James Fallows

James Fallows
James Fallows is a staff writer at The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the 2018 book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which was a national best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary. More +
  • The Atlantic

    The 3 Weeks That Changed Everything

    Imagine if the National Transportation Safety Board investigated America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress

    Is This the Worst Year in Modern American History?

    Comparing 2020 to 1968 offers some disquieting lessons for the present.

  • 2020 Time Capsule #18: Time Is Speeding Up

    Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

    Nearly every day of the past two weeks has brought a development that, by itself, would have been a major substantive and political event in other times. As a benchmark and reminder, a reckless move by a Democratic president after he had left office, and a glib off-hand comment by a Republican president while he was still serving, remain vivid, years after they happened, as axes of political, legal, and press consequences.

    For the Democrats, the instance was the decision by Bill Clinton, then 16 years out of office and husband of the Democratic candidate, to walk across the tarmac at the Phoenix airport in June, 2016, and talk with Loretta Lynch, who was Barack Obama’s attorney general. From that encounter grew Republican complaints that Clinton was “interfering” with the Justice Department’s investigation of the Hillary Clinton email “scandal,” then Lynch’s recusal from the case, then its effective transfer to James Comey, the FBI director, and then—you know the rest.

    For the Republicans, the moment came three days into the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, in 2005. On a visit to the drowning city, George W. Bush told Michael Brown, then head of FEMA, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”

    Four years after the Lynch episode, anyone involved in politics remembers its role in making the phrase “But, her emails...” central to a presidential election. Fifteen years after Katrina, “Heckuva job” remains a part of the standard mocking vocabulary of public life.

    But almost every 24-hour span in public life, circa 2020, brings comparable developments. They risk being lost to memory, because of the Iguazu Falls-scale torrent of shocking-but-not-surprising assaults on civic, logical, and governing norms.

    Just as an unelaborated list, here are a few of the things that occurred over the days when the U.S. death toll from the pandemic was rising from nearly 70,000 to nearly 90,000. At least half-a-dozen of these would, in normal times, be front-page developments on their own.

    Starting two weeks ago, we have:

    • May 6: Trump and his administration essentially declared “Mission Accomplished” about the pandemic, and shifted from an emphasis on public-health effects to saying that the economy should be the real focus.
    • May 7: Trump’s complaisant attorney general, William Barr, had his Justice Department drop charges against Trump’s first national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had already pleaded guilty to two counts of lying to federal agents.
    • May 8: Unemployment claims increased by 20 million, and the unemployment rate reached the highest level since the 1930s.
    • May 11: Trump told a Chinese American CBS News reporter that she should “Ask China” about why the pandemic has done so much damage. More here.
    • May 12: Anthony Fauci (described one month ago here) offered downbeat testimony about the pandemic to a Senate committee, at odds with Trump’s own “We’ve done great!” statement the previous day.
    • May 12: The Supreme Court, in a phone-based remote session, heard arguments on whether Donald Trump had absolute immunity from congressional scrutiny into his tax records from before he ran for office.
    • May 13: Trump criticized Fauci, saying that his answer about a timetable for opening schools was “not acceptable.”
    • May 14: Richard Burr, a senator from North Carolina who has been chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, resigned from that committee post (but not from the Senate) after the FBI seized his phone and other documents, in an investigation on whether had traded on inside information about the pandemic.
    • May 14: Rick Bright, formerly a senior vaccine-development official and now a whistleblower, testified on why he had been pushed out of his job for insisting that scientific standards be applied to some of Donald Trump’s drug recommendations.
    • May 15: Late on Friday night, the administration announced that it had fired the State Department inspector general who had been looking into possible financial irregularities involving Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, and his wife. This was the latest in a long series of internal watchdogs whom Trump and his associates had removed.
    • May 16: Trump tweeted out his support for people in New York who were badgering and harassing local reporters. “People can’t get enough of this,” Trump wrote. “Great people!”
    • Also on the evening of May 16, Barack Obama delivered his video message to the graduating class of 2020. Obama was deliberate in not criticizing Trump directly—in contrast to his notorious ridicule of Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011, which arguably humiliated Trump so comprehensively that it fueled his desire to run for office. But Obama’s implicit message could not have been clearer.
        As a speechwriting note: Every time a leader addresses a community in time of trouble, the message needs to include these three elements, in order. First, empathy: I know this is hard, I know that you have suffered and are afraid. Second, confidence: We’ve been through tough times before, we will come out of this ahead. Third, a plan: Here are the next specific things we are going to do. You can look at any effective “time of trouble” speech, from Lincoln to FDR and onward, and see just this approach. Obama applied it in his brief address. Trump never does, since his messages always are: 1) I am doing such a great job, and 2) Everyone else is so unfair to me.

    Not every one of these items would qualify as a standalone, discussion-focusing, campaign-shifting, reputation-changing event, in normal times. But most of them would.


    On May 14, The Financial Times published a long, reported piece by its correspondent Edward Luce, about the character of the man leading the federal effort. Its closing words, quoting the lawyer (and Trump critic) George Conway, were:

    Without exception, everyone I interviewed, including the most ardent Trump loyalists, made a similar point to Conway. Trump is deaf to advice, said one. He is his own worst enemy, said another. He only listens to family, said a third. He is mentally imbalanced, said a fourth. America, in other words, should brace itself for a turbulent six months ahead—with no assurance of a safe landing.

    On May 17, Lachlan Cartwright, Asawin Suebaeng, and Lachlan Markay of the Daily Beast published another long, reported piece saying that Peter Thiel—Facebook board member, and co-founder of PayPal, who had given a nominating speech for Trump at the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland—was souring on Trump. It included this quote, parallel to what Luce had reporterd:

    “Everybody goes into the Trump relationship woodchipper,” said Trump’s former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who worked on the Trump presidential transition team with Thiel and who had his own falling-out with the president. “You either come out on the other side with your dignity and your personal story intact or you’re reformed as Trump compost and you’re fertilizer under his shoe. You have to make a decision and it happens to everyone.”

    These were the realities of two weeks in May, five-and-a-half months before the election.

    And for the future of the republic, the most important reality may be the continued silence of the congressional Republicans. A few of them spoke up after the Friday-night firing of the State Department inspector general. Mitt Romney, notably, wrote that it was “ a threat to accountable democracy.” Susan Collins, as if immune to self-parody, tweeted out her concern. But as a group, they are silent. They know, and they choose not to speak.

  • Celina Pereira

    Air Travel Is Going to Be Very Bad, for a Very Long Time

    Flying used to be unpleasant. But scarcity, low demand, and public-health risks could make it unbearable.

  • 2020 Time Capsule #17: ‘Empathy and Simple Kindness’

    Reuters / Pool

    As the past week began, the Unites States was crossing 50,000 reported deaths from the coronavirus pandemic. As the new week arrives, the U.S. death total is 70,000.

    Of the countless extraordinary events in these seven days, a few that are worth noting:

    1) “Empathy and Simple Kindness.” This past Saturday, former President George W. Bush released a brief video whose subtweeted message was unmistakable. It recognized the suffering of those who had lost family members, or economic prospects, or hope itself; it emphasized the all of us rather than the us and them response to national crisis; and it appealed to the generous rather than the resentful in human nature.

    In short, it was the kind of message that leaders of any nation have been expected to transmit, as part of their duty, in time of national hardship. And it highlighted by contrast the signals of “empathy and simple kindness” that Donald Trump himself had never managed to convey or even feign.

    I have been as harsh as anyone on George W. Bush’s responsibility, in his time in office, for America’s foreign-policy and economic travails. (For more, see this, this, this, and this.) But it would be wrong not to recognize the way he was trying, 11 years after leaving office, to express the thoughts a nation expects from its leaders.

    The video raised a further possibility and question for this former president: What will he say as the next election draws near? The three other living former presidents—Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama—are all Democrats. So for them, there will be no conflict between policy goals and party loyalty. All will, of course, try to help Joe Biden beat Donald Trump.

    In the 2016 election, the extended Bush family made no secret of its distaste for Donald Trump, who had after all ridiculed “Low Energy Jeb” Bush in the primaries. This new video suggests that George W. Bush’s estimation of Trump has not gone up. (For the record, two years ago, during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight, Bush did his best to persuade Republican senators to stick with Kavanaugh—who had been a White House staffer for Bush.)

    But would a former Republican president dare go public with a plea to save the country, and what he thinks of as his party’s principles, by voting for the opposition? The logic of this video suggests that Bush should. Could he actually do so? I’m not holding my breath, but Bush loyalists should be raising the question with him.

