative of the population) over a few days by providing information (including detailed accounts of the city’s budget) and hosting discussions to decide on issues of public significance. Authorities sometimes went as far as to pledge, in advance, to abide by the decisions of these bodies. For many years, such experiments flourished all over China and, combined with the digital public sphere, led scholars to wonder whether the “deliberative turn” in the country’s otherwise authoritarian state was not a means of weakening authoritarianism, but of making it more sustainable.Yet, this deliberative turn was soon reversed.Since taking power in 2012, Xi has shifted back to traditional one-man rule, concentrating more and more power into his hands. He has deployed an ever-more suffocating system of surveillance, propaganda, and repression, while attempting to create a cult of personality reminiscent of the Mao era, except with apps instead of little red books.[Read: China’s surveillance state should scare everyone]Unlike books, though, apps can spy on people.One hundred million or so people in China have been, ahem, persuaded to download a party-propaganda app named “Study Xi, Strong Nation,” which makes users watch inculcation videos and take quizzes in a gamified, points-based system. It also allegedly gives the government access to the complete contents of users’ phones. It almost doesn’t matter whether the app contains such backdoor access or not: Reasonable people will act as if it does and be wary in all of their communications. Xi has also expanded China’s system of cameras linked to facial-recognition databases, which may someday be able to identify people everywhere they go. Again, the actual workings of the system are secondary to their chilling effects: For ordinary people, the safe assumption is that if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, the authorities will know.An earlier hint that Xi’s China was falling into authoritarian blindness came during the ongoing Hong Kong protests. The demonstrations had started over a minor demand—the withdrawal of an extradition bill of little strategic importance to Beijing. Protest is the traditional way that Hong Kongers, who do not have full voting rights, express discontent. But this time the Beijing insiders miscalculated. They genuinely believed that the real cause for the Hong Kong unrest was the high rents on the densely populated island, and also thought that the people did not support the protesters. Authoritarian blindness had turned an easily solvable problem into a bigger, durable crisis that exacted a much heavier political toll, a pattern that would repeat itself after a mysterious strain of pneumonia emerged in a Wuhan seafood market.In early December, a strange cluster of patients from a local seafood market, which also sold wildlife for consumption, started showing up in Wuhan hospitals. These initial patients developed a fever and pneumonia that did not seem to be caused by any known viruses. Given the SARS experience of 2003, local doctors were quickly alarmed. With any such novel virus, medical providers are keen to know how it spreads: If the virus is unable to spread from human to human, it’s a tragedy, but a local one, and for only a few people. If it can sustainably spread from human to human, as was the case with SARS, it could turn into a global pandemic, with potentially massive numbers of victims.Given exponential growth dynamics of infectious diseases, containing an epidemic is straightforward early on, but nearly impossible once a disease spreads among a population. So it’s maximally important to identify and quarantine candidate cases as early as possible, and that means leadership must have access to accurate information.Before the month of December was out, the hospitals in Wuhan knew that the coronavirus was spreading among humans. Medical workers who had treated the sick but never visited the seafood market were falling ill. On December 30, a group of doctors attempted to alert the public, saying that seven patients were in isolation due to a SARS-like disease. On the same day, an official document admitting both a link to the seafood market and a new disease was leaked online. On December 31, facing swirling rumors, the Wuhan government made its first official announcement, confirming 27 cases but, crucially, denying human-to-human transmission. Teams in hazmat suits were finally sent to close down the seafood market, though without explaining much to the befuddled, scared vendors. On January 1, police said they had punished eight medical workers for “rumors,” including a doctor named Li Wenliang, who was among the initial group of whistleblowers.While the unsuspecting population of Wuhan, a city of 11 million, went about its business, the local government did not update the number of infected people from January 5 to January 10. But the signs of sustained human-to-human transmission grew. Emergency wards were filling up with not just people who had been to the seafood market, but their family members as well. On January 6, Li noticed an infection in the scan of a fellow doctor, but officials at the hospital “ordered him not to disclose any information to the public or the media.” On January 7, another infected person was operated on, spreading the disease to 14 more medical workers.[Read: The coronavirus is spreading because humans are healthier]Things went on in this suspended state for another 10 days, while the virus kept spreading. Incredibly, on January 19, just one day after the death of yet another doctor who had become infected, officials from across the populous Hubei province held a 40,000-family outdoor banquet in Wuhan, its capital, as part of the official celebrations for China’s Lunar New Year.The dam broke on January 20—just three days before Wuhan would initiate a draconian lockdown that blocked millions of people from leaving. On that day, the respected SARS scientist Zhong Nanshan went on national television, confirming the new virus and human-to-human transmission. That same day, Xi Jinping gave his first public speech about the coronavirus, after he returned from an overseas trip to Myanmar.Things have dramatically escalated since then. Just one month later, by some estimates, more than 700 million people in China are living under some form of restrictions to their movements, in addition to the severe lockdown in the Hubei province. Domestic social media has erupted in anger at both China’s central leadership and local officials in Hubei province, where the disease began. There are calls for free speech, fury over the death of one of the early medical whistleblowers from the virus, and frustrations with the quarantine.It’s not clear why Xi let things spin so far out of control. It might be that he brushed aside concerns from his aides until it was too late, but a stronger possibility is that he did not know the crucial details. Hubei authorities may have lied, not just to the public but also upward—to the central government. Just as Mao didn’t know about the massive crop failures, Xi may not have known that a novel coronavirus with sustained human-to-human transmission was brewing into a global pandemic until too late.It’s nearly impossible to gather direct evidence from such a secretive state, but consider the strong, divergent actions before and after January 20—within one day, Hubei officials went from almost complete cover-up and business as usual to shutting down a whole city.Another reason to think Xi did not know is that he would have every incentive to act quickly given China’s experience with SARS, during which he was already a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Both SARS and the Wuhan virus (which causes the disease now dubbed COVID-19) are zoonotic coronaviruses, with similar origins and pandemic potential. SARS was contained, though barely, and not before significant economic costs following a failed cover-up. Such an experience should have made it clear that cover-ups are futile when it comes to pandemics, because viruses don’t respect borders. (The Soviet Union learned that radiation doesn’t either, when Sweden alerted the world to the Chernobyl accident.)It’s hard to imagine that a leader of Xi’s experience would be so lax as to let the disease spread freely for almost two months, only to turn around and shut the whole country down practically overnight.In many ways, his hand was forced by his own system. Under the conditions of massive surveillance and censorship that have grown under Xi, the central government likely had little to no signals besides official reports to detect, such as online public conversations about the mystery pneumonia. In contrast, during the SARS epidemic, some of the earliest signs were online conversations and rumors in China about a flu outbreak. These were picked up by the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, who alerted the World Health Organization, who then started pressuring China to come clean, which finally triggered successful containment efforts.If people are too afraid to talk, and if punishing people for “rumors” becomes the norm, a doctor punished for spreading hearsay of a disease in one province becomes just another day, rather than an indication of impending crisis. Later, under criticism, Xi would say he gave instructions for fighting the virus as early as January 7, implying that he knew about it all along. But how could he admit the alternative? This is his system.Contrary to common belief, the killer digital app for authoritarianism isn’t listening in on people through increased surveillance, but listening to them as they express their honest opinions, especially complaints. An Orwellian surveillance-based system would be overwhelming and repressive, as it is now in China, but it would also be similar to losing sensation in parts of one’s body due to nerve injuries. Without the pain to warn the brain, the hand stays on the hot stove, unaware of the damage to the flesh until it’s too late.During the Ming dynasty, Emperor Zhu Di found out that some petitions to the emperor had not made it to him, because officials were blocking them. He was alarmed and ordered such blocks removed. “Stability depends on superior and inferior communicating; there is none when they do not. From ancient times, many a state has fallen because a ruler did not know the affairs of the people,” he said. Xi would have done well to take note.
