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The Atlantic
The Atlantic
The Fox News Powder Keg
Was it really happening? Even Fox News couldn’t decide. Just after 8:30 p.m. on November 8, 2016, Fox’s Chris Wallace tried to articulate what the world was seeing. “We’re all … at least, I’m coming to the conclusion tonight—conclusion’s the wrong word—open to the possibility …” Wallace began: “Donald Trump could be the next president of the United States.” Megyn Kelly erupted in laughter beside him. It was an alien sentence, a string of words that didn’t belong together. Wallace laughed too. “I said it’s just a possibility!”Most people use the word chaos to describe the night of Trump’s election. But every major network—including Fox News—was extremely cautious before declaring him the winner. It wasn’t until 2:40 a.m. Wednesday morning when Fox anchor Bret Baier squared to the camera for his sweep-of-history monologue. Pennsylvania, a blue state in every presidential contest since 1992, had flipped red. Fox cut to a sea of bobbing MAGA hats inside the Midtown Manhattan Hilton, just up the street from the studio. Shock snuck through Baier’s delivery: “What started off as unlikely, impossible, is now … reality.”This year, with an expected surge of mail-in ballots due to the pandemic, we may not know anything definitive for days. As my colleague Barton Gellman wrote, there is a blueprint for Trump to never concede should any shred of doubt remain about the outcome. Television executives have no “gentleman’s agreement” about how to handle this scenario. And at no network is the absence of a playbook more consequential than at Fox News. It doesn’t matter how CNN and MSNBC play this election: Fox will control the narrative.Fox News’s influence over American politics remains unmatched. (People don’t write best-selling books about the inner workings of PBS.) Its nightly audience is one and a half times that of MSNBC and nearly twice that of CNN. After four years of “fake news” slurs by the president and others, Fox enjoys a unique space: In the eyes of millions of Americans, and particularly Trump voters, if you see it on Fox News, it has to be true. On November 3, the network’s framing of the story may help alleviate nationwide chaos—or sow it.[Read: Do you speak Fox?]In lieu of its usual prime-time block of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham, Fox turns to its nonpartisan anchors on election nights to project objectivity. Baier and Wallace will be back behind the desk this year, and Martha MacCallum will be in Kelly’s seat. There is no reason to believe that one of these hosts will go rogue and preemptively yell “TRUMP WINS!” at 9 o’clock. But it is crucial that they level with their audience about what is really happening with the numbers. Wallace has challenged Trump at various stages of his presidency, and will be the one to watch, tonally, as state projections trickle in. In July, Wallace asked the president whether he would accept the results of the election. “Look, you—I have to see. No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no,” Trump replied. Speaking with reporters at the White House Wednesday night, Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and other swing states could be too close to call before midnight. Pennsylvania’s results may not be available for days. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that mail-in votes will be accepted through 5 p.m. on November 6, three days after polls close. Mail-in voting appears to be the biggest variable this year, and when the Fox anchors periodically pass the mic to conservative commentators, viewers are likely to be pummeled with anti-vote-by-mail propaganda.On Thursday, Carlson seized the alleged voter-fraud narrative. “If all the votes are counted in one night, no one will have time to issue rulings that throw out ballots they don’t like. That’s why judges in Pennsylvania and Michigan want poll workers to count votes for WEEKS after election day,” Carlson said on his show. “It’ll be a disaster, we know that for certain.” Later that night, Trump tweeted, “Democrats are Rigging our 2020 election!” alongside a clip from Carlson’s broadcast.According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 61 percent of Republicans who only consume talk radio and/or Fox News say mail-in-ballot fraud “is a major problem.” (Trump voted by mail last month.) Baier, Wallace, and MacCallum might play it straight, but other voices on Fox are not held to the same standards. As the hours tick by, Fox guests will be free to interpret whatever election data