    2) “A great success story.” This past Wednesday, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, went on the First Family’s favorite TV program, Fox and Friends. He told the hosts that the federal government “rose to the challenge” and “this is a great success story.” You can listen to him yourself, starting 9:00 minutes into this clip.

    The day before Kushner spoke, the confirmed U.S. death toll from the pandemic exceeded the 58,000-plus U.S. fatalities inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the famous black granite wall in Washington. Since then, they have increased by about 2,000 per day.

    It is conceivable that selected parts of the federal response will eventually be seen as successes, though overall they appear to be catastrophic now.

    It is inconceivable that a favored in-law’s cheery declaration of a “great success story,” as tens of millions of people are losing their jobs and tens of thousands have lost their lives, will stand up well.

    3) “I will never lie to you.” I noted last month that the new White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, differed from her immediate predecessor in planning to hold press briefings at all. But she differed from past administrations’ press secretaries in that her history as a public figure was entirely in the role of cable-news partisan advocate.

    At her first press briefing, this past week, she told the assembled reporters:

    “I will never lie to you. You have my pledge on that.”

    You see her saying so 8 minutes into this C-SPAN video. Then she proceeded to … lie, on matters ranging from the Mueller investigation, to the prosecution of Michael Flynn, to the history of sexual-assault allegations against Donald Trump, to a range of others. Dan Froomkin set out the details in Salon and Annie Karni did so in the New York Times.

    My earlier argument was: The best press secretaries have recognized the fundamental torment of the job. The good ones are torn day-by-day between their assignment to put the best face on the administration’s policies, and their desire to stick as close as possible to the truth.

    Like Trump himself, Kayleigh McEnany seemed in her debut to be unconflicted. Her duty is only to the administration.

    4) “The plague should never have happened.” Back in March I noted Donald Trump’s penchant for “projection”: that is, attacking others for the failings that seem most evident in himself.

    Bear that in mind, in considering Trump’s comments at a White House event this past week—and comparing them with the verdict likely to be rendered upon his administration. Trump said (as shown in this C-SPAN video):

    This plague should have never happened.

    It could have been stopped, but people chose not to stop it, and it's a very sad thing for the world

    Indeed.

  • A Company That Helps You Find Job B

    People are seated in an auditorium with rows of black leather seats. A few people raise their hands.
    Bitwise hosted a conference for International Women's Day Courtesy of Bitwise

    The tech-training and incubator company Bitwise, based in Fresno in California’s agricultural Central Valley, has been an important test case for the proposition that new, valuable, job-creating, and wealth-expanding businesses can arise anywhere, not just in the few familiar “superstar” cities.

    Deb Fallows and I have written frequently about Bitwise since first visiting its (then-tiny) headquarters five years ago. For instance, two reports from 2015 (here and here) explain why it’s worth taking “left behind” places like Fresno seriously as future economic hubs. This one, from 2019, covers how dramatically Bitwise’s operations have expanded in its brief history.

    Jake Soberal and Irma Olguin Jr., co-founders of Bitwise (Courtesy of Bitwise)

    Last week I spoke with the two co-founders of Bitwise, Irma Olguin Jr. and Jake Soberal (whom you see in the photo above), about what their company was doing to deal with the pandemic’s effects in their home site of Fresno, in other parts of the Central Valley, and in similar cities across the country.


    The Central Valley is within the same state borders as Los Angeles and Malibu, San Francisco and Palo Alto. But its situation, at this moment, has more in common with the crop-growing and meat-packing centers of Iowa, Kansas, and the Dakotas that have recently been in the news. It is “rich,” in the sense that its agricultural output feeds much of the country and the world. But it is “poor,” in the economic status and public-health vulnerability of many of its residents—notably including those who harvest the crops and process the meats.

    “We started with the awareness that we are a cash-rich company”—because of its rapid growth and businesses successes—“sitting in a poor town,” Jake Soberal told me. “So we felt a sense of obligation to use those resources for the betterment of our community.” I have seen enough of what Olguin and Soberal and their colleagues have done, over a long enough period, to view these as more than just empty words. (For instance: their role in the memorable “Unapologetically Fresno” campaign from a few years ago.)

    Their first step was to have Bitwise itself put out an offer to buy and deliver groceries to local people who needed help getting food. “The response was too overwhelming,” Soberal said. “We realized there was a deep need.”

    Their next step was to use their own tech tools, and work with the San Francisco-based tech giant Salesforce, to automate a system through which people could place requests for food, and the food could be purchased and delivered.

    The Bitwise team identified a local nonprofit thrift store whose normal business had evaporated, and hired its logistics staff to begin delivering food. “We soon saw one of the gaps in local and national food delivery systems,” Soberal told me. “That was the ability to deliver to individuals.” Food banks have dramatically expanded. But, he said, “the people most in need of food support are commonly without transportation, are sick or elderly, and don’t really have a way to get where the food might be.”

    Within days, they talked with the tech eminences Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein, who had been investors in Bitwise and who co-founded the Kapor Center, which has a stated mission of “leveling the playing field in tech.” With backing from the Kapor Center, Bitwise produced a software system and web site called OnwardCA.org, whose purpose is to help match people who have suddenly lost their jobs and livelihood with the few opportunities the pandemic disruption is opening up.

    Restaurant workers, retail staffers, employees in the hotel and tourism industry—all at once, they were out of work. “The way to reduce the truly catastrophic effects of these changes, is to minimize the time people are completely displaced,” Irma Olguin told me. “If there is a chance to match Person A with Job B, that can make a difference.”

    But what, conceivably, are these new “Job Bs”—at a time when the national unemployment rate is nearing rates not seen since the 1930s?

    “Our first thought was to start identifying industries with surge-hiring needs,” Jake Soberal said. Everyone has heard about Amazon’s hiring 100,000 additional logistics-and-delivery staffers. Olguin and Soberal said the pattern applied at some small enterprises as well. “The general categories are health care, agriculture, grocery, and logistics,” Soberal said. “Where we can make a difference is the openings that wouldn’t get much attention otherwise—the logistics company in San Bernardino that has 12 job openings, the trucking company in Fort Bragg that has 5.” With its backing from the Kapor Center, Bitwise set up a large data-collection effort—looking through phone listings, making calls to the companies in places like San Bernardino or Fort Bragg—and assembling a job-opening data system for the state.

    “Restaurants may not be opening soon,” Soberal said. “But someone from a restaurant might be well matched for a grocery or food-supply job, or someone from a closed gym to a logistics center.”

    Last week, when I spoke with Olguin and Soberal, they were working with Gavin Newsom and his administration in California on the job-matching OnwardCA program available broadly through the state. Soon they expanded to Colorado. Then this week, on Tuesday, they announced the expansion of the program to states that together make up nearly one-third of the U.S. population. (In addition to California and Colorado, they are New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, Washington, Oregon, Connecticut, Colorado, and Washington, D.C.)

    You can read details on the expanded OnwardUS program in the Bitwise announcement here. Is this “the” answer to today’s economic and public-health catastrophes? As I say about each new initiative, of course it is not—on its own. But it is another partial answer, emerging at the local and state level, in the absence of federal response. (And, as upcoming reports will note, the Bitwise job-matching approach parallels efforts that vastly larger tech companies, notably Google and Microsoft, have intensified during the pandemic.)

    “The world has been ignoring talent from communities where people are not used to looking,” Soberal told me, of Bitwise’s enterprises in general and the Onward programs in specific.

    “We’ve been tapping into that for six and a half years now. The software is being built by people in the Central Valley, black and brown people, from field-worker families. They were not ‘supposed’ to be part of the tech economy. What you’re seeing right now is the ability to tap into an emergency response in a matter of days—because that talent was invested in, and ready.”


    This report is part of a continuing series on organizations responding to the pandemic. For previous installments, please see these on: innovations from libraries; plans to protect the small businesses that have been crucial to local economic revival; changes in a statewide program in California; responses from a nationwide nonprofit network; recent military veterans converting a service ethic to civilian pursuits; and how an innovative tech organization in Idaho has tried to empower “creators” and improve the business ecosystem in smaller, non-coastal cities across the country.

    More from this series

  • Sparking a Small-Town Business Ecosystem

    A man at the front of the room speaks to a crowded room, with rows of seated people and more standing in the back to listen
    An event in the long-abandoned Elks Lodge in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, now an office center and civic space Courtesy of Innovation Collective

    The national-level response to the coronavirus pandemic descends from tragedy into catastrophe. The black granite slabs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington display the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in that war. Those deaths occurred over more than 15 years of conflict. At current rates, a larger number of Americans will have died from this pandemic within less than two months. Unemployment rates are already reaching levels that no American born after the Great Depression of the 1930s had witnessed or experienced.