What If He Never Leaves?
If Donald Trump is defeated in November 2020, his presidency will end on January 20, 2021. If he is reelected, then, barring other circumstances such as removal from office, his administration will terminate on the same day in 2025. In either of these scenarios, Trump would cease to be president immediately upon the expiration of his term. But what if he won’t leave the White House?The American Constitution spells out how the transfer of power is supposed to work. Article II provides that the president “shall hold his office for the term of four years.” The 20th Amendment says that the president’s and vice president’s terms “shall end at noon on the 20th day of January … and the terms of their successors shall then begin.” Of course, a president may be reelected to a second four-year term, but under the 22nd Amendment, “no person shall be elected to the office of president more than twice.”[Read: Trump’s second term]For nearly 250 years, presidents have respected the law. Even when electoral defeat has been unexpected and ignominious, presidents have passed the baton without acrimony. In a sense, perhaps this is the central achievement of the American system: to have transferred power peacefully from one leader to the next, without heredity to guide the way.That a president would defy the results of an election has long been unthinkable; it is now, if not an actual possibility, at the very least something Trump’s supporters joke about. As the former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee tweeted, President Trump “will be eligible for a 3rd term due to the illegal attempts by Comey, Dems, and media , et al attempting to oust him as @POTUS so that’s why I was named to head up the 2024 re-election.” A good troll though it may have been, Huckabee is not the first person to suggest that Trump might not leave when his presidency ends.In May, the faith leader Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeted an apparent reference to the completed investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian election interference. “I now support reparations,” he wrote. “Trump should have 2 yrs added to his 1st term as pay back for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup.” Trump retweeted Falwell’s post.One of Trump’s former confidants, Michael Cohen, has suggested that Trump won’t leave. In his congressional testimony before heading to prison, Trump’s former attorney said, “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”Trump himself has joked about staying in office beyond his term, and even for life. In December, Trump told a crowd at a Pennsylvania rally that he will leave office in “five years, nine years, 13 years, 17 years, 21 years, 25 years, 29 years …” He added that he was joking to drive the media “totally crazy.” Just a few days earlier, Trump had alluded to his critics in a speech, “A lot of them say, ‘You know he’s not leaving’ … So now we have to start thinking about that because it’s not a bad idea.” This is how propaganda works. Say something outrageous often enough and soon it no longer sounds shocking.Refusal to leave office is rare, but not unheard of. In the past decade, presidents in democracies such as Moldova, Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gambia have refused to leave office, sometimes leading to bloodshed. In 2016, Joseph Kabila decided not to step down after three five-year terms as the president of Congo, announcing that he would delay the election for two years so that a census could be conducted. His decision was met with mass protests in which 50 people were killed by government security forces. Still, he followed through and an election took place in 2018. He left office thereafter.Elected officials in the U.S. have also refused to step down, albeit from lower offices than the presidency. In 1874, a Texas governor locked himself in the basement of the state capitol building after losing his reelection bid. The saga began when Republican Governor Edmund J. Davis lost the 1873 election by a resounding 2-to-1 ratio to his Democratic challenger, Richard Coke, and claimed that the election had been tainted with fraud and intimidation. A court case made its way to the state’s supreme court. All three justices, each of whom had been appointed by the incumbent Davis, ruled that the election was unconstitutional and invalid. Democrats called upon the public to disregard the court’s decision, and proceeded with plans for Coke’s inauguration. On January 15, 1874, Coke arrived at the state capitol with a sheriff’s posse, and was sworn in to office while Davis barricaded himself downstairs with state troopers. The next day, Davis requested federal troops from President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant refused, and Davis finally stepped down three days later.[George Thomas: How a populist destroys America]In 1946, Georgia endured the “Three Governors Crisis,” when the governor-elect died before taking office. Three men—the outgoing governor, the son of the governor-elect and the lieutenant governor-elect—each claimed a right to the office. The state assembly voted for the governor-elect’s son to take charge, but the outgoing governor refused to leave, so both men physically occupied the governor’s office. The outgoing governor yielded when the governor-elect’s son had the locks changed. The state supreme court finally decided in favor of the lieutenant governor-elect three months later.The closest thing to a refusal to leave office that the U.S. presidency has experienced was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s break with tradition by seeking a third term. Roosevelt rejected the norm set by George Washington, and followed by successive presidents, to step down after two terms. FDR was elected to a third and even a fourth term, but concern about a permanent executive led to the ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951, limiting presidents to two terms.If Trump were inclined to overstay his term, the levers of power work in favor of removal. Because the president immediately and automatically loses his constitutional authority upon expiration of his term or after removal through impeachment, he would lack the power to direct the U.S. Secret Service or other federal agents to protect him. He would likewise lose his power, as the commander in chief of the armed forces, to order a military response to defend him. In fact, the newly minted president would possess those presidential powers. If necessary, the successor could direct federal agents to forcibly remove Trump from the White House. Now a private citizen, Trump would no longer be immune from criminal prosecution, and could be arrested and charged with trespassing in the White House. While even former presidents enjoy Secret Service protection, agents presumably would not follow an illegal order to protect one from removal from office.Although Trump’s remaining in office seems unlikely, a more frightening—and plausible—scenario would be if his defeat inspired extremist supporters to engage in violence. One could imagine a world in which Trump is defeated in the 2020 election, and the immediately begins tweeting that the election was rigged. Or consider the possibility, albeit remote, that a second-term Trump is removed from office through impeachment, and rails about his ouster as a coup. His message would be amplified by right-wing media. If his grievances hit home with even a few people inclined toward violence, deadly acts of violence, or even terrorist attacks against the new administration, could result.[Derek Thompson: The 2020 election will break history]Ultimately, the key to the peaceful transfer of power is the conduct of the outgoing leader himself. America has thus far been lucky in that regard. After voluntarily relinquishing the presidency after his second term, Washington took measures to demonstrate the peaceful transfer of power. He attended the inauguration of his successor, John Adams, and insisted on walking behind Adams after the ceremony to display his subservience to the new president. Through this example, the citizenry was able to accept that the power of the presidency now resided in its new occupant.More recently, upon leaving office after a heated campaign, George H. W. Bush left behind a letter to welcome Bill Clinton into the White House on January 20, 1993. It concluded, “You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck.” Imagining such a gracious note from the current occupant of the White House to his successor is difficult.But if Trump should fail in his final duty as president to transfer power peacefully, the nation’s laws, norms, and institutions will be responsible for carrying out the will of the electorate. Should those fail too, then the American experiment’s greatest achievement will come to a grinding halt, and with it the hope that a republic can ever be kept.
