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theatlantic.com
theatlantic.com
The Worst Possible Time for an Outbreak in Wisconsin
In New York, the decisive moment came in March. In Arizona and other Sun Belt states, it struck as the spring turned to summer. In every state that has so far seen a large spike of COVID-19 cases, there has been a moment when the early signs of an uptick are detectable—but a monstrous outbreak is not yet assured. Can a state realize what’s happening, and stop a surge in time? Wisconsin is about to find out.In the past week, Wisconsin has crashed through its own coronavirus records, reporting more cases and more COVID-19 hospitalizations than it has at any time since the pandemic began, according to the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic. It now ranks among the top states in new cases per capita, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it is reporting more new cases, in absolute terms, than all states but California, Texas, and Florida.Wisconsin’s outlook was deteriorating into the weekend. Yesterday, it reported more than 2,620 new cases of COVID-19, an all-time high. More than 540 people are hospitalized with the virus statewide.The outbreak started about a month ago. It seemed, at first, like a product of students returning to college campuses. The University of Wisconsin at Madison brought back tens of thousands of students to campus in August. Within a week of classes starting, more than 1,000 of them tested positive, and the university shut down all in-person instruction. Other states in the Midwest saw similar spikes after colleges and universities restarted for the fall.But those states are not seeing what Wisconsin is now. Cases are popping up in too many places, and among too many different age groups, to be blamed on college kids. In fact, every age group except 18-to-24-year-olds has seen cases rise this week, according to official data. “There’s a surge happening in cases across the state, for the most part,” Ajay Sethi, an epidemiology professor at the University of Wisconsin, told me.[Read: The fog of the pandemic is returning]Any coronavirus outbreak is bad news, but a surge in Wisconsin, at this moment, would be particularly awful. The problem is one of both political geography and poor timing. Wisconsin could determine the outcome of the presidential election: The state went for President Donald Trump in 2016 by only 22,748 votes, and both Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have campaigned there this month. The election is little more than a month away, and if the threat of infection scares Wisconsinites away from polling places, the outbreak could play a role in who wins the state.But this is also a bad time for any state to have an outbreak. As my colleague Alexis C. Madrigal and I wrote this month, the pandemic has become harder to track in the United States. Nationwide, the results of some new types of COVID-19 tests are not being consistently reported to local governments. In Wisconsin, testing has declined from its peak: The state reports fewer coronavirus tests a day now than it did in late July. This means that metrics that proved useful during the Sun Belt surge this summer, such as the percentage of tests that come back positive, have become less reliable. And this, in turn, has made it harder for officials and experts to forecast how large of an outbreak a state might be facing before the corresponding spikes in cases and hospitalizations.In Wisconsin, neither of those numbers looks good. The Badger State is seeing an explosive rise in cases: On September 1, it reported an average of about 750 new coronavirus cases a day; now it reports more than 2,000 a day. Wisconsin has reported nearly as many new cases per capita this week as Texas and Georgia did at the peak of their outbreaks this summer, according to the CDC.At the same time, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Wisconsin has more than doubled since the month began. “The surges are in Green Bay, in northeastern Wisconsin, and there’s a little evidence of an uptick in Milwaukee,” Sethi said. “A lot of these counties are where older individuals live, on average.”But the state is not doomed to becoming the next Arizona, and it has already had some success halting the spread of the virus. After the University of Wisconsin at Madison shut down in-person classes earlier this month, case counts plummeted across the state. (The school is now loosening those restrictions.) Nationwide, many colleges and universities have successfully kept the virus in check through frequent testing and mask requirements.But those tools aren’t as easy to deploy in a fractious state. This week, Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, announced that the rising case counts forced him to extend a statewide mask mandate through November. Mask mandates are supported by public-health officials in the Trump administration and the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Yet the state’s top Republican legislators immediately attacked the move. “Moot, illegal, invalid, and almost assuredly headed for litigation,” Scott Fitzgerald, the state’s Senate majority leader, said in a statement. If the mask mandate is overturned in the state legislature, as Fitzgerald has repeatedly threatened, then Wisconsin’s odds of a deadly surge will worsen.Leaders in Wisconsin should recognize that they hold the entire region’s fate in their hands, because their reckless action could set off a much larger blaze. The Midwest now reports more COVID-19 cases per capita than any other region. It is the only part of the country to have escaped a large-scale outbreak so far, but a major spike could prove especially devastating, because the residents of many midwestern states skew older.The next few months will prove decisive in the Midwest. Infections didn’t really start going in the Southwest until the summer arrived, when the searing daytime heat drove people indoors, where the coronavirus seems to spread most easily. In the Midwest, indoor season arrives in late autumn. It is nearly 80 degrees Fahrenheit in Green Bay today. The weather in December probably won’t be as favorable.
theatlantic.com
Large-Scale Political Unrest Is Unlikely, But Not Impossible
When a reporter recently asked Donald Trump if he would accept a peaceful transition of power, the president wouldn’t commit. “We’ll see what happens,” he said. In an apparent reference to mail-in ballots, he went on, “We’ll want to have—get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very—we’ll have a very peaceful—there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.” His comments seemed to confirm the worst fears of Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans who have warned for months that he might act illegally to hold on to power.For Trumpian commentators, Democrats and the president’s other critics are only raising these concerns because they want to orchestrate a coup of their own. In a recent essay, “The Coming Coup?,” the former Trump-administration official Michael Anton warns his readers that Democrats are laying the groundwork for the “unlawful and illegitimate removal of President Trump from office.” Their tactic, he says, is to condition the public into thinking that Trump will try to steal the election so that if he wins, they can cry foul. They will then, Anton predicts, organize “a ‘color revolution,’ the exact same playbook the American deep state runs in other countries whose leadership they don’t like and is currently running in Belarus. Oust a leader—even an elected one—through agitation and call it ‘democracy.’” Anton advises Trump to prepare now to determine who will be loyal in the days after the election so that he can prevail.Anton’s warning of a color revolution has gone viral on the Trumpian right. But his analysis rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept. I’ve been looking at the history of color revolutions to see if conditions are actually ripe for one in the U.S.The term color revolution was coined in the early aughts to describe four political revolutions in post-Communist Europe and Central Asia, in which repressive regimes tried to hold on to power after losing an election: in Serbia (the Bulldozer Revolution, named after a protester who used a bulldozer to storm the Parliament building), Georgia (the Rose Revolution, for the flowers that protesters held during demonstrations), Ukraine (Orange, the color identified with the opposition party), and Kyrgyzstan (Tulip, the national flower). Each case involved an election in which the regime committed fraud and was found out by a combination of impartial external election observers, exit polls, and a sophisticated voting-tabulation system. After the announcement of the fraudulent results, students led enormous popular protests, demanding either new elections or a ratification of the results.[Read: The election that could break America]The color revolutions deeply unnerved autocrats, particularly in Russia and China, who believed the West had orchestrated them. The uprisings came from within the countries, although Western nongovernmental organizations played a supporting role over time, particularly by shedding light on nondemocratic practices and helping the students organize. Alexander Cooley, the director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, who has studied color revolutions, told me that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the U.S. government was relatively detached and ambiguous about the protests in some of these cases. In Georgia, for example, it initially did not rush to back Mikheil Saakashvili over the incumbent, Eduard Shevardnadze; while in Kyrgyzstan, it worried about the implications for an American military base there. By 2005, Moscow and Beijing were actively redefining the term, shifting from indigenous protests against fraudulent elections to exclusively mean externally imposed regime change. Over the next 10 years, color revolution was used to describe many mass protests against autocratic regimes: the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005, the Green Movement in Iran in 2009, the Arab Spring in 2010–12, the Snow Revolution in Russia in 2011–12, and more Orange protests in Ukraine in 2013–14. The Snow Revolution, pushing against Vladimir Putin’s rotation back into the presidency, exacerbated his paranoia about color revolutions.Protesters try to break into Parliament during the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. (Yoray Liberman / Getty)While the protesters—students, NGOs, political opposition—learned tactics from one another, so too did the autocrats. Over the years, the leaders developed countermeasures. They denied visas to student leaders from abroad, set up their own pro-regime election monitors, banned NGOs that were advocating for democracy, and rigged elections by using intermediate measures, such as disqualifying candidates before election day.The United States is not an autocracy, but Trump has embraced this paranoia. As Cooley noted, fears of unrest are borrowed from the Russian hymnbook: “Fear of the street protests, never spontaneous, never motivated by a sense of injustice, activists always paid, always a nefarious agenda—it is straight from the Kremlin’s talking points.” Accusing an opponent of what he is accusing you of—in this case, stealing the election—is a tactic Putin routinely uses to muddy the waters. Other than this paranoia, are the conditions in place for an actual color revolution in the United States? In every respect except one extreme scenario—which, astonishingly, Trump has cultivated—the answer is no. The 2016 election showed that foreign interference, even rising to the level of collusion with a foreign power, will not prevent the winner from being inaugurated, nor will it topple a president during his term. It may undermine the president’s legitimacy and the country’s confidence in the democratic process, but it won’t spark a color revolution. The 2000 contest proved that disputed elections can be resolved through the courts. Even if tensions are much greater now, it is extremely unlikely that the majority of Joe Biden’s voters will try to overturn a Supreme Court decision through direct action, even if Trump’s nominee to the court is in place. If Biden refuses to concede, which he has shown no signs of doing even though some Democrats have talked about it, his decision will not prevent Trump from being re-inaugurated if he is declared the winner. If the president refuses to leave the White House despite having lost, the legal and political system will take its course and power will transfer to Biden, albeit after an atrocious transition.The original color revolutions occurred when the perception of clear and massive electoral fraud was widespread and protesters were angry about having democratic rights taken away. The demonstrations were directed at illegitimate regimes with a history of rigged elections, endemic corruption, and repression of political opponents. Trump is the most antidemocratic president in America’s history, but his administration so far does not meet the standard of the regimes affected by color revolutions. The U.S. still has an electoral process and a legal system.[Read: The Bush-Gore recount is an omen for 2020]However, one extreme scenario could push the United States toward a color revolution. If Trump actually tries to prevent large numbers of mail-in ballots from being counted by confiscating them, he could irreparably damage the electoral process and prevent the courts from being able to fairly adjudicate it. After all, what are the courts to do if the confiscated ballots have been destroyed or compromised (for instance, if the boxes were opened)? In this scenario, Trump would declare victory on Election Night if he is ahead in votes cast that day, and he would order Attorney General Bill Barr or Chad Wolf, the man Trump claims runs the Department of Homeland Security, to physically stop the count the next day. The president would then pressure Republican state legislatures to ratify his preferred result. This scenario is similar to what my Atlantic colleague Barton Gellman chillingly outlines in his new cover story. Daniel Nexon, a political scientist at Georgetown University, told me that in the post-Communist unrest, independent election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe played a crucial role in demonstrating fraud. External monitors have a more limited role in U.S. elections—they are present but in small numbers and few people pay attention to them. Trump, however, doesn’t control the polling stations. Shenanigans in particular districts could go under the radar for a while, but mass fraud—such as the federal confiscation of mail-in ballots—would likely occur in public view. Many Americans, perhaps millions of them, would feel that they had to take to the streets.Protesters would want the U.S. to count every vote, as demonstrators did in earlier color revolutions, but that simply may not be possible if the ballots are confiscated and compromised. Nexon said that in most of the post-Communist cases, some mechanism existed for a revote, but U.S. law has no allowance for that. Therefore, if the worst case happens and Trump actively interferes in the count, the protests would likely focus on state legislatures and governors asked to ratify results before the count was complete, and on the Supreme Court, which may be asked to adjudicate.Dodging a color revolution or large-scale political unrest is simple—Trump should not illegally interfere with the election count. If he gives such an order, his officials should not follow it. If they do, Republican members of Congress should oppose it and the courts should quickly intervene to stop him.To prevent Anton’s theory from gaining further traction among Republicans, Democrats must be careful not to play into the Trumpist narrative that they are looking to delegitimize the president. They must stop suggesting that he can win only by cheating. As for citizens, we can vote early, preferably in person.The U.S. election should be beyond reproach, but the political reality is making that unlikely. However, a Rubicon is in place that separates instability after the election from a color revolution. Ultimately, Trump and Trump alone will make the decision whether or not to cross it.
theatlantic.com
Hong Kongers, Don’t Idolize the U.K.