    So the rest of the American system is left to pick up the slack. Mayors and governors, health workers and grocery employees, business people and religious leaders, teachers and parents. In recent installments Deb Fallows and I have described some of these responses: innovations from libraries; plans to protect the small businesses that have been crucial to local economic revival; changes in a statewide program in California; responses from a nationwide nonprofit network; and how recent military veterans are converting a service ethic to civilian pursuits.

    Today’s report is the first of two on relatively new tech companies, each based in a non-coastal, “left behind” part of the country, that have been bringing economic, educational, and life-prospect opportunities to their regions, and how they are now trying to cope with the current disaster. Today’s concerns the Innovation Collective, based in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Later we’ll revisit Bitwise Industries, based in Fresno, California, which we have followed over the years.


    Innovation Collective: Nick Smoot, who is now in his late 30s, grew up in Coeur d’Alene. He moved away after high school and spent the next dozen years as a tech entrepreneur. He founded, built, and sold three internet-based companies (mainly involving test-prep and marketing—details here), and he became a speaker and commentator in the tech world.

    Courtesy of Innovation Collective

    Then at around age 30 he returned to Idaho. He told me that he came back to his home town for a reason that is related to fundamental debates about the American economy in recent years. Namely: how to share the opportunities and benefits of a tech-based economy more broadly—across regions, among races, for people of different backgrounds and economic groups—so that they create a broader-based, inclusive, fairer economy. In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, and as an uneven recovery spread across the country in the next few years, the challenge of “inclusive growth” was discussed in countless reports and conferences, in political speeches and in newspaper articles. Like most of the other people we have been chronicling, Smoot believed that he could help these ideals and action plans into effect, back in his smallish (population 50,000) home town.

    “I think capitalism is great,” he told me, when we spoke on the phone last month. “But my goal is to reframe the word ‘capitalism,’ because a system that drives the production of too much, for the consumption of too few, has reached its limits.” He said that his goal was to use market incentives to create a tech-based business system “that is more stable and equitable—and to repair gashes in communities, rather than deepen them. We want to unlock potential in all people and especially those who feel they have been left behind.”

    The taming and repair of capitalism is, to put it mildly, a long-standing and complex issue. (Here are two big Atlantic stories I have done on just this topic, from 2015, based on a new project by Al Gore, and from 1993, about an obscure German economist named Friedrich List.)

    In practice, what this has meant in Smoot’s case is trying to foster, assemble, and connect the ingredients of a business-startup ecosystem in parts of the country that have felt cut off from the Bay Area-Seattle-New York technology boom. A few years ago he made a Vimeo statement summing up the ambitions, which you can see here. His “Innovation Collective” offers training sessions, mentor relationships, public and private events, supply-chain relationships, studies of regional economic possibilities, training in work-preparedness and other “life skills,” and other forms of “soft” infrastructure. Measures like these could seem airy or trivial—until you remember how central a role such informal ties have played in the rise of tech-economic centers in San Francisco, Boston, or Seattle, and how the absence of this soft infrastructure has hindered much of smaller-town, inland America.

    “I look on every citizen in town as a frustrated creator,” Smoot told me last month. “Because they are not creating, they are not happy—and the ones who are happiest are the ones who are able to create. We build communities around this idea of human potential.” Talent, ambition, and creative potential are very widely dispersed, he said. Opportunity has not been. That is the gap he has hoped his Innovation Collective could help close.

    In Coeur d’Alene, his organization developed a partnership that restored a long-vacant Elks building in the center of downtown. It became the “Innovation Den”—and now the site of over 60 offices, a barber shop, a coffee shop, a robotics and computer-science program, and a civic site, for events like the one you see in the photo above. The Innovation Collective has launched a low-cost tech-training program called Inspire. The IC offers different tiers of membership, from free to about $800 per year. It has started a venture fund, directed at new businesses in Coeur d’Alene and similar communities across the country.

    Smoot described to me some of its operations in Utica, New York; Brooksville, Florida; and Spokane, Washington. In each of the cities, the emphasis has been on economic niches that match the geographical, cultural, and business-history particularities of that town. Coeur d’Alene, for instance, has a strong robotics sector. Utica, like many other cities in the Northeast (for instance, Erie), has a long manufacturing heritage, in recent decline, and a diverse population including many immigrants and refugees. You can read about those and other projects here.


    On the territory of the Coeur d’Alene tribe in Idaho, Danamarie McNicholl of KREM interviews Megan Smith, former U.S. Chief Technology Officer, during a statewide tour to launch the Inspire program of the Innovation Collective. (Courtesy of Innovation Collective)

    All that was in the seven years before the crisis. And now? Last month, as the lockdowns were beginning, Smoot produced a six-minute LinkedIn video addressed to small companies like those he had been working with, in small communities across the country. “You need this, we need this, I need this,” he said, about trying to connect small firms with others facing similar problems. (You will see this about three and a half minutes into the LinkedIn clip.)

    We all have more to give …. When a good chunk of our country is isolated in their homes, more isolated than they were before, we have a choice. We can become worse, or we can become better. We can become less, or we can become greater.

    Choose to become greater. Choose to become more.

    Again, in isolation it could sound just like a motivational speech, but it’s connected to the “left behind America” work that Smoot and his organization have been doing for years.

    When I asked Smoot how his emphasis had shifted, he said it was primarily on the physical, mental, and emotional health of people in his extended community, and the creation of locally based, self-sustaining networks, rather than sending online “content” from headquarters. As he put it in an email:

    It’s very important to note, we are creating “Local Digital Interactive Communities,” not streaming pre recorded content or creating communities of non local people. VERY important.

    These types of communities are made up of 100’s of local experiences per month that feature local faces facilitating experiences that add value to three crucial areas for stability and recovery; economic, mental, and physical health. Through community, these focuses help you become the kind of person who can go get the future you want.

    He went on to explain how this approach differed from simple Zoom-meeting connectedness, including “large and small group experiences to avoid hiding online” and a series of regular accountability and goal-setting stages.

    “Stand tall today,” Smoot says in the introduction to his LinkedIn video. “Shoulders back, chin up … Together, as a big community, we choose to build a tomorrow we want, through community today.”

    As I ask at the end of each of these updates: Is an approach like this “the” answer to the current public health and economic crisis? Of course not. And I am sure that the IC model has limitations and weak points as well as strengths.

    But is it part of “an” answer? Yes, I believe it can be, as well as an example of the creativity with which Americans across the country are responding to our emergency. The history of these times should include the people and organizations that are trying to solve the moment’s problems, as well as the institutions that have failed.

    Next up: the latest news from Bitwise.

    More from this series

  • 2020 Time Capsule #16: Disinfectant

    Dr. Deborah Birx listens as President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus on April 23.
    Dr. Deborah Birx listens as President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus on April 23. Associated Press

    On the day when the Access Hollywood tape came out, one month before the 2016 election, I wrote a “Trump Time Capsule” item whose first paragraph, in its entirety, was:

    “Good God.”

    That tape, of course, was the one on which a vintage-2005 Donald Trump was recorded, in his always-recognizable voice, saying that “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Leading up, of course, to “Grab ‘em by the pussy, you can do anything.” Then, as captured on tape, Trump swallowed some Tic Tacs, stepped off a bus, and smilingly greeted and embraced the female TV host he had been ogling and talking about while aboard the bus.

    “Good God,” because personal crudeness of this scale was far beyond revelations that had stopped pre-Trump political campaigns. Edmund Muskie early in 1972, Thomas Eagleton later in 1972, Gary Hart in 1988, Howard Dean in 2004—I won’t go into details, but by the standard of “Grab ’em by ...” these previous political storms would qualify as minor showers. (Actually, I encourage you to look into the possibility that the “embarrassments” that stopped Gary Hart’s campaign in 1988 could have been the result of a political setup, as I wrote in 2018.)

    But of course Trump’s campaign was not derailed, by this or anything else. Recall what happened next:

    • Trump initially dismissed the comments as “locker room talk.”
    • The next day he released a video in which he said, for one of the few times ever, that he “regretted” his remarks on tape. He read the following while looking straight at the camera: “Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am [sic]. I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.”
    • On the same afternoon that The Washington Post broke news of the recording, WikiLeaks began releasing hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. (A witness for the Mueller report later said that Trump’s advisor Roger Stone coordinated this timing with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. Stone denied being involved but last year was found guilty and sentenced to prison for lying about the case.) As was apparently intended, this immediately competed with the “grab ‘em” story for news coverage.
    • Some elected GOP officials criticized Trump—including, amazingly, his running mate Mike Pence, and then-Senator John McCain, who called on Trump to drop out.
    • But within a week, most Republicans were aboard again, and for Trump, a potentially campaign-ending event became just another bump in the road. His party, and his voters, would stick with him.