The Message of Grimes’s Dark Masterpiece
There was a time—the 1990s—when the word alternative meant a lot in music. But what? The term came to encompass not only the conscientious angst of Nirvana but also that band’s corporate knockoffs; not only the paranoia of Radiohead but also the treacle of Goo Goo Dolls; not only the quiet of Tori Amos but also the thunder of Deftones. Eventually the distinction between alternative and underground or independent became clear. While proclaiming to rage against the machine, alt built its own machine—one as roomy and pleasure-focused as the mainstream’s, but grumpier, and with chain wallets.Alt sounds are now creeping back into vogue, but the antisocial posture has softened. Post Malone’s moans, Billie Eilish’s haunted production, the late Juice Wrld’s warbles, and even Lil Nas X’s sampling choices have swirled rock angst, flavor-gel-like, into the rap-pop cultural core. When such artists air frustration with the world, it is often not the frustration of a rebel or an outsider but that of a participant, fretting at how they’re faring in the race for clout and crowns. The subject of the music tends to be dominance; no best-selling albums feature anything akin to, say, when Jonathan Davis of Korn literally cried for minutes on “Daddy.” Now arrives Grimes’s stunning fifth album, Miss Anthropocene, an end-to-end tour of ’90s alternative that updates not only another era’s sound but its cultish, self-annihilating spirit.Grimes is both a world builder and a world destroyer. With the wandering beats of her 2012 album, Visions, Montreal’s Claire Boucher conquered and arguably helped kill what came after alternative: 2000s indie. Indie maintained a cryptic relationship to emotional expression, but with Grimes’s influence, it couldn’t deny the bubblegum melodies and R&B rhythms it had long spurned. At the same time that Lady Gaga was weirding up the charts and Beyoncé was deepening them, Grimes asked Pitchfork readers why they didn’t consider Mariah Carey to be as much of an innovator as Animal Collective. Snob paradigms haven’t been the same since. Grimes then declined to take the lane—cross-clique megastar—that she seemed to open up. As artists-first-entertainers-second tend to do, she instead chased her own obsessions at her own pace.The latest of those obsessions are Grimes’s high-school faves, as listed in a 2015 New Yorker profileof her: Nine Inch Nails, the Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, and Tool. Miss Anthropocene is a work of metal and rubber, factory clangs and ghostly screams, bullets with butterfly wings and empires of dirt. Sometimes Grimes ventures to sunnier or less macho ’90s subcultural sounds such as kandi raves and Lilith Fair. As a listener, I feel the music hit my sense memory hard, but I often can’t place what, exactly, she’s twinging in my data bank. Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba”? The Trainspotting soundtrack? Browsing black-light posters at the mall? Yet the music’s power is not in the nostalgia. It’s in its novelty.Whether with six-minute green-gas clouds (the opener “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth”), glitching folk gorgeousness (“Delete Forever”), or ecstatic drum and bass (“IDORU”), the album flips through coherent moods even as the underlying musical combinations baffle. The key to her success is in the way her distinctive voice—so high and soft that it can seem to waft away—sits amid her intricate laptop tinkering. Each song is baklava-dense with layers, and when she hits on some delicious combination of elements, she’s generous with it. The brutal bass pulsation of “Darkseid,” for example, is that track’s main event, on top of which Taiwan’s 潘PAN sprinkles furious cybernetic rapping. The astonishing “4ÆM” simply toggles between two contrasting thickets of psychedelic electronica. Such tunes rank among the most addictive listening experiences so far this year, yet it feels strange to even identify them as songs.The rollout for Miss Anthropocene has, however, directed focus not toward Grimes the brilliant musician but toward Grimes the controverisal public figure and political presence. Her old crunchy image—DIY, progressive, feminist—has been tested by her romance with the billionaire Elon Musk. Public statements in which she enthused about technology replacing humans came off as bizarre and callous. Miss Anthropocene’s title supposedly refers to the name of a goddess Grimes created to personify the threat of climate change, but you can read through the album’s lyrics and come away with no eco message. Rather, Grimes’s words—allusive, sparse, and repetitious—profess a sexy nihilism. Her new songs celebrate drugs, violence, and the apocalypse, all of which perhaps constitute the agenda of Miss Anthropocene but also the agenda of Rob Zombie.Indeed, the way in which her supposedly timely concerns are actually timeless glower-rock clichés speaks to what makes this music so seductive. The pop mainstream serves up shiny idols proclaiming an easy, empowering idea of individualism; here, the closest Grimes gets to aligning with that aesthetic is on the closer, “IDORU,” an unnervingly happy love song to a robot. The rest of the album fetishizes self-loathing and existential nothingness—but on the way to a kind of collective comfort. On the eerie ballad “New Gods,” Grimes yearns for a higher power while drawling, “I wear black eyeliner / black attire yeah.” The uniform of goth here is just that: a uniform, signifying submission. Whether the submission is to AI overlords, environmental catastrophe, or any given Ozzfest headliner, the sound with which it’s rendered has the same dark pull.
The Paradox of Rodrigo Duterte
This article is a collaboration between The Atlantic and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.MANILA—On a recent afternoon, Antonio Carpio, a retired Filipino supreme court judge, stood before a few hundred students at Manila’s prestigious De La Salle University, charts and maps displayed on screens either side of him, and denounced both China and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for undermining the national interest of the Philippines.Carpio, seen as a potential presidential candidate in the next election, in 2022, didn’t have to remind his audience that for several years Beijing has occupied the fish- and resource-rich reefs and shoals off the Philippine coast in the South China Sea, defying a ruling three years ago by a United Nations arbitration tribunal. Carpio’s audience was also receptive to his argument that the populist president of the Philippines, now a bit more than halfway through his six-year term, has essentially declined to press his own country’s claims on what international law has affirmed to be its maritime territory. “The Chinese aggression is the gravest external threat to the Philippines since World War II,” Carpio told the students. Looking toward the next presidential election, Carpio said, “We have to ask every candidate, ‘Are you with us in protecting Filipino territorial rights?’”The students warmly applauded. Though an elite university in the capital is not exactly Duterte’s base of popularity, China is unpopular across the Philippines. Duterte himself has been called “Duterte Duwag”—“Duterte Coward” in Tagalog—on social media because of what Carpio says is his “submission to the will of China.” The local press is full of commentary using the word vassal to describe the way they see the Philippines in its relationship to China under Duterte. Polls show that 87 percent of Filipinos favor a stronger defense of Philippine maritime territory.[Read: A U.S. ally is turning to China to ‘build, build, build’]That’s not even the only thing about Duterte that is not widely approved. While a majority of Filipinos support Duterte’s signature “war on drugs” in principle, they do not approve of the extrajudicial killings that have taken place (the government admits to 6,000 such killings since Duterte’s election, whereas human-rights organizations put the figure at more than 20,000). More generally, it’s not hard to find Filipinos, especially among the professional classes—journalists, lawyers, academics—and university students who see Duterte as a grave danger to their country’s democratic traditions and rule of law.But here’s the paradox: Despite all of that, despite the awkward fact that Duterte is the only elected president on the planet being investigated for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, despite his insulting language about women, his attacks on the press, and his capo di tutti capi style of rule, despite his use of the country’s judicial machinery to prosecute political rivals, he enjoys the highest approval ratings of any Filipino leader at this stage of their term in office in recent history. In many ways, Duterte’s political success illustrates many of the reasons strongman and populist leaders the world over, including Donald Trump, are able to bypass crises or challenges that would torpedo a more typical politician.