During this uncertain and unstable year, I’ve learned not to take Hong Kong’s freedom for granted. Prodemocracy protests consumed the city for months starting in early 2019, but the political climate changed abruptly in the spring, when Beijing passed a wide-ranging security law that many see as a crackdown on dissent. At the end of June, a few hours before the law went into effect, I walked outside to catch the last glimpses of protest around my neighborhood in Hong Kong. A local barber was removing a gas mask and goggles from the mannequin in his window; I noticed that a coffee shop had already taken down all of its protest figurines and posters. The citywide self-censorship was swift.The next day, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that, in response to Beijing’s actions, the United Kingdom would alter its existing visa policies, essentially paving the way to naturalized British citizenship for 3 million Hong Kongers. Some of my friends and acquaintances felt a great sense of relief—the U.K. could be their haven, a place to restart. Rattled by arrests of demonstrators, journalists, and academics in Hong Kong, several people have already left for the U.K.; the prodemocracy activist Nathan Law announced in early July that he had fled Hong Kong and would continue his activism in London.[Read: Hong Kong is a colony once more]The U.K. has not yet explained how it will accommodate for mass migration amid struggles with Brexit negotiations, COVID-19, budget cuts, and a shrinking economy. Personally, I’m less focused on these logistical issues than the possibility that Hong Kongers have an overly romantic view of life in the U.K. Everywhere I go in Hong Kong, I notice hints of colonial rule. Streets bear the names of dead monarchs; high tea with scones and Darjeeling is common in five-star hotels; the Union Jack flies at protests; some consider a British accent the ultimate status symbol. To many people here, the U.K. is an alternative motherland, an idyllic place of opportunity where one can in fact take freedom for granted. Although the U.K. may be more politically stable than Hong Kong, I know that it isn’t the welcoming place many Hong Kongers seem to think it is.I was born in 1989 in London to Hong Kong immigrants. My parents were part of a large wave of migration that took place in the decade before the 1997 handover, when the U.K. transferred control of Hong Kong to mainland China. An estimated 503,800 people left Hong Kong from 1987 to 1996, and by 2011 some 111,733 people born in Hong Kong were living in the U.K. Despite the long connection between Hong Kong and the U.K. and the large number of Chinese people in the country, our diaspora was not very unified or politically active. One illustration of this is that no person of British Chinese heritage was a member of Parliament until 2015. When Alan Mak finally broke that barrier, many in the Asian diaspora community rejoiced, seeing his victory as a win for cultural representation. However, Mak seemed frustrated that his ethnicity was overshadowing his achievements as a politician; he told the South China Morning Post magazine that if “Chinese for Labour think I am going to be representing every Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Korean—and there are many in my constituency—they are mistaken. It’s a stupid story. I am not standing for the Chinese population of Britain. I am standing for the people of Havant and my country.” His comments were tough to read for those, like me, hoping to hear pride in his dual identity. Yet I could empathize with Mak’s desire to announce himself as a British citizen first and foremost.Like many in the British Chinese diaspora, I was taught by people both inside and outside my community, in ways both implicit and explicit, that I should ignore my Chinese identity in order to conform and prove my “Britishness.” One of my earliest memories is of a teacher warning my mother that if I continued to speak Cantonese at home, I would be considered a bad student and possibly never learn to read or write in English. I was only 5. In response, my mother stopped sending me to Cantonese school on Saturdays. (Later, I learned that bilingualism is an advantage, not a hindrance, in overall literacy.)Reese Tan, a 25-year old living in Hong Kong, poses with his British National passport on June 3, 2020. (Anthony Wallace /AFP / Getty)At primary school, I was taught how to think, act, and speak in the proper British way, and to love the monarchy. During Princess Diana’s memorial service, in 1997, I was among the many students at my school who were asked to participate in a filmed event for a news station. Our task was to carry mourning flowers in and out of the park and, our teachers gently hinted, to cry. As I grew older, teachers fed me facts about Queen Victoria’s “impressive” 64-year rule and her proclivity for tea and potatoes, among other quaint details. But they either didn’t cover or only vaguely mentioned the darker realities of the British empire: the trauma of the Opium Wars, the slave trade in British India, and Hong Kong’s colonization.[Read: A polarized city, mirrored in its diaspora]I never questioned my lessons, and, more importantly, I never spoke about Chinese culture at school. I tried to assimilate. And yet I still felt out of place, never truly at home even though London was the only home I knew. I began to ask myself why I felt like an alien hiding among neighbors. Was I British or Cantonese?I couldn’t be both, I discovered, because no space was available for discourse on dual identities. When white acquaintances made fun of my Chinese friends, I was acutely aware that, despite comments that I “wasn’t like them,” I was vulnerable to the same treatment. At boarding school, these two groups fractured at the canteen: one table for white students, and one for Hong Kong exchange students. Both asked me to sit with them, and I would stand at the front of the large hall, thinking over my alliances, only to go back to my dorm room and skip the meal entirely.The stereotyping was relentless. Strangers would yell “egg fried lice” and “wok face” at me, or, worse, call me “Suzie Wong” (a fictional Hong Kong prostitute from a novel of the same title) or comment on my “exotic looks.” People in the U.K. like to pass off such microaggressions as ignorance or humor, relabeling them as ethnic banter. “They don’t know any better” is one excuse I’ve heard. Another: “It’s just a joke.” This derisive focus on my identity—and the minimization of my discomfort—eroded my self-confidence. Was I being overly sensitive? Why did I feel so much shame about who I was, and why did I feel powerless to defend myself?In my first year of university, several of my white flatmates pranked me by leaving in our kitchen a note written by a fake Chinese exchange student named Fung Ting. In it, she expressed that she was feeling overwhelmed and wanted to say hello. For days, I knocked on the door of an empty flat, worried about why this student never appeared. I wrote a note back: “I’m from Hong Kong too,” I said. “Can’t wait to meet you!” When the ruse was revealed, I was on the verge of tears. My flatmates’ laughter was cruel; the joke was calculated and pointed. They understood my internal conflict so well that they were able to identify its core element: To empathize with those who look like you is to make a fool of yourself.In February, a tweet by an Imperial College London professor went viral after he recounted how an ethnically Chinese teenager deflected racist COVID-19 remarks in Italy. “There you go, we are all going to be infected,” a passenger said as the teen boarded a train. The boy responded in Italian: “Ma’am, in my whole life I’ve seen China only on Google Maps.” People on the train applauded. In the retweets from those of Chinese descent, I noticed a certain air of pride, of winning. But who has won what, in the game of assimilation? Why did the teenager stress that he had never traveled to China, instead of pointing out the explicit racism of the passenger? Was he trying to reject a part of his identity?[Read: Why Trump intentionally misnames the coronavirus]I wouldn’t have questioned his response when I was growing up. Only with some distance have I been able to reflect on the push and pull of my two worlds. After I graduated from university, I moved to Hong Kong for work and to connect with my roots. I made friends with other Hong Kongers who had grown up abroad and, for the first time in my life, began to accept my complicated upbringing. I read the poems of Sarah Howe and listened to the music of Emmy the Great, who are both British Chinese. In 2015, I worked for a year and a half in New York and joined communities that celebrated their American and Asian identities. Once I realized that my diaspora identity was complex—not definitive, but fluid—I also accepted my British side, this time on my own terms. These experiences away from the U.K. made me who I am today: someone who can embrace all aspects of her identity.Now when I look at the U.K., I feel frustrated that the British Chinese diaspora hasn’t come together as a community. We are less visible in activism and politics than our Asian American counterparts in the U.S. In the New Statesman in 2013, the writer Lu-Hai Liang noted that “young grassroots activism among second generation Chinese is still almost unheard of.” He followed up this year with an article discussing the rise in Sinophobia, noting that British Chinese “are now asking themselves about their place in British life and why it has been low-profile for so long.” Tweeting in July, the parliamentary candidate Johnny Luk urged “the British Chinese to confront our identity, step up & not sit on the fence so much.”I believe people in the community don’t speak up as a group for many reasons, including a deep-rooted fear of social exclusion and learned helplessness. Although it may be unacceptable for public figures to be openly racist—the Duke of Edinburgh’s 1986 remarks on the “slitty eyed” Chinese might be contended with now—racist aggression still occurs regularly. The Metropolitan Police reported 267 hate crimes against British East Asians—including violent assault, robbery, and verbal abuse—in the first three months of 2020 alone, compared with 375 in all of 2019. These crimes have mostly been greeted with silence. I have seen no large-scale protests; even the fairly prominent COVID-19 Anti-Racism Group, which distributed a petition calling for the government to investigate these hate crimes, hasn’t managed to secure more than 5,000 signatures after four months. And while Asians have had to struggle with a rise in Sinophobia everywhere since the outbreak of COVID-19, the difference in the U.K. is that the country presents itself as a long-term partner of Hong Kong, opening its borders to political refugees while doing little to make them feel welcome once they arrive.I recognize that I speak from a place of privilege to even be able to write this essay and examine these concerns. Circumstances have changed dramatically since 1997. The next mass migration from Hong Kong to the U.K. is being motivated not by a looming threat but by a very concrete one. And I know that this threat is hardly equal to the one of feeling unwelcome in the U.K. However, leaving unexamined these romantic notions of the U.K. would be naive. I know that for myself, wherever I end up, I cannot imagine returning to a place of assimilation.
theatlantic.com
I’m Leaving the West Coast
Portland, Oregon, has its share of gloomy days, so waking up to darkness wasn’t that strange. When I looked outside, however, the sky wasn’t overcast. It was filled with smoke the color of pumpkin spice, the result of nearby fires. A soupy miasma. The most noxious air in the world. I’d had enough. I told my husband, “We need to move.”Having grown up in California’s Sonoma County, I’ve been spoiled by natural beauty and perfect weather. When I was 30, I briefly lived in New York, but after only six months, I started to miss horizon lines defined by mountains and sunsets, the sweet fragrance of dry vegetation in late summer, silvery oak trees and massive redwoods. I bought a one-way ticket back home. I remember the way the bay looked as my plane descended into San Francisco: glittery, golden, and serene—like a Maxfield Parrish painting I had on my wall in high school. I felt protected on this side of the country, grounded within the boundaries of water and range. I never thought I’d leave the West Coast again.[Read: A mental-health crisis is burning across the American West]When I later moved north to Oregon, my new home felt like going back in time to the California of my childhood—one that was a notch cooler. I love the rich dankness of Oregon’s forests, the wet needles underfoot, the ghostly fog that hovers at night, diffusing city lights into colorful blurs.The weather has started to diminish my love for the West. I’ve made a habit of going home to Santa Rosa every summer but am usually disappointed to be greeted with triple-digit temperatures and hazy air. In 2015, the Valley Fire ripped through California’s Lake County, around 100 miles north of San Francisco and where my family has a summer cabin. Though our cabin was spared, much of the nearby town and residential area was demolished. The hills that were once blanketed in trees are now stubbled with charred spears.In 2017, the Eagle Creek Fire in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge left the air unbreathable for days. It snowed ash in Portland, and I purchased N95 masks for the first time. I had never even heard of these masks before, but news sources said they were the only ones that could keep out harmful smoke particulates. One month later, I awoke to a barrage of text messages, mostly from friends on the East Coast who had been up looking at the news while I still slept. “Are your parents okay?” a few of them read. I immediately called my mom, who answered the phone in tears.She was woken in the middle of the night by a loud noise. High winds in the nearby mountains had caused a stainless-steel barrel in their backyard to topple. Mom, in her nightgown and flip-flops, walked out to find the heavy thing on its side. She mistook the noises outside for the ordinary sounds of night: the strange mating calls of nocturnal creatures and the cars of young partiers drinking in wooded crannies. Eventually, her eyes acclimated to the darkness. She saw a slow procession of cars moving down the hill. She heard someone call, “Get out now!” The smell of smoke finally registered. She grabbed my father, and they left in their nightclothes with the fireball just behind them, igniting oak and pine, shingle and roof.All that was left of our home was three brick pillars and a mangled garage door. The baby books burned, as well as the photographs and the family heirlooms. My family lost everything that’s important to us—the evidence of our existence.Since that catastrophic night, my hometown hasn’t been the same. The once-sublime time of year from August through October has become a PTSD-triggering season in hell. Yearly fires now sweep through the region, brought on by extreme heat, high winds, and freak lightning storms. Preemptive power outages, mandatory evacuations, hazardous air quality, school and work closures, and the risk of losing everything to fire have been a yearly reality. I’ve urged my parents to leave, but they are too attached to the area, having recently bought a new home only three miles down the ridge from the one that burned down.[Read: The West has never felt so small]I don’t share their optimism. Last week, I sat in my living room in Portland wearing a ratty, two-month-old N95 mask and a pair of swimming goggles to keep my eyes from burning. The smoke seeped under our front door, making me dizzy and nauseous. Our apartment was a stifling 90 degrees inside, but we couldn’t open the windows for ventilation. My lungs ached all around—in my back and under my armpits and behind my breasts. I went to urgent care and the waiting room was filled with others with similar symptoms. On my way home, I had the urge to keep driving until I reached blue skies, fresh air.Animals have a primal instinct to flee from fire, to move toward safety. Birds take to the canopy, up away from the blaze; rabbits and mice scurry for the moist shelter of hollow logs and needle-packed soil; elk and deer wade in icy streams.The 2020 western–United States wildfires have scorched more than 5 million acres, and they continue to blaze. Because of climate change, we know that this weather isn’t a fluke, but a trend—our future. The time has come for us to flee.My husband and I plan on moving to the Minneapolis area this spring. We chose this flat, cold, landlocked city because my sister and her family live there, it has a vibrant literary community, it’s affordable, and, most importantly, it’s unlikely to suffer a 20-year mega-drought and consequent wildfires. Perhaps our reaction is extreme, but so is the weather. Though I’m already mourning the ocean and the Douglas firs and the view of Mount Hood that makes me gasp every time I look to the east, I know that if I stay, I will miss them even more, for I will not get to go outside and enjoy them.