    What’s the connection to current events? These past few days have been another “Good God” moment, even by the standards of the past few years.

    At his multi-hour rally/”briefing” on Thursday evening, Trump speculated that heavy external (or internal) exposure to ultraviolet light, or perhaps drinking or injecting disinfectants, could be a solution to the virus.

    Because Trump later falsely claimed that he had been quoted out of context, or had just been joking, it’s important to observe what he looked and sounded like when saying these (preposterous) things. Starting at time 26:00 of this C-SPAN video, you can see that he was in dead earnest—and acting as if he was offering a great insight, which had escaped the detail-minded professionals—when he said the following words:

    Here’s a question that some of you [the press] are probably thinking of, if you’re totally into that world [of science], which I find to be very interesting.

    Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light … Supposing you brought the light inside the body [sic], either through the skin or some other way.

    And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute — one minute — and is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.

    While Trump was saying these words, one of his scientific advisers, Dr. Deborah Birx, was captured on film as her face went ashen at the idiocy of his comments. But she was then called to the microphone, and as she has done several times before, she pointedly avoided saying that Trump’s comments were not just ignorant but actively dangerous, especially if anyone was considering drinking disinfectant. As noted earlier, her medical colleague Anthony Fauci has continued to pull off the remarkable (and public-spirited) trick of maintaining his long-earned reputation for honesty, while retaining a position in Trump’s retinue. Fauci is unique in that status. Everyone else who has entered Trump’s service has fallen into the pit of reputational destruction.

    The next day, Trump claimed that he was being “sarcastic” and only joking with the comments. This is his standard last line of defense when caught in a particularly egregious statement. For instance, he says his public call on “Russia” to release Hillary Clinton’s emails had just been a joke. That excuse was a lie, and anyone who saw the “disinfectant” video knows he is lying about this now.

    Almost immediately, the manufacturers of Lysol and other disinfectants, along with numerous public health agencies, put out statements warning against drinking these products. Reporters from the Washington Post quoted Dara Kass, of Columbia University Medical Center, on the difference between this and Trump’s previous, now-discredited advice that people start taking a certain kind of pill:

       “The difference between this and the chloroquine [pills] is that somebody could go right away to their pantry and start swallowing bleach. They could go to their medicine cabinet and swallow isopropyl alcohol,” Kass said. “A lot of people have that in their homes. There’s an immediate opportunity to react.”

    Kass explained to the Post that people who ingest such chemicals often die, and those “who survive usually end up with feeding tubes because their mouth and esophagus were eroded by the cleaning agents.”

    “It’s horrific,” she said.”


    And of the 53 Republicans who make up Mitch McConnell’s Senate majority? How many have spoken up to criticize the president—on the specifics of this new “plan,” or on what the comments reveal about his approach to reality in general—or to warn the public against his advice?

    As best I can determine, two days after Trump’s comments, that number is zero. This is the Vichy Republican bargain they made after the Access Hollywood tapes. It is the bargain that keeps an obviously unwell man in power now. It is the bargain for which they should be remembered.

  • From Military Service to Civilian Leadership

    People seated at tables watch speakers at a NationSwell event on "Racial Reconciliation and Justice"
    Courtesy of NationSwell

    Here’s another installment in the chronicle of people who are trying to take up the slack, while the national government flails rather than coping with a pandemic.

    Previously in this series: innovations from libraries; changes in a statewide program in California; and responses from a nationwide nonprofit network. (To update the California report: This week the state launched an expanded “Californians for All” campaign to enlist people of all ages in pandemic-era service projects. You can read about the new project here, or watch a brief video narrated by the unmatchable Peter Coyote, here. I will always be a California patriot, even though I don’t live there any more, but I think this video strikes a note people anywhere can respond to.)  

    Now, NationSwell.

    How it started: Greg Behrman, who is now in his early 40s, was born in the U.S. a few years after his parents emigrated from South Africa. He had what we might now describe as a “Mayor Pete”-like sequence of precocious achievements and successes. After Scarsdale High School, he went to Princeton, and after graduating in 1998 he spent two years as an analyst at Goldman Sachs. Then—and I am summarizing!—he went to Oxford for a master’s degree; wrote two well-received books for Simon and Schuster, one about the AIDS epidemic in South Africa and the other about the history of the Marshall Plan; became a fellow at the Carr Center on Human Rights at Harvard; and worked on the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department in the first two years of the Obama Administration. Meanwhile, he had joined the Navy Reserves. In 2011, in his mid-30s, he spent a year in Afghanistan as a military staff assistant at ISAF—the International Security Assistance Force, during the times when generals David Petraeus and John Allen were in command.

    This background is relevant both because Behrman seems to have a sense of humor about its nonstop-achievement plot line, and because he says that his years in the government and in uniform, and the year he spent in Afghanistan, shaped his idea of what he wanted to do next in his life. His choices were also affected, he told me, by awareness that his own father, a financier, had died suddenly of a heart attack at age 51, and “you only have so much time to make a contribution.” (I remembered that the first time I interviewed Bill Clinton, who was then in his early 30s as the “boy governor” of Arkansas, he mentioned his awareness that men in his family did not live very long, so he was always conscious of how fast the clock was running. More here.)

    “During that year on deployment, I had a powerful experience, being part of a mission-driven team of very impressive people, who were all trying to do the right thing,” Behrman told me. That may sound formulaic, but I have heard similar sentiments from many people of Behrman’s generation about their military service—which despite its tragic and comic and frustrating and pointless elements, was based on the idea that people served. As noted earlier, this was part of Josh Fryday’s explanation of how he came to lead the California Volunteers project. As Behrman put it, “national service had become my core passion, and I thought I would like to be part of a mission-driven team whose mission was making our country better.”

    When he came back from deployment, Behrman said, “I was struck by the dissonance, of how we are barraged by the negativity, and all the screaming and naysaying that made people cynical and disengaged and angry.” He said that he thought there was an opportunity to “shift the lens away from the negativity and anger, and toward pragmatic problem-solving, and that we could create a platform to accelerate that process.”

    The idea that virtues displayed in mankind’s most destructive activity—combat—could somehow be channeled into its peacetime pursuits is timeless. It runs through the works of Homer and Shakespeare, Hamilton and Lincoln, and that most-central essay in American public life, William James’s 1910 masterpiece, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” I have heard many of Behrman’s contemporaries say that the experience of serving in uniform attracted them to the idea of service more general. In Behrman’s case, it was the origin story of NationSwell, which he started in 2013.

    What it does: This new organization is a business rather than a non-profit or charity. NationSwell is chartered as a “B Corporation”—a business structure in which the ultimate goal is not maximizing shareholder value but instead using market and profit incentives toward social, civic, and environmental goals. (The B Corporation outlook is described here.)

    In practice this has meant several different lines of work for NationSwell. Early on it began producing and publicizing stories in its “Moving America Forward” series, about people and organizations that were making progress on the local or statewide level. It has a NationSwell studio, which consults on and develops campaigns for companies and organizations. And its NationSwell Council is a membership-fee organization of successful, upper-tier people who are looking for a way to be involved in civic efforts in their region or beyond. What they pay NationSwell for is organizing events, making connections, and structuring projects in which members can feel they are doing something worthwhile.

    The vision for the Council’s benefits is a free-form counterpart to the FUSE Corps model I discussed previously. FUSE dispatches mid-career professionals or executives for structured one- or two-year projects in local governments. NationSwell matches its members with individuals, organizations, or communities on a fluid, case-by-case basis.

    You can get an idea of the range of their projects from the main NationSwell site. Behrman ran through a long list with me, but this is a typical example: One council member who had been a very successful serial-entrepreneur started work with a job-training organization in a low-income community in California. “The model they developed required that once people from the community get new jobs, they come back to the community and coach the next cohort,” Behrman says. The benefit, he said, was not only the training and job-placement itself, but also increasing “the social capital that people from advantaged parts of the country take for granted, the idea that you’ll have a network of support to draw from.”

    Berhman said that there are about 1,000 of the Council members, at nine hubs around the country. “We have been extremely careful in intentionally building the connective tissues and sinews of a tight-knit and high-functioning community,” he said. His members are senior-level business executives, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, venture capital and private equity investors, public or NGO officials, and educators.

    “In the early days, we spent a lot of time asking ourselves, ‘Who is the ecosystem for’?” he said. “Is this the place financial investors meet social sector leaders? Is it for the leaders in their late 30s and 40s, who share a generational orientation and sensibility?" He said he came to embrace the idea that it would be a wide and shifting variety of people. “The dynamic young activist. The journalist from [a major newspaper]. The start-up founder. A mayor. The financial or business executive looking to be of service. We realized there was strength in that diversity.” I have been to several NationSwell meetings, and after each I’ve come away with a list of names, contacts, and projects reflecting the range of backgrounds and skills that Behrman described.