happen to be available, then frame the information as favorable to Trump. Millions of Americans will hear these arguments, as will the president. The Trump campaign may also influence talking points that make it directly to air. This has happened before, on Election Night, on Fox News.On November 6, 2012, the Fox contributor Karl Rove, a former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, refused to believe that Barack Obama had actually won Ohio. Around 11:40 p.m., nothing could change Rove’s mind. At one point, Megyn Kelly theatrically left the set and walked with a cameraperson backstage to the network’s “decision desk” to show Rove—and the audience—how the sausage is made: a roomful of guys in rumpled suits crunching numbers on desktop computers. Rove wasn’t sold. He spoke of the votes yet to come in from Hamilton County, Delaware County, and other corners of Ohio. Just before midnight, the Fox chyron below Rove read: Barack Obama re-elected president. Rove still wasn’t convinced.“I’m just raising the question of our responsibility to call these things when it appears to ordinary Americans that we are not leading the pack for the sake of leading the pack,” Rove said.Eight years later, the demand at the core of Rove’s “meltdown”—patience—suddenly feels prescient. I called Rove last week and asked him about that night: What did it feel like to have everyone laughing him off?“That’s not what they were saying off camera,” Rove told me, snickering. “People were saying, ‘You’re right.’” He grew heated as we talked. “With all due respect to Megyn Kelly, she had no idea whether to call Ohio or not. If you showed her the voting patterns for Lucas County, she’d say, ‘What are those?’” (Fox News declined to make its talent available for this story. Kelly, who is no longer with the network, also declined to speak.)Obama won Ohio by more than 100,000 votes, and Rove’s on-air arguments were never vindicated. Rove told me that the Fox decision desk “had more information” than he did that night. His intel was inherently biased, coming directly from sources within the Romney campaign. What will Rove’s 2020 equivalent say on behalf of the Trump campaign? And what if this person simply refuses to back down?“Networks run hot and cold,” Rove said. “I was on the opposite side of this in 2004. We were up by, I think it was 114,000 votes in Ohio. No network would call Ohio until, like, 2:30 or 3 o’clock in the morning. I found it excruciating, but on the other hand, it was responsible.”I’ve spent the past week rewatching old Fox News election broadcasts. Rove’s 2012 tirade made for compelling TV, but embedded within his argument was a reasonable point: “All I’m saying is we have one instance where something was prematurely called.”During the 2000 election, Fox chairman Roger Ailes hired George W. Bush’s cousin, John Prescott Ellis, to run the Fox News decision desk. The network famously called the race for Bush just after 2 a.m. with incomplete data. Other networks soon followed suit. Vice President Al Gore conceded, then recanted his concession, leading to a weeks-long fight that ended with a Supreme Court ruling in Bush’s favor. Should a similar chain of events occur this year, they will almost certainly benefit the president.[Read: The Bush-Gore recount is an omen for 2020]Trump knows this. Speaking Wednesday at the White House, Trump said: “I think this will end up in the Supreme Court, and I think it’s very important that we have nine justices, and I think the system’s going to go very quickly.” GOP senators have already taken to saying they will accept the result determined “by the courts.”I asked the Biden campaign how it plans to respond if various networks are out of sync in calling the race in November. “We expect all news organizations who make determinations about election results to act responsibly based on data and their duty to tell the American people the truth, as they all have during past presidential elections,” T.J. Ducklo, Joe Biden’s national press secretary, said. I posed the same question to the Trump campaign, which offered no response.In a statement, Fox News said: “The integrity of our Decision Desk is rock solid. We have full confidence in each of the consummate professionals who run it and who are in charge of our Voter Analysis System, which made its stellar debut in the 2018 mid-term elections. We will call this presidential election carefully and accurately, relying on data and numbers.”What, I asked Rove, is the responsibility of a channel such as Fox News on an election night?“Not to make a premature call,” he said flatly.