theatlantic.com
The True Victors of Trump’s Supreme Court Nomination
When President Donald Trump announces tomorrow that Amy Coney Barrett is his nominee for the Supreme Court, he will be effectively declaring victory. In 2016, Trump offered a horse trade to American conservatives: In exchange for their votes, he promised to appoint judges who would champion their interests. This nomination will be yet another chance for Trump to remind his supporters that their bet paid off, conveniently timed just a few weeks before Election Day. While Trump may see this nomination as a boon to his reelection campaign, the true victors are the leaders of the conservative legal movement, who built the sophisticated machine in Washington that made this moment possible. With most of America’s institutions, from Congress to the executive branch, locked into a state of dysfunction and partisan bitterness, the Court has become the ultimate venue for the parties to fight out controversies and entrench their power. Barrett’s nomination is the culmination of a decades-long strategy to advance judges steeped in a conservative judicial philosophy that tends to favor limited government regulation of businesses, produce skepticism of abortion rights, and promote an expansive view of religious liberty. If Barrett is confirmed, a new 6-to-3 conservative supermajority will be poised to determine Americans’ rights for a generation. (The president is expected to formally announce her selection tomorrow evening.)The strategy of the conservative legal movement is basically a long game of cultivating personnel. “You know the saying that Hillary Clinton had in her book, ‘It takes a village to [raise a child]? The Republican version of that is, ‘It takes 30 years to grow a Supreme Court justice,’” Jack Balkin, a law professor at Yale, told me. Starting in the 1980s, a group of conservative intellectuals, including the future Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, began developing networks to train and connect young law students inclined toward a conservative judicial philosophy. This elite class of lawyers then fanned out across firms, think tanks, academia, and government, creating a “conveyor belt of bright, qualified, conservative judges,” Balkin said.[Read: Is this really the end of abortion?]Amy Coney Barrett is a luminary of this movement. Unlike the other justices currently on the Supreme Court, she never attended an Ivy League school, but she scored two of the top clerkships available to promising young conservatives, working for Judge Laurence Silberman on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and Scalia on the Supreme Court, who saw her as one of his favorite clerks. Scalia’s methods of judicial interpretation were a huge intellectual influence on Barrett. “She’s committed to tethering herself to the text, history, and tradition of the Constitution and [trying] to discern its original understanding,” O. Carter Snead, a professor of law and political science at Notre Dame and Barrett’s former colleague, told me.One of the watchwords of the conservative legal movement is judicial restraint—an allergy to what adherents describe as judicial activism that leads judges beyond the text of a statute or the Constitution to a preferred policy outcome. “Judges are not supposed to be politicians” or impose “their preferred ideology or their preferred religious preferences,” Snead said. Barrett appears to share this view. “The public should be absolutely concerned about whether a nominee for judicial office will be willing and able to set aside personal preferences,” she said during an interview with a former student of hers at Hillsdale College last year. “That’s not a challenge just for religious people. That’s a challenge for everyone.”Barrett’s ability to set aside her religious views as a Catholic has been a matter of intense debate since she was nominated to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017. “The dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern,” Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said during Barrett’s confirmation hearing, questioning whether she would uphold the precedent of abortion rights set in Roe v. Wade. An ugly war has already begun over Barrett’s participation in a charismatic community in South Bend, Indiana, and whether that should be a factor in her Supreme Court confirmation hearings.The irony of this debate is that it obscures the philosophical commitments that explicitly shape who Barrett would be as a justice. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution prohibits any religious test from being imposed on candidates for office. We cannot know how Barrett’s Catholicism shapes her views, and moreover, it is likely unconstitutional for senators to consider that in evaluating her fitness for the job. But it is clear that her involvement in the conservative legal movement has definitively shaped her approach to the law.Abortion would be by far the most controversial issue up for consideration by a Supreme Court with a conservative supermajority. A number of cases already in the pipeline to the high court could lead to significant restrictions on abortion rights around the country. But conservatives also see opportunities in other areas of the law: expanding the boundaries of religious freedom, for example, as well as scaling back bureaucrats’ ability to determine government policies. Specific laws, most notably the Affordable Care Act, are at direct risk of being struck down; a challenge to the health-care law is scheduled for oral arguments just a few days after the election.In recent years, conservative justices have joined the liberal wing of the Court for decisions on highly contested issues, from legalizing same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges to protecting the status of young undocumented immigrants in Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California. The biggest advantage of having six Republican-appointed justices on the Court is that conservatives can “seek review in the Supreme Court, and not have to worry about 5-4 decisions,” Boyden Gray, who served as White House counsel to George H.W. Bush, told me. The new conservative supermajority “promises a revolution in doctrine,” Balkin said. “But that’s too strong a word, because, in fact, doctrine has been changing markedly over the course of the last 30 years.”[Caitlin Flanagan: Will Democrats fail the Amy Coney Barrett test?]For all they may claim neutrality, Supreme Court justices are political creatures, who tend to follow their ideological leanings when big decisions are at stake. Over time, the Court has gradually become more favorable to conservative judicial philosophies. Even Justice Elena Kagan, who was appointed by Barack Obama, has said so: “We’re all textualists now,” she declared. Barrett’s nomination, then, is not the beginning of a new era on the Supreme Court. It is the ratification of a long-standing trend. Thirty years ago, the movement could not claim this kind of dominance. Democrats tanked Robert Bork, one of the early advisers of Yale’s chapter of the Federalist Society, at his 1987 Supreme Court confirmation hearings. David Souter, who joined the Court in 1990, was later reviled by conservatives for steadily becoming more liberal over his tenure. Now, every conservative who makes it to the federal bench is a known entity. “For all the candidates since then, they’ve all had records where you can get a pretty good picture of how they would deal with tough, national issues,” Gray, who worked on Souter’s appointment, told me.By the time Trump ran for the president in 2016, the conservative legal movement was firmly established in Washington. Trump presented an opportunity. In exchange for leaders in the movement doing the hard work of compiling and vetting potential judicial nominees, the president would hold open the door for a parade of judges committed to conservative judicial philosophy. Many voters believed this deal made Trump worthy of their support: In exit polls, a quarter of those who backed Trump said the Supreme Court was their chief motivation. Trump has secured more than 200 appointments to federal courts and circuit courts of appeal, along with two Supreme Court justices so far. He kept his end of the bargain.Trump is clearly hoping another Supreme Court seat will give him a much-needed popularity boost as he continues to lag behind Biden in polls. (He has also said that he expects the Court will determine the outcome of November’s election.) It’s not clear that the coming confirmation battle will ultimately push Trump over the edge with voters, however. Democrats are issuing dire warnings about the future of the ACA in swing states, where they believe they have the advantage. The top leaders of the conservative legal movement are all-in to help the president get reelected. But they may have already gotten what they wanted out of Trump. Four more years of this president would seem short compared to the lifetime appointment of 48-year-old Amy Coney Barrett. No matter what happens in November, the conservative legal movement won.
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The Atlantic Daily: The Fight Over RBG
Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.The Fight to Replace RBG GETTY / THE ATLANTICThe first Saturday of fall will bring an announcement with the potential to shape American lives for years—if not decades.Tomorrow evening, at around 5 p.m. ET, President Donald Trump will name his nominee to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, kicking off a likely tense and deeply political confirmation process—worsened by the charges of hypocrisy facing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.As we noted yesterday, Democrats can do little to thwart the confirmation of Trump’s pick, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be political consequences come November. Here are some arguments to consider as you await Trump’s pick:The Democrats’ SCOTUS message could really work in swing states.“Even if the Court fight doesn’t fundamentally upend the election’s dynamics, small tremors could have a huge effect given how tight many of the key Senate contests remain,” Ronald Brownstein reports.By proceeding, Trump is taking away a lifeline for Republican senators who represent swing states.“A preferable scenario for embattled swing-state senators would be for Trump to put off a confirmation vote and let the election winner pick the nominee,” our White House reporter Peter Nicholas writes.Will Democrats fail the Amy Coney Barrett test?“If Barrett is nominated, the confirmation hearings are likely to provide Democratic senators with an opportunity to demonstrate their assumptions of moral rectitude and preening intellectual superiority,” Caitlin Flanagan argues.The great liberal reckoning has begun.Liberals are losing faith in the Court. “A century ago, the biggest critics of the federal judiciary were on the left, and for good reason,” Alan Z. Rozenshtein argues.JAE C. HONG / APWhat We ReviewedHollywood is in trouble: Tenet and Mulan couldn’t quite revive the United States movie industry. As our critic David Sims puts it: “No major studio has been nimble enough to get around the pandemic’s biggest obstacles.”Here’s what writers on our Culture team have been thinking about recently:Tenet practically demands multiple viewings.Christopher Nolan’s latest film is “a loud, brassy action blockbuster that matches visual spectacle with elliptical plotting.”Mulan goes heavy on gravitas at the expense of playfulness.The live-action remake is “a straightforward war movie with a mere dash of magic.”Antebellum isn’t just bad—it’s vile.The film “loads up on visceral scares and disturbing imagery in service of a shallow film that feels like a gory theme-park ride showcasing the horrors of slavery.”Coastal Elites is a tepid satire that doesn’t play well in a year as catastrophic as 2020.The HBO special “misdiagnoses the dangers facing the country.”76 Days is a brutal but utterly compelling look at the earliest days of the coronavirus outbreak.“If 76 Days has a narrative, it’s about order being slowly and painfully reborn out of total confusion, of humanity reasserting itself in the face of an uncompassionate and destructive disease.”Many of Perry Mason’s bleak touches are bolstered by the history of American law enforcement.“And if that feels disturbingly familiar in the era of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, it probably should.”Here are four films you should look forward to this fall.“Some of the year’s best new movies are about American soul-searching”: Dispatches from the Toronto International Film Festival.Did someone forward you this newsletter? Sign up here.
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Disclosure Doesn’t Work on a Shameless President
Again and again, President Donald Trump has violated, evaded, or ignored the law. The Constitution says a president cannot accept payments from foreign governments, but Trump did. The Constitution says that the principal officers of executive departments—members of the Cabinet—must be confirmed by the Senate. Trump junked that rule too, relying instead on his power to appoint temporary acting officials. A century and a half of legal precedents establish that a president must generally comply with subpoenas from Congress, even if he does not like the questions. Again, Trump disregarded seemingly established law.Courts have sometimes checked the Trump presidency, but not always. But court decisions take years to decide and longer to enforce. In July, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress and New York State prosecutors could legally subpoena Trump’s accountants and bankers for his financial records—a ruling that was followed by yet more Trump litigation seeking to challenge, or at least delay, the subpoenas. Even impeachment did not restrain Trump. His strong grip on his party—and on a sufficient minority of the American public—protected him from the Constitution’s ultimate remedy.The Trump presidency has exposed the degree to which presidential compliance with law is voluntary. The American system relies heavily on the president’s own sense of honor and integrity, on the president’s own wish to do what is right. The Trump presidency demonstrated how inadequate are custom and tradition to restrain a president determined to do wrong.Half a century ago, Congress and many states enacted ambitious reforms in response to Watergate and other abuses of government power. The dominant theme of those 1970s reforms was disclosure. Politicians would disclose more of their personal finances. Parties and campaigns would disclose more of their donations. Executive-branch agencies would disclose more to Congress. Congress would open more of its committee meetings to public view, and the sessions of the House and Senate to television cameras.“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” Louis Brandeis wrote in 1913, and the reformers of the 1970s adopted that motto as their own.Over the past half century, some of those disclosure mechanisms have deteriorated. The fog of dark money has considerably obscured election finance, for example.But sunlight disinfects only when the general public and elite stakeholders care about what is disclosed. In the Trump years, that assumption of the reformist creed of the 1970s has repeatedly proved false. Scandal after scandal has come to light, without Trump suffering political consequences severe enough to deter or correct corrupt behaviorTrump has done his best to defeat disclosure, notably by refusing to release his tax returns. Still, the main elements of Trump’s behavior in office have become visible. There is no exact count of the public money that has flowed into Trump businesses, but at a minimum it exceeds $1.1 million. There is no count at all of the money Trump has collected from foreign governments, but it has been disclosed that representatives of 22 foreign nations have stayed at his properties. It became a public scandal that he tried to score a massive international payday for himself by holding the 2020 G7 summit at a golf resort he owns in Florida. There has been some disclosure of the flow of Republican Party funds to Trump businesses: at least $17 million since 2016. It’s murkier how much Trump pocketed from his 2017 inauguration committee, but court documents suggest that the figure might be substantial.Likewise, the defiance of congressional subpoenas happened in plain sight. Trump brought that fight to the Supreme Court and lost—but bought himself enough time to postpone any response until after the 2020 election. Many of the worst outrages of the Trump years were blurted by the president himself on live television: Yes, he fired FBI Director James Comey in order to thwart an investigation of Trump’s Russia connections; yes, he asked China and Ukraine to deliver dirt on his most likely presidential election opponent; yes, he wants to cram through a last-minute Supreme Court appointment to help him in the legal battles he expects after the 2020 vote. Americans saw and heard all this. Many cared. But not all. And not enough.Post-Watergate America was a country characterized by a strong center and weak partisanship. During the Watergate scandal, a president elected by almost 60 percent of the vote lost office when proof of his personal involvement in criminal activity turned the leaders of his own party against him. That’s a vanished world. The America of the 2020s is more polarized and partisan than at any time since the aftermath of the Civil War. Trump was elected by 46 percent of the vote, and nothing—good or bad—has much moved the dial ever since. In 2017, 2018, and the first half of 2019, Trump presided over the best economy since the late 1990s. His average approval rating never reached even 50 percent. In 2020, Trump presided over the worst sequence of disasters since the early 1930s. His poll numbers never dipped below 40 percent. When he was caught dead to rights in the Ukraine scandal, his party stayed loyal to him, with the exception