    Why people serve: In a previous dispatch, I mentioned that my wife Deb’s parents, Frank and Angie Zerad, whose own parents had arrived in Chicago as Czech immigrants, spent their early career running a “normal” small business in the Midwest. Then life changed, and they found new fulfillment through nearly two decades as volunteer business advisers in Asia and Africa, with the International Executive Service Corps.

    Again I thought of that parallel when Greg Behrman said that many of his members had day-jobs as financiers or in big corporations but, in his view, were looking to make a mark in other ways.

    “There is a lot of force behind the fraying of America now,” he said. “But at the same time, I think there is a profound thirst to be part of the knitting of America. While we need to be clear-eyed about the forces in the other direction, I have observed the power and meaning that people derive from human connections, from community, from being of service.”  While many people had the latent impulse to connect, he said, many had lost the habit, or didn’t know in practical terms what to do next. That organizational structure is what he hoped his members could help provide.

    What is happening now: Like most businesses and nearly all civic organization, NationSwell is simultaneously trying to figure out how to keep itself going, and how to adapt its operations to the crisis of the times.

    Behrman gave examples of pandemic-driven adjustments. Most of them reflected its logic that, in times of stress, connections are all the more valuable: Connections between those who need help, and those willing to provide it. Or connections between those grappling with a problem in one part of the country, and those who have already made progress against the same problem else. Behrman’s examples, in an email, included:

    • “We’re helping to give [members] exposure to best practices and approaches, so they can be as impactful as possible. For example, one leading philanthropy decided to make all of its grants unrestricted during this time after hearing about that practice from another leader; one leading company decided to put in place a policy of matching individual employee charitable contributions … after hearing about that action from another leader.”
    • “We’re helping to broker new and sometimes unlikely partnerships, breaking down silos and barriers. For example, we connected one company with the C-19 Coalition, so they could donate 35,000 face masks to the health facility that most needed them; we exposed a prominent philanthropy to The National Governor’s Association Center for Best Practices … leading to a $150K contribution; we connected one investment firm with City Harvest, and employees have donated $50K and growing; we connected two companies who would be unlikely bedfellows ... one that is converting some of its manufacturing capacity to produce hand-sanitizer, but lacked plastic bottles, with another company who currently has a surplus of plastic bottles due to lower demand on that product ...”
    • “We see the leaders who are participating … [and who] learn, explore, co-envision and pressure test together. I think this knitting together and the access and exposure, visibility, orientation and confidence that comes from operating as part of a larger community is also meaningful.”

    Are these efforts or other NationSwell projects “the” answer to America’s problems? Of course not. Have all of these projects panned out as hoped? Since I can’t get out to see anything these days, I haven’t been able to go see for myself.

    But here we have another illustration of organizations trying to be part of an answer for America, and of the resilient capacity of citizens in the absence of national leadership.

    More from this series

  • A Different Kind of Civil-Service Organization

    Two former FUSE fellows talk while looking at papers; the woman on the left holds the paper and shows it to the man on the right
    Aminata Brown, who is now Chief Innovation Officer at the New Orleans Police Department, and Sean Doss, now Executive Advisor to the Los Angeles Housing & Community Investment Department, both of whom served two years in those agencies as FUSE Executive Fellows Courtesy of James Weinberg

    The U.S. national government is failing in its response to the pandemic. One recent example: A month ago, on March 20, the United States and South Korea had about the same number of coronavirus deaths: nearly 100 in South Korea, versus somewhere over 200 in the U.S. Since South Korea has a much smaller population—about 50 million, versus more than 300 million for the U.S.—its per capita death rate was actually much higher. One month later, South Korea’s death total had risen to only 236—while that in the U.S. was rising quickly past 40,000. With adjustments for population size, the current U.S. death rate is more than 25 times higher than South Korea’s.

    Out of necessity, the rest of the nation is trying to take up the slack. Governors, mayors, nurses and doctors, hospital administrators, teachers and students, business owners and employees, civil servants and trash collectors and bus drivers and delivery people and grocery workers—these and tens of millions of others have taken the operations of America onto their shoulders.

    Of course, in the long run there is no substitute for national-level and international responses to a crisis of this magnitude. A recent New York Times editorial, “The America We Need,” did an admirable job of connecting the national challenges of the 2020s to other convulsive transformations in American life. More thought, planning, and proposals in this vein are appearing every day.

    But right at this moment, most of what’s positive in the country is happening at the local, statewide, and regional level—rather than that of national guidance or coordination. Not as a substitute for national policy, but as a guide and spur for it, these efforts deserve attention. Recently, Deb Fallows wrote about how libraries are expanding their virtual reach, now that their physical spaces are closed down. And I described how the most populous state, California, is trying to reorient its citizen-service program, for the era when people cannot easily gather in groups.

    Today’s update is the first of three about small-to-medium-size organizations, all relatively new, which are rapidly adapting to match the emergencies of this moment. Each of them had developed a system of networked projects across the country. Each emphasized the idea that Americans of different generations and backgrounds were looking for more than strictly material rewards and could be drawn to opportunities to serve. Each was based on innovative ways of matching business operations with efforts from governments and nonprofit groups. Each has now had to shift its emphasis during the pandemic. They are FUSE Corps, NationSwell, and the Innovation Collective. We start today with FUSE.

  • The Meaning of Today’s Political ‘Street Theater’

    Jeff Kowalsky / AFP / Getty

    On Saturday (yesterday, as I write) I mentioned Donald Trump’s tweets implicitly cheering the protestors trying to “liberate” Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia by resisting stay-at-home orders from those states’ governors.

    Mike Lofgren, a former longtime aide to Republican legislators and now the author of The Party is Over and The Deep State, writes in to say that the situation is more serious, and more disturbing, than I indicated. I have learned enough from Lofgren over the years to think it worth sharing his views. In his note, he alludes to the background of protests by the Tea Party movement soon after Barack Obama took office—and the “Brooks Brothers riot” of 2000. He has details on all these developments in his books. For those not around at the time, more context on the Brooks Brothers riot—designed to affect the recount of votes in Florida, during the Bush-versus-Gore presidential race—is available here.

    And for the record, today Mike Pence offered an explanation for Trump’s “LIBERATE” tweets that differs from the one Lofgren presents, below. Pence said that, far from inciting resistance, the tweets were intended to encourage governors to “safely and responsibly” reopen their states. Read the two interpretations, and judge which sounds more plausible to you.

    Lofgren writes:

    Unfortunately, you didn’t emphasize the crucial point of this whole street theater.

    In the standard prestige media presentation, the “spontaneous” protestors against COVID-19 restrictions in Michigan and elsewhere are presented thus: those salt-of-the-earth working folk, battered by economic hardship, who want their jobs back. However misguided, their motives generally aren’t questioned.

    Wrong.

    1. Who could have imagined that they [included] neo-Confederates, NRA extremists, anti-vaxxer lunatics, and other fringe types [and that their organizers included groups that have been] funded in part by the Koch brothers and a Trump cabinet member, Betsy DeVos? Why does it take a British newspaper to make that clear?
    1. The all-too-convenient disturbances overwhelmingly resemble the totally-not-connected-to-the-GOP Tea Party demonstrations that “spontaneously” irrupted in 2009 to stymie Obamacare, with the death panels and so forth. That particular street theater was ignited by CNBC ranter Rick Santelli and largely financed by the Koch brothers. [JF note: more background on Rick Santelli’s role in the Tea Party era available here.]
    1. Street theater was pioneered by of the New Left in the 1960s, but since the Brooks Brothers riot of November 2000 it has become a mainstay of Astroturfed movements inspired by the GOP and funded by corporate moguls.
    1. Trump’s encouragement of the demonstrators is even more bizarre than commonly depicted. Past examples (Lincoln, Ike in Little Rock, Kennedy in Mississippi, etc.) represented the national head of government reining in states seeking to illegally secede or deny U.S. constitutional rights to citizens. This is a unique case: the head of the national government egging on residents of the states to illegally impede their state governors from carrying out their lawful, necessary, and proper functions to maintain public safety in a health emergency. So much for “federalism” under the GOP.
    ...
    1. Republican street theater, maybe even (or perhaps especially) when it threatens public safety or human decency, seems always to act like catnip to the mainstream media, who invariably trot out the well-worn tropes of “economic anxiety.” The U.S. media have done an execrable job on this one.
  • 2020 Time Capsule #15: ‘Liberate’

    Protesters in Michigan Jeff Kowalsky /AFP / Getty

    On Friday, April 17—yesterday, as I write—Donald Trump sent out three tweets that were unusual even for him. They followed angry protests by groups objecting to the shut-down orders in several states; news photos showed many of the protesters wearing Trump hats, many carrying weapons, and some with Confederate flags.