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Dear Therapist: My Daughter’s Friends Aren’t Allowed to Play at Our Home
Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com. Dear Therapist,I am a single parent (half-time) of two children following a recent divorce. My ex-wife has remained closer with the friends we had as a couple. My daughter frequently asks to have playdates and sleepovers at her friends’ houses, many of whom are children of those former friends and are part of the quarantine circle that my ex and I have defined.I have extended a standing invitation to those children to visit my house for playdates or sleepovers, but none has ever come. My ex-wife recently informed me that none of our former friends will allow their daughters to visit my house, because I am a single man—on the theory that men are more likely to be sexual predators. This is concerning to me, because I want to build memories at my house. These children and their parents have known me for years to be a kind and generous dad. I’m also concerned that the fact that my daughter’s friends are not allowed to come to my house could send a message that men (even those one knows well) shouldn’t be trusted. So far, I have agreed to have my daughter go to her friends’ houses when she has been invited. But I am becoming more uncomfortable with this situation. What should I do?AnonymousTucson, ArizonaDear Anonymous,What you’re describing is discrimination in the form of gender profiling. The parents of your daughter’s friends are assuming that because you’re a man, you’re also a potential pedophile. What’s especially strange about this way of thinking is that these women will happily marry and raise children with men, but don’t want their children around other people’s husbands or fathers because, since they’re men, they might be pedophiles.I can see why you’re frustrated. The danger here isn’t the threat you pose; it’s the effect of this gender bias on your children and you.This is exacerbating a common challenge kids face in divorce: the adjustment to two separate households. There’s the back-and-forth, the missing of the other parent, the new home or homes, and the more complicated logistics related to their social lives. “Can you hang out after school?” involves a new calculus of where the child will be on a particular day and whether that parent, without the assistance of the other, can make those arrangements happen.The more “normal” things feel during this transition, the more easily kids adjust. In other words, if kids feel that they can continue their normal routines at both parents’ houses, they’ll be less affected by the changes. Not being able to have friends over is, of course, anything but normal for your daughter. It means that her friends will never see her bedroom at her new house; she’ll never watch a movie with them on the couch, bake cookies or eat pizza with them in the kitchen, hang outside with them in the yard, do their hair with them in the bathroom. She’ll spend half her childhood in a place where the only other kid she sees is her sibling. She’ll witness the double standard of her brother being able to have friends over at both homes because her mother isn’t considered a danger to his friends the way her father is to hers. When she graduates from high school, she will have exactly zero memories of growing up with her friends in that house because her home has been deemed dangerous—and her father, whom she loves, has been made a pariah.For you, there’s also the loss of something so basic about being a parent: watching your child interact with her friends as they grow up together. Instead, you’ll only hear about her interactions with her friends. If your daughter stays in touch with these friends, they will be an integral part of her life milestones as an adult, but they’ll be strangers to you. And you’ll never have the experience of laughing with your daughter and her friends about “that hilarious time when such and such happened”—because every hilarious thing that happens will take place somewhere else.Bias always perpetuates exclusion. It’s not just the divorced dad and his child who suffer. What happens to the widower with a daughter whose mother has died? Does this grieving child never get to have a playdate or sleepover in her own home unless the dad remarries? What about the child with two dads?So what can you do? First, you can share your concerns with your ex-wife. Ask her how she feels about sending the message to your children that all men are potential pedophiles. Does she want your son to grow up in a world where people suspect him of being a sex offender simply because of his gender? Does she want your daughter growing up in a world where fathers are considered dangerous? If not, ask her to help your children by bringing up these issues with her friends and explaining to them how damaging this discrimination is.You can also bring up the issue directly with the other parents whenever you extend invitations: “I heard that you have concerns about having your daughter visit our home, but please consider how hard this is on my daughter and what message those fears send to all of our kids.” You can also share how hurt you are that even after they’ve known you for years, their actions are essentially saying, I’m sorry, but my daughter can’t visit your home, because you might be a sex offender.Ask them if this is the message that they want to send their own kids about fathers. Ask them if this is how they feel about their own husband—that without a woman present, your daughter wouldn’t be safe at their home. Ask their husbands if they believe that without their wife’s presence at a playdate or sleepover, they pose a danger to your daughter. If the answer is no, ask them why they believe you do to theirs.The most important conversations will be those you have with your own children. Talk with them about how sexism has long shaped women’s lives and continues to do so, and how bias can also shape the lives of men. Tell your children that you want them to feel as at home at your place as they do at their mom’s, and that their friends are always welcome to come over. Tell them that you hope the world will become a place where people don’t discriminate based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. And know, at the end of the day, that whether or not these parents change their minds, you’re providing a model of fatherhood that will influence your children more profoundly than anything other people do or say.Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.