of only a single senator. When he brazenly violated the law and delivered his nomination acceptance speech from the South Lawn of the White House, his party leadership all joined him there. When he was recorded admitting that he had knowingly underplayed the worst pandemic in a century, there was hardly a murmur of reproach from his own side.Disclosure assumes a political system that cares about the things disclosed. And that is not the political system the United States has in 2020.That insight is the basis for a new sequence of political reforms proposed by House Democrats September 23, the Protecting Our Democracy Act of 2020. The bill proposes more than a dozen measures to address specific abuses of the Trump years. And for the most part, disclosure alone is not considered a sufficient remedy.The first measure would restrict the presidential pardon power. It would prohibit self-pardon by the president, clarify that it is indeed illegal for a president to sell pardons, and require release to Congress of information about any pardon from which the president or his family might personally benefit.The second measure would stop the clock on statutes of limitations for any federal crime committed by the president or vice president. Because current rules forbid prosecuting the president for federal crimes, it’s unfair that he can use his period in office to outrun federal crimes he might have committed before or during his tenure.The third measure would codify the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution into statute. Trump brazenly and nakedly violated the clause. But the clause is not self-executing. The Constitution insists that the president should not accept payments from foreign governments. It offers no guidance as to what should happen if a president goes ahead and does it anyway. The third measure also restricts the president’s ability to pocket money from domestic interests, such as a party committee or party candidates.The fourth puts teeth into congressional subpoena powers. As things stand, it’s up to the executive branch to enforce subpoenas—which has proved quite a problem when it is the executive branch that decides to ignore them. The new proposal would allow Congress to bypass the executive and ask courts to impose fines on defiant officeholders.The fifth would reduce the president’s scope to redirect money that Congress voted to spend on one purpose and to instead spend it on a different purpose.The sixth would curtail the vast agglomeration of emergency powers horrifyingly detailed in The Atlantic back in 2019.The seventh—this one does rest on disclosure—would require the attorney general to keep a log of his or her contacts with the White House and provide that log to the Department of Justice’s inspector general twice a year.The eighth would clarify that inspectors general may be removed only for cause. It would require the president to provide documentation of that cause to Congress before the removal went into effect.The ninth would protect whistleblowers and clarify that it is indeed legal for whistleblowers to provide information directly to the relevant committee of Congress.The 10th would limit the maximum tenure of acting Cabinet officials to 120 days.The 11th would eliminate the courtesy that leaves enforcement of the Hatch Act to the president when White House personnel are involved. Trump abused this courtesy to free his staff to do political work at taxpayer expense. This measure also raises the maximum fine under the Hatch Act to $50,000 and expedites collection of those fines.The 12th and 13th measures impose new requirements on campaigns, candidates, and their families to report foreign contacts—and clarifies that it is, yes, illegal for a U.S. campaign to accept dirt on political adversaries from foreign persons and governments.You probably imagined that many of these proposals were law already. Arguably, many of them were. But a lot of existing anti-corruption law was informative or indicative, rather than punitive.In a lecture delivered in 1897, the future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said that to truly understand the law, “you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct, whether inside the law or outside of it, in the vaguer sanctions of conscience.”Until now, however, the law around the presidency did not work that way. “Thou shalt not take foreign emoluments” may impress the honest and patriotic president. But what if the president is not honest or patriotic? What happens if that president accepts a foreign emolument? The answer turned out to be: nothing much. As a result, a dishonest and unpatriotic president grabbed with both hands, and corrupted one of the two great political parties to acquiesce.The House Democrats’ reform bill obviously will not be enacted as long as Donald Trump can wield a veto. But if Trump is ejected in this year’s election and the Senate Republicans who protected him lose their majority, the reform bill—or much of it—may become law.I’ve gone into some detail about the House Democrats’ bill to underscore how moderate it is, how respectful it is of the important prerogatives of a legitimate presidency. The bill does not, to cite just one example, forbid the president to talk to the attorney general about particular cases (although in almost every case, the president should refrain from doing that). It does not require the attorney general to inform Congress about such conversations. That would compromise the cohesion of the executive branch. It requires only that a record be kept, that it be shared at intervals with the Department of Justice’s own preexisting watchdog, the inspector general—and that it be available for later inspection by Congress if needed.The bill does not, to cite another example, empower Congress to enforce its own subpoenas by inherent authority, as 19th-century Congresses sometimes did. That could easily lead to abuses of individual rights. Congressional subpoenas will be enforced in court, and the penalties for defying subpoenas imposed only by courts.The bill does not, to take a third example, blur the status of inspectors general as executive-branch employees. It changes their status to make them more like civil servants, less like political appointees—but still chosen by, and answerable to, the executive, not Congress.Much of the bill deals with things that most of us had supposed were already rules: the president should not sell pardons, for example, or use them as part of a cover-up scheme. But it turned out that rules against corrupt pardoning had been voluntarily adopted by past presidents. If a president did not want to comply, the rule could not readily be enforced against him.In a way, you could read the bill as the Yes, Donald Trump Was a Criminal Act of 2021.And that suggests two of the bill’s maybe inevitable but still poignant unintended consequences.First, most of the Protecting Our Democracy Act is mind-crushingly morally obvious: Don’t accept clandestine political information from foreign governments. Don’t use the White House for your convention speech. The act of writing such basics into law in 2021 would lend some credibility to the future arguments of Trump’s enablers: Yes, much of what President Trump did was distasteful, but it was not strictly illegal. That’s why the country had to write new laws in 2021. I was as appalled as anybody else, but there was nothing to do—the president was acting within his rights as those rights existed at the time.That argument is mostly false. Donald Trump did violate existing law. It was not in fact legal for him to use his official powers to extort foreign governments to fabricate political dirt on his political opponents—that was already prohibited by many laws. The problem was that the enforcement of those laws depended on mechanisms that had rusted out. It will be important to underscore that point in the future. What went wrong in the Trump era was not that the president delicately tiptoed around the law. What went wrong in the Trump era was that the cops in charge of the law were asleep, or senile, or in cahoots with the president.Second, the Protecting Our Democracy Act amounts to a confession that the impeachment power is a dead letter. The House imposed the severest sanction a Congress can impose against an errant president. At trial, however, the president’s co-partisans protected him from removal—and after the trial, the president resumed his lawbreaking.There have now been four serious presidential impeachment processes in U.S. history: Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. In retrospect, it’s clear that the important variable in the outcome was the state of party politics at the time of the impeachment.The Nixon-Trump contrast is starkest. If Congress worked in the 2020s as it had in the 1970s, important Republicans would have broken ranks with Trump, and forced his resignation. If Congress worked in the 1970s as it does in the 2020s, Nixon would have served out his term. We have fully arrived at the predicament that Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz warned of in their book on the impeachment process: When impeachment is most needed, it is least likely to be effective; when it is most likely to be effective, it is least needed.And so, the House Democrats are making do with a fallback remedy, a second-best or third-best.These reforms are all welcome and necessary. It’s a sad reflection on the state of U.S. politics that they are needed at all. The Founders imagined that Congress could set aside political partialities to act as a court of law upon an unfit president. That hope has proved one of their less workable ideas. Americans need to accept some sad realities about the state of their law and politics. That means new legislation that works around the defects of the impeachment remedy—and takes into account the grim fact of 21st-century hyper-partisanship.
theatlantic.com
Listen: How Bad Will Winter Get?
Experts have long feared the virus will peak again in winter. The days are now getting shorter, life is moving indoors, and the pandemic isn’t contained. How bad could the next few months get?Katherine Wells wants to know what to expect and how to prepare. She was joined at a live Atlantic Festival taping of Social Distance by her co-host, staff writer James Hamblin, and Alexis Madrigal, staff writer and co-founder of the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic.Listen to the episode here:Subscribe to Social Distance on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or another podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they’re published.What follows is a portion of their conversation, edited for length and clarity:Katherine Wells: We’ve reached a pretty grim milestone. Two hundred thousand deaths and we’re heading into winter. I’ve been worried about winter since the beginning. We’re so dependent on being outside right now. A couple of months ago, CDC Director Robert Redfield said the winter is “going to be probably one of the most difficult times that we’ve experienced in American public health.” That’s terrifying.James Hamblin: Yeah, it seems like the writing is on the walls. As you go through New York, the solution to so much life has been: just do it outside. Open windows. Push people into empty parking spaces that are makeshift restaurants. And now, fall is starting to be in the air. Restaurants are starting to allow for 25 percent [indoor] capacity. Schools are reopening. Kids—not all kids but some kids —are meeting in class. It’s this sort of perfect storm that makes a lot of people worry about resurgence.Wells: There’s so much regional variation and there’s so much uncertainty. Alexis, you’ve been following the numbers the whole time. What do you think the winter is going to look like?Alexis Madrigal: I think the base case here, the default scenario, is that things get a lot worse. There is an alternative scenario, though. If we really look at what happened during the Sunbelt surge, we were actually better able to contain it than I thought as we were going through it at the time. A lot of overlapping half steps and a lot of imperfect but smart things came together to bring transmission rates down and eventually contain those outbreaks in Arizona and Texas and Florida without very extreme measures. We didn’t actually get rid of the virus. But we stopped runaway growth.I think the big question for me this winter is whether that same thing will happen. We know cases are going to grow. If we’re sitting on this plateau of 40,000 cases a day, the virus is pretty much everywhere. So if you’ve got community transmission everywhere, and you then increase the mobility and interaction that people have, you’re going to see more cases. It’s just happened time and time again.There is a scenario in this pandemic, though, where masking helps not only with COVID-19, but also with the flu, where testing begins to catch more contagious people, where a vaccine rolls out among crucial populations. And maybe you don’t see the darkest winter in public health. When I really look at the scenarios, you see this tremendous divergence. Maybe it’s only 500 people dying a day at the end of December. Or maybe it’s 1,500. That’s a huge difference. You’re talking 80,000 people in the hospital at any given time versus 20,000 people in the hospital. These are hugely different on-the-ground realities and it’s very hard to know precisely how to weight them. Though, like I said, I think the base case here is that things don’t go well.Wells: There’s no scenario where we get this under control soon. This is definitely with us through the winter in a devastating way. Is that your sense?Madrigal: That would be my sense, yeah.Hamblin: If Alexis said anything other than that, I would jump in and correct him. The talk of a vaccine existing has been conflated with the idea of a vaccine being widely distributed. We need to plan for a winter where a vaccine is not part of our lives. [Anthony] Fauci said that he would be happy if the vaccine were 50 percent effective. Ideally, it would be closer to 75 percent. Right now, you have polls saying about 50 percent of Americans would try a vaccine if it were available now. So, a vaccine is not going to get rid of this. Alexis is following cool testing developments, which can help and we’re hoping in November, there are rollouts of rapid tests, but those are not going to be perfect. They’re not going to be instantly everywhere. And the confluence of weather and a lack of economic stimulus ... I think people are reaching a breaking point. There are going to be a lot of things coming together right at the same time.Wells: On the vaccine, Jim, you mentioned that it may only be 50 percent or 70 percent effective. Can you explain what that means?Hamblin: No vaccine is perfect, just like no medicine is perfect. No test is perfect. At best, a vaccine offers you a really good shot that if someone coughs in your face while they’re infectious, that you’re going to be protected. But our best vaccines are not 100 percent. There will always be some people who don’t mount an effective immune response or whose immune response fades. There’s been discussion about what the effectiveness of these vaccines against this coronavirus will end up being, and how effective they would need to be to even be worthwhile.We don’t know yet. We’re waiting on these clinical trials. It’s very possible, even likely, that that effectiveness will end up being between 50 and 75 percent, meaning that you’re very likely to be protected if you have it, but you would probably still want to avoid really high risk scenarios. Once you get a whole population that’s vaccinated at that level, it’s effectively gone. But when you’re just rolling it out to start with, it doesn’t mean that you go back to doing things exactly like you used to. It would be miraculous in terms of the number of cases dropping, number of fatalities dropping, but as long as there’s still that possibility, it means life does not go back totally to normal.Wells: Right. Okay, let’s talk about testing. What are the realistic prospects of mass availability of cheap rapid at home antigen testing? Is this the kind of thing where, in December, I’ll be able to go into a drugstore, buy a box of paper-strip antigen tests and test myself every day? Is that going to happen or are we really far away from that?Madrigal: I think there will be something available, maybe not in December. But later in the winter and into the spring, I think there’ll be such tests available. One hope might be that the antigen test can soak up some of the less vital demand for tests so that PCR tests can be targeted at people who did have a high-risk exposure or who have presented with symptoms.And other technologies are coming along. For schools in particular, pooled testing, where you take a bunch of different samples and run them through the same machine in one test. This technology is kind of like coming along and has some features that are quite nice for workplaces and schools—places where you know the group, you can assign risk factors to them and you know you’re going to have continued interaction. This goes back to my main theme which is: you have all of these things coming online that could help in some way, and when you layer them all on top of each other, does that get you somewhere?That really is the question for me. I don’t think there’s any way that all those things are going to knock the virus out. But does it get you to what we’ve been doing so far: bumping along with a rate of transmission about one, which means, each person that gets infected basically infects one other person. You don’t get runaway growth of transmission, but you also don’t really suppress the thing and you continue to have community transmission out there. We’ve just been balanced on this knife edge of Rt=1. And over the winter, are we going to see that go way up or are we going to see it go way down? Or are we going to be able to stay balanced on this knife edge even as winter comes because we have this set of tools that help us stay close to that number?