    Why is this spate of tweeting notable?

    1. As so often with Trump, because of its mere existence. Of course there have been clashes between federal and state policies through U.S. history. In post-World War II America, the clearest cases are from the Civil Rights era. For instance, in 1957, Dwight Eisenhower ordered troops from the 101st Airborne to Little Rock, Arkansas, to overcome resistance to school-integration orders, led by the governor, Orval Faubus. In the 1960s, both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson directed federal efforts to enforce civil-rights orders in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South.

      But these were efforts to bring local practice into accord with nationwide policy. Trump was doing the reverse: implicitly encouraging local resistance to the very strategies his administration is recommending for the country as a whole. Nothing like this has happened since at least the time of Reconstruction, and probably not since before the Civil War.

    2. Because of its partisanship in a time of national emergency. One state that moved even earlier toward shutdowns than Michigan, Minnesota, or Virginia was Ohio. And in Ohio as in the other three states, there were angry “open things up!” protests at the state capital this week. But the governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, is a Republican, while the governors of the other three states are all Democrats. (Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Tim Walz in Minnesota, and Ralph Northam in Virginia. Also, all six U.S. Senators from these states are Democrats.)

      So at a time when his own White House task force has been trying to work with governors of both parties, Trump was notably singling out “opposition” governors. Also, as reported in The New York Times and The Guardian, many of the protests were planned and financed by partisan conservative organizations.  

    3. Because of its crudeness and incoherence. As for crudeness: An invocation to “your great 2nd Amendment” being “under siege” is not subtle enough to qualify as a dog whistle. Chris Murphy, a U.S. Senator from Connecticut (and a Democrat), spelled it out:
      Twitter
      And, incoherence: The entire premise of the administration’s “mitigation” strategy is to encourage people not to congregate, so as to reduce the ultimate death toll from the pandemic. The head of that administration was cheering on those defying the strategy.
        
    4. Because of the sharpness of the reaction. A few hours before the statement from Chris Murphy, above, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, gave an extended, mocking retort to Trump at his daily briefing yesterday. You can see it on this C-SPAN video, starting at around time 1:05. “Thank you, Mr. President,” Cuomo said, recounting how often Trump had asked governors for their support. “Thank you for doing your job.” And he was just getting started, as you can see.

      Through these past weeks of pandemic crisis, Cuomo and other governors have been notably collegial and respectful toward Trump and his administration in their public presentations. Like other leaders during other crises, they set aside, for the time being, their personal and partisan differences. But yesterday it was No More Mister Nice Guy from Cuomo.

    All this during the week when total U.S. deaths from the coronavirus crossed the 35,000 line, and, for the first time in U.S. history, every state in the nation was officially subject to a federal “major disaster” declaration.  

  • 2020 Time Capsule #14: ‘The Authority Is Total’

    Leah Millis / Reuters

    In a rally-briefing lasting more than two hours this past Monday afternoon, Donald Trump issued a royalist view of executive power not once but several times. (Which is of course his tendency, with any point he wants to make.) You can see one of the clearest instances in this C-SPAN video starting around time 46:40. Trump is asked what he would do if he decided to “open up” the economy, but state governors didn’t agree. What would be his authority in that case?

    “When you say my authority — it’s the president’s authority. It’s not me.

    “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s gotta be. It’s total.”

    Several things were remarkable about this statement.

    • One is its mere existence—regardless of the elaborate checks-and-balances built into the Constitution, regardless of the 10th Amendment’s limits on central-government powers vis-a-vis the states’, regardless of … anything.
    • Another was the reaction of the “strict Constructionists,” “institutionalists,” libertarians, and classic conservatives who make up the GOP majority in the Senate. Rather, the absence of reaction. Of the 53 senators in that group, the number who made a public objection to a claim of absolute presidential power was …. zero, as best I could tell. Would you like an illustration of how timid this group is? Even Fox News figures dared challenge Trump’s statement on-air. (More on the silence of the Republican lambs, here, and from Charlie Sykes, a longtime Republican who is now a leading critic of Trump, here.) Governors from both parties objected, as did Democratic legislators. If only the Constitution could talk.
    • And one more was Trump’s backing off from this claim 24 hours later, when he said he would “authorize” each of the states to adjust plans as they see fit. This of course was a face-saving fiction. None of the governors had required Trump's “authorization” when they issued their stay-at-home orders, starting with early moves by Mike DeWine in Ohio, a Republican, and Gavin Newsom in California, a Democrat. None would need Trump’s okay to lift, alter, or extend their states’ plans.

    I note this claim for the long-term record: An American president asserted his absolute executive authority, from a White House podium, with virtually no resistance from America’s “conservative” party.

  • DOUG MILLS / The New York Times / ...

    This Is How It Looks When You’re Not Afraid

    Anthony Fauci is the rare senior government official who seems more devoted to truth than to Trump.

  • 2020 Time Capsule #13: The Struggle is Over

    Kayleigh McEnany Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire / Getty

    This week Donald Trump announced the departure of a press secretary who differed from all predecessors in a basic way: She didn’t do the job.

    In more than eight months in office, this press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, appeared frequently on Fox programs but never once held a White House briefing for reporters. Three of her predecessors in the Trump era—Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders—appeared often enough in the White House press room for their briefing styles to become the basis for Saturday Night Live cold-open routines. (This was before Sanders suspended briefings in her final months on the job.) Grisham’s briefings couldn’t be mimicked, because they didn’t occur.

    Her successor will also be someone who differs from anyone who has held the job before. The new secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, will be the first press secretary to begin the job with a bone-dry reservoir of trust and goodwill from the press.


    Through the modern history of this job—which probably begins with Steve Early, spokesman for Franklin Delano Roosevelt through most of his long years in office—press secretaries have been in an impossible situation. They need to be discreet enough about an administration’s internal dealings that the president will still trust them. But they also need to be open enough that reporters will still think the press secretary is trying to get them closer to, rather than farther away from, the truth. They need to speak “the truth,” to maintain trust and respect from the press. But not “the full truth”—not every single detail they know—to maintain trust from the president and other officials.

    Finding the “right” position is a day-by-day struggle. If a president can’t trust a press secretary to keep some things quiet, then the secretary will be left in the dark, away from the White House inner circle. Then if the reporters realize that a press secretary is an outsider, his or her influence practically vanishes. But if reporters find out later on that a secretary was withholding information that could have been shared—or, worse, sending false signals—then the damage to the press secretary is even worse.

    In the days before Trump, awareness of this struggle is what distinguished the best press secretaries. Some of them come straight from jobs on “the other side” of the press/politics divide. For instance, Jay Carney went from Time magazine to become an Obama press secretary; Ron Nessen was an NBC News correspondent and then worked for Gerald Ford. Some are longtime aides and confidants of a president. Jody Powell, a young campaign staffer, represented Jimmy Carter as press secretary, and Bill Moyers played a similar role with Lyndon Johnson. Some are “public affairs professionals,” who have done this job in other circumstances. For instance: Dana Perino, who became press secretary at the end of George W. Bush’s time in office, or Marlin Fitzwater, who worked for Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush.

    They came from different backgrounds, but all these previous press secretaries tried to strike the balance between giving out too much information, and not enough.


    Under Donald Trump, only one press secretary seemed even to recognize this challenge. From day one, the unfortunate Sean Spicer was stuck trying to defend “largest Inaugural crowd in history!” claims. Spicer’s awareness of his preposterous position was the most appealing thing about his brief time on the briefing-room podium.

    With Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the struggle abated, since her remarks were aimed at a one-person audience, Trump himself. Stephanie Grisham avoided the tension by not dealing with the press at all, and confining herself to Fox. Kayleigh McEnany is one more step down this road, since her background as a public figure was as a cable-tv “panelist” during the 2016 campaign, where her role was not to express a “conservative” or even GOP-loyalist perspective but instead to defend whatever it was that Donald Trump had done or said.

    As Caleb Ecarma pointed out this week in Vanity Fair:

    McEnany, like her press-bashing boss, [has taken every] opportunity to attack the news media. “The media’s best hope is for Donald Trump to suspend his rallies,” she said. “They have been wanting him to stop this, they know it’s his avenue to speak directly to the American people. So we’re going to follow the president’s lead, we’re not going to cave to the media and Joe Biden.”