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The Tedium of Trump
Donald Trump has built his public persona around the central importance of grabbing attention—whether his actions provoke delight or fury. And yet he is, and has long been, boring.Four years into his presidency, Trump isn’t boring in the way a dull, empty afternoon is boring. Trump is boring in the way that the seventh season of a reality-television show is boring: A lot is happening, but there’s nothing to say about it. The president is a man without depths to plumb. What you see is what you get, and what you get is the same mix of venality, solipsism, and racial hatred that has long been obvious. Trump’s abuses of the presidency are often compared to those of Richard Nixon, but Nixon had a deep, if troubled, interior life; one biographer characterized Nixon as struggling with “tragic flaws,” a description hard to imagine any credible biographer using to describe Trump. In a democracy whose vitality depends, at least in part, on what people are paying attention to and what they think about it, the frenzied monotony of Trump raises the question: What happens when politics is crucially important, but there is little original to say?[Annie Lowrey: The party of no content]The fact that pundits may have a tough time concocting original commentary is not, in itself, the country’s biggest problem. But at its best, the work of people who write and talk and make art about politics is valuable because it helps other members of society make sense of their shared world. If that work loses depth or relevance, democratic culture in the United States diminishes, and people who otherwise would be engaged with politics turn their attention elsewhere.It’s not that nothing is happening. With Election Day only a month away, Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and is doing his best to cast doubt on the integrity of the vote, calling mail-in ballots “a whole big scam.” He is now poised to fill his third seat on the Supreme Court following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a victory that would tilt the politics of the Court rightward for a generation. Throughout his presidency, he has arguably committed dozens of impeachable offenses during his time in office, from firing FBI Director James Comey and attempting to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller to promising pardons to Department of Homeland Security officials if they turned away asylum applicants at the border to doling out a commutation to his associate Roger Stone, seemingly as a reward for Stone’s refusal to testify against Trump during the Russia investigation.But while these scandals are important, they also are in some ways the same story: The president is a greedy racist and misogynist who does not understand his job. “Is it technically news if he’s doing his usual racism?” pondered the Daily Beast reporter Asawin Suebsaeng after Trump let loose a particularly vile screed against Representative Ilhan Omar during a rally this month. Even Trump’s disturbing threat not to concede is a replay of his insistence in October 2016 that he would accept the results of the upcoming election “if I win.”Read any of the tell-alls written by Trump’s former close associates or family members—not to mention journalists such as Bob Woodward—and you will come away with basically the same understanding. As the journalist Jennifer Szalai wrote in her New York Times review of Woodward’s latest chronicle of the Trump administration, “The Trump that emerges in ‘Rage’ is impetuous and self-aggrandizing—in other words, immediately recognizable to anyone paying even the minimal amount of attention.”There is something uncanny about this. The English novelist E. M. Forster argued that the difference between a fictional character and a real person is that it is possible to know everything about a character in a novel; real people, however, see one another through a glass, darkly. And yet while it may not be possible to know every hidden detail of Trump’s life, it is trivially easy to understand everything about his personality. If he were a character, Forster would call him flat, unrealistic: He does not, as Forster requires, have the capacity to surprise. At some point over the course of the Trump era, this became a running joke among political commentators, who, every time Trump does something appalling and yet obvious, make cracks on social media about how hackneyed the Trump presidency would seem if it were fiction.This has created a problem for artists as well. Surveying the landscape of anti-Trump art in February 2019, the cultural critic Jillian Steinhauer argued that the work had failed to hit the mark: It was missing, she wrote, “the critical introspection to accompany the laughter.” But such introspection is hard to achieve when the