“This is a man who admits to killing,” Marites Vitug, a prominent journalist and author, told me, a mixture of wonderment and resignation in her voice, “and yet he’s popular.”Mahar Mangahas, the founder and head of Social Weather Stations, or SWS, a leading independent polling company in the Philippines, echoed that sentiment. “People don’t like his drug killings. They don’t like his foul mouth. They don’t follow him when he hates the United States and likes China. It’s very curious. Why are the views of him so favorable when he’s such an ugly person?”Why indeed?In some ways, understanding Duterte’s popularity involves a general theory of strongman appeal. Both in the Philippines’ neighborhood of Southeast Asia, a sprawling region of 620 million people, and elsewhere in the world, autocrats—elected and not—appear to be gaining momentum.But even in the company of neo-authoritarian rulers from Brazil to Hungary to Thailand, Duterte is an extraordinary and in many ways inexplicable figure. The Philippines is, after all, the country that 34 years ago, in a movement known as “People Power,” overthrew a dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Yet Duterte resembles Marcos in many respects. In fact, in a gesture of tremendous symbolic importance early in his presidency, he had Marcos’s remains moved from their obscure burial place and installed, with a military honor guard and a 21-gun salute, at Manila’s national cemetery. The move seemed to say that the days of People Power were in the past, and that strongman rule is the wave of the present.[Read: The thug appeal of Rodrigo Duterte]Duterte, moreover, is exceptionally popular even by the standards of other figures with transgressive manners and populist appeal. Trump may enjoy the unshakable loyalty of around 40 percent of the American electorate, but Duterte’s approval rating has been persistently around 80 percent. This political power was on full display in legislative elections last year when every one of the 12 candidates Duterte endorsed for the country’s 24-seat senate was elected. Unlike Trump, there was no midterm setback for Duterte.What explains this remarkable phenomenon? For one, Duterte resorts to methods that are by now well established in the global strongman’s toolbox: He uses social media to tarnish opponents, deploying an army of internet trolls to pounce on anybody who publicly criticizes him, a move that serves to intimidate those who have not yet spoken out. When Vitug, the journalist, published a book which criticized Duterte’s abandonment of the Philippine territorial claim, not only was she attacked on social media, but the country’s main bookstore chain declined to put the book on sale, apparently out of fear of retaliation from Duterte. He has taken other classically autocratic steps, such as using the judiciary to muzzle the press and political opponents: Last year, Maria Ressa, the editor of the independent investigative news website Rappler, was indicted on charges of tax evasion; meanwhile, Leila de Lima, a sitting member of the senate who, like Ressa, chastised Duterte for extrajudicial killings, recently completed her thousandth day in jail, having been convicted of taking bribes from drug dealers, a charge that is widely viewed as trumped up.There’s something reminiscent in this of the Marcos years, when the country’s leading opposition figure, Benigno Aquino Jr., was imprisoned for years on manufactured charges of weapons possession and subversion. A few months ago, a mysterious, hooded man who gave his name as “Bikoy” claimed in a YouTube video that he was a former drug-cartel associate in possession of documents showing drug money pouring into the accounts of the Duterte family. The unfolding of events following the video gets complicated, including the arrest of the man claiming to be Bikoy and his retraction of the sensational claim. But the main consequence was that the Duterte government charged some 30 people, including a former three-term senator, Antonio Trillanes, and Duterte’s own vice president, Leni Robredo, with “inciting sedition.” (Robredo was not an ally of Duterte’s; she’s a member of the opposition Liberal Party and was elected on that party’s ticket.) The aim of the accused persons, the charge says, was “to agitate the general population into making mass protest with the possibility of bringing down the president,” hence “inciting sedition.”At times, Duterte’s public positions seem so outrageous and so contradictory to his country’s sense of pride that it is remarkable he manages to stay in power at all, much less hold on to his sky-high approval rating. Last summer, a few days after a Chinese trawler rammed and sank a Philippine boat operating in traditional Philippine fishing grounds, Duterte echoed China’s statements, calling it “a little maritime incident.” When this sparked calls for his impeachment, he reacted with typical scorn. “Me? Will be impeached? I will jail them all,” he said.Duterte did shift rhetorical gears for a while, promising to defend his country’s maritime claims, and Beijing helped soothe offended feelings by apologizing for the sinking of the Philippine boat. But when Duterte went to China soon afterward, his fifth visit since becoming president, he committed himself, not to defending his country’s sovereignty but to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Beijing.In January, in an apparent fit of pique over American human-rights criticism of his regime, Duterte announced that he was ending the Visiting Forces Agreement, which serves as the legal basis for U.S. military cooperation with the Philippines. The move seems likely to be unpopular with many Filipinos, if for no other reason than that it removes yet another obstacle to China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea.Duterte himself probably leans toward China for a couple of reasons. Like other regional strongmen, he appreciates that Beijing, unlike Washington (even under Trump), doesn’t criticize him for human rights violations such as the drug-war killings. China is also the emerging Asian powerhouse, so Duterte’s argument—that the Philippines has little capacity to go to war with it over disputed territories and should instead seek a friendly relationship—has a logic, and appears to persuade many in the country.Yet a deeper reason for Duterte’s popularity is simply the force of his personality. As the sociologist and author Walden Bello, a prominent Duterte critic, put it to me, “The charismatic figure can get away with anything, even murder.” Bello was speaking of the thousands of drug-war dead, about which Duterte has been spectacularly unrepentant. “My God,” the president has been quoted as saying, “I hate drugs, and I have to kill people because I hate drugs.”[Read: Is this the end of Duterte's drug war?]“People are very aware of the killings, but at the same time, they feel that Duterte’s eliminated the criminals,” Bello says, speaking specifically of a poor, teeming Manila neighborhood near where he lives, a place that has seen many extrajudicial killings. “The thugs, the street-corner boys, are no longer there. Women can walk the streets safely. I don’t know if their lives are actually better than before, but the perception is that they are. They’re pro-Duterte because they feel he’s cleaned up the place.”Even if, as Bello and others say, Duterte’s coarse, unconventional way of talking helps him connect with ordinary people, that’s also because these voters, like others around the world susceptible to a populist appeal, have been disconnected with traditional figures of respect, and this may be the ultimate key to Duterte’s success. Bello speaks of a “deep disillusionment with liberal democracy” in the Philippines, which Duterte didn’t create but certainly encourages. “It’s the feeling that the liberal elite was all corrupt do-nothings,” Sam Ramos-Jones, a Yale-educated business consultant here, told me.It is true that for decades, power in the Philippines has largely been in the hands of a succession of wealthy elites who generation after generation have dominated Philippine politics, enjoying their memberships in the verdant Polo Club and socializing at the opulent Manila Hotel, some of them deeply tainted by financial abuses. Joseph Estrada, the president from 1998 to 2001, was removed from office by what’s called “People Power II,” prompted by claims of vast corruption. His successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, was imprisoned on corruption charges after she left office. (She was later exonerated by the supreme court and became an ally of Duterte’s.)Duterte, then, marks a kind of end of the People Power spirit for the simple reason that the spirit never delivered on the expectations that created it in the first place.“People Power was experienced by Filipinos as a great triumph against dictatorship,” Jayson Lamchek, a former lawyer in the Philippines who is now a researcher at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy in Australia, told me. “But in terms of corruption, the post–People Power governments became indistinguishable from the Marcos regime. The only difference was the rhetoric of human rights and democracy, which people increasingly perceived as a sham.“It’s no surprise,” he continued, “in that sense, that so many Filipinos seem willing to squander the spirit of 1986, curse human rights and democracy as useless, and turn instead to a strongman to change things.”