    There appears to be nowhere McEnany isn’t willing to follow Trump, even dating back to his conspiracies about Barack Obama’s place of birth. In 2012, when Trump was accusing America’s first black president of being born in Kenya and was thus ineligible to serve, McEnany chimed in support of the unfounded theory, tweeting, “How I Met Your Brother—Never mind, forgot he’s still in that hut in Kenya. #ObamaTVShows.”

    In a 2016 CNN segment archived by Media Matters, McEnany stepped out to defend the then-candidate’s infamous “Grab ’em by the pussy” hot-mic moment, shrugging off the remark as “implie[d] consent.” [JF note: I wrote about the “grab ’em” episode at the time, here.]

    Every press secretary has ups and downs in his or her relationship with the media. They add to their store of trust in certain moments; they run it down at others. The struggle between duties to the president and to the public, between saying too much and saying too little, defined the job.

    Now the struggle is over. No previous press secretary has started the job with no cushion of credibility whatsoever. That’s where this one begins.

    1. Books for This Moment

      The skyline of Cleveland, Ohio, in the early morning
      Morning in Cleveland, Ohio, where Belt Publishing is based Henryck Sadura via Shutterstock

      The past weeks have of course meant economic devastation for small and local businesses of all sorts, as discussed here in an item about Erie. The pressures on local bookstores and publishers, and local newspapers and other news organizations, deserve special attention (as the writers’ group PEN has argued here). My purpose for the moment is not to go into all the details and reasons but instead to offer a reminder of two action steps. They are:

      Subscribe! Whenever I hit paywalls these days, I err on the side of signing up. I’ve added several new local papers in the past few days, from all over the place—California, South Dakota, Massachusetts, Washington State. Compared with other routine outlays people make, these are not expensive, and the revenue makes a difference.

      Order and buy! Merchants need money to survive.

      And here are two books I have bought, read, and enjoyed, each about realities of under-covered America:

      Death in Mud Lick. Eric Eyre is a celebrated reporter for the Gazette-Mail in Charleston, West Virginia. He won the Pulitzer prize, and wide admiration within his state and from reporters everywhere, for his newspaper exposés of how West Virginia became ground zero for America’s opioid epidemic. If you’ve heard stories about the tiny Appalachian towns where local pharmacies were processing millions of opioid orders, you’ve learned from Eric Eyre’s work. (He and his work play a role in the upcoming movie that Deb Fallows and I have made for HBO.)

      Now he was written a gripping book about what he found and how he found it. The book is called Death in Mud Lick, and it is gripping, well-written, and revelatory. It has courtroom-drama showdowns and classic hunting-for-clues narrative tales, and overall is very much worth buying and reading.

      In The New Yorker this week, Ken Armstrong had a graceful tribute to Eyre—who has been dealing with Parkinson’s disease, and who has left his newspaper job in the same week his book was published. Read that piece, then buy Eric’s book. (Here is an IndieBound link.)


      Midwest Futures. Anne Trubek was a professor at Oberlin College, in Ohio, when she concluded that her destiny was to become a publisher and writer. Seven years ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education, she described what went into her decision to leave a tenured position and jump into the perilous sea of the entrepreneurial life. For instance:

      It would not be going out on a limb to say that academics can be self-important. To frame the question as “Why leave? Who does that?” as I did … reveals a certain exceptionalism and a tinge of arrogance. It is a job, being a tenured professor. Just a job. Why not leave?

      And so I will.

      Since then she has started and run a magazine called Belt and a publishing house, based in Cleveland, called Belt Publishing. (She also wrote an Atlantic piece about her career change—and why the lower fixed costs of living in the Midwest made it possible—back in 2016.) The publishing house describes its mission as becoming a “platform for new and influential voices from the Rust Belt, the Midwest, and beyond.”

      “Works about this region are works of national interest,” she told me on the phone this week. “Before 2016, that was a harder case to make. But now … ! But this is a fascinating place, and it is all of our futures.” You can follow her accounts of being a regional publisher, in time of the pandemic, at her Substack site, “Notes from a Small Press,” here.

      One of Belt Publishing’s titles released this week is Midwest Futures, by the Michigan-based author Phil Christman. It’s a combination of history, memoir, reportage, and lit-crit that taught me a lot about a region I’ve reported on (and where Deb is from). The high-concept scheme for the book even has a midwestern touch. In the 1780s, the fledgling U.S. government surveyed the flat, farmable land of the Midwest into squares six miles on a side. Each square was then subdivided into 36 equal plats—six rows, six plats per row. You can see the residual effect on today’s land use in the aerial photo on the book’s cover—and also in the book’s organization. It is divided into six “rows,” on big themes, and each row has six “prose plats,” or component essays. This structure also makes it readable in short bursts.

      “The normal gatekeepers in publishing overlook a lot of people,” Trubek told me when I asked what she was looking for in her authors. “We have fabulous writers like Phil, and I was glad to be in a position where I could say yes to him.” Check it out.


      My Atlantic colleague Olga Khazan also has a new book out this week. It is called Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider, in an Insider World. I haven’t read this one yet, but I have ordered it—which as any author will tell you, is the crucial step. And—such is the bounty of one week in publishing—my colleague at New America, Cecilia Munoz, also this week is celebrating publication of her new book, More Than Ready: Be Strong and Be You . . . and Other Lessons for Women of Color on the Rise.

      Buy! Read! Enjoy!

    2. A New Way for Californians to Serve

      Josh Fryday announcing the Civic Action Fellowship in February of this year
      Josh Fryday announcing the Civic Action Fellowship in February of this year Courtesy of California Volunteers

      The coronavirus peril is global. Much of the response must, of course, be international or national if it is to matter at all. In the United States, only the federal government can pump out stimulus in the trillions of dollars, or set quarantine or travel restrictions at international ports.

      But if anything has become obvious through the past two months of American response to the virus, it is that most of what has been positive and effective has happened elsewhere than in Washington.

      The people who have taken the lead have been governors, both Republican and Democratic. Mayors, of cities big and small. Not all business officials, but many of them. The staff and leaders of universities and community colleges, elementary schools and high schools, libraries and civic clubs. Frontline health-care workers, people working in hospitals and clinics, children and parents. People and groups like these, and on down a long list, have been innovating, acting, sharing, rescuing.

      What we think America is, or should be at a time of crisis, has been demonstrated mainly on the statewide, regional, community, and personal level.

      Last week, Deb Fallows wrote about libraries’ response. Now that their physical spaces have been closed, many libraries have been innovative about extending their digital and virtual reach. Before that, I wrote about emerging plans to sustain the overall economies of “left-behind” non-coastal regions, and about why the same small businesses that have helped rebuild so many smaller cities were now critically at risk.

      Now, a look at how several groups promoting civic engagement and civic service, as a long-term project, have responded to this era’s emergency. This installment concerns California Volunteers, the civic-service operation overseen by California’s state government. Following ones will include FUSE Corps, a nonprofit organization that assists local governments;  NationSwell, promoting service around the country; the Innovation Collective, based in Idaho; and more.

      Courtesy of California Volunteers

    3. Thank You, Captain Crozier

      Sailors cheer Captain Brett Crozier aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt Reuters

      Two days ago I wrote about Captain Brett Crozier, who as commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt urged his Navy superiors to let him take his ship into port, because the coronavirus was spreading rapidly among his 4000-plus crew members.

      Two updates since that report: First, there is now additional video footage from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, of how crew members cheered Captain Crozier when he left the ship after being “relieved of command.”

      Second, I should have pointed out that Thomas Modly, the acting secretary of the Navy who dismissed Crozier, was in that role because his predecessor, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, was forced out of that job when he resisted Donald Trump’s efforts on behalf of Edward Gallagher, the former Navy SEAL who was prosecuted for war crimes in a court martial. (The Trump administration is replete with “acting” officials, who can exercise some of the powers of their offices without going through Senate hearings or confirmation.)

      Now, relevant reader response. First, from a reader with a family member aboard the Theodore Roosevelt:

      My husband is currently serving on the Roosevelt. Many family members have been reaching out to their respective ombudsmans to ask for a way to get in contact or relay our support for Captain Crozier and we have been all been told the same thing—they “don't know”  how to get in touch with him.

      We are not to speak to the media regarding anything going on with COVID-19. In fact, we have been getting “updates” (I use that term very loosely because ‘update' implies difference or a change in information, which is very much not the case) for weeks about the illness spreading throughout the ship and how we are NOT to discuss anything with the media. Which, given Operational Security requirements, is fair but also indicates leadership knew about the spread of the Coronavirus far earlier than what is being portrayed in the news.