person prompting it is so lacking in depth or interiority.Likewise, four years into this presidency uncovering fresh insight into Trump or his administration is difficult. Activists, journalists, and commentators found those insights earlier on. Use of the phrase The cruelty is the point, coined by The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer in 2018, has become widespread in part because it continues to be uncomplicatedly true: A lot of the time, the motivations of Trump and those around him are not actually more involved than a desire to hurt others. The idea is so simple that it’s more or less become a meme, which isn’t to deride its perceptiveness but rather to say that the Trump White House is fundamentally simple. Personally, I wrote a great deal in the first few years of the administration about Trump’s understanding of law as a cudgel against the vulnerable before it dawned on me that I was writing the same article over and over again.This leaves two main options for those analyzing and writing about politics. One is to shrug and accept that the times may merit writing the same thing over and over again. The country is in the midst of an emergency; what does it matter if the emergency is repetitive? Sometimes yelling loudly enough, and for long enough, can move the relevant political figures to act—as it did in the case of impeachment.[Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes: The serious silliness of impeachment]But the danger is that, by yelling, the speaker becomes part of the great roaring Trump media machine, the engine of which is dependent on the indignation of the president’s opponents as much as the president’s own vileness. “There is no such thing as Trump fatigue,” the journalist Sopan Deb said when news of John Bolton’s book broke in January. “There will always be Trump books sucking up oxygen and authors to make money off them.” The same could be said of the fleet of commentary launched by Bolton’s book and all the books like his, Woodward’s among them. Along these lines, the opinion writer Drew Magary announced recently that he was stopping his column out of exhaustion with the “hamster wheel” of political commentary: “I have nothing left to say beyond what I’ve already said.”That leaves the option of taking a step back from politics and finding intellectual engagement elsewhere. “It may be enough to cultivate your own artistic garden,” Margaret Atwood wrote after Trump’s election, suggesting that artists and writers find their footing in exploring common humanity: “Lives may be deformed by politics—and many certainly have been—but we are not, finally, the sum of our politicians.” Atwood struck a hopeful note, but this instinct can also manifest as something more parochial, a turning inward rather than an effort to expand one’s horizons beyond the events of the day. In 2019, Venkatesh Rao began writing on his blog Ribbonfarm about what he saw as an emerging aesthetic of home goods and fuzzy socks as a refuge from political tempests: “Domestic cozy,” as he called it, is “something of a pre-emptive retreat from worldly affairs for a generation that, quite understandably, thinks the public sphere is falling apart.” The comfort of a weighted blanket can be a shield from political engagement as well as other people.This has a historical echo with the later years of the Soviet Union. In the 1970s and ’80s, many Soviet citizens—among them young people, writers, and artists, the sorts of people one would expect to be engaged in political life—pulled away from politics, which seemed to them to be a waste of time. They were not dissidents or activists; they just didn’t care. This lack of interest took different forms. In his study of the late Soviet period, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, the anthropologist Alexei Yurchak describes some young Soviets forming odd, apolitical artist collectives, while others joined clubs whose members passionately debated more or less everything except current events. “Everyone understood everything, so why speak about that? It was uninteresting,” a former university student told Yurchak dismissively of dissident politics. Likewise, in an exchange with an American sociologist during this period, one Soviet rock musician explained, “We’re interested in universal problems which don’t depend on this or that system, or on a particular time.” His bandmate chimed in: “People are interested in politics, and I don’t know why they are.”These Soviet musicians might have agreed with Atwood’s suggestion that artists should focus on timeless explorations of what it means to be human. Yurchak also quotes a onetime member of an apolitical literary club remembering the group as an “artificially created microclimate”—which recalls Atwood’s vision of an artistic garden separate from politics, or the Instagrammable comfort of domestic cozy. Writing in The New York Review of Books in 2019, the British writer Viv Groskop wondered whether Westerners overwhelmed by the news might wish to adopt the Soviet tradition of “internal exile” and curl into themselves to find peace away from politics. “It is reasonable,” Groskop wrote, “to conclude that apathy must surely be defensible as some kind of political act.”