theatlantic.com
The Campaign Staffer Who Says Trump Tried to Kiss Her
In her 2019 memoir, What Do We Need Men For?, E. Jean Carroll accused Donald Trump of rape, in a Bergdorf’s dressing room in the mid-1990s. After the president denied ever meeting her and dismissed her story as a Democratic plot, she sued him for defamation. Carroll was not, of course, the first woman to say that Trump had sexually harassed or assaulted her, but unlike so many other powerful men, the president has remained unscathed by the #MeToo reckoning. So in the run-up to the November 3 election, Carroll is interviewing other women who alleged that Trump suddenly and without consent “moved on” them, to cite his locution in the Access Hollywood tape. “I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them, it’s like a magnet ... And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy.”Carroll’s lawsuit took a dramatic turn two weeks ago, when the Justice Department intervened in an attempt to take over the president’s defense, asserting that Trump was acting in his official capacity when he claimed not to know Carroll. Meanwhile, a White House spokesperson denied all of the women’s allegations, calling them “false statements” that had been “thoroughly litigated and rejected by the American people.” Read Parts 1, 2, and 3 here.Stills from the 2016 video of Alva and Donald Trump (Courtesy of Alva Johnson)You are looking at slightly out-of-focus 2016 images taken from a 15-second video of the then–Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, and a campaign staffer, Alva Johnson. Before people see the tape, Trump attorneys say that their client does not kiss Alva. After the tape is released, the lawyers say that what Trump is doing to Alva is an “interaction,” a word they will employ in pleadings before the judge presiding over the federal suit in which Alva claims that Trump “kisses her without her consent.” Reader, we will now leave the video so we can learn who kisses whom, who sues whom, and why this kind of fight with a man is not new for Alva.Nydia Blas“What does Trump smell like?”“I don’t know.”“When he comes in at you.”“I—I—”“Stop and think.”“I don’t—”Alva lowers her eyes and tries to smell Trump in her mind’s nostril. “Sweat—maybe?” Alva’s nose ring quivers like a damselfly. “Makeup? Cosmetics? It’s a cramped RV and it’s raining, and people are wet, and there are a bunch of guys who’ve been there since 6 o’clock in the morning setting up chairs and tables and so I—really—just—freeze.”Alva looks like a choir girl but laughs with the sound of a marching band. “Huuh-eh-huuh-huuh-huuh-huuh-huuh!”I’ve been told by some readers of Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series that they are surprised that we Trump accusers talk to each other like this. I think it is not how Trump accusers talk; I think it is how women talk. Which is to say that I offer Alva various animals and vegetables that Trump might smell like.“No, no, no,” Alva replies. “I was holding my breath.”“Are you the only Black woman Trump’s ever kissed?”Alva Johnson, the former director of administrative operations for the Florida Trump campaign, regards me slyly through Zoom. She is a marvel, a Black woman from Alabama, a demure nonconformist, a former big-time college athlete, listed as 6 feet tall in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s sports pages (“I’m really 5 foot 9, but of course, as a hitter in volleyball, they fudge our heights for intimidation”), slim as a lettuce leaf, with a laugh amounting to genius.“No, I’m not,” Alva says. “Trump dated a Black woman.”“What?”“You don’t know that?” This summer, before I talk to Alva, I visit Jill Harth, the makeup artist. We are in Jill’s boudoir, and the two of us are going through her giant basket of Trump photos. While Jill is flinging out all over the bed smiling photos of our current president, the man she sued in 1997 for “groping her intimate private parts” (she later withdrew the suit), she tells me a strange story about her American Dream Calendar Girls, a witty beauty pageant she created in the mid-’90s. I am examining a photo of Trump with his arms around a group of Jill’s Calendar Girls, each one whiter than a boiled egg, when Jill mentions something about Trump constantly wanting to “help pick the girls.”“He did not even want to look at photos of women of color,” she says.I am not certain I heard her correctly. “What did Trump say exactly, Jill?”“He said, ‘No! No! No! I don’t want to see any Black girls!’” (Trump has denied that he ever excluded Black women from such events.)So, reader, when Alva Johnson says that Trump was head over heels for a Black woman, I need to prevent myself from sagging to my knees in astonishment. Yes, Alva assures me, “He dated a Black woman. Long term. For a couple of years.”“No!” I cry.“Listen, E. Jean,” Alva says, taking in breath, “if you really want to loosen up the racists from Trump’s base”—a tuba aria of chuckles—“if you want the white supremacists to understand that he is not their friend, I mean, he dog-whistles, but … he dated a Black woman.”Even I, a chick so white that I look like I’ve been hit with a banana-cream pie, manage to “loosen up” the supremacists when a photo of Trump and me in the company of our ex-spouses shoots around the globe. My ex-husband is Black. The supremacists write emails to enlighten me as to the character of their godlike leader, who “would never touch a woman who has been with a Black man.” You understand, reader, that when the supremacists say Trump would never touch a woman who has been with a Black man, the supremacists do not say “touch,” nor “woman,” nor “been with,” nor “Black man.” I cannot give you the precise language—because their emails are not fit for human eyes—but I can tell you that they write such fascinating descriptions of my vagina that you might think you’re reading about a dead carp that has been left out in the sun and gone bad.Actually, Alva tells me, Prince has a song about Trump’s relationship with a Black woman. “Yeah, it’s called ‘Trump,’ or ‘Trump’s Girlfriend,’ or something.”The song is a hilarious tip of Prince’s hat to Trump titled “Donald Trump (Black Version),” though it’s not actually about Trump’s relationship with a Black woman, but a guy named Morris’s. Kara Young, the daughter of a Black mother and a white father, begins dating Trump around 1997, seven years after Prince writes the song; and thus it is that Alva, believing that “Trump can’t be racist,” what with the “hundred rap songs about him” and because, “well, he dated a Black woman,” and assuming that “Trump is never going to win”—thus it is, reader, that Ms. Alva Mahaffey, born into a large Birmingham family of Black professionals (her mother, Ammie Savage, is a teacher of French, Spanish, and English; her stepdad, Jacob Savage, is a microbiologist); thus it is that little Alva, who grows up listening to her grandmother and aunts talking about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed the four little girls, about the police siccing dogs on the protesters in Kelly Ingram Park, and about how they themselves brought food to Dr. King in the Birmingham jail; thus it is that Alva, a cheerleader, a member of the church choir, Alva, who eventually becomes a human-resources professional and founds her own event-planning company, Alva, who always votes Democrat, Alva, who hosts trainings for Obama-campaign volunteers in her home in 2008, Alva, who carries Hillary Clinton’s book Living History around with her; thus it is that Alva decides to join the campaign staff of Donald Trump.Naturally, Trump looking her up and down like an Airedale eyeing a rump roast as she walks toward him at a 2015 campaign rally in Birmingham, and then exclaiming, “Oh! Beautiful! Beautiful! Fantastic!” nearly deters the ever-professional Alva from joining his campaign.“But when I start working for him,” Alva says, “there are 17 other candidates in the race! There’s no way—no one expects Trump to become the Republican nominee. I mean, you have Ted Cruz. You have Marco Rubio. You have—”“Jeb Bush,” I say, raising my head from my desk, where I have been rolling it back and forth in amazement at Alva’s awful miscalculation. Of course, she wasn’t the only one.“I do it to get work experience on a political campaign. I do it to network. And I know I can throw a rally.”Boy, does Alva know how to throw a rally! Two days before Super Tuesday, 32,000 people show up at her event in Madison, Alabama. Jeff Sessions becomes the first sitting U.S. senator to endorse Trump, bestowing a blessing of legitimacy upon the popinjay from New York. Alva, who thinks she is just going to grow her event-planning business in Alabama, receives a phone call after the rally. “They ask me if I can pack my bags and go to Missouri,” says Alva, who has the title of director of outreach and coalitions. “It sounds like a good opportunity. There are still a lot of candidates in the race, and so I talk with my family, make sure my four kids are taken care of, and I go to Missouri. Then it’s just kind of traveling from state to state to state. I’m in a bubble. I’m out with the voters and supporters, or with people who are on the fence, or coming up with concepts, or rounding up people to go knock on doors. It’s a bunch of lonely people out in this world, okay? It’s a bunch of lonely people who want to feel heard, and they are vulnerable. Not the white supremacists. Not those people, but the vulnerable people who are put in that echo chamber, where bad information about Trump is ‘fake news’ and ‘can’t be true.’”Alva is eventually promoted to director of operations for Florida, and runs the state’s three “mobile offices.” Showing the extraordinary stamina that seems to be required of campaign women, especially Black women—in this case, Alva doesn’t encounter a single other Black women on the road trying to elect Trump—Alva commits herself to taking the three RVs to every county in Florida, which is how she arrives in Tampa with the Donald’s mug decorating her vehicle and his pudgy self heading toward her.“What are you wearing, Alva?” I ask.“A white T-shirt. With the word Trump in red and the blue logo: Make America Great Again. And I’ve got a pair of cute jeans, and heels. I always wear heels. Everyone always laughs, because I wear heels everywhere. So I am wearing burgundy-colored Nine West closed-toe pumps—I love those pumps—and my jeans are kind of tapered, but they, you know, are not tight or anything—”Alva interrupts herself, and looks into the Zoom screen, arching her eyebrows in the manner of every woman in the world.“It’s funny I have to say that. Because as women, we’re kind of conditioned to say, ‘I’m not showing this, I wasn’t showing that.’ So I am just wearing some blue jeans, my T-shirt, heels, and, as it is raining, a baseball cap.”Prince has another song. U don’t have 2 be rich 2 be my girl U don’t have 2 be cool 2 rule my world Ain’t no particular sign I’m more compatible with I just want your extra time and your Kiss “Trump walks into the RV,” Alva says. It is August 24, 2016. “And he’s like, ‘Wow! This is great!’ I’ve made sure we have volunteers and supporters there making him feel welcome, and I’m in the back making certain that people get to meet him—‘Okay, did you get his autograph? Good! Come around this way!’ So I’m directing traffic, and I can see him looking at me. I’m at work. I am in front of people I manage and who have to listen to what I tell them to do. They must take me seriously as a woman. And it’s even more complicated because I’m a Black woman. I don’t want any blurred lines. I don’t want any questions about my professionalism.”Trump is about to exit when he pauses in front of Alva.“He grabs me and holds my arms at my sides. People don’t seem to register that this is what is happening to me. I’m as stiff as a board. And he kisses me. He tries to kiss me on the lips, but I turn my head.“I’m at work! He’s my boss! There are other women there . He doesn’t do this to anyone but me. I don’t show emotion. I just, you know, I just keep trekking through. The story ‘Alva got a kiss from the boss’ travels so fast, it beats me to Sarasota. And I remember when I call my parents that night and tell them what happens, I start crying. I remember pulling over in a Trader Joe’s parking lot and crying. They say, ‘Why are you crying?’ And I laugh and say, ‘I don’t know why I’m crying.’ Then I feel stupid for crying. But it is something that triggers me when I’m telling the story. And it is something I feel even to this day: I know that what happened is not right. It’s without my permission.”Alva cries on the phone because long ago, when she was in fourth grade, after her little sister, Aundria Mahaffey, died of leukemia, Alva’s mother—who is divorced from Alva’s dad, grieving her child, and trying to make ends meet on a teacher’s salary—turns to a teenage friend of the family to babysit Alva. Alva’s mom is always careful. She believes she is putting her daughter in the safest and most nurturing place. “I am 9 years old,” Alva says, “and the guy is a jock who chases me around for hours while I hide, cry, and try to fight him off when he finds me. I squeeze under the bed, and he pulls me out by my legs. Even when he goes away to college, he’ll pick me up as a ‘big brother’ and will literally park his car and rape me as I try to fight him off. I am 11 when he goes off to school. This continues until I am 13, and he is a junior in college and finally has a steady girlfriend.” (He denies Alva’s allegations.)“When we are both adults, he sends me a friend request on Facebook. But I am grown up now. I’m a woman and I’m no longer hiding. I sent him a private message on Facebook about what he did to me. You know what he replies? He replies with a sad-face emoji.”“Take the weekend off! Rejuvenate! Get rested! And Monday, we’re all going to come back, and it’s going to be a brand-new day!”The Florida campaign director is delivering this pep talk to the state’s Trump-for-president staff during a dinner meeting at a seafood restaurant in Sarasota. Alva is thinking, We’re four weeks away from the election, and you want us to rest? She elbows the guy next to her—what’s going on?And he is like, You know, the thing today.And Alva is like, What thing today?And he says, Well, there’s, you know, the video.And Alva is like, What video?So she Googles it, and it’s this Access Hollywood tape, and she can’t hear it, but she is looking at the words running underneath, “I just start kissing them … I don’t even wait . . . When you’re a star, they let you do it,” and Alva pushes back her chair, stands up, drops her napkin on the table, and tells her partner, who is visiting from Alabama (and who is not a fan of Trump’s), that they are leaving. “Good, I’m ready to leave anyway,” he replies, and the two of them walk out, get in their rental car, and close the door. At which point Alva restarts the video and starts to scream: “That’s what Trump did to me! I knew it! I knew it! I knew I wasn’t overreacting!”She never goes back. She consults with a Fort Lauderdale lawyer, Adam Horowitz, quits the campaign on his advice; and, figuring why throw the baby out with the bathwater, later submits applications for several positions with the new administration. “I earned this opportunity through my hard work on the campaign,” Alva says. “Why should I be punished for his actions?” In 2017 she hires Hassan Zavareei, a respected Washington, D.C., litigator; and, viewing the case as a former HR professional who would “persuade any company she worked for to get rid of a man like Trump because of his pattern of allegations,” sues Trump in February 2019 for kissing her without her consent and for paying her less than her white male counterparts.In June 2019, William F. Jung, a Trump-appointed federal judge, dismisses the case, on the grounds that it was improperly framed as a political statement, though he says Alva can refile in a streamlined suit alleging “simple battery” for the kiss and wage discrimination. About a month later, Trump’s lawyer Charles Harder submits the video of the “interaction.” Alva remembers turning her head to avoid Trump’s lips, and Trump holding her more forcibly than the video shows; Zavareei submits to the court an independent forensic report concluding that the video might have been doctored, and asks to reopen discovery to obtain the original. The judge denies the motion, and Alva drops the suit in September 2019.Alva’s rakish earrings swing back and forth.“Well?” I say, sucking on the end of my Sharpie.“Well,” Alva says, with her sideways smile. “It’s embarrassing being a Black woman who worked for Trump, I can tell you that much!“That’s the big one for me,” she says. “I disappointed a lot of people. Not just Black people, but Black and white. But specifically Black people. I expected people to give me the Heisman arm.” She laughs and throws out her arm. “It’s like that stiff arm from the Heisman Trophy.”The Trump campaign is suing Alva for violating the nondisclosure agreement that she signed as a condition for working for Donald J. Trump for President Inc. For good measure, the Trump campaign’s lawyers are also asking that Alva pay the campaign’s legal fees (yet to be determined). Which is rich, considering that on the deadline for Trump to appeal the state court’s ruling requiring him to participate in discovery in my own lawsuit, the White House arranges for Attorney General Bill Barr and the 113,000-member Department of Justice to defend him, thereby making Alva pay for his defense in my suit with her tax dollars (and yours too, reader).But Trump can’t do much to Alva. She doesn’t have any money, she tells me. She is busy writing, networking, and waiting for the end of “the nightmare that is this presidency,” but alas, there’s nothing for old Trump to sue for, beg for, or con her out of.“So, Alva,” I say, after we both pour ourselves a cocktail. “If you could go back in time, what do you wish had happened when Trump came waddling up to you in that RV?”“My instinct?” Alva says, sipping her dry rosé on ice. “I’d like to punch him. I mean, I’m pretty strong. He’s 6 foot 3 or something, but I probably would be more aggressive. I would probably push him off me. I would put my finger in his face and tell him, ‘Don’t you ever put your hands on me.’ I probably would tell him that he’s a future eunuch if he makes one more move.”“You’re Division I, woman!” I cry, growing more buoyant by the second.“As a kid I had to fight a dude off of me, so I always know it’s easier for me to get on top than to be pinned down.” “And what if Trump comes at you again?”“I would probably knee him,” Alva says.Behind her on the pale butter-yellow wall is a deer’s head with a 14-point rack of antlers, a buck, mounted above the fireplace.“And what would Trump do next?” I ask.Alva rocks back, closes her eyes, and out comes the whole brass section of laughter.“I’m afraid that Trump would like it.”