      Anyway, I have a simple ask: On behalf of the families of all on board the USS Roosevelt can SOMEONE just tell the man that we appreciate what he did to make sure our sailors and marines come back to us in one piece? Captain Crozier risked his career and did what he thought was best to get the resources they needed. The acting SEC NAV, who amounts to a little more than a modern day mercenary (you know, on account of forgoing his national service for profit in the private sector), railroaded CAPT Crozier and it’s an absolute disgrace.

      We just want to say thanks and let him know we support him. It shouldn’t be this hard to get that simple message across.

      Thanks for reading and please don’t publish my name or email address. We’ve seen how the Navy “doesn’t like to punish” people about stuff like this.


    4. 2020 Time Capsule #12: Do As They Say, Not As I Do

      In the middle of a tight race for reelection, which he ultimately lost, Gerald Ford released photos of himself getting the same swine flu shot he was urging other Americans to accept. David Hume Kennerly / Gerald R. Ford Library

      In his rally-briefing yesterday at the White House, Donald Trump announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was recommending that Americans wear masks or similar face coverings when in range of other people.

      You can see C-SPAN’s coverage of the whole briefing here, including Trump’s repeated emphases that this was a voluntary recommendation—“You don’t have to do it”—and that he, personally, would not comply. Important fact note: Trump, unlike virtually all other Americans, is exposed only to people who have already been tested for the virus, as reported here by NPR.

      Around time 3:50 in this clip, he says “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.” Then more definitively:

      This is voluntary. You don’t have to do it.

      I am choosing not to do it.


      This is not the first time presidents have been called upon to deliver public health messages, nor even the first time during a presidential election year.

      In the fall of 1976, Gerald Ford—who had never been elected either president or vice president, but who became president two years earlier, when Richard Nixon resigned—was in a close race for reelection. He ultimately lost, very narrowly, to the former one-term governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. (For the record: I was a speechwriter on Carter’s campaign staff then.) The race became close enough that practically every “controversial” stand that Ford took could arguably have made a difference in the outcome.

      Among the issues that fall was swine flu. Starting early in that election year, public-health officials had been worrying that the newly mutated virus could reach pandemic proportions and become a modern counterpart to the deadly flu of 1918. They launched an all-out effort to produce a vaccine, and to get as many Americans as possible inoculated.

      The story is long and tangled, both in scientific and in political terms. You can read fascinating accounts of what health officials got right, and wrong, in the 1970s swine flu era here and here, with links to other reports. One central issue was that the vaccine available by the fall of the year was a “live virus” version, rather than “killed virus,” which entailed a greater (though statistically still small) chance of side effects.

      For the moment the relevant point is: The country’s political leadership was asking the public to take a controversial step, namely getting swine flu shots. And the ultimate political leader, Gerald Ford himself as president, prominently set an example by doing this himself. Thus the photo you see above.


      The obligation to model the behavior they would like others to adopt is one all presidents have been aware of, even if they have imperfectly complied.

      They talk about faith, and most of them have gone to religious services. They say that citizens should pay taxes, and they produce evidence that they have done so themselves. They urge people to be charitable, and they know that their own donations will be scrutinized. They talk about families, and they are photographed with their spouse and children—no matter what they’re doing when photographers aren’t there.

      Some part of their brains recognizes the value of connecting with “what we [as a government] say” with “what I [as a person] do.” And they make sure the public sees evidence of them setting this example — as Barack Obama did during the H1N1 flu wave of 2009.

      Pete Souza / The White House

      Trump’s reaction to the mask-wearing recommendation—fine for the rest of you, but that’s not for me—is of course far from the only illustration of his feeling that he need not set a personal example. See also: military or civic service; marital fidelity; scrupulousness about the appearance of financial conflict or family favoritism; recognition of “no person is above the law”; etc.

      It is also not the most unreasonable stand he has taken. As NPR noted, everyone he meets is tested for the disease—so he is not likely to catch it from any of them, and they will be monitored after contact with him. And as Trump himself pointed out yesterday, the Oval Office is not a surgical operating room, and masks would seem odder there than in some other venues.

      But Gerald Ford also had reasons not to follow the advice he was giving the country. He could have said: I’m extremely busy; I’m in the middle of an intense reelection campaign; I have great medical care around me if I should get sick. I am thinking about the reception Gerald Ford would have met, if he had said: I want all Americans to be inoculated. I am just choosing not to do it myself.

        

    5. 2020 Time Capsule #11: ‘Captain Crozier’

      Navy Captain Brett Crozier, shown last year aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt U.S. Navy / Reuters

      The episode I’m about to mention has been receiving saturation social-media attention for the past few hours, as I write. But because the accelerating torrent of news tends to blast away each day’s events and make them hard to register—even a moment like this, which I expect will be included in histories of our times—I think it is worth noting this episode while it is fresh.

      Until a few days ago, Brett Crozier would have been considered among the U.S. Navy’s most distinguished commanders.

      He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1992 and then entered training as a naval aviator. He was qualified first as a helicopter pilot, and then in the Navy’s F/A-18 fighter planes. He was deployed aboard the aircraft carrier Nimitz during the Iraq war, and he held an ascending series of staff and command jobs—as you can read in his Pentagon biography, here. He received a master’s degree from the Naval War College; he became executive officer (second in command) of the nuclear-powered carrier Ronald Reagan; and he became commander of the amphibious ship Blue Ridge. Then late last year, as a Navy captain, he took command of the Nimitz-class nuclear carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the 4,000-plus people in its crew.

      Last week, coronavirus sickness spread rapidly among the Roosevelt’s crew members. Five days ago, on Sunday, Matthias Gafni and Joe Garofoli of the San Francisco Chronicle published an email by Crozier, addressed to his naval superiors, asking that the ship be diverted from its normal duties so that sick crew members could be treated and the spread of disease could be slowed. Gafni and Garofoli did not say how they had received the email, but it had been copied to a large number of recipients and not marked as sensitive; Crozier must have known it was likely to become public when he sent it.

      The four-page letter, which you can read in full at the Chronicle’s site, used the example of recent cruise-ship infection disasters to argue that closed shipboard environments were the worst possible location for people with the disease. It laid out the case for immediate action to protect the Roosevelt’s crew, and ended this way:

      7. Conclusion. Decisive action is required. Removing the majority of personnel from a deployed US. nuclear aircraft carrier and isolating them for two weeks may seem like an extraordinary measure. A portion of the crew (approximately 10%) would have to stay aboard to run the reactor plant, sanitize the ship, ensure security, and provide for contingency response to emergencies.

      This is a necessary risk. It will enable the carrier and air wing to get back underway as quickly as possible while ensuring the health and safety of our Sailors. Keeping over 4,000 young men and women on board the TR is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care...

      This will require a political solution but it is the right thing to do. We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset our Sailors. Request all available resources to find NAVADMIN and CDC compliant quarantine rooms for my entire crew as soon as possible.

      “Breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care.” “We are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset our Sailors.” “Unnecessary risk.” In any walk of life, such language would have great power. Within the military—where terms like faith and trust and care have life-and-death meaning, and are the fundamental reason people follow leaders into combat—these words draw the starkest possible line. This course is right. The other course is wrong. Thus a leader spoke on behalf of the people “entrusted to our care.”


      The letter got widespread attention in the press, and became a PR problem for the Pentagon and the administration. A commander was in effect saying that the command structure was mis-serving the troops; the command structure was not amused.

      • Yesterday, April 2, four days after the letter’s appearance, the acting secretary of the Navy formally relieved Crozier of command of the Theodore Roosevelt. That is, Thomas Modly, the acting secretary who was himself a Naval Academy graduate and former naval aviator, fired Crozier from one of the most consequential command roles in the Navy. Crozier’s offense, according to Modly, was exercising “extremely poor judgment” in letting his plea become public. Also, Crozier’s letter had “unnecessarily raised the alarm of the families of our sailors and Marines.” Modly was quoted in Stars and Stripes saying that the letter “creates a panic and creates the perception that the Navy is not on the job, the government’s not on the job, and it’s just not true.” A commander had gone outside channels and created a “perception” problem.
          
      • Last night, soon after Crozier had been “relieved,” he took his last walk off the ship as commander, down a gangway to the dock in Guam. As he left, the men and women serving with him signaled where their respect and loyalties lay. Videos that, based on current information, appear to be authentic, showed the crew heralding him on his departure, with supportive cheers of “Captain Crozier! Captain Crozier!” This account from Stars and Stripes gives a sample. Based on information available as I write, it appears that he took a stand, and is paying the price.

      Brett Crozier will no longer be one of the Navy’s most powerful commanders. He remains in the service, but his command has been taken away.

      He will likely be remembered among its leaders.