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The Ticket: The Unlearned Lessons of 2016, With Katy Tur
As Democrats slugged it out in Las Vegas this week, the president undermined the Justice Department in Washington.News anchor Katy Tur—and everyone else covering politics—has had to constantly switch gears between two stories: a crowded primary of challengers working to overtake one another, and a post-impeachment White House emboldened to break yet more democratic norms. But when the general election arrives, and the two stories merge, will the fourth estate be up to the task?“I don’t think we in the news media have figured out how to cover Donald Trump,” Tur told Isaac Dovere on the latest episode of The Ticket: Politics From The Atlantic. Listen to the full episode here:Subscribe to The Ticket:Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher (How to Listen)Tur covered the Trump campaign in 2016. She also grew up in a family that changed television news (or rather, “broke” it, as she describes).Now an anchor on MSNBC, she sat down with Dovere to discuss 2020 coverage. They taped on NBC’s set in Las Vegas, where the network hosted this week’s Democratic debate ahead of the Nevada caucuses.Listen for:How the adrenaline of reality TV changed news coverage—from Tur’s parents capturing the infamous white-Bronco chase in their helicopter, to cable news broadcasting live Trump rallies in 2016; why Tur hasn’t been able to turn on her personal phone in four years; and why she thinks we should take reporting out of Twitter. Voices:Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) Isaac Dovere (@IsaacDovere)
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Pixar Needs to Make More Movies Like Onward
Onward, Pixar’s newest movie and its first original animated feature since 2017’s Coco, has the narrative structure of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. That means it contains all the elements of a classic hero’s journey: a quest for a charmed object, an expedition through dangerous territory, and encounters with brutish enemies and crafty allies. But the most crucial aspect of the role-playing game is community—the fact that it’s played with friends and relies on teamwork. The writer-director Dan Scanlon’s clear grasp of that makes for a warm, gentle film that doesn’t try to merely dazzle the audience with wild fantasy visuals.Scanlon’s first project with Pixar was the more workmanlike Monsters University (2013), a prequel to an earlier hit. Too often of late, the 3D-animation giant has favored those easy follow-ups to its established brands, producing only four original works (compared with seven sequels or prequels) in the past decade. Onward is the kind of movie the studio should be focusing on: an inventive, sweet, and small-scale story that still shows off the usual Pixar hallmarks. There’s some nifty world-building, unabashed sentimentality, and a keen understanding of tone, with an ending alchemically designed to provoke tears from parents and kids alike.That formula can get exhausting at times—the Pixar brand often seems a little too perfectly calibrated to push older viewers’ nostalgia buttons—but there’s no denying its effectiveness. Onward is informed by the ’80s aesthetic of tabletop games, minivans airbrushed with heavy-metal album-cover art, and cookie-cutter suburban life, along the lines of recent throwback hits such as Stranger Things. But while it’s grounded in a plot straight out of Amblin-era Spielberg, Onward wisely leans more on humor than drama to get its message across.The script (by Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin) is set in a world that was once governed by magic and overrun with supernatural beasts. Though it’s still populated by elves, centaurs, flying pixies, and the like, it’s also now filled with modern conveniences, because the sorcery of old has been replaced by prosaic enchantments such as microwaves and internal combustion engines. Nestled in this middle-class Tolkienverse is Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland), a gawky elvish high schooler with a confidence problem. Despite his blue skin and pointy ears, he’s a relatively stock awkward-teen character, unable to even work up the courage to invite his classmates over after school.(Disney / Pixar)Far more winning is Barley (Chris Pratt), Ian’s screwup older brother who spends his days tooling around town in a minivan and participating in wizard-y role-playing games. His knowledge of the arcane comes in handy when the brothers try to resurrect their deceased father and end up accomplishing only half the spell, summoning a disembodied pair of legs. Their efforts to complete their task lead them on an adventure that would fit perfectly into any D&D volume, even though their trek includes updated twists, such as a search for gasoline and the transmogrification of a Cheeto into a lifeboat.There’s power in the notion of a fantasy universe that has lost its edge, and Onward’s best jokes poke at that incongruity. In one sequence, the brothers travel to a dangerous tavern run by a monstrous manticore (Octavia Spencer), only to find that it’s been turned into a TGI Friday’s–esque establishment, where the owner (known as Corey) is most concerned with maintaining her karaoke machine. Given that Onward itself is a family-friendly project, the film thrives on these self-aware digs at Disneyfication; any good D&D mission should have a sense of real danger, so it’s worth pointing out how that’s missing from so much mainstream entertainment.After a few side-quests, Onward settles on charting the development of its mismatched siblings. Both brothers are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult while wandering around with a father who has literally lost his head, and the climax revolves around the bond they’ve built in their shared adventure. Scanlon apparently anchored the story in his own life—he lost his father at a young age and played a lot of D&D—and that emotional investment pays off beautifully. I hope Onward is a huge success at the box office, but more than that, I hope Pixar turns away from sequel projects and creates more original works like this one.
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The Next Generation Already Has a Name
The cutoff for being born into Generation X was about 1980, the cutoff for Generation Y (a.k.a. the Millennials) was about 1996, and the cutoff for Generation Z was about 2010. What should the next batch of babies be called—what comes after Z?Alpha, apparently. That’s the (Greek) letter that the unofficial namers of generations—marketers, researchers, cultural commentators, and the like—have affixed to Gen Z’s successors, the oldest of whom are on the cusp of turning 10. The Generation Alpha label, if it lasts, follows the roughly 15-year cycle of generational delineations. Those delineations keep coming, even as, because of a variety of demographic factors, they seem to be getting less and less meaningful as a way of segmenting the population; in recent decades, there hasn’t been a clear-cut demographic development, like the postwar baby boom, to define a generation around, so the dividing lines are pretty arbitrary. How much do members of this new generation, or any generation, really have in common?[Read: Generations are an invention—here’s how they came to be]A picture of Generation Alpha, if a blurry one, is starting to emerge. In various articles about its members, analysts have stated that they are or will grow up to be the best-educated generation ever, the most technologically immersed, the wealthiest, and the generation more likely than any in the past century to spend some or all of their childhood in living arrangements without both of their biological parents. These are all notable features, but some of them are broad and fairly low-stakes observations given that the global population has been getting richer, better educated, and more exposed to digital technology for a while now.Some marketers and consultants who analyze generations have tried to get more specific. One suggested that Generation Alpha might be particularly impatient because they’ll be used to technology fulfilling their desires from an early age. And a branding agency recently polled a bunch of 7-to-9-year-olds on a wide range of mostly nondivisive issues (such as the importance of “making sure everyone has enough food to eat”) and arrived at the conclusion that Generation Alpha “cares more about all issues than their Millennial and Baby Boomer [predecessors] did when they were kids, or even than they do now.”Many of these takeaways seem premature, or at least overeager. “They’re still kids,” says Dan Woodman, a sociology professor at the University of Melbourne who studies generational labels. “A lot of things we attach to a generation are around the way they start to think about politics, the way they engage with the culture, and [whether they] are a wellspring of new social movements.” The narrative of a generation, he told me, “starts to get filled in with some meaningful—maybe not correct, but at least substantial—content probably more when they start to enter their teens.”The term Generation Alpha is usually credited to Mark McCrindle, a generational researcher in Australia who runs a consulting agency. McCrindle told me that the name originated from an online survey he ran in 2008 that yielded a slew of now-discarded monikers, many of which focused on technology (the “Onliners,” “Generation Surf,” the “Technos”) or gave the next round of humans the burden of undoing the damage done by the last (the “Regeneration,” “Generation Hope,” the “Saviors,” “Generation Y-not”).One popular option from the survey was “Generation A,” but, McCrindle told me in an email, he thought the name for a cohort that would shape the future shouldn’t “be labelled by going back to the beginning.” So once the Latin alphabet was exhausted, he hopped over to the Greek one—“the start of something new.”A consensus has formed around Generation Alpha, but it may be a temporary one. The generic “Generation [Letter]” format began with Generation X. “It was meant to be a placeholder for something a bit uncertain or mysterious, almost like X in some algebraic equation,” Woodman told me. Generation Y followed, though it was usurped, at least in the U.S., by Millennials; nothing has overthrown Generation Z. Placeholder names, in a way, make generational generalizations easier. “They’re almost like empty labels that you can put anything in,” Woodman said. He thinks Generation Alpha will stick for at least a little while, but can also see how it might get replaced by something “a little more descriptive.”The history of generational labeling is littered with names that gained some traction, but not enough. Gen X has been referred to as “Baby Busters,” the “slacker generation,” “latchkey kids,” and the “MTV Generation,” though the placeholder won out. The same, so far, has been the case for Gen Z, whose proposed alternate names include “iGeneration,” the “Homeland Generation,” “Multi-Gen,” “Post Gen,” and the “Pluralistic Generation.”