theatlantic.com
The Books Briefing: The Lives Behind the Legal Decisions
What Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fandom knew: Your weekly guide to the best in books
theatlantic.com
RBG Inspired Me to Be a Better Lawyer and Father
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an intimidating boss. Though small in stature and quiet in demeanor, she was a legendary lawyer and jurist who was fiercely devoted to her work. And she never lost sight of the principles—and the people—that made that work worth doing.I served as a law clerk for Justice Ginsburg during the Supreme Court’s 2013 term. It was the privilege of a lifetime, yet something I will never feel that I quite deserved. In the days since she died, I’ve felt my mind drifting back to that time, the glimpses it gave me into her life, and how it shaped my own.[Read: What Ruth Bader Ginsburg taught me about being a stay-at-home dad]The justice was 50 years my senior. Even into her ninth decade, she demanded the world of herself, and expected no less from us. When the boss is willing to work from dusk until dawn, there are no excuses. You do whatever it takes to get the job done, and to not let her down.I’ll never forget when I felt my pocket buzz on Thanksgiving night at my sister’s house. I pulled out my phone and read the screen with alarm: “RBG cell.” I bolted to the bathroom and spent the next half hour being grilled by the justice with my heart racing, desperately longing for my notes, scrambling to recall the technical details of a case to be argued the following week. She was an elegant woman of iron will. And she used that inner strength to move mountains.But no matter how seriously she took the work, she was always joyful in her play. Dull afternoons were livened with heaping bowls of frozen yogurt from the Court cafeteria, consumed beside a crackling fire in her chambers. She once invited us to watch 42, the movie about Jackie Robinson’s life, and nearly glowed as she told us of watching Robinson play baseball while growing up in Brooklyn. Birthdays at work were celebrated with cupcakes and prosecco, with the clerks probing for more tales from her past. Especially for those of us who clerked for the justice in her advanced years, these stories took on an almost mystical quality, a connection to a strange and ancient world where rights we take for granted today still had to be fought for.Before I was even born, she was a trailblazing advocate for gender equality who had begun to weave her vision into the Constitution: that you can’t be fired for becoming pregnant. That women as well as men are entitled to serve on juries. That a widowed father has the same right to government benefits to care for a child as a widowed mother. That the law can’t assume that a woman’s place is in the home, and that a man’s is not.Outside the courtroom, the justice never lost sight of the personal relationships that give life meaning. One Saturday during my clerkship, she took us to a performance of Scalia/Ginsburg, an opera centered on her surprising friendship with Antonin Scalia, her dueling conservative counterpart on the Court. (I surely absorbed more opera that year than I will in the rest of my years combined.) My co-clerks and I sat behind the odd couple, watching her and Nino whisper and guffaw as their operatic selves engaged in spirited debate through song. One evening, Justice Ginsburg invited a renowned Maltese tenor to perform at the Court. From my office, near the justices’ ornate dining room, I labored over a memo late into the night as the wine flowed next door and the tenor’s voice, sometimes accompanied by Nino’s, echoed through the marble hallways.The author’s daughter with her Lego RBG figure (Courtesy of Ryan Park)Another late night in her office, we worked to wrap up edits to a draft opinion set for release the following day. When the opinion finally rang pitch-perfect, she put her pencil down, beckoned me to her computer, and nudged the mouse in my direction. Like any doting grandmother, she wanted help viewing the photos from a recent trip to France that her granddaughter had posted online.She also cared deeply for her clerks, and our children as well. The surest way to melt the justice’s heart was to bring a grandclerk in for a visit. My daughter was barely three months old when I started the job. They first met on Halloween, with Caitlyn dressed as a pig, crawling around the chambers floor. They hit it off from the start, and Caitlyn grew up before her adoring eyes. I will always remember watching the justice kneel on the floor to play with a Lego figurine of RBG that Caitlyn had plucked from her office mantle—and later wrapping Caitlyn’s hand around the toy as a parting gift.For as seriously as she took the work, the justice knew that family always came first. Immediately following my clerkship, I spent a period at home with my daughter, trying to make up for all those late nights at the Court. The justice was thrilled when she learned that I was planning to be a stay-at-home dad for a while. She believed fervently that her life’s work of furthering equality in the law could never be realized without equality at home as well.[Read: RBG’s fingerprints are all over your everyday life]When I contemplated writing publicly about my experiences, which I ended up doing for The Atlantic, she was my biggest supporter. The justice knew the power of example—that if you live your own life according to your principles, others will follow. Her example has given permission to millions of women and men—including myself—to break free from artificial barriers that hold them back from fully pursuing all their identities, as mothers and fathers, breadwinners and caretakers. She wanted me to join her in carrying that mission forward.I will be eternally grateful that my daughters—Caitlyn and her little sister, Cora— had the chance to know the justice and be inspired by her life and career. Yet her inspiration extends much further than those whom fate blessed with her personal presence in our lives. During my time at the Court, the Notorious RBG as a pop-culture phenomenon began to reach its crescendo. My co-clerks and I would race to be the first to show her the latest viral video or meme featuring her. She was tickled by these diversions, but seemed silently aware of the deeply serious undercurrent that lay behind her newfound fame.Maybe in a truly equal world, we wouldn’t need heroes like Justice Ginsburg. But we still do. To so many little girls and boys, she has served, and will forever continue to serve, as a shining example of the pragmatic idealism that has shaped this nation since its founding. A force that propels us to reach beyond ourselves to envision a better future, and to work tirelessly to make that vision a reality.For my part, she will always be standing over my shoulder, encouraging me to be a better father and an equal partner. And she will always be the exacting yet supportive boss, inspiring me to work harder until the job is done right.The last time I spoke with the justice in person was in the courtroom last fall, during my first oral argument at the Supreme Court. As I waited for my turn to speak, I was more nervous than I had ever been, uncertain whether I had what it took to meet the moment. But when I looked up at the bench, I saw the justice gazing down at me with a warm, reassuring smile that told me everything was going to be all right.In recent days, I’ve received many heartfelt messages of condolence. For so many of us who loved her dearly, the feeling of personal loss is incalculable. But at the same time, it heartens me to know that the loss is one we all bear together. Justice Ginsburg’s legacy belongs to all of us. It buoys me to see people inspired to carry forward her vision of a more equal and just society. She would have expected no less. And if she were still here, she’d reassure us with a smile and a hug, and tell us to get to work.
theatlantic.com
No Other Western Democracy Allows This
When the Framers of the Constitution debated the document’s careful system of checks and balances, they confronted a question that would only become more important over time: Should there be a mandatory retirement age for federal judges?Alexander Hamilton argued against one. Writing in The Federalist Papers, he dismissed “the imaginary danger of a superannuated bench.” Hamilton won out, and the Constitution placed no term limits on the service of federal judges, including the men and (much later) women who would make up the Supreme Court.More than two centuries later, the United States stands alone in its handling of lifetime appointments to its highest court, and the drawbacks of a “superannuated bench” have become ever more clear. Last Friday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the third member of the Supreme Court to die in office in the past 15 years. Her death injects a partisan fight over the judiciary into the tempest of a presidential election, and it has brought about a nightmare scenario for Democrats, who have long feared the possibility that a conservative would replace her progressive vote on the Supreme Court and shift the nation’s jurisprudence dramatically to the right. But it also serves as a reminder that only in the U.S. does the balance of so much national power hang on the ability of an 87-year-old jurist to hold out for a few more months against the ravages of disease and the inevitability of life’s natural course.No other major Western democracy—nor the majority of U.S. states—allows its most powerful judges to serve so deep into the twilight of their lives. Had Ginsburg, who died from complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer, been serving on the top court of Canada, Britain, or Australia, for example, a mandatory retirement age would have forced her off the bench more than a decade ago. The same would have been true for former Chief Justice William Rehnquist and former Justice Antonin Scalia, who both served on the high court long past the age of 75 and died in office. Indeed, three other justices on the current Supreme Court—Stephen Breyer, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito, who are all 70 years old or older—have also served past the retirement age of many foreign countries and more than a dozen U.S. states.“Everybody who’s thought about designing a constitutional court since 1900 has thought that a retirement age was a good thing. There’s no reason to think that they were wrong,” Mark Tushnet, a Harvard law professor and legal historian, told me. “The existence of tenure until death or choice is extremely rare around the world.”[Read: What Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death means for America]There’s a fairly simple explanation for why the Framers decided against a mandatory retirement age, Tushnet and other legal historians told me: People didn’t live as long back then, and, as Hamilton wrote, few “outlived the season of intellectual rigor.” In Hamilton’s home of New York, the state constitution at the time forced judges off the bench at 60—the same age Ginsburg was when President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court more than a quarter century ago.The idea of a lifetime appointment was meant to help ensure the independence of federal judges, who would not have to face voters, as legislators did. But they have been serving well into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s for a while now. (In 2009, when Justice David Souter announced his retirement from the Supreme Court at the relatively youthful age of 69, his decision took Washington by surprise.)In 1995, Judge Richard Posner referred to the federal judiciary as “the nation’s premiere geriatric occupation.” That label could now apply to the upper reaches of the entire U.S. government. Never before have the elderly wielded so much power across the three branches. Donald Trump, who in 2017 became the oldest man ever inaugurated president, is 74; his challenger, Joe Biden, is nearly three years older. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 80, as are her two top lieutenants in the Democratic caucus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is 78.“I just don’t think it’s in the public interest to have people certainly over 80—and I think 75 should be the cutoff for most everything—exercising serious power, whether it’s the Court, whether it’s in Congress,” the legal historian David Garrow told me. Voters at least have the opportunity to replace aging lawmakers, he noted: “With the Court, America is stuck with them.”Just as congressional leaders have resisted calls for generational change, so too have justices resisted pressure to step down. Some progressives called for Ginsburg to retire in 2014, when Democrats still controlled the White House and the Senate and had more power to replace her with a like-minded successor. “To me this is a totally nonpartisan problem, but we get these justices who become too full of themselves, want to be public celebrities, and become convinced that, you know, their continuation in office so long as they can breathe is essential,” Garrow said, noting that both the conservative Scalia and the liberal Ginsburg eagerly embraced the fame they achieved toward the end of their lives. “That’s just fundamentally wrong.”“We’ve seen with Scalia and now Ginsburg how unpredictable sudden deaths then result in intense partisan conflict,” he added.In a 2000 law-review article, Garrow argued for a mandatory retirement age for the Supreme Court, citing the “mental decrepitude” that had befallen justices including Bill Douglas in the 1970s and Thurgood Marshall two decades later. The closest Congress came to addressing the issue was in 1954, when a large Senate majority approved a constitutional amendment that would have forced all federal judges to retire at 75. Days later, however, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and the nation’s attention shifted to the fight over desegregation.Now the debate over reforming the Supreme Court centers not on age but on political power. No one has questioned the mental acuity of any of the current justices, or of Rehnquist, Scalia, and Ginsburg, who recently died in office. (Justice John Paul Stevens served until he was 90 and wrote three books in the nine years between his retirement and his death.) Progressives are pushing to expand the Court if Biden wins the presidency and Democrats recapture the Senate majority, to counteract a likely 6–3 conservative advantage that they would consider at least partly illegitimate. Others, such as the nonpartisan group Fix the Court, are advocating a broader reform to set an 18-year term limit for justices and guarantee that each president will get two appointments in a four-year term.When I asked Gabe Roth, Fix the Court’s executive director, to weigh term limits against a mandatory retirement age, he favored term limits. The problem with a retirement age, he said, is that presidents would just respond by picking younger nominees to ensure that they can still serve on the Court for a long time, extending their legacy. Instead of justices in their late 40s or 50s, he said, “our Supreme Court justices would be 30 or 35.”At the state level, 32 of the 50 states have mandatory retirement ages, ranging from 70 to 90, according to the National Center for State Courts. There has been a recent push to change the system by raising the age when judges must retire or by removing the limits altogether, notes Bill Raftery, a senior analyst for the NCSC. For the most part, that effort has failed when put to the ballot. “Voters don’t want to give judges additional active years,” Raftery told me. Then he laughed: “They don’t want to give them to any elected officials.”