[Read: A brief history of Soviet rock and roll]Those Soviets who withdrew from politics were responding to the boredom of a public life curtailed by official limitations on what could and couldn’t be said. Today, the boredom of the Trump era is the product of a different kind of censorship, what the journalist Peter Pomerantsev calls “censorship through noise.” Instead of the tedium of silence, this is the tedium of endless clatter. But it has the same effect. Whether you choose not to speak about politics and turn your attention elsewhere, or you decide to say the same thing over and over again, the odds are that political leadership will carry on just as it did before. So why bother at all?The United States is not yet in the extreme circumstances in which Yurchak’s subjects found themselves. When Atwood suggested in 2017 that artists should tend their own gardens, she was not recommending that they turn away from the news entirely—after all, she’s continued to speak publicly about the Trump presidency and explore political themes in her fiction—but rather that they remember that there are ideas outside politics. If Trump retains power for a second term, though, resisting the pull of apathy may prove more difficult. This pervasive disinterest is a dangerous thing for a democracy, which depends on political engagement among its people in order to survive. And Trump would surely welcome such detachment, which would only make it easier for him to hold on to power.If Joe Biden wins the election, this problem will likely fade when he is sworn in as president in January 2021. Part of Biden’s pitch to voters is that his administration just won’t suck up as much of their attention: as a Biden campaign ad asked in August, “Remember when you didn’t have to think about the president every single day?” But under a Biden administration, Trump will not go away, and alternative ways of engaging with him—ways that don’t cultivate apathy—are needed for the political and historical reckoning with Trump’s legacy that will need to take place after he leaves office. There is also, of course, the possibility that the current president remains in place for another four years—in which case the battle against apathy becomes even more urgent.Recently, a handful of writers have begun to suggest such alternatives. “The most essential books about the Trump era are not about Trump at all,” the Washington Post nonfiction critic Carlos Lozada writes in his forthcoming book on the literature of the Trump era, What Were We Thinking. Better, Lozada suggests, to examine the forces that enabled Trump’s rise and continued hold on power. Similarly, Szalai argues in her review of Woodward’s book that “the real story about the Trump era is less about Trump and more about the people who surround and protect him.” Along these lines, Anne Applebaum recently wrote in The Atlantic on the question of why Republican leaders choose to enable Trump’s abuses, and this conversation about responsibility and complicity has continued as former administration officials and staffers seek absolution in publicly supporting Joe Biden.The world that made Trump possible is deeper, stranger, and more worthy of thought than Trump himself has ever been, and studying it can offer answers and insights about the current American crisis that the president, in his shallowness, can’t. This approach has another advantage, too. It denies Trump the thing he wants most of all: undivided attention.
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Judiciary Reform Is Not Revenge
Expanding the Supreme Court makes sense for both practical and constitutional reasons.
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A ‘Climate Corps’ of California Volunteers
Back in the early days of the pandemic, when some people imagined that changes in American life might be a…
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Rhode Island: Images of the Ocean State
Diane39 / iStockphoto / Getty Rhode Island is the smallest state in the U.S., but with a population of just over a million people, it is also the the second-most densely populated state. From Woonsocket and Pawtucket, through Providence, Bristol, and Newport, here are a few glimpses of the landscape of Rhode Island and some of the wildlife and people calling it home. This photo story is part of Fifty, a collection of images from each of the United States.
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