[Read: How generations get their names]For researchers and consultants, picking a winning name and becoming an authority on a particular generation can be highly lucrative. “It’s worth a heap of money,” Woodman said. “One of the things we do with generational labels is make claims about how different this cohort is—they're so different, almost alien in their attitudes, that you need to pay some experts to come in and explain them to you.” For instance, Neil Howe, one of the coiners of Millennials some 30 years ago, has gone on to make a career out of consulting, speaking, and writing about generations.Of course, the enthusiasm about naming generations isn’t just among marketers and consultants. People “do love generations talk,” Woodman said. They’re “drawn to using these labels to pin down something they intuitively feel about young or old people these days.” He thinks that this desire is strong when the world is perceived to be changing rapidly—people want to be able to identify their position amid the flux.Unfortunately, though, “generations talk” can often devolve into stereotyping, as generational labels necessarily lump together people with a wide variety of experiences. “We'd probably bristle if we did with gender or race what we still seem to get away with with generations,” Woodman said.Generalizing is additionally unwise because the process of delineating generations is hardly scientific. To be sure, today’s coexisting cohorts have had meaningfully different experiences—Baby Boomers and Millennials, for instance, came of age in eras with markedly different technologies and paradigms of education and work. But, Woodman noted, shifts involving “generational factors” like these are usually gradual, and don’t vary drastically from one year to the next.“There’s a continuous stream of people emerging in a population. How do we draw the line between the end of one cohort and the beginning of another?” said Rick Settersten, a professor of human development and family sciences at Oregon State University. “At some point, it’s an arbitrary game.”In some regards, the game is more arbitrary now than it used to be. Take the Baby Boomers, for example. “We can see them more easily in the population because there’s a fertility boom in 1946 right after World War II, which tails off by about 1964,” Settersten told me.The moderately logical boundaries of the Boomer generation set a precedent that in some ways led to the less logical boundaries for the generations that followed. If the final birth year for Boomers is 1964, counting out 15 more years gets you to the Gen X–Millennial border, and another 15 or so gets you to the Millennial–Gen Z border. But even though this is an orderly way of doing things, big societal changes don’t always follow neat 15-year increments.For instance, the youngest Millennials, born in 1996, might have more in common with the oldest Gen Zers, born in 1997, than the oldest Millennials, born in 1981; to name just one difference, many children of the late ‘90s grew up with the internet, while the 1981 babies spent most of their childhoods without it. (This sort of tension has birthed some niche generational labels for those born on the outer edge of their cohort, such as “Xennials.”) Even the Baby Boomer label—which is grounded in a measurable fertility trend—doesn’t entirely make sense, Settersten pointed out, as some of the oldest Boomers are the parents of some of the youngest ones.Further, Millennials are often considered the children of Boomers, and Gen Zers are often considered Gen Xers’ children. But these sorts of one-to-one matchups of parents and children become less valid as the average age at which parents have their first child has gotten higher. The age range of first-time mothers—whether they are 21, or 31, or 41—“has widened dramatically,” Settersten wrote in an email. “They share a life event—they all had first births at the same time—but they potentially come from different ‘generations.’” (He put the term in scare quotes to note that generations are essentially social constructs.) Woodman raised this point about other life milestones, such as leaving one’s childhood home, starting a committed relationship, and purchasing a house. “The life course isn’t as synchronized as it once was, where everyone does stuff at the same time,” he said.That means that, from here on out, even more diversity of human experience has to be crammed into broad generational labels. Woodman said that “attach[ing] attributes to an entire group, like optimistic or pessimistic or entitled, snowflakey, resilient, or whatever, has always been a stretch, but it’ll probably get even less helpful as time goes on.”Settersten made a similar point: “It probably has gotten more difficult to distinguish one generation from another, especially if you can’t point to meaningful things that might define it, like a baby boom or bust; or a historical event like the Great Recession; or maybe the emergence of some new technology, if we had reason to believe that it would mark [people] as a distinct group.”The march through the Greek alphabet may continue anyway. In 2024, by McCrindle’s definition, the last of Generation Alpha will be born, making way for Generation Beta, whose birth years will span from 2025 to 2039. “If the nomenclature sticks, then we will afterwards have Generation Gamma and Generation Delta,” McCrindle said. Those placeholder names stand a good chance of catching on—so long as nothing important and generation-defining happens in the next half century, of course.
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Voters Really Care About Climate Change
It’s not a fluke, an error, or an outlier. In poll after poll, the results are clear: Climate change is one of the most important issues in the 2020 presidential election.A new survey, released today and provided exclusively to The Atlantic, only drives the point home: Climate is the clear number-two issue—second only to health care—for Democrats who live in one of the upcoming primary or caucus states. Among all voters, the warming planet is now one of the most salient issues in American politics. The poll was conducted by Climate Nexus, a nonpartisan nonprofit group, in partnership with researchers at Yale and George Mason University, and included nearly 2,000 registered voters.Climate change now sits alongside only four other mainstays—health care, the economy and jobs, immigration policy, and Social Security—in its ability to command the electorate’s attention. And for self-described liberal Democrats, climate change is now nationally the most important issue, beating out 28 others, Anthony Leiserowitz, a senior research scientist at Yale, told me.“This is the first time in American political history where climate change is not just a top tier issue—it is the top tier issue,” ​said ​Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Program on Climate-Change Communication, which helped conduct the new poll​.Yet while Democrats have grown ever more alarmed by climate change, self-identified Republicans remain largely unmoved. In the poll, Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say climate change is one of their top two issues, and they support more aggressive policies. This reflects a deepening divide among Americans: Climate change, Leiserowitz said, “has become more polarized now than any other issue, including abortion.”The Climate Nexus-Yale-George Mason poll was conducted online from February 6 to February 9, among 1,934 respondents in 26 states. Each of those states—they include Nevada, South Carolina, California, and Texas—will hold a Democratic primary or caucus between now and March 17. Climate Nexus then weighted the responses from each state in line with Census Bureau estimates of local age, gender, race, education, and Hispanic demographics.The poll’s results fit into a remarkably consistent pattern: American voters are taking climate change seriously. Last March, a CNN/Des Moines Register poll found that climate change was a top-two issue for Iowa Democrats. Since then the same results have kept showing up in opinion surveys, exit polls, and Associated Press vote-cast data, Leiserowitz said.Earlier this week, the Pew Research Center announced that a majority of Americans now say that dealing with climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress. Since 2016, that number has increased by 14 percentage points. And nearly as many Americans (64 percent) now rank protecting the environment as highly as they do strengthening the economy, the Pew report found.Some of this effect may reflect President Trump’s broad rejection of climate policy and embrace of fossil fuels. It is common for public polling to swing in the opposite direction of the president’s policy views, a phenomenon that political scientists call “thermostatic public opinion.”And while the polling shows that concern about climate change is growing, it is also divided by party. “Over the past five years, public concern about climate change has soared, particularly among Democrats. It’s also gone up substantially among independents, but it’s stayed relatively flat among Republicans,” Leiserowitz said.The new poll shows some signs of that disconnect. Nearly seventy percent of respondents said they were very worried or somewhat worried about climate change. This is a larger group than said the United States is on the wrong track (52 percent) or approved of Donald Trump’s performance as president (45 percent).This worry ran parallel with a desire for new policy, the poll found. Among all voters, seven out of 10 said the government should do more about climate change. Fifty-nine percent of respondents went further, saying they would strongly or moderately support a Green New Deal. Only 25 percent of respondents said they strongly or somewhat opposed such an aggressive measure.More moderate policies were more popular. Nearly three-quarters of all voters said they wanted a candidate who would set stronger pollution standards, and 70 percent said they wanted the next president to strengthen federal fuel-economy standards. (As I reported earlier this month, the Trump administration has fought for years to weaken them.) And nearly four in five voters, from all parties, support providing “assistance, job training or guaranteed wages” to workers from the oil, gas, and coal industries who have lost their jobs.Not every climate policy commanded a majority. Roughly the same percentage of voters (42 percent) support opening up new federal lands for oil and gas drilling as oppose it (41 percent), the poll found.Perhaps the most intriguing finding: large majorities of voters want most future energy infrastructure to come from renewable sources, such as wind and solar. More than 70 percent of voters said they would support requiring 100 percent of electricity in their state to come from wind and solar plants by the year 2050. Most respondents said such a policy would boost the economy, lower electricity costs, and help rural and farming communities in their state. Most also said it would have either a positive effect, or no effect at all, on worker’s wages and the unemployment rate. It’s a commonplace in climate politics that Americans love solar and wind energy, but this has not, so far, translated into market power for the technologies.The poll also asked about a series of head-to-head matchups between Donald Trump and one of the Democratic candidates.Michael Bloomberg fared the best here: 47 percent of respondents supported the former mayor, 40 percent supported Trump, and 13 percent said they weren’t sure. In the Sanders-Trump matchup, 47 percent supported Sanders. But fewer voters (11 percent) were unsure in this scenario; 43 percent supported Trump. In the Buttigieg-Trump matchup, 45 percent supported Buttigieg, 41 percent supported Trump, and 14 percent of respondents said they weren’t sure. Joe Biden did nearly as well as Buttigieg, winning 45 percent to Trump’s 42 percent. Elizabeth Warren tied Trump in the head-to-head matchup, and Amy Klobuchar lost by one point. In every case, the number of undecided voters was larger than winner’s margin.The full list of states polled were—take a deep breath—Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.It’s not as if candidates are ignorant of this shift in voter priorities. Every Democratic candidate has announced a climate plan and talks about it on the stump. (Even Trump alluded to a tree-planting plan in his State of the Union address.) In televised debates, such as the one earlier this week in Nevada, Democratic candidates hurried to bring up climate change before any questions about it were asked. The discussion hasn’t always been satisfying, Leiserowitz admitted, but “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’re all elbowing each other to talk about it,” he said. “There’s a climate vote for the first time.”