theatlantic.com
A Judge Can’t Be a Handmaid
The first I heard of Amy Coney Barrett was when her name was floated as a possible nominee for the seat left vacant on the Supreme Court when Anthony Kennedy retired. I thought she was an interesting person, although not for any reasons of policy or politics: She is a mother of seven children, several of them very young; a Catholic; a deeply accomplished and distinguished member of the judiciary. I could not prevent myself from noticing, too, how beautiful she is, and wondering how the hell she balances raising seven children with her huge career. But there was little time to ponder these questions in my heart, as Mary did the annunciation, because Brett Kavanaugh was nominated instead of her, and things got so weird so fast that she slipped my mind.Now, of course, Barrett is back in play, a possible nominee for the seat left vacant by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I hadn’t thought much about the matter until, in the act of blamelessly trying to get to the end of the internet, I came across a Newsweek story illustrated with a photograph of women wearing the now-familiar red capes with white-trimmed hoods—the universal symbol for female oppression of the most hideous kind. The headline read, “How Amy Coney Barrett’s People of Praise Group Inspired ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’”That can’t possibly be true, I said to myself, and of course it’s not true. By the next morning, the newsmagazine had amended a correction: Correction: This article’s headline originally stated that People of Praise inspired ‘The Handmaid's Tale’. The book’s author, Margaret Atwood, has never specifically mentioned the group as being the inspiration for her work. A New Yorker profile of the author from 2017 mentions a newspaper clipping as part of her research for the book of a different charismatic Catholic group, People of Hope. Newsweek regrets the error. In journalism, there’s a name for this kind of correction. It’s called a bullshit correction. The only person who did her job correctly was the headline writer, who accurately condensed the thesis of the piece into a phrase. The mistakes were layered into the article itself, which Newsweek altered without calling the changes to the reader’s attention. There is a name for this, too, but I won’t repeat it here. The whole thing was a cupcake-size version of the Covington disaster, in which liberal journalists were so willfully blind to their own deep biases that they smeared an adolescent who was guilty only of smiling in an enigmatic and uncomfortable way.[Caitlin Flanagan: The media botched the Covington Catholic story]Times are hard and talent is expensive, but the mistakes in this piece were so obvious that we may only ascribe them to rank incompetence. That such a calumny should have been based on one reporter’s misreading of a New Yorker profile in which the subject “mentions” a “newspaper clipping” about an entirely different religious group being “a part”—and not the whole—of her “research” means you’re in uncharted territory. I myself have traveled this unmapped region, because I used to teach seventh-grade English; that is, I am familiar with the challenge of supporting a strongly held claim with weakly grasped nonfacts.It was a useless story in so many other ways. There wasn’t a single word on Barrett’s position on the Devil’s Triangle. And couldn’t the writer have placed a call to judicial expert Alyssa Milano? The incident fed into the “fake news” narrative and the suspicion that liberals disdain Christians—by being news that was fake and by betraying an obvious animus toward Christians.Is Barrett’s religious faith pondered in her heart or made evident in her approach to the law? Answering that requires the labor-intensive task of actually learning something about her. In for a penny, in for a pound.Barrett does belong to People of Praise, which is not my kind of thing—and it’s probably not your kind of thing either, as there are estimated to be only about 1,700 or so members. The group was founded in 1971, six years after Vatican II had reduced many of the strictures by which Catholics were meant to live their lives, unintentionally creating a void in the religious experience of many faithful. For some, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal filled that void, replacing the rigidity of pre–Vatican II Catholicism with the kind of ecstatic worship style of Pentecostals, including gifts of prophesy and of glossolalia. Although most People of Praise members apparently identify themselves as Catholics, the group has several practices that fall outside present-day Catholic doctrine, and—as far as I can tell—considers itself ecumenical.What’s got everyone’s hair on fire is that, according to The New York Times, “the group teaches that husbands are the heads of their wives and should take authority over the family.” But the dastardly nature of this expectation is undermined by Barrett’s being shortlisted for a nomination to the Supreme Court. If her faith has put limits on her talent and ambition, there are few signs of it; you don’t get a seat on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (where she is currently is a judge) so that you can keep your hand in and earn a little pin money.[Read: Should a judge’s nomination be derailed by her faith?]During the confirmation hearings for that appointment, Dianne Feinstein informed Barrett that “the dogma lives loudly within you,” which was a personal best for the senator because in just six words she managed to insult Barrett’s faith and accuse her of a thought crime. All Americans, no matter their job or position in society, are allowed to have their “dogma” live loudly within them, as the senator well knows. The only relevant question is whether Barrett’s faith has the possibility to interfere with her judicial decisions. It might.Some will find evidence in a scholarly essay that Barrett co-authored in 1998 titled “Catholic Judges in Capital Cases.” The authors write that “litigants and the general public are entitled to impartial justice, which may be something a judge who is heedful of ecclesiastical pronouncements cannot dispense.” The authors discuss “the moral impossibility of enforcing capital punishment” and suggest that Catholic judges may need to recuse themselves from the sentencing phase of such cases. The essay does not discuss what Catholic judges should do in cases that conflict with other things forbidden by the Church—such as abortion, which is all but certain to face another Supreme Court challenge within the next decade. If Barrett is nominated, this essay will prompt intense questioning; at her previous confirmation hearing, she backed away from the suggestion of recusal. But the essay speaks loudly about her own belief that a particular faith—her own faith—could preclude a judge’s ability to follow the law.I’m a Catholic, more or less. I can follow along with the Mass in many languages I don’t know, and at Mass I feel connected to generations of women in my family. But People of Praise is foreign to me. If I were in the Senate, I would want to know quite a bit about it, and in particular about what it requires of its members when they operate within the secular world. In other words, what are the ecclesiastical pronouncements of her faith? These are questions that could be asked in a thorough and respectful manner. Given the national mood, I doubt that will happen. Rather, if Barrett is nominated, the confirmation hearings are likely to provide Democratic senators with an opportunity to demonstrate their assumptions of moral rectitude and preening intellectual superiority. They will eagerly display the purifying anger that feeds their insulted and enraged party. In short, they will reify certain conservative assumptions about the left such that once again, Donald Trump may claim both the low road and the upper hand.
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The Pretense That Princeton Is Racist
The president of Princeton is in a pickle. This summer, Christopher L. Eisgruber received a letter from more than 300 faculty members at the university asserting “indifference to the effects of racism on this campus.” They called on him “to openly and publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive” there and “to block the mechanisms that have allowed systemic racism to work, visibly and invisibly, in Princeton’s operations.”Princeton graduate students made similar claims. At the architecture school, an open letter asserted the existence of “ongoing anti-Black racism” and “white supremacy.” At the public-affairs school, a different open letter said, “The presence of an overwhelmingly white faculty creates an environment where instances of racism within the classroom often go unaddressed.”In response, President Eisgruber directed university leaders to spend the summer compiling reports on how to identify and combat “systemic racism.” And he declared in early September that while the institution long ago committed to being more inclusive, “racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton as in our society, sometimes by conscious intention but more often through unexamined assumptions and stereotypes, ignorance or insensitivity, and the systemic legacy of past decisions and policies.” He added, “Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself.”Those words arguably met the faculty letter’s demand to publicly acknowledge anti-Black racism at Princeton. But the same language was then cited by the Trump administration as justification for a Department of Education probe into whether the university has violated federal law.[Read: The cost of balancing racism and academia]The Civil Rights Act of 1964 declares that at institutions that receive federal funds, no person shall be subject to discrimination or denied the benefits of any activity on the basis of race.Princeton administrators have long affirmed that their institution is complying with those requirements. Given Eisengruber’s claims that racism persists at Princeton, that racist assumptions are embedded in its structures, and that systemic racism there damages the lives of Black people, the Department of Education says it wants to know if the university has been lying.The government’s letter concludes with intrusive demands to interview Princeton employees under oath and generate sensitive documents, including a list of each Princetonian who has been discriminated against on the basis of race since 2015, as well as records related to Eisengruber’s claims about “systemic” or “embedded” racism.The investigation is absurd. Princeton is highly sought after by Black applicants. In admissions it uses the race of minority applicants, who are admitted at higher rates, as a “plus” to achieve greater diversity in a way that very likely benefits Black applicants. It spends lavishly on “inclusion” efforts, holds events to celebrate (and name a building after) Black alumni, and dedicates resources to recruiting and hiring Black faculty and staff. No reasonable person deciding where federal officials should look for anti-Black civil-rights violations would probe the Ivy League University. But trolls waging a culture war against critical race theory might.As far as I can tell, the strategy is to force Princeton to either admit to serious anti-Black discrimination, risking devastating financial penalties, or else mount an affirmative case that the institution is not guilty of “systemic” anti-Black discrimination, exposing the racism claims of many administrators, faculty, and students as hyperbole. In its absurdity, then, the probe exposes the performative nature of some anti-racist rhetoric at Princeton and other elite universities.Defenders of the investigation see it that way too. In City Journal, Seth Barron characterized it as a maneuver that could neutralize the systemic-racism narrative. “If racism is institutionally embedded somewhere, the United States has a juggernaut of laws, courts, investigators, and prosecutors that can tear the offending institution into shreds and pulverize its racism,” he wrote. “So bring out your systemic racism, Princeton—let’s see it. Because if it isn’t documented or identifiable somewhere, or if it lurks below the level of consciousness as implicit bias, then it’s like phlogiston or aether, and just a form of juju or magical thinking.”[Read: The difference between first-degree and third-degree racism]So far, Princeton is denying any contradiction in its claims. On the one hand, it “stands by its representations to the Department and the public that it complies with all laws and regulations governing equal opportunity, non-discrimination and harassment.” On the other hand, “the University also stands by our statements about the prevalence of systemic racism and our commitment to reckon with its continued effects, including the racial injustice and race-based inequities that persist throughout American society.” Princeton declares, “It is unfortunate that the Department appears to believe that grappling honestly with the nation’s history and the current effects of systemic racism runs afoul of existing law.”But the Trump administration, for all its cynicism, likely does not believe that Princeton is grappling “honestly” with “systemic racism.” It likely believes that progressives at Princeton and elsewhere are overstating racism as a result of moral panic or to advance an identitarian agenda. Some skeptics of what’s come to be known as critical race theory suspect that because an overwhelming majority of Americans properly regard anti-Black racism as abhorrent, ideologues invoke racism promiscuously as a sort of shortcut to getting what they want.Harvard’s Randall Kennedy, a scholar of race and the law, is an incisive critic of that strategic hyperbole. “How racist are universities, really?” he asked last month in The Chronicle of Higher Education, before the Department of Education announced its investigation. He found widespread hand-wringing. At Dartmouth, for example, the board of trustees recently stated, “We know there are no easy solutions to eradicate the oppression and racism Black and other students, faculty, and staff of color experience on our campus.” But no example of oppression was mentioned.Kennedy cited Dartmouth’s statement while reviewing “the evasiveness, if not mendacity, of administrators” who “pander to protestors, issuing faux mea culpas that any but the most gullible observers recognize as mere public relations ruses aimed at pacification.” As he sees it, “whatever wrongs universities have perpetrated or neglected to rectify are compounded when university authorities speak thoughtlessly or insincerely about matters that cut so deeply.”An allegation of systemic racism “is a serious charge,” Kennedy insisted. “If the allegation is substantiated, it ought to occasion protest and rectification commensurate with the wrong,” but if flimsy or baseless, that should be stated too. Kennedy warned that “minority students who take such indictments at face value—unaware of strategic hyperbole—become overwhelmed by unrealistic fears of encountering racist assessments that will unfairly limit their possibilities.”Kennedy aimed that criticism at Princeton in particular. He graduated from the institution in 1973, and noted in his article that “the exploitation and exclusion of African Americans is, indeed, deeply embedded in Princeton’s history.” As for its present, however, he dissented from this summer’s faculty letter, with its claims such as “anti-Black racism has a visible bearing upon Princeton’s campus makeup and its hiring practices.” If Princeton’s racism “was as conspicuous as alleged, one would expect the ultimatum’s authors to be able to dash off some vivid, revealing examples,” Kennedy argued. He went on to call the claim of anti-Black racial exclusion implausible given various facts: prominent Black intellectuals who have made Princeton their academic home, scores of Black scholars who hold or recently held positions of academic leadership, and an African American dean of admissions. What’s more, he added, Princeton has a number of distinguished Black trustees. “These people, all Princeton alumni, are alert and capable and in demand,” he argued. “They are by no means needy. They could associate themselves with any number of prestigious enterprises. They would surely decline to contribute to or be involved with the sort of institution that the ultimatum depicts.”[Read: What is faculty diversity worth to a university?]Hyperbole about white supremacy at universities can obscure the true nature of real problems. For example, just 7 percent of faculty members at Princeton are Black, but citing that figure to prove that Princeton discriminates in hiring is misleading because, as Kennedy noted, African Americans in recent years earned only about 7 percent of all doctoral degrees. “The reasons behind the small numbers are familiar and heart-breaking,” he wrote. “They include a legacy of deprivation in education, housing, employment, and health care, not to mention increased vulnerability to crime and incarceration. The perpetuation of injuries from past discrimination as well as the imposition of new wrongs cut like scythes into the ranks of racial minorities, cruelly winnowing the number who are even in the running to teach at Princeton.” By blaming Princeton for a problem endemic to American society, activists risk misdirecting resources earmarked for diversity, equity, and inclusion to university elites rather than the people who need them most: less privileged outsiders hindered from advancement through no fault of the institution.Academic stakeholders ought to eschew strategic hyperbole when doing the important work of diagnosing and remedying problems related to racial inequality on their campuses. If they keep inflating their claims, the term racism will lose whatever power it has to grab a community’s attention and prompt urgent remedies, even in the instances when racism is in fact operating.So is Team Trump doing a good thing? Seth Barron thinks so. In that same City Journal article, he wrote, “For too long, false confessions of racial piety have been used as a cudgel to intimidate reasonable people and transform American institutions. The Trump administration is right to take the systemic racists at their word and make their contrition cost them something.”I disagree. I object to the entire witch hunt of an investigation, which Republicans would recognize as a flagrant abuse of federal power were it aimed at Liberty University. No reasonable person could conclude that an onerous probe of Princeton for anti-Black racism is the best use, or even a good use, of scarce resources to safeguard civil rights. The decision to grapple with racism should not trigger a federal investigation, whether or not that grappling is totally honest.The Trump administration’s action has drawn wider attention to real rhetorical excesses. But if it doesn’t really believe that civil rights are being violated, then it is violating the First Amendment by misusing investigative power to punish speech. A president who weaponizes the administrative state against private institutions because he dislikes their public profile is a danger to the country.