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The Nonsensical Exploitation of Hunters
One factor that complicates any ability to dissect the excesses of Amazon’s schlocky new drama Hunters is the show’s Do Not Reveal list, a document provided to critics with screeners of the first five episodes. So I can’t write about the opening scene, a symbolic demolition of the American Dream in which a bumptious politician grilling burgers in a “Kiss the Cook” apron is revealed to be [redacted]. Or about what happens an hour later (the first episode runs a fulsome 90 minutes), when the show portrays an elderly woman, fully naked, being targeted in the shower for reasons that are [redacted]. Or the decision in the fifth episode to stage a scene in which a soignée society matron is tortured by being forced to eat quantities of [redacted].Hunters is a strange show, all aestheticized violence and infantile philosophizing, like a George Clooney Batman movie directed by Quentin Tarantino. The style is big and loud, as befits the 1977 setting; the superhero references are endless; the Holocaust is invoked and recreated in flashback sequences so many times that the show has to invent new atrocities for the Nazis to commit (the old ones being apparently not enough). One character is referred to as “a real-life fucking Jewperhero.” A psychopath shoots a flamingo in a fit of pique. All the while, Hunters labors to emphasize its own moral depth, even as its main theoretical concern comes down to a fairly basic question: Is it okay to kill a Nazi?The star of this Baudrillardian spectacle is indubitably Al Pacino playing Meyer Offerman, the serene overseer of a band of vigilante Nazi hunters in 1977 New York. But the show, created by the relative newcomer David Weil and produced by Jordan Peele, is loyal to comic-book origin stories, and so the central character is Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), a sullen, bratty teenager who lives with his grandmother, Ruth (Jeannie Berlin), gets beaten up by bullies, and indulges in endless debates about superhero ethics with his two best friends. Unlike, say, Peter Parker, Jonah sells weed to support his family, which Ruth implores him to stop doing, telling him that every decision in life comes down to a choice between darkness and light. One night, Ruth is murdered in front of Jonah, which leads him to Meyer, and to the revelation that his mild-mannered bubbe, a concentration-camp survivor, had been secretly working to find and kill Nazis living in America. (Those Nazis have survived to form a new, Hydra-like group bent on malevolence and world domination.) Forget the Talmudic prescription for living well; the best revenge, Meyer tells Jonah with acid relish, is simply “revenge.”An early problem of the show is that the now-dead Nazi hunter Ruth is a much more compelling character than Jonah, who sulks his way into Meyer’s camp (Hunters occasionally alludes to the fact that Jonah is a brilliant mathematician and a master codebreaker but largely just presents him as a chump). At a Television Critics Association panel earlier this year, Weil spoke about how the inspiration for the show was his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor whose stories always struck the young Weil as having a comic-book quality in their pitting of good against evil. That graphic novels have plumbed the villainous depths of Nazism isn’t a coincidence: The Third Reich’s fetishization of symbols, combined with its unimaginable cruelty, suits the visual punch and narrative simplicity of the medium.But as much as Hunters borrows from comic books, it also pilfers heavily from another genre, yielding a confounding tone. Weil’s storytelling structure might be ripped from Marvel but its style is grindhouse. Not the sexualized torture porn of movies like Love Camp 7 and Last Orgy of the Third Reich, but the numbing, vapid violence of exploitation films and particularly Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. For all Jonah’s ethical quandaries about violence, Hunters is pretty clear on the fact that killing Nazis isn’t just defensible—it’s also fun. Why wouldn’t it be, when the show’s foundational materials offer such clear lines between heroes and villains, and such cheerful capacity for carnage?(Amazon)As Jonah meets Meyer’s squad, Hunters leans all the way into its ’70s setting, introducing each character in cinematic, B-movie trailer style. There’s Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvany), a nun and former MI6 agent (it pays not to think too hard about why she’s a nun, since her habits all end mid-thigh and she’s fairly murderous). There’s Roxy Jones (Tiffany Boone), a character more thinly drawn and tropey than Foxxy Cleopatra. Similarly thin is Louis Ozawa Changchien’s Joe Torrance, a martial-arts expert and Korean War veteran who teaches Jonah how to fight. Carol Kane and Saul Rubinek play Mindy and Murray Markowitz, a married couple with indeterminate skill sets but enormous charm. How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor is unreasonably delightful as Lonny Flash, a down-on-his-luck actor who’s supposedly a master of disguise even though his handlebar mustache would seem to render him unmistakable.What’s most maddening about Hunters is that much of it works in individual pieces, even though the whole is a sweaty, overseasoned smorgasbord. A plotline featuring an FBI agent (Jerrika Hinton) on the hunters’ trail is propulsive, and Pacino’s Meyer is a charismatic, intriguing ringleader. Despite its heightened universe, the show is based loosely on real events—not an elite faction of specialized Nazi hunters, necessarily, but the discovery in the 1960s and ’70s that a number of Nazis had escaped justice to make new lives in America, sometimes even with the assistance of the U.S. government. This inkblot on the pages of recent history is ripe for scrutiny, well beyond the satirical wink Hunters offers up. But each character is sneering and mindlessly sociopathic: Dylan Baker plays Biff Simpson, a politician whose rictus grin and ham-eating southern accent have earned him a place in Jimmy Carter’s cabinet. His most reliable enforcer is Travis Leich (Greg Austin), an American Nazi whose sadistic zeal and yen for speechifying is only matched by his passion for musical theater.If Hunters were just so much schlock and gore, it might have its place on Peak TV’s periphery, although presumably not on Amazon, and not with Pacino so resplendently playing, as one character calls him, “Shylock Holmes.” But it clearly has loftier intentions, for all its grotesquery. The persistent flashbacks to concentration camps speak to survivor stories that are fading by the day, and the show’s most thoughtful and moving scene (which, again, I can’t write about) communicates some sense of the scale of the Holocaust without reverting to trauma porn. Weil seems to feel the burden of sharing his grandmother’s stories (“The single greatest gift of the Jewish people is our capacity to remember,” Meyer tells Jonah), which is why the show’s exploitation format sits so strangely with the atrocities it’s parsing, and the actual people who are being exploited.In an interview with The AV Club, Weil talked about wanting to give nuance and depth to all his characters, especially the evil ones. In telling the story of the Holocaust, he said, a series like Hunters can help “prevent it from ever happening again,” in part by showing how people were recruited to the Nazi cause. “These are human beings,” he said. “We don’t want to make them caricatures, or then we do a disservice to the efforts of so many who combat fascism and Nazis.” But caricatures, at least from the first five episodes, are exactly what these villains are—stock goose-stepping evildoers with monstrous impulses and no discernible shreds of humanity. There’s no subtlety to be found here; no contemporary insight into the alienation, disempowerment, and fear of “the other” that might compel weak people to embrace such banal veneration of power. This just isn’t that show. You can craft a historical drama that scrupulously explores anti-Semitism, or you can have a florid extravaganza in which Al Pacino hollers, “Let’s get to cooking these Nazi cunts!” To try to do both is a superheroic stretch, and Hunters doesn’t have the reach.
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Our Founders Didn’t Intend for Pardons To Work Like This
GraphicaArtis / GettyOn Tuesday, President Donald Trump commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor and Celebrity Apprentice contestant who was imprisoned for trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat. The president also pardoned the former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr., the “junk-bond king” Michael Milken, and former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik, among others. Each person had some connection to the president, a fact that the White House press announcement on the decisions made clear. Trump seems to view clemency as a way to reward celebrities and please his supporters.The country’s Founders did not intend for the clemency power to be used as a prize. Article II of the Constitution allows the president to forgive any federal crime, but just because he can does not mean he should.[Quinta Jurecic: Trump’s unpardonable challenge to the Constitution]The Founding Fathers had their own ideas about how the process should work; Alexander Hamilton provided the most famous rationales for the clemency power. In “Federalist No. 74,” he noted how the president must be able to make exceptions for “unfortunate guilt”; otherwise, the justice system would be “too sanguinary and cruel.” Additionally, Hamilton pointed out that presidents may need to use clemency to quell unrest or rebellion and thereby “restore the tranquillity of the commonwealth.”President George Washington pardoned two men charged with treason after the whiskey rebellion. On December 8, 1795, in his annual address to Congress, he said he was motivated to both show mercy and serve the public good. Washington’s use of these dual rationales set the clemency standard for his successors. Going forward, one or both ideas have implicitly undergirded most of the roughly 30,000 individual clemency decisions that have been granted by presidents one through 44. Each rationale has also been featured in a Supreme Court case: United States v. Wilson described a pardon as an “act of grace,” and Biddle v. Perovich described the pardon power as “part of the Constitutional scheme” and characterized clemency as a decision to be guided by “public welfare.”Using clemency to address a larger societal concern, Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson offered forgiveness to entice the Confederates to rejoin the Union. Harry Truman named a panel to recommend amnesty for Selective Service Act offenders after World War II. Both Jimmy Carter and his predecessor, Gerald Ford, offered amnesty to Vietnam War–draft offenders.[Read: The clemency process is broken. Trump can fix it.]Presidents have also granted pardons and commutations as “acts of mercy” to individuals—many anonymous—for a variety of federal offenses. Most recipients applied to the pardon attorney’s office within the Department of Justice and, months or years later, successfully received a pardon or sentence commutation. Recent examples include Olgen Williams, whom George W. Bush pardoned in 2002 for stealing money from the mail, and Charles Russell Cooper, a bootlegger pardoned by Bush in 2005. In 2017, Barack Obama pardoned Fred Elleston Hicks for illegal use of food stamps.Not all presidents have followed these rationales, though. History also shows that presidents—particularly recent ones—have abused clemency for their own personal or political benefit. In 1992, George H. W. Bush pardoned several Iran-Contra figures, including former Reagan Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, effectively relieving Weinberger of the need to stand trial, a boon to Bush, who may have been called to testify. Bill Clinton offered clemency to members of the violent Puerto Rican nationalist organization FALN, a controversial decision that some said he made to gain Latino support for the political races of his wife and Vice President Al Gore. Right before he left office, Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, a fugitive from justice whose ex-wife was a large Clinton donor. George W. Bush commuted the sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, sparing Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff a prison term. (Trump later pardoned Libby.) The presidents issued each of these clemency decisions after they were free from electoral consequences.President Trump began by pardoning former Sheriff Joe Arpaio for criminal contempt of court, after Arpaio refused to stop police practices that amounted to racial profiling. Trump mentioned his intentions at a political rally before granting the pardon three days later. Since then, Trump hasn’t looked back. Along the way, he has favored a host of well-connected, famous, wealthy, or partisan figures for presidential mercy. To his credit, Trump has not hidden from the press, Congress, or other institutions when exercising clemency. He makes a decision and then takes the heat, often noting that his clemency grants counteract an “unfair” criminal-justice system.Almost a year after Arpaio, Trump teased on Twitter a pardon for the conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who had violated campaign-finance laws. He pardoned D’Souza that same day, and then made comments that shifted clemency speculation to the TV personality Martha Stewart and to Blagojevich.Trump has also been swayed by celebrities. He commuted Alice Marie Johnson’s prison sentence after Kim Kardashian West visited the White House to advocate for her. He also pardoned the late African American boxer Jack Johnson in a grant pushed by the Rocky actor Sylvester Stallone.The usual procedure for petitioning for a pardon or sentence commutation is far less showy than Trump’s current process. Typically, after waiting a minimum of five years, applicants go to the website of the pardon attorney; download, complete, and submit the appropriate form; and wait. After a lengthy review—sometimes years—the result is usually the same for everyone: a denial. George W. Bush granted only about 2 percent of petitions for a pardon or sentence commutation; Barack Obama granted 5.3 percent; and—as of February 7, 2020—Trump had granted less than 0.5 percent of clemency requests.The former pardon attorney Margaret Love explains in her article “The Twilight of the Pardon Power” that one crucial reason so few clemency cases receive a positive recommendation is that “all but a handful of the individuals officially responsible for approving Justice Department clemency recommendations since 1983 have been former federal prosecutors.” In other words, because prosecutors in the pardon attorney’s office are reluctant to undo the work of their fellow prosecutors, presidents are rarely given a thumbs-up to pardon.[Garrett Epps: The self-pardoning president]The traditional role of the pardon attorney has been basically abandoned by the Trump administration, after the office assisted presidents for more than a century. As The Washington Post reported earlier this month, “Former White House officials describe a freewheeling atmosphere in which staff members have fielded suggestions from Trump friends while sometimes throwing in their own recommendations.” Moreover, “all but five of the 24 people who have received clemency from Trump had a line into the White House or currency with his political base.”Whether Trump is reaping significant personal benefits from his clemency decisions is unclear, but he does seem to enjoy the public’s reaction, even inviting two military clemency recipients onstage at a fundraiser late last year. With so many clemency grants to controversial figures like Arpaio, D’Souza, and now Blagojevich, he may be launching trial balloons to test public reaction to more serious pardons for his former associates, including Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn.Along similar lines, Trump has twice tweeted about his understanding of the scope of the clemency power. In July 2017, he noted that he held “the complete power to pardon.” Roughly a year later, Trump tweeted that he had “the absolute right to PARDON myself.” Robert Mueller’s investigation and the impeachment trial are now both behind him. Still, it’s become apparent at this point in his presidency that Trump has used clemency to both gauge public opinion and stake out ground for a self-pardon, should he ever need one.
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