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Lying for Trump Comes With a Cost
I glanced at the story, read it, and then moved on to something else. But the story of William B. Crews kept bothering me, because it might be a harbinger of things to come.Crews is—or was—an employee of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the federal agency run by Anthony Fauci. While working as a public-affairs officer for NIAID, Crews was also a prolific conspiracy theorist. He spent the past six months attacking Fauci, NIAID, and the American scientific establishment more generally, on the website Redstate.com, using the pseudonym “Streiff.” On Monday, Lachlan Markey of The Daily Beast published a story unmasking him. Crews abruptly retired that same day.The United States has a long tradition of government employees criticizing their superiors. But in his extracurricular writing, Crews was not composing whistleblower memos. These were not carefully sourced revelations of wrongdoing at the agency. Instead, they were rants that accused Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, and many others of turning the coronavirus into a deliberate plot to undermine the Trump administration. In June, Crews attacked America’s most respected scientific bodies: “If there were justice,” he wrote, “we’d send and [sic] few dozen of these fascists to the gallows and gibbet their tarred bodies in chains until they fall apart.” In July, he attacked Fauci by name: “If you made those recommendations and they were disastrously wrong and based on bad science that you promulgated, you owe it to all of us to STFU and go away.”[Fauci to a meddling HHS official: ‘Take a hike’]These were not his only posts. “Streiff”—whose work, as of this writing, is still available on Redstate.com—also had views on the riots in Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin; on Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore; on Attorney General Bill Barr (favorable) and former National Security Council staffer Alexander Vindman (unfavorable); on Fox News’s Tucker Carlson (favorable) and CNN’s Jake Tapper (unfavorable). Nothing that he wrote was clever or surprising. Day after day he produced boringly predictable pablum, the sort of average-vile stuff pumped out on Fox or Breitbart News all the time. The only thing remarkable about this writing is that Crews was doing it while simultaneously being employed by a government body whose most important task is to fight exactly the kinds of conspiracy theories he was producing. He may even have been doing both at the same time. Markey could not determine whether Crews actually filed any of his posts from his office computer, but many of them first appeared during weekday working hours.In the everyday world, this kind of behavior would be considered bizarre: What type of person betrays his co-workers this way? But in the Trump administration, it is not unusual, especially among people who work at health agencies. Recently, Michael Caputo, the Trump-appointed head spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, was caught meddling with scientific reports on the pandemic put out by the CDC, which, like Fauci’s agency, is part of HHS; he then posted a Facebook video claiming that scientists at the CDC were plotting “sedition” and worse. “You understand that they’re going to have to kill me, and unfortunately, I think that’s where this is going,” Caputo said. “There are hit squads being trained all over this country,” he continued: “If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.”Caputo, who has been diagnosed with cancer, has now gone on leave. But he was not the only one in his office who made wild statements expressing radical views. Yet another HHS political appointee, Paul Alexander, regularly sent emails harassing employees of the CDC. He described its deputy director, the physician Anne Schuchat, as “duplicitous” for saying she hoped the country could “take [the pandemic] seriously and slow the transmission … we have way too much virus across the country.” Alexander also regularly sought to censor weekly scientific and statistical reports—the “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” to be precise—written by the nation’s most important public-health institution, describing them as “hit pieces” targeting the Trump administration.My Atlantic colleague David A. Graham recently noted that Caputo may well represent the face of a second-term Trump administration. Instead of people with expertise and competence, the White House and Cabinet agencies will contain ideologues with no experience—or, worse, ideologues with a long record of bad judgment and terrible errors. But the cases of Crews, Caputo, and Paul Alexander suggest an additional conclusion: that people whose jobs require them to provide “alternative facts” on a regular basis might eventually break under the strain. Maybe there is a price to be paid, in loss of mental clarity, for supporting the fantasy world needed to sustain this president.[Read: Anthony Fauci, lightning rod]This is worth contemplating, because in this election year we are grappling with something entirely new. The president, the Republican Party, and its campaign machine are collectively seeking to create a completely false picture of the world. This isn’t just a matter of wishful thinking or a few white lies. The president’s campaign staff needs voters to believe that the virus is over, or else that it never mattered; that 200,000 people did not really die; that schools aren’t closed; that shops aren’t boarded up; that nothing much happened to the economy; that America is ever more respected around the world; that climate change isn’t real; that the U.S. has no legitimate protesters, only violent thugs who have been paid by secretive groups. This fantasy has to be repeated every day, in multiple forms, on Fox News, in GOP Facebook ads, on websites like RedState. Inevitably, it will affect people’s brains.It is easy to see why Trump appointees who work in institutions that deal with science and public health might be the first to break: Their jobs require them to grapple every day with data that they have to deny. But the same dissonance may also be fueling some of the more ridiculous conspiracy theories now circulating online. The adherents of the QAnon cult may have literally been driven past the point of reason. In order to make sense of the world they can see all around them, they have created an elaborate and obviously false explanation—that an omniscient Trump is fighting a cabal of deep-state Satanists and pedophiles. No wonder Republicans, instead of shunning QAnon believers, are working to elect some of them to Congress in November. They genuinely serve a function, helping Trump supporters navigate the gap between the reality they live in and the fiction they see on Fox and Facebook.Looking at this bizarre moment in a longer lens can be quite sobering. Parallel situations are hard to come by, and I can think of no similar election to take place in any democracy, no moment when Danes or Spaniards were forced to choose between reality and fiction. The only historical parallels come, inappropriately, from Stalin’s Soviet Union, Maoist China, and other regimes that created elaborate propaganda versions of the world and then forced people to pretend they were true. But those alternative realities were backed up by violence. America does not have that kind of police state. There are no mass arrests or concentration camps for political dissidents. Nobody is forcing people to swallow the Republican Party fantasy. The decision to do so remains purely voluntary.That, of course, is everyone else’s salvation: Voters can still choose to grapple with reality—to read real news, to seek accurate information, to use our daily experience as a guide before deciding what to believe—without fear. But for people like “Streiff”—people who actually work in this administration, and people who would choose to work in a second Trump administration—reality might no longer be an option.
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Photos of the Week: Wishing Moons, Runway Swim, Shawnee Sunset
Autumn colors in Wales, a ripple maze in Taiwan, “picture day” at a Connecticut school, a funnel cloud in Spain, protests in Kentucky, a socially-distanced beauty pageant in Venezuela, flowers among high-rises in South Korea, surfing in South Africa, and much more.
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Woodward Reveals How Controversies Help Trump
Editor’s Note: This article is part of our coverage of the The Atlantic Festival. Learn more and watch festival sessions here. Wednesday evening, President Donald Trump was asked about whether there would be a peaceful transfer of power. Trump replied—well, it was a bit hard to tell. Trump’s critics heard the president saying he wanted to throw out votes and wouldn’t relinquish power. His defenders conceded that he sounded stupid but simply meant that he intended to win.That created a day of controversy, as pundits and fact-checkers tried to sort through Trumpian world salad and figure out what he said and what it meant.This is no way to run a functioning democracy, but it is—if you believe Jared Kushner—all part of the president’s plan. As Bob Woodward explained to Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg yesterday at The Atlantic Festival, Kushner (who is both a senior adviser and son-in-law to the president) believes these controversies benefit the president by amplifying his talking points.“Kushner’s explanation is, ‘The controversy elevates the message,’” Woodward said. “If you have a controversy that is more or less on your side, it’s going to help you.”Take the economy. Trump is prone to exaggeration about the state of the economy, especially prior to the coronavirus pandemic—routinely labeling it the greatest in American or world history. Such claims are wildly overblown, but that not only doesn’t matter, but is part of the point. The hyperbole invites disputes from Democrats and fact-checkers, which is fine with the White House, because this merely prolongs the focus on the economy. Meanwhile (Kushner maintains), ordinary Americans hear the dispute and understand that Trump is exaggerating, but don’t really care about the academic truth.“What does affect their lives is it’s basically a good economy,” Woodward said. “It’s a clever strategy: Get into these fights, which Kushner talks about, and if they are on favorable ground, it will help Trump.”(Sure, Trump’s lying, but that was always part of the deal: “He was elected to break norms,” Woodward said. “People love the lack of decorum.”)Ginning up controversy has worked especially well on the economy, which is consistently one of Trump’s strongest issues. Even as voters pan his handling of race, protests, and COVID-19, they give him solid marks on the economy. That’s especially valuable to the administration now.“Trump just loves this because we’re not talking about the virus,” Woodward said. “The controversy kind of nullifies something that’s been going on for months—namely 200,000 dead in this country.”Woodward’s reporting on Kushner’s mentality is valuable evidence for an ongoing debate. For years, Trump watchers have speculated about the extent to which the president intentionally creates distractions and seeks to alter the news cycle. Yet although Kushner’s explanation flatters himself and his father-in-law, positioning them as political masterminds, it has some glaring shortcomings.First, it’s simply not credible that Trump is always calculating when he creates these controversies. Often they seem to spring from impulse or a lack of preparation or simple caprice: The president can’t resist some piece of bait.Second, and more important, these controversies often hurt Trump politically more than they help him—if not as much as his opponents wish they would. The president’s both-sides response to white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, created controversy. So did his musing about injecting bleach or using UV lights to treat the coronavirus, and his response to widespread protests over police violence. But these controversies didn’t help the president. Each of them knocked him off more effective messaging (for example, about the economy), and helped keep his approval low.Even so, to hear Kushner openly espousing so cynical a theory of politics is remarkable. Kushner, Woodward noted, is Trump’s de facto chief of staff, and perhaps the second most powerful man in America. Goldberg asked whether Woodward had ever, in his many years in Washington, met someone so cynical. The legendary Watergate reporter’s mind jumped to G. Gordon Liddy, the head of Richard Nixon’s “Plumbers.”“Is Jared Kushner just some Harvard version of G. Gordon Liddy?” Goldberg asked.“Let’s not tag it to Harvard,” Woodward insisted.He’s got a point. The rot extends throughout American society, not merely among elites. Woodward sounded a bleak note about how Trump’s work to stir up controversy around the integrity of the November election will turn out. “We are in store for a quadruple train wreck almost no matter what happens,” he said.
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The Atlantic Daily: Three Stories We’re Following
Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.GETTY / THE ATLANTIC1. The political fight to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg“Democrats have few options to try to prevent President Donald Trump from confirming his nominee, whom he plans to announce on Saturday,” our politics writer Elaine Godfrey writes. “So they’re already gaming out how to get revenge.” Read about their Supreme Court Hail Mary.2. Another round of police-reform protests Yesterday, a grand jury in Louisville, Kentucky, declined to indict the officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor earlier this year—and protesters renewed their calls for police reform.Black Lives Matter, Syreeta McFadden wrote earlier this month, has arrived at an important juncture.3. Anthony Fauci addresses political influence in the COVID-19 response The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told one Trump-administration official who attempted to censor him and other scientists to “take a hike,” Alexis C. Madrigal reports.P.S. Your coronavirus crush would really like you to focus on the coming winter.APU GOMES / AFP / GETTYOne question, answered: My gym reopened. Should I go?Our staff writer Amanda Mull, who recently wrote about the role of the gym in America life, weighs in: Going to the gym right now is, on balance, a bad idea. Breathing heavily indoors with strangers is one of the key ways that the coronavirus spreads, and gyms have been identified as the source of case clusters among patrons. If you can bear to stay away, that’s the best decision at the moment. But if your gym has reopened and being away from that part of your routine has weighed on your mental health, there are a few things to consider. First, what are infection levels like in your area? If you live in a college town, huffing and puffing in close proximity to newly returned students is a terrible idea. If you live in an area with low transmission rates and lots of available testing, the risk is commensurately lower. Next, what is your specific gym doing to ensure your safety? Capacity should be kept far below normal, patrons should wear masks at all times, people should be spread out within the space, and outdoor alternatives should be offered whenever possible. If your gym is ticking all of those boxes, it’s doing what it can to make your decision to return less dangerous. If you’re able to go at an unpopular time of day when few others will be working out, that enhances all of these safety measures. And don’t be fooled by hygiene theater, such as temperature checks and hand sanitizer. Finally, your individual circumstances also matter. If you’re older or immunocompromised or live with someone who is, gyms carry a heavy risk for you or your loved one. If you’re unable to work from home, your decision to go to the gym carries a risk for your co-workers. Regular gym patronage also makes you a potential patient zero at a bar or a restaurant. With a contagious disease, risks are rarely only personal. 40 days remain until the 2020 presidential election. Here’s today’s essential read, in case you missed it:Our new cover story, by the three-time Pulitzer winner Barton Gellman, is a harrowing report on how Trump might muddle the election outcome in November.What to read if … you need a break from the news: Teens are making it big on TikTok overnight, thanks to the platform’s algorithm. Read Kaitlyn Tiffany on what comes with that fame.Did someone forward you this newsletter? Sign up here.
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How to Win a Debate With a Bully
Joe Biden should simply name what is true and what most Americans intuit about the president: He is a terribly broken man.
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